(Recently, Jason and I visited Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This is part 3 in a 5-part series examining just what is a local and what is a tourist at one of the best spots on the old “Gringo Trail”).
Local or Tourist? Case Study #2: Surf Instructor
Having only been surfing once before, in Portugal with no waves, no instructor, and no success , I was looking to hire a surf instructor and conquer giants (or just get
vertical on a board. Once. Then I could never surf again and live out my life safely on land away from sharks.)
After getting a recommendation from Juan, Alex’s one staff member at the hostel, we set out for Bibi’s, a restaurant on Caranero Island that stood on stilts over impossibly aquamarine water. We were told that we could find a surf instructor there. We got in a water taxi, and told the driver to wait while we tried to find the resident instructor and rent a couple of boards.
We found him fairly quickly. There were bungalows all along the beach from the dock to Bibi’s, and in between some of them was the office for the bungalows and the surf school. Nobody was there so we headed to the restaurant where we found S.I. (I learned his name at the time, I swear. ) He was working on a canoe of some sort.
“Move a little to the side,” he told us in only slightly accented English. “You don’t want to get hit by a coconut.”
I looked up and realized there was a palm tree swaying twenty feet in the air above me.
“It happens,” he said.
At first he told us that he could do tomorrow morning at nine. That was early to get up and get to the island (our Hostel was on the main island, a ten minute water taxi ride away from Bibi’s) but we agreed. Jason, having surfed in Mexico, didn’t need an instructor, but I did.
Then as we walked away and were halfway down the beach, S.I. came running back to us and told us that, nevermind, he could take us right now.
He got boards for us, including one for me that he said was perfect for a beginner. We then hopped back on the water taxi, and S.I. told us that we would go to Wizard Beach. The taxi driver then told us that he needed to get gas before he could take us that far. He also agreed to hang out on his boat while we surfed, since Wizard Beach was sort of remote, and taxis don’t just pass by randomly looking for fares. Between the paying for the lesson, renting the two boards, and paying the taxi driver, the three hour session turned out to be around $80. Whatever. I was ready to surf.
The motor boat chugged it ways around the corner of the island to a gas station on the water. While he filled up, Jason noticed that by the house at the end of the filling dock was a monkey, tied to a rope which was attached to a little bird house. These people had a pet monkey, which in my mind is a very clear indicator of a person’s success. Nevermind that they lived in a sort of dilapidated house. They had a pet monkey. Life had to be good.
We played with it, and it would grab onto our fingers with disturbingly humanish little hands that held our outstretched fingers for support and looked into our eyes while it slowly slouched to a sitting position. Right away it was evident that this was a very lazy monkey. Or maybe it was sick. It absent mindedly nibbled at my hand. S.I. laughed with us, and then finally made it clear that our driver was ready, and we left the monkey reluctantly. It sat down on top of his house, feet dangling like a child, and stared off into the distance.
We stopped and got water at a little oceanside general store and headed to Wizard Beach. We talked to S.I. on the way. It turns out he was from a nearby area of Panama. He was dark skinned, and probably of indigenous decent, and absolutely cut with no body fat on him. His shaggy and straight brown hair had the sea salted crust that seemed Californian. Like most surfers, he was almost aggressively “laid back” and friendly. He told me he had taken a sail boat and sailed to Australia, where he had surfed for a few years, and had survived by giving lessons. All of this is to say that S.I. seemed pretty fucking cool.
But in spite of how much I liked him personally, he was a terrible surf instructor.
When we arrived at Wizard Beach, which is on the Rasta flavored island, Bastiamentos, I saw why he insisted that the taxi driver stay in the harbor. Wizard Beach is as picturesque and as secluded as you could possibly hope for. The white sand beach stood alone on the edge of the jungle, with no buildings of any kind in sight. We covered ourselves in sunscreen (evidently not enough), jumped into the water and swam to shore. S.I. gave me a very basic course on how to stand up, and practiced the jumping push-up that is required to get up on a surfboard. There was what looked like to my untrained eye a steady stream of quality, but not intimidating, waves and only one other person on the beach. It was as near a secluded tropical paradise as I’ve ever been too. If a pack of British pre-teens ran by with spears and a conch while chasing a fat kid, I would not have been surprised.
We got in the water and I pretty immediately understood why surfers are so ripped. Surfing is hard
work. The paddling is non-stop. A few times I laid on my board to catch my breath while S.I. asked if I was alright. Of course I was fine, but in the first ten minutes I had my board hit me in the head and my chest was red from rubbing against the board. Still, I was determined to get up.
S.I. held the board for me a few times as a wave came, and then told me to paddle as the wave slid underneath the board and elevated it out of the blue sea. I would get me legs extended for a split second before the board squirted out from underneath me and I fell back into the waves. Then I would paddle back out while he effortlessly rode some waves. Then I would try to do it myself, not time it right at all, or worse, and more often the case, find myself facing out to see as the wave reached me, and not only would I not be able to ride the wave, I would pop out of the water closer to shore with S.I yelling at me to paddle out to where he was, which might as well have been the Canary Islands. Most of the time he was riding waves and yelling vague encouragement as I flapped around in the water like a toddler wearing swimmies.
At some point he decided I needed to get up, mostly because I finally put in the effort to paddle out all the way to where he was.
“I want you to ride one,” he told me. “Yeah, “ I said. “Me too.”
He held the board for me while I turned it around. He then yelled at me to paddle, always a little before or after my own intuition told me to, which goes to show that my intuition sucks at surfing too. But finally I did get up, and all of the soreness across my upper back, and the red sandpaper that was now my chest were forgotten. I didn’t stay up long, but I rode the wave out, and it was a sort of exhilaration that can only come from subduing one of naturels larger forces, like the ocean, or the wind, or gravity, and making it subservient to you. I emerged from the water grinning.
S.I gave a genuine shout of joy, and stuck his tongue out put his fist up in the air with his pinky and his thumb out, and shook it. Hang ten. Finally.
I rode one more wave over the course of the next hour. Help from S.I. was cut off when two more surfers entered our area, one of whom was a gorgeous blonde Australian girl that S.I. sat next to on his board in the water and flirted with while yelling encouragement to me as I rolled around in the waves. Finally we made it back to the boat, and I realized that I was feeling very, very nauseous, presumably from swallowing a small harbor worth of sea water. On the boat ride back, I closed my eyes and tried not to vomit. Thankfully, I was successful. It was a good day: I rode a wave on a surfboard and didn’t throw up on anybody. Badass.
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