October 25, 2009 § 1 Comment
I am riding shotgun in a cab hoping my driver knows something about physics that I don’t as he speeds around tight corners with no side rails and zigzags between cattle rigs down the West coast of Southern Mexico. The cabbie, Roberto, is excited to have a gringo in his car, and he tells me about his time operating a forklift in Kenosha, Wisconsin and his beautiful Midwestern girl Marilyn. As we get closer he conjures a story about my destination, a tiny village hidden amidst a lush tropical landscape on the Pacific Ocean. Roberto says that ten years ago a drug plane crash landed near the town baseball field. The locals went to check out the scene and found the plane filled with bricks of white powder. Having lived in relative isolation their entire lives, the villagers did not know the powder was cocaine. They assumed it was chalk and proceeded to line their baseball diamond with the narcotic. “It was the most valuable baseball field in the world!” says Roberto with a grin.
Even local Mexicans like Roberto see my destination, a place I have sworn to keep secret and simply refer to as “the spot,” as a special place. He says the towns and villages around it have been mostly overdeveloped as tourist destinations. They have lost much of what makes them traditionally Mexican. “The spot” was safe he said, until recently, when a nearby magical ocean wave caught the eye of the outside world. “Where’s your surfboard,” he asks me? I pause as I formulate a lie in Spanish. The truth is I am not here to surf.
As Roberto turns right off the highway onto an unmarked road, a turn only locals know, I note that we are still riding on concrete. Three years ago, during my first visit to “the spot,” this road was dirt. As we pass by the baseball field, the church, and the fifty or so cinderblock buildings that constitute this tiny town, the cement reverts to the original dusty path which ends at a metal gate. This barrier symbolizes many things, the road to paradise, a local brand of capitalism, and the potential savior for a town teetering on a volatile future.
A series of brief but intriguing e-mails have brought me back here:
“Definitely no longer a secret spot. There are stories being written but they are simply incorrect. And do not release any info on me as I have been threatened with death. Word.” And “you do not know me. we’ll talk but as pretending strangers who’ve just met, just like anyone else you are going to meet on this trip. i’ll fill you in later. local politics is super dirty here right now.”
Getting e-mails like these would convince most people to put off that longstanding promise to visit a friend. For me, they were exactly the push I needed to return to a place that as time went on had become more mythical than real. It was the most beautiful place I had ever visited, but it was not lost on me that after three long years “the spot” had taken on a kind of Heart-of-Darkness quality. Had my friend gone “Kurtz?” Would I get swept up in the craziness when I visited, and when someone comes to find me years from now be a long-haired crazy reporter like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, preaching that my friend is a “great man!”
Out of concern for his safety, I can’t use my friend’s real name, so we’ll have to call him something else. He requested a Latino name, Diego. I can tell you that Diego is Asian, he worked on Wall Street, we met in graduate school playing soccer, and that a combination of wanting to become an accomplished surfer, wanting to leave the fast paced city life of the U.S. behind, and something else that I am still trying to put my finger on has led him to his current standing as a campesino in rural Mexico. He essentially traded his briefcase for a machete and went native.
I remember helping Diego find a place to live three years ago, a small wood cabin set on a hill overlooking the town. And I remember catching his eye before I hopped in a taxi to return home. I could see that he had made up his mind that this was it, this was the place, and his decision humbled me. Many people talk about living a more simple life, of going somewhere exotic, new, but few actually do it, and fewer stick it out. It occurs to me that Diego has outlasted even Thoreau, the standard bearer for simplicity, by more than a year. Of course maybe Thoreau would have stuck around Walden Pond a little longer if it had one of the world’s best waves to ride.
