Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Honeymoon: Malpais, the Bad Country

[Previously: we flee to Malpais, over land and water]

After a decent night's sleep, we were awoken rather early by the sound of vigorous hammering just outside our window, accompanied by a blaring radio and out-of-tune singing. When we'd checked in the previous evening, one of the owners of The Place had told us that she had people working around our bungalow but that she'd tell them to lay off; clearly, that message hadn't quite made it to its intended recipients. Oh well. We rolled out of bed, had breakfast and proceeded to check out the town of Malpais, which was pretty easy because it basically consisted of a single road along which surf shops, restaurants and little convenience stores alternated for about half a mile, together with an occasional "villa" for rent, or small hotel. We quickly realized that it was a town that consisted mainly of businesses run by expatriates, people who had come here and gotten stuck, much like Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.

After walking up and down a bit, we decided it was time to get equipped for what we'd come to Malpais to do, namely surf, so we wandered into the least-disreputable looking surf shop in search of boards to rent. After fending off enthusiastic attempts to sell us "clothes for the pretty lady", I managed to rent "El Tigre", a 9-foot longboard in a very fetching tiger-stripe motif.

With that, it was time to head for the beach to get my surf on. Now, in order to surf waves that haven't broken yet, you need to get past the whitewater and "out back", where the waves are still just smooth walls of water. On the face of it, that may not seem like a particularly difficult task, but when you have to do this while dragging along a 9-foot plank, it can get tiring pretty quickly. If you're good enough to be able to use a small [6-7 foot] surfboard, you can do what's called duck-diving: as a broken wave comes towards you, you push the board underwater and dive along with it so the wave passes over you. However, the longer the board is, the more difficult it is -- surfboards are meant to float, so pushing them under water and keeping them there takes quite a bit of work. And I had a 9-foot board. Maybe Laird Hamilton can duck-dive a 9-foot board, but I sure as hell can't, which means I was reduced to doing the "turtle": as the broken wave comes towards you, you roll off your board into the water, get underneath it, hold on for dear life and hope that the board doesn't get ripped out of your hands and that you don't get swept too far backwards. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

In my case, it didn't -- I spent 30 minutes in basically the same 30-40 foot stretch of water, paddling frantically in between waves only to get swept back towards shore each time, losing all the ground I'd made up. After half an hour of trying to fight the sea and losing, badly, I dragged myself out of the water, a beaten man, to see whether there was any spot along the beach that would make for an easier paddle out.

Christina, in the meantime, had been dealing with unwelcome canine attention -- there was a pack of dogs roaming the beach that had smelled out her love of animals [she probably encouraged them initially ....] and now wouldn't leave her alone. They kept digging holes near her, showering her with sand, and bringing back sticks for her to throw. And they were pretty damn smelly too -- wet, unkempt, sandy dog is a particularly pungent bouqet. For the first time in her life, I think she'd had enough dog-love ... After resting for a few minutes, I waded back into the fray and this time actually made it out. However, I then had to deal with the actual surfing bit and that didn't work out so well for me either. The waves kept shifting, so I was always in the wrong position to catch a wave -- either I was too far in and so it landed on my head or I was on the wrong side to catch it etc. The couple of rides I did get were pretty crappy too, consisting of a couple of seconds on a bad wave followed by a long, agonizing struggle to get back out beyond the whitewater. All in all, I just wasn't feeling the surf stoke, brah ...

The next couple of days kind of blurred together, but the main things that stick out in our memory are:

- The semi-constant rain: as I said earlier, July falls into Costa Rica's rainy season, but we'd been told that the early part of July was the "dry" part of the rainy season. Being the optimists that we are, we assumed this meant no/little rain, when actually it meant "There will be periods of about 2-4 hours when it will be dry ie not raining, giving the rain that fell earlier just enough time to heat up, evaporate and make life very humid and sticky ... but don't worry, it'll rain again real soon". So, to put it mildly, the weather wasn't making life any better since pretty much all we could do in the torrential downpours was sit in front of our bungalow and watch the solid sheets of water cascading off our roof. Good if you're a Zen master contemplating the one-ness of the Universe, not so good if you'd like to be doing things like lounging on a beach.

- Scuba in 60 minutes: one of the expats trying to make a living in Malpais is/was a young German fellow, Toby, who ran a dive shop and offered "express" introductions to scuba diving. Since it was as wet on land as it was at sea, we figured we might
as well go diving and at least have fun while being wet, so Christina signed up for one of the quickie intros. Christina, though, is not a water person -- she maintains [and I must concede that this is a reasonable point] that humans are land animals, that breathing under water is unnatural and that there's really no good reason for putting your face under water. In addition, physics is not her favorite subject. It stands to reason, therefore, that a lecture on the physics of being underwater would go down like a lead balloon with her -- as she sat through the "dry" part of the lesson, during which Toby talked about things like 30 feet of water being equal to one atmosphere of pressure, not ascending faster than 60 feet/min to avoid getting the bends etc, her nods in response to Toby's "Ja, you understand zis ?" got increasingly more desperate. I definitely empathized with her, since it was a lot of material to try to absorb in one sitting [which is why when I got my scuba certification, I did it over 4 weeks =)] but I figured that we wouldn't go any deeper than 20 feet anyway, so it wasn't really essential that she fully grasp what he was talking about.

Once the theory part was over, we headed to the "Swedish" beach, so called because it apparently used to be a spot where topless Swedish women would hang out [so to speak ...], much to the enjoyment of the fishermen passing by. The idea was to start out in waist-high water and get Christina used to breathing through her mouthpiece, clearing her sinuses etc. About 5 minutes into that, it became clear that this just wasn't meant to be -- her mask leaked, kept fogging up and, overall, it just wasn't her bag, baby. She did try a couple more times, though, before declaring herself firmly done with all things scuba and that she was going to sit on the beach. Toby and I looked at each other, shrugged, and decided to go for a quick dive nonetheless. Overall, it was a pretty underwhelming dive -- visibility was bad and there wasn't much interesting stuff to see, though we did run [swim ?] across a turtle and a skate, so Christina didn't miss much.

- Interesting familial circumstances: our hotel was run by two Swiss women, and both of them had a daughter that was somewhere in the 7-9 year-old range. While sitting at breakfast one morning, I overheard these little girls talking about their imaginary [one supposes] husbands. While I thought that it was a bit odd that girls so young should be talking about husbands, the rest of the conversation was even more off-kilter: they were asking each other whether their husbands a) had other girlfriends and b) how many kids they had with these girlfriends. That totally floored me. Seems like they must have had a pretty non-standard childhood to be imagining that kind of scenario while still that young ...

In general, the whole vibe of Malpais was rather depressing -- the weather was bad, the surf was bad, there wasn't anything to do [especially given the lack of surf], the place was pretty much dead in terms of people and the proprietors of the local businesses seemed generally surly, maybe because there were no tourists [other than us] around, and we weren't exactly showering them with largesse.

Thus passed 3 more days of our honeymoon.


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