Ever wonder if God is trying to tell you something? If not God, maybe some spiritual or mystical force. How else to make sense of those neatly packaged series of random “coincidences” in your life?
I had arrived shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday in Iquique on the northern coast of Chile to enjoy a bit of its famed vibrant nightlife and to relax on its popular beaches. I got the expected fun-filled nightlife, spent with new Chilean friends who graciously picked me up at my hotel. We spent the evening sipping a variety of cocktails first at restaurant and bar called Runa and then dancing until the early morning hours to Latin music at the beachfront Mango’s Club. Between the food, the drinks and the dances, we laughed. Sometime during the evening I was struck with the thought that I had to be the luckiest man on Earth, living a life others only dream about. Here I was, after all, on a trip around the world, meeting some of the coolest people in city after city, town after town, village after village, who wanted nothing more but to make sure I had a good time in their country. So many have gone out of their way to see to that, and I am to them forever grateful.
On Friday morning, thinking it would be a good day to hit the beach, I pulled back the curtains of my hotel room only to witness some pretty big waves. Woah! That looks more suited for surfing than for swimming, was my thought. Then the news confirmed that the Pacific Ocean along the Chilean coastline was being anything but peaceful. The strong currents had swallowed a fishing boat anchored just off the beach early Friday morning and caused flooding on streets near the beach.
Still, I headed out for a walk on the beach. There, I stopped to talk to a lifeguard. I asked him a few questions about ocean conditions. He said the seas were pretty rough and that swimming was not an option. Surfers were the only ones being allowed in, but only if they used a Jet Ski to go out. The currents were too strong for them to paddle out.
It was at that point he shared with me that it had been 12 years since the last drowning in Iquique and that he wasn’t about to lose anyone on his watch. It was for that reason he had been on the radio dispatching other lifeguards to warn surfers and others about the dangerous ocean conditions. He then spent about a half hour giving me information about Iquique, such as things to do and places to see. With the antenna of his two-way radio, he drew directions in the wet sand. But then pointed out the nearby tourist information booth and accompanied me there to grab a map of the city. We walked back to the beach as he showed me points of interests on the map. Very nice of him. Back at the lifeguard stand, we shook hands and parted ways.
On Sunday, two days later, I drew back the hotel room curtains to see how the ocean was behaving. Still looked rough. In the distance, I could see a boat salvage crew raising the sunken fishing boat. A Chilean navy helicopter hovered above, then swooped down. Lots of activity on the water, but still no swimmers, just a few surfers. Okay, time for another walk on the beach, at least. Off I went.
On the beach, I snapped pictures of the boat being raised, and of ocean rescuers on boats and Jet Skis apparently in some sort of training exercise. The helicopter swept back and forth along the beach. Then I saw my friend the lifeguard and other lifeguards emerging from the ocean in their orange and black wet suits. I had snapped his picture out on the water on a Jet Ski earlier, but I had no idea it was him. He approached, shook my hand and asked how was my visit in Iquique so far and had I gone to the places he told me about. I said yes, and that I had a great time sightseeing that day and going out with local friends the previous night.
When I stopped talking I noticed he seemed grim-faced. He then told me he and others were just wrapping up a long day searching for the body of a friend. He said his friend had swam out and went down in the strong currents. He was presumed drowned. He said rescuers – himself included – had been ought since 8 a.m., for at least 10 hours, looking for his friend’s body. The naval helicopter was also part of the search, he said. He added that in about seven days the body would probably float to surface or wash ashore. He was obviously very sad. This was the same lifeguard, after all, who two days earlier had told me there hadn’t been a drowning on the beach in Iquique for 12 years and he was hoping to keep it that way. That 12-year record was wiped out in a weekend and the victim someone close to him, no less. I couldn’t believe it. He climbed in the back of the white rescue pickup truck, waved goodbye to me, then looked solemnly in the direction of the ocean, maintaining his arm up in a wave. What was I to make of this irony? A lifeguard…says no deaths in 12 years on the beach…aims to preserve the record of safety during unusual currents…then two days later, someone he knows well drowns…on the stretch of beach he serves as lifeguard.
He grieves. And I’m left to wonder. Is God trying to tell me something? Or maybe I’m just reading way too much into this and it’s simply just how life works sometimes – like God – in mysterious ways.