Hitch Hiking Baja and the Search for Surf
As I lay on the beach on night one of this intrepid journey down into Mexico, it was hard to think while a fiesta was booming meters away from my tent. Books lay piled up at the foot of my tent and my surfboard was my only company. I sat up in bed and unzipped my tent flap and crawled outside. Mine was obviously the only tent on the whole stretch of Rosarita beach; after all, no one else was stupid enough to camp in these parts. So why was I here?
To answer my own question, I was here to do the surf trip I had conjured up time and time again at various points throughout my life. While I was at work, cleaning up broken glasses and mopping up sticky beer , while I was sitting in a lecture hall listening to various breaches and remedies found within the exciting world of contract law, studying for exams, while I ran and trained, while I slept I had even dreamt of the rugged back road surf adventure. I had been close to finding it many times, in New Zealand around the coast, but things are never as wild in your own country as they are when thrown out into the great abyss. I had been very close during my time in Hawaii, but Waikiki and Honolulu were always there to remind you that civilisation and McDonalds were an hour away. That is not to say I had some wonderful nights out around the bonfire at the north shore after some heavy north shore swells recounting the waves of the day, but the next day we would collect our beers cans and pile back into the car for work or school.
As my friends in Hawaii trickled off back to their respective countries, including a girlfriend to Norway and a roommate to Tasmania, I was left to dwell on my next move. It was always assumed that once my semester abroad was finished I would return to New Zealand, do my bar exams and find a suitable law job. But I still had this niggling inside me, I still had not felt like I had achieved what I had set out to do. I wanted some Robinson Crusoe experience, to be thrown to the ends of the world and tested. I wanted to really see what I was worth and really to measure myself against the elements. So I stayed. I worked in a restaurant in Waikiki my head full of plans building and falling, darting off in many directions. I rallied a team of mates to join me. We were planning to drive the length of California. And then, one of the guys called me and mentioned the great Baja Peninsula. To be honest I hadn’t really known it existed until he threw it out there. After I hung up I rode my bike to the university library and googled Baja surfing. Immediately phrases such as “the ultimate adventure”, “Desert surfing”, “surf trips as they used to be” and “vintage travelling” kept popping up as I began to salivate. Baja seemed like it had remained a grittier surf experience, amongst all those surf chalets and island hopping surfaris that were beginning to surface around Indo and the pacific. And so the seed was planted. I would work in Hawaii until July where I would fly to California to prepare for the great Baja adventure
THE TRIP BEGINS
After meeting my Mum at her spiritual direction conference at a nunnery in San Francisco (you read it right, continue), then staying with some family friends in the Castro, I was in San Diego with my great Uncle Charlie. By this point my travel mates had bailed due to various reasons: girlfriends in Prague, getting into Med school, getting married, funerals… all legitimate reasons I suppose. One night when the final crew member called and regrettably informed me of an interview he couldn’tmiss I stood out on Uncle Charlie’s balcony overlooking the desert like terrain. Crickets chirped loudly and the night was wet and hot. I remember saying out loud to myself “this is it then, you have to just do it.” It’s always a climactic moment when I start speaking to myself, as if just thinking it does not suffice.
Everyone was against it of course. I heard myself trying to explain that it would be fine to hitch and camp the length of Baja. I could hear myself justifying the trip and giving answers to these questions which I knew sounded idiotic and I was well aware how green I was. In fact, I was a drug dealing Mexican murderers dream. But I was so determined no one would break me.
I had my provisions stuffed into a double board bag. A word to the wise: travel light, especially when you are on foot. I brought jerseys, jeans…a wise choice in the end (Although the desert got well above 100 degrees regularly, it cooled off during the night, particularly on the coast). Stuffed into the board bag one would also find a library of books, a first Aid kit to rival that of the army, a snake bite kit (which admittedly did make me feel a little hardcore), 50 meal replacement muesli bars, sleeping bag, pillow, a wetsuit, extra fins, 5 bars of wax…the list goes on. Stupid gringo. Just on a side note I have to say that my future surf trips were bliss: One month in indo with a board and a backpack smaller than my 5 year old cousin’s school bag. Bliss. But, on this, my first solo lengthy overseas mission I wanted to be prepared. But as I lugged my Bag onto the bus that would take me across the border I was already regretting the amount of unnecessary shit I had. As we neared the border the amount of Mexicans getting on the bus grew as did the amount of gringos getting off. We reached the border where I sat up in my seat with my passport and a form I had filled out with some entrance fee clutched tight in my sweaty fist. A tall Mexican fellow ambled aboard the bus and took his hat off, rambled off some Spanish and went around collecting a few pesos from each passenger. I put in a few and he turned around, got off and the bus drove on. And I was in Mexico.
