Tuesday, May 17, 2011
The beach point ended in steep and porous rock with sharp edges I could feel through my thick rubber booties. We walked to the end as Chico Max explained to me how there were still some sharp rocks hidden beneath the beginning of the break and how to maneuver around the tight wave sets.
One by one, we jumped off the rock and into the Antarctic-inspired Pacific, board first, hipbones second. One hand motion after another, I followed Leo as we made a wide turn around the break line.
“Hurry up, Liz G, or you’ll have to…” I held my breath and got ready for the first head dunk as I ducked beneath the wave in front of me. Ignoring the icy headache, I kicked and struggled, unconvinced that I missed the strong cycle above me, but when I popped up shortly behind Leo, I was reassured.
Leo and Max each caught one with ease, and I got more impatient as I saw their heads dart by, then disappear beneath the overhead. Finally, behind me, there was something forming, and as the shimmer got closer and the peak formed, I realized I was in the perfect spot. I looked around and other surfers lined up beside me, waiting for me to fail. My polite grin turned into a gritting as I paddled to meet the break.
I went from being among a group of surfers sitting in still water to being encompassed by a steep declining ramp with a white giant throwing me from behind. This was the strongest wave I’ve ever been on, and call me what you will but I bodyboarded the drop before even considering to stand. I stood unevenly. My forward leg cramped and I collapsed in front of my board. With my hands over my head, I felt my right ankle pull in alternate directions as my board tested its tight tether in the cold cycle. But it was soothing to know that other than the rocky point, we had nothing but black sand and cold water to worry about.
I came up unharmed with the energy of that strong push still circulating through me. Catching my breath, I attempted to make that same wide turn around the breakline, unaware of where the first wave had carried me. I was now deep inside the swoosh of the point fighting a current that wanted to take me back to the main beach.
“You’re out of shape. Paddle, paddle, paddle, duck and paddle some more” I told myself, but watching the rocks on the beach move swiftly by, despite my reverse efforts, I gave up and walked to the beach to ascend my walk of shame back to the point.
Once I was out of the water, my relentless determination miraculously metamorphosed into apathy. My arms could barely hold my board. I was tired, but while in this daze, I managed to tiptoe around the sharp rocks at the point. I passed a barefoot man and his dog sitting at the edge of the point looking out, collecting thoughts and images. I felt a pinch in my toes and wondered how the man made it to the edge. I was distracted as I jumped off the rock, probably still looking for that man’s shoes, I voluntarily dove right into a tight set of high waves. My hybrid board didn’t have the most aggressive nose, and I tended to miss ducks during tight sets, because it took me a while to sink the board sometimes. I thought of this and looked behind me to see where I might end up if I got caught in the wave cycle again. Sharp rocks. The rest of this session was filled with obligatory paddling and missed ducks.
I knew waves were different everywhere, but I had been nurtured with light fluffy waves and wide sets. Chilean waves had a lot of powerful cold water behind them, and the sets were lined up waiting to drown the weak and keep the experienced happy. This early in the trip, I had already determined I was the weak one.
My thighs felt thick like they were covered in jelly, and my breath was shallow and faint. As I lay in the hammock at the Puertocillo Hostel, counting my breaths, I wondered if I could honestly make it to 10 days, or if these surf guides, really strangers I knew nothing about, would let me wither away.
“Liz G!” someone yelled. I woke up to three huge piles of pasta on the outside patio with Leo and Chico Max waiting patiently for me. With my body startled from constant struggle, I was eager to gain back energy with food. A few bites in and I found myself struggling again, realizing that my gasping for life muscles were so closely connecting with my eating muscles. I watched entertained as Chico Max and Leo shoveled the pasta in their mouths as fast as they could swallow.
“No more, Liz G?” They kept addressing me as Liz G, but in a lower gangster rapper kind of tone.
“Tell me, Liz G, why are you called Liz G?”
“I’m not. Why do you keep calling me that?” Max looked confused then took out his phone to show me the string of emails between us, where I signed each time, Liz G. In work mode, I was unconsciously discerning between myself and the other Liz in our office, which in the Southern Hemisphere translated to an elusive gang name title. So used to the drone of work, I applied my habits everywhere. I smiled knowing that I was where I needed to be, away.
