Walking away from the Pacific that day I felt betrayed. And lucky. And foolish. And lucky again.
The night before, I had felt in-love, invincible and foolish in a different way. Checha and I had gone to Monterrico as a good-bye to our brief but intense affair. That night we dined on grilled Sierra fish and Peruvian style ceviche and drank cuba libres under the stars in Guatemala’s favorite Pacific beach destination.
Monterrico is a tiny little fishing-village-turned-tourist-destination about 2 hours from Antigua. Young local girls hang out at the tumulos, or speed bumps, that slow drivers as they approach the village and sell coconut water and other tropical concoctions in plastic bags with straws for a few quetzales. As you drive closer to the water, you pass pashte fields (the thing they make loofah from), bathing suit shops, comedors, and cheap hotels. It’s a poor place that’s become bearable by the influx of weekenders and tourists. The irony of Monterrico is that you don’t see anyone in the ocean or even really on the sand. Once you hit the beach strip, all the nicer hotels and hostels on the water have swimming pools for guests to cool-off in. It’s nowhere near the nicest beach I’ve ever been to, but it’s cheap, hot and tropical, gringas can get sunburns, go back to Antigua with mosquito bites, and it’s the closest thing they’ll come to a beach party in Guatemala, so it has a certain appeal.
We pulled up to the popular spot called Johnny’s Place in the late afternoon. I was happy to get out of the hot car and see the ocean and feel the breeze. Having grown up on the Pacific coast of the US, and later in life becoming a scuba diving instructor, a connection with the ocean is a strong part of my identity. I hadn’t seen the Pacific for a few months at that point, and it was a sight for sore eyes. We checked-in to our bungalow, showered, and hit the beach-side bar decked out with hammocks, loungers, and a palapa roof. We spent the evening in languor; drinking, dining, and agonizing about how wonderful things had been between us and how it had to end. It’s a unique thing to adore someone and fantasize about how life could be if circumstances were different; if only you’d met 10 years earlier. Together, you imagine a future of possibilities, knowing it will never come to pass. That future will always be perfect; unmarred by reality, arguments, disagreements, lies, or disappointment. Maybe that’s why the attraction was so powerful. We were both old enough to know that what we were experiencing isn’t how real life goes in a relationship and we just didn’t care. Love is easy, life is hard. And we both got to forget reality for a few weeks in each other’s company and enjoy the moment.
After dinner and drinks, we took a walk out on the cool, dark sand. The moon was full, and risen half-way up the sky over the ocean. The waves were coming in big with the tide. I waded out a few feet and felt the familiar power of that water crash over my legs and then pull-away, a bit like my tempestuous affair. Jupiter and Venus were stealing the show overhead. So bright and big, like you could almost reach up and pluck them like mangos. In this part of the world, when it’s full, you can see can see the shadow of a rabbit on the surface of the moon. In Classic Maya art, the moon goddess is shown as a young woman with her rabbit and framed by the crescent of a waxing moon. I could see the rabbit in the moon that night and felt blessed; blessed to see the clear night sky, to hold my lovers hand, and just to be alive.
When the moon had risen to overhead, we traipsed back to our bungalow with the damp sand slowing our feet as it sank with each step. Or maybe it was reluctance on our part, knowing that each passing second was a second closer to the end. If we could draw out each part of the night , we could prolong the inevitable. That night, we laid down and slept, for in sleep time seems to pause.
I awoke to sun slicing through the cracks in the wood of the bungalow, and to the sound of the waves, and to my lover’s face. We decided to go have coffee and fruit at the bar, and then go for one more walk on the beach before we went back to Antigua. We put on our bathing suits, and I wrapped a sarong over my hips. Shoeless, we went out into the morning. As we took our coffee, we glanced through the paper, Nuestro Diario, and I had him translate words I didn’t know in Spanish. After breakfast, we went out on the beach. The black sand, now heated by the sun, was burning our feet so we ran down to the wet sand at the waters edge. The waves were big, but not as big as the night before. Perhaps there had been a storm out to sea, and the swell was dying down. We were alone on the beach. As we walked, the wind playfully whipped my sarong around and we held hands. There were pelicans flying low over the break, in single-file, hunting fish. I saw shiny, golden forms leaping out of the break every few seconds and looking closer, saw that they were rays, probably the Golden Cownose ray. A wave of euphoria washed over me, and I couldn’t believe nature was putting on such a show for us. I was transfixed by the site of these aquatic fauna in their dance. In all my time in and around the ocean I had never seen rays in such a brazen display. Checha asked me if I wanted to go for a swim. I absolutely did. He asked if I was a good swimmer, because the waves were big. I told him I was; I was a scuba instructor and raised in the rough North Pacific waters of Washington and California. I was confident, if not a little cocky. I dropped my sarong and sunglasses on the beach. Timing it, we waded into the water and then dove under a wave as it crashed and surfaced just beyond the break. Now we could see the rays from the other perspective and the bellies of the pelicans with their wings outstretched. The water was warm and salty. We floated and played in the water, not noticing that there was a longshore current, carrying us down the beach away from our hostel and our things left on the sand.