I had blinked and been transported to a different country in a matter of seconds. In New Zealand you can drive the length of the country and it remains the same place. If you want to travel overseas, to another country, you must fly. It is a long saga that prepares you for an entrance into a different culture. The airports and customs are a process to ease you in. It’s true what they say, the border between San Diego and Tijuana is one of the most dramatic invisible lines on earth. Within meters all signs were in Spanish and everything including the air was different. There was a moment where all my anticipation and excitement drained and was replaced by this foreboding feeling and I panicked. Suddenly my late night boozy Spanish lessons with Uncle Charlie did not add up to much and my nonchalant carefree spirit in the build up to this trip seemed weak and idiotic. A woman got on next to me with a baby attached to the hip and started rambling in Spanish; I smiled as broadly as I could “No Espanol por favor.” As I drove through towns and villages I flicked drastically through my surf guide, which, as comprehensive as it was in regards to surf was now entirely unhelpful when going from town to town. It held phrases such as “drive 2km past the big pink hotel on the beach” and I’d glue my eyes to the window until a big pink hotel came into view. It was like a giant real life ridiculous Mexican version of Where’s Wally. The plan was to stay in Tijuana for one night but as we drove through I realised that without a plan this town was too big, too intense, and too dangerous for night numero uno. So the next practical port of call for my first night would be Rosarito but the bus did not seem to be stopping at all. I decided to assume it would become clear when we reached the Rosarito stop because people would surely pile off the bus when the stop came. We drove on. I spotted some nice waves off the road as we wound up into the hills and along ridges until the driver called out “Ensenada!” and everyone piled off. I sat on the bus flipping through the pages of my guide book and trailing my finger down past all the surf breaks from Rosarito to Ensenada that I had passed. I got off the bus in a daze of heat and confusion and in a controversial move bought a ticket back to Rosarito. As I wrote in my journal “if I’m going to do this thing, I am going to do it right, no shortcuts” and besides, as I mentioned there were all the surf breaks we had passed that I hadn’t surfed.
And so I lay in my tent…I felt defeated, exhausted and alone. My journal reads “I have no wheels, no Spanish ability, my board bag is impossible to carry and I’m alone. Such extreme doubts are unprecedented.” Earlier that day, I sweat immensely after lugging my outrageous board bag to the beach and wrestled with my tent poles in an attempt to erect my shelter. A wasted Mexican guy swayed up the beach with a miniscule roach dangling out his mouth and a snake weaving its way out of an old glass coke bottle. He kept thrusting the bottle towards me to make me leap backwards then cackle away before spluttering and coughing in my general direction. I moved my tent next to a family who were setting up for some sort of fiesta. If the snake guy came back I’d have an army of amigos to protect me.
I woke early. After have close to no sleep due to the fiesta (songs sung at top volume, practically a whole mariachi band raged into the night) I woke for a swim, had a power bar and broke camp. The little local buses in Mexico stop anywhere for anyone but it was definitely my least favourite mode of transport. A million apologies emitted from my mouth as I whacked people left and right trying to squeeze my orca whale of a board bag onto something other than people. I got off when I saw waves. This was a place called Raul’s, right by “Raul’s Restaurant”. I had to clamber down a cliff face and into a ravine in the already scorching morning sun. I waxed up and paddled out. It was small but glassy; I was the only one out there and was generally stoked to get into the ocean. I looked out in both directions to see endless coastline and desert ending abruptly in cliffs dropping to the ocean. I caught a few nice rides and paddled in for another power bar (maybe 50 power bars wasn’t so stupid after all?) I climbed back up and caught another way too crowded bus, so crowded in fact that I hopped off shortly after climbing on, probably because the expression on most people’s face was of general hatred and animosity.
I walked down the highway listening to music and approached a taco stand to buy some water. I thought my “uno agua por favor” was pretty good and smiled waiting to complete my first Spanish transaction. It was too not comprehensive as it turns out and was returned with blank stares. Even though it was a struggle to ask for a bottle of water I somehow managed to arrange a ride to La Fonda with a nice fellow by the name of “Nacho.” Nacho and I hit the road to La Fonda bypassing the great little seaside town of Puerto Nuevo, famous for its lobster, so Nacho could make a business transaction. I was dropped off after some hearty thanks and handshakes. I was beginning to think that I must seem like the politest and most apologetic guy in all of Mexico with “Gracias” and “Por Favor” being the most commonly used words in my almost nonexistent Spanish vocabulary. I was dropped by Nacho at a beautiful camping spot right on the break. Campers around me were chatty and friendly with surfboards strewn about the cars and barbeques smoking. And they were talking in English! After last night’s horrors with the snake charmer I thought I was in paradise. I walked up to the cliff overlooking the break, apparently the best shaped beach break in the area with peaks spread up and down the beach to avoid any overcrowding. A car full of guys were pulling out of the car park as I arrived reading my surfers guide to Baja. “Jesus son, well if you aren’t the picture of a gringo. You been down here before?” “Uh, no, I’m from New Zealand” “Well you better put that surf guide away; you’re asking to be robbed holding that thing” I chatted to these guys for a while about the crime rate in Baja and the infamous paddle out at La Fonda. Apparently, they told me, many people hold “almost drowned” stories about this spot. Undeterred by these fear mongers I set up camp and trotted down the path to the paddle out zone. The Paddle out was a breeze and the insanely well shaped 3-4ft rights kept me in the water for three hours loving the way my new stick was working. I paddle in and showered under the massive water tank sporting the sign K-58 which is another name for the spot. I got a beer at the little restaurant/ bar down the other end of the beach and wrote in the journal. I remember thinking “if the rest of the trip takes the tone of today then I think I’ve struck gold”. I had an epic sunset surf session, the only one out with the warm sky full of billowing orange clouds. I paddled in and was invited for beers and shrimp with my neighbouring tent. Stu and his family including grandparents (“Call me Skipper, this is Grams”) were from Oregon and were regulars to this spot and were enthusiastic about my journey. My arms tired from surfing and a belly full of shrimp I fell to sleep with a grin spread across my face. When planning a surf trip anywhere, one must never try to stick to a strict plan. Day three of my journal reads “I am not in La Fonda, San Miguel or San Isidro as planned.” I woke early with the feeling that more ground needed to be covered so I broke camp at sunrise while Stu’s little daughter Jules looked on bleary eyed with her head tilted and asked “You’re leaving Avi?” I nodded and gave her a little hug and silently slipped out.
