I had stayed nearly a week in a place I had never planned to visit, scored fun and uncrowded waves, and met amazing people. But the signs seemed to indicate it was time to move on. I got a message from my friend Michelle inviting me to come and stay with her in Matapalo. And as it turned out, Leo and Nicole also planned to travel to Matapalo with their friend Luc to look for waves, and offered me a ride down.
We set off with Leo and Nicole’s dog, Pinnochio, and my giant board bag in tow. I said my goodbyes to Suzannah and the hostel volunteers, and to Gama, the boat captain who had kindly transported me to the surf spot each day while shuttling tourists to and from their snorkeling trips.
As I unloaded the boards at Drake’s Bay and attempted to wheel them up a steep, rocky dirt road, I again wondered what the hell I had been thinking bringing three boards on a backpacking trip. Leo shouldered the single board he was bringing and grabbed the end of my bag. Together, we carried it up the hill, sweating in the blazing 8am sun.
We finally arrived at a cafe and enjoyed a luxurious breakfast of eggs, beans, avocado, cream, bread, and coffee; a novelty, as I had been subsisting on trail mix for breakfast and a single meal (dinner) each day to save money.
Luc arrived to pick us up and we loaded into his car for the 3 hour drive to Matapalo. At least 2 hours of the drive were on bumpy dirt roads, across rickety looking “bridges” that consisted of a wobbly wooden plank for each tire, through rivers that engulfed the wheel well. Leo assured us this was nothing, that cars regularly got taken down the river each rainy season but only when the water levels were much higher.
Pinnochio looked out of the windows with excitement as Nicole and I gave each other pep talks on overcoming nausea and tried not to throw up. We emerged briefly on a blessedly paved highway before turning down the sketchiest of all roads thus far, the road to Matapalo. A rough cut through the flesh of the jungle, the raw, jagged scar of a road looked like a fault line that had cracked apart during a powerful earthquake. Uneven stones were scattered through the jagged crater, providing enough texture to tease ambitious vehicles into passage. The jungle was making a brilliant effort to seal the wound, a scab of vines and hibiscus flowers draped over and alongside the road.
We bumped along slowly, violently, until we finally came to a stop and tumbled out to look at the surf. As we emerged from the jungle, a massive cobblestone beach stretched before us, flanking the walls of a giant riparian stadium. Twin caves carved a dugout into the outermost point, a cone-shaped pinnacle striking upward toward the sky, adding emphasis to the scene. Underlining the dramatic beauty was a feeling of quiet solitude. The waves were small and windy, but there was no one out. Luc, Leo, and I scrambled over sharp, slippery rocks and paddled out under the high midday sun. The surf wasn’t perfect, but it was fun, and the three of us relaxed into a natural rhythm, trading waves as Nicole and Pinnochio hung out on the beach.
After we came in, we bumped back out on the road to look for Michelle’s place, Mil Flores. The name means “a thousand flowers,” and suited the land, rich with plumeria, hibiscus, coconut palms, and fruit trees. What a sweet relief to lay down in the soft pillow of this place, receive a warm welcome from a familiar face. My skin was red and swollen with mosquito bites (they were not deterred by my 25% DEET, wiggled through the holes in my mosquito net, and bit through my clothing; my bite relief creams proved worthless in relieving the itching); sand fly bites (which are unavoidable unless one avoids the beach, not gonna happen); and jelly fish stings (no more bikini in the surf, wear rash guard and shorts at all times, ok I got it now). How grateful I was to have a soothing place to heal and a reasonably good internet connection with which I could contact my medical advisors, Patty and Jen.
I had missed Michelle’s text instructing me to bring groceries as the closest store was 45 minutes away. She generously offered to share her food supply, made a delicious dinner of gnocchi and salad, and set me up in a freshly cleaned guest room with a heavy duty mosquito net over the bed. Heaven!
