the nothing whatever...

San Blas

The set has just rolled in and some natural footer with bright green boardies and a kind of awkward style has just been driven back first into the churning sand, which is a fairly typical sight here at Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Mexico. From the balcony of my level at Casa de Gael I have a perfect view of the heaving lines that throw themselves at the sandbar just to the left of the main break. I need to be careful. Its easy to become mesmerized by the sight of the hundred or so surfers all vying to sacrifice themselves to feed these heavy hollow monsters, and while I sit and vicariously pull into each barrel and endure each wipeout, time is slipping away and the day is growing older.

Although I am spending slightly more than I had hoped, the extra expenditure has afforded me a comfortable queen sized bed, good WiFi, a kitchen, and a balcony to myself. This is luxury in comparison to my accommodation in the remote San Blas, which was a tent on the beach, a surfboard bag for a mattress, and a rolled up wetsuit for a pillow. Granted, I found this accommodation to be perfectly adequate for the time that I was there, and was even growing acclimatized to the invasiveness of the sand, finding that when camping on the beach for an extended period of time the beach begins to consume you, to fill every hollow, to cling to every surface, to claim you as its own. I started out fighting it, but by the end of the couple of weeks or so I had grown to accept it. I had become conditioned.

Now, I have lost that conditioning, and the reason why I have lost that conditioning can be found in the gap between my last blog post and this blog post. I left you in the Mexican Desert, and I am picking you up again on the Mexican coastline, but the route that I have followed has been anything but direct.

But first, let me tell you about San Blas and the croc swim...

After bidding Milano and Shane farewell at the ferry station, Pete and I spent the night in transit over the Gulf of California to finally land in Mazatlan, our destination port in mainland Mexico. We were after something coastal, cheap and remote, and San Blas, to the south of Mazatlan, fit the bill. We spent another night in transit after leaving Mazatlan, first a six hour bus ride to Tepic, then, after being convinced by our taxi driver that staying in Tepic was not a good idea and that it was going to cost the same as the cab fare and accommodation in San Blas, we began driving through the dense tropical forest at about one in the morning, the eerie fog from the humidity adding to the already palpable insect-filled atmosphere engulfing us, while Pete and the cab driver became best friends through jokes at my expense.

Morning rolled around, and the tranquility of San Blas was gradually unveiled by the slowly ascending sun, its equatorial heat stirring us from our slumber at some ungodly hour in the morning. The surf was unrideably small on that first day, but it gave us a chance to explore the town and to gather some supplies without any sort of urgency. Pete’s best friend had mentioned the previous night that San Blas was the mango capital of Mexico, and as such, the supplies we ended up with consisted mainly of mangoes. At four for 80c, I figured that if I grew to be content with a predominantly mango-based diet I could just about afford to say fuck the world and live out the rest of my days in San Blas. The reality of this, as I found out, is that mangoes, when consumed in large enough quantities, have a natural laxative effect. After a few days, I could shit through the eye of a needle at about two meters.

Over the course of the next few days the swell began to increase, peaking at about 2ft or so and remaining that size.The beach break, Playa del Borrego, doesn’t really pick up or hold any significant swell, and most surfers when they go to San Blas are after the point break that is about two kilometers further down, known as “Stoner’s Point”. A tiny bit of research had told me that the angle of Stoner’s Point usually made it a few feet bigger than the beach break, and that it was a long friendly right hander, meaning that a beginner surfer such as Pete wasn’t likely to end up with wave after wave smearing his skin and his enthusiasm all over the crustacean covered boulders. What I had also found out was that in order to get to Stoner’s Point you needed to paddle across a river mouth which was known to be full of crocodiles. I mentioned this to Pete.

“Crocodiles?”

“Yep.”

“How wide is the river mouth?”

“Not sure.”

“OK. Are we still doing this?”

“Yep. We have to.”

“For the blog?”

“Yep.”

“Right. Awesome.”

And with that, a few days later, we were walking down the beach in the silence of two men being sent to the gallows, both of us thinking that a death at the hands of a crocodile is just about the worst fate that could be bestowed upon any living human being.

We arrive at the river mouth, which is bordered by large sharp black stones that, having absorbed the scorching heat around them, are at boiling temperature. Pete and I are prepared for this, and we put our thongs on with a strange sort of reverence, before clambering up and over the small ledge that the stones have created. When I get to the top of the ledge I see that the river mouth is, at its narrowest point, probably around fifty or so meters across. The surf is breaking into it, with the whitewash gently subsiding to the steady current, giving out to the deeper, murkier water. Further down the river, I can see several thin slivers of sand between the bordering jungle, and am quick to assess that there are zero crocs sprawled out and baking on those beaches. This gives me momentary relief, before the realization hits that all that means is there are more in the water.

