June 15, 2010


Perfecting the art of hammock hanging in a pitchy, messy set of Douglas fir trees. Their shade is what I crave, on this 90-degree day.

Hammocks remind me of other times, other places, and certainly of other people. Much of my stay in Mexico was spent swinging in the comforting weave, held safely in their net. I watched countless sets of waves, played cards, and held hands.

When not in a hammock, I watched the people who made them sell their woven creations to tourists like me on the beach. Angela was the most prolific and most memorable vendor. Balancing an impossibly heavy bundle of hammocks wrapped in a square of fabric on top her head, she worked the beach, scanning for potential customers and calling out her perfected sales pitch: “Hamacaaaaas. Hamacaaaaaaaaaas baratas, como carne de gata. Hamacaaaaas, amiga?”

Angela was everywhere, the colorful fabric of her long skirt swishing side to side as she walked, the load balanced on her head not moving an inch. Long black braids woven with satin ribbon trailed down her back. Two braids signified that she was a member of the Zapotec tribe indigenous to Oaxaca.

Sometimes I slept in hammocks, but that was mostly in the beginning. Twenty-five pesos a night bought me a hammock on the deck of a very loud and obnoxious hostel. I lasted about a week alongside two Canadians and a Brit, with whom I also shared my first tandem skydive. We all signed up together, a few of us rather begrudgingly, but only one of us would get hooked enough to trade the hammock for a bed and mosquito netting, and stay far longer than we intended to.

My rental palapa had a hammock on the patio, but there was no view of the sea. The beach was a short trip down some stone steps and across the street. After learning how to skydive solo, one week after my first tandem, I learned what it was like to work in Mexico. In exchange for my time, I got all of the free skydives, including equipment rental, I wanted.

A day of work meant reporting to the dropzone, stationed under a white tent and some palm trees on the lawn of Hotel Arco Iris, sometime around 10 am at the earliest, to see if any tandems had been booked the night before. If not, it was my duty to comb the beach looking for potential tandem skydive customers, most of whom were foreign tourists. My English came in handy; reassuring the fearfully curious was easier for me than for my Spanish-speaking counterparts.

I went up on every flight we booked, and made it a point to jump out with the tandem customers who were the most afraid, because the nervousness I felt during my first jump was still so fresh it made me weak in the knees. Sharing the freefall toward the beach, over the water and the sand, with a familiar face can transform a memorable experience into a magical one.

Swinging in my red, blue and yellow hammock, trading palm fronds for fir boughs, I can still feel Puerto’s sun, hear the waves crashing, and see parachutes opening thousands of feet above, filling the crystal blue sky. I can’t place a smell anymore, but it would certainly come from one of the many open-air street or beachside cafes, with chairs and tables spilling out onto the sidewalk or shamelessly onto the sand.

His face is clear to me, as though I saw him just yesterday. I feel him guiding me by the hand down the sandy brick sidewalk, leading me to countless dinners, followed by late evenings looking at the stars from Barfly’s open rooftop deck. Or watching the world pass by Casa Babylon, beach culture at its finest, viewed from the windowsill, or the bench on the street, quintessential mojito in hand. His laugh still echoes in my ears, years later, whether for me alone, or for friends. That sound is as much a part of me as the hamacas in Puerto Escondido.

Every week, we commuted by skydiving plane an hour and a half north to our parent dropzone Skydive Cuautla, where we worked for the weekend. Every Saturday at the crack of dawn, we boarded the Twin Otter, bleary-eyed and not yet caffeinated. With no oxygen on board, and virtually no insulation, the thin, cold atmosphere was enough to wake even the sleepiest of passengers.

Our arrival in Cuautla marked the start of the chaotic two days that lie ahead. The dropzone would be buzzing with anticipation of a weekend of skydiving, and there were typically anywhere from 40-100 sport jumpers, and a number of booked tandems arriving throughout the weekend. The majority of the skydivers and tandem students came from Mexico City, nearly two hours to the north.

My job was a bit like herding cats. Getting all of the skydivers, instructors, camera flyers and videographers, and tandem customers in one place, at the same time and ready for the flight was no easy task. I was the subject of many jokes, and often the source of a good laugh, as I orchestrated the process over a microphone. In Spanish.

