It is 12:30 at night, I've just walked a friend home on the outskirts of this quaint, foreigner filled surf town called San Juan Del Sur, and I'm heading back to my hostel in the centre. The streets are almost silent in this part of town and all I hear now are a group of local boys drinking at the side of the road ahead. Usually, at this point I would keep on strolling casually and probably even stop to say a few cordial words with this friendly group of Nicaraguans enjoying the the cool evening breeze over a few hard drinks. Instead, I become very nervous and unsure of what to do, so I gather my bravery and walk by rapidly saying a "buenas noche" as I go, avoiding eye contact. They see the fear in me and laugh at me, I'm embarrased and ashamed as I walk away, safely.
I've travelled for almost a year now here in Central America, and never until now have I felt such fear. This is a result of being robbed twice within a span of two weeks, once at knife point. As I've already mentioned, my board was taken from my hostel as I slept; the bandits preferring the unconfrontational methods of night time burglary. The anger over this incident was just beginning to subside when I experienced my second, and much more damaging violation.
I was having a few drinks with a lady friend down along the popular strip of bars on the beach. At about 9:30 we decided to go for a stroll along the beach, which as I should have known turned out to be a big mistake. We walked for about five minutes before we found ourselves alone, but the solitude was only momentary as three guys appeared out of the dark behind us. It was a little sketchy the way they silently came up on us, but as I said, I had this happy go lucky mentality at this point that nothing would go bad for me and so I really thought nothing of it. When one of the fellows asked me for the time and then continued walking ahead, he only confirmed my unconcerned attitude. They continued strolling, just three young fellows enjoying the beach like ourselves, until before I knew it they had turned around and rushed us, and I had a knife jabbing against my side. Another fellow pointed at us what appeared to be some sort of gun, but in retrospect was likely a toy. Just as I came to the realization of what was happening another man came running from the street and the thugs backed off. We were saved! A cop or a good citizen was coming to our rescue! As he approached though I could see that he had different intentions, he ran up to my friend and ripped the bag off of her. Now the three guys were fighting over this bag; this fourth thug had just robbed these hooligans of their robbery! I still stood there with a knife jamming against my side, eventually having my pockets stripped of a mere five dollars. I tried pleading with them to at least leave some important medical supplies that my friend needed in her bag, but to no avail. I talked to the police right after, and they knew who at least one of the guys was, but finding these bandits that come from the big city of Managua to rob tourists is next to impossible with the resources that the police have here.
I lost practically nothing of value, and my friend had nothing irreplaceable, so seemingly there was no damage done. The truth is though, that incident left a huge mental scar. Perhaps its good that I will now be more careful about what I do; never again do I want to have that feeling of helplessness and violation as a knife is pressed against me, but I don't want to fear people either. I feel like those bandits have left me with a sense of paranoia, even prejudice and that angers and saddens me. I didn't want to become another statistic: "One cannot travel for a year in central America without being robbed at least once", but now I am.
After these two incidents I had a new and unyielding thirst for justice, so I got more active. I walked down to the local police station with my English surfer friend Stewy, and there I demanded to talk to the Chief of police. I was forthrightly granted his attendance, perhaps because I was skillfully illustrating my frustration in Spanish, having planned my speech in advance. My goal was to make the police come with me to search for my board, as I had received information a few days before from a local property owner who said he saw the guy who took my board and he knows who he is. The chief was equally impressed with my determination, and seeing as he had another incident where an ATV and a motorbike were stolen in the same area, he decided to investigate. Now, for this to happen here in Nicaragua is something very special, as the police usually have much more important things to deal with then frustrated foreigners. They are paid next to nothing on a monthly basis, most of them carry no weapon in a relatively violent country, and they often have to hitchhike to different areas to patrol. In this case though, they pulled out the one police truck that the force has; four officers including the Chief; one rusted assault rifle; and one sidearm. We had to push start the old truck and then we piled in and headed down the bumpy dirt road. Stewy and I were now on a ride along with the Nicaraguan National Police Force.
