New Year’s Eve in Cabo San Lucas


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I would typically call New Year’s Eve amateur night. Lots of fussing over just another night. One of the best parts of any New Year’s Eve worth its volume in champagne is the viewing of puegos pyrotechnicos. To wind down our ten days in Cabo San Lucas, I and my traveling partners hit Medano Beach around 11:30Pm to catch the fireworks and ring in the New Year.

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The all-inclusive resorts that front Medano Beach were roped off, having their own party with live music, fancy, lit-up dance floors, and folks with their dancing shoes on.

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We went a little more low key, opting instead of ooing and aahing between the two sets of fireworks going off, with the banda soundtrack in the background!

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Surfing Baja on Christmas


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After a three-year hiatus from Mexico and surfing, it was time to get back on the ocean-horse and see if I can still paddle. We spent three hours at Zippers, a fast, mushy point break between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.

Above is the highlight of the day, a full ride into shore on a 10-footer. Excellent day.

Read more about SheSpoke’s surfing adventures.

Snowboarding in Your Comfort Zone


Conventional wisdom is stupid. Conventional wisdom for those of us who spend much of our time playing in the outdoors is a special kind of stupid. In order for conventional wisdom to work, the intended recipient of that wisdom is usually a dilettante or a newbie or a weekend warrior. Conventional wisdom I like to ignore:

Never ski/ride/hike/surf alone

Carry a GPS device with you

Ski/ride/hike/surf with those better than you–it will raise your game

To those purveyors of outdoor recreation wisdom I say “hogwash” and proffer this up instead:

Know thyself

Do go out alone, especially if you’re in very familiar territory and need some alone time to reconnect with nature, your thoughts, your soul, or all of the above.

Do not venture out alone if you are just getting started in this sport. The chances for injury/getting lost are high.

Do not carry a GPS device unless you are geocaching. Instead, read your maps, use a compass, or go with someone who knows where they’re going.

Do not rely on GPS devices to compensate for your lack of preparation.

Do challenge yourself by going with others who are stronger at the sport than you are. They can show you that catching that wave/riding those trees/navigating that rocky singletrack is possible.

Do not always go out with those of better abilities because you will be constantly catching up and out of breath, and this particular sport will cease to be fun for you.

That last point rings particularly loud for me. I spent most of this snowboarding season going with other folks, all of whom were better than me. It felt really good hanging with folks who are considered experts, and it did a ton for my confidence.

But I was always huffing and puffing, always wanting to head back to the lodge, always needing water. I was often grateful for the long, cold, windy lift rides so I could catch my breath. Meanwhile my present company was usually yukking it up, talking about the sick trees I didn’t dare drop into or the steep drops I rode around.

I often felt on the verge of collapse or control, and my legs were often begging me for a respite, both that day and the next (and the next). We can be challenged away from a sport if we have too many experiences like these.

My field hockey coach in high school called me a tiger. My skills were barbarous, but I could keep up with any mid-fielder, and I just went after it. I even tried to argue with her when she took me out of a game because the rock-hard ball had pierced my skin, right through my shin guards.

I love a challenge. I love brainy challenges, athletic challenges, and professional challenges. (For the record, I HATE interpersonal challenges, although I am getting better at them.) I swear I’m gonna teach myself the basics of Sanskrit grammar some day. I look forward to scuba diving and finally taking up downhill skiing. I will turn my (mis)adventures into a travel memoir, even though conventional wisdom tells us that that genre is a difficult one both to write and publish in.

So here’s to the comfort zone–the ability to have sustained confidence in your abilities because you’re going at your own speed and are staying within your limits. You look around when you’re in your comfort zone, taking things in instead of having them rush past you. In your comfort zone you can concentrate on your strengths, paying attention to the little things you do well. Getting better at the things you do well, so next time you head out with those higher up on the skills food chain, you will huff and puff less and learn and enjoy more.


Patagonia’s Winter Clearance Sale


People, one of my favorite companies in the whole world is putting its discontinued fall and winter stock on sale. This Friday through Monday, Patagonia, founded by visionary Yvon Chounard, is clearing out its stores at the heavy discount of 50%.

I’ve written about Patagonia before, but I just had to write about it again as the Denver Examiner.

P.S. I tried mountain biking yesterday but it was too muddy. I’ll try again this Saturday. Green Mountain again.

Martha Gellhorn Swims


As I wind down the last day of surfing in Baja Norte, I think of one of my heroines, Martha Gellhorn, who, in her travels as a war correspondent for over 50 years, swam as around the world. Not in a circumnagivating sense, but in a “I’m here, where I can swim?” kind of way.

