Under the Jacaranda Trees

I went and sat under the jacaranda trees.  I took off my sunglasses so that the beauty of their pale purple flowers might reach my eyes unmolested by expensive polarized plastic.  I looked up into the branches.  The flowers floated against the pale blue summer sky.  They seemed to capture and slightly change the azure of the heavens like clusters of violet stained-glass.  The two cool colors played together as the bunches of flowers shimmered on the breeze.  The ephemeral and the eternal just out of reach above me.

The flowers fell to the grass around the trees and created purple drifts like magic snow.  On the ground they were still pretty.  They retained their soft, magenta hue but they looked like deflated balloons after a party.  The sweet, kind scent of the flowers fell with them and surrounded me in a protective veil.

Every year I anticipated the arrival of the lavender flowers with excitement and a twinge of sadness.  Their display was always so brilliant and so brief.  For years I had distractedly admired their beauty as I walked by.  It felt good to finally just sit under them.

The old dog panted next to me.  His tan furry feet were buried in the fallen flowers.  Liquid icicles of drool hung from the corners of his mouth as he blissfully surveyed the world.  He was not an overly affectionate dog.  He was loyal, strong and intelligent but never needing of attention; that was until those long tendrils of slobber appeared on a warm summer’s day and then with great skill he would maneuver to be petted while dripping saliva onto my arms and feet.  I could only push him away with false annoyance and laugh.  He smiled back at me with absolute contentment on his face and a sparkle in his benevolent, brown eyes.

Damn, I love this mutt I thought and then I wondered how many more times we might see the jacarandas bloom together.

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Romance and Hammerhead Sharks Ninety Feet Below the Surface

I stared at the skeleton of a long dead volcano that protruded out of the churning Pacific Ocean and felt a powerful combination of excitement and intimidation.  Three massive grey rocks were all that I could see of the gigantic crater but I knew the wonder that lay below the surface of the dark blue water.  It was my second time at the famous Gordon Rocks dive site and I couldn’t wait to get in the ocean.  The last time I had been there I saw Galapagos sharks, black tip reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and a pod of dolphins but I had missed out on the huge schools of hammerhead sharks that made Gordon Rocks the most famous dive site in the Galapagos.  On my previous dive I ran out of air and had to go up five minutes before the dive master and another diver discovered a gigantic school of hammerheads.  The opportunity to dive with dozens of hammerhead sharks had been my main motivation for visiting the Galapagos.  I had been so close but I had missed it so I had returned for redemption.

The surface of the water flowed and rippled like a swollen river.  The current brought small sea creatures and nutrients which fed the large beasts that I was there to see.  But the current also made diving much more difficult.  The violent battle between the water and the massive rocks gave the dive site its nick name “The Washing Machine”.  Most dive companies would only take divers with 30 dives or more to Gordon Rocks.

We arrived early in the morning and I hadn’t gotten much sleep but my enthusiasm dominated and banished my fatigue as I hurriedly put on my wet suit.  I looked around the small boat at my fellow divers and hoped that they were almost ready.  There was Marco, a German whom I had met in my hostel the day before, as well as Steph and Sean a friendly Canadian couple.  Oscar, the dive master, completed our group.   I knew him from previous dives.  He was my favorite dive master in the Galapagos because of his passion for wild life and technical skill.

Once we were ready Oscar directed the captain of the boat to maneuver as close as possible to one of the colossal rocks.  We sat on the edge of the boat and did a final check of our gear.  I inhaled deeply from the mouth piece of my oxygen regulator while I looked at my gauges.  The familiar sheeeh, sheeeh, sheeeh of the air cleared my mind and relaxed my nerves.  “One, two, three, go.” Oscar shouted.  I took a deep breath from my regulator and leaned back.  I fell a few feet and the world became light blue liquid.  I relaxed and waited for my body to naturally right itself and float back to the surface.   My head emerged from the bubbling and churning water and I saw my dive buddy, Marco.  We swam to the back of the boat and found the rest of our group.  We all flashed the okay sign to each other and started down together.

I released the air from my buoyancy control device and smoothly sank into the massive crater.  The world became quiet.  I slowly spun around and took in my stunning surroundings.  The grey rock walls that sloped a hundred feet down to a white sand bottom were covered by red and purple coral.  Gordon Rocks was a perfect open water aquarium.  A special and unique ecosystem suspended in the deep blue water of the Pacific; miles from the Galapagos and hundreds of miles from anything resembling a reality that I had ever known.  Even in the Galapagos, which possessed some of the strangest and most incredible habitats in the world, Gordon Rocks was especially magical.

As soon as we descended into the crater the current’s irresistible pull took us.  If we didn’t do something we would have been pulled out of the crater and into the open ocean in a matter of minutes.   Oscar signaled for us to grab on to the rocky slope of the crater.  I found a good hand hold and tried not to bash the coral with my tank and fins as I twisted in the current like a wind sock.  We watched as several white tip reef sharks patrolled around us.  White tips tended to be the most timid of the sharks in the Galapagos but on that day they maneuvered their streamlined bodies confidently around us.  Their graceful movements were captivating but after several minutes it was time to move deeper into the crater to continue the search for the hammerheads.

We descended twenty feet down the slope and almost immediately Oscar rattled his metal shaker to get our attention and excitedly held a fist to his head, the sign for hammerhead sharks.  We paddled down to a large boulder and held on.  Several large hammerheads glided effortlessly against the powerful current over the white sandy bottom right in front of us.  As they swam their strange heads swung from side to side.  The shape of their heads was ridiculous, powerful and sleek all at the same time. Unlike all the other sharks in the Galapagos the hammerheads had thick bulky bodies.  They were elegant and primitive beasts of a design that had been proven innumerable time over tens of millions of years.

We saw two or three at a time.  They passed in front of us and then melted into the rich blue water.  I looked up and saw four more hammerheads swimming above us.  Their unmistakable shape perfectly silhouetted by the sparkling blue early morning light.

I had seen hammerheads on several other dives but never like that.  Before they had always been just barely in sight for a few seconds before disappearing into the murky water but now I was surrounded by them and I couldn’t have been happier.  We held on to a boulder and watched the sharks appear and disappear and reappear again until we were low on air and then we turned and slowly swam up the contour of the crater towards the surface.

