Monday, March 22, 2010

Santa Catalina aka Surf Camp

Shortly after I returned from Panama a co-worker who had previously visited asked me a question to which I nodded a polite agreement despite the fact I did not agree with her when she asked. But now? Upon further reflection I have to whole heartedly agree that yes, time does find a way of stretching out in Panama. At no point during my trip did I have that vacation feeling of "WAIT! I just got here! Slow down!" Except that last day when I was just not ready to wake up at 4 am and fly back to normal life. Nor did I ever look forward to a day ending. I just wasn't counting - I was relishing every moment as it came to me. I wish I could learn how to live that way in my normal life.

Of course, there are a lot of things about Panama I wish I could incorporate into my every day normal life - such as papaya dream smoothies and a hammock and a beach right outside my door:

Yes, that is definitely what is missing from my life. Also missing? This:

That's right, free roaming cattle, strolling along my beach looking all peaceful and serene in the morning light.

That is until the cowboy show up to round them up and one makes a break for it and charges STRAIGHT at me and I panic and the cow panics and the cowboy wishes the dumb tourist would just stay away from his cows!

But you should realize this post is not about cows on the beach. Not even about cows having sex on the beach (which, uh, I accidentally saw and possibly even videoed but I really don't think anyone needs to see or hear anything more about that).

The whole purpose of staying in Santa Catalina, after all, was to learn how to surf. Or, from our guide Jaime's perspective, something to keep the girls occupied while he ran around getting everything ready for us to spend six days on a deserted island. And if you are going to try and learn how to surf why not go for it in a place my guide book calls "the best surfing spot in Panama", "internationally famous surf break" and the "perfect point break". When I read that before I left I got a little nervous. Who wants to be the loser beginner at the mecca of surfing in Central America? Luckily, Santa Catalina thought beginners like me and created a perfect little playa just for newbies with smaller waves and no hot shots.

Unless you count our instructor. Just a little word of advice to anyone out there considering teaching any other human being anything from the rudimentary beginnings - DO NOT BE AN ASS to your students.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps this little clip will give you a hint at where I'm coming from:

Except, that was an exaggerated parody. This story I'm about to tell is not.

Mike, our surf instructor, is basically a dude. A Canadian dude who is ethnically Southern Californian. Tall, bleach blond and pretty confident all women worship him. They don't and we didn't. We found him obnoxious and we were irritated with him for days.

Let's explore why, shall we?

It all started well enough. After a leisurely breakfast during which Denise amused us by running back to her room for her jug of maple syrup (real Canadians don't travel abroad with their own stash!) for the pancakes, we wandered out to the beach to meet Mike and our surfboards. They were giant and heavy and I suddenly had this fluttery feeling in my stomach that made me wonder what I was getting myself into. Why did I think I could surf? Was I really going to strap myself to this giant thing and let the ocean fling me about? There was no doubt I would be making a fool of myself in short order.

Luckily, like Paul Rudd's surfer instructor character in the clip above, Mike had our first (um, only?) lesson on the beach, far from the waves. He lectured us on rip tides and other obligatory safety lessons and then had us each draw a surf board in the sand. Mine was all kinds of uneven and after he chuckled over it, he showed us the whole "pop up" thing. Which I should mention I was informed of about 6 years ago in Costa Rica when I first attempted to surf. But at that point a friend simply said - here's a board, paddle out and pop up. I did neither and ultimately exchanged the surf board for a boogie board and figured surfing wasn't going to be my thing.

I reinterpreted Mike's directions into my own language of 3 simple steps: 1) start in a low cobra (yoga term) on your stomach; 2) push up to an updog (more yoga terminology); 3) pop up to a short stance modified warrior two (again with the yoga terms). I think Mike thought I was hokey for giving his steps yoga names but it helped me remember. He was even more bemused later in the water when I inserted a kneeling step between steps two and three. At any rate, we practiced this little pop up thing a few times and then hauled our boards into the water.

I immediately discovered the part I hate the most is getting myself and that big heavy board out to the point where a wave might come and let me hitch a ride. You see, in all the movies surfers just run with their boards out into the surf, toss it in the water and paddle out to the waves with pretty much no effort.

For me? That is where I expended most of my effort. I tried the whole paddle out thing but turns out I have absolutely no idea how to paddle and actually move. Mike did give me a few pointers about how to dive into a wave with my head turned sideways and pushing the nose of my board down but I no sooner recovered from one wave in that position than I had to push my nose down and hold my breath for the next one. There was no time to paddle between waves. So I stood up and hauled that board out like a dog on a leash. A wild dog that was constantly dragging me backwards. In between waves I was running in the soft sand try to get as far as possible before the next wave blocked my way. To be absolutely honest, I think this was the hardest part of surfing for me. I was ridiculous.

Of course, then there is the whole timing issue of when to get on the board and which way to face so you can see the waves coming but be facing the right way to actually attempt to catch the wave. I wasn't very good at that part either.

Once out there and in position Mike graced us with his presence long enough to shove us out on a few waves (sometimes shoving the front of the board straight into the water!) for an hour or so. I soon learned another thing I wasn't very good at - paddling when the wave was coming. I would paddle and paddle and paddle and water would fly everywhere and the wave would roll right under me and break in front because I hadn't moved at all. It was almost as if I was pushing myself backwards instead of forward.