Every five minutes, I gave the flight number, a countdown until takeoff, and then list every passenger on the plane with respective tandem master. It took numerous proddings to actually get the people on the plane. Vaaaaamaaanossss! Did you come here to eat and socialize, or did you come here to skydive?, I'd say to the sport jumpers lingering at the tables in the shade of the palapa, or lounging in hammocks strung along the edges.

More than once, I commanded the American pilot to leave the stragglers, because if I waited until every person had boarded, we wouldn't have flown more than a couple of flights the entire day. My gringo work ethic and ability to stick to a rigid schedule earned me the nickname “Sargento”, or Sargent, something I abhorred initially but learned to accept once I realized the skydivers were grateful for more flights in the air, which meant more skydiving for them.

Monday mornings, exhausted from twelve-hour work days over the weekend, we boarded the plane, and landed ten minutes away in Cuernavaca, where we filed flight plans to Puerto, and loaded up on fuel. Because this took at least an hour, we would wait at the taqueria adjacent to the airport. On a wood-fired griddle, hand pressed blue corn tortillas were grilled up into perfect quesadillas, gorditas and tacos, an unconventional but satisfying breakfast.

Approaching the beach, our pilot Woody gave the flight call. Fifteen minutes, he'd say, and we would start preparing the plane for our evacuation. If given the choice, a skydiver will never choose to land with the plane; jumping out is regarded as not only safer, but a lot more fun. We tied down everything that could blow out, as the door would remain open until the plane landed.

These jumps were the most memorable, because they were not 'work'. Staff who rarely got to jump for fun would plan elaborate jumps with their friends, and include amateurs like me in their 'hybrid' jumps. Someone would hang from my parachute's chest strap, as I flew on my belly; others would freefly around us, sitting, on their heads, or in any number of other creative flight poses. Another time, in freefall, I sat on someone's back for a 'rodeo jump', while all of my friends freeflew all around me, reaching for my hands and head as they orbited.

Landing on the beach was like breathing a giant sigh of relief. While I loved other parts of Mexico, including Mexico City, it was Puerto Escondido that felt like home. Dropping in over the beach, where the tourists sat, looking perplexed because they had neither seen nor heard our plane, the sight of the waves and surfboards and the feel of the hot white sand on our feet warranted the customary 'woo-hoo' shouted upon landing.

Some days, when the skydiving was slow, we lounged at La Flayita, the Pepto-Bismol pink beachside cafe, or we retreated to Cipriano's, an Italian joint on the sand. Brightly colored hammocks swung from a thatched arbor, seven in a row, with an enveloping view of the sea. After exhausting all efforts to sell tandem skydives to the few tourists left on the beach, we settled into the hammock's relaxing cradle, and waited for something to happen.

These carefree moments solidified my bond with the hammock. They represented a laziness not acceptable in American culture, especially in the context of a work day. In Mexico, however, and even more so on the beach, it is perfectly normal to just relax when you feel like it and watch the world go by.

Sometime in April, a huge storm off the coast of Chile produced a near record-breaking swell. Thunderous surf pounded the beach, pushed by a wall of water 40 feet high. The beach, which doubled as our landing zone, all but disappeared, and the winds shifted from their normal, predictable patterns, leaving the idea of skydiving completely out of the question. On the second day, film crews and cameras showed up; not long after, world-class surf pros came out of the woodwork. Dwarfed by the enormity of the swell, brave souls made gliding through glassy tubes seem effortless. But the look on their faces after a successful exit told a different story; the visible sigh of relief conveyed a real, palpable fear.

When the sand finally showed again, and the surfers and cameras left with the abating surf, a heat turned on like I had never quite experienced. Tourists opted for the mountains, and we knew our weeks at the beach would soon come to an end. In what should have been the most relaxing weeks of all, I pondered life with a heavy heart. A denied work visa meant one would go north, while the other went south. The season was coming to a close; the plane would leave in early May, leaving only a small Cessna to power the dropzone until the late fall return of the Twin Otter.

Years later, I reflect on this decision, held by the comforting embrace of my hammock, swinging beneath the firs in the shadow of Mount Hood, far away from Mexico's sandy shores. I wonder what might have happened should we have chosen to stay. I revel in the memories of an experience that was so extraordinary, I am to this day affected to my very core, by thoughts of Puerto, of him, and the girl I was back then.

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