Overlooking sets of waves, surfers seem to slip from an expectant watching into a quiet meditation. The rhythmic swell washes over their faces as if the tide cleans their minds. Perhaps they are transported to the belly of the sea, to the barrel of a wave, and the gaze gets to be still amid the movement. I liked watching surfers scattered along the tan cliffs of San Juanico as their eyes glazed through and the ocean took over.
San Juanico, a tiny and remote town with one of the best surf breaks on earth, captured us for over a week and taught me how surfing, adaptation, and rural electrification can converge in the simple words of a stranger carried by a wave.
We sailed into San Juanico and anchored away from the surf breaks and away from the town along a long white crescent of beach. We braved the surf break and strolled towards the town, meandering through the fishing pangas pulled onto shore just out of the reach of the tide. We found clumps of shark heads dumped on the beach, rotting at the edge of the dunes, where desert meets sea. After eating breakfast the next morning with the town’s entire police force at a house hosting camping surfers, we wandered around the dirt roads, looking at the quirky and colorful houses mixed with shacks and sprawling compounds. The paved main street gives way to the only road to town from the outside world, which is braided dirt for at least 50 miles. We found the store that functioned as the local grocery. On our voyage south, we had not found much for fresh food—these places are remote and sparsely populated. Oil, Fruit Loops, potatoes and pears (yeah, I have no idea why pears) were the only certain things we would find. But in San Juanico, I found bananas, cheese, and peppers. With an eye to our dwindling cash, we stocked up and walked back to the dinghy with two full bags. After we rowed out and stowed our food, it was time to see about the legendary surf break.
We had dropped the hook out with the fishing boats, making for a long paddle into the back of the break. I had never approached a wave from the ocean before, and I felt trepidant as we paddled toward the three other surfers in the water.
The surfers in the water were relaxed and giggling as they caught rides half a kilometer all the way to shore. There, they would hop onto the sand, pat the pack of surf dogs, and walk around to the spit of sand that clings to rocks that emerge at low tide. From here, the paddle was shorter back out to the break. Uly surfed himself to shore and I followed, paddling back out only when Josh came on to keep him company and I didn’t have to worry about him getting clobbered trying to follow me back out. That dog will swim through nearly all surf’–an admirable fearlessness.
As soon as I spun my board and paddled for my first wave, my soul swelled with a smile. The gentle wave carried me nearly all the way to shore, and I watched the wave curl to the right and felt the energy carry me gently to a deep spot, where it let me go. I paddled as fast as I could out to the break, and before I could catch my breath I caught another perfect ride, inching my way to the right to avoid the deep spot and step onto the shore at the end of my ride.
This went on for hours, plus adding three goofy Canadians who cheered and encouraged me to drop in on them. (‘Dropping in’ is when someone is already surfing a breaking wave and you catch it at a slightly later point, disrupting their trajectory.) We paddled back to the boat happy and exhausted.
The next day we moved Far closer to save our paddling energy, and we hopped into the water with Uly. After dropping him off on shore to carouse with the surfer dog pack, we caught rides that stretched for half a minute or more to the shore. The Canadians returned with their laughter, and a white-haired local chimed in with vibrant chatter and instructions for a determined woman taking her first attempts at standing on a moving board.
Probably for the same reason I love conducting research that involves talking to people, I love catching ‘party waves’, where everyone can ride the same wave together. As Josh and I paddled for the same wave, we came upon one of the Canadians and the old man. The four of us stood up together, and I laughed as I tried to stay close enough to them without taking them out.
Feel your seat! the old man called to me.
And with that comment, I suddenly remembered that I was a body with legs, and I felt my weight sink into them.
Feel your feet! he roaring, cackling. That’s it, you GOT it!
And the weight spread all the way down my legs and radiated into each of my toes, and suddenly I felt nimble on the board, a perfect pair joined on our mission to slice through the clear water. Little silver fish hopped in front of the nose of the board and I connected with the swell.
As a yoga teacher, I have been shown how to allow the movement of my body guide my balance, and I know that, for example, if I focus on stretching my fourth toe while in a split I can suddenly melt into the floor. (Go ahead, try it next time.) And in that way, the message channeled through the old man and into my heart, grounding me in movement:
Feel your feet.
