‘Lets go surfing now, everybody’s learnin’ how…’. Emma said we should all go surfing because it would be fun. I thought it sounded fun too before thinking it also sounded dangerous. What if Amy or Oliver got caught in a rip, sucked out to sea and had a leg bitten off by a shark! I said nothing though because I have come to recognise that, for the most part, my fears bear little relationship to reality.
We headed to Sayulita in Mexico for a week of surfing lessons… we picked Mexico because Mexican food is a favourite for the four of us and Amy and Oliver would never have forgiven us if we had dragged them around the world without stopping in to try the real thing. That and because it was only a short flight from Los Angeles and because I was curious to find out if they really do say, ‘hey amigo…’.
I felt upbeat as we alighted in Puerto Vallarta and not because we were greeted with ‘hey amigo’ by a friendly local. I felt upbeat because gone was the neat and orderly environment of the first world. The USA is wonderful. The National Parks are great and Disney was a hoot, but there is a sameness to it born of ubiquitous franchised outlets which can make one town difficult to differentiate from the next. Seen one Walmart and you’ve seen them all.
Mexico on the other hand, called to mind the ramshackle randomness, the unexpected ever changing sights, sounds, smells and colours of South East Asia, India, Jordan and other places we’ve been. An hour’s drive out of Puerto Vallarta through jungle clad hills is the seaside village of Sayulita. Off the main road, a potholed dirt street twisted its way through brightly coloured, rough and ready buildings, some complete but many with reo rod still poking heavenward awaiting the addition of concrete that will most likely never be poured.
Our hotel was one block back from the beach on a dusty cobble stoned street. Tourists on horseback mingled with tourists in golf carts, pedestrians, low slung utes laden with random goods, clapped out old cars and shiny new ones. Locals and Gringo’s stroll the streets side by side and when you sit down for an evening meal fire twirlers compete for space on the road with restaurant seating, guitar playing La Bamba singers, street dogs and cars.
Sayulita, as one Texan we met put it, is like the USA’s Byron Bay – an observation I was forced to concede due to repeated offers of weed everywhere I went on every occasion I had occasion to go anywhere without Emma, Amy and Oliver.
Surfing started straight away the next morning, not in Sayulita itself but a twenty-minute drive through the jungle to the beaches of Punta de Mita. Here, Wildmex operates out of a shopfront next to a service station and a small general store on the side of a lonely stretch of highway.
We were introduced to our instructors Dana and Julio and after pulling on rash shirts which Emma thought were too small and I thought showed off my fine physique we crossed the road with surfboards on our heads before disappearing into thick scrub on a thin and muddy sliver of a track. The beach was a ten-minute walk away, which to my delight meant there was no road or cars anywhere in sight when we reached the water.
Dana and Julio soon had us on our bellies on our oversize foam long boards which shrieked ‘beginner’ to all the surfing world, not that anybody cared. ‘Pop up’ they would call as we lay there pretending to paddle on the sand like a turtle flopped over on its back and going nowhere. When they called out we all pushed up and tried as quickly as possible to drag our feet into position on the board in a low crouch.
I know we looked ridiculous because I’ve watched others do it and they looked ridiculous. The thing is though, if you can’t pop up on the land you can’t pop up when you’re at sea and if you can’t pop up at sea then you can’t ride a wave and I for one really wanted to know what it felt like to ride a wave of green, unbroken water, on my feet and in full command of my vessel.
So… I pushed aside all feelings of self-consciousness and popped with all the enthusiasm I could muster. We all did, until sometime later Dana and Julio deemed we had popped enough and it was time to seek the waves. My parental instincts abandoned me in my haste to try my hand on the burgeoning swells. I cast Amy and Oliver aside to deal as they would with the currents and the sharks while I paddled for open water with gay abandon.
In fact, Amy and Oliver were in good hands. Dana it turns out is a Slovakian physicist (a wave physicist even) who had just been interviewed by a professor at a Melbourne university looking for assistance in his efforts to optimise the power output of wave generators. Who better to teach surfing? She took Amy and Julio took Oliver while keeping only a sideways eye on Emma and I.