Surveying my new surroundings, I see that on the other side of the gate is a row of ten modest wood cabañas with palm thatched roofs. Surf shorts and towels hang along a laundry line in front of these rental rooms. Three years ago there was nowhere official to stay at “the spot,” outsiders had to find a local family to live with. I step out of Roberto’s cab with a backpack but no surfboard, which again draws questions. Villagers are accustomed to surf seekers but not much else. The young local woman who manages the cabañas stares at me, wondering why I am here. I want to tell her that I am tracking down a long lost friend, but I promised not to. I notice a familiar black jeep across the fence, the car Diego and I drove down here all the way from California three years ago. It’s parked outside a small blue cinderblock house with an enormous satellite dish on the roof. I note the location and as instructed go about my business as if I am just a tourist.
The afternoon heat is setting in, it is at least ninety degrees, and this isn’t even the hot season here. I change out of my gringo uniform, pants and a dress shirt, and put on flip flops, a T-shirt, board shorts, and a baseball hat. Older locals are settling into hammocks for the afternoon siesta. Some people in the town have jobs at upscale resorts an hour away; but many still earn around twelve dollars a day beating back the jungle with machetes, running small dry goods stores, and laying concrete in the brutal sun. Most workdays start before 7 a.m. and finish after nightfall. Almost everyone has a story of entering the U.S. illegally, where you can make twelve dollars an hour instead of a day. But they always come back to “the spot.” It is home they say, better than the promise of any American city.
I pay my eight dollars for the cabaña and head out past the gate that marks the line between paradise and every other pueblo that ever had a dream of a better Mexico. There are only a few modest houses along the two-mile road that lies on the other side of the gate. Palm trees provide some shade, and bright flowers and banana trees provide a lush backdrop. As I walk my ears adjust to hearing only nature. I’m a few miles away but the rush of what some consider the world’s most perfect wave is clearly audible. It is a soothing sound. I take a deep inhale of the tropical air, the kind of air that I knew only through botanic gardens on cold winter days as a kid growing up in the Midwest.
The road to paradise eventually peaks on a hill overlooking the last few meters to the ocean. As I stare out at the blue Pacific, I notice that there is a red Nissan truck covered in dust that has died on the side of the path. Somebody has written “lavame” on its back windshield. The tail license plate is from California and the front one Massachusetts, the sort of confusion that makes complete sense if you have ever hung out with surfers. For most of its history surfing has been a culture, a lifestyle for free spirits, people seeking equal amounts of solitude and camaraderie along the beaches, and point breaks of the world. A driving force in the lives of most surfers has always been to discover a perfect, hidden wave and ride it. Alone. Depending on whom you ask, “spot” locals will tell you that anywhere between ten and fifteen years ago a surfer arrived on their beach and achieved just such a nirvana. Some say he was from Veracruz, others say he was Australian. Wherever he was from all agree they had never seen anyone use their beautiful wave in such a manner. They thought the surfer was crazy. The ocean was for cooling off, for fishing, and for gazing out, they had never seen anyone ride it for sheer pleasure.
By most accounts this pioneer kept the wave to himself and did not spread the word. There was no road to the wave at that point, so it was not easy to find. Twenty-five- year old Mexican Jorge Quintana, who surfs at “the spot” almost every day, says that when he first came eight years ago to see if the wave was for real, he had to walk through the jungle and paddle through a fresh water lagoon to get to the beach. His first reaction,
“I’m in heaven. That’s it. Because there is nothing, no people, just nature, and the best wave I’ve ever seen in my life. One of the best and most beautiful things I ever feel.”
This wave leaves most people speechless. It is a draw of biblical proportions. Like a town where the outline of the Virgin Mary is spotted in the bark of a tree, worshipers have to come to see if it is real. The blue swell is created by an outcropping of rocks that extend from a point that was for most of its existence a good fishing perch. Now people come from around the world to ride the curling right hand point break that in its peak season becomes a sixteen-foot barrel masterpiece. If you catch it at the right moment you can ride it for what seems like an eternity.
Like Jorge, Diego came to “the spot” around the year 2000, when it was still a secret. He camped on the beach for months, sleeping on his surfboard bag. When he wasn’t at “the spot” he thought about it constantly, monitoring swells and waves from a special website. When I met Diego a few years later as he was trying to finish graduate school after a five-year hiatus, the wave was still on his mind. He would fly down to Mexico for holidays and surf until he had to return to classes. When he finished exams he said he was going back, but this time he was going to drive. He asked if I wanted to come, but also made it clear that I would have to find my own way home. Diego was planning to stay, indefinitely.