With Pete’s board being significantly bigger than my own, he was having a difficult time navigating the stones down to the edge of the water, and instead decided that he was going to paddle out from the beach adjacent, cross out in front of the river mouth, then paddle in on the other side. I watched him guide his board through the waves for a moment, wondering whether it was smart of us to split up. The stretch that Pete now had to cross was far longer than my stretch, but the stretch I had to cross was further down river and assumedly closer to anything that lived in it, so each of us were facing our own adversity; his time based, mine location based. Turning back to the river, I took a few deep, calming breaths, muttered a defeated - “fuck it” - hopped out onto one of the stones that was periodically disappearing beneath the incoming surge, and launched myself into the ominous mystery of the water. Each paddle was a fight to put my forearm below the surface, my mind being on full alert, quickly assessing every moving object in the water and determining its threat level. Floating piece of bark: 40% threat level. Cluster of detached weeds: 55% threat level. Fallen log of a tree: 75% threat level. As I reached the middle of the river, I began to focus a little more on speed, still trying to make as little splash as possible and imagining that there were four three metre long monsters riding the wake up to my feet. It felt like the slowest fifty metres I had ever swum, and I ended up washing up into a small nook in the boulders on the other side that had swell breaking onto it, scraping my hands along the bottom and feeling that it was sand. My legs went in the water, and as quick as a flash I was back on the scorching boulders on the other side, hailing in Pete to use the same exit point as I did, knowing that if he didn’t he was going to have a hard time getting out of the croc infested river.

We had both made it back onto the rocks with all our limbs intact, even if Pete did get a little knocked around during his exit, and we began stumbling our way over the stones and toward the trees at the edge of the jungle. A part of me was feeling exhilarated, as though I could conquer anything, but a another part of me was already envisioning my overconfident self being ripped to shreds on the way back. But, instead of dwell on the future, I was determined to remain in the present. Research had told me that after the croc swim was a bushwalk through an unmaintained length of jungle, with the point break being on the other side of it. We wandered through the jungle, me still feeling the anticipation and the thrill of genuine exploration mixed with the relief cheating death. The jungle thickened for only a moment, and then began to thin out again. We had only walked for less than a hundred metres. I see a glimpse of water that I initially think is the break, before my scepticism takes over. The directions had mentioned that the jungle track was longer than what we had just walked through, which can only mean that the body of water we were staring at was not the other side at all. It was a second fucking river mouth!

If the first river mouth was where crocs liked to hang out, the second river mouth that we found ourselves clambering towards was where the good crocs went after they had been made into a designer wallet for some pretentious latte-sipping yuppie. The swell was funneling in all the water through an eight or so metre gap, creating the perfect thoroughfare for naive lazy fish to swim through and for a croc to wait patiently for a meal. Large clumps of weeds were floating around all over the place, the eddies subtly pivoting their direction in a way that made them seem they were being driven by a force outside of the natural flow of the river, maybe by a tail or some useless looking legs. It also must have been deeper than the previous river mouth as the whitewater was subsiding quite quickly, leaving nothing but perfect, deceptive calm.

The sense of defeat that overwhelmed me in that moment was indescribable. It was as though I had been told I had superpowers all this time but now only had a few days to live. Pete was still having a tough time simultaneously managing his board and navigating a safe path over the boulders, and I think the fact that we were going to have to do another swim was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him.

“This is fucked man. It isn’t fun anymore.”

“Well you can go back if you want.”

“Fine. Fuck you. I will.”

Pete left in a bit of a strop, and with me being too stubborn to admit that I didn’t want be doing it on my own, I spun away and began to assess the river mouth like I had the first time. Again, the problem was time based vs location based. If I moved further towards the exit of the mouth, I would be facing a similar length paddle to the one that I had only just done, but it was in a lot more suspicious water.Then again, I could be in and out of the water in a matter of seconds if I decided to cross around the eight metre stretch to my left, but something about that particular area sent shivers through my spine, as though the ancestry of man that was flowing through my veins had frequently encountered such settings and knew, through the lingering biological memory of death, that this was an area of grave danger.