ENSENADA AND BEYOND…
My next ride was with a POLICIA. Before I got in the car he flipped me his badge and I noticed the gun swinging from his holster. As we drove inland I started getting paranoid recalling all the horror stories I had heard about the corrupt institution that was the Mexican police force. I started thinking, “why did he flip me his badge? Am I…surely not…am I…under arrest?” He was speeding and overtaking on blind corners, I tried to focus on the beautiful countryside winding up into the hills as I gripped the door. I would ask questions but received no answer; just stony faced nods and grunts as he sped along. He dropped me to the side of the road with a smile though and wished me luck, so apparently I wasn’t under arrest as I had feared. I caught a ride to the legendary San Miguel, the best right point on the peninsula according to most. However, when I got there it was completely flat so I sat on a rock pissed off because of the mission I had been on to get here. I continued on to Ensenada with hopes of making it to Punta San Isidro after collecting my tourist visa (which I was meant to collect at the border but the general confusion that ensued during border crossing meant that this was impossible). I rode in the tray of a few trucks to the immigration office which was, to my horror closed until the next day. I couldn’t afford to risk going visa free the whole trip so I had no choice but to stay in Ensenada to collect my visa first thing in the morning. Even though it had only been a few days, It felt amazing to be at a backpackers with a shower, bed, internet…I felt a little guilty at being so happy to have all these comforts, wasn’t the whole point of this trip to be completely cut off and to rough it to the highest extremes? Ah Well, perhaps I must ease myself into complete isolation. I strolled through the streets of Ensenada and ploughed through 4 quesadillas and a few sols. I decided to climb a mountain overlooking the city which offered an incredible sight: the gigantic flag of Mexico flapping over the city. I climbed on until I was deterred by kids snorting coke, a homeless man shitting and psycho killer dogs. I half jogged back down the hill to the fish markets and wandered the streets into the night before hitting the sack. I woke early and after collecting my visa through a torrent of lies at the immigration office the owner of the backpacker gave me a lift to the bus estacion. After Ensenada it all changes. The tourists have stopped at the comfort of Ensenada and what lies beyond is the endless desert, lost towns and a lot of surf. I had a plan to head out to Erendira, Punta San Isidro and Punta Cabras which were a series of reef and beach breaks somewhat off the main road. But first I wanted to check out Punta San Jose which held some great right reef breaks. According to the surf guide the turn off from the main road towards the coast was around the tiny town in a wine growing valley up in the hills by the name of Santo Tomas. It was incredibly hot and everything, including myself seemed to be covered in a thing veil of red dirt. Old wrinkled ladies sat outside shops fanning themselves. I attempted the hitch to Punta San Jose but after a while it seemed clear that no cars were interested in going there so I made a rash decision to head on to Erendira. I got picked up and drove through the beautiful desert hills and was dropped at the off road to Erendira. My friend waved me good luck and drove off in a cloud of dust.
I have said before that as you head south of Ensenada conditions become more difficult and it’s harder to reach or even find the breaks. After the dust clouds settled and the noise of the car had died to nothing I fully realised where I was. Desert as far as the eye could see stretched off in every direction. The ground was scorched and the sun was high in the sky. Heat waves rose from the ground and I was soaking wet. I decided to walk as I hitched. I put my head phones in and sang out at the top of my lungs to Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Ray Charles, the cacti as my audience. I walked on. My board bag straps were grating against my shoulders and I had already gone through one of my waters bottles. It must have been forty minutes. I walked on, I could tell my voice was getting hoarse and I had begun talking to myself. I had to laugh, looking out at the road, a snake of red dirt winding off over the hills to the coast. I began looking at my feet, one after the other, one after the other, sweat dripping from my nose. An hour and a half. Two hours. I sat down and laughed in desperation. What an idiot to think I could hitch my way around the place, what an idiot to camp, to bring this outrageous board bag. And then the sound of a car. I stood up and squinted in the direction of the sound, dust rose in the distance, it was coming my way! I adjusted my shirt and wiped my brow as I saw this tiny red car racing around the bend. I took off my straw hat and waved it down. He pulled to a halt. “Playa?” I rasped “Ci senor!” he smiled and began clearing the back seat. Overwhelmed with joy I crammed my board and myself into my saviour’s wagon and raced on, Mexican music blaring as we wound up into the hills and drove the remaining 12 miles to Coyote Cals hostel. Coyote Cals was exactly what I was after, it was an old wooden and clay house with games room, wooden picnic tables outside around the fire pit and surfboards hanging from the ceiling. I pitched my tent outside by the tepee overlooking the surf break. I drank about forty litres of water and sat outside with a beer to plan my next move. Peter, an aged stoner offered me a beer so together with a Mexican guy my age Rodolfo and a few other travellers we drank long into the night. The next few days were spent at Coyote Cals where I had assumed the role of chef which suited me fine as everyone provided the ingredients and I cooked. My days were spent surfing, collecting mussels, fishing for dinner and nights were spent around the fire pit drinking and storytelling. Rodolpho told me stories of various ways in which his family would try to cross the border and how he and his friends would paddle on their surfboards from Tijuana to San Diego at night for surf trips. A group of English girls had arrived with a van and they were keen to check out the surrounding surf breaks so I had transport as well. I had a great session at Punta Cabras with a pod of dolphins, me and Rodolfo the only ones out. It was a silent grey day and the dolphins swam around our legs without a sound. It was a beautiful picturesque coast line and there were many surf sessions of deserted beaches looking back from the waves at the sprawling desert tundra.