Since its discovery, this wave has influenced the lives of not only surfers, but the local town too, despite the fact that most residents don’t surf. “The (federal) government doesn’t help us,” says town president Antonio Mattern. “Before the wave it was more poor. We didn’t have a road. We only used the ocean for fishing. We didn’t know surfing.” According to Presidente Mattern, the wave is the reason that there is a new road up to the church, a new wall and playground at the school, and a health clinic. The federal government did not provide these he says, the wave did. In fact, says Mattern, “the spot,” was historically overlooked by the government until the wave was discovered, now he says they are trying to find ways to get their hands on the beach and develop it.
In 2004, when the number of surfers coming to “the spot” became noticeable, the town was faced with a decision. Local entrepreneur Jaime Carrillo says too many people were sleeping down at the beach, leaving trash, and breaking town rules. One day the community decided to take a more hands-on approach to these newcomers. Carrillo says they sent their local watchman down to the beach and explained that new rules were being enacted, immediately. “The surfers got aggressive. They said, “You aren’t anybody, this is federal land.” We said, “If you want to surf, it’s open from 7 a.m. to 8 at night, and you have to pay 20 pesos. They screamed, “This can’t be.” The problem improved in one week. We put up a gate. Now there’s one way to get to the beach.”
For the past three years the town has collected twenty pesos, about two dollars, from every foreigner who wants to get to the wave. Townspeople built a restaurant on the beach and a portion of those proceeds also go to town infrastructure. The message that the town sent was clear, if you want to see and surf “paradise” you have to respect us and contribute to our community.
Even more, this act was a statement of autonomy from the federal government by a pueblo of less than a thousand residents. Many of the towns around them with beach access had allowed the government, along with developers to create massive tourism to the point where nature is no longer visible. These towns sold their souls and their futures says local surfer Jorge Quintana. “The world is pushing too much against these places. They want development, and hotels and things like that. I know it’s complicated cause when you are really poor and you see a whole buffet, for sure you will choose a buffet. But if you know what is at the end of the table, you will think about it. The sad thing is that they didn’t know what is at the end.”
After a nice swim and my first of what will be many sunburns, I head up the winding road to town. It is almost dusk and I want to see if Diego is around. I pass through the gate and the adjacent restaurant, Chapulin. The proprietor Jaime Carrillo gives me a “como te va?” as I pass by and wave. I step up onto Diego’s concrete porch and peek through a small metal window in his door. There he is, sitting with a young Mexican woman, watching “Lost” on his laptop. I laugh quietly before I say hello. I realize that a long time has gone by in a heartbeat.
I knock and Diego opens the door with a grin. He’s wearing a mesh trucker baseball cap with the logo of a surf tour on it. He’s dressed in board shorts, no shirt and long white tube socks with sandals. His girl, Carolina, is a tiny local senorita with big black rimmed glasses and a beautiful smile. She’s the catch of the town and fought her cousin for Diego. “Lets sit out on the porch he says,” as he puts a shirt on and sits next to a broken fan. I slide into his large woven hammock. “I gotta go to work in a half hour, but we can catch up later,” says Diego casually, as if I was just his neighbor, passing by on my way to pick up some tortillas. “I’m a citizen now, I got responsibilities, I am a night watchman.” I tell him where I am staying, on the other side of his fence, and he asks me if I have told anyone that I know him. His e-mails were not a joke; apparently there is really a bounty on his head. Carolina confirms the rumors. Diego’s neighbor Jaime, the one who just gave me a friendly wave, wants him dead he says. “Apparently seven thousand dollars will do it,” says Diego, sounding somewhat upset his life isn’t worth more.
