As I lay on the beach on night one of this intrepid journey down into Mexico, it was hard to think while a fiesta was booming meters away from my tent. Books lay piled up at the foot of my tent and my surfboard was my only company. I sat up in bed and unzipped my tent flap and crawled outside. Mine was obviously the only tent on the whole stretch of Rosarito beach; after all, no one else was stupid enough to camp in these parts. So why was I here?
To answer my own question, I was here to do the surf trip I had conjured up time and time again at various points throughout my life. While I was at work, cleaning up broken glasses and mopping up sticky beer, while I was sitting in a lecture hall listening to various breaches and remedies found within the exciting world of contract law, studying for exams, while I ran and trained, while I slept I had even dreamt of the rugged back road surf adventure. I had been close to finding it many times, in New Zealand around the coast, but things are never as wild in your own country as they are when thrown out into the great abyss. I had been very close during my time in Hawaii, but Waikiki and Honolulu were always there to remind you that civilization and McDonald’s were an hour away. That is not to say I had some wonderful nights out around the bonfire at the north shore after some heavy north shore swells recounting the waves of the day, but the next day we would collect our beers cans and pile back into the car for work or school.
As my friends in Hawaii trickled off back to their respective countries, including a girlfriend to Norway and a roommate to Tasmania, I was left to dwell on my next move. It was always assumed that once my semester abroad was finished I would return to New Zealand, do my bar exams and find a suitable law job. But I still had this niggling inside me, I still had not felt like I had achieved what I had set out to do. I wanted some Robinson Crusoe experience, to be thrown to the ends of the world and tested. I wanted to really see what I was worth and really to measure myself against the elements. So I stayed. I worked in a restaurant in Waikiki my head full of plans building and falling, darting off in many directions. I rallied a team of mates to join me. We were planning to drive the length of California. And then, one of the guys called me and mentioned the great Baja Peninsula. To be honest I hadn’t really known it existed until he threw it out there. After I hung up I rode my bike to the university library and Googled Baja surfing. Immediately phrases such as “the ultimate adventure”, “Desert surfing”, “surf trips as they used to be” and “vintage travelling” kept popping up as I began to salivate. Baja seemed like it had remained a grittier surf experience, amongst all those surf chalets and island hopping surfaris that were beginning to surface around Indo and the pacific. And so the seed was planted. I would work in Hawaii until July where I would fly to California to prepare for the great Baja adventure
After meeting my Mum at her spiritual direction conference at a nunnery in San Francisco (you read it right, continue), then staying with some family friends in the Castro, I was in San Diego with my great Uncle Charlie. By this point my travel mates had bailed due to various reasons: girlfriends in Prague, getting into Med school, getting married, funerals… all legitimate reasons I suppose. One night when the final crew member called and regrettably informed me of an interview he couldn’t miss I stood out on Uncle Charlie’s balcony overlooking the desert like terrain. Crickets chirped loudly and the night was wet and hot. I remember saying out loud to myself “this is it then, you have to just do it.” It’s always a climactic moment when I start speaking to myself, as if just thinking it does not suffice.
Everyone was against it of course. I heard myself trying to explain that it would be fine to hitch and camp the length of Baja. I could hear myself justifying the trip and giving answers to these questions which I knew sounded idiotic and I was well aware how green I was. In fact, I was a drug dealing Mexican murderers dream. But I was so determined no one would break me.
I had my provisions stuffed into a double board bag. A word to the wise: travel light, especially when you are on foot. I brought jerseys, jeans…a wise choice in the end (Although the desert got well above 100 degrees regularly, it cooled off during the night, particularly on the coast). Stuffed into the board bag one would also find a library of books, a first Aid kit to rival that of the army, a snake bite kit (which admittedly did make me feel a little hardcore), 50 meal replacement muesli bars, sleeping bag, pillow, a wetsuit, extra fins, 5 bars of wax…the list goes on. Stupid gringo. Just on a side note I have to say that my future surf trips were bliss: One month in Indo with a board and a backpack smaller than my 5 year old cousin’s school bag. Bliss. But, on this, my first solo lengthy overseas mission I wanted to be prepared. But as I lugged my bag onto the bus that would take me across the border I was already regretting the amount of unnecessary shit I had. As we neared the border the amount of Mexicans getting on the bus grew as did the amount of gringos getting off. We reached the border where I sat up in my seat with my passport and a form I had filled out with some entrance fee clutched tight in my sweaty fist. A tall Mexican fellow ambled aboard the bus and took his hat off, rambled off some Spanish and went around collecting a few pesos from each passenger. I put in a few and he turned around, got off and the bus drove on. And I was in Mexico.
