Mexican Standoff

 

I searched deep into his steely brown eyes for a hint of fear, but found none. We were standing so close to each other that our noses were almost touching, and I could feel his breath against my face as he spoke. “I want money for my board, amigo,” he repeated coldly. Just how had I found my way into this situation? Standing toe-to-toe with a pissed-off local in a Mexican beachfront parking lot, demanding that I pay him off. Or else. Or else what? A bloody fistfight? Worse? To further complicate matters, my girlfriend sat in the car just a few steps away. Not only was my pride being challenged, but my honor, in full naked view of the person with whom my honor mattered most.

The day hadn’t begun in such dark fashion. In fact, it had been a banner afternoon up until the recent chain of events. We were south of the border for a one-week, mellow vacation. It wasn’t a hardcore surf trip by any means, but rather a slow-moving, margarita-on-the-beach kind of a deal—the type of trip where no one gets up much before 10 AM.

I was teaching my girlfriend how to surf on a beautiful, sunny, tropical day. The conditions were perfect for her: warm water, lazy 2-3 foot rollers loping their way in, consistent sets. After struggling her way through countless cold, menacing Northern California mornings, she was, needless to say, loving it.

Sarah paddled around on a sturdy, extra-wide nine-foot Gordon & Smith longboard, which suited the conditions well. I shouted her into a few waves, and she stood up easily, riding a couple of the swells all the way to the beach—her first “open face” waves ever. Her stoke was palpable, evidenced by the huge grin engraved on her face.

As the morning wore on, the lineup got more and more crowded and the waves picked up. Soon there were shortboarders and longboarders littering a broad area, from the outside peak to almost all the way to the beach. All was fine until, as Sarah was paddling back out to meet me, a slightly larger set came through and caught her inside. With the first wave breaking directly in front of her, I watched her struggle to push the meaty board through the whitewater—to no avail. From behind I saw her board shoot up and backwards, just as a local surfer who had dropped in on the wave was crossing her path. My view was blocked by the back of the wave and, not seeing any post-wave carnage, I assumed everything had passed without incident. Not quite.

A few minutes later, a wiry local paddled up to me and, pointing to Sarah asked, “Hey, is that your daughter over there?”

“Uh, that’s my girlfriend,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”

“Your ‘girlfriend’ dinged my board, amigo,” he said, “and it’s brand new.” With that, he showed me a fresh six-inch gash on the bottom of what looked to be a sparkling new Pearson Arrow shortboard. He explained to me politely what had happened—that she had lost her board and it had flipped directly into his; that he didn’t have time to get out of the way; that it was her fault.

I apologized sincerely as I contemplated my options, and decided the right thing to do was to offer to pay for the repair. Once more, I judged it the prudent course given the fact that we were visitors to not only this surfer’s country, but to his local surf spot. Besides, I was friends with the owner of a nearby surf shop, and knew he could fix the board quickly and inexpensively.

“Tell you what,” I told him. “At the end of the day, let’s go over to the surf shop and I’ll pay for them to fix the ding.” He readily agreed, and the problem was solved. Or so I thought.

He disappeared from site the rest of the afternoon but, sure enough, just as we were packing up to leave the beach, he magically appeared as if out of nowhere. His vibe was noticeably different from earlier, and as we walked to where our car was parked, I instinctively sensed trouble. While we were loading up the boards on top of the car, I cringed when the bombshell came: “What else are you going to give me? That was a brand new board,” his words lingered in the air.

This was the moment I had hoped to avoid, the moment that a traveling surfer dreads. I turned towards him and said plainly, non-threateningly, “Look, it was an accident. I’ll pay for the repair and that’s it. That’s more than fair.”

He stepped towards me, chest out, looking bigger than I had first judged. “You need to pay me cash for my board,” he persisted. “It was given to me as a gift.”

He stood directly in front of me now, and my mind shifted into overdrive. Look for buddies lurking in the bushes: none. Weapons on his body? Not likely—only wearing boardshorts. Escape options? Would have to be via the car, a difficult proposition at best.

I later learned that at this moment my girlfriend was hiding our valuables from view inside the car, and clutching the neck of an empty Pacifico bottle in her hand.

Diffuse the situation, quickly, I thought to myself. Keep talking. “Take off your sunglasses,” I abruptly blurted. He looked puzzled. “Take them off,” I repeated. I wanted to see his eyes. He did so, and my confidence was temporarily bolstered by his symbolic submission. But his eyes also revealed a flaring temper, and not the apprehension I had hoped for. This kid was ready to fight for his supper.

“Listen to me carefully,” I reasoned with him. “You’re not going to get any additional money from me, period. You have a choice: you can either go with me to the surf shop and get your board repaired for free, or I can leave you, along with your board, here in the parking lot and you can fix it yourself. Now what’s it going to be?”

Sounded reasonable enough to me. No response. “Money,” was all I heard him mutter, and “pay me.” I couldn’t believe it. I was damned if I was going to roll around on the hot Mexican asphalt with a local over a surfboard ding. I hadn’t been in a fight in, how long? Fifteen, twenty years? But here I was, back on the playground, being called out while the girl I passed notes to in class looked on. I was running short on options.

I decided to call his bluff, and ceremoniously unstrapped his board from the roof racks, carried it to the middle of the busy parking lot and set it down gently. As I returned to the car, I was half hoping he would walk over to retrieve his board, enabling us a quick escape route. But he held his ground, and now stood between me and the driver’s side door.

“Well, here goes nothing,” I thought to myself. Pulling together my best Charles Bronson-tough-guy impression, I took a deep breath, narrowed my eyes, and puffed out what little chest plumage I could muster on my skinny six-foot frame. I marched forward and braced for the worst. “Your choice then,” I heard myself say, somewhat unconvincingly.

Then, an amazing thing happened: he blinked. Expecting to be tackled or punched or both, I practically stumbled past him as he let me pass. Although I’m quite sure it had nothing to do with my intimidating persona (or lack thereof), he simply wasn’t going to fight. He silently walked over and grabbed his board, put it back on top of the car, and begrudgingly jumped into the back seat. We drove to the surf shop, and that was that. I never saw or heard from him again.

I never did come to fully understand his motives. Was he honestly looking to pick a fight? Asking for respect? Had he been wronged before by visiting surfers? Perhaps he was just a two-bit hood looking to make some quick cash. I really don’t know. What I do know is that surfing brings about situations that are rarely seen in other aspects of adult life. Outside of surfing, I haven’t had to deal with a fight since the 8th grade, and at least that was over a girl. Some might call it immaturity— and there’s certainly plenty of that —but I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it. Surfing is tribal, territorial, and intensely personal. It has a tendency to bring out the primal emotions in all of us, whether positive or negative.

When an incident occurs in the water, it’s as if a surfer’s personal pride and stature has been challenged, and must be defended. While this may apply more to men, I’ve witnessed the same behavior in female surfers, as well. Whatever the reason, I’ve yet to come across a surfer who hasn’t experienced a similar situation. This “local” may have thought that he had somehow lost the encounter in the water, only to feel the need to make up for it on land.

There’s one thing I do know for sure: I’m a surfer, not a fighter, and more than happy to keep it that way.

Get some waves. - DL