As Diego gets ready for his police shift, Carolina spots a large black snake along their outer wall. Diego grabs his machete and the two of them quickly close in. The snake begins to slither away but not before Carolina grabs a long metal rod and makes a perfect toss, catching the back tail and rendering the snake immobile. She smiles as Diego goes in for the kill with his sword. I am a bit overwhelmed by this display of teamwork, and by the fact that my friend is now as good at killing snakes as he is at spreadsheets. They leave the long black carcass for the rats.
I walk halfway along the one dirt road toward the town hall with Diego. We stop at a small bodega where a family of four is swinging in their hammocks. Diego introduces me and grabs a couple of cold beers from their fridge. Nobody gets up to seal the transaction. Diego simply signs a notebook which records his running tab. The older woman, who runs the store, tells us she has some food for us. The family is getting ready for Day of the Dead and they have cooked a special meal, tamales with iguana meat. I am game to try anything once, although the leathery skin and small talons make for a rather challenging feast. The youngest member of the family, Leo, is wearing a Yankees cap and a crucifix around his neck. He takes us in to see the family’s Day of the Dead shrine. A table is filled with candles and local food, including bread, chocolate, sugarcane and peanuts, all things the deceased liked. Diego gets his tamales to go; he has no intention of eating them, but is careful not to offend anyone.
Later that night I come back to finally catch up with my friend. In his three years as a local at “the spot,” Diego has had only a handful of visitors, his mom, his brother, and a surfer friend or two. His possessions are about the same as what we brought with us three years ago on our journey; a laptop, some books, soccer gear, and a few clothes. The house, more than anything, is a shelter for Diego’s ever increasing collection of surfboards, which numbers around twenty.
A small shrine sits atop his bookshelf, part Asian Buddhist, and part Mexican Catholic, Carolina’s touch. Next to the shrine is a stack of business cards with Diego’s name and the Harvard University logo, a remnant of his former life. I ask him if Harvard has been relevant in rural Mexico, assuming his ability to analyze micro economies and public policy might come in handy. Diego laughs, long and hard, “Harvard, Harvard has nothing to do with here.”
Carolina happily does some laundry while Diego and I speak in English. “So what does she do?” I ask, meaning for a career. “She lives with me,” he replies, “she cooks and cleans,” I don’t pick it up right away, but he’s also talking about her career. I have to remind myself that we are in a very traditional Mexican village. Woman still cannot vote in local elections here. They have been dating for about eight months, and she’s been living with him for six months. She just turned twenty, which is old for a local woman without kids. Diego is thirty-five, three years younger than Carolina’s mother, although three decades of working in the hot sun has left her face weathered. She looks closer to fifty. Because girls have families when they are teens here, there are not any comparably-aged local women for Diego to date.
I have so many questions about Diego’s life and times here in paradise. I try to keep my inquiries general in hopes of hearing some engaging stories. “So what have you done for the last three years?” I ask with great anticipation. “Surf,” he replies, satisfied with his answer, as if I flew all this way just so I could hear that one word. Diego takes a while to warm up, I am glad I will be here an entire week.
It’s dark out and artificial light comes from only a handful of porches. I look up at the sky and see a million stars. Even at night “the spot” is paradise. “I’m going to interview your neighbor tomorrow,” I tell Diego. “Don’t mention my name, or that you know me,” he says. “That guy wants me dead.” I fumble through the dark back to my cabana for the night. I pass by Jaime’s restaurant and he asks me where I’ve been, he is now keeping track of me. Entering into my small thatched roof hut, I turn the light on and notice a tarantula the size of my fist has been waiting for me. I turn out the light hoping I wake up alone.
By most accounts all the locals at “the spot” are beyond nice. They are still innocent it seems, despite the arrival of the outside world. My first morning at “the spot,” when I buy a drink at a small bodega, I realize I did not bring enough money to pay for it. The proprietor smiles and tells me to bring her the rest of the money later on. Imagine a cashier at Starbucks telling you to stop by later with the seventy-five cents you were short for that coffee. Jaime Carrillo is no exception. He is very gracious, offering me something to eat when I arrive to interview him.
