Our flight landed in San Juan earlier than we expected. Neither Josh nor I could quit yawning as we stood by the conveyor belt. The surfboards and Josh’s bag appeared quickly, but we had to wait a few moments for mine.
My bag was an old friend. I had kept it with me for months at a time on past travels through Central and South America, and I had never seen another like it since Uncle Bruce had presented it to me and announced that it was a Costco special. When the bag finally slid into the baggage claim area, I noticed its green and silver canvas lining immediately and shouldered it without hesitation. A man at the exit was matching bag labels to tickets, but we snuck by him in the swarm of fresh arrivals. The airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico is a ghost of its normal self at 4 in the morning, and we made our way from baggage claim to the car rental lobby with ease.
As soon as the surfboards were mounted to the roof of the Toyota Corolla, we darted through San Juan’s concrete jungle and made our way directly to the closest surfable beach. It was still dark when we reached the beach parking lot, but we could tell by the reflection of the city glow on the water that the waves were pulsing.
Rule #1 of surf trips: Do not pass on good surf. Ever. It does not matter how epic you might think the next spot down the road will be. Old Man Poseidon will punish you for your greediness if you forsake the present in favor of your road lust. Anyone who has ever driven a coastline with a surfboard in tow has learned this lesson the hard way, and it was with this in mind that we decided to doze off in the Corolla and wait for the Puerto Rico sunrise to smile on us. We had a week to experience the island, so the first morning could take its sweet time.
We missed the sunrise. At about 8:00, I awoke to the sound of the car door slamming and Josh strolling to the rocks to check the waves. As I joined him on the rocks I stretched and gulped in the golden, salty air and a smile came to my face. The tropical coastline unfurled before us in an arc. I can still see the rocks, sand, and Spanish style seaside buildings in my mind like a postcard. It was a privilege to experience that morning in that place.
Natural beauty aside, we had not chosen a suitable spot. The coastal exposure to the oncoming swells was too direct and there was no place for a proper surf session. We would have to find a new spot.
For the next couple of hours we drove westward on the northern section of the Puerto Rico coast highway, frequently stopping and rifling through the pages of whatever surf guide we had chosen to carry. Finding a new spot was not going to be easy.
Eventually the book led us off the highway and onto a severely potholed dirt road that led down the side of a hill. The tropical foliage was so dense on the sides of the switchbacks that we could not see the ocean, but the massive swells were so loud that we could hear them calling. When we rounded the last bend and entered the dirt parking lot at the dead-end, a gloriously secluded point break appeared before us and Josh let out a howl. There was barely anyone out, and the surf was so good! – Maybe a little too good, given my physical shape at the time.
I was so excited that I could barely unzip my board bag. It was even difficult to unwrap my trunks and towel from around my surfboard fins, which I had done to protect my board from the carelessness of baggage handlers. I wrapped the towel around my waist and anxiously changed into my trunks. Then I reached for my surfboard, and I found that the fins had taken a pounding! Spirit Airlines beat the crap out of my surfboard! I applied the quickest emergency duct tape patches possible, locked the doors and hid the keys in the Corolla’s shocks. Then I ran to catch Josh, who was already paddling out.
I was a lifelong surfer, but I had been working too much recently and was out of shape. I frequently had to rest and watch from the channel as huge, perfect waves passed me by. It was during one of these rests that the local talent paddled by. When they reached Josh and the lineup further out, I saw Josh’s head slowly turn after them, then snap back toward me with a star struck gleam and raised eyebrows. He looked like a cartoon character.
Three island beauties in slim bikinis had just arrived on the scene, and it was obvious that they were no typical beach bums. They rode the waves like pros and they looked like supermodels. They were magazine worthy. We continued to surf for a while, but we were both getting pounded by the waves and the session had turned into observing, which we could do from shore. Exhausted and humbled, we both rode one in and dripped our way back to the Corolla. It was noon, and the tropical sun was high in the bright blue sky.
Back at the car, I draped myself in my towel and removed the green and silver canvas suitcase from the trunk. I tugged the zipper, flung open the flap and found myself staring down, confused for a moment.
I was staring down at two pairs of women’s skivvies. One was bright pink, and the other was leopard print. “What the …?” I was sure Josh had played a prank on me. Then I dug a little deeper and discovered more than just a couple of items of women’s clothing. In my suitcase I was carrying an impressively well-rounded collection of G-strings and platform heels. This bag had been packed with a purpose.
I scrambled for the luggage tag to discover a lovely Spanish name and a San Juan address. It was not my bag!
Josh was howling again, this time with laughter. After a few obligatory jokes about my preparation and plans for the Puerto Rico trip, we packed the Corolla, backed it up, and plodded back over the potholes toward the airport. I had surely ruined someone’s day. It was afternoon and the flight had arrived at 4 in the morning.
Worse yet, the lazy highway we had driven leisurely at dawn was now packed with aggressive, honking drivers that were barely moving. I was a luggage thief, and perhaps more importantly, I had ruined the day for some young Puerto Rican dancer. The anxiety was crippling. It took us three more hours to reach the airport.
Traffic continued to crawl through the terminal, and I could wait no longer. I plucked the bag from the car and ran through the airport toward baggage claim. I quickly explained the situation to the new face that was checking tags and bags, and he directed me toward the window at the corner of the room. There was a bench next to the window with a very petite, and very angry, young Puerto Rican woman.
I sheepishly rolled the bag in her direction, and she did not wait for me to reach her. She jumped up and marched right at me. I thought she was going to attack. To my surprise, she said only a word or two under her breath, snatched the bag from me, and continued past me without pause for conversation. I attempted to yell apologies after her, but her gait only accelerated. I felt like a jackass, but I also couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of her accelerating platform heels.
The clerk at the baggage desk gave me similar treatment, and the only real point of conversation was his request for my identification. He presented my bag and swiftly turned his back to attend to other business. I strolled the terminal and pondered the mishap as I waited for Josh. Eventually he appeared and grinned at me as I jumped back in the car.
“Did you find her?”
“Yeah. She was not happy.”
“Ha! I bet. Let’s go find some Mofongo.” (Traditional Puerto Rican dish)
“Yeah. I need a beer.”
“I would too if I were you!” Josh didn’t even drink yet, but the trip was still young… He pointed the Corolla eastward and we cruised toward the rainforest in search of food, adventure, and penance.
FOR MORE TRAVEL STORIES LIKE MIKE’S, “LIKE” HUMANS WHO TRAVEL ON FACEBOOK!!