Michelle warned me not to be deceived by the apparent comfort of Mil Flores. Always use a flashlight at night, she advised me, there are pit vipers in the yard. We stayed up talking for the rest of the evening, and the next morning scored fun surf all to ourselves. The heat of midday was oppressive, suffocating, and the only thing to do was sit in the river. We walked down a short path from the house to the river mouth, dammed with sticks and boulders to form a shallow swimming hole overlooking the ocean, a natural infinity pool shaded by a cathedral of flowering trees. We sandbagged there for hours, giddy with the pleasure of coolness, and then returned to the house to make dinner. We invited Leo, Nicole, and Luc over for a bountiful feast of cheese burgers, sautéed greens, and yucca fries seasoned and cooked in coconut oil. We dubbed the platter of fries the “yucca mountain,” which seemed silly in its sheer size but which we depleted with a ravenous vigor that none of us could quite believe. Even little Pinnochio, named after Suzannah’s dream that he became a real boy, got to partake. He happily gobbled up a handful of raw meat for dinner.
The most gracious hostess I could have asked for, Michelle introduced me to all of the local people and showed me the area’s hidden gems. She has been a part of the community for 20 years, and as her friend and sidekick, I got to enjoy a side of Matapalo that I wouldn’t have found alone. I had an immediate invitation to poker night and was picked up by motorcycle on a night when Michelle had a dinner engagement. She took me on a hike to a beautiful waterfall where we spent the afternoon lounging in the refreshingly cool water. We went to a neighboring ranch to buy fresh eggs and cheese from vaqueros on horseback. We spent a night dancing at the neighborhood bar. We long boarded at a gated surf spot to which Michelle had the key. We had fun dinner parties, great conversations, and delicious food.
One of the highlights was the opportunity to take yoga classes from Shelly Williams, one of the most amazing yoga teachers I have had the opportunity to work with. What luck, to connect with the global yoga community, and enjoy the beautiful retreat center at Tierra de Milagros.
And then there were the waves. We had head high, fun, windy sessions by ourselves. We had playful photo shoots on longboards. We had crowds, lulls, disappointment, and more jellyfish stings. But we also found thrilling, powerful surf, magic and solace.
One of my most frustrating days gave birth to one of my most favorite. Michelle and I woke up early, frothing to surf the new swell that had arrived the previous day, and hurried down to take a look at the various surf breaks. After assessing our options, we decided to wait for the tide to improve at the main break. We checked it and rechecked it for several hours until it started to turn on, and eagerly headed out to an empty lineup. We had scarcely begun to paddle out when nearly 15 people stormed the beach. I watched apprehensively as the mayhem began to unfold. Michelle dropped in on a solid set wave, and a carelessly flung longboard went over the falls behind her, narrowly missing her as she shot down the line. This is getting dangerous, I thought. Moments later, I duck dove under a wave and surfaced to a violent crack on my forehead. Another board had hit me hard enough to break out the fin plugs. Luckily, I wasn’t bleeding. Stitches on the first day of the new swell would have certainly thrown a wrench in my trip. I struggled to catch a wave in, but I was in a bad mood, and I didn’t know the people or the break well enough to assert myself. I cheered Michelle on as she picked off a few more bombs.
As the swell continued to build, so did my irritation at surfing in a crowded lineup where I had to fight for a turn, take off too late, too deep, adjust my surfing to compete with other people rather than building it around what the wave itself dictated. Every time I pulled back to defer to someone else, I could feel the pressure within me intensifying, the heat cranking up another notch. We decided to look elsewhere. I was ready for a battle, a beating, something that could consume my entire focus and shoot shocks of adrenaline through my body, little lightning bolts burning holes from the inside out, steam vents for emotions threatening to boil over.
We drove deeper into the Osa to a spot that we had written off because it was heavy, frightening, rocky, dangerous and empty. I had hoped to have a reason for lugging that heavy board bag around and this was it, I had my 6’6 step up board in hand. I couldn’t wait to get out there. It was everything I wanted it to be, and more – more intense because it burned with the fire of my frustration, a vibrant splash of color on the bland canvas of disappointment. When we had checked it previously, I had been too scared to paddle out, but now I charged forward eagerly into the gauntlet. And I found that despite my doubts, I could do this, could mix together all of the experiences, failures, successes, intuition and knowledge that I have accumulated in my years of surfing – and along with a dash of brazen courage – discover what this wave demanded and meet the challenge. I was reminded that within every trial is an opportunity for change, growth, or maybe simply a contrast for some dazzling creation of the future as we continue to paint our lives.