Carrillo is thirty-nine, and finished a stint a few years ago as the vice president of “the spot.” He’s lived and worked in Lake Tahoe doing construction, but he says after a year he missed his hometown, so he came back. A month ago Jaime opened his restaurant Chapulin. His eatery is one of two in town. Three years ago there were no restaurants.
Jaime Carrillo is many things to his town, politician, entrepreneur, and even a local historian. He says “the spot” was founded around fifty years ago by a group of seven families who seceded from a town in the nearby mountains. They chose the new land for its natural beauty and proximity to the ocean, where they could fish. After a brief fight for control with their village of origin, says Jaime, the families at “the spot,” won their independence.
As it grew, “the spot” chose a governing structure where only men between the ages of eighteen and sixty could vote and make decisions affecting local residents. This body of government is known as “La Asemblea,” the Assembly, and it elects a local government every year that is housed at a kind of village city hall called “La Agencia,” or the Agency. If you want something from the town you have to ask for permission from La Agencia, and if you pass muster your request is heard by the larger Assembly. Attendance is mandatory at Assembly meetings, which happen bi-monthly, or when important matters need to be discussed. There is also a sort of socialist management system where resources are mostly communal and town members have unpaid responsibilities called “techios,” which included things like garbage clean-up, fishing, policing, and running a local market.
Jaime tells me he not only respects the town’s rules and traditions of government, he admires them. “I think that in ten years ’the spot‘ will be the example for all of Mexico. Our political system and our system of work, we are more famous for every year. The only thing we need to do is sustainable development inside the community.”
Jaime uses the term development a lot. He wants to expand on tourism possibilities like horseback riding on local trails and bird watching. An Audubon guide to regional birds sits open on one of his restaurant tables. The goldmine, however, is definitely the wave, and Jaime knows it. He, more than most local residents, has actively marketed surfing at “the spot.” In fact, during his term as vice president, he served as the intermediary for a major international surf competition that came to town, leaving lots of controversy and, according to many, few dollars behind.
The surf company Ripcurl includes a new surf location in its stable of four major tournaments every season, and a few years ago the tour descended on “the spot.” Two years later people are still arguing over the impact of this event, which brought the world’s best pro surfers to town along with hundreds of spectators. When all was said and done the town was a few thousand dollars wealthier, and “the spot” was no longer a secret. Jaime has a grin the size of the nearby wave when he talks about the triumph of this event. But to Diego and many other local residents, it signifies the beginning of the end. Some, including Diego, believe the town should have gotten significantly more money from Ripcurl, closer to a hundred thousand dollars. Some rumors say more was offered by the surf company, but that money was pocketed by local interests.
I ask Jaime about the handful of foreigners who managed to become citizens of “the spot.” This is my way of bringing up Diego without actually saying his name. Jaime generally dismisses the outsiders, saying they sit in the back of the room at Assembly and never say a word. At one point he refers to the group as the five, and then quickly corrects himself to say four, foreign residents at “the spot.” Diego is number five, and Jaime, according to some in town, including the local president, is not happy about it.
The other four foreigners became citizens by buying plots of land from local residents. All local landowners are automatically Assembly members, but the rules were changed recently so that outsiders can no longer buy land. In order to become a local resident Diego had to do something that had never been done before by a foreigner. He had to get voted in.
I begin to see what Diego has been up to the last three years. “It was not my idea. A few of the older members of the community said, you know what, you are one of us.” Diego admits it was an extraordinary thing for the town to accept him, especially in the manner that they did. “I spent a lot of time here. I wanted to know if my time here meant something to these people. I’ve behaved myself you know. I’ve contributed. And my motives are always genuine. I wanted to surf. Since I’m here surfing, enjoying the beach, I wanted to contribute.”