We made our way to 15 feet below the surface and then paused for three minutes, an extra precaution against decompression sickness.  We floated near coral covered a rock wall that formed the South side of the crater and waited for the time to pass.  The water at that relatively shallow depth seemed especially bright and clear after the darker and cloudier water near the bottom of the crater.  One of the other divers made the hammerhead signal and pointed below us.  A seven-foot long hammerhead emerged from the dark blue water and swam towards us.  In the bright light every detail was crystal clear.  I could see the texture of its slate grey skin.  I could pick out subtle bumps and ridges on its head.  He cruised from below up to our level and then higher as he made a lazy circle around us.  Then he swam back under us and with no sense of urgency gradually disappeared into the deep blue water.  Swimming with sharks is a unique and awesome experience but most times when the sharks notice you they become uncomfortable and leave and you are always disappointed and want to follow.  But when the sharks check you out and they show no fear or hesitation suddenly you become the one who is uncomfortable.

After the safety stop we slowly ascended.  The moment we hit the surface we took out our oxygen regulators and excitedly began talking about all the stuff we had seen as we climbed into the boat.

Back on the boat we relaxed and continued to describe in great detail everything we had seen while we ate our breakfast of yogurt and granola out of disposable plastic cups.

Earlier in the morning when we had first put on our gear I notice that Sean, one half of the friendly Canadian couple, had a wrist mounted writing slate.  It had several layers so that multiple messages could be recorded.  I notice the top one, the only one that was visible, had a picture of a hammerhead shark drawn on it.  My naturally cynical mind immediately thought; that thing looks useless, why anyone would need that?  But during breakfast while Steph was in the bathroom Sean leaned over to the dive master and said something I didn’t catch.  Then he lifted the top pieces of slate and showed the dive master the message written on the bottom piece.  I turned and looked interestedly at the exchange.  Sean showed me the previously hidden message.  I knew before he showed me but when I saw it all I could think was, bad ass.  It said “Will you marry me?”

I gave him a big smile of approval and then went back to putting on my gear and my poker face as Steph came out of the bathroom.  Later I found out that he had bought the diving writing slate for his girlfriend for Christmas knowing full well that it would be too big and that he would then be able to use it four months later as part of his proposal.  I had to give the guy credit for forethought and planning.

On the second dive we started outside of the crater on the North side.  We dropped into the water and sank down 30 feet and held on to the rocks to keep the powerful current from sweeping us through a giant crack in the wall and into the crater.  Outside of the crater the bottom was over 300 feet deep.  We swayed in the current and stared into the never-ending blue.  Hundreds of silver, yellow, blue and purple fish swirled around us as they too fought the current.  After a few minutes it was obvious there was not much to see on the outside of the crater so Oscar signaled for us to let go of the coral and let the current take us through the large crevasse in the crater wall.

I let go and turned towards the crater as I accelerated on the rushing water between the two massive rocks.  I was weightless and floating through a beautiful blue world.  No I wasn’t floating I was flying.  I put out my arms like a child pretending to be an airplane.  I was submerged in a sense of surreal joy.  I was propelled by the power of the sea through its sublime beauty.  I laughed with near hysterical joy into the oxygen regulator and celebratory air bubbles floated toward the surface as the guide turned and took a picture of my aeronautical prowess with his underwater camera.

After we shot into the crater we descended lower and grabbed ahold of some rocks on the inside slope of the crater near where we had first seen the hammerheads.  I looked down into the murky blue water toward the white sand bottom where we had seen the sharks on the previous dive.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pack of big hammerheads patrolling above us.  They were close together and moved with a militant sense of purpose and organization.  I excitedly signaled and pointed towards them.  They were the biggest ones that I had ever seen.  After a few seconds they moved out of sight to wreak death on a multitude of weaker sea creatures.

Oscar rattled his shaker and pointed toward the sandy bottom as he made the hammerhead signal again.  He motioned for us to follow him lower.  We moved down to the original bolder that had provided us a stable view of the hammerheads on the bottom on the first dive.  The hammerheads were still there but now there were 20 or 30 and they were much closer to us.  They smoothly moved from our right to our left over the white sandy bottom against the brutal current.  They were 12 feet long and had thick powerful bodies.  They looked like aquatic pit bulls.  Their grey skin with its granite and black shading made them appear elegant and sleek despite their mass.  It also made them fade in and out of sight in the swirling sand at the bottom of the crater.  They were ghosts; massive, silent, rock solid ghosts that materialized and then dematerialized right in front of us.

Oscar signaled for us to move even closer.  I got as low to the ground as possible to avoid the worst of the current and hand over hand pulled myself on whatever small rocks I could find.  The hammerheads were so close and they knew that we were there but they didn’t care.  We were visitors in their world and they were tolerating us for the time being.  My adrenaline which had already reached what I mistakenly thought was its maximum level kicked even higher and I found a new level of exhilaration that I didn’t know was possible as I strained to get insanely close to the amazing beasts.

I finally reached the edge of the sand and checked my depth gage.  I was at 95 feet; much deeper than I was supposed to go as basic diver.  With all the excitement I was in no state of mind to make calculated decisions but at the time and in hind sight it was safe.  I had been diving with Oscar before and unlike some dive masters that I had worked with around the world he was extremely professional and diligent about safety.  Also I had been diving nearly every day for over a week and my skill and confidence had increased greatly.  But even if these mitigating factors hadn’t been there I still would have crawled down to that depth.  The thrill was just too great.

I held onto the few rocks that I could find and watched the sharks as the current, a gale force underwater wind, tore at my gauges and regulator making them flutter like a scarf on a stormy winter’s day.  Occasionally a gust of current whipped up the sand in front of me and it swirled like snow in a blizzard.  At the edge of the sand I saw a sea turtle that was as close to the sand as it could get and it was struggling to move against the current.  It was so close to the sand that its flippers were kicking up clouds of sand as it went.  Seeing this normally graceful creature struggling made me realized the true intensity of the current.

The only things that were not affected by the power of the water besides the rocks themselves were the hammerheads.  They arrogantly glided through the current with subtle strokes of their scimitar shaped tails.

After several minutes of holding on against the current and being completely enchanted by the massive sharks right in front of me I looked at my air gauge and realized that it was time to go up.  I turned to Oscar but he was ahead of me and signaled for us to slowly swim up the wall of the crater.  I took one last look at the spectacular creatures in front of me and then turned and glided over the coral covered boulders towards the surface.