For this and many other reasons, I chose to celebrate the life of Martha Gellhorn in the best way I know how.

Surfing and road trip pix to follow. Promise.

SheSpoke’s Top Ten of 2008


Readers-

Can you stand another top ten list?  Here’s my top ten, in no particular order:

1. Learning how to salsa dance

2. Discovering dark chocolate

3. Spending a month with my family this past summer

4. Starting my first novel

5. Surfing in Sayulita, Mexico

6. Attending my high school reunion

7. Voting for Barack Obama

8. Attending SoundSession in Providence

9. Having my speech and debate kids make finals at state

10. Getting my first paid writing gig

 

A week on the life in Sayulita
A week in the life in Sayulita

Greener Pastures


After five excruciating and boring hours at O’Hare, I made it home to Rhode Island.

Thirteen years of living at least a mile high has made me rethink normal:

1.  It’s normal for grass to be brown and yellow.

2.  It’s normal to have your nose bleed every morning.

3.  It’s normal to drink a gallon of water a day and still always be thirsty.

4.  It’s normal to venture outside at dusk and not encounter mosquitoes.

5.  It’s normal to see mountain peaks, like, every day.

Being back home in New England resets the normal button.  All of the sudden normal means:

1.  It’s normal for highway landscaping to be lush, even verdant.

2.  Normal is pronounced naw’ muhl.

3.  It’s normal for Dunkin’ Donuts products to occupy the bottom third of the food triangle.

4.  Cloudy and grey are normal adjectives.

5.  It’s normal for NESN to show every Red Sox game.

And it’s normal for me to go to the beach at every opportunity.  I’m going to check in with the cats at Gansett Juice about surfing in Rhode Island.  I’m here for a month and want to hang ten (or hang heels) as much as possible.

Tonight I’m going salsa dancing at xxodus in Providence.  I will keep you, my six faithful readers, posted.

SheSpoke

The Training Wheels Come Off!


Readers…

Please forgive my extended absence from this blog.  I have been mired in school-work.  The good news:  the high school speech and debate team I coach fared very well at the state tournament (one team took 6th) and I’ve got most of my peers, students, administrators, and community members convinced that I’m a competent, caring teacher.  That’s what I’ve been doing for two months.  Well, that and yoga.  And learning how to salsa dance (more on that later, I promise).  And of course, surfing.

Which brings me to this post’s topic.  I was fortunate enough to travel to Mexico for spring break a couple of weeks ago.  I have been planning this trip in my head for years, before I ever bruised my ribs on a surfboard:  surfing with my girlfriends in some tropical paradise–experience not necessary.  Last fall I made initial inquiries and three brave souls signed up.  (For some reason I’m known among my friends as the crash-and-burn type?)

We settled upon Sayulita, Mexico.  Two of my girlfriends had learned to surf there and spoke glowingly about it.

Sayulita is just over twenty miles north of Puerta Vallarta and is accessible by bus for $2.  The bus is chicken-free but bumpy-full.  If the bus isn’t your thing, you can hail a taxi for $50 if you catch it from the airport, $30 if you walk across the street and hail one.

Lodging

Sayulita is being gringified, but it’s still Mexico.  There’s no all-inclusive here:  we rented a house on the beach (appropriately called, “The Beach House”) for $50/night per person.  The Beach House is actually a compound and we rented the Upper Garden, which had no windows and no clocks and some ants.  It was awesome.  My friend Robyn remarked that with its curved “walls,” pink and green decor, and banana leaves for windows, that it was straight out of a Woody Allen film.  I concurred.  Kim, who’s used to all-inclusive Mexico, immediately reacted with, “I love it!”  Fifty feet separated our front door (glorified shutters) from the beach.  This meant easy access to cold beers in our frigde but it also meant loud nights from club music and neighborhood dogs.  We had a full kitchen replete with a thirty-foot curvy island, a bathroom with tiles and wooden stakes instead of walls, and a lounging area along the entire sixty-foot wall.

The Beach

The beach was right outside our door.  It was in a bay and had three restaurants that jutted out into the sand, onto the beach, and many more patios overlooking the water but encroaching upon beach space.  It was crowded.  This former sleepy fishing village where Mexicans go to vacation was overrun with pasties like me on Spring Break.  You realize when you’re abroad how much time Americans spend complaining and stuffing their faces.

Vendors come at you constantly, charging $1 per donut or tamale–the same can be had just a block or two away for half that price.  The water is not the limpid blue of the Carribean but is inviting nonetheless.  This beach had no less than five surf shops, a masseuse, and a bevy of restaurants, all serving cervezas and margaritas.

