Wecome to Lima, bro, it’s the LA of America del Sur,” a new friend says to me with a thick accent as we walk towards Parque Barranco. The warm evening breeze carriers the smell of flowers, street meat, exhaust, and the omnipresent “boom, cha-boom-cha, boom, cha-boom-cha” reggaeton backbeat. On the green 700mL bottles of Pilsen Callao we carry, droplets of condensation glisten under the streetlights. Looking up through the palms that line the park, I can see the moon and the faintest stars through the haze that sits above this metropolis that is home to 10 million people.
He’s right about the Los Angeles comparison. This city has a sweaty and writhing cultural mojo like no place I’ve ever lived. It dances up on you and shouts words in your ear you don’t understand. People argue openly and loudly under the midday sun almost as readily as they grope and make out by moonlight from the polished concrete of the cliffside malecon. Horns are leaned on for three seconds at minimum and road markings are symbolic, not functional. There is no such thing as a line here. Words cascade out of people faster than their mouths can shape them. And I have never eaten better food in my life. Simply put, Lima, Peru is the most damn human place I have ever lived; it is the most invigorating and exhausting environment imaginable.
Though my Spanish is improving daily, without the power of language I am forced to let go of the ego and desire for understanding and control. I’m forced to listen and feel differently. I’m a pretty easy going guy, but I must acknowledge the reality that I’d be in a much less comfortable state if it weren’t for surfing.
I’d long dreamed of a time I could walk from my house and surf. It was a dream that was born on the cold beaches of British Columbia and nurtured along the coastlines of Oregon and California. The day I moved into my rental house in the bohemian borough of Barranco, I wasted no time getting a board in my hands. I can only imagine how I must have looked to the bodega owners, food truck vendors, and construction workers. A pale and bumbling gringo bolting by them on the sidewalk of Calle Pierola making a b-line for the ocean.
Surfing has become my church and my respite from the heat, noise, and forced intimacy of the city. The vast expanse of the Pacific opens in front of me. I pull my neoprene collar and let the cool water fill my wetsuit. The deep slow thunder of the surf rumbles, replacing my land-based soundtrack of car alarms, horns, and unmuffled engines. The salty air breeze is fresh and cool, carrying with it no smells of exhaust or garbage.
It’s quiet out there as I move up and down with the the horizon disappearing and reappearing between troughs. It’s like I’m on the chest of some giant being, rising and falling with its breath. I feel it, listen to it, move with it, receive it, and I know I must do the same with its terrestrial brother, the disorienting Latin American metropolis I have left on shore. This is my source and outlet for physical and mental energy. This is dialysis for my spirit.
It’s the encouragement I receive on the water that pushes me to dive into the city and swim when I return to land. It’s the patience and humility I learn while being pummeled by the surf that allow me to roll with the stream of ear-cuffs and ass-slaps that make up my personal and professional life here. It’s the laughing and gesturing and broken Spanish conversations with other surfers that remind me words are only a part of language. And it’s the feeling of dropping in on a clean line that reminds me that everything will come together no matter how rough the human sea seems to be.
Perched on our boards, feet moving with the ocean to stabilize ourselves, the other surfers and I crane our necks at the top of each roller, scanning the horizon. Several hundred meters out, we eye a large set lumbering in, liquid elephants charging shoreward after a long voyage that started many hours ago, hundreds of kilometers offshore. The tops of the swells froth white, begging to break. “Va, va, va, izquierda, izquierda!” one surfer shouts, needlessly instructing his peers to move left in anticipation of where the pocket will be. But we’re already there. I check over my shoulder and, seeing no one, know this wave belongs to me and only me. Lying on my chest, I first feel my feet rise as a steep liquid hill forms under my body.
I pop to my feet. Everything and everyone else beyond me and the wave cease to exist.