“There it is!”
Franco points towards shore. Sure enough, a small strip of beach can be seen, proudly juxtaposed against the dense Mexican jungle beyond.
There are eight of us on the boat. Our guide Franco, the boat’s captain whose name slipped away the moment we met, two couples and Kati and I. We study the shore like explorers of old. Waves lap angrily at the boat.
It is Kati’s 33rd birthday. The day before, Franco had pitched this expedition as a private boat trip along the coast, complete with a waterfall hike, fishing and grilling the day’s catch. None of these things happen. And we’re not alone.
“Private beach!” Franco is beaming. To be fair, he did say he’d show us a private beach. “It’s too rocky for the boat. We can’t get close. You’ll have to swim to reach it. Have fun!”
The others jump in. Kati jumps in. I jump in. Everything is completely fine.
In my freshman year of high school, my mom implored me to take swim lessons. It sounded like a smart thing to do. I was not a strong swimmer and my dad had bought a boat and those two things might well one day collide with tragic consequences.
I wore a speedo to the class. It was mortifying. I was this gangly six foot one pimply fifteen year old speedo-wearing kid taking a swim class. One day, my mom came to pick me up and found me swimming around the indoor community pool with a troupe of seven year olds.
Even my mom was embarrassed. I never went back.
A wave crashes over me. I sputter, trying to wipe salt from my eyes. I can see the beach. It’s definitely closer. But we’ve been in the water for a while. I don’t know it yet, but there’s a strong rip current waiting for us at the beach.
Kati is ahead. She beats against the water as she swims. I turn over and do the backstroke, trying to conserve energy. My pulse is pounding. It’s probably the only thing keeping me from realizing how tired I am. That and my bladder. I really have to pee.
“If I can just get to the beach…” repeats over and over in my mind. It never occurs to me to use the ocean as my own personal toilet.
The others have reached the shallows. I see them falling over, waves breaking on their backs. It takes them a long time to get up to the sand.
I understand why when I get there. Jagged rocks greet my pink soles. They cut and crush and chafe. A wave crashes over my head and I’m sucking up salt water, coughing, coughing.
The water recedes and that lovely rip current says hello. Before I’m dragged to my doom, I grit my teeth and run through the shallows, finally depositing myself onto the white sand beach.
I let loose my bladder, checking my surroundings. It’s a relatively sparse part of the jungle behind the beach. Beyond that the trees grow thick, vines blot light away and green is everywhere. I contemplate the disturbing sounds coming from that dense mass.
And then there’s the abandoned bungalow. Inside I see chairs and tables covered in thick cobwebs. An old lawnmower rusts in the sun. The post-apocalyptic vibes are strong and I am not feeling it.
I make my way to the beach, thinking of how to describe what I felt back there. I want to show Kati. See if she feels it too. But I never get that far. Kati’s face is anything but calm when I reach her.
“She says her husband won’t be able to make it back to the boat.”
‘She’ in this scenario is Shaun and her husband is Charles. They’re from Nebraska. Shaun is in her fifties and Charles in his sixties. I had not thought about their age until now.
“Why? Is he too old?”
“I don’t know. She just said he won’t make it. She’s kinda freaking me out.”
I look over to Shaun. She’s at the edge of the surf, staring out to sea. Franco and the boat are out there, very small, bobbing along with the waves. It looks like they took the boat back out, probably having a smoke.
My writer’s voice shudders to life. THEY’RE GOING TO LEAVE YOU OUT HERE! I shake the idea out of mind. Nonsense! We haven’t even paid the man. Thank god for capitalism.
Meanwhile, Charles does indeed look under the weather. He rests in the shade, hunched forward, watching the tide. The other couple, Heather and Chris, both late thirties from Alaska, are nearby. They seem unfazed. At least someone is.
I get level with Shaun, watching the boat.
Her voice is strained. “No one took life jackets.” I look around. She’s right. The thought never occurred to me. “Shit,” I mutter, fiercely aware of how infectious Shaun’s worry is.
“Why doesn’t he come back?” She’s talking about Franco of course, but I have no answer. We never discussed a time limit.
“He’ll come back,” I say. She looks at me. “And then what? We swim all the way back? My husband…”
She doesn’t finish her sentence. I make my way to Kati.
“What do you think?”
“Well…this is not how I expected your birthday to go.” I turn towards the jungle. “I saw an abandoned bungalow back there. I think it’s haunted.”
The boat returns, but our situation has not improved. The distance to swim is troubling. More pressing are the powerful waves crashing at our feet. The rip current pulls literal small boulders back out to sea.
I’m waiting for a massive shark fin to appear and complete the nightmare when Kati gives me a look. “Stay close to me.” I nod.
We all stare at each other. No words. My adrenaline starts pumping, muscles tightening. And then one by one, we march into the waves.
Rocks. Water. Salt. Currents. Somehow we plow through the punishing elements. It’s Shaun in the lead position. Then her husband Charles. Then Kati. Then me. I don’t see Heather and Chris, but I can hear them behind.
