I slept in a hammock in a boat shed for a month and tried to surf. This is how it went.
I felt lonely.
I stood alone in the dust at kilometro 64 and watched the bus rumble flatulently down the highway before turning to climb the small hill to El Pescadero Surf Camp. I’m sure I’d seen advertised somewhere that the camp was ‘always open’ but as I cupped my hands over my eyes to peer through the locked glass door I saw that even this early in the afternoon the reception was empty. I walked past the office into the camp for a brief recon. I didn’t meet a soul, neither guest nor employee, but I noticed the side door to the office was open. It was cool inside and given my lack of car and cell phone, I decided to nap on the couch and hope someone would show up to check me in. Good thing I brought snacks.
My requirements for accommodation in Baja were economy and proximity to a consistent break. I struggled until I discovered that El Pescadero Surf Camp offers camping for $10 per night and is close to Los Cerritos, a great beginner wave. When the owner, Jamie, showed up briefly a few hours later he invited me to hang my hammock wherever I liked. There was a shaded rooftop with a beautiful view but the wind made it too cold to sleep so I opted instead for a palapa which was being used to store a boat. Despite the dust and slight ammonia funk it was sheltered and a little more private. After settling in I realised I’d forgotten to ask where to find groceries or how to get to the beach. Feeling lonely and questioning my decision to come to Pescadero, I set out in the waning light to wander the deserted neighbourhood in search of food and information.
I overcame my isolation and uncertainty.
Over the next few days I settled into my weird new home. I discovered that I’d come at the beginning of the off-season but although I was usually the only person staying at the surf camp, I met plenty of people at the beach. I found a grocery store, bought a cheap, beat-up surfboard and hitched to the beach every day. When local Mexicans picked me up they were shocked, “No tiene un carro? You don’t have a car?” “No, solo tengo dos pies y una tabla. Nope, just two feet and a surfboard.”
My goal for the month was to learn to surf; I wanted to leave Baja confident that I could paddle out into an easy break and catch a few waves. Oh, and I wanted a six-pack.
I hustled to save money.
After a scavenging animal broke into my food stash at the camp I found a cooler. My meals usually consisted of tacos with some combination of vegemite (breakfast tacos, duh), avocado, sweet pepper, tomato, onion, garlic and refried beans. On the days I didn’t bring my own lunch to the beach the only food there was outrageously expensive. I discovered that if I bought the 65 peso guacamole and ate all the chips without finishing my guac or salsas, they would bring me more chips. For free.
I also happened to be right in time for mango season. Free mangoes are cheaper than 65 peso guac so after stripping the trees at the surf camp I scoured the neighbourhood for trees in vacant lots. I made it my mission to not let a single mango in Pescadero go bad. I considered selling them at the beach for guac money. And yeah, I pooped a lot.
I made friends and experienced the generosity of strangers.
I bought a board from a rad dude called Primitivo (what a great name!) who lived with his wife Mari in an RV beside the beach. He gave surf lessons and they rented boards, wetsuits and umbrellas. I couldn’t afford to pay for an umbrella but they let me use one anyway. There was no shade and the sun was brutal so without this generosity I couldn’t have stayed at the beach more than an hour or two each day. Primitivo gave me tips on conditions and technique and when he thought I’d progressed enough he let me borrow different boards for free. Mari spoke rapid Spanish which I rarely understood but chattered constantly anyway and smiled a lot. She had a tiny, pathetic little scrap of a puppy which she carried around and fawned over like a newborn. The puppy was jet black. Eventually she named her “Whitey” and giggled every time she said it.
I met the ‘BC crew’ on my first day at the beach. I basically crashed their vacation. K-Tan, Sam and Pete were visiting for two weeks from our shared home of British Columbia. We bonded over wipeouts, mojitos and shark attacks.
One night I stayed late at the beach and had to walk back after sunset. It was a 45 minute walk on a dark dirt road. I met a couple walking in the same direction. Oswaldo and Claudia were carrying recyclables they’d collected on the beach to exchange for the deposits. They clearly didn’t have much money to support their family. We chatted and I helped carry their bags. They tried to go out of their way to accompany me all the way back to the surf camp but I insisted I would be fine. Claudia kept saying something about mangos which I misinterpreted as an offer to sell me mangos at the beach. I happily agreed. I looked for them at the beach the next day but didn’t see them until they came to the surf camp after sunset and gave me a giant bag of mangos. They brought more the next day.