As difficult as it was, I had to pull myself from the throngs of Coyote Cals and make some ground, with the rest of Baja looming ahead. I had met Anna, a lovely girl from Munich who was embarking on roughly the same trip as I and who would become my travel buddy for much of the rest of it. Some other Coyote Cals residents were heading south so we grabbed a lift and after farewells to the rest of the crew we continued on our way. We drove on through the desert down a bumpy as hell road to Quatros Casas a great right reef/point. I paddled through the tendrils of swaying sea kelp and caught some excellent rides. We decided to set up camp on the bluff overlooking the surf. I had another long sunset surf session as the swell picked up and the water turned glassy. Apart from the Rottweiler guard dogs going ape shit I slept like a log under the millions of stars. We woke early and had to break camp in five minutes in order to catch a lift to the main road with the hostel owners’ pregnant Vietnamese wife. You have to take rides when you can in these parts; you never know how long the wait will be until the next one. We caught a bus all the way past San Quintin to Lazaro Cardenas where there was the turnoff to Cabo San Quintin, Volcanoes and El Playon, which were the next few spots down the coast I had pencilled in. I smiled to myself as I got my marker and followed the road down the map, highlighting spots I had surfed. I was doing well.
We caught a ride with a big Mexican family, I don’t know why they even stopped as the car was so full with kids, coolers, food and fishing gear. My surf guide said “If you have a sand-worthy 4-wheel drive you are hereby invited to venture out to this great, uncrowded, right, sand-bottom, wrap- around point break”. This was to be the bumpiest ride yet. We held on for dear life as the truck bumped and lurched in and out of potholes the size of hot tubs, both Anna and I had one arm acting as a seatbelt for one or more of the kids who simply couldn’t hold on themselves; they were being thrown around like little Mexican jumping beans. We drove for miles and miles deep into the desert my arse already numb. I can’t really accentuate how bumpy it was, except to say that while showing off that he could remain in the tray of the truck without holding on, one guy was thrown meters down the road by a particularly large pothole. He scrambled back in with a bleeding nose and with a thick Mexican accent smiled “superrrman!” we drove on to the coast and bumped past some amazing breaks and small fishing villages until we reached a small series of huts known as El Playon or West Medano Beach which was where the drivers brother lived. We slathered on the mozzie spray to repel the tennis ball sized flies and head out to find some waves. Again as I paddled out I found myself alone. We head back, somewhat knackered and burnt to find that the family had cooked us an absolute feast…I lie, miniscule tacos, but insanely delicious. And it seemed like a feast after the lengthy journey and reasonable surf. We walked around to volcanoes which delivered some sizey swell but was kind of closing out and had a mean undertow so after a while of being thrashed I paddled in. We had adopted a mangy dog somewhere along the way. The afternoon was spent climbing the volcano on no discernable trail for a glorious sunset. I have to admit I was overcome with emotion as we sat on the rim of the enormous crater, gazing out to sea while everything turned orange. The islands scattered out to sea like spilt coffee beans. There was a warm breeze and I fully realised where I was. After a blind tumble back down the volcano batting away the monster flies we caught a ride to a little sand dune to set up camp. We made some taco wraps with avocado and tomato (soon to be a staple) And I sat outside with the full moon casting a river of light across the water to my feet.
Most seasoned Baja travellers will warn you not to drive fast and definitely not to drive at night. In fact, one should not try to drive at all. Most of the roads are narrow with no shoulders leaving little margin for error. The hazards are endless. Apart from the aforementioned narrow roads, the potholes, drunken truck drivers, wandering cattle, unlit highways and travelling peasant families make driving seem more like a high level Nintendo game. But of course, I wasn’t to know.
We woke to a sand encrusted tent, the wind had blown a gale throughout the night and now we were pretty much part of the sand dune. We walked the length of the cobble stone beach, already the fatigue of the past ten days were very clear. We caught the first ride from the small town at the end of the beach which happened to be a truck transporting mounds of seaweed. To demonstrate my optimism at this point I must quote from my journal: “I sat, sinking into a mound of seaweed but the views were great and we had caught the rides within seconds of putting out the thumb. I was in great spirits, eager to see what the road ahead of us would bring.” Never mind the seaweed! We were dropped at the main road and after a petrol station coffee and some fruit we were amped to be back on the road. After waiting for a while on the side of the road we caught a ride with Ricardo who was going all the way to Rosalita. We couldn’t believe our luck. We drove through scorching deserts, really nothing in sight, just endless desert split by a cracked road, Cacti towering on either side. We drove for miles, and after a while I could see Ricardo was starting to doze so we pulled over to stretch our legs. After stretching and relieving our bursting bladders I heard myself say “want me to drive?” And there I was in the driver seat trying to decipher this ancient tin can machine with gear sticks sticking out from the roof. I managed to get the car in gear and lurched forward, the steering wheel drastically off centre, dodgy breaks and needless to say, dodgy roads. Potholes dotted the road, I felt like I was in a real life mine sweeper. Trucks would race down the centre line and cattle would lazily stroll onto the road with reckless abandon. Every time a truck came I had to swerve off the road and back, everyone clutching the doors. I slowed down and tried to take it easy but when three trucks came racing down the centre of the road I veered to the right only to see some cows trotting my way so swerved back into the line of the oncoming trucks then spun back towards the cows until I lost control and we went bumping off the road and into a ditch, glass shattering, dust billowing, everyone was shouting out, I heard Anna shout “what are you DOING Avi?!” until we came to an abrupt halt. I was rattling off every swear word I knew as we all leapt out of the car.
