Mexico | Enter Sand-Dan

The remainder of San Cristobal was calm: I went out one night for a dance, and the rest of the time I just chilled in the hostel and chatted to a lot of people and spent one particularly lazy and enjoyable day watching the new Lord of the Rings series on a big screen in the hostel. My energy from the first few weeks of my trip was leaving me – it always does around three weeks in.

I don’t know why three weeks is the marker, but it is. I felt it in India, too. It sneaks up on you – a weariness, a desire to decline further adventures, to avoid speaking to anyone new, to do nothing at all and just lie on your bunk like a walrus. It’s easy to spiral into guilt when you start feeling this way: you’re on holiday! You’re having a trip many people only dream of! You’re in a beautiful place with open minded people doing crazy things! The guilt makes it worse, and you end up languishing in this odd mirror-land where you want to do everything and also nothing. It’s not… great.

It’s only natural that this should happen, really; the first week is a complete mindless rush, not a moment’s pause or reflection, and the second week is a deeper dive into the culture with more faces, more cities, more hostel check-ins and check-outs, and by the end of week three you’re just a bit… well, you’re knackered. Like, imagine how you feel at the end of a wedding party. Now imagine that wedding party went on for three weeks, except with new guests every day. It’s no cause for concern, this exhaustion – it’s just a part of travelling you have to go through; you rest up, you do your own thing for a bit, and soon enough you get your second wind – which usually lasts a lot longer.

The second wind is different: you’re no longer in holiday mode, you’re on the road. At first you say yes to every single thing that comes your way. Then you chill out: you party less, you become more selective in the people you spend your time with, you turn down activities you’re not really interested in. Or… maybe you don’t – that’s the point. You figure out what you like and don’t like, you find your pace and your style of travel, and you stick to it. For me, I like to travel in stops and starts. It’s a bit like in Westerns when they have thirty-minute long scenes of, like, cowboys scratching their stubble and eating beans and swatting flies, and then blam, someone is called out as a cheat in a card game and all hell breaks loose. Similarly, I like long periods of independence and reflection and writing and looking at things and thinking ‘hmm’, followed by a blowout where I ruin my health and reputation and have to flee the town in shame the following morning. It’s called balance, don’t you know.

*****

Next stop on my grand tour of Mexico was Puerto Escondido, a surf city on the Pacific Coast. The thirteen-hour night bus there was as weird as my previous bus journeys: random passport checks, 3am stops at deserted stations, passengers watching endless Tiktoks on their phones at 5 in the bastard morning. A man snored very loud and I hated him. A woman in uniform got on the bus with a camcorder and filmed all the sleeping passengers one by one, then got off with no explanation. A drunk man punched the bus as it drove past. And at midnight we were heading down a very long, straight road, and I glanced at the driver and saw he had no hands on the wheel at all, and was busy writing something in a notepad.

At one point we drove over a patch of rough road just as I was dozing off, and I woke with a start and my mind went ‘EARTHQUAKE’ and I jumped up going ‘GUAAAAAGHHHH’ and then went very quiet when I saw we were driving along calmly and all the other passengers were staring at me. I like to think I generally have good bus etiquette, but alas: it turns out I’m just as weird as everybody else.

I arrived in Puerto Escondido at 8am, and instantly fucked up by deciding to walk to my hostel rather than pay 10 pesos (about 50 pence) for a collectivo. Night buses are cold, so I was in black jeans and a black t-shirt, and by the time I reached my hostel on the beachfront an hour later I was sweating and hateful and pink.

There’s not a huge amount to say about Puerto Escondido (although the name is very fun to say – pwhere-toh ess con dee doh, weeeee). It’s a pretty town, with a lovely beach and palm trees, and everybody is very sexy and tanned and surfer-chic lean. I never feel at ease in surf towns, however. Everybody is so damn joyous. It feels unreal sometimes. Lots of long-haired tanned young people all fist bumping and rolling joints and calling each other bro and getting spontaneous tattoos of cool animals, I dunno. I get it – it’s just… not for me. My moods fluctuate too much; to be in a location where everybody is happy all the time makes me feel like a bore. Like, you wake up in the morning feeling a little bit groggy and confused, and someone sees you walk out of your dorm and they go ‘EYYY BRO WHAT’S UP MAN!’ and I have two choices: wave meekly back at them and disappoint them, or abandon my sincerity to go ‘EYYOOOOOO DUDE LET’S FUCK THIS DAY UP!’ or whatever surfer people say. If I do the former I feel guilty and boring; if I do the latter I feel like a fraud. It’s hard to know how to be.