I had blinked and been transported to a different country in a matter of seconds. In New Zealand you can drive the length of the country and it remains the same place. If you want to travel overseas, to another country, you must fly. It is a long saga that prepares you for an entrance into a different culture. The airports and customs are a process to ease you in. It’s true what they say, the border between San Diego and Tijuana is one of the most dramatic invisible lines on earth. Within meters all signs were in Spanish and everything including the air was different. There was a moment where all my anticipation and excitement drained and was replaced by this foreboding feeling and I panicked. Suddenly my late night boozy Spanish lessons with Uncle Charlie did not add up to much and my nonchalant carefree spirit in the build up to this trip seemed weak and idiotic. A woman got on next to me with a baby attached to the hip and started rambling in Spanish; I smiled as broadly as I could “No Espanol por favor.” As I drove through towns and villages I flicked drastically through my surf guide, which, as comprehensive as it was in regards to surf was now entirely unhelpful when going from town to town. It held phrases such as “drive 2km past the big pink hotel on the beach” and I’d glue my eyes to the window until a big pink hotel came into view. It was like a giant real life ridiculous Mexican version of Where’s Wally. The plan was to stay in Tijuana for one night but as we drove through I realized that without a plan this town was too big, too intense, and too dangerous for night numero uno. So the next practical port of call for my first night would be Rosarito but the bus did not seem to be stopping at all. I decided to assume it would become clear when we reached the Rosarito stop because people would surely pile off the bus when the stop came. We drove on. I spotted some nice waves off the road as we wound up into the hills and along ridges until the driver called out “Ensenada!” and everyone piled off. I sat on the bus flipping through the pages of my guide book and trailing my finger down past all the surf breaks from Rosarito to Ensenada that I had passed. I got off the bus in a daze of heat and confusion and in a controversial move bought a ticket back to Rosarito. As I wrote in my journal “if I’m going to do this thing, I am going to do it right, no shortcuts” and besides, as I mentioned there were all the surf breaks we had passed that I hadn’t surfed.
And so I lay in my tent…I felt defeated, exhausted and alone. My journal reads “I have no wheels, no Spanish ability, my board bag is impossible to carry and I’m alone. Such extreme doubts are unprecedented.” Earlier that day, I sweat immensely after lugging my outrageous board bag to the beach and wrestled with my tent poles in an attempt to erect my shelter. A wasted Mexican guy swayed up the beach with a miniscule roach dangling out his mouth and a snake weaving its way out of an old glass coke bottle. He kept thrusting the bottle towards me to make me leap backwards then cackle away before spluttering and coughing in my general direction. I moved my tent next to a family who were setting up for some sort of fiesta. If the snake guy came back I’d have an army of amigos to protect me.
I woke early. After having close to no sleep due to the fiesta (songs sung at top volume, practically a whole mariachi band raged into the night) I woke for a swim, had a power bar and broke camp. The little local buses in Mexico stop anywhere for anyone but it was definitely my least favorite mode of transport. A million apologies emitted from my mouth as I whacked people left and right trying to squeeze my orca whale of a board bag onto something other than people. I got off when I saw waves. This was a place called Raul’s, right by “Raul’s Restaurant”. I had to clamber down a cliff face and into a ravine in the already scorching morning sun. I waxed up and paddled out. It was small but glassy; I was the only one out there and was generally stoked to get into the ocean. I looked out in both directions to see endless coastline and desert ending abruptly in cliffs dropping to the ocean. I caught a few nice rides and paddled in for another power bar (maybe 50 power bars wasn’t so stupid after all?) I climbed back up and caught another way too crowded bus, so crowded in fact that I hopped off shortly after climbing on, probably because the expression on most people’s face was of general hatred and animosity.
I walked down the highway listening to music and approached a taco stand to buy some water. I thought my “uno agua por favor” was pretty good and smiled waiting to complete my first Spanish transaction. It was too not comprehensive as it turns out and was returned with blank stares. Even though it was a struggle to ask for a bottle of water I somehow managed to arrange a ride to La Fonda with a nice fellow by the name of “Nacho.” Nacho and I hit the road to La Fonda bypassing the great little seaside town of Puerto Nuevo, famous for its lobster, so Nacho could make a business transaction. I was dropped off after some hearty thanks and handshakes. I was beginning to think that I must seem like the politest and most apologetic guy in all of Mexico with “Gracias” and “Por Favor” being the most commonly used words in my almost nonexistent Spanish vocabulary. I was dropped by Nacho at a beautiful camping spot right on the break. Campers around me were chatty and friendly with surfboards strewn about the cars and barbeques smoking. And they were talking in English! After last night’s horrors with the snake charmer I thought I was in paradise. I walked up to the cliff overlooking the break, apparently the best shaped beach break in the area with peaks spread up and down the beach to avoid any overcrowding. A car full of guys were pulling out of the car park as I arrived reading my surfers guide to Baja.
