Read Part I of this story here.
Condescension is one of the things I hate about trying to learn new physical skills. I tend to be a slow learner, and I don’t pick up new movements quickly. As a kid I was always the worst player on every team and that extends to adulthood as well. At any sporting event, I’m always the one that sucks the most. I’ve gotten pretty good at laughing off my own awkwardness, but I hate it when people call attention to how bad I am. Most people who do this are just trying to be nice–they act super encouraging (and/or surprised) when I actually get something right. This drives me crazy. For instance, if I manage to hit a volleyball more or less in the direction of the net, I do not want someone to slap me on the back and tell me what an awesome job I’ve done. If I score a point? Sure, high five…But I don’t like to be cheered on for pulling off the bare minimum badly. I knew Jazmin would never pull any punches with me. She laughs at my foolish gringa ways all the time, and I’ve come to expect that from her, so I knew it wouldn’t bother me when she laughed at my ineptitude on the surfboard. I thought I had it all figured out.
Unfortunately, Marcos and Jazmin took off for the water while I was still waxing my board.
“Fantastico will show you the ropes!” Marcos said over his shoulder. I glanced over at the “eccentric” old surfer, who was engrossed in explaining an elaborate conspiracy theory to Gina. “I know it sounds implausible,” he said. “But think about it, man…That’s what makes me think it’s true. I mean sounding implausible is the perfect cover. Do you get it?”
By the time, I got down to the water with my board, Jazmin and Marcos were way out, leaving me, Gina, and Rich to Fantastico’s mercy. I couldn’t blame Marcos and Jazmin–we were going to look dumb as hell in the water and we’d definitely get in their way. They were providing us with boards, a beach, and a teacher; I could hardly complain.
The beach was dark sand with rocky shoals, and it was a long way out to the break. I started wading out. When we were barely over knee deep in the water, Fantastic jumped on his board and started paddling.
“Come on!” He shouted. “Start paddling now! If you keep walking you might step on a stingray!”
I balked at this. I was not relishing the idea of attempting to paddle myself and the giant long board all the way out through the surf with my scrawny chicken-wing arms. Also, stingrays have never stopped me from hanging out in the water. I smiled and nodded at Fantastico, but I kept walking through the surf, pushing the board along in the water beside me, diligently shuffling my feet to let the rays know I was coming*. I knew if I could walk the board out further or even swim for awhile, I’d save myself time and energy.
“Get on the board! Hurry!” Fantastico barked, looking over his shoulder as he propelled himself out to sea at an astonishing clip. Gina and Rich, also new to surfing, had already obeyed, and were both lumbering in his wake.
Noting the mad gleam in his bright little eyes, I caved to pressure and launched myself forward onto the board, which wobbled back and forth crazily. I frantically shifted my weight on the slick surface and nearly plunged myself back into the water. A wave broke, sending a wall of white water rushing my way. I slid back on the board and only just managed to maneuver the board’s nose up to prevent myself from submersion. My shorts rode up as I thrashed impotently forward at a speed of about an inch every thirty seconds. The board continued to wobble back and forward. Why hadn’t I paid more attention to the paddling in Point Break?
Rich and Gina didn’t look super graceful, but they were having a bit better luck. Fantastico slowed down to watch me. He looked concerned.
“Don’t use your legs!” he shouted helpfully. “Arms! Arms!”
I’m not. If I was fucking using my legs I’d be moving forward. I ground my teeth quietly.
He paddled back to me and, in a voice oozing sympathy, advised me: “I can see that you’re trying really hard, and you’re doing great, but I think this area is going to be too difficult for you, okay? The ocean can be scary if you aren’t familiar with it. Why don’t you just go down the beach to where it’s calmer? Okay, now?”
He sounded like he was talking to a recalcitrant five year-old. I almost bit him. I wanted to explain to him that I’ve grown up in the ocean, that I’ve spent more time in the waves than either Rich or Gina, that I like waves, that I’m a strong swimmer. Just because I couldn’t paddle the damn surf board didn’t mean that I wasn’t capable of holding my own in the ocean.