The spell of the sharks had been broken and as I ascended I remembered that Sean was going to ask Steph to marry him.  Shit, did that happened? I thought.  I looked at the couple and noticed that they were swimming especially close together.  At the 15 foot safety stop they posed for pictures and held hands.  Apparently she had said yes.

Since we had gone so deep we took an especially long safety stop.  We comfortably floated in the bright, clear water.  The morning light became stronger as I relaxed and looked down into the azure water that now obscured the sublime beauty of the crater.  One last hammerhead swam out of the deep blue giving us one final encounter.  I savored every second that it swam around us and then said goodbye as it descended and disappeared.

I reflected on what I had just seen and remember six months before when a new friend had told me about the Galapagos and that it was possible to dive with massive schools of hammerhead sharks.  Finally I had done it and it was beyond anything that I had ever imagined.

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Stars Above and Below

After a long hot day of sailing, our boat, the Lucky Sol, pulled into a deserted bay on the South East tip of Baja California, Mexico.  My friend Jason, his wife, Tina, and I set the anchor and tied up the sails.  Once we had prepared the boat for the night we relaxed and half-heartedly fished in the emerald-green waters of The Sea of Cortez.  The brutal Mexican sun had finally relented and the world became peaceful and cool.  The bay was surrounded by rocky desert mountains and a pristine white sand beach.  There were a few black cows on the beach but besides them we were perfectly isolated.  Our surroundings were lonely and desolate but also tranquil and beautiful in their own unique way.

We had run out of beer a few days before so we settled for drinks made of Tang and vodka whose only redeeming qualities were that they were cold and wet, but in that amazing place they were more than we needed.

Slowly the sun fell behind the dry desert peaks but the sky glow tenaciously lingered.  I remembered a conversation with my friend from New Mexico who claimed that desert sunsets where as good as those over the Pacific.  I relished watching a desert sun set from a boat floating in aquamarine water and I thought this may be the perfect combination of the two.

As the pink and orange light in the West finally quietly faded like a dying ember the stars burst onto the darkening sky.  Instead of our normal evening of watching East Bound and Down on a lap top we decided to take our Tang and liquor drinks, which now included tequila, onto the deck of the boat to watch the night sky.  The galactic chandelier hung low over the sailboat as we climbed onto the deck.  We lay on our backs and enjoyed the gentle rocking of the boat as the mast swayed and danced in front of the sparkling sky.  We saw several shooting stars that lasted long enough for us to say “Oh, shit, do you see that?” before they burned out.

A sense of perfect relaxation and contentment was washing over me as I lay on the deck of the boat when Jason said “I think there is bioluminescence in the water.”  We all stood up and looked down into the black water below.  It was unmistakable.  There were blue and white sparks shooting through the water surrounding our boat.  We stared into the water and watched the small waves sparkle and flash.  It was beautiful and it seemed like a perfect ending to a great night so I went down below and got into bed.

A few minutes later Jason shouted “Tim, you have to see this!”  I went back up on deck and found Jason and Tina whipping a rope into the water.  Every time it hit the water flashed blue in the form of the rope.  Sometimes the rope made an S and other times a circle and others an infinity symbol.  A splash and then the shape of the rope that was a moment later swallowed by a cloud of blue light that quickly faded back into dark glimmering water.  We were playing with an enchanted toy.

“Should we get in?” asked Jason.  I didn’t want to.  The water was cold and the desert air was crisp but as soon as he asked the question I knew the right answer.  I hesitated for a second and then said “Yes.”

Moments later Jason and I were perched on the edge of the boat a few feet above the shimmering water.

“Should we jump at the same time?” Jason asked.

“If you go one at a time you will get to see the other person hit the water.” recommended Tina.

“Okay, I’ll go first.” I replied.

I turned around and hurled myself towards the Sea of Cortez.  As I rotated in the cool dark night I began to critique my ungraceful back flip but then I hit the water and all conscious thoughts were obliterated by an explosion of azure light that engulfed me. All that my mind could process was that I had entered a cool, wet world that was ablaze with blue illumination.  I popped to the surface and let out a shout of hysterical joy.  I was surrounded by a glowing, swirling cloud of pale blue light.  As I treaded water plumes of sapphire radiance rolled off my paddling arms and legs.

A second later Jason plunged into the water and immediately disappeared into a liquid blue fireball.  It looked like he was covered in a radioactive paint that had immediately washed off into the dark water.  Every movement we made created churning currents of luminescence.  We splashed water on the boat and marveled as it flashed indigo when it hit the hull.  I treaded water with just my legs and slowly moved my arms.  The supernatural water reacted differently to my tranquil movements.  Instead of a pale cloud of light my slow-moving arms were covered in cobalt flashes, miniature lightning strikes from my finger tips to my shoulders.  As I sped up my movement the flashes intensified until I was creating pale blue clouds again.

I felt several clunks as my mind slipped a few gears.  I relaxed and accepted my new impossible reality.  I was immersed in magic.

After several mind shattering minutes I got out and dried myself off.  And then with a layer of salt and mystical, microscopic creatures still on my body I crawled into my comfortable bed and closed my eyes.  As the boat gently rocked I lay in the dark and smiled.  It wasn’t long before the lapping of the waves and the rolling of the boat plunged me into a dream world that was no more incredible or surreal than the one I had just left.

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Deal of a Lifetime

Every night while you sleep your soul leaves your body and journeys down a long dark corridor.  At the end of the corridor is an ice-cold room made of shiny grey stone with a ceiling so high that it might not even be there and in that room stands a dark figure.  He patiently waits for all of us at the end of every day.  In front of him is an ancient table made of black wood.  On the table sits an archaic iron scale.  The scale has two platforms; one for you and one for him.  This man in black stands perfectly still behind the table.  The cold breath flows from his face like icy smoke.  As you timidly approach he already has his side of the scale in order and he is ready to do business. Every night whether you like it or not you are going to make a deal with him.  On his side of the scale is the previous day of your life that is now his.  The scale solidly tilts to his side.  Your side is empty.  The moment of truth comes when you place what you have made of that day on your side of the scale.  That is when both of you will see who has won the better deal.

