Surfing, Theoretical Mathematics And Jesus

Me and the Queen MaryFirst morning in El Salvador. Got the drop on three waves, didn’t ride them long. Out of shape and out of practice. Surfing is decidedly not like riding a bike. You lose skills when you don’t use them. But it was fun. As a buddy I met at Popoyo in 2009 says, “El Tunco’s a nice easy right off the point.” And that’s exactly what it was: as it breaks off the point it’s then a long slow roller even novices like me can ride. They call it Sunzal or El Tunco (the name seems to be interchangeable by both the surfers and the locals). El Tunco refers a large lump of rocks on the beach that used to look like a pig before a hurricane came in and rearranged them. Sunzal seems to be a local word of indeterminate origin, but most likely Spanish and English that refers to the sunset. And this beach has some of the best I’ve ever seen.

If it’s an easy right off the point at low tide at high tide it’s a different animal. Then the swells get bigger and on occasion a nice tube forms, “but don’t count on it,” Alejandro, a Brazilian Spanish teacher from Los Angeles would tell me later. I paid my respects to the wave and paddled ashore.

During the midday hours I sat with Alejandro and had a few beers. He gave me the run down of every wave and break within fifty miles and then gave me the low down on the locals: who’s who and the local rules.

“I’ve been coming to Sunzal for seven years now. I know all these guys,” he said.

“See him,” he points, “the super skinny guy with the bleached orange-blonde-blackish mess on his head?”

I nodded.

El Tunco Rocks, Once Resembled a Pig, Since Then Rearranged By a Hurricane“Boris is the local big-talker. He’s always catching the biggest waves, out on some cove south of here or north of here, but no one ever sees him surf Sunzal. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but everyone loves him because he’s fun to party with and he’s a good friend. When guys get kicked out of the house by their girls for surfing too much, he always lets them crash at his place.”

“You see that guy over there, with the hammer, carrying the lumber up the roof?”

“Sure do.”

“He’s Hugo. Watch out for him. He’s the local asshole, and bad-ass surfer, who’ll cut you off a wave in a heartbeat just to prove that it’s his wave and his country. Last year he crashed into a tourist surfer and broke his board in half, bloodied the guy up too. If you even see him near your wave, go somewhere else.”

Our waiter came by and asked me if I wanted another beer. I waved him off, “another beer and my day would be ruined. I’m hoping to surf this evening.”

He smiled and left me an Alejandro to talk.

“Our waiter, that guy, you know he’s real quiet, soft-spoken-like. His name is Jesus. That guy shreds everyone, he can practically spin a board 360* and land on it and surf the rest of the wave.”

“Not possible, Alejandro. You’re starting to sound like Boris.”

“No, Juan Pablo, listen to me. He’s that good. He won the local championship last year here at Sunzal and some people are trying to get him to go pro.”

——-

It’s December and the tides are variable. The big swells come between March and October. Current high tides seem to be arriving at around four-ish in the afternoon. By that time the shadows lay long towards the east. The waves, water and sky in the west, however, are suffused with an ur-orange that I believe is the Platonic form from which all other oranges derive their orangeness.

What a Ride!The wave at Sunzal is long, 350-400 meters at its best. It’s smooth, good for pros and beginners alike. This time of year, December, it’s not a huge wave or even a big one—it certainly doesn’t have much of a tube, that part of the wave a surfer rides when he or she is totally covered by water and then shoots out of it. It’ll curl a little bit on occasion but not every set or even ever five to seven sets.

Fun fact: waves usually come in sets of three waves or five waves. And sets usually come in swells of five and seven. First: they are prime numbers. Second, apparently there is science behind this. It’s called a Mandelbrot set, named after Benoit Mandelbrot the father of fractal geometry and math. Brian Rothman recently called the Mandelbrot set, “the most complex mathematical object in existence. [It’s] a two-dimensional figure whose coils, sea-horse shapes and blobs rimmed by jewel-like clusters of islands defy any coherent description. It is made up of infinitely many resemblances of itself, no two exactly alike, which appear from its depths when one zooms in and magnifies any part . . . and it serves as a sublime tech mandala.” One philosopher even claimed the algorithm behind the Mandelbrot Set might actually be one of Plato’s eternal forms.
Mandelbrot Set
Bet you didn’t think you’d get higher math and philosophy while reading about a guy surfing in El Salvador?