“I’m fine!” I said through clenched teeth as I attempted to pull my shorts out of my ass crack. “I’m just fine.”
He sighed and paddled off, shaking his head. I was happy when he became distracted by barking suggestions at Gina; I slipped back into the white water and swam, pulling the board along with one arm. When I got close to the break, I waited till a lull between waves before I climbed back up. By the time the next wave came, I was far enough out that I was actually able to paddle my way over a giant swell.
I had no illusions about standing up on the board or actually catching a wave, but I hoped to hang out on the other side of the break, where I could watch the way the waves worked and also, with any luck, observe the other surfers to learn their mystical secrets.
Every beach has a different wave pattern. At Tenacatita, where I grew up swimming, I can read the waves. Every time I swim at a different beach, I’m careful to assess the scene. I look for riptides, I’m wary of the undertow, and I spend some time watching the sets. If the beach isn’t super dangerous, I get comfortable pretty quickly, but it’s still different from swimming in the familiar waters of home.
Surfing added a whole new element to this game. I’ve never spent much time at surf beaches, and the pattern of waves is totally different. Basically, the waves speak another language. At Tenacatita, I can look at a wave and know if it will be good to body surf, but I soon realized I didn’t know crap about assessing a wave for board surfing. I hung back and watched Jazmin catch wave after wave, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the common denominator was. The real surfers always ignored the waves that looked promising to me.
Despite Fantastico’s absolutely annoying teaching style, the guy could surf. He was tireless and graceful, zipping along through an azure tube and nipping back up at the last minute to avoid plummeting into the white water. Unfortunately, he was still taking his teaching job seriously, and when he saw me hanging out offshore he paddled back toward me at a staggering clip.
“Get back!” He yelled, waving his arms frantically. “You’re too far out! You need to stay in closer to shore! There’s ocean currents!”
Yes, of course there’s ocean currents. I’m in the freaking ocean. I gritted my teeth, smiled, and reigned myself in. Although I felt pretty comfortable where I was, I knew Fantastico had a point: I didn’t know the currents at this beach. Although I might swim out a mile at Tenacatita with no problem, this beach was different and maybe it really was dangerous to be this far out. Calm down. The crazy old surfer is just trying to help you.
I followed Fantastico back closer to shore. Watching him, I realized that I was paddling with my arms way too far out from the board. By mimicking Fantastico’s style, I found that I could actually propel myself forward instead of just wallowing back and forth. A major breakthrough. I practiced paddling for awhile, and eventually even got comfortable enough to balance on my knees. Yes! Obviously, I looked like a complete badass!
Eventually I actually attempted to catch a few waves, with disastrous results. First I panicked and bailed at the last minute; I let go of my leash and watched my board shoot ten feet up into the air (I was lucky it didn’t kill somebody). Next, I actually stood up for a second but then nose dived directly into the white water, and ended up getting cycled through the surf a couple of times before I managed to come up for air. On my third attempt, I got knocked into the surf again and bludgeoned myself in the head with the board. I decided to call it a day. I marched out of the surf feeling like I’d been hit by a Primera Plus bus.
“You going back for more tomorrow?” Marcos asked from the shade of the palapa. I limped up and leaned the board against the hut. I wrung some sand out of my hair and tugged at the waistband of my shorts, which were once again riding up around my ribs.
“Yeah,” I said without thinking.
Marcos looked amused. I couldn’t blame him. But when I sat down and thought about it, I realized that in addition to feeling like I’d spent three hours in a washing machine/tanning bed, I also felt…proud. Not proud of my own abilities or proud that I’d kept my cool with Fantastico (which I really hadn’t), but proud that I’d allowed myself to look so totally idiotic. Proud that I hadn’t marched out of the water right away. Proud that I’d eventually gotten over my irritation with Fantastico enough to actually learn something from him. I’d managed to look consummately uncool doing something that was supposedly consummately cool, and really…I was actually cool with that.
*Supposedly this helps: the sand you kick up lets the rays know you are on your way, and they scoot out of the way.