I flicked idly through the used books in the dank enclave of a second-hand bookshop beneath Pike Place Markets in the city centre of Seattle. I picked up The Alchemist, wondering if I should read it again. I could hear the shopkeeper’s voice commenting in jest on an elderly woman’s comments loaded with innuendo. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I couldn’t buy a book. My bank card had been frozen earlier in the day, skimmed in an ATM and the last remnants of my money whisked from my account. It was rainy outside and the waterfront seemed uninviting as I wandered aimlessly in my predicament, waiting for something to happen, waiting for it to somehow be fixed. Waiting so I could buy some of the dried fruit stacked in vibrants piles on storefronts, waiting for my stomach to stop complaining at having not eaten for more than 24 hours.
I was well and truly ready to get out of North America.
Things began in New York. I stumbled onto the airport train in the afternoon at JFK, my limbs were weak, intoxicated by jetlag. I’d felt alert until minutes before my flight landed, when I had become drenched in sleep, unable to lift my head when we were directed to disembark. I negotiated the subway and walked slowly through Manhattan in the rain, night-time planting a tiny seed of panic at confusion in locating my accommodation.
I spent two days wandering the famous streets and avenues, getting drunk in the afternoon as the sun set over the Statue of Liberty and somehow managing to make it onto my flight bound for Mexico. Mexico City began in the same chaotic confusion new cities and new languages always do. It took me two hours to decipher the transport from the airport, and it was late before I finally sat down to eat. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t travelling alone.
We met as a family in Mexico City, my older brother Nick, his girlfriend Mitzi and my confusing and complex boyfriend at the time, Fab.
Fab and I had spent the months previous to my untimely but ultimately predicable exodus back to Africa living in a caravan in my hometown in remote Western Australia. It was my first voyage into a real and somewhat serious relationship, a situation I was highly unfamiliar with and therefore liable for causing problems in moments of claustrophobic panic. Things had been tough going distance with Fab while I’d been away. Our communication broke down, our tempers picked up and eventually things seemed to tip right over. But we were here in Mexico and no matter what, we were going to have a good time.
Mexico City is a thrilling place. It is noisy and the traffic dense, yet the walkways are clean and filled only with plump women in high heels, buskers playing obscure instruments and men beckoning people into their restaurants. The architecture rings of the buildings of Barcelona, elaborate structures squared off yet embellished by the finest carved details, the amount of time taken to create each piece of ornamentation seems incomprehensible. The centre of the city is crowded with these buildings, chapels that frame the public open spaces, any of the small corner structures being easily mistaken for what might have been Frida Carlo’s house.
We left the city quickly, bound for Puerto Escondido, in a tiny plane that rattled into an open runway set against thick greenery and palm trees, mountains becoming in the dimming evening haze. The kind of humid heat that hit as I stepped off the plane was that of familiarity, thick air weighted with anticipation and what I might like to describe as the feeling of coming home.
Puerto Escondido was bigger than I expected, the crowds and the heat sending us south within a few days to a village called Barra De La Cruz. Barra was catapulted into the pilgrim path of surfers when a Ripcurl Search event was held there back in 2006. The right-hand point break was famed for the manner in which it could hold giant swells that ripped out of the North Pacific. Dredging of a river around the point however, has made permanent adjustments to the sandbank, ruining the reputation of the break and deeming it somewhat destroyed. What we found however, was almost entirely perfect.
We stayed in a guesthouse behind a steep hill and a short walk down the road into a national park to the beach. It was owned by an affable lady named Blanca, whose kids spent their days playing in the yard and her husband intently watching the loud TV. It was blissful, we were disconnected with no reception or wifi and time ticked over surfing the point, sipping Coronas and dozing in hammocks that caught the breeze on the balcony.
Until an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit 600km offshore and things got a little strange.
I awoke to a banging downstairs, sitting up abruptly in annoyance at the noise other guests must be making. The banging became a hard rattle until I was shaking Fab awake in confusion, what was happening? I perched on the bed watching the glass panels in the door, Fab mumbled in his sleep but didn’t wake. After a few minutes, it registered. This wasn’t a train passing close by, it was an earthquake. I burst out onto the balcony, Nick and Mitzi stood against the railing, the distress evident on their faces. The building seemed fine. Blanca called up to us, checking if we were ok. After a few moments of thrilled exclamation, we established that it all seemed in normal condition and returned to sleep.
Within a few hours Blanca was knocking on our door, asking for Fab – the only one in our group that could comprehend Spanish. She had seen there was a possibility of a tsunami on the news and was taking the kids to higher ground. It took Fab a minute to register before relaying me the information. I clambered out onto the porch, a tsunami? What would happen? Would it reach us here? I stumbled in a vague state of panic, realising that Blanca had been our only form of contact with the outside world and now she was gone. How would we leave? We had no car, would we just run into the hillside?
After a few minutes of Fab pacifying me I decided the best way for it not to happen was to pretend it wasn’t, climbing back into bed without alerting the others and going back to sleep. Probably a poor decision at the time and a potentially signal as to my inability to make good choices under pressure, but hindsight is always 20/20 vision.