This story is part of a collection from my first self-published book, Three Years Abroad. It’s available on Amazon for $8.99 and if you have Prime then the shipping is free. I’d be thrilled if you wanted to pick up a copy. You’ll get this story and others like it, printed up and delivered to your door. Until then, please enjoy the story.
Lobitos is a place that you’d never hear about if it wasn’t for surfing. At the northern edge of town is a point break that at least one pundit has called the best surfing in Peru. Under ideal conditions the waves can reach seven feet although commonly they average towards five. The sea is murky, a greenish-brown inshore which lightens to a pleasant blue as the water gets deeper. Occasionally whales surface offshore by the oil derricks which dot the horizon. The town is very remote and I ended up there by accident.
Two months in advance I had reserved a small cabin in Máncora, a chic fishing village on the Peruvian coast. However, four days before my flight my accommodation was canceled. As I’d already bought a plane ticket to this far-flung slice of the globe I had to find somewhere else to stay. The best option was an upstairs room, in Lobitos, with a small balcony and a view to the ocean. Rent was three-hundred a month and the reviews were excellent. I booked it and four days later I was there.
I’d bought beer in town and on my first night I sat on the balcony drinking and eating tuna fish and watching the sun set over the water while surfers rode the last waves and mosquitoes feasted on my legs. The next morning Diego, my host, cornered me.
“What do you do?” He asked. A tall wiry man who smoked Pall Malls and had thick arms and shoulders which I would later come to associate with people who surfed constantly.
“I used to work for a startup in New York but I just quit. Other than that I don’t have a job at the moment.” I was fired with just cause for a gross lack of competence and an overall loose interpretation of what qualified as a working hour. But I didn’t tell people that.
“So what are you doing here?”
“I like the ocean and I wanted to be somewhere close to the beach. I’m also going to write a few things and this seemed like a good place to do it,” I said truthfully.
We were standing outside the small outdoor kitchen which everyone shared. The refrigerators weren’t much colder than a cool day in September and the freezer didn’t freeze as the entire place ran on solar power. The water came from a twenty-five hundred liter tank and was filled up once a month by a large truck. The whole compound could have been sucked into a hurricane and a not a single wire or pipe would have been pulled up from the ground, save for the one that took away the sewage.
Diego nodded. “A writer. We’ve had two writers here. One was a German boy who wrote about surfing. I think he sold many books in Germany.”
“Germans love to travel,” I replied, “they’re crazy. Wherever you go in the world you’ll find a German there.”
Diego chuckled. “Yes, they like to travel. Do you surf?”
“I’ve never tried it.”
“You should man,” Diego said with enthusiasm. “I have a board here you can use, the big yellow one. You should take it out and try to get some waves.”
In my younger and more vulnerable years I’d thought that I might one day learn to surf but that dream had been dormant for half a decade. I replied noncommittally, “I don’t know, maybe.”
“You should try it,” Diego repeated, “it’s a lot of fun. Surfing is the only reason that I built my house here and it’s the only reason anybody comes to Lobitos.”
“Is everyone here to surf?” I asked, gesturing at the other cabins.
“Yeah man, everyone.”
“Shit. Alright, well maybe I’ll try it tomorrow. Thanks Diego.”
“Hey, no problem man.”
After lunch the next day I put on sunscreen and took the board, which was nine feet long and as nimble as a hearse, down to the ocean. My training was sparse, I had none. My thinking was, as in so many endeavors in life, it is best to get involved with the activity immediately. After you’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and gotten the piss kicked out of you, then you can try to figure out how to do it right.
From noon till two I never came close to standing up on the board, let alone riding a wave. I got tossed and rolled and pushed so far off course that three times I had to get out of the water and walk back up the beach to try again. By the end of two hours my throat hurt from the saltwater I’d swallowed, my papery German skin was torched red and my arms felt like they’d been run over by a fat man on a Harley. I sat on the beach and stared at the surfers and dumbly speculated on what allowed them to catch the waves so elegantly while I floundered around like a whale with brain worms.
“Fucking bastards,” I said loud enough for them not to hear. Then I took the board back to the cabin and asked Diego how much it would cost to rent it for a month.
“For every day?” he asked.
“For every day,” I replied.
Save for bear wrestling and bull riding, surfing is the only sport where the medium is trying to kill you. For millions of years the ocean has been the spawning ground of hurricanes and the progenitor of tsunamis. The surfer seeks to tame this wily bastard. The closest approximate to riding a board down a wave is the feeling of stepping quickly down a moving walkway where each step is amplified and an external force drives you forward. Some people say that riding a motorcycle is like being on a roller coaster that you can control. That’s fine, but surfing is like standing on a roller coaster that you can control. It’s twice as satisfying and when you crash you don’t break your bones.
The better the surfer, the smaller the board. Large boards are easier to paddle and stand up on however they are ungainly and ugly compared to the small ones. With a small board a surfer can turn fast, jump waves and indelibly prove how cool he, or she, is. Small boards can also be easily carried on motorcycles, in the back of sedans, or on airplanes.
To learn to surf is to learn to read the water, not all waves are created equal. The white froth of a broken wave can be ridden but is inferior and beneath the dignity of anyone save a beginner. Every surfer who wasn’t born yesterday seeks to ride the curl, the unbroken section just on the edge of where the wave crashes into foam. This is the fasted way to travel and on the largest waves in the world surfers can reach speeds in excess of forty miles an hour.
Unlike skiing, surfing’s primary demand is on the arms, shoulders and back. To catch a wave you have to be in the right position in the water and to get there you have to paddle. Sometimes thirty feet, sometimes hundreds of yards. This is a strain on the triceps in particular and they are the first muscles to go. The back also grows weary as paddling requires the surfer to keep his chest elevated off the board. The muscles strengthen in time but nobody can surf forever.
These are the facts that one picks up along the way. Following my first session I surfed twenty-nine days in a row and went from an unbalanced beginner to a man who was widely recognized as a wave rider. In my third week I accomplished my goal of surfing a wave from one side of the beach to the other and by the end of my fourth week I was doing it consistently. I attribute this to the enthusiasm with which I practiced, and how could it be otherwise? Catching waves is an addiction as real as the bottle. Lobitos is the town where I dominated my first wave and Diego is the man who got me started. When circumstances seat you at the table of life the best thing is to call for whiskey and eat heartily, chance opportunities are the banquets that define a man’s story.
Like this story? Want to read more like it? My first self-published book, Three Years Abroad, is now available on Amazon. It’s 10 short stories, including this one, about my time abroad, the people I met and the interesting situations I found myself in. It’s only $8.99 and if you have Prime then shipping is free. I’d love it if you want to pick up a copy. All proceeds will fund future adventures in off the map countries.