Javier reaches deep into his inventory and picks out an old, long board. While I study the surfers offshore, he goes over the basics with me. Strap the leash on the back leg, paddle out, find the center of gravity on the board.
Waves come in sets of seven or eight, he says. Pick your wave, paddle hard, feel the surge underneath you, and then stand up. Don't waste any time. Find your balance and ride down along the face of the wave, stepping forward and backward on the board to control your speed.
"The swell is down right now," he says, almost apologetically. "It's been like this for a week." Too bad, I think to myself. Now maybe I stand a chance.
I had a few days coming to me so I decided to fly to Mexico, learn how to surf, hang out, and just work on being a surfer dude. You know, maybe even flash that cool Hawaiian hand sign. I knew it wouldn't be easy. After all, I'd never surfed in my life. I didn't have the look or the clothes or any of the moves. I didn't even know the lingo. But at least I'd come to the right place.
Sayulita is a small town located 22 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. The village sits at the back of a protected cove, where the waves break consistently along a reef. During the winter, surfers from all over North America come here for the swell. It's a good place to get away for awhile -- to shake those mid- to late-winter Rocky Mountain blues.
I give Javier 40 pesos for the board and walk down to the water, past an old surfing bum who watches the action through teardrop sunglasses. I strap on the leash, wait for a lull in the waves, scramble on the board and paddle out to join the others waiting.
Eyes trained on the horizon for the next big swell, I catch snatches of conversation from the other surfers. "Man, that last wave was like Jerry and the Pipemasters!" "Dude, I think I caught the reef on that last one." A large swell builds up ahead. I turn around and paddle hard for shore before the wave lifts me skyward and rolls past. I try this a few times until I find the right balance on the board and I'm able to ride a wave. I even raise up as far as my knees before tumbling sideways into the sea. Then I remember Javier's words: stand up fast.
I paddle and wait for the next set of waves, catching one as it begins to break, standing up on a knee and then a foot. I'm up for a split-second before the board slides out from under my feet, tossing me into the crashing surf. And I know instantly how this must look from shore -- board jettisoned in the air, leash snapping in the sunlight. Surely, the old surf bum must be wincing behind his sunglasses.
There is an easy grace about Sayulita, a touch of old Mexico. Horses trot through its cobbled streets past bungalows and markets and open-air restaurants. Pelicans and frigate birds wheel in the sky above the beach. California gray whales regularly cruise the waters offshore, blowing spouts of mist in the air.
American surfers started coming to Sayulita in the 1970s, camping under the large manzanillo tree next to Javier's. The waves tend to be biggest in winter, though July can be good too during hurricane season. These days, surfers visit the Internet to learn about hurricanes and earthquakes and large Pacific storms, and when the big swell from these events will reach Sayulita.
As a group, surfers are very laid back. They often speak in clichs which might lead one to believe that they are somewhat vacuous. But the truth is, a surfer has no use for fancy rhetoric or heavy rumination. Not when the pulse of the planet manifests itself before your very eyes. Not when you can wade out, catch a wave, and tap the sacred energy of the cosmos just like that. Only thing is, at some point or another you have to stand up on the board and really surf.
The next day, I find Javier out in front of his shop. While he no longer surfs on account of a bum knee, he's clearly the main link to the surfing culture here. Everyone seems to know him and they're sure to say hello when they pass. An old-timer happens by and suggests that we burn a board as a sacrifice to the surfing gods. "No kidding," laments a young woman sitting nearby, "my boyfriend hasn't brought me a present since we had that big swell two weeks ago." Just then, a surfer bites it hard in the waves offshore. Yeah, I think to myself, too bad.
I pay Javier another 40 pesos and walk down to the water past the surf bum wearing teardrop sunglasses. I paddle out and assume my position next to the waiting surfers. Lazy flecks of sunlight dance across the water. It's warm today and the surfers are all happy, trading information and friendly barbs. A wave comes along and takes one of them away. We watch together as he's carried off slowly into the distance, to some better place no doubt, but gone too soon just the same.
For a beginner, there is a considerable amount of energy expended in learning the rudimentary techniques of surfing -- a lot of needless thrashing around in the water. But when finally he is able to stand up, catch a wave, and ride it out ... well, it's pretty awesome. It's like, tubular. You recognize instantly that you are onto something way cool by virtue of your innate dudeness and the fact that you have come to Sayulita and rented a board from Javier. In a word, it's the bomb.
Coming out of the sea, I look to the surfing bum whose expression hasn't changed in three days. He is as stoic as ever, no doubt heavy into Zen and the Art of Looking At Nothing In Particular. The Tao of Spacing Out. No one seems especially excited about my accomplishment.
Washing down the board, Javier allows how he saw me stand up. At least he's noticed. I shower myself clean and look around. Nothing has changed. I walk to the palapa restaurant next door and buy two beers, one for me and one for my friend. If he doesn't mind too much, I think I'll hang a while. Maybe even complain about the puny waves.
James McVey teaches English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His stories and outside essays have appeared in a number of journals around the country.