We’re halfway to the boat when my energy sags. I run 20 miles a week and quit smoking years ago, but swimming is a bitch.
I see Charles turn over and do the backstroke. This slows us down. I have this insane notion that we can’t overtake him. He’s second in line, so he should be second to get on the boat. Christ, even in certain death, I’m polite.
Someone is coughing behind me. Birds scream above us. An errant wave slaps me in the face. This is taking too long.
Kati’s voice cuts through the noise. “Hunter!” The last of my adrenaline surges and I swim alongside her. “I’m here! I’m here!” For now.
I look ahead. Charles is still doing the slow backstroke. I hate him. He’s going to kill us all. Further still, Shaun is nearly at the boat. Ah! A spike of dopamine. We’re going to make it!
I can see Franco now. He’s got a big grin on his face. Nothing is wrong. Then Shaun starts screaming and his grin falters. She’s screaming about leaving us, about her husband, about the life jackets, about just about everything and nothing. She’s at the ladder now, but she’s not climbing.
Why is she not climbing? There are other people in the water. Alarm bells blare. QUIT SCREAMING AND GET ON THE GODDAMN BOAT!
Finally, she does, bickering with Franco the entire time. I only catch snippets because I’m waiting for Charles to get up, but he’s still doing the backstroke. Kati and I are both in full blown survival mode now, doggy paddling with the last of our strength. GET ON THE BOAT!
Wheezing, he does. Kati climbs the ladder next. So do I. Chris and Heather follow shortly after.
Franco surveys us with a confused smile on his face. “A nice hidden beach, right?” Chris leans over the side and pukes. I look away, my stomach rolling with each dip of the waves.
“Does your husband get seasick?” Franco wants to know. Heather seethes, “He swallowed seawater!” This just confuses Franco even more. Why was he drinking seawater?
Silence descends over us. It’s just the rock of the boat and Chris retching.
Ever the optimist, Franco beams. “Who wants to eat?”
The food is wonderful.
We’ve come to a tiny village named Chimo with one attraction: the restaurant. From what I can gather, fishing is the main industry and only food source in this place. I don’t see a market.
It takes a while for the food to come out. While we wait, margaritas are drunk and stories told. Everyone is still dazed after what happened, but slowly that dissipates and we get to know one another. Franco has vanished.
Later, he reappears and takes us around the village. It’s his hometown and he waves to the few locals that poke their heads out to watch us pass. He explains he once lived in San Jose, California, but now is hustling in Yelapa full time.
As we walk along the dirt road, I get a sense that we’re somehow intruding. It makes me remember my years of Europe and melancholy sets in.
We continue until we see a spanking new Ford F-150 truck. The group stops, admiring it. Such a shiny thing is out of place here.
Franco turns to me and says, “I bet you have a truck!” I shake my head. “No truck.” He studies me for a long time, clearly disbelieving me.
Two men in a big canoe row us all back to the boat. They would’ve been useful earlier, I muse to myself.
We reach the boat and there’s momentary panic as everyone worries over a tip. Peso or dollar? How much for these guys? I hand over a twenty to the closest rower and they both nod appreciatively.
One of them gives me a thumbs up and a weathered smile. It breaks my heart.
The boat goes full bore up the coast. I’m taking pictures, checking the scenery. I settle my lens on Franco. He sees it and turns to me, a big smile lighting up his face.
“No no! Look into the distance!” I say, already regretting it.
“Because…” Because what exactly? It’s more authentic? It’s art? I don’t have time for this. “Look over there!”
He does, pouting. I snap the photo. It’s film so I won’t see if it turned out for another couple weeks. It turns out okay, nothing special.
I can see Franco is not pleased with what just went down.
“Okay, okay, let’s do another one!”
He beams, smiling at the camera with a thumbs up.
Somebody screams, “WHALE!”
Everyone scrambles. The captain slams the engine off and the world is impossibly quiet without the roar of the boat’s motor.
“It was right there!”
Nobody moves. We wait, scanning the water. Maybe it heard us and dove? How long can it hold its breath?
And then we see it. Not just one. Two grown gray whales and a baby. I recognize them instantly from a documentary I cut many years ago. It was one thing going through hours of footage on a screen. It’s something else entirely seeing them up close.
The boat ripples with excitement. These creatures are gigantic, beautiful, scary. It’s hard to put into words.
“Just one of those could destroy the boat,” Franco says, impossibly happy.
It doesn’t matter. Because then there’s another baby, another pod of whales. We’ve wandered right in the middle of their migration. One of the mothers lifts her head, giving us a magnificent look at her.
This goes on for a while. Mothers and babies frolicking around our boat. A tail arches into the sky and as soon as they arrived, they’re gone.
The boat rocks and a calm settles over us. I look up and see the beach – that beach – and wonder at the meaning of this.
Everything is completely fine.
April 5, 2019