A few hours of “napping,” or restless mind racing from body shock, and Max and Leo were ready for another session.
The water didn’t seem any different, but this time I had a much easier time getting out and reading the waves. Chico Max and Leo were at the first lineup, closer to the rocks, while I stayed further back with the polite surfers who always let me inside, always. There was something wrong. Nothing is worth the gift of giving good waves away. I was so flattered that these gentlemen were being so generous, until I found out what they were doing.
A wave crested in the distance. This was my chance. Off I went. Paddle, paddle. Breath, Liz. Don’t forget to breath. Shit, paddle! (I talk to myself) I wasn’t paddling fast enough, and the wave went over me, conveniently, just in time for the next guy to catch it. Sure, these guys were being really friendly, even coaching me in the right spot, but I was put on the inside, because they didn’t think I could catch the waves.
I paddled back to my lineup and smirked at them. “I’m gonna catch it this time.”
They didn’t read the conviction on my face. They put me right inside and smiled.
Another wave came, perfect for our lineup. (Why do I always hold my breath) I took off right away this time, and exerted what I could without breath, until I finally peaked with the wave and prepared to drop. But wait! Why are these guys still paddling? Why are they dropping? I’m on the inside. This one dude, my encouraging coach for the first twenty paddle strokes was less then a foot away, dropping in on MY wave. We dropped together and I panicked. My board isn’t one with precision, especially when I’m on it, and I would have run him over indefinitely. I dove inside, without thought. Even though I was in a sandier, safer area, the panic left me more disoriented than usual, but I surfaced with my board in front of me. When my eyes came to focus, I was right in front of a fast moving wave on the inside with two surfers competing for it with my board blocking my face to the wave. No time to hop on my board, no time to duck, no time to move. The wave threw my board to my chin and the force of the wave went right up my nose, crashing waves of salt water on my brain. I rose to the surface in terror, and Leo was there to see the tremble in my face, although there wasn’t much I could feel at the time.
“Is my nose broken? Is it bleeding?” He inspected my face with empathy.
“Everything looks in tact. Do you want to go in?”
Day one and I’m already injured and going in early, I thought. What a terrible first day that would be.
“No. I’m going out there and beating up those fuckers.”
Thankfully Leo still thought I was incapable of such anger and chuckled silently at what he thought he heard.
My arms were done, and I half-assed a few attempts, making the other guys in the lineup happy with my misses, before paddling in.
I was really looking forward to dinner. Leo unwrapped a steak on the counter and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I pretty much had skipped eating all day and was looking forward to some form of rejuvenation, whether it be in food or confidence. I was in luck. Chico Max saw the whole ordeal of other surfers trying to take my waves and retold the story, focusing on my insistence to drop and ignoring my messy spill. He would later use that story to deter the other surfers from scheming to take my waves. While I was dealing with some drama in my lineup, the guys had some turf wars in theirs.
“Eh concha tu madra, dejame correr. Soy local. Mis reglas aqui.” The guys spent the rest of the night mocking the line they heard that day.
“Pass the salt, man, soy local.”
My frustrating day was abated by the comic relief of these guys. Chico Max inspected his last piece of steak. As he peeled back the pink pithy ends, a surge of white puss emerged. After an exchange of uncomprehending Chilean slang, they burst in a fit of laughter.
“He said a joke,” clarified Leo, realizing the words may have been lost.
“Yeah, I know.”
The next few days of surfing Puertocillo were uneventful, since I didn’t drop anything without body boarding my way down, and bright purple bruises were shining through on my hips and ribs, proof that I was a coward doing some serious tummy time.
I had already lost focus. Spanish conversation around the barbeque fire was getting faster and I could no longer pick up snippets of conversation. I zoned out and stared at the fire, making out animated faces in the glowing coals.
The last day we went climbing, and I saw Chico Max and Leo in another light. Max the short, tough, aggressive man on the water was terrified of heights and falling rocks, and he left out of boredom in 20 minutes. Leo and I made up a route that took us the whole afternoon to actually complete.
“What are we gonna name it?”
“La Mañosa, because it’s very moody. It has high and lows. It’s really easy, then really hard.”
It was the perfect name for it. I helped set a route that Leo claimed was two grades harder than my personal best. Whether I truly believed him or not, my confidence was gained back, and I was ready to conquer the next shanty beach town.