Surfing for Food in Jaco Beach, Costa Rica – Part 1

Hitting the waves at Jaco Beach

I’m not an adrenaline junkie. Except for one crazy experience at 18 that involved hanging upside down over the Atlantic Ocean from a Hammer ride in Santo Domingo, I generally get a kick out of the swirling teapots at Disney World.

But suddenly there I was, in my 30s and having left a cushy corporate job, carrying a surf board into the wave factory that is Jaco Beach, a Costa Rican surf town located on the Pacific coast and a straight 1 ½ hour shoot west of San Jose. Though it’s close to noon and the sun beats down on my face and arms, the water is surprisingly cool. I strap on my leash and start piercing the incoming waves with the front of my board until the water reaches my chest. At this point, I jump on the board and start to paddle.

My teacher Gustavo Castillo, a Costa Rican national champion and the guy behind Jaco Surf School, is on his board paddling ahead of me. Suddenly, he yells, “Faster, faster, they’re going to break on your head.” Gustavo is referring to the waves – now four, five feet, but out there in the middle of the Pacific, they feel as imposing as a wall of water. My brain immediately enters panic mode as I push and pull my arms against the water as fast as they will go. I feel like I’m not moving. I see the wave gaining momentum 10 ft ahead and for a moment, I’m chiding myself for coming out here. I want to jump off, rip off that leash, and swim safely back to shore. Panting, I keep on paddling and suddenly, unexpectedly, I’m floating on top of the wave. “I did it,” I think to myself and collapse my arms on the board. But this is only the beginning. Gustavo continues to yell, “Don’t stop paddling.” At this point, my arms are burning and little do I know that there will be three more of these waves to get through. I’m finally in the safe zone and collapse on the board. Gustavo urges me to sit up and catch my breath. I can barely move.

My breath finally comes back and I sit upright on the board, my knees hanging over the sides. I lift my eyes and spot a bird diving gracefully for its lunch a few feet away. Gustavo paddles towards me and asks me if I’m ready. “Yes,” I burst out. I position the front of the board towards the shore and wait for his instructions. When he yells, “Paddle!” from about a foot behind me, I start moving my arms again in short swift motions. Suddenly, I feel the swell of water beneath me. Time slows down and I’m setting my left heel by my right knee – just as I had practiced on the shore – pulling my right knee towards my face, pressing it down, and forming a U with my feet. In a second, I’m up (and I’m not falling!). I focus on my balance as I glide down the wave gently, naturally, as if I’d been doing it all my life. I experience a deep sense of euphoria and feel awe, humility, and so much pride. After all the hard work and effort, I experienced the bliss of being present in the moment, if only for a few seconds.

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