Snapshot from a Sordid Surf Town


Photo by Juan Carlos Menzies.
Dominical, Costa Rica
January 2014

I wax my board, and loiter in the shade of the palms. The day is hot and still, and at noon the palms provide protection only directly beneath their fronds; the tropical sun will be on me the second I come out from under them. So I linger with my waxing, watching the waves break.

Someone calls to me, and I turn to see a young man on a bike. He wears board shorts and no shirt, and carries the dark tan and lean muscles of the everyday surfer. I nod to him. He holds up a bag of something and asks if I want any. His accent is Latin, but I don’t think he is Costa Rican.

As an obvious foreigner in my twenties, this is a routine occurrence in most pacific coast beach towns. But this doesn’t look like weed, and I’m curious.

I set my board down to go get a closer look, looking for spectators as I do so. The sky is clear, but it is technically the rainy season – the low season for tourism – and the beach is deserted. He holds the freezer sized zip lock and I see it’s packed with something dark. When I make out a red mushroom cap in the middle, as big as my palm, I laugh.

He laughs with me, but is disappointed when I tell him I’m not interested. We seem to part on good terms, neither interested in wasting the other’s time.

Today the waves are big but come in slow. I like this because they aren’t crashing down on me and don’t require a fast drop in. And here, because the break is farther out and not on the sand, the waves feel harmless, even when they’re big. But slow waves are harder to catch. You have to paddle like hell and if you don’t have the surf hardened muscles of my friend on the bicycle, then you’ll miss two for every one you catch.

Now I’ve been surfing for two hours, and for every wave I’ve had, I’ve missed three. I drift with the swell and struggle against the hot sun bouncing endlessly off the water and into my skin. Still determined, I see another slow rolling monster coming in, a blue-green mass. I line up in front of it and start paddling, hard, despite my sore arms. I feel the push as it rises up beneath my board and paddle even harder, but then the push disappears. I’ve missed it again.

I swear loudly at what has been an empty ocean, except now I see a brown-skinned surfer paddling towards me. I don’t recognize him until he’s pulled up beside me, and even then I can’t be sure. As he paddles by me he looks over one shoulder and calls: “you should’ve taken my mushrooms… then you’d be strong!”

I watch him catch the first big one to come his way, and I see the tail of his board flash above the crest of the wave as it rolls past me, towards the beach.