Most times you bring something weak and valueless and you meekly lay it on the scale.  You place a day of working a job you hate, an hour on Facebook, an episode of American Idol, a few hours at the mall shopping for iPhone accessories and jewelry and maybe on one of your better days some sex with a person you don’t care about anymore.  You know what the outcome will be but you have to do it so you gently release your creation from your soft hand.  It floats ever so slowly towards the scale.  It moves with all the power and weight of a down feather.  The chill air in the tomb is perfectly still but if there was even a hint of a draft it would blow what you have made away from the scale and onto the beautifully polished floor.  When it finally reaches your side of the scale it doesn’t even budge. The scale stays completely tilted in his favor.  He stares at you and his grim expression does not change, he wants to laugh but he is a professional.  But when you summon the courage to look into his vacuous black eyes for just a second before you slink back to your sleeping body you see a glint of arrogant satisfaction.  He has won again.  He has been at this for so long and he’s been winning for so long he is almost used to it but he still savors every one of his innumerable victories.  You turn away with your head slightly lowered and your shoulders slumped.  You almost don’t expect to ever win at this point.  On the way down the black hallway you console yourself that tomorrow is another day and so is the next.  Damn, you think, I’ve got plenty of time left.  Eventually I’ll beat that bastard.  But you know that it’s a probably not true so you decide that losing isn’t that bad.  My iPhone cover looks sweet and American Idol is awesome, you think as you approach your unconscious body.  In the morning you wake with a sense of melancholy and you spend the rest of the day thinking about Randy Jackson.

Every once in a while but not nearly often enough you are possessed by a sublime inspiration that ignites a fire inside of you that forces you to abandon your fear and you live a beautiful, epic day.  After one of those rare days you confidently stride down the inky hallway into the cold room.  As soon as you enter you look at the dark figure; you stare straight into the black holes that serve as his eyes.  His face, that has the color and kindness of granite, glowers back at you.  You slowly stroll to the table.  The scale is perfectly set up as always but tonight is different.  You look at the day that he has claimed it’s so small and innocent and pure.  It was once yours but you won’t miss it.  You feel your creation in your hand.  Fuck, this thing feels good you think as an explosion of pride detonates in your chest.  It is heavy and powerful and joyous and sweet.  You almost can’t believe that you created the object in your hand and that it’s yours but its absolute comfort and familiarity leave no doubt.  You savor its warmth and power and you don’t want to let it go but you also can’t wait to win.  No, not win, dominate and take revenge for all the times you lost.  You are about to make up for all the days you wasted.

You wait as long as you can but soon you know it’s time.  You ever so slowly extend your hand over the scale.  You pause for just a moment with your clenched fist floating above your side of the scale.  He leans in just a bit.  You release something so heavy that it makes a low-pitched hum that shakes the walls of the tomb as it falls through the air.  Its gravity sucks a little bit of the oxygen out of the room making it slightly harder to breathe.  As it accelerates it fills the room with its smell, a potent mixture of the ocean, lavender, sweat, clean sheets, rum and an autumn day in the Midwest.  It’s shiny and dark, and it’s every color at once.  It shimmers as it falls, gaining terrible inertia.  You watch it move and you can just make our flashes of white smiles and green waves and sunlight and beautiful blue eyes in the sparkles of light that it fires into the shadows of the tomb.  In its dreadful hum you can hear the sound of joyous laughter, a cool breeze and a chorus of insects in the jungle at dusk.   He cringes ever so slightly as he watches it descent toward his ancient iron scale.  It falls slowly but its power is obvious.  His somber grey visage winces.  And then your precious creation impacts the platform of the scale.  The dark metal arm slams against the base of the scale with a sharp metallic crack but the weight of what you dropped is too much and it keeps moving down.  The arm of the scale shatters and your creation crashes through the dark wood of the table and accelerates towards the stone floor.  Finally it slams into the dark marble ground of his perfect chamber but even the solid stone is weak in its path and it punches through and continues on shinning and humming into dark infinity.   You look up from the mess that you have made and stare directly into the abysses that are his eyes.  You savor the brutal deal that you have struck.  His expression doesn’t change but you feel the defeat and rage flowing from his grey face and then you turn your back on him and arrogantly walk out his door.

He watches you leave.  He has no choice.  He has to play by the rules and he has been beaten before.  He sighs ever so slightly and with a wave of his horrific twisted hand the pieces of the broken scale jump from the stone floor and reassemble perfectly on the table.  He is ready for the next night.  He knows you will be back and he doesn’t think that you can beat him again.

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First Dive in the Galapagos

The dive master discovered something interesting on the ledge of a coral covered rock wall.  I swam around a barnacle encrusted boulder to see what it was.  I realized it was a white tip reef shark right about the time that it decided it didn’t like all the attention and tried to leave.  I was right in its escape path.  White tip reef sharks are normally not dangerous to humans.   But as the sleek grey beast swam right at my head, everything that I had ever heard about trapped animals being dangerous flashed through my mind.  It got within two feet of my face and then pulled up and gracefully glided right over my head.  I turned to my right and watched as it vanished with a few strokes from its long tail.  Its grey body disappeared into the blue water first but for several seconds longer I could see just the white spot on the top of its tail stroking back and forth like the flashing beacon on an airplane at night.  I was five minutes into my first dive in the Galapagos and I had just been buzzed by a shark.

The rest of the dive was good.  I saw rays, sea turtles and hundreds of silver, yellow and purple tropical fish.  After nearly an hour underwater we surfaced and the boat picked us up.  I climbed aboard, pulled off the restrictive, extra thick wetsuit and relaxed in the powerful equatorial sun as the boat lazily motored towards the next dive site.  We pulled up to a small rocky island and the guide announced that we had arrived at Champion Island.  The crew brought out sandwiches and everybody began to eat.

I looked at the black volcanic boulders that made up the island and realized that there were several sea lions moving about and sleeping in the hot sun.  The coats of the wet sea lions were impossibly shiny and beautiful.  They looked like they were made of perfectly polished glass that had been glazed a rich bronze color.  The ones who had been relaxing in the sun on ledges that were incredibly small and high above the water were dry and their coats had become an adorable fluffy blonde.  Occasionally one would let out a bellow that was somewhere between a goat and a dog.

There was a bright blue lagoon near the rocks and I saw the occasional head or flipper break the surface and then disappear.  There were sea lions in the water.  “Can we swim with them?” I asked as I grabbed my mask.  “Yes, but just don’t touch them.” replied the dive master.  Before he had finished the sentence I was frantically scrambling over the side of the boat with my mask in hand.  I was in a near state of panic as I ungracefully flopped into the refreshing water creating a massive splash.  Every second that I was not swimming with the sea lions was a personal tragedy.

