Southbound and Letting Go

Monday morning en route to the office. I stand with one hand reluctantly clutching the greasy yellow overhead handbar, trying to rock back and forth with the bus, trying to think, “you’re a chill surfer guy now, just be chill.” Nope that’s bullshit. The sweat and heat of four peruvian men against me penetrate my goddamn soul. I try to zone out and sink deeper into the decidedly un-peruvian ambient indie folk music in my earbuds. It doesn't work. The bus jerks to a halt and I stumble, my leaden gringo foot landing hard on the sandaled flesh of the man in front of me. He glares. For Pete's sake. So what’s with this sad picture of monday morning self-indulged self-pity? I’m living the millennially fetishized global dream while my friends shiver it out in Canada right? It comes down to the available bandwidth any foreigner has for opening themselves to a new culture, and the fact I’d far overdrawn during the weekend. The situation may not have been helped by two full days of sun and surf separated only by a little clubbing and 3 hours of sleep in a hammock. But perhaps one could consider all that to be just “part of accepting the culture.” Anyways, the story goes like this.

Peruvian dudes’ gravitation to white women is strong. Stronger even than even the inexplicable interest Peruvian girls sometimes express in gringo chumps like me. Since arriving in this hemisphere, my attractive, female Canadian co-workers seem to have an endless stream of guys pursuing their “friendship.” Big surprise. Many of these guys surf, naturally, and I’m looking for surf buddies, naturally. Now I’m a man too, so I know how these guys work; I know that they aren’t merely walking phalluses looking for the next warm place to lay their heads. I know, however, that that’s definitely often at least part of the reality, so when I’m invited to this new friend Augosto’s beach house for the weekend along with the Canadian chicas, of course I’m a little wary. But I’d met Augosto and the guys a few times; their kindness and interest in this smiley, naive, and novice Canadian surfer seemed genuine enough, and the promise of good waves and better adventure was too alluring for me to pass up.

Saturday morning I find myself sardined 4 abreast in the back of a small black hatchback ripping south on the Panamericana del Sur towards a beach I didn’t yet know the name of, with some guys I’d known for less than a week, and of course their main attraction, the Canadian chicas. The modernity of Lima rapidly gives way to the southern slums, the sand dunes growing almost as fast as the welfare of the people falls. In the shadow of a behemoth, sun-bleached Pepsi billboard, garbage clutters the shoulders of the highway, sharing the real estate with women and men hocking beach paraphernalia to the southbound monied limeños. The inflatable tubes, umbrellas, chairs scream neon pink, green, startling the senses, out of place amongst the pale beige-grey of the dunes and even paler blue-grey of the sky. Children in the yards of their adobe homes play under the legs of their family’s livestock while the wealth of the city hurdles past them at 100km/h.

After a few hours we veer right, leaving behind the relative familiarity of a 4 lane highway in favour of a potholed gravel road making its way through a spill of humble single story brick buildings. It’s anything but a fancy beach community enjoying the money of foreign tourists;  this is Playa Azul, a place where regular folk come to enjoy the summer. I waste no time renting sleek single fin longboard, unable to resist the gravity of the Pacific. On the water, I get a much needed breath of familiarity. The hours fly by as I dance up and down the board on a deliciously clean, chest-high left point break in the rotating company of Augosto and the other Peruvian dudes. I learn that the strength of their love for the chicas is rivaled only by their love for surfing. I still can’t understand much of their rapid, slurred Spanish slang, but after lots of nodding, laughing at the appropriate times, making the motions of a breaking wave with my hands, and catching a few good waves in front of them, we solidify enough of a bond on the water. And I come to learn that they want to hook me up with a Peruana chica that night. Not sure how I feel about that. We surf through the yellow orange glow of the Pacific sunset until light fades.

By the time we reach the the “beach house” it is about 9:00pm. There are already a bunch of people here, Augusto’s cousin and friends. A pang of nerves flows through me. It's literally and figuratively a world apart from the cool, damp air, campfires and verdant coastal rain forests that characterized my post-surf experiences in the Pacific Northwest. The fear is a subtle electric current in my gut that I acknowledge, then use to fuel my awkward shoulder-dancing to the raggaeton pulsing from behind the dusty wooden door. I decide that this will be the last time I look at my phone for the night. I let go of my ego, of my self-consciousness. It’s time to embrace my surroundings despite the discomfort. It’s time to draw on every last megabyte of cross-culutral bandwidth. I raise my eyebrows and flash a nervous smirk at Augosto and I dance on in.

The place a suitably grimey Peruvian surf shack: wet sand in every corner, furnished sparsely with only the necessary party inventory. A fridge, a white plastic table and deck chairs, 5 bedrooms, 2 waist high speakers. The floor and walls, like everything else in this country, are all ceramic tile everything. And it’s all perfect. I'm staring up at the bamboo roof when a dark featured girl in very short black jean cut-offs, a black crop top and fake eyelashes breezes against me looking over her shoulder as she walks away. I turn around to Augosto, who is smiling. He hands me a Pisco drink and two condoms. “My friend,” he says through his thick accent, “ella te gustas, y ahora está listo.” “She likes you and now you are ready.” Christ. He is probably right about her liking me. He can’t be more wrong about me being ready. I take a drink. It’s stiff. “Well,” I think to myself, “guess I’ll need this”.

The night that ensued was probably less crazy than I’ve suggested it might be. I obviously didn’t want to lose control in a situation like this, or do anything (or anyone) that I’d regret, which I'm happy to report I didn’t. But I also didn't want to be confined by self-built walls. If the night was a wave that I surfed, I managed to stay in the nice, steep, smooth "pocket," just ahead of the whitewash. But as with surfing, remaining in that sweet spot is no passive process, demanding a seemingly self-contradictory combination of contrived focus and unthinking free flow. Thus an ocean of emotional energy is required to find clarity through the incense and cigarette smoke, hear truth through the pulsing raggaeton, understand the unspoken dialogue of body language, taste sweetness in an unsolicited dancefloor makeout, all in effort to sculpt a positive experience from a profoundly unfamiliar medium. 

So how do you win friends and achieve social success without language and cultural understanding? Resource scarcity demands creativity; when your words are limited you need to be improvise. And I’ll tell you, as a guy who enjoys a great command of my native language, this is very humbling and is nearly as demanding as it is rewarding. Yes, it would have been comfortable to gravitate to the wall of the absurd beachside nightclub we ended up at, or to have indulged in speaking mostly English with my few Canadian friends. But I wanted to receive all that this new place, these new people, this new culture had to offer, and so I invested my entirety in the moment. And when you put everything you’ve got into an experience, that’s when it fully reciprocates. That’s when you can truly receive all that a moment has to offer.

Even if it means borrowing emotional and physical energy from your Monday.