We had read that one of the much debated translations of Zipolite was “beach of the dead”. Sadly, today we found out why. We awoke to the calming sound of waves breaking just out the open doors of our cabana. As morning arrives the mosquito net surrounding our bed adds a gentle glow to the beachscape beyond. Jen has already climbed out twice to snap photos of a breathtaking sunrise, one which tried hard to outdo even the sunset from last night. We move slowly, enjoying the tranquil nature of our surroundings. First coffee, then breakfast looking over the hammock. This is a life we could get used to.
As the temperature follows the rising sun we eventually wander to the water where we’ve been watching a few locals doing tricks on their boogie boards. The waves that crash out front seem to range anywhere from gentle 1’-2’ rollers to thundering overhead monsters and these kids on their boards seemed dwarfed in comparison to the wall of water towering behind them.
I wade out to try and snap a few photos of the 100s of hungry pelicans sitting just past the break and we chuckle as the laziest of pelicans doesn’t take off fast enough to fly over the wave and instead finds himself surfing clumsily in to shore. I try to float along with the crashing waves to get a photo just at the moment when the wave starts to break and the pelicans dart overtop…waiting until the last possible second to momentarily leave their meal ticket.
I play for maybe half an hour before heading back in to jen and karma who have been standing guard in the shallow water- Karma is convinced she’s the lifeguard of every beach we visit. As i try to show Jen a photo of our surfing pelican, clothingless guys come running up from the point and shouting for help. Apparently two guys have been pulled into the riptide and then pushed into a churning hole between the rocks and the point. I hand jen the camera and run into into the water to help (in hindsight, not taking enough time to discuss my plans with jen nor to set her mind at ease). I swim out into the current and try to find a place to get near the closest guy without getting sucked in and becoming part of the problem, but the rip proves too difficult. A local with fins and a boogie board is making faster progress towards him and i abort mission, swim with the rip out to sea before swimming parallel to safety and crash with the waves back into shore.
The boogie boarder eventually does the same with guy in tow and we pull him in to shore where an actual lifeguard is arriving from the far end of the beach. The lifeguard directs others to the point (and to the guys companion), then goes back to work on trying to resuscitate. Sadly, they work on him forever and cant successfully bring him back. A tranquil day and happy vacation ruined, and the lives of whoever he has touched immediately have gaping hole that he used to fill. We never met this man, but our hearts pour out to his companion and to everyone who knew him.
We have since come to learn that this is a tragic but frighteningly frequent occurrence here. On our walk last night we saw the speed at which the water was gathering at this end of the beach and discussed the force with which that water must be returning to sea, but we certainly didn’t expect this type of outcome hours later. Zipolite apparently has always had very dangerous riptides and currents the length of the beach. Deaths here used to be extremely high but with the changing of the beach landscape and the creation/training of a lifeguard crew a decade ago the number of deaths has plummeted. Rescues it seems are still a daily occurrence, and as we set out to walk down the beach later in the day men, women and children are laughing and playing in the massive waves rather than sitting frightened on shore. It’s only near sunset that we notice the flags alerting swimmers to the danger level. Todays flag was flying red.
While we sit quietly in our cabana and later wander out to tour the beach and town, our minds keep coming back to this morning’s fateful event. A good reminder for us on so many levels. One of safety and security clearly, but more one of respect and of being thankful. A reminder that life is an excruciatingly fleeting event that is almost completely out of our control. Every day and every minute is a precious gift. There are warnings about just about every thing that a person could choose to do and each choice can end good or bad. If we spend our time worrying about the worst possible outcome we would likely would never leave home, open a window or turn the lights on. We certainly wouldn’t be driving on any highway, out traveling the world or playing in the waves (on this or any other beach). Those who warn most loudly not to are often those who haven’t done it out of their own fears.
I live and play with a constant and healthy respect for the ocean. I am so aware that this thing that we find so beautiful can become powerful and deadly in a moment, and I will always remember coming close to losing my own life in a current off another beach. At moments in the water today i had pauses of fear. Fear for my own safety, that i had may have made a bad choice by entering the water or that (as it turned out) i was too late or couldn’t help. Looking back, my current fears are simply not taking advantage of every moment to love and live life fully.
It seems about the only thing we do have control over is how we choose to spend the days/moments that we do have. To breathe in deeply the air around us, to love/respect/cherish those dear to us, and to strive to live our dreams while there’s time. Tomorrow i’ll be more thankful for the opportunity to walk down the beach, to be walking with those that i love and to be given the chance to go back in the water to play with the pelicans.