At first we were pleasantly surprised by the Mexican bus, which was much cushier than any Greyhound coach we'd ever come across. The seats were plush and there were even TVs mounted on the ceiling showing grainy soap operas. The bus filled up quickly with passengers and we got comfortable for the twelve hour ride ahead.
The first six hours were fine, but things started to get funky halfway through the trip, and just as the air grew dense with the stench of traveling humans and their food and their cigarettes snuck out of cracked windows, we hit the thin coastal highway. The driver throttled ahead, disregarding any speed limit, hugging mountains on one side and touching a dark abyss, high above the nighttime ocean, on the other.
Having an overactive imagination regarding perils to my own safety, I clearly envisioned plummeting over the precipice to certain death, so I remained stapled to my seat, whose maroon fabric no longer felt so plush, and squeezed shut my unsleeping eyes against the hours.
We finally arrived just after dawn, and already the town sank under palpable heat and humidity. Every surface and object seemed engorged with the air's moisture; the soil was black with it, the vegetation practically vibrating.
In our cheap hotel room, a small metal fan on the fake-wood-paneled wall slowly whirred, its tiny force not enough to move even a breath of air. We were exhausted from our sleepless ride and needed to nap for a few hours before exploring the town, but it was almost too hot to sleep. We got a bucket of ice water and placed it between our twin beds and took turns dipping towels in it which we laid over our foreheads and arms and legs in an effort to dampen our emanating heat.
When we awoke in the midday brightness the mattresses were sopping, and it took all of our will to comb back the hair plastered to our faces, put on our thinnest clothing and head into town. We quickly saw that even in our sundresses we were overdressed. On bar stools, in restaurant chairs, on car hoods, over pool tables, we saw surfers, only surfers. Lithe surfing boys and languid surfing girls. Having spent a lifetime in the middle of Texas, I had never seen a surfer in the flesh, and most of them looked like stereotypes made manifest, all blonde braids and shell necklaces and cool tattoos. Their bodies looked like they'd been formed by moving ocean water, like the cliffs smoothed by centuries.
As we continued our walk through the town, their omnipresence made us feel even more uncomfortable than we already were. They looked fresh and tan in bright, dry swimsuits while we were rosy and wet in clingy clothes.
It seemed odd that we would be swimming in their midst.
We circled back to our place and decided to hit the beach, which we could see from our hotel. The ocean was calm and the sand eerily empty. The water was perhaps too still for the surfers and that's why they had taken over the town. Do surfers spend time reading on the beach like regular tourists? Do they relax on towels or are they only interested in the wave, the thrill, the transcendent active experience?
We were happy to have the horizon and the water to ourselves, where we would finally rinse away the bus ride and the ruthless humidity. We waded into the opaque water and immediately felt the floor drop off sharply. We paddled close to the edge, looking out at the limitless, primordial, frightening blue of the ocean.
"Hey!" Cutting across a dirt path was one of the beautiful surfer boys, with long trunks and hair the color of the sand.
"Hi!" We waved back to him.
"What do you think you're doing?" He jogged toward us.
My friend and I glanced at each other, a little deflated. Clearly he wasn't coming over to introduce himself and welcome us new girls to Puerto Escondido.
"Uh, we're swimming."
"You can't swim here. Do you have any idea how dangerous this water is? There's an undertow that only professional swimmers or surfers can handle."
Like children being scolded by the older, cute lifeguard, we dragged our unprofessional bodies out of the deep water in shamed silence. He had recognized that we were not of his ilk just from our bobbing heads in the water. A second later we asked defiantly, "Well, where the heck are we supposed to swim?"
"I don't know, but you can't swim here." And he immediately turned back, leaving us on the empty, forbidding beach.
We stayed awhile to dry off and exorcise our embarrassment. There aren't even any signs! It's a beach town, for crying out loud! Where are the beaches for us regular folk? This is ridiculous!
The town wasn't exclusively populated by surfers, was it? Our guidebook had said "Puerto Escondido is known for its beautiful sandy beaches" not for its superior surfers and deadly undertows.
We crossed back over the dirt road to the hotel and saw our surfer savior, surrounded by those of his own stripe who were draped over white plastic lawn chairs in the grass drinking beer.
"Hey girls!" He called and we reluctantly made our way over to their group. "You asked me where you could swim."
"Your beach is over there." And he pointed to the kiddie pool at the front of the hotel. They all laughed, and we moved away, red from sun and humiliation.
Later we asked at the front desk and the clerk showed us a different beach on the map, safe for us tourists.
It was crowded with beach towels and happy families lounging. There wasn't a surfer in sight, and we were content splashing around in the shallow water, just like the kids.