I swam freestyle at top speed toward the cove where I had seen the sea lions swimming.  After diving in the bulky wet suit with the scuba gear and tank I felt nearly naked and totally free in just my board shorts and mask.  I quickly arrived in the sea lions’ area.  I wasn’t sure if they were still in the water or what would happen if they were.  I slowed down and looked around the water that was shallow enough for me to stand in.  Several sea lions lounged on the rocks around me.  I splashed the water in an attempt to be playful and interesting.  They looked at me but were not impressed and continued to enjoy the powerful sun.

Then out of the shallow blue water a brown face materialized.  It looked like the most adorable puppy I had ever seen.  It had massive dark eyes and a friendly, curious expression.  We made eye contact.  As soon as I saw the creature I clapped my hands underwater to capture his interest.  It worked and he flew, they don’t swim they fly through the water, straight at my face.  I didn’t have the good sense to be afraid of the 200 pound sea creature that was rushing at my head; I was just so happy that he was interacting with me.  At the last second he changed direction and with the liquid smoothness of the water itself he swooshed by me.  I let out a shout of joy as I turned to see where he went.  He smoothly glided in an arc around me.  I instinctively understood the rule less game that we were playing.  I had played it when I was a child.  All that was required was that you fully enjoy and utilize the weightless freedom that the water gave you.  I clumsily rolled on my back and looked at my new amphibious friend upside down as he turned back towards me.  He immediately recognized the challenge and smoothly rolled onto his back as he gracefully glided towards me.  He then twisted and rolled as he shot by me.  I responded by doing several flips and a barrel roll.   He shot around in a tight circle and then looked at me.  I clumsily did what I imagined was the same thing.  As I battered and splashed through the water the sea lion moved as if he was part of it.  Every part of him from his streamlined face to his wing like flippers and silky coat made him perfectly suited for the marine world.

The commotion that my aquatic friend and I created drew the attention of several more sea lions.  I could tell that the newcomers were puppies because they were smaller, their coats were darker and if it was possible they were even more adorable than the first sea lion.  They also lacked the confidence of my friend and stayed in the shallower water closer to the rocks.  They looked at me with intense curiosity and they would get close but didn’t fully play with me like the first one. Instead they created a ball of twisting and twirling puppies in the shallow water.  Ever changing as they played with each other, blew bubbles and then stopped and looked at me to see what I was going to do.  They were inquisitive but cautious.  They wanted so badly to just abandon their fears and completely play with me like the adult but they couldn’t seem to do it so they would come right up to me and look me straight in the face and then shoot back to the shallower water with the other puppies.  One of the puppies bellowed into the water and bubbles shot from his mouth with the sound.  I replied with what I thought was a relatively authentic sea lion bark into the water.   I watched in amazement as one of the puppies curled his body into a crescent so that he could scratch his chin with his hind flipper.  I laughed bubbles into the water at the ridiculous feat.

Occasionally what I think was one of the mothers appeared and played chicken with me like the other sea lion but I got the feeling that she was also letting me know that she was keeping an eye on me and that I should be careful with the little ones.  I understood and whenever I felt like I had drifted too far into the shallows and into puppy space I would swim back out a little deeper and let the youngsters come to me.

After nearly an hour of playing with my new buddies I was called back onto the boat.  It was time to suit up for the next dive.  I reluctantly swam back to the boat.  As I climbed aboard the boat I looked at the other divers who had not played with the sea lions with a sense of confusion and disdain.  They had stayed on the boat to relax and have a snack and had missed out on an incredible experience.

On the second dive I saw a ton of fish and sea turtles and the whole time the sea lions swooped around us and tried to entice us into playing with them.  They would occasionally nip at our fins and one even gently nipped my mom’s hand.  It was amazing to see their agility and speed once they were in deep water but it wasn’t as much fun.  In the scuba gear all I could do was watch.

My first two dives in the Galapagos were easily some of the best in my life they could not compare to the experience I had playing with the sea lions in between dives.  While swimming with the sea lions I learned a valuable lesson that no matter how much you scuba dive, no matter how much you swim, no matter what kind of physical agility and strength you possess, you will never ever defeat a sea lion in an underwater back flip contest but by no means should that prevent you from trying.  Because as you try and fail miserably you will be interacting with one of the most incredible sea creatures in the world and you will also feel the sense of wonder and excitement that you felt when you were a kid and jumped into the water for the first time.  And that sense of childlike freedom and joy that I savored as I was befriending those incredible creatures may have been one of the most amazing things that I have experienced on this trip.

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At Last, The Galapagos

“You can scuba dive with a hundred giant hammerhead sharks and …” that was all I heard.  My new friend kept talking, I think she said something about giant tortoises, iguanas and sea lions but her voice slowly became quiet white noise as I splashed into the deep blue waters of my imagination.  I sank down into the cold abyss and was gone.  I saw the unmistakable shape of the primitive beasts.  I could almost feel the wake roll off their tails as they swam by me.  There was no detail.  The hammerheads were black and dangerous and the world was inky blue.  I felt a twinge of fear begin to vibrate in my chest.  When I floated back to reality I knew I had to go.  The shear insanity of the idea made me want to do it even more.  For the next few days I thought about going and I made loose plans in my head but eventually my desire to keep moving South and the search for good surf led me to Peru instead.  There I found an amazingly long left surf break, bright sun every day, more fun than I could handle bar tending in the hostel and a restless happiness.

A few weeks later my friend sent me an email telling me how great the Galapagos were.  She had been there for a while and she was loving them.  Again I was tempted.  I looked at flights on the internet and I almost went but it didn’t work out.  I was in a good place and I still had some things to finish so it didn’t feel right.  I promised myself that I would go someday.

Over the next few months I met many travellers who had gone to the Galapagos.  They told stories of amazing scuba dives and close encounters with strange animals.  I looked at hundreds of Facebook photos of friends sitting right next to iguanas and sea lions.

In Bolivia I met up with the friend who had originally told me about the Galapagos.  She could be quiet at times but whenever I brought up the Galapagos she would begin to glow and I would get a charming and enthusiastic lecture filled with interesting stories.  But I was on the way to Argentina; and away from the Galapagos.  Again I knew that I would have to go someday.

Over a months ago my mom told me that she was thinking about coming down to South America for her spring break.  I was in Brazil at the time and I wasn’t sure where we should meet.  I thought about going back to Colombia and meeting her there but then I realized it was time to go to the Galapagos.  It was so obvious and it felt right.

