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Surf camp post mortem: three bruises on left knee. One bruise on upper right thigh. Causes unknown. One 6 inch diagonal bruise on rear right calf caused by impact with surfboard fin. Sore shoulders. Sore legs. Sore wrists and forearms. Extreme tenderness when contact is made with ribs, breastbone, and hip bones. Swelling on jawbone from mid-wave impact with surfboard. Goosebump on back of head from similar impact. The third day after surf camp has ended, Tyler is still struggling to sit up from bed in the morning due to a bruised, possibly torn rib muscle.

I didn’t know if I’d survive the week. I was especially skeptical when, after walking the 500 metre trail to the beach, both arms already felt as though they were going to fall off. My 8’6” board was heavy and awkward and my weak, stunted arms did not seem to have the necessary length to carry it with the effortlessness everyone else seemed to be managing. I finally settled with balancing it on top of my head, alternatively holding it with one hand, switching hands when fatigued. Ankle deep in the water I wondered how I was going to push myself up out of the waves for the next five minutes, let alone the next seven days. With some gentle encouragement from our instructor Brent, I velcroed the leash to my right leg, picked up my board, and waded in.

Tyler and I have done two surf lessons previously: the first, a great success along the relatively mellow waves of Pacific Beach in San Diego. I got up on my first try and the smooth, small beginner’s waves were both consistent and forgiving. The second lesson was during a previous trip to Costa Rica two years ago where we surfed along a learner friendly break in Tamarindo. The lesson proved to be more bumper boats than legitimate surfing, but with the help of foam topped boards and some generous pushes by our instructor, we both rode waves. Starting the week, I was feeling confident that we had the potential to be successful students of Shaka Surf Camp.

Continuing to wade into the water of this pristine stretch of coast just north of Mal Pais, I immediately sucked in a huge gulp of saltwater when the first of many waves broke and crashed onto me, with little regard to the fact that I was standing in its way. My board got away, feet swept out from under me, and my flame of confidence was suddenly, swiftly snuffed out. Further out, waves rose up and up and up, curling over slowly in a beautiful arc of solid blue, then crashing violently with a force that terrified me. Brent, likely feeling the apprehension coming off me in similarly forceful waves, offered his assurances: “we’ll be playing in the inside white water today”. As in, there will be at least a day’s delay before your inevitable pummeling. After a few tips on wading out and moving through incoming waves so as to not look entirely like a first time rookie, I was turned around, belly on board, paddling away from the frothy wave that threatened to swallow me whole. Despite its best efforts I was buoyant, stable, and rapidly moving in the right direction. Then, I was up. I gave a little “whoop” and was thrilled to see that Tyler, Brent, and Brian (friend of Brent’s and previous Shaka volunteer), had not only seen, but were cheering me on. What a feeling!

The first wave was likely my best of that day, and it wouldn’t be until day three that Brent would suggest we head to the outside waves.  When he did, I was only slightly less petrified than I had been on day one, but his confidence in me to even suggest we paddle out was all the encouragement I needed. We moved through the water towards the outside. “Think of paddling to the outside as a marathon,” Brent said, “and paddling to catch the wave as a sprint”. A marathon it was – and one I failed miserably at. After spending a good amount of time and energy floundering ineffectually through a lull in the waves, we were caught inside, in a violent set of breaking water that had me choking on saltwater and struggling to maintain control of my surfboard. I surfaced long enough to choke out “I don’t know if I can do this Brent!” “Sure you can, we’re almost there!” Then, “Grab this!” he reached over, handing me the leash of his own surfboard. I clutched to it like a lifeline, paddling lamely with my other arm and letting him tug me like a load of bulky cargo the rest of the way out. When we got beyond the break, I lay belly down, head in my arms, breathing deeply. “Are you ready?” he asked after I finally had enough breath to thank him for the tow. He pointed at an incoming wave, “that’s yours”. Then, “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” With a huge push, he yelled “Up!” I scrambled and with the last shred of strength, pushed up. This would be the first (and only) outside wave I’d catch successfully in the week and though it was an amazing, rewarding feeling, I offer the majority of credit to Brent for orchestrating it. Making that moment happen probably took as much out of him as it did me, though he wouldn’t admit as much when I teased him about it over dinner that night.

After nearly four months on the move, we’ve become semi-professional hotel guests. We’ve grown accustomed to being independent and self-reliant, coming and going as we please and figuring out where to eat and what to do by reading guidebooks, using Google, and getting the occasional recommendation from fellow travellers. Not so at Shaka. Staff and guests ate morning and evening meals together, and more often than not, we’d venture out for lunch as a group too. Camp volunteer Brent and his friend Brian showed us around, introduced us to their friends, took us out to their favorite restaurants, and bombed around town with us on ATVs. One night we all watched a movie in the thatched roof rancho, laid out in swinging hammocks with fresh made mojitos in hand. One afternoon, all seven hotel guests along with staff members lined up our yoga mats on the beach under the canopy of palm trees. Afterwards, fatigued and sweaty, we stripped down to swimsuits and ran into the ocean. For seven days at Shaka, Tyler and I were adopted by a temporary family – or perhaps we adopted them. In any case, family is something we haven’t had in close proximity for nearly four months and upon leaving Shaka, realized it’s something we’ve truly missed. Something we’re looking forward to getting back to.

After a week at Shaka, I would say both of us have gained confidence and basic skills to venture out into the water on our own. Our triumphs were not as grand as I had expected prior to coming here, but neither were my great expectations formed with a complete knowledge of the variables of surfing. Every day was different. The waves could be fast and furious one day and then crisscrossing in a boiling ocean stew of confusion the next. The currents could pull you sharply down the beach, or let you surf exactly where you meant to. Rather than an alarm clock or strict schedule, the tides determined when we’d surf. My strength ebbed and flowed, buoyed suddenly by a really great pop-up, then crushed by frustration of not having the physical strength to  paddle any longer. And therein lies my new found appreciation for the sport of surfing. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Thank you to Brent, Brian, Megan, and all of the other staff and guests at Shaka for adopting us as your own and making our experience unforgettable.

Here’s a video Brent made us about our week at Shaka! Surfing and so much more…