Sandboarding the Ica Desert

“So, where do we go?” I was barefoot in the powder-soft sand, surrounded by dunes as far as I could see. There were no markers, or tracks, or paths near our dune buggy—just nine white tourists, a Peruvian, and our guide, standing in a line on the crest of a towering ridge overlooking the vastness of the Ica desert

“I think this is the first run,” the guy next to me replied incredulously, looking down the mountain face. The group shifted nervously as we awaited instructions. We each held something resembling a repurposed longboard with the wheels stripped and black straps tacked haphazardly where feet used to go.

I peered down the side of the mountain—it was so steep, that I could only fathom that if I made it to the bottom, my board would drive itself in the ground like a stake and I would break my neck. I looked at the faces of the group. “It’s a joke. He’s messing with us.” I turned to the flip-side of the dune, gently sloping away from the summit. “I bet it’s this way.” 

The group turned away from the drop-off hopefully, but our guide spoke impatiently, and turned our shoulders back towards the steep descent, shoving pieces of a broken candle into our hands to rub against our boards. I was the last to start waxing, and grumbled under my breath all the while—he's insane...he’s going to get us all killed—as I scraped the length of the board vigorously.  

This done, our guide looked around with a grin. “Who first?” he asked in English. That was probably his favorite sentence, I thought resentfully.

We all avoided eye contact. I carefully surveyed the bottom of my board and brushed some superfluous grains away. 

“I’ll go,” A tall Australian girl broke in. He waved her over approvingly and set her board on the edge. It was an awkward matching—her body was too long for the board, and the top of her thighs and legs were suspended off the end. She was still asking a question about where to hold on when he shot her over the edge. In seconds she was gone out of sight, none us breathed until she zoomed back into view and halfway up the next slope from the momentum.

I made a deal with myself that if five more of our group made it down without a fatality, that I would be the sixth (I know, I’m a real hero) and miraculously, five made it down without incident. I brought my board dutifully to the side and laid on my stomach, contemplating mortality, grasping the makeshift grips near the front, and squeezing my elbows close to my sides, trying to figure out how the hell to steer and balance. 

Our guide gestured for me to sit further back, so I slide until my legs were against the sand from my knees down. “Like this?” I asked anxiously.

“Si.” He replied without concern. “You ready?”

“No,” I answered, decidedly, needing a few more deep breaths. 

“Ok,” he answered with equal firmness, “keep your chin up,” and grasped the front of the board before I could protest further, sending me hurtling down the mountain. 

I had a death grip on the handles. There was no way to slow down, or steer, or resist. If I was going to die, then I was going to die. Once I accepted this, something else surprised me. I realized it was quiet. It as if I had entered a sacred space that existed below the wind, close to the face of the earth. And it all faded—the shouts, the fears, the other people—until it was only me, with my ears so close to the earth that I could hear her whispering as she shifted and shaped beneath me, carrying me to the bottom, until I slowed down and stopped.

I tipped over and laid on my back in the sand. I wanted to cry because those swift seconds were like nothing I'd ever felt before...the rush, the speed, the unexpected intimacy with the earth. I felt a part it all, and ineffably alive.

The next three dunes, we were without our guide, and I pushed off on my own. The group completed the challenge with only minor injuries—some scrapes, a few sand-burns, a bloodied knee—all buzzing with adrenaline as we trekked back to the dune buggy. It was a full hour later before my heart stopped pounding in my ears.   

I’ll never forget that experience, or how close I was to missing it. I want my life to be full of experiences like these that flood my senses and connect me more deeply to the wonder and awe in life. A year ago, that desire compelled me to trade the security of a 9-5 to be a freelance writer, a full-time nomad, and chase my dream of becoming a published author. It’s been an insane ride, unwritten and unplanned, without any solid answers in sight—a life that keeps my heart pounding in my ears. I need every guide the universe brings me, especially those with the gall to push me over the edge while I’m still saying no, so I can embrace the life I’d been missing. 

Maybe someday I'll stop saying “no” altogether. 

To end with the words of my guide-now-guru, "You ready? Ok. Keep your chin up." 

Let’s be brave and foolhardy together.

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