Get to the beach by 9am to claim your territory.  The umbrellas and palapas are owned by the restaurants just behind the rentable umbrellas and chairs–usually to the tune of $10 a day.  Not a bad price for shade in tropical paradise, especially when your dermatologist’s warnings about skin cancer are resonating in your head.  Again, the obnoxious Americans will plop down right in front of you, obscuring your view.  They can’t help it; it’s just what they do.

Surfing

The main goal was to surf and that’s what I did.  My first full day there I rented from Duende Surf Shops for the unbelievable price of $40/day.  I know what you’re thinking: $40 is a lot for a surfboard for one day.  Once again, I concur.  I rented, as I always do, a nine-foot Sunspot, the foam core boards that everyone learns to surf on.  I was determined this week to take the training wheels off, but Duende would not rent me a fin.

So I rented the Sunspot, got up twice in a row, no problem, and traded in the styrofoam for a beautiful eight-foot board whose design was fashioned after bamboo hardwood floors.  I wore my rash gard all day and thank God because after surfing for about four hours in the tropical Pacific, this Irish girl was burned.  Badly.  Back of legs and that area between my rash guard and the top of my bikini.  After I took a two-hour siesta post-surfing on the curved lounge of our place, I spent the next two days trying to ease the burn and the pain that came with it.  I would also spend the next two days out of the sun.

Back to surfing three days later.  This time I rented from Lunazul, which was half the price of Duende.  I rented from Lunazul because the owner there was the most helpful as I tried to track down a wetsuit so I could still surf with my raging sunburn.  None are to be had in Sayulita, by the way.  He directed me to the Coral Reef surf shop in Bucerias, just a few towns south of Sayulita.  I REALLY wanted to surf but I also REALLY wanted to not drop another $100 on a wetsuit when I had one at home, hanging blithely on my bedroom door.  I opted to stay out of the sun for two days and read and enjoy Pacificos.

Why, do you suppose, does Duende charge twice as much as the other surf shops?  Well, they have the best variety of surfboards.  They also take the best care of their surfboards.  The Duende surfboard had been freshly waxed and had none of the sand-cum-wax grime that graced the top of the Lunazul board, which irritated and scraped my already sunburnt thighs, stomach and ribs.  Caveat emptor.

The Beach Breaks–Sayulita boasts two beach breaks.  Toward the southern end of the bay is the beginner break where lessons take place.  It’s a scary place because there’s no surf etiquette and tons of kids are splashing around the water’s edge and in harm’s way.  Up north is the intermediate break.  The breaks are about 50 yards out and are impossible to paddle out to with those Sunspot boards.  In fact, getting over the waves was my biggest obstacle.  I had no problem catching waves or standing up but I was so exhausted by the time I paddled out that I would have take a good five- to ten-minute rest before trying to catch a wave.

My surfing experiences, if you can recall, have been mostly limited to Northern California where the water is cold, the sets come in quickly, and the waves crash hard.  Sayulita, in contrast, had lolling sets with 10-15 seconds in between that are paddleable and ridable.  Although I was able to catch waves, I was never able to officially drop in.  I would wait for the wave to crash over me, swallow my panic, then stand up in the whitewater.  (My friend Robyn noted that I was able to catch a six-foot wave doing this!)  I would then turn and ride the wave almost all the way into shore, angling south when I could because the shoreline in front of the intermediate break is rock-ridden.

Sayulita is very beginner-surf friendly.  I was able to move up rungs on the surfing skills ladder in a matter of days.  My friend Kim was able to stand up on her board within the first half-hour of her private lesson ($40).

Nightlife

Our first night I convinced Robyn to go to Don Pedros, an upscale restaurant with tables right on the beach where you could kick off your shoes and scrunch your toes in the sand if you so desire.  Don Pedros was having salsa night and since I had been taking lessons for a few months, I was anxious to show off my new skills.  We paid the $4 cover charge (which can be avoided if you enter from the beach–so do it) and listened as the ten-piece salsa band did its thing: huge percussion section, trombone, cow bellist, you name it.  The music was awesome.  Alas–no one was interested in dancing with the Irish gringo.  No matter–I taught Robyn a few salsa basics, plopped down $8.50 for a shot of Don Julio tequila and tried not to feel rejected.  If you go to Don Pedro’s, enter from the beach and order only beer.  Plus, bring a dance partner.  Guaranteed fun.

