Thursday, October 7, 2010

Travel Tales: Lessons from the Ocean

A few months back I was backpacking through Oaxaca after a long Chicago winter and some lovely adventures through the chilly mountains of San Jose del Pacifico.

 Finally, we arrived at the beach.  I was so excited to smell the salty breeze, watch the endless blue waves colliding and feel the soft sand beneath my feet.  After a five hour drive from the mountains I was ready for a swim.

Oaxaca is not known for its beaches to tourists largely because of its huge waves.  It is, however, known as a hot spot for surfers.

Excited and brash as I was, I ran into the ocean swimming past the surfers with such rigor you’d have thought I was in a race.  I wanted to get to that spot in the ocean where the waters are calm and everything in front of you is as never-ending as the blue sky on a clear day.   My best friend and adventure partner, Kristin, was back on the beach and dusk was quickly approaching; I started to swim back to shore.

Nearing the shoreline I didn’t feel content enough with swimming past the surfers.  My soul yearned for another adventure with the ocean and when I saw the wave coming I knew how to pursue it.  My feet were touching the oceans floor barely and then comfortably as the tide washed ashore.  The next thing I knew I jumped and the ten-foot wave pulled me under.

Immediately my body hurled and tossed about violently – I thrashed around trying to break the ocean’s surface.  I felt as thought I had been punched in the throat, esophagus and the very pit of my stomach all at once.  I was in survival mode and I don’t remember much other than somehow surfacing, heaving heavily and in a complete state of panic – fearful that breath would never return to my body fully.

A Spanish couple came to my aid asking if I was alright.  I of course, embarrassed and clinging despartely to my autonomy, lied and said I was fine.  The ocean had just caught my off guard (translation:  I almost fuckin’ died and am majorly freaking out right now).  They then told me about the blood on my chin.  I rinsed it with the salt water for them to see.  Their faces were all I needed to see to know I needed to go to a hospital.

Finally, on solid ground I searched for my friends.  Nothing is as awkward as running towards these two guys you had just met (and yet thought appropriate to travel with them in their car for the past four days) half naked and in panic holding your hand over your bloody face. 

We got back into the car as they tried to comfort me.  My best friend by my side helping me put a shirt on through my crying.  We arrived at the village doctor ten minutes later who cleaned my wound and told me I’d be needing stitches.  My gut reaction was to ask when I would be able to go back into the ocean.  He replied that I wouldn’t be able to for at least seven to ten days while the wound healed.  He also mentioned he had no thread and referred us half an hour away to the nearest hospital.

When we arrived at the hospital there was quite the line with injuries much more severe than mine.  An indigenous couple tipped us about a doctor in town who could take me right away.  Back into the car we went.  It was at this precise moment that I knew: these guys were not my new travel companions for just a couple of days, these guys were my friends

In town and at the doctor’s office he worked quickly and efficiently while Kristin supervised his stitch-work (I was close to having Kristin stitch me twenty minutes earlier).  I walked out bandaged up and happy to see our friends again.
A few days after getting stitched

Right before leaving Mexico City 10 days later.
This scar on my chin represents many things to me:

I am damn lucky.  At some point when you walk through a sleepy beach town with a bandage covering half your face, the locals start to recognize you.  I like talking to new people so I explained what had happened.  They then proceeded to tell me horror stories about stupid tourists, people who don’t know how to respect the ocean and how tons of visitor die each year from broken necks and drowning because of the current.    I felt much better about not being able to swim for ten days after that conversation.

Respect the Ocean!  She is far more powerful than any one person can even imagine and although she was easy on me this time I understand her power more than I did before – on a level that DEMANDS respect, fear and gratitude.

Friendship can be found in the places you least expect.  I remember before heading into the ocean being slightly nervous about leaving my wallet in the car.  How ironic that when push came to shove these boys took care of me as well or better than friends who have known me my whole life would have.

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