Ten minutes after getting off the plane I saw the turquoise waters of the Pacific and a cool sea breeze brushed my face.  A sense of tranquility washed over me.  I thought why am I just now getting here?  This place is incredible.  But all that matters is that I’m here now.  On the second day I decided that a week was not nearly enough time and that I needed to come back someday.  A few days later I walked into the airline office and extended my plane ticket.  It may have been the best seven dollars I ever spent.

The Galapagos were an extremely strange place.  Their volcanic origins gave them a harsh and lonely appearance but they also exuded a calm peace.  As I explored their diverse and bizarre landscapes a sense of stoic solitude grew inside of me.  They were unlike any other islands I had ever been to.  They had fields of black lava rocks but they were not like Hawaii.  They had perfect white sand beaches but they were not like Panama.  They had water that was the classic tropical blue but they were not like Thailand.  They possessed a soul that was beyond unique.  There are hundreds of mountain peaks, thousands of miles of beaches and millions of acres of jungle in the world but there is only one Galapagos.

The cost and hassle of reaching the Galapagos prevented most of the more annoying hippy backpackers from going there but they were replaced by roving packs of plump pink senior citizens who paid huge prices for organized tours that choreographed every second of their trip.  They spent most of their time on massive cruise ships and excitedly took pictures of every insignificant fish that broke the surface of the water.  I just shook my head with a combination of arrogance and sadness because I knew the splendor of sea life that was below them and that they would never see it.  The streets of Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz Island, were also filled with pasty Europeans whose white skin was accentuated by layers of SPF 1000 sunscreen.  They wore brand new, ill-fitting khaki safari outfits that only made them look more awkward and out-of-place.  On this trip, whether on a remote island, a snow-covered peak or in a steamy jungle, it has been my experience that the people who showed up with the newest and most expensive gear were the one who were uncomfortable before they even arrived and would only feel more out of their element as the adventure progressed.  The guys who rolled in wearing slightly stained jeans and old t-shirts were the ones who thrived in the extreme environments and truly enjoyed the trip.  Despite what felt like hordes of fat poorly dressed tourists the islands were still wild and unspoiled and no amount of silly gringos could tarnish their exquisite beauty.

One of the most remarkable things about the Galapagos was that there have never been any large land predators on the islands so the animals have never had anything to fear because of this they treated humans as mildly annoying fellow animals.  This unfortunately proved disastrous for many species like the giant tortoises which were hunted mercilessly by pirates and whalers.  Everywhere I looked I was reminded of this brazen lack of fear.  While walking on the black volcanic rocks by the ocean I had to take care not to step on the well camouflaged marine iguanas who felt that getting out of the way of my feet was secondary to catching some sun.  Every morning and evening when the fishing boats arrived there were several sea lions and a flock of pelicans waiting for scraps around the tables where the fish were butchered.  The sea lions begged just like puppies, incredibly cute, intelligent aquatic puppies or in Spanish “lobos marinos”; marine wolves.

In the first few days on the islands I watched the animals and birds, visited perfect white sand beaches and marveled at the azure water.  I fell in love with the place and it felt great to finally be there.  But I was not really there, not yet.  There was one overriding reason why I had gone to the islands and that was the sharks.  I wouldn’t have truly experienced the Galapagos until I dove into the deep blue waters of the Pacific and met the hammerheads.

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Carnival in Brazil

The anticipation was almost painful.  I knew that it was coming but it moved so slowly toward me that I nearly couldn’t take it.  I could hear it building its strength like a giant beast preparing for a fight at the bottom of the hill and then finally it began to move.  I couldn’t see it yet but the sound that it made radiated throughout the city and up the cobblestone street in front of my hostel.

A tsunami of rhythm swelled as it rolled up the narrow streets of Salvador Brazil.  Its power was confined and amplified by the pastel blue, green and pink buildings that surrounded it.  The snare drums’ rapid fire snapping pierced the air while the bass drums’ deep booming thundered off the walls.  Simple and primitive beats that stirred the ancient human soul millennia ago gave me a surge of energy and joy.  I knew that the same beats would possess the same beauty and strength millennia in the future.

The first thing I saw was a crowd of revellers dancing and swaying to the pulsing music.  Some of them had on normal cloths and others wore ridiculous costumes.  There were old women who moved like young girls.  There were parents with smiling children on their shoulders dressed in superman, ladybug and princess costumes.  Most of the children had cans of foam or squirt guns that they mischievously sprayed into the air and onto adult partiers.

Next came the official dancers.  Women clad in elaborate red and gold costumes that made them look like ancient Egyptian princesses.  They vibrated and twirled with the beat while their smiles radiated from their dark faces.

And then finally it was in front of me, the source of the sonic marvel.  I was shocked to see that the creators of the tidal wave of sound were teenagers playing old and dented instrument that they had painted bright colors.  They were children with shabby instruments but the music that they created had more life and verve than anything on the radio or TV and it was completely devoid of the self-indulgent arrogance that is the essences of popular music.  There was no motivation in their music besides passion and joy.

As they passed the music began to weaken and fade but like all powerful waves it possessed an undertow pulled me along in its wake.  I found myself dancing down the street with a hundred other people.  We were united by the beat.  Any sense of awkward self-consciousness was obliterated by the music and the smiles around me.

The rhythm repeated over and over.  It was simple and pure.  The repetition only made it more legitimate.  It rolled again and again with only slight variation.  It possessed the same cyclical power as the tide, the path of the sun and the seasons.  Its power and durability was proven in that its appeal only grew with repetition after repetition.

As we moved up the street and into the plaza we had to stop because there was another band in the plaza already.  I looked across the plaza to another street and saw a third group of musicians and brightly colored dancers waiting to enter the plaza.  The only problem with Carnival in Brazil was that there was so much amazing music, dance and pageantry that it overlapped and got in the way of itself.

Brazil just like the festival that is so intertwined with its identity is so massive and amazing and at times it is completely overwhelming.  It’s a nation that has too many amazing beaches, islands, cities, forests, rivers and people.  I could visit it again and again in and still fail to see and experience everything but that is not going to prevent me from trying.

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Mom Don’t Freak Out

And my mom just freaked out.  But seriously everything is fine.  Everyone is fine.  We even still have all our stuff.

