But in a way you can say that after leaving the sea, after all those millions of years of living inside of the sea, we took the ocean with us. When a woman makes a baby, she gives it water, inside her body, to grow in. That water inside her body is almost exactly the same as the water of the sea. It is salty, by just the same amount. She makes a little ocean, in her body. And not only this. Our blood and our sweating, they are both salty, almost exactly like the water from the sea is salty. We carry oceans inside of us, in our blood and our sweat. And we are crying the oceans, in our tears.
-Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
As I drove from Pavones back to Playa Hermosa with Marie and Roberto, we talked about my plans for heading north. On their recommendation, I decided to go to Playa Negra, a heavy, high performance reef break. Roberto warned me that it tended to get crowded when it was good, and the bus situation was questionable, but I decided to take my chances.
I spent the night in the wooden, mosquito-shower hostel, conveniently located in front of the bus stop, and boarded a bus for Jacó the next morning. I struck up a conversation with one of the passengers, who suggested that I take a different connection in order to avoid having to pay for a taxi. The driver agreed. We passed my connecting bus on the road, and he flagged it down, rolling down the window to correspond rapidly with the other driver. I unloaded my bags in the middle of the road and transferred to the second bus. Then a third one. Eventually, I arrived in Santa Cruz, Costa Rica, and learned that I needed to haul my bags several blocks to a different station. I lumbered along, sweating in the cruel heat. Next was a three hour wait for my bus to Playa Negra. I was relieved that one existed, after all. I got a haircut, ate a plate of casado, and lounged under a tree until the bus arrived.
Then I found out just how questionable the bus situation was. No one in their right mind would have boarded this thing, if they knew what they were in for. It catapulted at high speeds down washboard dirt roads, rattling and groaning in a cacophony of protest. Through the teeth-chattering vibrations, I was sure I could hear every screw coming loose, sure that the wheels were on the verge of falling off. My board bag shook loose from its position propped against the seats, and careened into the aisle, smashing into the back door. At the next stop, the door jammed open against my board bag, threatening to crush my boards. I had to yell to the driver to close the door so that I could wrench the bag free and wrangle it back into place.
As darkness fell, I became anxious, and began pestering the bus driver, asking every time the bus stopped if this was where I should get off. “Tranquila,” a weathered tico told me, which means calm down. The weathered man was named Rafael, and he promised to let me know when we reached my stop. I told him I was looking for a place to stay the night. As it turned out, his sister rented rooms just a few meters from the bus stop at Playa Negra. He called on my behalf, briefly explaining my situation before handing me the phone.
“Hola!” I yelled into the phone over the racket of the bus. A muffled voice replied, in English, barely audible. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. How much is it per night?” I practically screamed. The bus entered an even rougher patch of road, and the clamor increased. It was like trying to have a conversation amongst a rowdy band of toddlers armed with pots and pans. I cupped the phone to my head and plugged one ear. “Fifteen dollars…” the muffled voice said, followed by a string of words I couldn’t comprehend. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear anything. Sounds great, see you soon!” I said and hung up.
As promised, Rafael let me know when to get off, though it was a no-brainer, as it was the final stop for the night. The bus driver helped me carry my bag to Rafael’s sister’s place. Her name was Flor, and she was cleaning my room.
I decided to update my blog while I waited, since the place had internet. It only worked in the front yard, so I took a seat on the porch of Flor’s house and set up my computer. Miraculously, it turned on without its usual time out in the freezer. Within minutes, an arsenal of large bugs began crawling across the illuminated screen. I swatted them away and pressed on, squinting through the deluge of insects. As word got out about the new light source in bug land, the torrent increased. June bugs, flies, mosquitos, moths, flying cockroaches, and various other species stormed the screen, bouncing off and splattering against the keyboard. I smeared bug guts off of the screen, shook bugs out of my lap, flicked bugs off of the keyboard. Eventually I conceded and called it a night.
The next morning I asked Flor where I could buy some coffee. She invited me into her home and made a cup for me, offering me a small breakfast of banana, tortilla, and cheese. Her Spanish was smooth and friendly, easy to follow. We became fast friends.
I headed down to the beach to check the waves. It was small, but a new swell was forecast to fill in the following day. I took a seat at the hotel restaurant overlooking the break and struck up a conversation with a family from Santa Teresa. They were there for a surf contest taking place at this break, which was scheduled to run all weekend. The contest would start promptly at 7am and last all day. The wave would be off-limits to non-competitors.
Crap, I thought. Maybe I should leave. What a waste. Even with the currently marginal conditions, I could see the wave’s potential. I desperately wanted to surf it, but it was doubtful that the swell would last beyond the contest window. And then I had an idea. Maybe I could just enter the contest.
I ran it by the folks from Santa Teresa. Tony was one of the contest organizers. He said there was still room in the women’s division, that it shouldn’t be a problem. Mick, the surf coach, said it would be a great opportunity. I’d get to surf a normally crowded break with just three other people.
