As I scrape the last morsel of coconut meat from the shell, she walks out of her hostel room. Bikini-clad, bronze, fit, and very tall. A jar of paste in one hand, she pours cornflakes into a bowl with the other. Then starts to rub the zinc onto her nose and cheekbones. A warrior rubbing paint into each corner. I watch in curiosity, offering the occasional wave from the sarong-adorned couch where I sit, empty coconut on my lap. With the same deliberation, she pulls her short board onto her lap, knees spread as she waxes the spine, making long strokes with the grain.
She looks up mid-stroke catching me with her eyes.
“I’m Evelien,” as way of introduction. “Great swell today. Are you coming?” she casually inquires.
“Maybe later?” I volunteer. “I have some Spanish first.” I wave my hand over the sprawl of cards scribbled with verbs and nouns scattered around the couch cushions.
My last week of language class came to an end, so I decide to stay on another week to practice my conjugations and to tackle the swell. Now that the boards of the town windows are coming off, this sleepy surf town, Nosara, Costa Rica, is stretching and yawning awake into autumn.
Rainy season is coming to an end - slowly though. Come most mornings, the yard of the hostel fills with water, rippling with frog chirps, from the night’s thick sheets of rain. I witness a storm’s second arrival come mid-afternoon as the sheets of dark grey draw closer to land. I often sit on the shore watching a swift incoming storm while digging my heels deeper into the sandy silt. This thin, wet sand sticks to the backs of your legs and refuses to budge.
Brushing the stubborn sand away, I feel the noon’s warning drops of storm approaching. Mara, my former German roommate at our homestay, pale and elegant, sits beside me, book on lap, hair dripping and combed back from her graceful features. Her thin, high cheekbones, full lips, and doe-like eyes mix with her soft, German accent as she lifts a finger to the horizon.
“Oh, there he is. What a good one he’s caught!” she exclaims as her boyfriend, Max, carves through the foam. A dash of fluorescent orange and blue from his shorts is all I can make out from the distance. They share a surfboard every day, taking turns in the waves. Mara is still wavering about paddling through the white water, but she seems content splashing in the smaller waves and building her strength with each stroke.
“Meet you at the café,” I call over my shoulder as I depart the beach, quickening my pace with the onslaught of plump rain drops. Dodging under doorways and between puddles that thicken and expand with the fall’s relentless storms, I can feel the drips of mud as they splatter and stick to the backs of my legs.
Arriving wet but warm, we order “pollo con pico de gallo” in our best Spanish. Max stoops over his meal, stirring the fresh tamarind juice, as Mara’s smile widens with her “Gracias.” Her Spanish is improving quickly, Max notes, much quicker than the rest of us.
Max and Mara are traveling for nine months and are prepared for the unexpected. Their backpacks are meticulously packed to the brim with books and laptop, a tent, cooking pans, light clothes, sunscreen, and bug repellent. Ready for the great outdoors, they embark together, this sweet couple of ten years. They discuss getting married and moving to the small town they grew up near Cologne. I will spend the first month together trying to properly pronounce “Cas Brow Ca,” as they guffaw at my poor attempts of German.
“There’s a new girl at my hostel. She’s from Haarlem, Netherlands, and surfs.” I mention. They nod with interest finishing the last of their meal.
That night, Evelien saunters in, freshly showered, a long skirt tied around her narrow waist.
“Are you staying for the live music?” she asks. The small café in front of our hostel hosts open mic nights every Tuesday with the regular expat crew sauntering in, taking turns at the guitar perched on a stool in the corner.
Ready to crawl into bed and sleep off the long day with a book, I turn to Evelien and reply, “Let’s go.”
A week passes, and our friendship falls into an effortless cadence. We rise early to rub sunscreen into each other’s shoulders while tearing at some fresh fruit. We take the short walk, boards in tow, around the rain-seeped pot holes to the white shore where the ocean’s long left break arrives daily.