Ricardo managed to bump the car to the side of the road as we picked glass out of each other’s hair and nursed minor wounds. Ricardo was insanely calm as he assessed the damage. I, on the other hand, was shaking, sweating and swearing in between 5000 “por favors!!!!” over the next hour we accrued an assortment of people offering advice; me cowering trying to help. Everyone was speaking rapidly in Spanish and casting quick glances in my direction. I knew they were plotting how to kill me and sell my organs to pay for the damage. Eventually we waved down a car and changed the tyre, broke off the excess glass and were on our way. Due to this unforeseen accident we had to drive all the way to Guerro Negro where I would empty my bank for Ricardo. I knew it was massively beside the point but I couldn’t help think of all the breaks we were passing, all the notches on the map that I had hoped to get to but would probably not turn back to. My spirits were low and I looked out the window wondering for the second time what the heck I was doing here. I remember looking at my feet and seeing a Dora the explorer doll, still in the box, that Ricardo had no doubt bought for his daughter on his trip up North. My journal goes on for many pages with “what an idiot! IDIOT!!! Why couldn’t I just…” etc. It goes on to read “I’m stuffed, so exhausted….from sun, travel and crashing cars…here’s to good waves and back to the basics.”
My next entry reads: “what unexpected turns this trip is taking. I am sleeping in a freight truck with 3,000 cartons of pineapple juice in Santa Rosalia.” It had rained throughout the night and we woke up to more of it. Much more of it. We hitched to the next small town with my board tied precariously with old rope to the roof of a dodgy two door Toyota. The guy started the car with a spoon. We got dropped off at a PEMEX station and sat playing cards without landing a ride for over an hour as the rain came harder and harder. We finally got a ride with Eduardo in his pineapple freight truck. It was a scary as hell ride. Eduardo would cross himself and kiss his cross that hung around his neck before attempting any particularly dodgy boulder strewn windy decent down through the mountains. He was going all the way to La Paz so we decided to go with him that far before heading to Todos Santos. We had crossed the dividing line that separated Baja Norte from Baja Sur and it felt like a new chapter. I cringed at the amount of surf we would miss but I had learnt that you had to take what you got out here. And there would be waves to come.
The amount of rain that had fallen had started creating flash floods and we became stranded in Santa Rosalia. Traffic was backed up and shops had been washed out completely, there were landslides and the roads were blocked. The whole town closed down and everyone, including myself, helped with the cleaning of roads and sweeping out the shops. My journal reads “And so here I am, the hills have crumbled down onto the road, so I’m sweating my arse off on the sea of Cortez listening to Mexican rock with a couple of cervesas after some impromptu volunteer work.”
It was a sleepless night in the truck. Eduardo snored like a freight train so I tried sleeping outside until it started to rain again so had to squeeze back into the snore fest. In the morning we got the news that the roads were still blocked. We reached the damaged area where whole entire strips of road had been swept away leaving massive chasms. We helped in creating Makeshift paths for traffic and so we were allowed to pass but ended up only making it to Mulege. There was an entourage of trucks driving the same path and we befriended two other drivers called Javier and Alfredo. We stopped for the night at a truck stop. I looked around at my company and thought about the bizarre situation I had fallen into. I was leaning back with a feed and a beer with these truck divers at this truck stop in a tiny town. I couldn’t have foreseen this. After some card games which I found difficult to decipher, although I think I was winning, we all retreated to bed. A whole herd of trucks sleeping silently huddled together like cattle in the rain.
THE SEARCH FOR SURF
I had started feeling anxious for a wave. It had been over a week of flash floods, bumpy roads, car crashes and much ground covered with not as much surfing as I could have hoped for. We woke early and drove to Loreto for the best fish and shrimp tacos I have ever had. We exchanged drivers outside La Paz and drove to Todos Santos with Javier. We were let off in what seemed like a ghost town and wandered into the night. We found our camping spot after being chased by some furious dogs and fell asleep with the sound of mangos hitting the ground, the overripe smell of fruit lingering in air. It was a sticky tropical night and I lay awake and smiled as I heard the echo of waves reach me from across the desert.
The next day Anna was desperate to get a surfboard and since we had become quite reliant on each other I said of course I would come along on the ride before our next stop. The day was as hot as a furnace, the egg yolk sun hanging heavy in the sky. The search for a suitable board took us to Todos Santos town, the surf camp at Pescadero, along the long stretch of beach to the surf shack at los Cerritos and eventually and crazily, to Cabo San Lucas where we found a good board. We got a lift back with Bill and trophy wife Kathleen then had to bus it back to Todos Santos, too late to move on. We woke early. I had a fierce determination to get a proper session in. The purpose of this trip was slipping away and I was questioning what exactly I was doing on this peninsula of cacti and sand. We hitchhiked to San Pedrito. There had been many missions to the coast from the road, some easier than others, but this really took the cake as the worst one yet. The road turned into deep sand so every step was an effort. My board bag hadn’t got any lighter and it was a stinker of a day. The sweat poured down my face as I fell into a trance, one foot falling in front of the other in a steady rhythm. From time to time I had to swap the bag to the other shoulder wincing in pain as my chaffed and sunburnt skin strained under the weight of the bag. We reached the beach and lo and behold, there were waves, a heavy beach break and further down some great hollow lefts were peeling off the south point. I practically ran down to the point where we found an abandoned Palapa. I pulled out my board and to my absolute horror saw a crack running through the middle of the clean undinged belly of my board. I ran my fingers over it and applied some pressure, shaking my head denying what I was seeing “no…no…no…” I repeated to myself. I ripped it out of the board bag and ran out to the pounding surf and leaped on my board and paddled out. I turned round as the first wave came rolling in, caught it, spent two seconds on the face and then felt the board give way under me. I gave out a mighty “NO!!!!” before becoming engulfed by white wash, both halves of my board beating me and scratching me as if accusing me of its condition. I swam in and stumbled over the rocks, slipping, bleeding and furiously untying my brand new leash and kicking my brand new board across the sand. I stormed off down the beach feeling entirely defeated and broken. I knelt in the sand and hung my head. I’m not going to lie; the beginning of something resembling tears was building inside me. I was so hungry, so weak, so hot, so tired and now my sole reason for being here was destroyed. My money was gone with my board and now I just had a useless massive floppy board bag as my pack. I tried to speak to myself but a whimper came out. I ran into the ocean, the curer of all things and dove under, screaming at the top of my lungs underwater.