The water was balmy and meant we never got hot and we never got cold. Bobbing around out the back waiting for a wave, we (or at least I) had not a care in the world, but rather cast our eyes around and lost ourselves in the scenery.
Beyond the beach dusty blue hills silhouetted themselves against the horizon. There was scarcely any development to be seen other than a row of resorts off to the side on an adjoining bay.
I lost track of the others almost immediately on that first day as my ambition lead me to exceed my ability and to paddle well out into the depths to line up for my first wave. I felt it pick me up from behind as I paddled for shore and I pushed my already tired arms to pop me up onto my feet. As I accelerated on the wave however, I overbalanced and started falling backwards. At the same time the nose of the board dived straight into the wave slowing its progress and leaving me on my own to contest with the surface tension of the water.
Surface tension was no match and I was quickly underwater whereupon the wave broke on top of me and I felt myself pushed deeper by the downward spiral of water which dove towards the sandy bottom with a force that wasn’t going to take no for an answer. It turned me over once or thrice and forced water up my nose. I came up gasping and through bleary eyes saw Amy or Oliver, I’m not sure which, standing and riding a wave to the shore.
Amy and Oliver took to catching waves in no time, as you would expect of persons yet to attain full altitude and with balance forged on a unicycle. Their only issue was sufficient strength paddle their boards back out through the breakers. It was more difficult for me to track Emma’s progress absorbed as I was in my own, but each time I remembered to look she appeared to be on her feet and smiling as often as not. Surf, smile, repeat. Surf, smile, repeat. So said the Wildmex T-shirts and so it went.
Two hours passed in a flash and we all retired to the beach exhausted but exhilarated. Streams of water dripped involuntarily from my sinuses whereupon I tilted my head in any way other than upright.
We had six lessons altogether, one of which I missed because I was laid up in bed wishing I was dead. There is a sewage plant which empties into a creek right in the middle of Sayulita and this in turn drains into the ocean right where most people swim. We swam there once too. But only once. It was a shame really because it is a pretty little bay which beckons you on to dive beneath the waves.
By the last lesson I had dropped down from a gigantuan foam long board that turned about as fast as the Titanic to a hard top upon which I was happily dropping down the front of waves and turning (gracefully in my mind) to cut along in front of the unfurling white water. Emma, Amy and Oliver were doing the same. We had all shifted from spectators to surfers.
It was brilliant and my mind toyed with selling up everything and moving to Mexico to live on Gringo Hill behind Sayulita and surfing for the rest of my life. I suspect I may have had some support for this, especially after the day we surfed with the sea turtles. They swam with us for at least an hour, swimming straight under Emma and Oliver’s boards and surfacing just metres from my own.
The surfing combined with the food was enough for Amy and Oliver to proffer the view that Mexico may be their favourite country. We ate at a stack of different places, but ‘Bueno dias amigos’ greeted us every time we sat down. They do say ‘hey amigos’ in Mexico.
We had three days in Sayulita after our surfing lessons came to an end and at first I wasn’t sure what we would do. The days however, they just slip by – rising late, strolling the beach, reading books visiting the local restaurants (super cheap and delicious) and swimming as far away as possible from the creek with the sewage water in it.
One evening as we were still swimming while the sun went down we noticed a crowd gathering further up the beach for no apparent reason. Investigation revealed sea turtle hatchlings by the dozens being released to the sea. A local community group runs around during the breeding season gathering up all the sea turtle eggs from the sand before poachers get them. They incubate them under watchful eyes and then release them to the sea.
We watched in fascination as the cute little critters flopped their way down the steep sandy beach before being swept up by a vicious shore break which sent them flying in all directions before they ultimately cleared the waves and disappeared to whatever fate has in store. Only one in a thousand will live to return and lay their own eggs.
Twelve days went by in a flash and before we knew it we were on our way again. Next stop. Belize.
PS. The surfing photos in this post were taken by Elma from Wildmex – she was great.