Because we were traveling with an eight-year old, we didn’t really check out the party scene.  Kim and I had Pacificos our second night in Sayulita at El Capitan, which features Popeye on the front of its menu.  El Capitan is located right on the beach, just next to Patricia’s surf kiosk.

Our third night marked the apex of our partying.  Because I was sunburnt I was a little more liberal with my cerveza-imbibing that I would have been had I been surfing.  We had a little maragarita party at the casa that night, invited some Americans over, and Kim and I went out to a club around the corner that had live music (it seems that just about everyone does).  We made fast friends with the waitress and her friends, who happened to be the local pickpockets.  At least I found someone to dance with.

The rest of our evenings we spent doing movie night with the portable DVD player the eight-year old had insisted on bringing along.  God bless her.  I watched Chicago (the best musical I’ve ever seen) and the same bits and pieces of High School Musical 2, which oddly enough, takes place in Albuquerque.

The Town and Its Restaurants

The town boasts a plaza where vendors hawk their wares, taxis take you places, and break dancing breaks out at midnight.  All around the plaza are restaurants whose prices, unfortunately, did not seem to be on a Mexican scale.  Standard Mexican food ranged from $6-$12, with seafood platters occupying the upper regions of the price scale.  None of the food was fantastic and the service was slow.  Some places will tell you that 18-20% tipping was standard, although I know from the friends we made at El Capitan that the natives still only tip $1-$3 dollars.

Our best meal in Sayulita was our last.  It was a taco stand that had a full, roasting pig on a spit.  The stand is located a block north of the bridge that separates one side of town from the other.  It’s just over the bridge from the ballfield, which is where the bus drops you off.  The tacos are $1 each and are unbelieveable.  We were the only gringos eating there and we each ate three tacos.

Sayulita, In Retrospect

I would absolutely drop another several hundred dollars to revisit this original little town.  Here’s some things I would do differently, however:

1.  Get a quieter, cheaper place away from the beach.

2. Buy a cooler for the week and save on eating beach food.

3. Bring my wetsuit (the water in March is almost cold enough to warrant one anyway) in case of another sunburn.

4.  Explore the town a bit more–stay away from the plaza, where things are busy and overpriced.

5. Rent my surfboard for the entire week instead of daily and negotiate for a better price.  Most surf shops don’t open until 8 or 9AM and some of the best, uncrowded surfing can be found in the early morning hours.

6.  Invest in some zinc oxide for sun protection.

Check out sayulitalife.com for more info.

Ocean 3, SheSpoke 1


Picture a northern California surf town: weathered shingles, chipped wainscoating, houses on stilts, and bright bougainvillea dotting the sidewalk.  Laid-back, sandal-toting folks stroll leisurely down the two main streets, ducking in and out of coffee shops, delis, book stores, and surf shops, of course.

Bolinas, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, fully embodies this picturesque surf scene.  It also has something else–sharks.  Surfing magazine, in its where-to-go guide book on surfing Northern California, calls this place shark breeding grounds.  In other words, you’re asking for it.  But because it’s a premier beginner spot, we had to go.

We headed out to Bolinas one Sunday afternoon.  Traffic coming back was going to be a bitch, we knew, but this was to be my last day to surf for months: we were going.  Conditions called for glassy to three feet:  surf’s down!  we celebrated because down is better than up when you’re still learning.

Getting to Bolinas is tricky–the turnoff is hard to see and locals have been known to knock the sign down to keep outsiders away.  I am no stranger to territorialism, having worked in a ski area for a few years, but Bolinas is not known for its huge swells–why would any experienced surfer care if the likes of us became shark bait?

A lagoon marks the turnoff and the locals had been lazy about ripping down signs, so we found the town without incident.  Our first stop was 2 Mile Surf Shop, an unassuming but busy little place that rented us the same foam-core Sunspots I had been on all week.  They’re buoyant but hard to paddle out on.  The hard-crashing quick waves of Pacifica and the tricky undertow of Ft. Cronkite were absent here:  all we had to do was swim across the current that fed the lagoon.  This was not easy.

The current carved a forty-foot wide quick-moving channel between the two parts of the beach.  One part, it seemed, housed old town Bolinas with its shops and stilted houses.  The other part, the one we were swimming to, seemed full of second homes, farther back from the beachhead and a little too ostentatious for the town’s character.  Swimming from the old to the new was difficult, as the current, unless you were swimming faster than it, was destined to take you into the lagoon.  Trudging from the lagoon would have meant more humiliation in a week of eating crow, so I gathered up all my strength and swam as hard as I could.  I was winded but excited–the waves were less than three feet high and cresting at a predictable and manageable speed.  This was going to be our day.