The day somehow turned around. Anna, who was and is an amazing girl, lent me her board and I stayed out for hours which was some of the best surfing I have done. The waves weren’t particularly that good, but the severe intensity with which I attacked them made me carve like a pro. Or so it felt. When my arms became heavy, I stayed out even longer. When my stomach rumbled, I stayed out longer. I surfed three long sessions that day until the sky tuned red and the palms lining the beach turned into silhouettes. Our little abandoned palapa was the only structure on the long stretch of coast. I could see from where I sat out on the water that Anna had strung up her hammock and was collecting firewood. The two halves of my surfboard were propped against a log like tombstones.
We woke early to a flat ocean. There were embers still smouldering from the night before where we had lit a raging bonfire and danced around it, drinking wine under the stars as a memorial to my lost board. I saw a figure standing down at the water’s edge so I rolled out of bed and stumbled down the beach to him. He introduced himself as Carston; he was from Canada but was building a house in Todos Santos. He was a 40 something legendary surfer who had spent his days travelling, surfing and working on boats. He told us that there were waves in Los Cerritos a couple of bays around. We caught a ride right to the beach where there were a couple of palapas, a restaurant and bar and a surf rental shack. A volleyball net was strung up and there were an assortment of travellers hanging out. I rented a board and paddled out into the clear turquoise water. I stayed in for hours catching some nice rides. My snapped board was forgotten. We needed supplies so we caught a ride into town with some of the Mexican surfers from the rental shack. We bought some beers and cracked them open in the back as we bumped back down the dirt road to the beach. A raspy blonde who insisted she was native American was driving and kept passing out beers and apologising for the dog food packed up in the back. We got back to the beach and feasted, read and napped under the palms. I bodysurfed laughing at nothing then surfed until sundown until I had to return the board. We finished the day with some exhausted beers at the bar on the beach. I felt happy and content as we sat there under the blanket of stars.
We stayed in Los Cerritos for a number of days. It just felt right; there was a swell and good person around us. During our time at Cerritos there were some really great sessions, barrels at sunset, staying out until the water turned pink and oily and the few remaining guys out turned silhouette like a poster for a 70’s surf flick. There was even some full moon naked surfing. It had become our home for a time, but time was moving on and we had to do the same. There would be more Cerritos to come.
BIG WAVES AT PUNTA CONEJO
We woke one day to Carston standing at our tent. He told us he was going to Punta Conejo a massive point break somewhere round the other side of the peninsula and asked if we would like to join. He pulled me aside and said he had a board for me…he had seen the snapped remains of my old one that morning in San Pedrito. Soon enough we were in his camper van racing along a dirt track for miles. I grinned as Finley Quaye blasted out onto the surrounding cacti. I was a little nervous though, Carston told me that the swell was big and it could peak up to 20 feet. I remembered the heart in mouth feeling of north shore Hawaii and the horrendous wipe outs and hold downs I had had. But I told myself now was the time. My confidence and skills were peaking after a 7 month stint in Hawaii and I was at the point where I could really push myself harder. After all, I may not have the opportunity to be in this condition again. I had imagined pulling up over the hill to see five-storey waves peeling around the point but as we did, the wind was all over it. So, instead we parked up on a sand dune under the campervans faded sun roof. We lazed on deck chairs, reading, swapping stories and waiting for the wind to change. I surfed at sunset on big unpredictable waves and snapped my leash so had to paddle in. The sunset was incredible and we feasted on the most deliciously moist and tasty steaks I have ever had. We were all in an extremely good mood, out here in the desert laughing and yarning. I slept like a pup.
The next few days were spent surfing some great waves at Punta Conejo. It really was an incredible spot, just us in the middle of the desert perched on the top of this sand dune in a campervan and a tent. A couple of times in between surfs, I went off on a wander through the desert or along the beach, listening to music, not a soul in sight. I was feeling in really great shape. Surfing all day, sleeping extremely well, eating fruits and vitals and we hadn’t brought along any beer or smokes. I was even taking jogs along the beach and Carsten had been teaching us some strength endurance training techniques. I was in peak physical condition and I’m glad, because the next day I would need every ounce of it.
I woke at 6.30 to the pounding of surf. It echoed out across the desert and I lay in my sleeping bag my imagination running amok. I clambered out of the tent and looked out at the ocean. Massive walls of whitewash were pounding the beach and beyond them I could see the dark lines out to sea of monsters growing. Before I had even woken up I was jogging lazily down the beach in the early morning mist with my board tucked under my arm. My heart was beating in my ears as I got to the paddle out zone. Both my board and I were battered before I had even paddled out beyond the break. There was so much water moving around that I felt like a cork in the Niagara Falls. I paddled out back where only Carston sat grinning, a wild look in his eyes. “It’s big” was all he said.
