Playa Negra, August 2015
It’s the day after our buddy’s wedding and the waves are perfect. They’re breaking cleanly overhead and running both left and right, but I’m too hungover to surf well. I’m getting occasional waves but somehow my brother, who drank at least as much as I did, is just ripping them. His smile is so big every time he paddles back out that I kind of want to clock him, but Matt’s unadulterated joy in the water is something I’ve always loved to see. I get a short ride and Matt takes off again as I’m making my slow way back out; setting his feet he crashes down the wave’s face, swoops low out in front, charges back up to a space just below the wave’s breaking peak and then tears off down the line.
I try to hang on out there, and when I get a wave, or even when I get thrashed by one things are ok. It’s the time in between sets that’s killing me. Normally I find the warm salty water and soft bob of the waves outside the break soothing, but today it’s simply nauseating. I paddle in and spend the next hour lying in the sun and watching my brother surf.
Playa Negra is a beach in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. It’s a touristy strip of coast but this wave is big enough, scary enough and far enough offshore that it doesn’t draw a crowd. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if my brother and I have the least experience of all the surfers out today. Neither of us has been at it all that long. Two and and a half years ago I’d taken a marketing job at a travel agency and moved in with my brother in San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, where he was working at a law firm.
When I tell people I lived in Costa Rica certain things come to mind. Palm trees and hammocks are a given, and career opportunities range between yoga instructor and beachside bartender. For us this couldn’t have been further from the truth. San José is two hours from the closest beach, a sprawling metropolis in the shadow of volcanoes. Crowded and with laughably bad infrastructure, it casts daily doubt on Costa Rica’s squeaky green image. Though I would grow to love it, it was a long and often painful affair.
We both worked long desk bound hours, with a developing world mess of a city to cross between our offices and home. Matt faced a highway full of some of the worst, least structured driving in the world (no joke! – Costa Rica recently ranked 10th worst on a Global Driver Satisfaction Index put together by the navigation app Waze). Meanwhile I rode an ancient train that rattled through downtown and collided with cars and busses on a regular basis. Other times it simply came apart at one of the train car couplings. “It’s all part of the tour,” the conductors would yell laughing, as I watched the rest of the train move off down the tracks and grabbed my backpack to walk the remainder of my commute.
Surfing became our outlet, and the way we explored Costa Rica’s corners. Surf breaks line both coasts of the country, and while there’s too many to say we hit them all, we did surf a hell-of-a-lot of them. Whether it was the remote but world famous left at Pavones or the popular and hard-hitting beach break at Playa Hermosa, most Fridays found us leaving town. We’d return Sunday sunburnt and aching, our minds still back in the waves. Addiction came on quick and it was total.
Costa Rica ended for my brother first. Fed up with the traffic and the difficulties of practicing law in a country where its implementation was vague at best, he took a construction management job in Lima, Peru. Six months later it ended for me, when I decided to abandon marketing, pursue journalism and try writing about what interested me most. Matt still surfs every weekend, while I eye magazines and newspapers along the west coast and try to keep my last good ride from fading in my memory.
But now we’re both back here for this wedding, and that’s about the only thing we’ll stop surfing for over the next four days. After my rough morning and Matt’s elation at Playa Negra we drive half an hour north to a beach called Playa Grande, where I have slightly better luck on some crumbling, peaky waves that are practically breaking on the sand, and where Matt bitches. In waves, as in life, he is something of a perfectionist. From there we recharge with a few beers, tacos and a soccer game. My arms are already sore. Still, we decide to head back to Playa Negra for the evening tide.
The light is already dim as we paddle the long way back out to the break. I remind myself that off to the left (facing the beach) is a rocky reef. Overhead waves scare me when I’m staring right at them, but in this oncoming dark I’m surfing strictly on feel and perhaps because of this fact I suddenly emerge into the rarified air of totally hitting my groove. Somehow I’m in the perfect place for each wave, and dropping in is effortless. I can’t see the beach or even the whole wave in front of me, but I can hear it breaking over my shoulder and I know just where to guide my board to extend my rides into long fast lines. I break off four waves in a row, each seemingly longer and faster than the last, until finally I go over the top of one, step off my board and find myself standing on the reef. It’s probably time to head in.
I feel a deeply satisfying buzz as I paddle towards the dark beach to find my brother, who thinks this last session was a total waste of time. The rush will fade but the memory of it will stick with me, well into another semester in landlocked Montana.