I put images of surfing up all over my apartment. The first Surfer mag I ordered came with a poster of a woman (probably Lane Beachley or Lisa Anderson) riding what to my inexperienced eye was a huge wave, backlit by a tropical sunset. I gazed at it in admiration and then tacked it up on the kitchen wall where I could see it every morning and every night. I put pictures of waves and guys surfing waves all over my kitchen cabinets and the fridge. My screen saver was a picture of Pipeline breaking.
Two months of dreaming and I was back in Mal Pais, this time with the express purpose of learning how to surf.
I’m not sure what my boss thought about my request for more vacation time such a short time after my first trip, but I suspect that maybe it was general consensus in the office that I must be on the verge of a breakdown or something – this despite my generally ecstatic humor. But as a recently “separated” woman, I guess they assumed I must be torn apart inside. Regardless, I got the time off.
In the intervening months, I’d done my homework and discovered there was a surf camp right there in Mal Pais. (How had I not seen or heard of it?) Accommodations at the surf camp were crazy expensive, so I decided I would find somewhere else to stay once I was on the ground. Some people I’d met on my travels who lived in Costa Rica told me there were little houses (casitas in Spanish) for rent in the area that were more affordable.
It was May and the summer rains had started when I arrived. The air smelled sweeter even than before, roads and vehicles were less dusty, but muddier, the jungle thicker and so humid it made me slightly claustrophobic. In Mal Pais the jungle seemingly pressed in on both sides of the road and, I thought, might just explode onto it at any moment. I had visions of vines slithering into my room at night and wrapping themselves around my wrists and ankles to drag me off into the night, my screams muffled by a mouth stuffed with leaves.
In short order I found a quaint casita just a mile down the road from the surf school and only a hundred meters from the beach. It was tiny and pink, with one bedroom, a basic kitchen and bathroom with running water that was neither hot nor cold. It was very tidy as well, except for a huge ant nest I discovered in the drawer of a rustic wooden wardrobe located against the wall in the bedroom. After my initial panic, I went and got the owner, a local, who apologized and quickly eradicated them with some nasty poison. He was an older gentleman who spoke no English, but we made ourselves understood through a mean game of charades.
Once I was unpacked, I went looking for a grocery store. In my search I came across a little restaurant partially hidden among the jungle vines along the road. In the beams above the tables I saw several surfboards with price tags stuck to them. I stood and craned my neck looking at them when a young waiter approached me. “You want to buy a surfboard?” he said in perfect but heavily accented English. I was relieved he spoke my language and joined him to look at the boards more closely. It was here that I bought my first surfboard – an aesthetic decision made because there were two dolphins painted on its underside. It was a pin-tail thruster only a little longer than seven feet and quite narrow. I liked how light it was and easy to carry – much more so than those huge long boards I’d seen other beginners struggling with on the beach.
That first week, I didn’t make much progress and flailed about in the waves trying to stand up on what was, I would discover a year later, much too small and narrow a board. My new board’s beauty and ease of transport were not enough to float me and my kooky ass.
I did discover that wearing contacts while surfing was something else I was going to have to overcome. Without my lenses I could barely see past the end of my nose and certainly couldn’t see the next wave barreling down on me.
Unless you’re some kind of surfing prodigy, you spend a lot of time tumbling under water during the learning process (and it seems that the learning is never over). I squeezed my eyes shut tight when I got dumped, but several times one of my contacts was washed right out of my eye. I had a limited supply of disposable lenses, so I had to get creative. A couple of times, when I bobbed back up, I saw the lens perched on my cheek just below my eye. I grabbed it and popped it into my mouth for safe-keeping as the next wave in the set came thundering through, tossing me around like a rag doll underwater. Then once the waves had passed, I would try to balance myself on my board while putting the lens back in.
In one instance, a big wave pitched me far over the falls and then stole both my lenses. I came up sputtering to a world that was completely out of focus. Both my contacts had come out and now I was virtually blind. Some how, I made it back to the beach and then blindly stumbled the two or so miles down the rough, pothole-ridden road to my casita.
Surfing also exposed me to a whole new culture. Mal Pais was full of surfers from all over the world. The foreigners were completely focused on surf and weren’t particularly interested in doing or talking about anything else. They lived in houses or the surf hotel and were either surfing or scrambling to make some money to support their surf habit. The Costa Ricans were more laid back and many of them lived under and in the big trees lining the beach near the best surf break. They were friendly and didn’t seem to have a care in the world. They were also often stoned or getting stoned. I didn’t quite get how they could surf high, but they seemed to do a pretty damned good job of it. The one time I tried it, I was overwhelmed with a sense of paranoia that had sharks surrounding me and huge outside waves drowning me within minutes of getting in the water. I got out of there quick!
As the days progressed and my surfing didn’t, I began to realize that it was going to take a lot more than a couple of weeks to learn how to surf. It was not at all as easy as the experienced surfers made it look and was unlike any other sport I’d tried before. That’s when an idea was born – I would move to Costa Rica and live on the beach so I could dedicate myself to learning how to surf.