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Chiclayo, Perú

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Updated: 3/28/2019

  • Jessica Mastors

Week 12: Yes, Let’s Go, I Am Coming

Last week, I left out a secret third objective for these two weeks in Puerto Escondido.

Which was: to conquer my fear of surfing.

Or, more accurately, my fear of losing control in the unforgiving crush of the ocean — while learning to surf.

Curiously, I didn’t always have this fear.

As a child, growing up a clam’s throw from the Atlantic, the ocean mostly seemed like a friend: big and brisk and playful, full of amazing treasures; sand dollars and hermit crabs and banded olive shells to rinse off and bring back to Mom for marveling.

I loved the gentle crash of the surf, and I loved going past the breakers — that peaceful place where you could drift over the big waves with zero effort or concern, floating on your back with your ears underwater, letting thoughts fall away to the tune of more cosmic rhythms.

Of course, I had seen Jaws, and I would get the occasional moment of full-body panic when I thought about the vast unknowability of the deep… Or when I turned back to shore and saw how far I’d drifted.

But all I had to do was change course, kick lazily for the shore, time it right, and I’d be back on the sand, easy peasy.

That is, until the day I ventured into the deceptively warm waters of the Pacific for the first time.

I’d surrendered my boogie board to a friend, feeling generous and buoyed after an hour in the surf.

The lifeguard had warned us about riptides, so I knew to swim parallel to shore, and it would eventually spit me out down the beach.

Boardless, it took no time at all for the ten-foot waves to suck me out into the danger-zone.

Suddenly the sand was gone from beneath my feet, and I had zero leverage as the first wave began its slow crash; that terrible crescendo that tells you you’re done for.

Then: complete disorientation.

A flood of swirling white; my body pummeled and spun.

Long brown hair plastered over mouth and nose the moment I broke the surface, gasping.

I barely had time to splutter and cough before the next one arrived.

A wall of water, lip curled in a snarl, spelling disaster.

This time my mouth and nose surrendered their guards completely, mere channels for gushing salt water.

The waves came so quickly, relentlessly, that I lost track of which way was up.

Until a rare glimpse of sky contained trees.

… Upside-down, they were the most beautiful trees I’d ever seen.

Without thinking, I started kicking, furiously, toward them.

Don’t swim for the shore, they’d said. You’ll exhaust yourself. That’s how people drown.

This information existed somewhere in my addled brain.

But I couldn’t do anything else.

I kept kicking toward those trees, even as I lost sight of them and went under again.

All I could think was: Sand. Sand. Sand.

And then, that lone oxygen-deprived thought was swept aside by a new one:

I’m going to die.

The thought was whole and consuming; complete in itself.

And then — almost in the same instant — my foot touched sand.

Ten seconds later, the lifeguard was on me, telling me to “cálmate, cálmate, tranquila, tranquila, estás bien, no pasa nada.”

And if I’d had an ounce of energy left at that point, I would have screamed:


Instead, I let him lead me, stumbling, out of the surf; walked unsteadily to the edge of the beach, turned my back to the jungle, sat down on hot sand, and watched the sea in silence.

I sat there for an hour, feeling the solidness of the ground beneath me.

Feeling betrayed.

Feeling humbled.

Now, fifteen years later, it seems ridiculous to use the term post-traumatic stress to describe what happens whenever I find myself in deep water, with waves bearing down from above.

But the truth is that all it takes is one crashing wave — one instance of having to duck underneath and feel all that raw power breaking above me — to trigger a flood of embodied panic.

Now here I am, in the surfing capital of Mexico, thinking: 15 years is long enough, isn’t it?

… Isn’t it?

Or at least, that’s what I tell myself as my friends shepherd me out of the house toward Playa Carazalillo, the beginner’s beach pictured above, at 7:45 in the morning.

After descending 158 stairs to the sand, we don smelly surf shirts, practice standing-up etiquette, and hit the water.

My instructor, Manuel, has long brown hair streaked gold by the sun, which he expertly flips this way and that, like a mer-man.

He stands gracefully on submerged rocks while we float, telling me that tourists often gasp and take photos of him that way from the beach: the Mexican man who can walk on water.

Manuel quickly adopts a dude from LA who did not pay for a lesson but who clearly needs help, and holds our boards by the front, taking turns telling one of us to espera and the other one to rema (paddle) and then rema fuerte (paddle harder).

Not yet aware that Manuel is giving us helpful pushes at the critical moment, I am quite pleased to stand up on the second try.

“His problem,” Manuel tells me in Spanish, gesturing to LA guy, “is his head stays too low and his butt stays too high.” He does an absurd little dance to demonstrate how silly this looks from his perspective.

“Your problem,” he says, starting to laugh, “es conlas manos.

“What are you doing with your hands? Waving them all over the place! It looks like you’re bailing water with a cup, but then you’re up all of a sudden.”

He laughs again, then shrugs.

“Of course, having fun is the most important.”

What I love about Manuel is how he scolds me, with what seems like real affection, whenever he catches me paddling lazily back out to him, trying to sneak a rest between waves.

“Vamos, Yessica!” is his simple refrain. Let’s go!

For some reason this makes me feel seen, held accountable.

Yes, I think, I am coming, I am here to surf and to have fun and not merely to outgrow my 15-year-old fear.

As a result of Manuel’s whip-cracking, I stand up maybe a dozen times in 90 minutes, which feels insanely gratifying, even though I wipe out a fair share and get tired toward the end, riding a few of the final waves in on my knees.

And while I’m pretty sure you won’t ever see me on a board at Zicatela — a mere 2 kilometers away and home to the famous Mexican pipeline, where the waves send shock waves through you from hundreds of yards out as you sit reading a book on your towel…

… At least I can say that for two whole hours, the fun was bigger than the fear.

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