Last night three of my friends and I were celebrating Carnival like normal.  We started in the beautiful historic district of Pelourinho where our hostel is located.  Pelourinho has the more traditional and family oriented Carnival.  It’s a neighborhood of pastel colored colonial buildings, plazas and old churches.  Every 15 minutes a parade of drummers and dancers rolled up the cobblestone street in front of our hostel.  We started by watching several parades and then following one of the best up the street.  We danced up the hill with the music and stopped briefly in the plaza to buy some caipirinhas.  We continued towards a massive square where several streets and tens of thousands of people converged.  In that part of Salvador the small parades of drummers and dancers were replaced by double-decker buses with bands on top that slowly drove up the street with hundreds of revellers around them.  When we tired of one band we would stop and wait for the next bus that was only a block behind to catch up.

We had danced up the same street the previous night and after a few minutes it was obvious that we were the only tourists for many blocks but the street was well-lit, the atmosphere was friendly and there were military police in full riot gear every hundred yard so we felt pretty safe.

Last night we weren’t very far from the main intersection when a group of men in front of us turn towards us and created a wall.  A split second before they started lunging for us I realized something was wrong.  They grabbed at the two girls first which really freaked me out because sexual harassment in Brazil often borders on assault.  Then several others grabbed at the front pockets of my shorts.  At that point I was actually relieved that it was just a loosely organized attempt to steal our cameras or money and not an all out assault on the girls.  Of course I had nothing in my pockets and even if I had their clumsy attempts would have failed.

I turned to my left and faced one of the guys who had just been snatching at my pockets.  He took off running.  I didn’t think, I just sprinted after him.  He was wearing a bright red Under Armour style shirt that made him easy to follow.  He weaved through the crowd and for a second I almost lost him but suddenly he was within arm’s reach and I grabbed the neck of his shirt and pulled him back and felt the fabric tear as he snapped towards me.  I spun him around and without thinking put both my hands around his neck.  I was summoning all my adrenaline fuelled strength for an Undertaker style choke slam onto the asphalt street when I looked into his confused face.  He was the same height as me but I realized that he was about 15.  I hesitated and felt how small his neck was in my hands.  My rage subsided.  I didn’t know what to do so I shouted something like “Don’t fuck with us!” and then shoved him away.  I turned and stomped through the crowd back to where I thought my friends were.

I had lost track of where everything started.  I was pretty sure I was in the right place but my friends were no longer there.  I felt alone and vulnerable.  Every person around me was under heavy suspicion.  I wasn’t sure how many thieves there had been in the first place and I wondered if they were still around or if they had gone to get reinforcements.  I stalked back and forth in the street looking for my friends and glaring at every Brazilian male under the age of 50.  I thought about just walking the three blocks back to main area that was full of police and families but I didn’t want to leave my friends.  A minute later I saw my buddies with some Brazilian military police looking for the would be thieves.  I walked up to them and used my Spanish and some terrible Portuguese to tell the cops what had happened.  Of course the would be thieves had melted into the crowd.  We thanked the cops for their help and decided to head back to Pelourinho for the rest of the night.

On the walk back we excitedly talked about the indecent.  What disturbed me most about it was that we had no idea anything was up until they moved around us and started grabbing at us.  I always pay attention to what is going on around me but when you are in a crowd and you don’t speak the language you are never able to have high situational awareness.  I hate to think what would have happened if it had been ten determined adults instead of seven or eight teenagers.  Chasing the would be thief was stupid.  I should have stayed with my friends.  But when I caught him I did make the right decision by not tossing him to the ground because I had no idea how many of his friends or cousins were around me and I could have found myself severely out numbered.  Also putting a teenager, even a criminal teenager in the hospital is not something I want on my conscience.  And most importantly for my own safety, not creating a disturbance was wise, because the second the military police, think South America’s version of tan storm troopers, see a commotion they rush in with batons swinging.  Earlier in the night I saw one especially massive policeman with a baton that was comically oversized.  It was dark brown and looked like a novelty cave man club.  He essentially was carrying a log that had the bark removed.  This guy made Hacksaw Jim Duggan look like a pussy.  Once the police have cuffed or knocked everyone out then they might try to figure out what started the incident.

Upon arriving back at our hostel to drop off our cameras we discovered one of the most amazing drum parades yet.  We were quickly overwhelmed by the exuberant music and danced up the street with the musicians.  The insignificant incident earlier in the night was forgotten and once again we were fully engulfed by the joys of Carnival.

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Coming Home

I was hot, sweaty and frustrated as I walked down the sandy Uruguayan road.  I was also wearing jeans and boots which made my condition much worse.  The night buses in South America are freezing even when the outside air is warm so I always wear jeans on the bus.  Also wearing my jeans made my ridiculously full bag slightly easier to pack.  But as I wondered around the small coastal town of Punta del Diablo I just wanted to find my well hidden hostel and change into shorts.  I followed several hand painted signs which led me in a giant circle.  Finally I stopped and asked for directions.  An American who was on his way in the same direction gave me a ride to a place that I had walked by ten minutes before.

I checked in, dropped my massive backpack and put on my board shorts for the first time in more than two months.  Two months, was way too long.  Then I walked out onto the second floor deck of my hostel and stared at the blue Atlantic.  Something deep inside of my chest snapped and a heavy weight that I had forgotten I was carrying began to slip.  I looked at the rocky peninsula to the South with a small white lighthouse confidently perched on it, and another strap tore.  I watched as the waves gently rolled toward the yellow sands of the beach leaving delicate, ephemeral trails of foam and smiled, and the last ropes that held the burden broke and it fell away from me and silently disappeared into the dark.  A light joy filled me.  More than dropping my sweaty pack or getting out of my filthy jeans and even more than the feel of the cool ocean breeze on my skin; the sight of the ocean relaxed and soothed me.  It was the antidote for a toxin I didn’t realize I had ingested.  I was in a place that I had never been to before but I was home.

On this trip I have visited so many amazing places.  I have befriended spider monkeys in the jungle.  I have explored some of the greatest cities in the world.  I have seen surreal high desert lagoons that were home to thousands of wild flamingos.  I have searched for my physical and metal limits high in the Andes.  I cherish all these experiences but there is nothing that nurtures my soul like the sublime beauty of the ocean.  At that moment, on the wooden deck in Uruguay, I decided that for the rest of the trip I would not leave the beach for long.

