Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2017 issue.
Our van hopped along a bumpy dirt road on the way to Playa Sombrero, making my already nervous stomach do even more flips. I was about to go surfing for the first time. I stared out the window watching the beach make its way into view and continued to repeat to myself, I got this.
I got this.
It was only half working.
I wasn’t entirely afraid of the ocean, though it’s power left me seriously intimidated. In the ocean, and in life, too, I was somewhat uneasy about what I couldn’t see or control. The ocean always left me feeling in awe, but uncertain. Thinking of what was hidden, swimming beneath me left my mind reeling. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have watched the trailer for “The Shallows” before embarking on this adventure.
There was always the option of opting out, sitting in the sand and watching rather than actively participating — which, to be honest, was tempting. I’d already conquered quite a few fears on this trip, though, so, what was one more?
We signed waivers, got rash-guards, and got acquainted with our surfboards.
On our boards, in the sand, we dropped down onto our stomachs to learn the basics. We learned how to paddle out, followed by a three step process to standing up on a wave. The poses felt familiar, starting in what I likened to Baby Cobra Pose and moving into a low Warrior II. As a yogi I figured I might have a small advantage. Again I thought to myself, I got this.
False sense of confidence acquired.
Over slippery rocks, I followed our instructor, Pollo — who was carrying my wildly oversized longboard — into the water. The closer we got the more my heart raced.
Rather than focusing on what was terrifying me — painful wipe outs, sharks swimming beneath me — I tried to remind myself of what I loved about the ocean. The smell, the feel of it, too, the way white foamy bubbles greet my feet at the shore. I loved the salty taste it left on my lips, and how it left me feeling weightless as if I could drift off anywhere it felt like carrying me.
I tried to remind myself of what I loved about the ocean.
Pollo turned around, his quintessential surfer dude curls flipping in the wind, and asked, “ready to paddle?” I nodded, smiling, convincing both myself, and him. “Paddle out, turn to the right, and wait.” I gave him a thumbs up and watched him swim back out to help the others make their way in.
For a second, before feverishly paddling out, I allowed myself to take it all in. I was alone, in the middle of the ocean, on a surf board, in Costa Rica. I couldn’t help but laugh. If not for photographic proof, no one at home would ever believe that I was doing this — I couldn’t even believe I was doing this.
An oncoming wave crashed in my face, jolting me back to reality. Paddling was kind of exhausting. Back on land it all seemed easy … and I hadn’t even been on a wave yet. The rest of the group made their way out, and we waited. Naturally, I was first up. Pollo held the back end of my board, again asking if I was ready. No sooner did I nod than I was pushed off onto my first wave.
My mind went blank — everything we learned on shore was completely forgotten. The surge of power flowing beneath my board was so incredible I couldn’t even think about moving, let alone standing up. I screamed as the wave carried me out to shore. I hadn’t really done anything, but I felt like I’d accomplished something.
Feeling somewhat more prepared, and with slightly more excitement than fear pumping through my veins I was ready to paddle out and try again.
My second attempt? A fail of epic proportions.
“Are you okay?” I heard him yell as I flailed, trying to get back to my board. I lifted my arm high in the air giving him a thumbs up and paddled back toward him again. To my surprise the worse my attempts were the more determined I felt. I paddled back out again, and again, waiting to finally catch a wave.
Before being pushed out, I turned to see the wave as it came toward me, sizing it up, I guess. I remembered the three steps more clearly now and moved through them slowly and mindfully. Finally, after four failed attempts, I stood up. For about 4.5 seconds.
It was the most blissful four seconds of my life before the wave catapulted me off my board, cutting me back down to size. It was my worst wipe out of the day as a succession of waves crashed down on me forcing me under again and again.
I scrambled onto my board, now my safe haven, and headed for shore. Pollo called out, gesturing me back for another try, but I was ready to be back on land. Though I was feeling elated over my brief success, I was exhausted.
Carrying my board out was almost as challenging as catching a wave. I dropped it onto the sand, sat on top of it, and cried. Words escaped me then, almost as they do now, when I try to think of how to describe the feeling of overcoming fear. Pride. Awe. Surprise. Bliss. Empowerment. A lot of emotions hit me all at once.
Did some of the things I feared happen? Yes, over and over again, actually, but somewhere between falling off my board and being dumped on by waves, my fear became my motivation.
Photos courtesy of Maggie Peikon.