She wondered what it was, this sensation: if it might be called happiness, or whether it would more rightly be called fear.
– Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway
A massive south swell was rumored to be heading for Costa Rica on the first of May. It started as a whisper. As April drew to a close, it gained momentum, building to a crescendo of cackling jesters, becoming a singular, maniacal fixation. I was eager to keep heading north, and began to solicit information about surf breaks on the Nicoya Peninsula that could handle a big south. A tico who had lived in the area for years told me that nowhere on the Nicoya would be able to manage it. I looked at a map in disbelief. How could this be? It didn’t make sense. But the more people I questioned, the more certain the answer became. Nowhere. Nothing. No.
Go to Pavones, they said. My first trip to Pavones is detailed in Surf Town, Planet Earth, and though I had a good time, I wasn’t in a hurry to go back. Eventually, I met a man from the Nicoya who teased me with a glimmer of hope. “There are many places there that can handle a south,” he scoffed. Excited, I asked him where he planned to go for the swell. Pavones.
I cross-examined Roberto and Marie at length. There were a couple of tempting options, but they sounded like a gamble. I wanted a sure bet. They were going to Pavones along with the rest of the country, so I decided to put my faith in their judgement and join them.
We left at 2am on May 1, loaded with food, boards, and frenzied excitement. The surf reports were forecasting the biggest swell of the year, a collision of two storms. We came over the crest of the hill around 6am and began to drop in to Pavones, the bay laid out like a glass table before us with lines of waves cut out neatly across the surface. We started freaking out, a bunch of junkies desperate for our fix, hooting, yelling, writhing in our seats.
As we rounded the bend by the boat launch, we got our first glimpse of the waves up close. The boat launch typically marks the end of the wave, the place where it is smallest and weakest, having diminished all of its energy as it breaks along the point. When I had arrived in Pavones by boat two weeks before, this section had scarcely even had a wave. Today, it was barreling. It looked impossibly good, almost fake. “The inside is head high!” Roberto crowed. He kept repeating it over and over, like a mantra. I wanted to scream with excitement.
We quickly got settled at the hostel, which was still out of water. None of us cared. We were frothing. I waxed my 6’6 step up and headed out to surf. The point was much bigger than it had been the last time I was here. On my way out, I walked by a guy carrying a broken board, dejected. Another guy was bleeding from a deep gash to his head. It was time to focus.
I paddled out at my usual spot, by the river mouth. It was different, though, this time. The tide was low, sucking and surging across the cobblestones. The current was flowing rapidly down the point, pulling at me as I stumbled over the rocks, jumping over the shore pound and fighting to hold my ground. I waited for a break in the sets, saw my opportunity and quickly started paddling out. I duck dove under a small wave and felt my board rake across the shallow rocks. Not good.
Once I made it out safely, I checked my board and found a 4 inch gash along the bottom, which had cut through the fiberglass. I decided I would switch my board out so it didn’t absorb too much water through the ding. I caught a few waves, which were exciting, but closed out fairly quickly.
I surfed my way back to the hostel, cut the ruined section out of my board with a razor blade and set it in the sun to dry. Then I waxed my 7’0, my biggest board, that had yet to hit the water, and headed back out for round two. It was challenging, to say the least. I got caught inside, drilled by big sets, held underwater and dragged across the bottom. I got a few waves, but for the most part, they closed out. I burned myself out paddling, staying out for more than four hours, without an especially memorable wave to show for it. Oh well. So it goes. I have surfed big waves enough to know that it’s a good day if I make it back without major injuries or a broken board.
I finally threw in the towel and gobbled down a delicious lunch made by Marie. Then I collapsed on the bed, game over. When I awoke, it was dark and my eyes were burning. Four hours of salt and sun had taken their toll. I was in excruciating pain and I couldn’t see. I staggered to the market amidst cat calls. Surely I looked like a drunk girl ready for the taking. My eyes streaming, squinting through slits, I asked the cashier for eye medicine and he produced some Visine. It didn’t seem to help. I was as good as blind. The cashier told me to put honey in my eyes, that it would soothe them. Honey? In my eyes? I was skeptical. I staggered away.
When I got back to the hostel I tried cucumber and a cold compress to no avail. Finally I caved and smeared a drop of honey in each eye. Daggers drove into my skull, but then the pain blurred and my vision cleared. I was cured, and relieved. I had big plans for the next few days, and I needed my eyes working.
In addition to the sun blindness, I was mitigating an ear infection that had begun in Matapalo. It had subsided briefly with antibiotic drops, and then returned with a vengeance. I had started a round of oral antibiotics which successfully obliterated my internal flora, resulting in a yeast infection. In the spirit of keeping it real, here is reality, delivered on a petri dish rather than a silver platter. I hope to god I never have to have another awkward conversation in broken Spanish with a good-looking tico cashier about the merits of various vaginal medicines as I did in Pavones. The things we surfers will suffer through to stay on the sauce, they defy reason.
