Learning to Surf in Puerto Escondido
I open my eyes and all I see is grayish-blue water, all around, up and down, swallowing me completely. I hit the bottom and feel the sand scratching my back, then my knees. I look everywhere, desperate to differentiate up from down, trying to touch solid ground with my feet so I can push myself out. I’m looking and searching while I swallow more than a few glasses of seawater; the strength in my arms is almost completely expended. I feel like I’m about to run out of the last oxygen reserves my lungs can offer.
Just when I feel like there is no end to this torture, my head finds the surface and I rise to take the biggest breath I possibly can. Feeling depleted of energy already, I wish to lie in the beach for a few moments to compose myself and recuperate physically, but I know the struggle isn’t over. I look around, spot the next upcoming wave, find my board, and prepare myself for what could be my ride out, or another one to knock me down. I need my focus, I need my strength, and, while it feels like my body cannot respond to the struggle anymore, I manage to harness every last inch of will I have to surf that wave out into safety.
I’m not a surfer. Far from it. But I recently moved to Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s a town known by many, visited by some, and understood by very few. Puerto is a haven for surfers all around the world. Beaches like Zicatela and La Punta provide near-perfect conditions for world-class surfers. It is a place with a very unique mix of visitors and residents, and people from every corner of this planet find themselves coming here for its waves, pristine beaches, and untarnished villages. Unlike most beach destinations in Mexico, this is a place where people who appreciate the beauty and exquisiteness of unspoiled nature and simple living find a path to wellbeing.
I moved here to be with my fiancé, who was lucky to find a job opportunity in this magnificent place. He loves to surf, and part of his idea of a picture-perfect life in La Punta is both of us walking along the beach with our boards, giddily excited to ride those beautiful, albeit terrifying, waves.
It was totally exhausting but it gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction to know I had actually surfed–if being pushed by another person into a crashing wave and falling down as I attempted to stand on top of the board counts as surfing.
Knowing how important this is to him (and after listening to countless reasons why surfing is the best thing that has happened to humanity), I decided to give it a try. The first few times weren’t absolutely terrible; the water behaved nicely and I had an instructor who spent half his time rescuing me from my own inability to grab the board strongly enough to not be pulled in the opposite direction of where the surfing actually happens.
During these tries I got knocked over, rolled around a few times, found my way back to the surface and continued listening to my fiancé’s and the instructor’s directions on how to do it better next time. It was totally exhausting but it gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction to know I had actually surfed–if being pushed by another person into a crashing wave and falling down as I attempted to stand on top of the board counts as surfing.
After these half-attempts to surf in half-mellow waters, a day came when I didn’t half-surf and the sea wasn’t half mellow. On this day, I went without an instructor into a dangerously choppy sea, not yet knowing what it felt like to drown. The sea that day knocked me off my board and showed me its full strength as I fought fiercely to stay afloat long enough to breathe and plan a strategy out of the danger zone.
I’m not a stranger to swimming. As a child, I trained from a very early age by my swimmer dad who competed, and won, at national meets and spent his weekends at the pool with his daughters. As a teenager, I joined the high school varsity swimming team and traveled around Texas competing with and for my school. Swimming has always been a second-nature activity for me. But the ocean is a strange creature whose personality makes swimming a whole different kind of sport.
When I moved to Puerto, I was thrilled to be living ten minutes’ walking distance from the beach. Going to swim there by myself or with my fiancé was pretty much the most exciting thing on the planet, and got me dove-eyed and smiling the whole way from my apartment to the water. To prepare me for my surfing lessons, my fiancé likes to put on his coach cap and believe (pretend) he’s a “pro”, teaching me how the water behaves and what one is supposed to do as the waves approach. The first few times I got pretty nasty sand scratches as I half-assed my attempts to “break” the waves with my body, and was thrown out like a small seashell in hurricane turbulence. As the hysterical screams of my coach very early on informed me, “breaking” the waves with the body is not the smartest move when dealing with hundreds of gallons of water shoving you with the strength of, well, hundreds of gallons of water.
His master lesson was to NOT attempt to fight the wave but swim through it with full strength, to come out on the other side as gracefully and lively (or at least as alive) as I had gone in. Waves and seawater are not something we are naturally equipped to face—unlike things such as warm, sunny beach sands, the shade of palm trees, and fresh coconut water. As I finished my lesson, my coach and I lay down on the warm sand, basking in the shade of a pretty awesome palm-tree-looking umbrella, drinking a freshly prepared piña colada from a coconut. And that’s when it clicked. I realized how similar learning to surf is to learning to deal with life.
As the hysterical screams of my coach very early on informed me, “breaking” the waves with the body is not the smartest move when dealing with hundreds of gallons of water shoving you with the strength of, well, hundreds of gallons of water.
Challenges in our everyday lives are like waves that roll on consistently and continuously throughout our stay on this planet. We are like surfers, each of us equipped with boards of all shapes, shades, and sizes, to help us ride the ups, downs, and stillness that life throws at us.
Each wave that comes at us is a challenge that life presents, and our job is not to fight it with all our might. Our job is to immerse ourselves fully in the experience, in order to continue moving forward and to develop further grit, perseverance, and strength. We are equipped with various tools to help us through this journey—our character, personality, and pretty impressive brains are wonderful instruments that cannot only save us from the worst rolling over, but can help us exquisitely surf monstrous waves.
Surfing, more than a sport, is truly an art; an art that mimics life. Looking at the sea that day, it dawned on me that life, like the majestic ocean, is not something to fight ferociously, but an art to master with patience, trust, and grace. Like Layne Beachley said during her TEDx talk, “It is our setbacks and our obstacles that provide us with the foundation of resilience. And it’s resilience what’s gonna enable [us] to overcome these challenges time, and time, and time again.”