I watch her read the waves, casting her gaze around the group of locals to the empty spot left of the line-up. She draws a line in the air starting at the horizon.
“You need to get a good start through this canal – see how the waves are breaking into each other here? Let’s get close and as soon as you see the last big wave of the set start, paddle like hell.”
She lies on her short board, long limbs draped gracefully like a prima ballerina, and casts long strokes in the salty water. Her frame becomes smaller, as I notice the distance increasing between us in the wash. I jump on my larger, waxed board, feeling its buoyancy, that I curse while battling through the waves. One final heave, and I’m sitting up amongst the others, languidly floating over the swollen tops of the waves on the outside. The gentle monsters that whisper to me from afar, only to become a deafening roar as you start to paddle into a fresh set. My first hurdle achieved – paddling out.
I watch her take her first wave. She looks back with one last stroke, then perches on her board and rides in a clean right. She makes it look so easy, I think to myself. I prefer to sit and rock up and down to the morning rhythm for a while to find my balance.
My body feels calm and composed out here. I start to understand how surfers get hooked and connect the wave and her beauty to the Zen art of stillness. You have to be present each moment. You never turn your back on the Ocean. She will cast her net as quickly as you let your ego unleash. No, her strength informs, and brings you back.
I pull myself around and start to paddle as I watch a wave start to swell. I draw in slow, deep breaths to calm my nerves as I give a quick prayer everything I’ve learned will come together. But, as I feel the lift, I notice my chest tighten, and I forget my breath. I hesitate, frozen solid for a single second, as I see the bottom of the wave start to pull from the sandy floor.
“I’m so high,” I think, “Oh God, I’m crashing.”
The wave gingerly tips my board, as I slam into the sand below, washing and swirling in the salty mist. My brain pauses, and I find myself holding my breath with one single thought.
“Which way is up?”
I need air. I force my eyes open in the thick salt water and make out the faintest light. A soft, glowing ball of sun coming from one direction. I wait for the pull of my leash. I follow the board, as it races to the top. And, when my lungs feel like they will surely burst, I break through the water and take in a mammoth gulp of air.
Just as I turn, another wave comes crashing down on me, but I’m ready now. I have to get out of the impact zone. No one can sustain here. So, I make a break, and paddle like hell toward the horizon yet again. I’m not ready to bring it into shore, so I keep fighting. And, after a few more waves, I dive under, I’m up, and the gentle hum of the bareback waves encircles me again.
Later, over milky cappuccinos in the balmy afternoon, as I rest my tired limbs, Evelien and I discuss where our adventures will take us next. We decide to head south toward Santa Teresa.
“Sounds like a road trip in the making,” I remark.
Evelien straps her surfboard to the inside of her rental car, tethered tightly above our heads. We stuff our packs into the back and pile in. We barrel down the main road, pock marked with muddy holes still full from yesterday’s rainstorm.
Others join in for the adventure. There’s Timo from Hamburg, Germany. A young, thoughtful Med Student slight in stature with his chiseled features and a distant look on his face. But when he smiles, he lights up a room. Tussled salty hair, growing longer in the jungle. Bronze and muscled, he is adjusting well to the “pura vida” life.
Max, with his blonde buzz cut and light blue eyes, and his girlfriend, Mara, with her soft brown hair and fawn-like features make out the rest of the crew. As they shimmy into the back, Evelien cranks the music. Lively African beats come floating from the open windows, and we bounce down the crumbled roadways. We opt to take a route by the coast. The main road is paved and easy to navigate but curves inland and is void of scenery and character. The other roads may or may not be washed out from the storms. They may or may not be filled with muddy detours and crocodile-laden ravines.
“We will miss the surf if we take the main road. How dull. Let’s take our chances,” Max exclaims.
While the rains subside, tales of flooded land, with knee deep mud and roads turned into rivers is the common talk around town. I tap on the dashboard and start to sing the classic “Hit the Road, Jack,” as the verdant jungled mountains frame the dirt road.
We take our chances all the same.