The following morning, Marie, Roberto, and I woke up early and checked the point. The swell was peaking, the waves even larger than on the previous day. It’s hard to say exactly how big it was, since perception of wave height tends to be extremely subjective. I will say it was easily three times overhead.
We were joined by Holly, her husband Kim, and baby Luna. I met Holly on a trip to El Salvador three years ago where she was holding a Surf With Amigas retreat. I will never forget what she said as she paddled up to me. “Let’s go take over the peak!” encouraging me to assert myself in an intimidating lineup.
Today, we stood together on the beach and watched a massive set roll in. I felt a twinge of doubt about paddling out and expressed my reservations. Again, Holly came through with words of encouragement. “You got the board, go get some bombs.” And so I did.
I donned my reef booties, which I hadn’t yet worn on the trip. At low tide, with exposed rocks and waves grinding against them, I didn’t want to get smashed against the rocks barefoot. And I secretly hoped that I might get a wave good enough to require a fairly long walk. As it turns out, I was in luck.
My first wave lined up from the top of the point all the way to the boat launch, supposedly almost a mile long. Adrenaline surged through my veins. This was it, this was why I had labored with the weight of my heady board bag through rocks, up hills, and on buses, to be equipped for this precise opportunity. Days of surfing this wave when it was smaller had shown me how to stay high and retain my speed, pump and trim through sections. The wave was so long that I entered a rare kind of headspace.
When I was first learning to surf, everything happened so fast it was hard to react in time. As I progressed, time slowed down, each microsecond distinct and tangible, the 2-20 second duration of each wave I caught began to stretch out and become pliable, yielding, my attention and awareness so focused that this brief measure of time seemed implausible.
They say that when Pavones is lined up perfectly, as it was that day, the wave can produce two minute long rides. I have no idea how long that first wave was in real time, but it was long enough that I stopped thinking and relaxed into the simplicity of reacting, automatically, to each section the wave threw out before me. Time became a vortex, its measure simultaneously insignificant and infinite.
When that first wave finished, I ascended the beach in disbelief. I floated out of the water, stunned with an idiotic smile that seemed to radiate the entire length of the point. I walked back up the road to the top of the point for another wave. And another.
One of the cardinal rules of surfing big waves is: quit while you’re ahead. As fatigue sets in, accidents happen. After I had gotten three waves from the point to the boats, I returned to the hostel for water, sunscreen, and perspective. I was tired, and both my board and I were in one piece. By all accounts, this was a win, a perfect time to quit. But what kind of junkie stops before they’ve depleted the stash? Especially if they know it could all be gone tomorrow?
Who knew when, or more importantly, if, I would ever be in Pavones again when it was this big. And if I would be in a position, physically and mentally, to capitalize on it as I was now. As I tried on the idea of calling it good and stopping, I felt a sickening anxiety start to unfold in my gut. Just one more. One more.
I grabbed my board and walked back up to the point, caught another bomb from the point to the boats, my biggest yet. I knew I was pushing my luck. My energy was borderline. I was opening the door to a broken board, or even worse, a broken body. Just one more. One more.
Delirious with fatigue, but high on adrenaline, I paddled out again, and was nearly run over by another surfer because I was too spent to paddle fast enough to get out of the way. The guy did a front flip over my head, missing me by a narrow margin. That was the intervention I needed to recover my sanity. I got one more wave, seriously this time, and called it a day.
That night, Marie, Roberto and I had dinner with Ricardo and Frie of Simbiosis, along with their two children, and Kim, Holly, and Luna. Throughout this trip, one of my favorite things has been connecting with local people; having the pleasure of their friendship, and a glimpse into their lives.
This was the first of several dinner invitations. The next night we dined at Mateo’s place up above the river, and the following night Michelle and I were hosted for dinner at Punta Saleas Lodge. The owner, Esteban, gave me a gift of a crocodile tooth, which I turned into a necklace.
I had a completely different experience in Pavones this time, and a big factor was the level of connection that I felt to people. All of the new friends that I made, and all of the existing friendships that I was able to build upon, made all the difference.
Another consideration is the unique headspace that I was in. When I came to Pavones the first time, I was fresh from the jungle, and the shock of the rodeo and surf contest was jarring. Post-fiesta, the nightlife in Pavones had quieted down significantly. And after the urban experience of Dominical, Hermosa, and Jaco, Pavones seemed tranquil in comparison.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to judge places and people. Perhaps it would serve me better to turn that critical eye towards a mirror and see what is playing out within me; what expectations, judgments, and insecurities I bring to the table. Which characteristics are inherent of places and people, and which are simply a reflection of myself? I don’t know the answer, but perhaps the question is enough, for now.
I do know that this second trip to Pavones was a binge I will never regret. And if I’m going to be a junkie, surfing is my drug of choice. It’s an addiction that drives me to explore the farthest edges of the world, as well as the innermost corners of myself. It’s the ultimate high, and I hope I never get clean.