But it’s not been all that easy. Diego has almost exhausted the money he saved working in New York years ago. He can’t drive his car very often because he can’t afford the gas. I buy a hammock from him so he can pay his rent. He admits he has not formally worked in almost three years. Right now he gets up at seven in the morning and heads to a plot of land owned by Carolina’s father with his machete to help clear brush and build fencing. Ironically Diego’s work clothes are the same dress shirt and pants he used to wear on Wall Street. Now he needs the long sleeves to ward off mosquitoes and the burning sun. He says he knows some relatives and friends wonder what he’s doing, whether or not he’s throwing his life away “Running away from responsibilities, I got that wired. Any Asian would label me irresponsible, oldest son of the family, lots of education and potential, not fulfilling, not settled down.” But he says, “I’m happy. I love it here. I love these people.”
Sunday around noon “spot” residents are all heading in the same direction, east, on the dirt road. Some are heading to mass at the Catholic Church up on the hill overlooking the town. Many more are congregating at the base of the hill, the site of the town sports field. One of the local baseball teams, the Correcaminos (roadrunners), is on the diamond for a big playoff game against a nearby city team. The heat of the afternoon is settling in on the shade-free field, which doubles as a soccer pitch. There is excitement in the air as residents crowd under nearby trees and a few tents, one for the men and one for the women. The visiting fans set up next to their team’s dugout and drink cold Sol beers, yell, and play noisemakers. The scene has the excitement and anticipation of the World Series without the commercial distractions. The local equivalent of a box seat is the teetering veranda of a local two-story home that hangs over center field.
A cheer goes up from the locals as the Correcaminos take the field in their bright orange uniforms. The team is made up of local men in their twenties, thirties, and forties, a collection of cab drivers, mechanics, store owners, and construction workers. The umpire yells for the game to start and immediately the lead-off batter for the visiting team hits a fly ball out beyond the infield. A speedy left fielder races in to try and make the play. The ball drops a foot in front of him, and the runner is safe at first. The ground is rock hard dry dirt, so diving for the ball was not an option. People whistle at the outfielder who is trying his hardest not to be noticed. The problem is he’s Asian. Diego can only hide so much.
Carolina is standing under the designated women’s tent with other players’ wives and girlfriends. She screams at the umpire when Diego, batting fourth, gets a questionable strike. The Correcaminos get off to a quick start, and by the fifth inning it is already 11-0. Sitting on some concrete steps next to the left field line, enjoying a small piece of shade, are a couple of local old-timers in cowboy hats, tattered dress pants, and worn sandals. They gossip about who is selling land and for how much. Diego chops a grounder between two extremely overweight infielders, think Fernando Valenzuela and his twin playing shortstop and second base. The men turn their attention to “el Asiano.”
“He lives here, he’s a citizen here. They say he knows something. He studied a lot. He’s very knowledgeable.”
There are a lot of rumors around town about Diego, in part because he has kept to himself and revealed very little. He gets a nod of respect from the adults in the village when he passes by. The kids like to call him Yin Yang, it’s a novelty to have an exotic looking Asian around. Diego says a few people found out he went to Harvard, and that simple fact expanded into the rumor that he is friends with current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, also a Harvard graduate, and that Diego was planning to help Calderon get land at “the spot” and build a huge hotel. Most locals keep their talk about Diego to a minimum and simply accept him. He is, as the baseball old timers say multiple times, “one of us. He’s calm. He talks about good things. He lives with a local girl. He’s a good person. He doesn’t do anything bad. He likes playing on the teams. He plays beis (baseball) he plays fut (soccer). He’s got lots of friends.” They are proud of him, and proud he chose them. There is a connection. Diego says he’s only here to surf, but that contradiction is starting to unravel. This connection is obviously deeper than a wave.
After the game I head to Jaime’s restaurant for some delicious fish, cooked with chipotle peppers and garlic. He is busy entertaining the eight or nine surfers who are staying at the cabañas with me. A couple from New Zealand has given him a DVD of the Ripcurl surf competition that was held at “the spot” a few years ago. Jaime has only heard about this video’s existence, and is eager to see himself on camera. He excitedly connects the Kiwi’s laptop computer to a large pair of speakers attached to his jukebox.