Life is paradox and there is order in randomness, as fractals demonstrate.

Speaking of fractals, the high tide was in, the sun was a gorgeous gold, and bikinis pranced up and down the beach. (Oh, you didn’t think I wasn’t looking? How wrong you are! I may be recently divorced and uninterested, but I ain’t fucking dead.) It was time to surf.

I put on my board shorts, rash guard, grabbed the Queen Mary, walked half a mile down the beach and paddled out.

After an extensive paddle—hey, you try paddling a twelve foot board three hundred yards out into heavy surf—I sat on my board and surveyed the scene. There were about 15-20 other surfers spread out over two hundred meters, two within fifteen to twenty feet of me. I stood a good chance of a.) catching a wave and b.) not killing anyone with my ginormous surfboard due to inexperience. After a few minutes the first set came in. I paddled hard, but missed the first wave. Got my board back, on it, paddling, caught the wave but couldn’t stand—wiped out. Board shooting straight into the air and me thrashed and twirled by the waves.

Panting like an overheated dog I grabbed my board, climbed on and lay there for a moment catching my breath.

Playa El TuncoDigression: ever wondered why surfers have perfectly sculpted bodies? Upper bodies and lower bodies in perfect proportion for men as well as women? Well, it is the perfect workout. You swim with your arms and legs. You do core abdominal work when you are up on the board maneuvering. Yoga, too. Don’t believe me? See just how flexible you are when you get thrashed and tumbled by a wave like clothes in a clothes dryer.

While panting on the board awaiting the next set I began mentally composing an angry email to my ex-wife. Then I got angry at myself.

“What a stupid fucking thing to do on a wave,” I muttered. “Idiot.”

While berating myself someone paddled up to me.

“Como las olas Juan Pablo?” asked Jesus, “how’re the waves?”

“Great,” I managed to say without sound too exhausted.

Jesus, I’d come to find out, talking to him earlier while we waxed our boards, had lived in the United States for about a year. He’d been a dishwasher first and then a cook in South Carolina. Having earned enough money to buy a house and set up a surf school in El Salvador he grabbed a bus to Mexico and then home to El Salvador, only to return to a girlfriend who’d had left him. Unbeknownst to Jesus, his father had died when he was on the bus from Charleston to the Mexican border. He worked as a waiter now and spent all his free time surfing.

“The waves,” he told me that afternoon, “they’ll never lie and they never cheat.”

Playa El TuncoHe pointed towards the water. Another wave was coming, this one picture perfect, streamers coming off the top in a fine mist just like a snow banner blowing off Mt. Everest. I shook my head, not quite ready, still panting a bit.

Jesus smiled and then attacked the wave. He paddled hard then cut right so effortlessly it made me envious. On his smaller board he rode, cutting up and back, then left and right all the way inshore for twenty or thirty seconds. It was an elegant, beautiful performance. How anyone could call what Jesus did that afternoon “shredding” as if it were a violent act, like putting an end to a sheaf of top-secret documents and not call it a ballet on water is beyond me.

Speaking of, I had finally caught my breath.

I was ready.

The next wave rolled in and up. I paddled furiously, the futility of maneuvering my container-ship sized surfboard clear in my determined grimace. I barely caught the wave, stood up, but got on the board too far back. Unbalanced, I slipped backwards into the worst of the backwash there to twirl and roll underwater, salt water invading my sinuses until chaos abated. Have I mentioned having long hair in the surf sucks, too? Too often I come out of a wave with hair covering my face, salt in my eyes and another back-wave crashes into my face, which is what happened in this case too.