Excited, I went out for a surf with deliberate energy. I needed to figure out the wave before my heat the next day. There were about ten people on it, including two ripping junior girls named Serena and Coral. They were less than half my age, and surfing worlds beyond my capabilities. It was inspiring to watch. They were friendly and welcoming, and while chatting with them, I learned that they were surfing in both the junior and women’s open divisions, which meant I would likely compete against them. I started to assemble the humble pie which I would no doubt be eating very soon.
The morning of the contest, I got in a quick surf at daybreak and then checked the schedule. My heat wouldn’t run until the afternoon, so the swell would have plenty of time to fill in, and I would have the opportunity to watch others surfing it. I looked at the names of the women in my heat, Zulay Martinez and Baily Nagy, and asked the people standing around if they could tell me anything about my competitors. Zulay was in the running for the circuit division championship. Baily was visiting from Hawaii, and had won the US Open junior division last year. Humble pie was in the oven.
I set up my hammock under the trees on the beach to watch the heats. The level of surfing was very high. There were people getting barreled, landing airs, throwing huge turns with glittering arcs of spray. As my heat approached, my nerves electrified. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s looking like a fool.
I asked Serena if she had any advice on competing. “Just remember to have fun,” she said. The simple, youthful wisdom in her words was shockingly refreshing. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to make it past this heat. I was doing this in order to surf a world class wave for 20 minutes with two other people, doing it for the once-in-a-lifetime flavor of the experience, to have the opportunity to surf alongside women at the apex of the sport.
In order to stay positive and focused, I established two reachable goals for myself:
- Be a competitor, not a buoy.
- Try to pull into a barrel.
I donned my contest jersey and as the green flag went up, I started paddling out, my nerves sparking and popping like water on a frying pan. I got a wave fairly quickly, my first proper wave at Playa Negra, made the drop, rode it for a bit, and fell. On my next wave, I was too deep, but I could see Baily dropping in front of me. Since I had priority, I fought for it, pumping hard to try and catch up to her. Farther down the line, I could see Baily making huge, fluid turns. Ultimately I couldn’t make it past the section, and got stuck behind the whitewater.
The red flag went up. Time was flying by, the heat was almost over. I sat inside of Zulay, saw my opportunity and paddled hard. I was very deep, and could see the wall rising up and bending in front of me. I went for it, turning sharply under the lip and getting a split second vision of the barrel before my board was sucked up the face and thrown over the falls. The wave detonated and exploded on top of me. My heat was over.
When I got out, I learned that Baily was penalized for going on my second wave, meaning one of her scores was halved. Her scores were so good, though, that she still won the heat and advanced with Zulay to the quarter final. I came in dead last. I didn’t even check my score; I knew it was laughable. But I was glad to have the experience and satisfied that I accomplished my two goals.
I headed up to the restaurant and met Bob Witty, originally from Santa Cruz, California. It turned out that we had a lot of mutual friends. Bob had been living in Costa Rica for years, running a surf tour company called Real Surf Trips. Bob convinced me to move to a room at his rental house, and even offered to help transport my gear from Flor’s cabina. We started walking down the beach so I could check the place out.
The final heat of the contest had just ended; everyone was packing up and clearing out. I paused, gazing hungrily out to sea, as the setting sun cast soft colors on the deserted lineup. The ocean was smooth as oil, a barely discernible offshore breeze tickling the tops of the waves, blowing them back like horses’ manes. I looked at Bob and saw understanding reflected in his eyes. “Go get a couple,” he said, “I’ll wait.”
I burst into a smile, grabbed my board, and ran to the waters edge, paddling out rapidly in the fading light. I paddled for every wave I saw and got several in rapid succession. Then I paddled out farther to wait for a set. As I floated alone on my board, with no flags, no judges, no cameras, no fixed time limit, an audience of tiny, striped yellow fish darting playfully below me, a serene sense of calm and gratitude enveloped me. Sensations became subdued and intimate in the dim, muted light. The feeling was akin to being held in a womb, cushioned by pink, fleshy sky, suspended in warm, viscous amniotic fluid. It was the eve of Mother’s Day, and I silently honored my primordial mother, the origin of existence, the entity that humbles us all. In return, she birthed a perfect, gleaming set wave just for me.
Humble pie tastes exquisite.
Delivered on the beach, I followed Bob up to the house, a comfortable and spacious establishment with high ceilings, marble countertops, air conditioning, and a turquoise tiled pool. It was a welcome respite.
Even more welcome was Bob’s 4am wakeup call and fresh pot of coffee the following morning. We made our way down to the beach in the dark, the first ones to paddle out, well before the start of the contest. Bob shared his years of knowledge, showing me where to sit, instructing me on which waves I should choose. My confidence and wave count soared.
He introduced me to another surfer girl, Mariah, and the three of us shared a delicious home cooked meal at Bob’s place, as well as fun beach break at a spot I never would have been able to access alone. There’s even talk of a boat trip to exceptional waves in northern Guanacaste; I am crossing my fingers it comes to fruition.
Thank goodness I didn’t turn away at that first note of discouragement when I arrived in Playa Negra. I may have lost the contest, but I gained rewards much more valuable than any prize. A cup of humility, a stick of reverence, a tablespoon of generosity, and a sprinkle of magic. This is my recipe for humble pie.
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