There was a lot of drugs in Escondido too, which I’m very much done with. Berlin was a long time ago, and upon leaving the city, I left behind any penchant for narcotics I may have had. There were a lot of techno parties in the surf town, and I went along for this girls’ birthday and everybody was necking pills and powders and whatever else. I didn’t partake; instead I milled around and drank little cans of Corona and talked to a very eccentric Canadian woman on her hen do, who for some reason bookended everything she said with a noise like this: Hnnnghhhh!

Yeah I dunno.

I went to the beach one day with Nienke (she was in the same hostel) and two English girls, Hannah and Ariadne. We lay on a secluded spot of beach, which we accessed via a hotel that looked like it might had been pried from a beach in Soviet-era Siberia and transported by chinook to Mexico.  Although it was beautiful blue-green and warm, the sea was choppy, and it was hard to walk into the water without getting chucked all over the sand by the crashing waves, a metre tall. I stifled a laugh at one point watching Ariadne attempt to do the Ursula Andress walk out of the sea, only to get slapped in the back by a wave and smeared all over the sand like marmite on toast.

Nienke didn’t swim at first, instead choosing to sit by herself. When we’d all got out, however, she decided to stand up and head into the water. I kept an eye on her as she swam out to sea, trying to be responsible. However, she kept swimming out – further and further, until she was a pin-prick on the horizon. I stood like a concerned father on the sand, one hand on my hip, one shielding my eyes from the sun, watching her tiny head bob further into the distance.

“Why has she gone so far out?” I asked Hannah and Ariadne. “Reckon she’s okay?”

“She’s probably fine,” said the girls.

“I don’t know,” I said, watching the little silhouetted head disappear behind waves for several panic-inducing seconds at a time.

Twenty minutes passed this way, and I grew increasingly restless. I was weighing up my options, and they were shit: lie down on the sand, assume everything is okay, and potentially allow a disaster to happen – or panic, call the lifeguard, and potentially look like a total jittery knob in front of all the cool hippies when it turns out that Nienke is absolutely fine.

After twenty-five minutes of watching her float around on the distant tide – barely discernable from the shore against the gleaming sunshine – I saw her raise an arm above her head and wave. Then she waved two arms, criss-crossing them above her.

“Okay she’s waving. SHE’S WAVING,” I said, pacing back and forth on the beach. “She’s asking for help!”

“She might just be waving,” yawned the girls, from their recumbent position on their towels.

I could see no other option: she was waving. I had to get help. I hurried up the beach to the weird Soviet hotel, and found a woman washing dishes. I used my best Spanish:

“Disculpe.”

“Si?”

“Mi amiga es –”

I simulated swimming. The woman looked at me. I tried to indicate ‘far’ by throwing my arms away from me. Then I shrugged my shoulders to indicate my ambivalence on the matter.

“Muy muy muy,” I finished.

The woman raised an eyebrow at me, then went to get someone else. A minute later the gardener came over, and I repeated my eloquent explanation. He walked with me to the beach, and we stood on a hillock of grass for a better view. I gave him my sunglasses, and together we squinted against the sun glittering off the waves, and I pointed out Nienke’s tiny ant head.

“Es… okay?” I asked.

He wasn’t sure. He called over a blonde woman carrying a baby and asked her opinion. She squinted, and called over a tanned woman with a dog. The tanned woman wasn’t sure either. Finally, they erred on the side of caution, and dispatched a beautiful bronze surfer man to swim out with a board. He jogged down the beach in silence and dove down against the surf.

With the whole beach by now aware of the unfolding drama, I stood on the beach with my hand shielding my eyes once more, and watched as the surfer man paddled out to where Nienke was floating some two hundred metres away. I saw him reach her and bob alongside her for a while, then he paddled away and caught a wave to surf himself back to shore.

Nienke arrived on the beach five minutes later.

“Hey,” she said, sitting down next to me. “Did you see me waving at you?”

“Yes,” I answered, fumingly. “I thought you were drowning and I alerted everybody and sent a life guard to save you.”

“I wasn’t drowning,” she said. “I was just relaxing.”

GAH.

And then of course I was the beach dork, the killjoy of the shore, the Mark Corrigan of the sands, and Hannah teased me whenever somebody went for a dip in the sea.

“Oh look,” she said. “There’s people paddling over there. Maybe you should go call the lifeguard again.”

God dammit.

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