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Fulfilling a vow on a wave

by Anna Karpinski

Surf School (photo: Anna Karpinski)A few years back, I vowed to learn to surf before turning 50. Then in a blink of an eye, there was only 6 months left to make good on my promise. 'One day' phrases start to sound sad instead of inspired if not acted on. At almost 50, 'one day I will learn to surf' has to transpire into a lesson or never be mentioned again.  So I started researching the best place to learn how to surf, got a couple of unexpected credit card increases, an Air Canada seat sale popped up and yada, yada, yada, I was headed for Costa Rica.

The western coast of Costa Rica has over 37 beaches marked for good surf and each of those with plenty of reputable surf schools. What I soon discovered is that trying to choose a good surf school in Costa Rica is like trying to find a good beer in Belgium.  Though they may vary in style, they are all good. All you need to do is just start drinking.

With that resolve, I chose Mal Pais for my destination. The area is actually made up of the fishing village of Mal Pais with two perfectly crescent shaped beaches to the north of it called Playa Carmen and Playa Santa Teresa. Both with magnificent waves rolling in all day long.

For the first three days I looked into surf shop windows and admired all the surfers from afar. I was transfixed by one young man playing in the waves like Fred Astaire dancing on a flight of stairs. He made it look so easy and I found it hard to imagine myself like that. Closer to shore, I studied the beginners, standing up for counts of three to ten seconds, catching a straight ride in. That would hopefully be me soon.

On day four, I took the plunge and walked into a surf shop. An adolescent, with wind blown hair, took my $10 deposit and signed me up for an 8 am lesson the next morning.

There were three in the class. A man and a woman who had taken lessons before and were both well under 30 and myself. We practised the jump up onto the board on the beach and then carried our boards into the water. The instructor, a nice guy from San Jose who had been surfing since he was 7, helped carry my board out to the waves.

Okay, get on. We'll catch this one, he said nodding to an oncoming wave. I'm not ready, I thought and there was the wave and the wave kept coming. Time slowed down. You can do it, hop on, he said. So I did. Start paddling, he said. So I did. Okay, go, he yelled and shot the board out.

I felt the wave pick the board up. I hesitated for a few seconds and then jumped up. Two seconds later I was down. But what a great two seconds! The strength of the ocean beneath, rushing forward all smooth and powerful. Even the fall was fun, all slow motion with soft foam rumbling in my ears. I shot out of the water, grabbed my board and headed back out.

Good, he said. Try to move in one motion. Hesitation kills the ride. It's all about going for it, he added. We waited for three consecutive waves to pass. Best to catch the ones coming in single, he said. Then out of a flat surface a solitary perfect wave rose up where before there was none. (A wealth of lessons to be learned right there: faith, patience and full commitment to the task. I imagine mustering these three would help improve most pursuit in my life.)

By the sixth ride I was looking for waves on my own. My eyes on the horizon, a foolish permanent smile on my face.

“Can you feel it?” he asked. I nodded and my age melted away. I was a person, at any age, loving what I was doing.

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