With Pete trudging off behind me into the jungle, I was all on my own and no longer had anyone to be brave in front of. I walked down to the eight metre wide section and sat on a rock, just observing. I knew that this river mouth had changed things completely. I was now no longer having to do two trips through croc infested water, but four. I was no longer spinning the barrel and pulling the trigger against my temple twice, but was doing it four times. By myself. But still, I thought, I need to do it. For the blog!

After about thirty minutes of scouring every green clump of weed intently, working myself up to a state of meditation that would allow me to ignore the prospect of being eaten alive, death rolled, ripped to shreds, or in the best case scenario, drowned, I finally decided I was going to do it. I stood up, picked up my board, took some deep, calming breaths, and began to clamber down towards the edge of the river. But just as I put my foot on to the stone that I had designated as my leap-off point, there was a splash.

If you ask me now I would easily be able to tell you it wasn’t a crocodile. I am not even going to try and disguise my cowardice by saying that it could have been. I had been looking at that river for over thirty minutes, and if there was a crocodile there on the surface to make the splash, I would have seen it. But what the splash did was it destroyed any sense of conviction I had in the belief that there was nothing below the surface. I needed to reframe my argument, because, quite clearly, there were things below the surface. And judging by the splash, these things were of a formidable size.

So, unfortunately, the end of this story is that I am a chickenshit. I crossed back over the first river mouth with the same hasty caution as I had the first time, and after walking the kilometre or so back up the beach, wandered defeatedly up to Pete, who was in his hammock reading Che Guevera’s diary. He glanced up at me with a sort of knowingness in his eyes.

“That was quick.”

“I saw a splash.”

“Was it a croc?”

“No. It was a big splash though!”

“But was it a croc?”

“No.”

He nodded briefly, and then went back to reading his book without any indication as to what he was thinking. Such a bastard.

As far as the rest of the time in San Blas goes, it was about as relaxed as it gets. Pete eventually left to return back to Australia and to the brutal realities that go along with being a productive and upstanding member of society, giving me the opportunity to test the bounds of my minimalism without it affecting anybody else. Part of it was to save a bit of money, and part of it was a bit of an experiment in my own resilience, avoiding hedonistic pleasure in favour of chasing contentment, seeing if I would go crazy in the chase.

I would surf in the morning, then make myself some eggs, usually huevos rancheros. Then I would read my book in a hammock for a few hours, before deciding at around midday, when the sun was at its hottest, that it was mango time. Two mangoes would be sliced up purposefully and placed to one side of my laptop, and I would sip on a mug of black coffee, piecing together the events of the trip so far, cementing them into my memory by reliving them, typing away the relived experiences as I did so. The wind would usually begin to drop off later in the afternoon, and the laptop would be closed and I would be back out in the surf, sometimes with some local Mexican kids but usually by myself, while the intensity of the sun’s heat faded and the sky became purple and the afternoon storm dissipated the humidity somewhere over the distant mountains, periodically rumbling signs of its progress. Just before dark I would emerge, I would shower off the salt water, put on a singlet, and walk a kilometre or so towards town, in the direction of the fantastic little taqueria’s that are scattered all throughout it. A few peso’s for this, a couple for that, and I would be jam packed full of oily, meaty goodness. Then, on the way back, if I was feeling particularly extravagant, I would stop by the minisuper and pick up a tall beer to drink before retiring for the evening, finding that getting a tiny buzz on assisted in the sleeping process. And the next day, I would do it all again. I was by no means fully isolated from the world, but with no WiFi aside from at the fire station down the road, with no other tourists around for most of the time, and with no ability to socially speak the language, it gave me a mild sense of it.

And what did I learn from my experimental time in minimalistic isolation? Granted that this sounds pathetically poetic from someone who only really spent a very brief period doing this, but there were times where I would be sipping my bedtime beer and looking out into the darkness of the sea of a night, deliberately remaining undistracted by my book or my iPod and trying to work out whether it was freedom or loneliness that I was feeling. So, I guess you could say that from my brief experiment I learnt that the two do overlap in a lot of ways, that the purest form of one may actually be the other.

And that about gets you up to speed with the trip to San Blas. One day, while seated beneath a tree next to the fire station in the overwhelming heat, murdering every mosquito that thought I was just the newest bar in town, an email confirming that I was heading to Indonesia came through from Dad. Yep. Indonesia, the next logical destination after Mexico. And so, as that is the next part of the story and the end of this part, as far as San Blas goes, to use the words of the forever wise Forrest Gump - “...and that is all I have to say about that.”