By RASCHA JELKS  |  Moonshine Ink

When I tell people that I’m moving to Mexico in less than a month, everyone reacts differently. Many friends are happy for me, some fear for my safety because of the current war on drugs and immigration strife, and still others assume I am trying to flee the U.S. to escape the law. The way I see it, I am making an important stride to kickstart my urban design career, not to mention improving my surfing.

I have been living in Tahoe since graduating from Boston University in 2012 and completing an urban design program at Harvard. Upon discovering Lake Tahoe, I fell in love with the outdoor lifestyle and hip vibe, and was psyched to get a job teaching skiing at Northstar. I tried getting an interior design or architecture internship, but with such little experience, I had no success. Instead I became a spa receptionist and a middle school instructional aide at Squaw Valley Prep while pondering how I could further pursue design. Then on a full moon evening last fall, while hiking up to Eagle Rock with a couple of friends, I answered a phone call from my mother who was in Zihuatanejo visiting a friend.

My mom’s friend had recently built a condo with Andrés Saavedra, a well-known architect and interior designer from Mexico City. My mom excitedly explained that his eponymous design firm was preparing for the inaugural year of Zanka Fest, a three-day surf, art, and music festival (three of my favorite things!) and needed volunteers. I requested 10 days off from work and booked my first trip for December.

Landing in Zihuatanejo, the thick, warm air reminded me of flying home to the Big Island of Hawaii. I followed the stream of travelers out to the meeting area where Tara, Andrés’ Canadian fiancée, greeted me warmly. Tara drove me to their beautiful house and showed me where I would be staying. The complex consisted of multiple stacked casitas, each with its own pool and hammocks on the porch. The view of tropical green islands alongside the steep coastline leading down to Ixtapa Beach blew me away.

Early on my first morning, I jumped in Andrés’ black truck and met a friend of his to go surfing at a spot called El Rancho. I tried to understand as the guys chatted in Spanish but didn’t get much, and the ride seemed to take forever. We finally pulled off at some nondescript exit and started bumping down a washed-out dirt road. I was bubbling with excitement while trying to keep my cool around the guys, but the drive brought back memories of surf trips back home in Hawaii and I was filled with the anticipation of helping out with the festival. Rolling up to the beach, I was immediately introduced to, and inspected by, a handful of Andrés’ surf buddies, but felt confident in my ability and relieved that it was a small swell day. In the waves, I was in my element and quickly adapted to the borrowed board I was riding. I was surprised to hear many of the surfers speaking English.

It wasn’t all play time for me at Zihua, as the locals call it. Working for the Zanka Fest, I mapped out the beach layout for the surf contest and constructed a judges’ booth on Playa Linda. After the festival ended, I vowed to return to Zihua soon, stay longer, and help Andrés’ architectural firm however I could. Back home in Tahoe, feeling inspired, I started an upcycled art program at Squaw Valley Prep. I dedicated much of my free time to ensuring that the students’ art projects were successful and pushed my plans to return to Zihua aside.

But the lush green jungles, warm waters of central Mexico, and kind, loving spirit of the Zankas had stolen my heart. As the school year started winding down, I booked another trip to Zihuatanejo, this time for a month in July. A few weeks later I found myself taking in the heavy air once again, this time feeling more confident with my español and excited to see my friends, and get back to work and the waves. One memorable afternoon two weeks into the trip, my friend Poto and I drove about half an hour north to a familiar surf spot called Saladita for an evening session, but when we arrived, the water was choppy and the surf was small. We spent some time visiting with friends and were about to grab a couple beers and wait for conditions to change when a strong offshore wind picked up. We pulled the covers off our boards right away and dashed for the ocean. Offshore winds have a way of holding up the waves, creating ideal surfing conditions. Once out in the water, it began to drizzle and I exclaimed, “Me gusta mucho surfear en la lluvia!” I love to surf in the rain!

A few minutes later, I felt like I had spoken too soon as the wind and rain increased and pelted my face and upper body. Bolts of lightning started shooting out from the dark clouds, closer than I had ever been to them, but the ocean water kept me warm. I talked myself into staying out in the storm because what better way to go than to be struck by lightning while doing one of my favorite things? And if it didn’t kill me, what an amazing story I would have to tell. I caught some glorious stormy rides, and spent time weighing my options for my future. Each time the lightning struck, my mind flashed images of living in Mexico, creating permaculture solutions to sustainably develop part of the tropical coastline, and made my decision. I would move to Mexico to work on Andrés eco-surf village project, Loma Bonita (Beautiful Hills), as both the culmination of the work I had done thus far and the beginning of a new chapter.

Check out Rascha Jelks’ mini-documentary about Zanka Fest 2013:

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