“Jesus son, well if you aren’t the picture of a gringo. You been down here before?”
“Uh, no, I’m from New Zealand”
“Well you better put that surf guide away; you’re asking to be robbed holding that thing”
I chatted to these guys for a while about the crime rate in Baja and the infamous paddle out at La Fonda. Apparently, they told me, many people hold “almost drowned” stories about this spot. Undeterred by these fear mongers I set up camp and trotted down the path to the paddle out zone. The paddle out was a breeze and the insanely well shaped 3-4ft rights kept me in the water for three hours loving the way my new stick was working. I paddle in and showered under the massive water tank sporting the sign K-58 which is another name for the spot. I got a beer at the little restaurant/bar down the other end of the beach and wrote in the journal. I remember thinking “if the rest of the trip takes the tone of today then I think I’ve struck gold”. I had an epic sunset surf session, the only one out with the warm sky full of billowing orange clouds. I paddled in and was invited for beers and shrimp with my neighboring tent. Stu and his family including grandparents (“Call me Skipper, this is Grams”) were from Oregon and were regulars to this spot and were enthusiastic about my journey. My arms tired from surfing and a belly full of shrimp I fell to sleep with a grin spread across my face.
When planning a surf trip anywhere, one must never try to stick to a strict plan. Day three of my journal reads “I am not in La Fonda, San Miguel or San Isidro as planned.” I woke early with the feeling that more ground needed to be covered so I broke camp at sunrise while Stu’s little daughter Jules looked on bleary eyed with her head tilted and asked “You’re leaving Avi?” I nodded and gave her a little hug and silently slipped out.
My next ride was with a POLICIA. Before I got in the car he flipped me his badge and I noticed the gun swinging from his holster. As we drove inland I started getting paranoid recalling all the horror stories I had heard about the corrupt institution that was the Mexican police force. I started thinking, “why did he flip me his badge? Am I…surely not…am I…under arrest?” He was speeding and overtaking on blind corners, I tried to focus on the beautiful countryside winding up into the hills as I gripped the door. I would ask questions but received no answer; just stony faced nods and grunts as he sped along. He dropped me to the side of the road with a smile though and wished me luck, so apparently I wasn’t under arrest as I had feared. I caught a ride to the legendary San Miguel, the best right point on the peninsula according to most. However, when I got there it was completely flat so I sat on a rock pissed off because of the mission I had been on to get here. I continued on to Ensenada with hopes of making it to Punta San Isidro after collecting my tourist visa (which I was meant to collect at the border but the general confusion that ensued during border crossing meant that this was impossible). I rode in the tray of a few trucks to the immigration office which was, to my horror closed until the next day. I couldn’t afford to risk going visa free the whole trip so I had no choice but to stay in Ensenada to collect my visa first thing in the morning. Even though it had only been a few days, It felt amazing to be at a backpackers with a shower, bed, internet…I felt a little guilty at being so happy to have all these comforts, wasn’t the whole point of this trip to be completely cut off and to rough it to the highest extremes? Ah Well, perhaps I must ease myself into complete isolation. I strolled through the streets of Ensenada and ploughed through 4 quesadillas and a few sols. I decided to climb a mountain overlooking the city which offered an incredible sight: the gigantic flag of Mexico flapping over the city. I climbed on until I was deterred by kids snorting coke, a homeless man shitting and psycho killer dogs. I half jogged back down the hill to the fish markets and wandered the streets into the night before hitting the sack.
I woke early and after collecting my visa through a torrent of lies at the immigration office the owner of the backpacker gave me a lift to the bus estacion. After Ensenada it all changes. The tourists have stopped at the comfort of Ensenada and what lies beyond is the endless desert, lost towns and a lot of surf. I had a plan to head out to Erendira, Punta San Isidro and Punta Cabras which were a series of reef and beach breaks somewhat off the main road. But first I wanted to check out Punta San Jose which held some great right reef breaks. According to the surf guide the turn off from the main road towards the coast was around the tiny town in a wine growing valley up in the hills by the name of Santo Tomas. It was incredibly hot and everything, including myself seemed to be covered in a thing veil of red dirt. Old wrinkled ladies sat outside shops fanning themselves. I attempted the hitch to Punta San Jose but after a while it seemed clear that no cars were interested in going there so I made a rash decision to head on to Erendira. I got picked up and drove through the beautiful desert hills and was dropped at the off road to Erendira. My friend waved me good luck and drove off in a cloud of dust.
TO BE CONTINUED IN “A HITCHIKERS GUIDE TO BAJA: PART TWO“