I send a chunk of driftwood jack-knifing through the air, but the water’s too far away and it just drops with a pat. My head follows to face the sand between my knees where I spit, ending the roll-up. At 4am the clouds hold just enough light to cast dim silhouettes up the shore: motel huts, trembling fences, far-off hills and (or hopefully not) Peruvians skulking the coast. Not that I’m racist, just wary. Two nights ago some lumbering Scot dragged himself out here, vomiting and writhing in the sand. When he woke up he had a bloody mouth and no wallet. Poor guy. Still, as long as fools are learning the hard way, I won’t have to. I sit here smirking until a voice inside asks ‘What’s your lesson, then?’
Next morning it’s my surfing lesson. I promised the instructor I’d get there by eight, but that’s stupid early for a traveller and besides, there’s an eight minute took-took ride and the kid wasn’t even there when I went out! The surfing instructor nods in understanding, scratching his stocky bronzed chest, but there’s a smile there. This is a man who has never worried about time.
He demonstrates several stances and wind-milling gestures, barking commands I don’t quite catch but I assume any cretin could pick up from Baywatch. Then I make a dash for the sea. Thigh deep and I’m wading, only not the theatrical kind. In my tight wetsuit I’m about as smooth as a commuter with sunburn. The surfboard is my brief case. No, think Hasselhoff. I’m going in, and I’m David Hasselhoff. The first wave comes and I jump over it landing cold on my chest, paddling about the board. Wave two turns me skyward, then onto my back with a slap, clutching the board. Now my shins hurt so I paddle out with new zeal and manage to catch the third wave, riding steady for about a breath, until a wall of backwash sends me hurtling ahead. Twenty minutes in, I’ve sprained my ankle. So I head back towards land, and finally greet dry sand. Panting stoically, I look down at my feet. A toe bleeds. Hassehoff, yes indeed.
On the boardwalk I find the entrance to Loki, that massive chain hostel whose western comforts dominate the young travel scene all over South America. I size up the white stone building with - I admit - some smugness, as if I’m so above this juvenile hub of rambling decadence. Still, I’m standing here, if only because of two things: 1) I know a few travelers staying here. 2) I’ve still got a surfboard, and that looks kind of cool. Already I’m walking up the stairs and onto the familiar poolside scene: bar staff chatting, gringos drinking, splashing around. A short girl with ginger hair comes over to, but I can’t remember her name and I figure she won’t remember mine. She says hey.
‘I’ve just been surfing,’ I say, nodding down at the enormous thing.
‘Really?’ She seems surprised. ‘Did you do alright?’
‘Uh yeah . . . I mean the tide’s so low at this time there wasn’t really anything to ride on. I’d have to go back a better time…’
‘Sounds miles better than me!’
‘…Like really early in the morning, that’s the best time.’
‘We did it yesterday and kept falling off!’
She laughs, covering her mouth. I laugh too.
‘You’ve got to start somewhere.’
Back at my hostel, up on the high wooden porch where the bar stays open all day, Matt the Australian is drinking at the bar. I wave at him and he lifts his hand with a sloppy ease that tells me he’s been drunk all day. Yesterday he sat around with his friend Tim, and they drank from 11am to midnight, putting everything on their tab, laughing and chugging and doting on Michael Jackson. ‘He had it baaad’ they told me repeatedly. ‘You can’t understand it, you’re too young, but it’s true. He was just a beautiful, beautiful guy and he got the worst deal, from all angles’. That’s what they said, but now Tim isn’t here and Matt has a strange, hassled look. I take a stool next to him and order a beer.
‘Sup!’ he says.
‘Hey Matt. Where’s Tim?’
‘I don’t know mate, I was going to ask you the same thing.’
‘I haven’t seen him. Weren’t you with him yesterday?’
‘Yeah I was, I really was, only I haven’t seen him all day and he’s nowhere around the hostel. I’m worried he’s gone off with a hooker or something.’
‘Wouldn’t he tell you?’
‘Yeah, he would. I can’t get my head round it.’
‘I’ll have a look around.’
Tim isn’t anywhere and the sun is going down. I feel a silly sort of worry, but as soon as I notice I stopped caring. Tim is only one guy of hundreds, and if a man twelve years my senior hasn't worked out how to stay in one place, then God help him.
A day later I hear he went for a wander along the shore and passed out on the sand. Maybe he was depressed about Mickael Jackson. Either way, he stayed there all night.
It's time to go home.