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I just spent the week at a surfing "camp" in Jaco, on the Pacific Coast called Vista Guapa. “Camp” is a little misleading, as it's really more of a charming B&B that teaches surfing, run by the husband and wife team of Alvaro and Joice Solano. Alvaro is a 4-time Costa Rican surfing champion. Vista Guapa was originally financed by a coworker of mine, which is how I ended up there. The 7 other guests were all Americans, six women and one guy, who all knew each other. Vista Guapa consists of a main building with a living & dining area, a huge kitchen, and an apartment where Alvaro and Joice live. Like most buildings in Jaco, the difference between inside and outside is somewhat nebulous, and in fact some of the hallways are merely covered outdoor walkways. Considering that Jaco is hot & muggy year round and the only climatic threat is rain, a roof is really all you need. And screens to keep the bugs at bay. (That is, the bugs that aren't eaten by the omnipresent and gravity-defying geckos that seemingly inhabit every ceiling.) On the hill above the main building are three little bungalows, each with two rooms. Hammocks abound. Oh, and there's a much-utilized swimming pool adjacent to the main building. A constant stream of maids, groundskeepers, and cooks (and a guard at night) come and go. The groundskeepers particularly impressed me, because they show up at 6:00 AM and work steadily all day in the sweltering heat, mostly hacking back the encroaching jungle with machetes, creating a defensive perimeter of short grass to protect us gringos from the various species of indigenous venomous snakes. I studied up on how to differentiate venemous and non-venemous snakes, but was somewhat disappointed to not have had a single chance to practice my skills. Next time I’ll have to spend more time stomping around the tall grass in my flip flops. (Or maybe not...)
The town of Jaco, about a mile and half from the camp, exudes that crumbling feel of small towns in the 3rd world (lots of painted cinder block structures, decrepit vehicles, chickens roaming in yards, and mysterious yet surprisingly harmonious traffic "rules") but is also clearly a surf town: surf shops abounds, everyone wandering around in surf shorts, and a bunch of bars. I should mention at this point that I went a full week without doing any of the following:
- wearing socks or any footwear except tevas and flip-flops.
- wearing long pants or long sleeves
- carrying a wallet (just some cash in a zipper pocket)
- wearing a watch
- speaking into a telephone
I did, however, shave. Twice.
The first thing we did was rent bicycles. The posted rate was US$15/day for single-speed, coaster-brake beach cruisers with baskets. We offered the guy $20 per week per bike for 8 bikes, half his stock, and he took it without blinking. I promptly rode mine, with it's annoyingly elliptical rear wheel, into the surf and fouled it with sand so badly that it kept throwing the chain all week. Most of my clothes now have grease stains. But the bikes were great; every day we rode them to the beach and met Alvaro, who showed up with a pickup load of surfboards. Alvaro was the consummate local celebrity; everywhere he went people waved or wandered over to talk to him through the window or sometimes they'd yell to him and he'd slow down and let them jump into the back for a free ride through town.
Food. I pretty much lived on seafood, primarily ceviche, all week, with beans, rice, and eggs for breakfast every morning at the camp. Also a lot of fried plantains. But for Thanksgiving we (the guests) decided to cook a Thanksgiving feast for our hosts. I volunteered to handle the bird, and actually found a turkey at the local market. I suspect they've learned to stock a few each year. For some reason I derived immense pleasure from cycling back from town on this pathetic bicycle in the sweltering heat and humidity in my flip-flops with a rather large turkey in my bicycle basket. I also bought a bag of limes and made lime-ade. The others made mashed potatoes, stuffing, KILLER sweet potatoes (the candied walnuts made the dish), and other great stuff. Joice was so happy she very nearly cried, and Alvaro didn't say much; he just hunkered down to some serious eating. For someone who's about 5'6" and built like a triathlete (ZERO body fat), he packed away a whole lot of food. Which made surfing at sunrise the next day tough. Which brings me to the surfing part.
Surfing is the hardest sport I've tried, from a pure coordination standpoint. Granted, my talents have never been in the dexterity department, and surfing is all about balance and reaction time. (Ben, are you listening? This is your sport.) The part about jumping up and standing on the board made a lot of sense on the beach, but once we hit the waves things got hard. I also need to point out that the rest of the Americans were all serious out-of-bounds skiers and snowboarders AND most of them had some surfing experience.