As I sat out in the water there was an eerie feeling and the sky was as grey as the ocean. They faded into each other and it was difficult to see the silent waves building until they were almost upon us. Sets came but I was psyching myself out and kept pulling back. I’d paddle and look down the line at the steepest faces dropping off into oblivion. A couple of times I went over the falls and was held under doing endless somersaults getting pulverised by the waves. 10ft faces pushed forward and pounded the shore with extreme force. And it was getting bigger. I knew what I had to do, that it was time I took a drop. I started to paddle not daring to look what was looming behind me. I vaguely heard Carsten yelling out “paddle Avi! Go!” and so, with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would explode and vocalising to myself “Fuck! No! Yes! Go!” I launched onto the wave and everything went silent. I could hear my breathing and my heart in my ears as I practically fell for what seemed like meters on end down the vertical face, finding my feet doing a massive bottom turn, back on the face, thunder from behind me, skidding, speed wobbles across the wave, almost being swallowed by the barrel, extreme force from wind, spray and up flying over the lip into the air, losing my board and diving deep into the ocean. Screaming under water and fist pumping, shaking, kicking… I paddled back to Carston who was in awe. “Holy shit!” was all he said. I stayed grinning until my mouth hurt. The day turned into afternoon and we kept surfing, the waves kept coming until I was too sore and burnt to continue and paddled in. I dragged my feet across the beach, my arms barely able to hold onto the board, and felt it may in fact not be possible to reach the campervan. I ate two bananas, three protein bars and a rock melon before I knew it. After a much needed and deserved day nap we broke camp in the scorching sun and head back to Todos Santos. We stopped in La Paz on the way for a couple of dos equis and the most delicious tacos in history. We didn’t stay for long in Todos Santos, as we just had to stock up on provisions for the next mission. East Cape.
After a quick feed and stop at Carstens house, we took off. It was hard to believe that this was the same day I had surfed Punta Conejo. We listened to “world music” as a mist fell over the green hills. Drumming and wailing of various sorts. We once more passed Cabo, almost holding our breath as we drove through the traffic and hoards of people then sighing in relief when it became just us on the road again. We turned onto a dirt road with wild horses galloping across the red dirt and into the cacti. My journal reads “here we are at nine palms, setting camp beneath a palapa as the sun sets and the surf breaks…” says it all really. That night after some salmon Mac n Cheese I slept on a reclined deckchair under a million stars with lightning flashing orange on the horizon from time to time.
I was well into week three of my Mexican standoff and had fallen into a pattern of waking and moving and surfing and sleeping. I woke from my slumber in the deckchair before sunrise. I paddled out to nine palms point and surfed while the sun came up. The break was a really fun right point break, kind of mellow on high tide but a couple of faster rides came through, bigger with more push. The water was that clear tropical turquoise colour under which you expect to see giant sea turtles weaving around mounds of coral. Exhausted once more (it seemed to be a routine these days) I paddled in and had yoghurt, banana and mango. Carsten had obviously had a good surf session too as he paddled in grinning then slathered himself in Mango jumping around saying “I am the Mango Man!” Anna stayed in longer determined to get some nice long rides. It was hot, the sun was high and bleaching the sand and everything it touched white. Carsten and I talked about meditation and conscious dreaming while peeling mangos in the shade of a Palapa. Anna had paddled in; excited for the wave she had caught. I stretched out and smiled to myself at the friends I had made, the waves I had found and the whole damn trip. I went for a massive walk around the point listening to music and wearing a large straw sombrero. I even stumbled upon a beautiful brown and very naked woman lolling in the waves, out there in the middle of nowhere, no one in sight.
Carsten invited us to stay. He had told me he had made some good business decisions when he was younger so he had a bit of coin. He was building his dream house in Todos Santos and it was a surf chalet extraordinaire. Mango and palm trees littered the garden and a stone driveway cut through the lush orchard to his house. It had a big old door that looked like it was made from an old boat and the rust orange and Corfu blue window pane house looked as if it could have been fashioned out of clay. The house was all tiled and wooden with Jimbae drums and paintings of waves. The bathroom was made of rough stone like a cave, as if it had been chipped out of a rock face. There were massive balconies on either side made with driftwood pillars and bamboo awnings. There was a large open kitchen and a big old wooden table, a TV area with bamboo couches and blue cushions. Pretty much the perfect mix of luxury and rustic, I was in awe. Anna and I cooked dinner and we had a few bottles of wine. I realised that I hadn’t been inside a house since Coyote Cals which felt like a decade ago and felt very happy with the little family I had adopted.
After a few days of surfing and simply hanging out I became restless. I walked around mindlessly mostly just ambling along in the heat. My head was full of lucid dreaming and personal legends from conversations with Carsten. I had started to think maybe it was time I head back…that my journey was done, that I had to move on before I became part of the landscape here. I felt immersed in the moment but also was often distracted by plans forming. It was a strange time. It was one of the only times during my travels in which I felt Adrift in the world. Just a piece of lamb’s wool caught on a fence. I’d go from a mild panic about my empty wallet to a state of great calm in mere moments. I was so tired, my body was skinny and exhausted and so was my mind.
We were back at los Cerritos where days stretched out with lazy surfs, reading, beers and naps. I started having some big nights for loss of any other options, and would walk under the full moon, listening to music in a daze, barefoot into the desert. I was starting to go a bit crazy and so was everything around me. The waves were gnarly and unforgiving, my leg got slashed by my fins and I got stung across my chest by a jellyfish. Some wild dogs attacked me and there was a great storm that destroyed the tent in the middle of the night causing us to make a wild scramble to the closest palapa. There was a wild fight that I got involved in, trying to break it up, between some of the Mexican workers and some Americans. It just seemed like everything was getting churned up and was ready to explode. Anna and I head to La Paz for a day to escape the storm that was brewing and to break up the monotony of the last few days. The tropical storm found us anyway and La Paz turned into a river. We head back to Todos Santos and Carsten’s palace for shelter.