Interspersed with lingering shots of people riding the amazing wave, the movie chronicles the intense meetings that went on between the town, represented by Jaime, a Mexican surf company, and the Australian based Ripcurl. Jaime’s eyes light up at the site of himself on film hammering out a deal. “That’s me,” he proclaims out loud, “I did that!” He then asks me how he looked on tape.
In a behind-the-scenes interview the Ripcurl representative notes his dismay over the negotiations, saying some American surfers who aren’t happy about the tour coming to their secret wave told the town it could make millions, and were trying to derail the deal. No names are used, but Diego and one other local gringo know they are the targets. The video continues through the competition, and by the end Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, and the rest of the current global surf gods have all proclaimed on camera that “the spot” is the best wave in the world. I cringe as I watch. The Kiwi’s say they wound up at “the spot” in part because of this video. Sam, a surfer from Tasmania on safari in Mexico saw the video and says he had to come, “people were just amazed by the wave. They know of it without knowing many details about it. It’s a bit of a myth.”
Changes, however small, are inevitable with the arrival of outsiders and not all of it is bad for the town. From his porch Diego has watched two restaurants open, Jaime’s Chapulin opened a few months ago, and a little bit farther down the road you can enjoy a pizza at El Aguila. A few local families try out the American dream by eating pizza on a Friday night. Mostly it’s surfers who are drawn to the reggae music and margaritas served up by owner Carlos. “When I was born, I never saw a foreigner, we never thought we’d see ‘the spot’ become a tourist place, full of surfers. We were more dedicated to farming. Now almost daily we see Americans, the whole world comes here, for the waves. For us it’s better, there’s more work, more possibilities for money.”
Town president Antonio Mattern has the newcomers on his mind too. “I have a small store. In ten years I hope my store is bigger. I will need things that foreigners like. A gringo came to my store and wanted toast, and manchego cheese, and a bottle of wine. I don’t have those things.” Mattern says he’s been thinking that maybe with their bottle of wine and toast surfers would like a comfortable hotel to stay at after a long day of paddling, one with electric fans and cable TV. But el Presidente says his development dreams would always be realized on the residential side of the gate, that the beach will remain sacred and untouchable.
Despite seeing economic opportunities, Mattern is not completely sold on all the changes in town.“The local kids don’t go to school anymore, they want to be surf champions. My son started surfing; all he wanted to do was surf, surf, surf. I said you know what, better you go to Oaxaca(City) and forget about surfing.” In fact Mattern says with foreign surfers have also come drugs and other corruptive influences.
Just up the path from Mattern’s store Heinz Castillo sits in a plastic lawn chair on the half finished second floor of a concrete home. He has a roof but only one wall, where he displays his wares; posters, sunglasses, some shorts a few t-shirts and a few boards donated by altruistic travelers. Heinz is the manager of the first ever surf store at “the spot.” “I almost don’t surf anymore. I concentrate on work. It’s been almost two years since I surfed much. I have to be here, attending to my clients, providing good service. I’m happy doing this.”
In a town where people make around twelve dollars a day capitalism only means so much. In fact over the course of my week at “the spot” I don’t see anyone set foot into Heinz’s store. The fact that he’s dedicated to it says something though. The seed has been planted.
But it’s not just money and surf that may change “the spot” forever. As I make my way to the town square I get a mouth full of dust from a passing white Chevy Suburban. Normally, based on the current boom industry in Mexico, I would guess the operators of the vehicle were drug lords. The doors of this beast of a car swing open and five enormous, pale white Americans step out. Evangelicals. Dressed in t-shirts, shorts, and sandles, with crosses around their necks they look like a Botero rendition of some of the disciples. Two locals at the bus stop stare and try to make sense of this odd crew. “Those are Mexican women,” one says of the two large female members of the group. “American girls are skinny. All of them.” I try to explain that this is a myth, but they are happy with their image of gringas and prefer their illusion. I sit down in the square and watch the sunset over the lush green mountains. Kids are playing soccer and baseball on the concrete plaza floor. The Evangelicals take out a guitar and start to play a few tunes. Half of the youth gather around and sing along.