Grim determination, however, will compensate for a lot of genetic deficiency, and by the end of the week I could catch most waves I tried for. We're not talking huge waves here...mostly 2-3 footers (as measured from behind the wave; a true 3 foot wave towers over you and hits you like a bus if you just stand there slack-jawed). A few bigger ones. Surfing is hard...but also one of the most addictively fun things I've ever done. Think about the mass of six foot wall of water, and the energy thus contained in a moving wave. The whole idea of surfing is to harness that energy using timing and balance. Taming force with grace. Extremely frustrating at first, but amazing when you get the hang of it. It's like skiing but with a giant invisible hand pushing you (a hand that's about to curl into a fist, that is.) In 90 degree weather.
Alvaro, as you can imagine, is like a ballet dancer on the waves. He only seems to take one stroke and then he's instantly standing, moving back and forth or up and down the wave, wherever he chooses. Amazing.
The size of the surf depends on the tides, so each day we went at different times. On our last day surfing, Friday, while everyone else slept off their Thanksgiving dinners, I tagged along with Alvaro to catch a sunrise surfing session. He was practicing for a weekend competition, not teaching, so I just practiced on my own. Well, almost on my own. The only other people there were 5 girls from the nearby town of Hermosa, including one I had met a few days earlier on the water. Alvaro had told me her name was Maria, and I started calling her Maria del Mar. Most of us wore surfing shorts, which lace up to prevent them from being ripped off by hydraulic force when you wipe out, and "rash guards", or tight fitting shirts that protect you from abrasion rashes while paddling on waxed surfboards. Each time I wiped out the water nearly tore my rash guard off. Maria, however, just surfed in her rather diminutive bikini, apparently (and justifiably, as I discovered with some regret) unconcerned about the risks. When I encountered her earlier in the week I told her, cognizant of my status as the novice, to take her pick of the waves and I'd go after her. She said, in Spanish-tinged English, "We can share the wave!" "No," I said, "I'll crash into you." She laughed, "No you won't; I won't let you!" Sure enough, she danced around on the waves like she was walking on water. I couldn't have hit her if I tried. Ah, Maria.
Thus when Alvaro and I pulled up in the dawn light to check out conditions, he spotted Maria first and looked at me with a grin. Not just Maria but 4 of her friends. Fortunately by Friday I had learned enough to not completely humiliate myself, and between perfect surf, a gorgeous sunrise, and rather pleasant company, when we returned to camp to meet my bleary-eyed compatriots for breakfast I was in, as one might imagine, a fairly good mood. After breakfast I fell contentedly asleep in a hammock.
That afternoon we (the whole group) went for one more session, this time just before sunset. In fact, when we finally clambered regretfully back out of the ocean the sun was already halfway on the horizon. Beautiful time to surf. By that time I was getting pretty good at catching waves, even though I was still just standing up and surfing in a straight line to shore. I was starting to work on actual turns, mostly trying to slalom back and forth in tight wiggles without falling off. Then just before the sun set I had a huge breakthrough. I got up on a wave, but I was just a hair slow and sort of teetered at the crest of the wave. If I slipped back at all the wave would surge ahead without me, leaving me to sink ignominiously in its wake. Trying to avoid this, I shifted my weight forward and pushed down with my leading foot, and thus managed to tip over the front of the wave. Instantly I shot down its face, much faster than I had managed previously, and raced out ahead as the wave broke behind me. It was the first time that I felt like I had controlled the board in response to the circumstances, rather than just getting up on it and going along for the ride. I could almost feel how I could turn on the wave and surf parallel to it, extending my rides.
And then it was over. Just as I felt like I got the basics and was ready to really learn how to surf, it was time to go home. Of course I thought back to my carefree days in Boulder, and started thinking about how easy it would be to just hang out in Jaco for months on end. (A nice apartment goes for $300/month in Jaco. Restaurant meals are a few bucks.) Since I'm not quite ready to revert to the lifestyle (translation: income) of my Boulder years, I'll have to settle for another week of surfing in the spring. Vista Guapa can accommodate 12 people, so any of you who might be interested in a March/April surf trip...let's start planning soon.