Guatemala is not known for its beaches, and there is a reason that no one else was in the water. The unique thing about this part of the Guatemalan Pacific coast line, is the terrain of the sand at the water’s edge. From land, the beach extends out to the water, but about 10 feet before where the waves crash, it descends somewhat steeply. What you don’t necessarily notice from the beach, is that this decline continues underwater. It’s as if the waves are scooping that sand back out to sea, stealing back what belongs to it. As you dive into a wave, you don’t notice the ground disappear beneath your feet. In other parts of the Pacific, the break is farther out from shore. When you want to come back in, you dive under a wave, pass the break, swim to where you can stand and then walk in. Not here. Here the only break is at the shore’s edge.
As we realized that we were farther down the beach than we wanted to be, and swimming against the current was a waste of energy, we decided to exit the water. I would go first. Only when I swam closer to the top of the break did I sense that I was in any danger. Behind the top of the break, I realized that I would have to not only survive the violent swirl of the water racing back out to the ocean after it broke, but that I would be climbing out up hill. Gravity and the backward, sucking motion of the riptide would work against me. The ocean had the advantage. My heart began to race, and I steeled my nerves. I remembered exiting rough water when scuba diving and thought, “You can do this, Sierra, you’ve done this before”. But really, I hadn’t, not without life-giving air strapped to my back. I remembered my training and experience in waves. I remembered that waves come in sets, and thought I had timed my exit at the end of a set. I tried to time my dive into the wave when it would push me the farthest up the hill of sand. I took a big breath and dove. The strength of the water was immense, omnipotent, merciless. It that moment, it was all that existed. It tumbled me and I swam with all my power toward the beach. My big toe glanced the sand under the wave and then I was sucked back out in the fury of the rip current. The waves were coming in too close together and too fast; there was no time to change course. This was my fate. The churning water bobbed my head up to the surface just long enough for me to get a breath and then it took me away again, tumbling me viciously and disorienting me. The second time it ripped off my bathing suit bottoms. There were no thoughts in my mind, only fear and survival instincts. Like in sleep, time ceased to exist. It was just the ocean and me, fighting over my soul. She wanted me, like the sand being stolen back by the sea at water’s edge. The bottom of my foot swiped the sand, but didn’t take hold and I was sucked back out again. I was losing strength and oxygen and I was afraid. I knew I could die and I needed to get a breath. I fought for the surface and sucked in some air. The sea tumbled me a third time, and I swam with every fiber of my being for the shore. My whole foot touched the sand this time but I could feel the ocean sucking me back. In my mind I screamed, “I want to live!” I couldn’t survive another tumble. I pushed my foot down into the sand and using my arms to swim, with all the strength I could muster I swam-ran against the motion of the wave and just barely broke free. Bare-assed, I frantically crawled up the hill of sand on my hands and knees before another wave could take me back in. Adrenaline had taken over where my muscles had failed, and I escaped; panicked, half-naked and choking for breath. When I reached the dry sand, I sat on my bum and trembled and caught my breath. I could have died. But I was alive.
Checha exited soon after, breathless and terrified. He was terrified for me, as he had seen me disappear under the water three times and could do nothing to help. He had done this before, he had known what to expect. Apologetic and scared, he said he could only think of my parents, and what he would have had to do if I had drowned. I couldn’t talk yet, I was still in shock. I felt embarrassed, shaken, and humbled. I felt a little mad at him, but it was my own cockiness that took me into the water. I managed to eek out the directive to go get my sarong, so I could walk back to the hotel with something on. There were a few people on the beach now, sunning themselves, and I was already ashamed enough. I did not want to walk down the beach naked.
Back in the room, we showered. There was black sand in every crevice of my body, the worst was inside my ears. It seemed like it took weeks for all of it to work its way out. As the shock wore off, we began to laugh, a little hysterically, about the whole thing. Betrayed by my own ego, I was reminded that day that though I may feel an affectionate attachment to the ocean, she is a merciless mistress. A neutral force of nature, the ocean does not care how good you think you are nor does she grade on a curve. With renewed respect, I felt humbled and lucky. I have never been as close to death as I was on that day in Monterrico. The words my mind had produced in the midst of the last tumble “I want to live!”, rang in my head and I knew they were true. I had proved it.