I shook it off. Literally.

Would number three be my wave?

No. I couldn’t get ready in time so another surfer made the drop, riding smoothly all the way in. It looked so easy, why couldn’t I?

Then I missed number four out of sheer incompetence.

Gentle reader, are you sensing a theme yet? Let me spell it out for you if you haven’t: I’m not a terribly good surfer. In fact, I suck. But I love being in the big water, feeling its power, respecting it, honoring it.

Alas, my breath was all caught up again and there I sat on my ginormous board when wave five swelled up, fat-like and pretty big too.

Looked to be a possible seven footer. Taller than me by far.

I paddled hard, furiously determined to get the drop on this one. And then it happened.

There is no thought, only pure action, I’m one with the tidal forces of the wave, which I am allowed to momentarily harness. I stand up on the board, just ahead of the curl, the wave’s crest. Moving my right foot slightly, much as a bird will move a single feather to turn left or right, I make the cut back for the first time and stay ahead of the break for an unfathomable ten to fifteen seconds. Just me, on the board, completely of the present, no past, no future. The eternal now.

SunsetI took the wave as far as I could, dropped into the water and walked out with pride.

I rested on the fine black volcanic sand of Playa Sunzal. Time passed as it inevitably does. Shadows grew longer across the beach and the shift from late afternoon gold to early evening orange happened at the fine line between subconsciously unaware and overt.

I got up and grabbed my board just as Jesus walked by. He smiled and said, “that was a good ride, Juan Pablo, like a pro.” And then we walked silently into the setting sun.

From 56 to 58: Vaqueros, Volcanoes and the Voice of the Road

Nicaraguan LifeDecember 17, 2013: Pelicans glide inches above the cresting waves. The rising sun glistens pinkish and oblique across the Pacific Ocean and carries me back to yesterday, where we left Granada about nine thirty in the morning—Hernán was with us—and the driver was a big, giant of a man whose hands never left the ten and two o’clock position on the steering wheel the entire trip, through Nicaragua, Honduras and to the bridge at El Salvador.

We passed Masaya, the town, and then passed the volcano of the same name, a low and not terribly active lava-maker that looks more like a shield volcano than stratovolcano, what with part of its side seemingly blown off.

Hernán inspects the pottery I bought the day before approvingly.

(Side note: Hernán, whom I’ve not yet introduced, is the most interesting man in the world and utterly unlike the Dos Equis clown. He’s the same age as me and his life could have been mine, just as mine could have been his. In due time I’ll tell his story. It’s worth telling.)

“It’s Chorotega,” he says, “designs from the indigenous people of Nicaragua before the Spanish arrived.” An Indian chases what appears to be a frog with horns, although I know it’s some kind of deer. The colors on the cup are earthy, soft fleshy orange, jungle green and clay brown.

We ride through the middle part of Nicaragua now—the most heavily populated, along the shores of the Lago de Managua. The hills are deforested, in the naked reddish dirt grow green stalks of corn against an ever present but moody sky. Cloudless now, but later?
Vocano
Managua, the capital city and former den of the great communist plot to take over all of America, was modern, filled with new buildings, new cars (none American-made), surprisingly clean, but security was everywhere. That’s Central America for you.

Hernán points out a ‘Matapalo’ tree, “the biggest one in Nicaragua,” he says, “grows like a parasite over the roots of an older, hardwood tree, smothers it and takes it over.”

We passed from Managua straight into a landscape right out of South Texas, fertile but brushy, good dirt, not so many trees, cattle country and prickly pear cacti. The only difference was the tropical edge hanging over us, a sky now molten gray just waiting to unload.

“That,” points Hernán to a beautiful, wide, white-flowering tree, “is the national tree of Nicaragua: the Madroño.” I look closely at it and the subsequent madroños along the road. It’s clearly related to the Madrone tree found in the desert southwest, including my beloved Hill Country. It has paper thin bark that peels to reveal a red trunk, but the leaves are bigger, the bark peels less and it looks more natural in the tropics.