But. BUT!

When I actually managed to drag that big, heavy board out into the surf and I got up on my board, facing the right direction in time and I somehow paddled hard enough to catch a wave . . . well, that is the part I was actually good at! I managed to stand up right from the start and I often - yes OFTEN! - rode the wave all the way in standing up and occasionally I was even steady enough to play around with steering! And that part was SO AMAZING! I hate inundating you with excessive capitalization and exclamation marks but I had no expectation that I would be able to stand up so easily given my prior Costa Rican surfing failure.

That first morning was so exciting that I mostly managed to ignore Mike's comments. Mostly. My favorite? When he commented on how all three of us kept veering off to the left for some reason and wow, he never seemed to have that problem. For me, this kind of summed up Mike's teaching style. I mean, if I was taking golf lessons and I was shanking the ball and the golf pro simply scratched his head and told me he didn't have that problem I would have said I sure as hell hope not since I'm the beginner and you're the pro and I'm paying you to teach me how to get better. But for some reason, when this is our only option and we didn't exactly pick it, we just shrugged him off and let him wander away when he got bored with us.

Against our better judgment, the next day we even tried to introduce Mike to a couple of Dutch guys who were looking for surf instruction and Mike shrugged them off. Dude was really working hard to grow his business. When the Dutch guys remarked on how maybe they met him at some place or another, Mike responded "I'm lots of places" in that I'm too cool for school dude talk and that was that.

But that did not stop us from throwing ourselves - quite literally - into the ocean over and over in an attempt to get better at surfing with almost no guidance from Mike. And by the end of just one day, I was completely exhausted and looked like I had just been beat up:

Those are just a few of my battle wounds. My brilliant idea to add a kneeling step resulted in black and blue knees. My arms and hips took a beating as well but Shannon won the worst bruise prize with a nasty bruise that spread from her hip half-way across her stomach.

Bruises combined with sore, tired never before used in quite this way muscles made heading back out on day two that much harder. But I absolutely loved, loved it. By the end of day two I was catching very few waves and even when I managed to stand up, I couldn't stay there because every muscle in my body was weak and trembling, but I was so very happy. The longer we were out there the harder the waves seemed to break until I felt like I was just getting beat up over and over again. Not ready to give up completely, Shannon and I decided to try just one board between the two of us as the other took photos and played cheerleader yelling encouraging words to the other.

When we no longer had the ability to even think about trying one more time, we decided it was time to make the long walk back up the beach. But with two GIANT surf boards and feeling very fatigued, bruised and battered, we decided two trips were in order with a little team work to carry the boards back. Before we made it back to the cabanas a tall boy in surf shorts jogged out to us and took the board the rest of the way in and then ran back out on the beach to retrieve the second board. As it turned out, he and his fellow Dutch travel companion were staying in the same purple cabana and shared our front porch.

And since I know you are wondering, no, Shannon and I did not coordinate our outfits. We just happen to have very similar taste and showed up in Panama with all of the same clothes - these rash guards being identical but for (luckily) the color.

We spent the better part of that evening engaged in our favorite Panama pass times: sitting around and talking.

When we weren't in the water, we were resting up, cleaning up or sitting around enjoying one another's company - often in the comfort of hammocks.

Sometimes we pretended to be real surfers who needed to practice their balance technique on the balance line:

Also? Eating.

While there aren't a lot of options for food in Santa Catalina, they were all delicious. We especially loved La Buena Vida - home of the papaya dream smoothie and this heavenly concoction:

Michelle, one of the owners not only made that brownie ice cream piece of heaven, she did all of the mosaic tiling that decorated the outdoor restaurant.

That last night in Santa Catalina before we set out for Coiba Island we waited and waited and waited for the boys to get back from their city errands before giving into the rumbling of our stomachs and set off for our only girls only dinner. It was also the only time we indulged in all getting cold bottled water. We were still a bit skeptical about Jaime's claim that Panamanian water was safe for our North American stomachs.

But that was the last of the bottled water. It was also the end of running water (even if it only came in one temperature - cold!). No more beds, roofs, restaurants, chairs and random Dutch boy neighbors to keep us entertained. After that night we were off for the real adventure to camp on and kayak around a notorious, uninhabited island in the Pacific for six days.

But before I go, I have to share one more thing I loved about Santa Catalina - and that is what it did to my hair:

That slight wave and fullness may seem like nothing but for my stubbornly, stick straight hair that is somehow immune to the buoyant effects of extreme humidity, this was huge! And I absolutely loved it. My hair felt full and I really, really wish New York's humidity would have the same effect because then I would maybe be able to overlook all the superfluous sweating New York summers cause.


alison said...

This just sounds like such an adventure. Can't wait to hear about the rest of it.

Tiffany said...

1. Love the video clip.
2. Surf(ish). Tee hee.
3. I love the purple paint.
4. Love the mosaic.
5. I want the brownie ice cream thing.
6. Your beach hair is amazing.

Omgirl said...

That surf looks crazy. you are braaave!

Anonymous said...

These guys live like in paradise. You fellows, you know what an adventure is. By the way, is it possible to live in a beach tent on these beaches?

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