Young men sometimes do stupid things and one of those things is running barefoot on the beach at night. I did this once and kicked an unseen cinder block so hard that it split the flesh of my big toe the bone.
After the injury, I screeched, hopped and hobbled back to a cheap hotel room where I staggered into a hammock, wrapped my bleeding foot in a sock and passed out.
The next morning I awoke with a throbbing toe to the creaking sound of the hammock as it swayed gently in soft morning. I ignored the pain for a while, enjoying the blissful morning suspended over a concrete floor in a room that didn’t have glass on the windows where the light was softened by a palm frond.
That incident took place nearly 20 years ago, yet I remember hanging in that hammock with a bleeding toe like it were yesterday. I can’t know for sure, but I’d guess that the memory would be much hazier if I’d woken in a bed.
In the United States the hammock is often unfairly relegated to the role of afternoon lounging, family barbeques and lightweight backpacking. Not so in Central America.
When I moved to Costa Rica nearly 20 years ago – a first taste of the tropics that would quickly shape the direction of my life – I learned people spend significant portions of their lives swaying gently a few inches above he ground.
Native Americans, particularly in the Caribbean (where I went on to live for a solid decade) used early hammocks woven from the bark of the hamack tree, and later sisal fibers, as a nightly bed long before colonial times. The hammock’s ability to ward off nasty ground dwelling insects and snakes and the lovely cooling effect of wind helped it win over the hearts of millions across the Americas.
The hammock remains a popular bed for use in the homes across Latin America and particularly in the tropics to this day. It also brings to mind nights of cool ocean breezes and days spent dropping in on wave after endless wave.
I purchased my first hammock the same day I dropped in on my first wave. I had been in Costa Rica for two days and met a classmate at the National University who was also a surfer. We hadn’t even registered for class than we were on a bus for Jaco, the rowdy little town where Gringos and Ticos alike surf and party like there’s no tomorrow most every holiday weekend of the year.
As my days turned to weeks and weeks to months in Central America, that hammock was steadfast under my back. I learned to wrap a sheet around my body to protect myself from the cheap plastic weave. I rocked slowly under palm trees and tin roofs, my passport pressed firmly against my pubic bone in a money belt as I slept in a shady neighborhood of San Salvador.
That is how it started for me. That whirly blend of youthful milestones and misadventures led to a life spent as a journalist in the Caribbean for more than a decade. But the beginning, those hazy memories make me smile to this day.
Travels led me to share bamboo and thatch homes with residents of small towns like Uaxactun, where I spent three nights suspended over a dirt floor and shared the room with a 13-year old boy who took me to tour the nearby Mayan ruins during the day.
I once navigated a maze of sleeping bodies, a dozen or so strangers resting in hammocks that radiated from a central pole like the spokes of a wheel. It was four in the morning and I tried not to wake them. Snores mixed with insect squawks from the surrounding cloud forest. I rustled through a backpack to find my own hammock.
I had just arrived in Palenque, a small mountain town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas where hammocks are a mainstay. To get there, I had ridden a bus about 13 hours from Cancun, a rocking, uncomfortable ride over rough roads, past military check points, through jungles.
I tied a quick half hitch around the center post and then again on an outer beam. I became a spoke in the wheel in one of countless places where strangers sleep under communal palapas every night.
I’d met an Argentinian on the bus ride from Tulum. His name was Norman. We both snuck away from the sleeping hoard to investigate the morning, a morning that would become another story.
Rum. Friends. Music. Dancing. Salsa. Warm air. The swooshing crash of waves at night and sand slipping from under foot with current of water. Stars. Thousands of stars.
These are the things that I think of when I see a hammock strung between two trees in a summer park. That and the thousands of people at any given moment who are drifting peacefully in sleep in hammocks around the world.
Here’s to the hammock, the woven string bed and fixture of my past. To beach runs and stubbed toes and howling in the streets with new friends in a foreign tongue.
It is a symbol of foreign-ness and freedom and a land and culture that welcomed me as a naïve Midwestern boy with a bountiful embrace many years ago.