We pass Leon in a blur, “next time I will spend time in Leon, home of the revolution,” I promise.

After Leon we turned the car firmly northwest into one dramatic view after another. To my left sugar plantations lined the road, most in one form of harvest or another. In the distance the Flor de Caña distillery, in a feat of regal alchemy, turns sugarcane into the finest rum in the world.
Sugar Cane Harvest
Buses run down the Pan-American Highway, old Bluebird buses, known colloquially as “el Diablo Rojo,” red devils. Another odd thing I’ve learned about Spanish, their term for idioms, or figures of speech, is literally translated as ‘false friends.’ The strange things you learn on the road.

Campesinos (peasants) walked, rode bicycles and horses. One vaquero was even texting while riding his steed. Several species of dove lined the electric wires, kingbirds chased bugs, vultures kettled and the occasional Smooth-billed Ani flitted across a skyline of grain elevators.

But to my right the passage was much less pastoral, more like violently volcanic. The potential kinetic energy was palpable looking at cones of such perfection, built upwards, up towards the sky in a series of  identical eruptions. One had erupted recently (within one or two hundred years). The peak was grassy, and only the hardiest of trees grew on the lower slopes.
Nicaraguan Cowboys
A hedge of Herrisillo trees blocks the view. The dirt grows redder, fields of cane rise and fall depending on the harvest, many topped by the cottony white pyramid of the cane flower. A single line of white clouds scud across the blue until another volcano blocks out the sky with its lumbering, clumsy weight. Another perfect cone, this one smaller but with a perfect trail of gray smoke trailing the peak.

The vaqueros proliferate. The horses, clad in long leather saddles with noticeably absent horns from the pommel. No lariats in Nicaragua? Regardless, northwest Nicaragua is cattle country, where the rivers run muddy, wide and full of crocodiles. I count forty different shades of green—from the multi-hued slopes of San Cristobal, biggest of all Nicaragua’s volcanoes—to the Mesquite-like Jicaroro tree.

A billboard of Daniel Ortega, el presidente, waves goodbye as we pass into Honduras.

“Con Todos y por bien de todos,” it says. Adios Ortega!

Nicaragua is now but a reflection in our rearview mirror as we submit our paperwork and then drive on. I silently count the fifty-seven countries I’ve now visited. Fifty-seven countries in forty-three years isn’t too bad.

Between Honduras and El Salvador the continents and plates bend to create a bay of Pacific water without any measurable surf. It’s an awkward semi-circle ringed by rough hills of traumatized and fractured limestone, sliced and diced by volcanic intrusions: a white canvas slashed with red-black lines, like Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat in reverse. A large tree grows in a soft field of green grass, but in its shade the grass has flowered white, a strange otherworldly sight of an hitherto unknown symbiosis.

The sugarcane dissipates, morphing into corn and bananas. The relative prosperity of socialist Nicaragua—where all the houses are made of brick—turns into the dire capitalist poverty of thatched huts, mud floors, straw beds and pigs and chickens wandering in and out of the house. The pink flowers of Tropical Oaks explode on the roadsides. A malnourished horse crosses the road towards an Ocellated Turkey pecking into dust blown down from deforested hills, looking for sustenance where none is to be found. We pass a truck with a large sleeping bed in its bed. Several campesinos wave. Cornfields grow at 45* angles or more on hillsides.
Honduras Life
There is little conversation today as we mostly absorb. That’s the way seeing country should be, alone in the moment, mindful that this is the only eternity that matters. But I lose the moment and silently curse my ex-wife—if only she’d given me a little freedom to wander around alone and not grasped so tight. Then I am mindful again, aware that “if only” is no way to live.

I turn back to the road, the giver of all things good: color, life, interludes, experience, and the hard comfort of being alone.

