AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention:
My Best Summer Vacation

To my right, and ahead of me, black and purple clouds boiled with rising rage and flashed with lightning; below the highway, the sea smashed onto the beach in big, brutal waves capped with white foam. The two lane highway ran north and south; I was the only one driving south, away from the beautiful blue Pacific sky that still showed a little in my rearview.

Over in the other lane a seemingly endless parade of tiny cars, farm pickups, battered old busses, and pretty much anything that would roll, and from every window of every vehicle, there was someone staring at the ancient VW Rabbit I had rented that morning in Oaxaca. Obviously, they’d never seen a mad gringo trying to get caught in a hurricane before.

It wasn't even supposed to be a vacation. In the summer of 1992 I was working on my science fiction novel, Mother of Storms, about a giant hurricane, and running up against one big honking problem: I had never been in a hurricane.

I needed a hurricane experience, and owing to the exigencies of grad school and other work, I needed one in August. In the Western Hemisphere, if you're looking to get caught in a hurricane during August, your odds are best on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico – Oaxaca or Chiapas. So for several weeks, in 3rd class buses (the kind that feature live carry-on poultry), rental cars, and a sometimes with rides from friendly farmers or truckers, I raced up and down the coast from Guatemala to Tehuantepec, following radio and TV reports of the expected landfalls for whatever was thought to be the likeliest tropical depression to become a hurricane.

No sane tourist goes there at that time of year; whenever I explained what I was doing, the expressions on the local people (who knew plenty about hurricanes!) were priceless. And since my work was built around seeing a hurricane -- and there was no hurricane to see -- I was in that maddening situation of needing to work and not being able to. It should have been a nerve-shredding bad work experience; it turned out to be an advanced course in happy vacation travel.

All that time, no hurricane came in shore. The weather was unexpectedly beautiful -- the storm I was driving into, the roughest of the trip, merely cleaned some dust off the Rabbit, and had blown out by the time I arose the next morning, in one of the most elegant rooms I've ever stayed in. I had the beaches, mountains, towns, everything, pretty much to myself, with nothing much to do but practice my drawing, scribble descriptions into notepads, and talk to local people.

Accidentally, I was having the vacation of my life; I came back happy, rested, having enjoyed every moment, and knowing a few rules for vacations:

  1. Go to do something, not to hang out and decompress; if all you want to do is that, it's easier to do it at home.
  2. Take in as much as you can of your local environment; my notebooks and drawing pad drank in everything from the guy selling fake artifacts at Monte Alban, to the lady at the lunch counter in Pijijiapan who wouldn't let me have lunch until my Spanish pronunciation was up to her high standards, from the way the cathedral at Oaxaca City cuts into the blue sky to the movie-perfect silhouettes of a fishing fleet coming in at sunset.
  3. When there's nothing for a tourist to do, the locals are happier to see you, and you don't get stuck doing tourist stuff. In tourist season you exist to be processed for money; out of tourist season, you're a customer, and if you behave, you might even be upgraded to human being.
  4. Whether a region is known for something good or bad, everyone there will have a story about it. I have no idea how many of the hurricane stories I heard were true, false, or embellished; all I can tell you is, there were a lot and they were good ones! Corollary to that is, take the time to let the good storytellers really tell it; the first story they tell will be the one they've worn out, the fifth will be detailed, rambling, human, and fascinating.
  5. Be who you are and let that bring you the things that fit you. I was an academic, and not exactly the Indiana-Jones type; I didn't waste any time on scuba and climbing adventures that might have been beyond me. But I did explain, when people asked, that I was studying theatre history. That meant, among other things, a complete backstage tour of a fully-rigged pinrail theater – those are pretty well extinct except as museum exhibits in the US and Europe – from its tech manager, who I met in a bar.
  6. Eat street food. You can see it being prepared and it's good. I didn't have much choice; most of the restaurants were closed. But since then I've gone through more than one city all but entirely on sidewalk cuisine.
  7. Ask for upgrades. When a hotel wasn't expecting to have any guest at all that night, they're so happy to see you, you may end up in the presidential suite. And not once did the president show up to bump me!

And most important of all: be ready for moments of grace. Sometimes we go looking for a hurricane, on a tight schedule with a looming deadline, and instead we get a perfect evening, dining on a balcony, looking over the sea, with ice-cold beer and a slab of fish that was swimming a few hours ago. When life gives you lemonade, don't be too impatient about getting back to the lemons.

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Published: July 30, 2009

2 Responses to “AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention: Hunting Hurricanes”

  1. John Your beginning imagery really draws in your audience. Your "Rules" sound good to me--especially really getting to know the place and people.


  2. John, I was imagining some real major drama in your search for a hurricane. A mad quest in my own estimation of a vacation. However, lacking of one's appearance I enjoyed your acknowledgement that all was not lost. Enumerating a 7 point list of possible positives for any vacation was inspirational. Only wish I'd read these when past holidays of mine became disasters.


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