Tummy flat and sun stroked
I’m tummy flat on a towel under a makeshift canopy. The sun is beating down just centimetres either side of me. I sneak my toes in every now and then to test the heat. Warmth is like a cure, but can turn quickly into the poison.
Our first day here, I drank the sunshine. I drank like I would never see it again, filling my dry roots with a thirst only the sun could quench. And I got drunk on it, falling asleep on the sand with my wetsuit still up to my waste thinking it was protecting my skin, not realising I was being baked. A barbecue and evening of pool and celebratory drinks only to find myself waking up in the middle of the night with a torturing hangover, empty vomitting and a pain intensity in my head that I didn’t know it was possible to live with. Heatstroke and sangria are not a recommended cocktail with dehydration. I heard myself saying ‘um’ over and over again, as if I was thinking about ways to say how I could clamber out of my body, but kept forgetting the rest of the sentence. Tim telling me it would pass was the only thing that brought a moment of peace. Until then it was so acute I felt I was trapped for eternity with no escape. A cold shower and being fanned finally put me to sleep, but I stayed down until6pm the next day. Day 2 lost to a Day 1 sun indulgence.
Day 1 was learning to body surf and the first three moves before standing. Day 2 was standing and I missed it and thought I’d lost the rest of the week. Then Day 3 came along and without thinking, I stood, almost effortlessly and somehow repeatedly unconsciously threw myself off the board as if it couldn’t be right. Like when I do handstands and when I seem to be staying upright for longer than usual, I have to come down. I have discomfort with easy success. It’s a recurring phenomenon that I’d like to recover from.
Our days start with optional and unnecessarily expensive Yoga on the terrace overlooking the valleys as the sun rises gold. It’s the kind of yoga I like, difficult and non-repetitive. I’ve done it once because it just kind of happens, no announcements or routine, other than ‘maybe around 8 in the morning and maybe before dinner’. The morning I did it, I just waited watching the sun rise with coffee and herbal tea (in separate mugs) so it couldn’t proverbially walk past without me seeing it.
Breakfasts are a delicious buffet of salty scrambled eggs, fresh orange juice, meats, cheeses, Portuguese breads, cereals, coffee. I look forward to breakfast every day. Sometimes I get sad at the thought of one day falling out of love with eggs. I miss them already.
Every day is 3 hours of lessons, usually split up into two 90 minute slots. We thought this meant 9–12 every day with afternoons and evenings free to cycle, yoga, read, work, write. What it actually is a drive to the beach at 10.30 and stay until around 6 and dinner at 7.30. With the unwritten rule of ‘give or take an hour for any time’.
The sea is god here. We go in when the sea says so and the rest of the time we’re told to chill or relax or take it easy. This is the most stressful bit, the pressure to relax and then straight into the boxing ring. Waiting around and then a sudden rush to move. It’s like be en guard and off duty at the same time. It fits somewhere strange in me, learning to be both fully off and ready to be fully on in my body is uncomfortable for me and doesn’t have much practice.
Evenings are out to a restaurant, delicious local and homely Portuguese food. Way too much filleting for me, so I pick around the coriander and fish bones and wait for dessert.
On my left right now everyone is sleeping, hats on faces or heads planted into their towels. There are three Belgium guys and one girl, all around our age. One of the guys has been our resident DJ and brings his JPL speakers everywhere we go. I’ve loved everything he plays. Muse just came on, Black Holes and Revelations seems most appropriate. He rolls another joint. One of the guys is reading a book on Belief and Consciousness. Our instructor, Tulsa, who effortlessly fulfils every surfingstereotype as an Australian, bronzed, blonde locked 21 year old has just slid up. He starts pulling on the joint and making sure we’re all strong swimmers at the same time because we’re going outside the waves today. I scan Tim’s face, knowing he’s battling with this guys casual and often inappropriate banter mixed with his responsibility to keep us all alive. His friend, Joe, who looks identical have taken to calling the guys in our group Boy, which hasn’t gone down well, considering they’re all over a decade older.
And I’m Elaine to the staff. After 4 corrections, I gave up and now even respond to it. It’s funny to think anyone thinks of me as an Elaine.
Tulsa, literally just said in his thick stoned accent, “So I guess we’ll just chill a little bit, take it easy”. A collective small wave of a smirk travelled through our group, we’re so familiar with being told to chill. We’ve unfortunately become skeptical considering most times we’re told to ‘take it easy’, the staff seems to head off to surf or to roll around with a girl in the sand. Our group has become a family of unlikely animal friends. Unlikely animal siblings. There are a few others around, an English commercials Producer who is taking a week off to surf and be healthy, a Russian couple and a French guy, none of who I thought spoke any English, but in fierce games of Jungle Speed, we only need a couple of words and we’re in fits of laughter, without knowing each other at all.
On the morning of Day 3, we all did well — all 6 of us in a kind of disbelief at how we were gliding on the water, standing, surfing even. It was a glimpse of the high I imagine people travel the world for. A long, slow lunch of volleyball and time filling reading — we went back in later
during high tide and all got completely battered. After 90 minutes we came out, eyes red, shoulders hunched, like we were soldiers who had been beaten by a common enemy.