That night I cooked pasta with chorizo which was to be the death of me. In the middle of the night I started getting chronic cramps which would eventuate into full on food poisoning, streaming sweats, shivering then burning, throwing up, my body contorting in wild directions, whimpering in the foetal position praying for sleep or for this demon inside me to pass. I remember scrambling outside into the garden in a semi lucid state, sweating and shivering, collapsing into a tree. Apparently I slept for two days after that only managing to get out of bed to use the toilet. I don’t remember much of it. There are little flickers of Carsten helping me out of bed, the blades of the ceiling fan, Anna with a cool face cloth. But it was all a bit warped and hazy. Anna left for the East coast with some other kiwis we had met in Punta Conejo and had been hanging out with a fair bit at the Pescadero surf camp. I had a bleary half awake good bye hug and she was gone.
As soon as I got better Carsten drove me down to San Pedrito where my board had snapped. It was his 40th birthday so we surfed it in with silence. I had a moment, fully realising this was my last surf in Baja and became overwhelmed by emotion as the sun rose and caught on the offshore spray of the waves. It was the same view that I had taken in that day my board broke, which seemed like years ago. The little burnt out palapa still stood where we had slept. I was skinny as a rake and had no money. I had to get back to San Diego somehow. Carsten dropped me on the edge of town and gave me a little bit of money. He gave me that “god speed you poor bastard” type of look and he was off. I hitched to Loreto to find Rodolpho my Mexican friend from Coyote Cals. All I had to find him were his phone number (no answer) and trailer number in a town of trailer parks.
After a fruitless search, I slept on the beach with no tent and was held at knife point by a drunken Mexican who soon realised I had nothing worth stealing and spat on me before wavering off into the night. A little bit shaken I chain smoked to keep me awake and to keep my mind off my enormous hunger and the fear of getting more knives in my face. A few hours into the night another figure stumbled my way. His name was Emilio and he promised to be my securidad. I was too tired to argue and if he was really planning to kill me when I fell asleep then so be it. I woke suddenly at sunrise over a calm Loreto Bay, the mountains and isles silhouetted. And there was Emilio drinking a beer standing at the foot of my sleeping bag. He smiled and repeated “securidad”. Amazing. He threw me a beer. I hadn’t eaten for almost two days and the beer was difficult to get down. I gave Emilio three t shirts and thanked him before having a shower in the sea and heading into town to continue my hitch.
I was so incredibly weak and had spent the last of my pesos. On my walk back to town I had to take three breaks to catch my breath and sit down. I was almost delirious as I head to a Banamex Banco ATM cubicle and put in my card knowing it was empty but praying for a miracle. I looked at my bank account and let out a whimper. My eyes watered up, I opened my mouth to say something but nothing would come out. There, in front of me, was a figure telling me I had muchos muchos deneros. My fingers shook as I withdrew money, scared that it could disappear at any moment. But it delivered clean crisp notes so easily that I gasped, then laughed, then cried, then laughed. As it turns out, my final pay check from my job in Hawaii had been sent to my Mum who had banked it “just in case I needed it”. I almost ran to the closest food stall and inhaled a sandwich and some juice, threw it up, and then ordered another. I bought a ticket to Ensenada where I thought I might stay in a hostel and treat myself to a night on the town in celebration. I wandered through the streets of Loreto, buying more food at every corner, my bags safe in storage in the bus terminal. I felt like a real tourist. For once on this trip I wasn’t hauling a giant back, sweating bucket loads trying to get a ride to the next beach. I looked in shops, bought trinkets and complimented paintings in little stalls. I had a beer on the promenade. I felt like an entirely different person. Before long I was sitting on an air conditioned bus on comfortable clean cushioned seats as Shrek played in dubbed Mexican from a little TV by the driver’s seat. It was a bizarre state of affairs as we drove past Santa Roselia and Mulege where I had slept in the truck, through the desert where I had crashed. It was like a little montage of the entire trip. Of someone else’s trip. I imagined all the characters I had met standing on the side of the road as I passed. All the people I had met and lifts I had got. I watched no movie, read no book or wrote any words. I just stared out at the countryside which had hosted me for a while.
I woke in Tijuana. I had slept passed the Ensenada stop and now was at the bustling terminal buying a ticket first thing in the morning to San Diego. I was once more hauling my bags in the early morning chaos trying to get on the right bus. Then, quite suddenly, and without warning I was sitting with a bagel and cream cheese and a large frothy coffee in downtown San Diego, with cops behind me laughing “Just one more day of weekend Frank, it’s all I need” “Mondays are never easy Jerry, never easy.” I was back in the thriving metropolis of downtown San Diego. A security guard even told me to not sit on a seat outside a massive glossy building. I guess I looked homeless.
Pretty soon I was In New York working in a Bar in downtown Manhattan and living with hipsters in Brooklyn. The Baja trip seemed like it was done by a different person in a different world. One evening I went with some friends to a rooftop Mexican bar where a mariachi band wailed out into the night and pitchers of margaritas were flowing freely. We were sitting around a big wooden table laughing and telling stories. One girl drawled “I would looooove to go to Mexico” and before long the table was bubbling with talk of spring break trips to Cabo san Lucas and Tijuana. I sipped my beer and listened to their stories before the conversation was swung in a different direction. I silently slipped out and leant against the balcony with the New York skyline in the distance. I have been to Mexico. I said it out loud to myself just to hear it. It felt like a secret. Was I making it up? I couldn’t begin to tell my story, where would I start? How could I explain a journey of this magnitude? Did I need to? But I had done it, that I knew. And that was enough. Maybe I’ll write about it one day. I smiled to myself as I turned back to the fiesta on this rooftop in Brooklyn.