Chris, the leader of this mission, says he’s been coming down to “the spot” for over a year, usually for a month at a time, to offer medical and dental clinics for locals. He heard about the town the same way every foreigner does, through a surfer friend who had come through to see the wave. Chris says there are a few locals who share his group’s Christian faith, and they are hoping to attract more, but that has proven difficult. He chooses his words carefully, “we just want to show them we do care about them, that we care about their needs, and we want to go out from our world that we are normally in to go out of our way to help them, so they can see the love that’s in there. Then they can see why we’re here, with the bible and everything.”
For the most part locals seem to tolerate the missionaries. The Assembly agreed to allow them to visit for five weeks before they had to leave. There is no approval for a permanent mission. Chris says it’s been a tough sell.“There are people who have made some comments, that we don’t want you to come back here. There are some people who are firm in not wanting to change the culture here.” He notes that the sparse attendance at Catholic Mass is evidence of an opening for something new. What he seems to miss is that this tiny village does have a faith, a different kind of one, a strength they get from each other, the community and from the beautiful nature that surrounds them.
At the end of the day everybody seems to want something from “the spot,” the federal government, surfers, evangelists, companies, even Diego. Now that it is on the map, the community is trying to figure out what it wants from the outside world. Is it possible to invite outsiders in from eight a.m. to sundown everyday, like an amusement park, and then tell them to go away? Is it possible for a village of sparsely educated, hardworking, fiercely independent campesinos to determine their own fate in the face of a global economic machine? So far that answer has been yes, but that might not last for long.
Diego lies on his concrete floor looking up at the ceiling, Carolina lies next to him, eyeing him intently. I ask him about the fate of his chosen place, a town he now has a literal and emotional stake in. If “the spot” was ever really at risk of turning over its magic to outside interests, would he step in, would he say something? So far he has kept quiet at Assembly meetings, sitting in the back and taking mental notes. Diego knows that interests and threats inside the village are more likely to change his beloved “spot,” than any outside influence. That’s why he is careful with his advice. In some ways, as an outsider with perspective on the world that is trying to kick in the door, Diego is the one person who might be able to save this place. He admits it’s not that simple.
“I’m in a delicate situation, things could happen to me, I know.” But he says despite the risk there may come a day when he is no longer quiet. “When I do say something they will listen. Maybe some people should be worried. I don’t know what I’m going to say, I don’t know what subject it’s gonna be on, I don’t know what’s gonna come up, I just know that when I say something, I’m gonna say the truth.”
Down at the beach on a hot Sunday afternoon foreigners are catching waves and locals are taking barefoot strolls and enjoying the cool water. Diego and Carolina sit in two plastic chairs and look out at the ocean. They sing a duet in Spanish, a song they like from the radio. The waves aren’t big enough for Diego’s attention today, so he’s chilling with his girl.
A tall blonde California dude with a surf bag stops for a rest on his way to the wave. “Anything good today?” “Nah,” says Diego, “pretty small.” The Californian is upset, he was told there would be a swell and has been waiting for five days. He took a week off from work and flew down to catch the last good waves before winter. The dude trudges on towards the break, visibly frustrated, knowing he has to fly home tomorrow. Diego sees guys like this as the beginning of the end. Rich gringos in board shorts, able to fly in at a moments notice, take what they want, and leave without contributing anything. The town is starting to see this differently. Exploitation can be a two-way street ultimately, and the foreigners, love them or hate them, bring money.
But today is too beautiful to worry about the future. Diego smiles and laughs, he knows he does not have to go anywhere tomorrow. He’ll be right here at “the spot,” the place he chose three years ago, and the place that has now chosen him. Diego is right, it’s not about him, or globalization, or local politics, it is all about a wave, one of the best in the world, that rain or shine, surfers or not, will keep breaking, day after day, just like it always has, rolling endlessly back into the sea.