Later that evening I went down to the hostel bar and ordered a Cuba Libre.  Within a few hours I had made several new friends and by midnight we were all telling stories, laughing and drinking with determination.  Sometime later, it was after the point of caring about silly things like clocks, bar tabs or accidental drownings, an obviously insane person recommended a swim in the ocean.  I was not the only one obsessed with the sea.  Soon we had all changed into our swim suits and were walking towards the black water.

A few moments later I was floating weightlessly in the warm waters of the Atlantic.  I thought to myself, this can’t get any better and then I focused my eyes on the dark sky above me and saw the luminescent cloud of the milky way emblazoned from one horizon to the other.  My new friends splashed and laughed around me but for a few seconds I was gone.  I was simultaneously part of the black ocean waters and the blazing stars.  The incessant voice in my mind, that always plans and worries about the future when it’s not visiting and analyzing the past, fell silent.  I just existed; just barely.  Moments later a wave rolled over me and I flipped several times before I came up shouting and laughing.  I went back to joking and playing with my friends but occasionally I looked up a the sky and mumbled a quiet, reverent obscenity.

Eventually we decided it was time to go back to the bar for another round of drinks.  As we walked up the beach towards the glow of our hostel the night breeze gently pulled droplets of water from our skin and one of my new friends said “I haven’t felt this amazing in a long time.”  I muttered a lame “Yeah.” but I could not have agreed more.

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What Really Matters

The golden South American sunlight penetrated the ocean and turned it a rich azure.  I sat on my surfboard and marveled at the absolute perfection of my surroundings.  I looked up and down the seemingly infinite coastline that extended out of sight to the North and South.  The sun warmly caressed my face and shoulders while the cool water swirled between my toes.  I looked to the horizon and contemplated the powerful beauty of the ocean while I anxiously waited for the next set.  A gentle breeze effortlessly flowed from the vast expanse of the ocean and cooled my wet hair.  I breathed in deeply.  The familiar salty tang made me light-headed and relaxed.  A sublime peace descended on my consciousness. This is why I have traveled thousands of miles I thought.  This is all that matters.

The peace was shattered when my mind betrayed me and drifted away.  I was no longer surrounded by the flawless tranquility of the ocean; I was in a loud night club, then a hostel lobby and then a Spanish school.  My eyes still scanned the horizon for the next wave but my mind was searching my memories.  I thought about people I would never see again.  I remembered vividly exact conversations on sailboats, beaches, dance floors and in late night bars and hammocks. I heard laughs and saw smiles.  I recalled reaching a profound understanding of some of life’s great truths with a girl who had been a stranger only hours before; a girl who I had nothing and everything in common with.  I smiled as ridiculous and surreal inside jokes floated to the surface of my mind.  I remembered an excitement that was entirely too intense to have come from the sparkle in a girl’s blue eyes but none the less it had been there and it had been very real.

On a trip to see gorgeous places, ancient history and exotic cultures I realized that sights and experiences are important but people are absolutely vital.  And not just people, but incredible, intelligent and adventurous people and being cool with those people.  Some of the best times and worst times on this trip have been in the same places doing essentially the same things but when interesting, passionate and vibrant people appeared everything changed.  When I was working at the Loki hostel in Mancora every few days the personality of the hostel completely changed with the arrival and departure of the guests.  It went from dull to exciting with the boisterous appearance of a group of Irish or Dutch.  Everything became fun and exciting with the birth of new friendships.  Bocas del Toro, Bogotá, Montanita, Mancora, and Buenos Aires were some of my favorite places and everyone of them was made great by the people I shared them with.

Not all the people that I’ve met have been great.  There have been way more loud idiots and obnoxious fools than I thought there would be. There have been too many Aussies who were in South America for the sole purpose of doing as much cocaine as possible.  Entirely too many of the English that I met must have been related to the queen because they had the accent, sickly skin tone and arrogance of a member of the royal family.  There were Americans who, no wait there were no Americans because South America was too dangerous and scary.  Many travelers were lost or damaged and unable or unwilling to deal with life back home.  They were running and most of them didn’t know from what.  There were those that seemed amazing at first but then I realize that I just liked the idea of the person or that I liked the story that the person created when they entered my life.  But as I sorted through hundreds of sad, boring and stupid people I found dozens of great friends.

The thrill of discovering new friends was equaled in intensity only by the sadness of losing them all too soon.  I hated that I met some of the greatest and most intriguing people of my life but was only able to spend a few days with them.  On several occasions after an especially difficult good-bye I told myself that I didn’t want to do it anymore and that I was done making new friends.  Usually the next day I would meet another incredible person and we would become friends.  Not becoming friends with an awesome person would be a much worse tragedy than becoming friends and then losing them.  And so the cycle continued uninterrupted.

The ripple on the horizon pulled me back to my pristine surrounding in the ocean.  My memories fell into the water around me, silently splashing into the ocean and then sinking into the cool waters of my mind where they would be safe.  At first I wasn’t sure if the swell was going to develop into anything but as it raced towards me I realized that it was growing into a nice wave.  My mind was clear as I spun around on my board and paddled into position.  I looked over my left shoulder and a burst of energy shot through my body when I saw the glorious shape and size of the wave rolling towards me.  I got this, I thought as I paddled towards the shore building speed and feeling the water swell underneath me.  I timed my takeoff perfectly and smoothly glided down the face of the breaking wave.  I made a slight turn to the left and climbed up the face of the wave gaining speed as I did.  A burst of joy exploded in my chest with the force of the acceleration.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw the emerald wall of water rise up and prepare to crash down on my head.  The race was on; I crouched lower on my board and got every bit of speed possible.  This is going to be close I thought.  I shot ahead of the wave, narrowly escaping a nasty wipe out, and then made a hard right turn back into it.  I found the sweet spot in the wave again and began to walk towards the front of my long board.  I skillfully steered the board with slight pressure from the balls of my feet.  I was a foot from the nose of my board when I looked up and saw that I was getting close to the beach.  I walked towards the back of the board and enjoyed a few more seconds of the ride before ending it by attempting a clumsy back flip off the board into three feet of water.  I erupted from the shallow water and laughed with joy as I climbed back onto my board.  My entire being vibrated with pure ecstasy.  I powerfully paddled back towards the break with a massive smile on my face.  It had been a long ride and I had a lot of distance to cover.  Slowly the joy receded and my mind returned to my friends.  I missed them and wished that they had been there so that we could have enjoyed the waves together.

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