Emelie, like me, spent most of her days at the beach. We kept each other company in the water, shared mangos on the beach, made delicious dinners and held deep conversations about, well, dudes obviously.
I started to get to know more of the people who made their living on the beach. Armando rented equipment, Goyo and Burrito did surf lessons and George gave massages. George worked at the beach every day with his mother and sister but never got in the water. He wanted to learn to surf but kept telling me that he wasn’t ready yet; he was working out so he could get stronger and fitter first. I pestered him every day about borrowing a board and going for a paddle and a few days before I left, he finally gave in and joined me in the water.
One evening after a storm Goyo and I went out together. The currents were so strong that two swimmers had been rescued in separate incidents earlier in the day. There were also some unpredictable swells so Goyo was yelling back at me when he thought I needed to paddle harder to make it past a wave. I had just caught up with him when a monster wave quietly stood up in front of us. Instead of telling me to paddle harder, he just yelled “Dive! Swim!” and then ditched his board and dove. I followed and came up safely behind the wave. When I spotted Goyo he had a shocked expression on his face and held up the end of his leash so I could see why. The leash had snapped and his board was gone. Considering the conditions he would have been in trouble if he’d been alone. We were both exhausted when we got back to the beach after paddling in together on my board, dodging waves that bore down on us from behind.
Jamie, the owner of the surf camp, always looked out for me. He started calling me Hammock Girl and checked in whenever he saw me. It seemed like every single person I met knew Jamie one way or another. He was a great connection to have in Pescadero.
Mark had a rough start to his vacation. By the time I met him he was on day 3 or 4 of his trip but due to some unlikely and unfortunate experiences he hadn’t yet been for a surf. We managed to get a few in before he left and also snuck in a cheeky trip to the East Cape where we made campfires, slept on the beach and Mark made a mango salsa which I strongly endorse.
I discovered who my true friends were AKA Pete is a jerk.
I went on a trip to the East Cape with the BC crew I met on the first day at the beach. We rented an AirBnB above a wave called Shipwrecks. The weather was perfect so I slept on the roof. Each night I drifted to sleep in the Milky Way and each morning woke to a glorious sunrise.
Shipwrecks is more difficult to surf than Los Cerritos and with a rocky bottom I didn’t feel super confident but I paddled out anyway and mostly watched the others catch waves. At the end of one session, about to paddle in, Sam pointed past my shoulder and I looked back in time to see two fins crest the water and then quickly submerge. After a moment of abject fear my rational brain took note of the behaviour and shape of the fins and figured it was probably dolphins. Glancing back at Sam and Pete and seeing the looks of pure horror on their faces shattered this conclusion. As they sprinted to shore I screamed after them, ‘Pete! DON’T LEAVE ME!’ Without slowing down he yelled back, ‘PADDLE! Keep your ankles out of the water!’ When I stumbled to shore with red eyes (from the sun and salt water, not because I was crying like a baby) they acted cool and said that it probably wasn’t sharks.
My body changed.
Nope, I didn’t get a six-pack even though I like, totally earned one. Instead I turned my body into an atlas of bruises. Continental contusions adorned my legs and a volcanic archipelago of insect bites linked my right shoulder with my ribs. On my thigh a slash from my fin left a small laceration like a border defining the boundary between two warring nations of bruises. A landslide of board rash covered my knees.
I witnessed some awesome surflife hacks.
Sitting at the beach Goyo asked if I had a knife to open his avocado. I didn’t so he shrugged and used the fin of a surfboard. Yussss!
Armando and Burrito live on the second floor of a hotel. They use a plastic jug tied to the end of a long pole with a surfboard leash to fish for mangoes in the giant tree beside their balcony. Legen… dary.
I learned to surf.
I learned to surf! I spent most of the month just paddling. Paddling to get past the break, paddling to escape the impact zone where waves are constantly smashing on top of your head, paddling to catch a wave that always seemed to elude me. Towards the end I finally managed to put it all together and started consistently stealing clean rides. This quote from Wilma Johnson nicely sums up my thoughts each time I caught a wave:
“In a moment I might be under the wave swallowing seawater and small jellyfish, but right now I am an ancient princess of Hawaii, I am a bikini model, I am a goddess before the crest of a monster billow.”