My friend Adrienne got up on her first wave.  This was a good omen.  I, on the other hand, was struggling not to catch the wave and not to pop up, but to finish the job–to ride all the way into shore while balancing on the board.

We were having a great day, sharing the wave with some high school girls who were also learning, so nobody was a wave-hog or cutting in line or in general breaking surfer code.  This made for a very pleasant day.

Ocean flora and fauna abounded:  brown seaweed and tufts of sea grass laid out among jellyfish and baby seals.  As a native New Englander I’m used to seaweed so I just pretended it wasn’t there.  I was a little more concerned with the jellyfish, although I only saw a couple of those.  The baby seals made my heart leap–first with joy then with anxiety as the realization sank in:  Don’t sharks eat seals?

From then on my concentration was lost.  Focus, so essential to learning a new skill (especially a physically demanding one), had been carried away with the current after seeing the baby seals. 

In about two hours I managed to pop-up over a dozen times and stand up at least that many.  But the image of hundreds of white teeth coming baring down on my foam core board while wearing a wetsuit that made me look like a baby seal would not leave me.  I was spending more time scanning the water and listening for the duh-nuh-nuh-nuh of Jaws than surfing.

My time in the waters of northern California, it seemed, were up.  Today was a tie, bringing the final tally to Ocean 3, SheSpoke 1.

Hey, at least it wasn’t a shut-out.

Read more about SheSpoke surfing in San Francisco.

Ocean 2, SheSpoke 0


I was a bit sore when I headed out to Rodeo Beach/Ft. Cronkite for my second day of surfing.  Nothing hurt, exactly, but my muscles felt heavy.  Rodeo Beach is also ridiculously close to the city, a mere two exits from the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge.  I exited onto Alexander Avenue, hung on until I hit Bunker Avenue, and pulled into the cul-de-sac where I would spend the next few hours.

I had been to this beach years before, bedecked in jeans and a sweatshirt.  I remember wistfully watching the surfers on the northern cove of the beach, which abutted the craggy rocks this part of California is so famous for.  Less than two dozen surfers were fighting over not much wave action.

Unlike Pacifica, which attracts true beginners because of its proximity to the city, this beach is strictly intermediate and above.  As I paddled out on my foam-core Sunspot, I felt like a sixteen year-old driving my Yugo up to a Porsche convention.  Not wanting anyone to ding my Yugo, I veered to the very southern tip of where the waves seemed to be cresting.  I was yards away from anyone else and safe from incurring anyone’s wrath.  The ridicule, however, was a different story.

Undeterred, I carved out my own little section of the ocean.  The waves were fast, and I had trouble paddling quickly enough to keep up with them and pop-up.  Plus, there was an undertow.  Now even though I grew up on the coast of New England I still have no idea what causes an undertow.  I just know what it feels like:  it feels like someone is trying to pull you under by your toes.  Seriously.  At one point the undertow sent my surfboard into my right thigh.  Pain.

After about a frustrating hour, I drove the Yugo north along the shore, telling myself that I earned the right to get in someone’s way if need be.  The waves were better.  Much better:  more consistent and just big enough for the five of us hovering there.  I caught a few waves but for some reason had trouble maintaining my balance once I popped-up. 

Ninety minutes later I was out of the water.  A photographer sat next to me, and we both watched the surfers sitting, waiting, and hoping.  At one point he pointed his camera at me, point blank, and I stiffened.  He could have asked.

By this time, the waves had dissipated, probably brought on by the high tides.  I’m not exactly sure why the surf is better during low tide, but when I find out I’ll post it here.  If I’m wrong about this, please correct me in the comments section.

I peeled off my wet suit and booties, chugged some water, and changed into my clothes.  Luckily I brought my supafly Patagonia water shorts that I had bought for my whitewater kayaking trip in the Berkshires earlier that summer (not ready to write about that one yet).  They dried immediately, and I set off for a short hike along the coast.

The wind whipped through my clothes, made me cold, and eventually turned me back toward the beach.  But the view from those hills.  Look down and the ocean and its unforgiving rocks threatened you.  Look far offshore at the oil tankers.  Look behind at the steep hills covered by some kind of red flora and succulents instead of grass.  I’m not used to this kind of topography and it overwhelmed me.

I washed my board, wetsuit, and booties at the showers at Ft. Cronkite, checked out the surfing scene (replete with Betties), and headed home, where I passed out.

Back up and read about Day 1 of SheSpoke’s surfing adventure in the San Francisco area.