The next time you see an image of a lazy Mexican resting against a cactus, remember this true story:
As a competitive swimmer, I once covered more than 12,000 yards in a single workout – and then followed that with sit-ups and hand-clap pushups. It was arduous, but we were pushing for glory. Nonetheless, the toughest swimming that I ever witnessed took place during a race across a bay in Mazatlán, among ordinary Mexicans with no pretense of achieving widespread recognition.
It happened in the summer of 1996. The race was a monthly event, starting literally at the break of dawn. The air felt a little brisk, and the growing light slowly shifted the features of the empty beach and sea from gray to their daytime hues. Minimally surfable waves broke, leaving a line of seaweed along the sand. The course was simple: swim more than a kilometer in a straight line across the bay, then run onto the beach for several yards to cross the finish line.
The morning start presented a particular problem for me, because the previous night a couple of friends had decided to introduce me to Mazatlán’s gay and lesbian nightclub, Pepe Toro’s. I had stumbled home quite late and got only about three hours of sleep before foggily rushing to the starting area, arriving literally at the last minute. I (correctly) had a bad feeling about my own performance, but I had no inkling of what the other swimmers would endure.
Many lifeguards were set to swim. So were other Mazatlecos of various ages and genders, from a pre-adolescent girl to a woman perhaps sixty years old. There were about forty of us in all. Some friends and family of the swimmers milled about the starting area. Other people occupied a couple of small, open boats along the course, including officials who could rescue anyone in trouble and the father of the young girl, to monitor her.
All of a sudden, we were off. For my part, I was truly off. I never got warmed up and finished second or third overall. At least no shark had eaten me. Then I sat on the beach and watched and listened as the other swimmers came in.
This is where luck comes in to play. Just after I had passed along the course, a massive, seasonal swarm of blue bottle jellyfish, quemadores, invaded the bay. And almost everyone behind me swam through it. Some came ashore with only one sting; others had multiple wounds. But every one of them swam through it, even though a rescue boat was in the water.
Once swimmers pulled themselves – some of them crying – onto the beach, what could be done? The older woman sat a few yards from me, and I heard people suggest applying lime juice or vinegar. Unfortunately, it was too early for any of the nearby shops to be open. A couple of lifeguards earnestly informed me that what really worked was urine. In fact, I could be a hero by peeing on the woman’s sting. She would be really grateful. They were persistent, but I wasn’t born yesterday.
What about the young girl? As she swam among the jellyfish, she got stung repeatedly. From his boat alongside her, her father insisted that she continue. He didn’t want her to grow up soft, become a quitter, make excuses. She finished the race, bawling as she stumbled past the finish line on the beach.
So how bad could these stings be? The blue bottle jellyfish, or Portuguese Man o’ War, packs a wallop far beyond the moderate pain of the typical cannonball jellyfish along the U.S. Atlantic coast. I’ve literally run into Man o’ Wars twice. When I was about nine years old, I got a tentacle on my butt while playing in the water at Miami Beach, and I couldn’t sit down for a day.
The second time happened in Mazatlán a year after this race. After bodysurfing for a while in front of a resort hotel, I trotted through the water back toward the beach, where some tourists were guarding my guitar. A blue bottle jellyfish ended up splayed completely across my belly, just a bit lower than my navel. A sequence of sensations followed. First, before I realized that I had snagged a quemador at all, I felt a generalized sense of bodily emergency: something’s wrong! But no pain yet. Then, through non-conscious cognitive pathways, I knew that I had been stung. I frantically pulled shreds of the jellyfish from across my torso as I squealed and thrashed my body around and began running the considerable distance to the beach. Now the pain came, progressively more identifiable and wrenching. Luckily, I had deposited my guitar in the care of some very generous men who, along with a nearby family, obtained resources from the hotel to care for my wound. Nonetheless, despite having lime juice (actually not effective for Man o’ Wars), a healing cream, and ice applied directly to my lower stomach; despite drinking a couple of margaritas and smoking marijuana for medicinal purposes – all in close succession – my entrails ached for days, and the attack left a foot-long scab and then scar across my abdomen that took weeks to finally clear.
Thus, the Mazatlecos who swam through these quemadores endured immense pain to finish the course.
But this still wasn’t the toughest swim, because …
They repeated the contest a month later, knowing that jellyfish were still there. I learned what happened only through news reports and conversations, because I didn’t return to the water until I felt confident that the quemadores were gone. This was pretty easy to verify: the waves washed dead jellyfish ashore and deposited them along the high-tide mark. So anyone could look at the beach and see a thin blue line of corpses and know that it was dangerous to cross it. That line began forming on the day of the first race and was fully evident on the morning of the next one.
It was a massacre. About thirty contestants received medical treatment. There weren’t enough ambulances to take them all to the hospital.
No gain without pain.