The investigation started with the stolen motor vehicles, and after driving to a few different spots we were able to figure out who the perpetrator was, but were unable to locate him, a local bandit known as "Checko" or something along those lines. We then drove down to speak with my witness who promptly informed us that the this "Checko" fellow also took my board! He pointed us towards a few more places to search. At one point the officers wondered off into the bush to search a house and they told us to guard the truck, we were working now! It must have been quite the site for the locals who passed by. Stewy and I, a couple of dirty surfer bums sitting in the front seat of the only Police truck fooling around with the two way radio.
As it turned out, the bandit was not found, but the police have insured me that they will continue the search and will "interrogate" him as to the whereabouts of my board. In reality, I will probably never see it again, but it was worth the effort if not only for the experience. The police were incredible to do such a thing for me, and I am grateful. Hopefully someday their work will become much easier.
So that is my story of crime out here in Nicaragua, a story I was hoping to never have to tell. It must be said though, that despite a recent string of armed robberies, San Juan Del Sur and the surrounding area is generally safe and the local people kind hearted and caring. In fact, those most angry about what is happening are the locals, as it hurts business and generally just perpetuates racist stereotypes. Everyone I've talked to here knows about a board being stolen, likely because it is actually big news and is out of the ordinary. They are all extremely sympathetic when I tell them my story, and often seem ashamed that such things would happen in their own country.
Needless to say I've had enough of this surf town life, and today I'm heading out to a famous break called Popoyo where there is nothing but one hostel and incredible waves.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
It has been a long while since I've written, almost all of this time has been spent along the coast surfing and living the beach life. I returned to El Salvador where I surfed all kinds of different breaks everyday, and now have moved on to Nicaragua where one must take long muddy roads to reach the various beaches that are pristine and beautiful. I write this now the day after my beloved surf board, which has been through so much with me, has been stolen. This both angers and saddens me deeply, but already I have a new board and I know that the waves that I find tomorrow will make all better.
I've often attempted to explain to people what it is about surfing that makes it so special, so much more than just a sport. Often it seems my attempts have been to no avail. Thus, I will now endeavor to articulate this passion that captures new people everyday and opens them to its wonders.
I now present my admittedly esoteric and yet hopefully explanatory ramble on the ocean and surfing.
"You must live in the present,
launch yourself on every wave,
find your eternity in each moment." - Thoreau
It has once been said that there are three great elemental sounds in nature: rain; wind; and the ocean. As one sits far removed from the ocean its presence remains in its infinite and awesome roar. As one moves closer the cry of the waves not only become louder, but the noises expand into a natural symphony; the spraying and hissing; the slamming and crashing; even the clattering of large rocks being pushed by the undulating tide. Often the sounds of the ocean are accompanied by a shaking of the ground, so powerful is its force. In fact, when one stays long enough on any particular beach, one begins to notice how it all constantly and drastically changes. How one day as you walk along the beach during a picturesque sunset while your feet sift through the sands, you are on that beautiful landscape you know so well. Then, the next morning, as you begin a morning stroll you are met by a completely different beach all together. What was once sand has now become rock both big and small, the shape of the beach has shifted, giant logs have appeared half buried as though they've been there for years. Such is the nature of the ocean and everything within its grasp. Fluid; constantly shifting and moving and cycling; power beyond comprehension.
Only such a force could draw someone from the life they once imagined. Only the ocean could draw one away from the human temptations of money or love; from stability and relationships. Only the ocean can inspire one to devote at least a part of their life to understanding and experiencing its wonders and joys and might. The means by which such understanding can be attained is through surfing.
For many surfing is merely a sport, but there are those few who understand it as so much more. Surfing is meditation, bringing ones mind into an almost zen like state. It is a conduit between humans and nature, giving us a greater appreciation for the earth and its power. Surfing pits humans against the raw and awesome power of nature; to harness such force in such a simple and non-technological manner is to rise to ones full potential as a human being. Surfing is a lifestyle, signified by a free flowing, constantly moving, positive outlook.
Surfing is the perfect complement to the indefinite and spontaneous traveler, and it is no coincidence that the two are often found together. They both require a sense of openness and adventure; an appreciation for this world and all its wonders. Surfing takes the traveler to new frontiers, off the beaten track to communities and settings that offer no amenities - only the ocean and the people who have for generations lived by it.
Even if not traveling, surfing still provides that removal, that solace from society. One could be surfing off the coast of a large Western city, but just being out there off the land on the periphery of civilization one can find peace and solitude and an escape from the bustles and pressures that we find imposed on us in everyday life.