But as we returned glowing to the boat that night, the weather began to change and the balance was not to last. We rolled a little on the anchor, and the next day that was followed by the clouds. As wandered around town, we discovered a small wind and solar plant providing housing for all the local Ospreys. The 7.5kW turbines were installed in 1999 in a hybrid system with solar energy to relieve the town of the burden of intermittent and expensive diesel energy, since they were too far from the grid to justify a connection. The system includes 420kW of battery storage and a more efficient 120 kW diesel generator. In addition, everyone in the town agreed to pay a higher energy rate for their independence. In this way, a tiny town in Baja was leading the international community in rural renewable electrification nearly 20 years ago. They paddled for that wave long before the more advanced wind technology emerged as a group, and they continue to ride this party wave as a practical function of daily life.
Back on the sea, that night returned me to anchoring discomfort. Bobbing, weaving, jerking, creaking, the boat bucked under a black sky. We tried sleeping in the center of the boat by dropping the table down, and although Josh could snooze, I once again dug into the closet for the comfort of synthetic Green and snuggled into the lazarette, lulled by the occasional drizzle. As dawn trudged gloomily into town, we quickly loaded up the sleeping bags, some water, and rowed to shore to wait out the storm.
We wandered the beach and found a wash that took up back into a low canyon, complete with a 200+ stack of shark heads on one bend for Uly’s rolling delight (sigh.) As we returned back down the canyon, the skies finally let go of their heavy weight and drenched us through our coats. We had left the dinghy flipped over under a palapa, so Josh propped the nose on the little shelf four feet up the post of the narrow thatch umbrella, creating a two-person shaped shelter. With yoga mats for padding, we huddled, quiet and tired, in our sleeping bags under the dinghy.
Usually this thing is just getting us wet; for once it’s keep us dry, Josh murmured wryly.
What a great dinghy! Whatever way we flip it, it keeps the water off. We watched Far for hours as she plunged through the waves and wind on her anchor, squinting to discern if it became less violent or changed directions—as the app on our phone had promised when we had a momentary internet signal. (In San Juanico, we were able to find some very slow internet—but we never had a phone signal.)
So what for dinner? Almost no cash remained, and Josh took off for the store to return with three items: avocados, mayonnaise, and tortillas. Dinner.
As darkness fell I wanted to return to the boat, our home, even if she was still a rough ride. We rowed out as the seas finally shook off their vigor—but not enough to not feel our bizarre dinner when I stood on the bow. It was my first and only moment of seasickness on the entire peninsula, and I sat down quickly and quietly outside. I certainly did not want to see the avocado mayo mix again. The seas eased into the night and we were able to sleep.
Bigger south swell met us with the sun in the morning, enough to need to move the boat further away from the surf break. New surfers showed up to ply the waters, and I found I was too drained to make the long paddle back out in a much bigger swell, so I caught smaller rides on the outside. But the joy of the party wave was gone, and I missed the laughter of people who did not care about the size of the wave, those that only found joy in the water. Nor did I remember my feet.
After our surf we wandered the streets again, enjoying the sun and few people who choose to call this remote stop their home. We found a small, beautiful brick building at the edge of development land, poised to sell soft drinks, chips, and wine to a future homeowner. I started to chat with the man outside, who turned out to be the owner. He moved to San Juanico from La Paz in the late 70s because his family owned property they could ranch here.
Are things the same or different? I asked.
Once again, a pensive pause.
Well, it’s the fishermen, he said. There just aren’t any more abalone. There used to be so many abalone divers here, that was who lived here. Now, it’s only the fishing. If they didn’t switch to fish, they couldn’t survive.
Over 300 kilometers south of Cedros, the same changes had sculpted the community. But this bay, Scorpion Bay, had the fortune of waves so beautiful that people moved and built houses here to live next to the energy of the ocean. They moved here for the chance to catch waves that wrap for miles from the black rocky point out on the Pacific all the way into the Bay. The fishermen anchor their boats just out of the reach of the largest swell; the surfers get the space in between. They both have an important socio-economic place in the Bay—enough for this man to build a tidy little store on the edge of town and adapt to the changes over the course of 40 years.
We bought two cold beers and strode back down the yellow dirt road to the boat.
I suppose this is what it is to feel your feet. This man, and many of the fishermen, can only ride the wave. This town, for the practical reason of being far from the grid, has wind and solar generation that mitigate, even in a small way, the very cause of this transition for the fisherman, and allow them to adjust to the intermittency of rural power. Although they cannot control the swell, they can control their board, and they can enjoy the party wave. They can build beautiful brick structures, enjoy the company of Osprey and adventurer, and share beers and fish with the campers on the beach.
They can feel the flow, nourish their roots, and with their feet on their ground and their eyes to waves they are making space for everyone to thrive, even as the swell builds.