I dream of tidal waves every night. Like I have been my whole life, they are so familiar. Waves the heights of skyscrapers, storylines in all directions. Sometimes I live, sometimes I die and wake up gasping, sometimes I live through death. It’s been over 2 decades of these dreams. I came here to be with the water. Like when I jumped off a bridge to face my fear of heights, only to suddenly know the feeling of falling and the fear to live in my body. My fear of waves hasn’t gone or remotely subsided. It’s bigger, more powerful, but perhaps more resigned, like accepting a part of me rather than trying to fix it. Now when I see them coming while I’m in the water, I become nothing for a moment. And it’s wonderful.
Day 4 was similar. Beautiful slow powerful waves in the morning and a boxing ring in the afternoon. I get the giggles when it feels impossible. I had a bad fall off the board, I was out for a moment but remember the impact on my back under water. With the waves, current and board all hitting me in different directions. I got carried by the tide and no one saw so I sat in the shallow on my knees being hit by each wave, not able to stand. I stopped laughing for a while.
I went back in later, after a long break. The toughest bit is wading or paddling back in after every attempt. Moving through each wave is like getting pushed back by a relentless bully who likes to throw wet salt in your mouth. After 10 paces wading through thick current, a wave can knock you back 8 or more.
It’s been strangely important for all of us to hear that this is difficult — we’re all fit and sporty and none of us are naturals.
The return into the sea makes us pickier about which waves to ah with — and suddenly all of us understand the idea of waiting for the perfect wave. Even though we don’t know what a perfect wave is, we know that each attempt comes with the forfeit of wading back in. So each attempt is a gamble on ability, timing, confidence and presence.
Today is Day 5. We have two more sessions left. I have battled with boredom. I have felt my brain wild with ideas and images and stories and have had to work harder to concentrate than usual because the time between being engaged is so long and formless. Greedily, I know how many people would love this time, of nothingness and space to just be, but my mind is hungry to be put use, to learn, to create — and so the thrill of learning here is counteracted by the pure nothingness.
I have my books. One an extraordinary spiritual journey through India. The other Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Chef, which I haven’t read for years. They are wonderful companions and perhaps representations of where I am. Part of me, lost in some exploration of who I am and where I’m going and what on earth I’m now searching for after the last 8 years of a journey, the other part ravenous for learning, knowledge, practice. And the rest of me — waiting idly, wanting to be useful in some way. And that’s my battle here, a feeling of uselessness in the gaps and then watching my battle, knowing that experiencing peace in feeling useless is part of it all, but then the kid is me wants to throw sand in that persona’s face and run naked on the beach.
It’s nice not to be somebody here.
And I look back over the last hundred years of my life and how much I needed to be somebody. I wish I wasn’t sad about that.
It makes me want to crawl into a book and become part of the words. And one day someone will be reading it and I’ll be hiding there and I’ll wink at them and they’ll smile and look around to see if anyone noticed. And I’ll be gone, already on another page, in another book about treasures or princes or pirates. And I’ll be quietly dancing with each of the letters until I feel the book open, knowing at some point, I’ll be seen, really seen — for a moment.
It’s now the end of Day 5. I’m back on my towel and I’ve inhaled our packed lunch. Sandwiches, breadsticks with chocolate dip, biscuits.
We just finished our last session, 3 hours straight after having waited all morning. We paddled to behind the waves. I’ve never been there. Where it’s calm and the sun tickles the water. To watch waves breaking from the back. It felt like in Fight Club where they watch the city explode from the top of the building.
We learnt to paddle fast enough to catch a wave as it forms, to stand before it breaks and to glide along as the white water crashes around you. After a few attempts, on my way back in, I had another surfer head straight into me, I got bashed by both boards and just tumbled covering my head only to come back to the surface and hit my board on the way up. My heart stayed racing for a long time after that and I had to find my way back to the calm and I just lay on my board watching the horizon.
Eventually I got the nerve back. Or rather, I seemed to start paddling without thinking about it like my body made the decision first. I wasn’t going fast enough and so Tulsa pushed the back of my board to give me a boost. And there I felt it. The high, the weightlessness, the flow — jumping up onto my board as the break propelled me. I’m a beginner but I still feel everything. A brief moment of blissful freedom — gliding all the way to the beach.
And then. Like Sisyphus, picking up the board and heading back into the terminator, to do it all again. Over and over. Attempt, fail, back in, attempt, success, back in, fail, paddle, success, paddle. Until it was almost rhythmic, unwilling to stop until the final whistle. Sometimes an attempt would fail become of muscle fatigue, wild 15 seconds of paddling to catch up with the wave — only to have my arms give way as I launched myself up.
And then back into the water. For another round.
I don’t know if I love that part of myself or if I’m terrified of it. Or both.
The second last wave was beautiful. Effortless form. Standing all the way to the sand. And the last, a clumsy knockout, a crash onto the shore and a big grin. And just like that — it’s all over.
I think of everything and nothing. I feel mostly the latter. And this ocean? I am just a silent guest here, it has been here since the beginning and will stay to the end while I pass through with wide eyes. I get to smell the salt of its body, to watch it rest and writhe, to touch its moving breaths, to learn its curves and shapes and to forever be its admirer.