If the difference in wealth between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is significant that which exists between Nicaragua and Honduras is unfathomable. And yet I see a Little Caesar’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and the Golden Arches of Globalization in the southern Honduran town of Choluteca. Apparently Honduras has been made safe for American-style freedom, which must be a wonderfully comforting consolation to all those murdered for control of the drug trade to Estados Unidos.
Tropical Oak
Such ruminations, dark as they are, are interrupted by Hernán.

“We are at the Salvadoran border, Juan Pablo,” he says.

We say our good-byes. For they are long, complete with a genuine hug. I have grown fond of Hernán, my Nicaraguan doppelgänger.

Father and I plow through immigration and start the search for onward transport again. Luis, a former illegal dry-waller in Maryland approaches us. I negotiate a price and we are whisked away into dusk and then the dark. We pause for gas at a Puma. I haven’t eaten all day and order a “tamale con mystery-meat” and inhale it under a tree full of grackles making an ungodly racket. A grackle shits on me, “welcome to El Salvador,” it ca-caws, “country 58, you silly gringo.”

El Salvador passes in the dark—all I recall are three smells: burning plastic, diesel fumes and the musty-sweet smell of just harvested sugarcane.

At last I feel the humidity of the sea and the tang of salt on my lips.

We find a hotel room on the beach and I collapse, exhausted.

Update: 350 Photos Are Now Up

AlejandraI want to bring everyone up to date.

I spent a good part of the day scribbling, in between surfing, of course.

Tomorrow is a travel day so I’ll spent some time in the airport polishing up my notes and hopefully get a blog post up about Nicaragua and the ride from Nicaragua to El Salvador, which obviously was fascinating.

But it might take another day.

In the meantime, the full set of Central America photos is now up to about 350 photos, so click on the link and enjoy the full set.

More soon . . .

Mega Thank You!

At The Border of Nicaragua and HondurasYou know who you are.

I just wanted to express my gratitude for the tips via PayPal.

You show me a great honor and for that, I am truly grateful!

And now, I am going to get back to scribbling up the adventure so far and bring us to the present.

Best case scenario, tomorrow we will watch the sun set over Tikal.

On The Road Again

For far too long this blog has been without any kind of real adventure. The last one ended abruptly with a shattered collar-bone in the jungles of Sumatra and a grueling six day return trip to America and surgery.

There were a few excursions here and there: out to West Texas a few times, a magnificent road trip from Tahoe to Yosemite and then Yosemite to San Francisco. But those places have been tame, calm, where one can sip fine wines and sleep on posh beds. It has been a long time since I strung a back pack on, landed in an airport and wondered, “where the hell am I going now and what language are they speaking?”
Descent on Yavin IV
That day has almost arrived.

No one is holding me back any more.

On Tuesday December 10th I will fly into Panama City, Panama and over the next two weeks make my way up the Isthmus to Guatemala City to fly home on the 23rd of December. This is all mostly terra incognita to me. I won’t spend any time in Costa Rica, but I do plan to revisit a day in a canoe in the Lago de Nicaragua and maybe catch a baseball game in Granada. After that: who knows? Maybe an eco-resort in El Salvador, maybe a trip up to Honduras to see family friends. But one thing you can be assured of, I am going to watch the Millennium Falcon land at Tikal during the Winter Solstice, December 21st!

Now, on to a bit of logistics: I’ll be doing some writing for Centro y Sur, a magazine dedicated to Latin American travel. So be sure and subscribe online, as it’s free.

But that hardly pays the bills. Therefore, I will not hesitate to ask (now that I am no longer in sales, but still a former salesman) for you to pitch into the tip jar only if you liked the blog post, or the story as it develops. Grad school is expensive and this travel, while I stay in $5 a night rat and roach infested places and the flight is covered by old accumulated air-miles, still isn’t cheap.

You will also get a daily dose of large amounts of photographs at Flickr. 

And as always, if YOU have suggestions, tell them to me and I will see if I can accommodate you, as you are the reader and an equal partner in this endeavor of ours.

So, y’all, how does it feel to be back on the road with me? It’s been far, far too long, hasn’t it?