The experience of surfing is continuous and wholesome, including both the struggling paddle out and the exhilarating ride in. As the waves come crashing into the shore the paddle from what is known as the "inside", where the white water rages, to the tranquil area called the "outside" becomes the first difficult test of ones endurance and understanding of the ocean. It is during the paddle out that one may experience the full wrath of the swelling ocean. There is nothing more daunting than a seemingly huge wave forming up a mere few feet in front of you and crashing down on you as you lay prone on a small board - a mere speck in the vast openness of the ocean. Either you make the "duck dive" under the wave with smoothness, gliding underneath it, penetrating through the power to arrive perfectly projecting to the surface on the opposite side of the wave. Or, the sheer might of the wave and the rip it carries underneath its breaking curl is too much for you and it grabs you and throws you back and spins you and holds you under for what seems like an eternity until you are ultimately spat back up to the surface like a piece of driftwood.
Once one reaches the outside they find themselves in the calm of the open sea. Here one waits for the perfect wave in a state of patience and awareness. Here one soaks in the beauty of nature as they as they sit afloat on their small board in a relaxed position. Often I've sat on the outside staring at the setting sun on the horizon, contemplating the sheer vastness of the ocean and magnificence of this earth. I've often looked across the Pacific knowing that at the opposite side lies a land far different, and that just maybe, sitting off that coast so far away is another surfer, equally awed and at peace.
"It does remind me of the majesty and timelessness of nature,
as compared to the brevity of our own existence...
I love being out the back when its sunny and the water is blue and clean
and the waves are crashing down and there is foam and spray all around.
Especially if I'm alone, or almost alone, and there are miles of breaking waves.
Actually catching the waves can be secondary." - Peter Singer
Waiting on the outside I've seen seals frolicking only yards away; turtles paddle up beside me to inspect with their inquisitive eyes; huge flocks of mighty pelicans swoop down along the breaking waves. I've seen fish of all shapes and sizes project themselves from the water in a great leap, or ride along a wave as if for fun - perhaps so. I've even once seen a mighty wave form up in front of me, and as it curled over me and I dived under I glimpsed a pack of three large manta rays riding the wave as it broke over me.
Surfing affords a natural proximity to nature like nothing else, both physically and mentally.
Patience and mindfulness are virtues of the surfer, and after an often long wait the time will come and the wave will arrive. The riding of the wave itself is the ultimate experience, the raison d'etre, if you will, of surfing. It is also the ultimate form of meditation. As you wait sitting on your board, staring into the horizon and those distinctive lumps appear in the distance, the time has come. A set has arrived; a movement of water has been generated somewhere out in the great ocean, perhaps on the other side of the world, and here it will end, and you will harness its thundering conclusion.
As the wave forms up into a peak behind you those insignificant thoughts and preoccupations festering in every humans mind disappear and complete concentration and mindfulness begin. You move into position and behind you towers the wave. It has formed into the peak and you are now on top of it, rushing forward with the momentum of the wave. Nothing else in the world - in the universe- matters now. With your mind so focused, it is just you and this manifestation of nature - your own being fades into nothingness. With the force of the wave you rise onto your board and take the drop down the steep face of the wave. At this point you are surfing, and as you move along in the direction of the wave while it breaks behind you, a fluid wall forms before you and an unconscious creative instinct guides your movements - an instinct only revealed with patience and understanding and reverence for the ocean. There is no other feeling like cutting up and down a liquid wall as it appears before you, your instinctive movements constantly adapting to the fluidity of it. Over time you gain an understanding of the wave, and you know where to put yourself in order to gain speed and make your way back up to the top of the wave, only to drop back down yet again.
As quickly as it comes it goes, and the wave dissipates leaving you with a feeling of euphoria that can only be described as "stoked", a feeling that words alone fail to grasp.
"The only thing that actually comes close to riding waves is sex." - Mark Richards
Although those particles of water will find themselves in another wave, as ever throughout the history of this planet, nothing will ever emulate that unique wave and your movements on it.
Each wave one catches is a once in a lifetime experience. Each wave is something new and exciting.
And so the ride ends and you begin the cycle again. Paddling out, waiting, placing yourself to coincide yet again with the infinite cycle of the ocean and finding your next wave. Surfing.