I’ve never thought of surfing as a hyper-competitive sport. For me, it’s more of a lifestyle. I’m not a surfer but I’ve met scores of people over the years that have rearranged their lives to be in proximity to the big breaks. I can understand why surfers might want to compete so they can measure their skills against others but the surfing culture doesn’t exactly lend itself to competition.
It’s more dude-pass-that-joint than let’s-throw-down-I’m-going-to-whip-you, so when I was invited to attend and write about a surf competition/bacchanal called Pitaya Fest in San Juan del Sur, (SJDS) Nicaragua, I leapt at the chance to see what competitive surfing was all about.On a Saturday morning in February, I piled into a stifling hot van outside a backpacker hostel in SJDS with my wife and two little boys and found myself sitting knee-to-knee across from a host of beautifully idealistic young American do-gooders and a pair of German girls wearing royal blue T-shirts that read “Christian Surfers.”
The do-gooders were a delightful group of young people who were taking a year or more off after college to help people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and they regaled us with stories, including one about a girl they encountered who gave birth at age 9. I got the feeling that they’d learned more in their brief time in Central America than they did in college.
As we struggled to hold our ground on the bench seats as the van breakdanced across a rutted dirt track toward Hermosa Beach, outside SJDS, I wanted to bottle up the group of idealistic Americans and release them the next time someone anywhere in the world tells me that Americans are greedy, selfish people who don’t lift a finger to help anyone else in the world.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti, and it’s impossible for anyone with a conscience to visit the country and not feel motivated to help the legions of poor people who live in improvised, ramshackle dwellings alongside almost every major road in the country. Plenty of tourists come to Nicaragua for the beaches and the prospect of a cheap holiday, but are motivated to stay on as volunteers after they arrive.
Playa Hermosa is a lovely, huge, crescent-shaped beach where some scenes from Survivor Nicaragua were shot in 2010. I was told that the abysmal road leading to the beach was even worse before Jeff Probst and company rolled into town. Before we made it into the event, we passed by a security checkpoint manned by a guy with a bulletproof vest brandishing what looked like an old AK-47. In the last few years, a few tourists have been robbed in around Playa Hermosa, so they now have security to protect what is one of the country’s few privately owned beaches.
The surfing competition was already a few hours into its second day when we arrived and the first competitors we saw must have been part of a beginners’ heat, because they appeared to have no idea what they were doing. In fact, none managed to remain upright on their boards for more than ten seconds at a time.
The event appeared to be co-sponsored by the Christian Surfers group (Quicksilver was the primary sponsor) but the DJ’s choice in music wasn’t very Christian. One of the first songs we heard went something like this:
(Unintelligible) Mumble, mumble, mumble
Shake that ass girl
(Unintelligible) Mumble, mumble, mumble,
Shake that ass girl
Later in the day, my wife saw the Christian Surfer group sitting in a circle on the beach, holding hands, eyes closed in prayer. Perhaps they were praying for everyone’s sins.
The sizable crowd was a fair sampling of the gringos who wash up in SJDS as visitors or expats. Backpackers in need of a shower and some clean laundry. White guys in dreadlocks with their tattooed, wasted-looking girlfriends and poorly groomed dogs. Middle-aged North American snowbirds, missionaries and assorted cheapskates looking for a cut-rate version of Costa Rica. Alcoholics attracted by Nicaragua’s cheap rum. Miscellaneous mid-life crisis and I’m here to change-my-life or maybe catch-something-that-I-might-be-ashamed-of types. The aforementioned do-gooders. Surfers, wannabe surfers and their dogs, some of them with coffee colored skin and incongruous orange-colored hair.
Aspiring North American coffee-shop revolutionaries in Panama hats and Che Guevara T-shirts who like totally aspire to stop the military industrial complex, global warming and the genocide in Darfur and various other places they know nothing about. Unemployable Latin American studies majors who aspire to start NGOs with vague goals involving “sustainability” and “empowerment.” Nicaraguans with substantial coolers sitting on uncomfortable white plastic chairs or lying on hammocks plus assorted riff-raff and ne-er-do-wells like me.
The surfing and the music got better. Much better. And the people mentioned above got more drunk and more stoned. At noon, I smelled my first whiff of ganja and wondered whether the surf announcer, who tried to sound like the beachside equivalent of Andres Cantor, the Latino soccer announcer famous for his GOOOOOOOOOOOAL! calls, would ever shut up.
Surfing isn’t much of a spectator sport but surfers make damn good company and they know how to party. I made a few lame attempts to understand what was going on, but it’s hard to stay engaged with a competition that has 56 different divisions and drags on for hours or days on end. From what I gathered, the surfers had 15 minutes in each heat to ride as many waves as they could, but only their two best rides counted towards their overall score.
Set back from the beach, there was a stage and a lineup of bands, plus a host of booths offering everything from $1.50 rum and cokes, chocolate cookies to pulled pork sandwiches.
I met a 40-something expat volunteering at a BBQ pit who told me that he moved to SJDS in 2009 to “do something different.” He said that that the town’s real estate market mirrored that of the U.S. There was a boom from 2004-7, followed by a bust and a sputter that lingers to this day.
“A piece of land that was 25K in 2007 was going for about 15k by 2009,” he said.
My children made friends with some gringo expat kids whose parents moved to SJDS from Lesotho (seriously!) and I met a host of interesting people as well. I was struck by how open and friendly people were and how easy it is to become part of this community in a place that I would assume is as transient as they come. I met more interesting people in six hours on the beach than I would in six months in Chicago. And I found out that the event was a fundraiser for local charities, which inspired me to have a few more rum and cokes, in order to support the good cause.
At 2 p.m., the surf competition DJ, operating under a tent on the beach, wisely shifted from the angry gansta rap to Bob Marley’s “Legend” compilation. What’s a surf gathering without some Bob Marley, right? Fifteen minutes later, a band took the stage and launched into Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World” as the DJ played “Stir It Up” simultaneously. Competing Bob Marley tunes was still better than the gangsta rap (see video below).
Shortly thereafter, a small Nicaraguan guy in a faded tank top began puking just yards behind my little patch of shade underneath a tree behind the surf tents.
He was serenaded by a group of inebriated hippies who were mashing it up to Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.”
Fighting on the Rye-ver, Fighting for Survival
Wye-yo-yo, Wye-yo-yo-yo, Wye-yo-yo-yo-yo!
Soon, a succession of drinkers followed, one-by-one, to piss in my general vicinity and I decided to move from what was becoming a de-facto toilet.
By three o’clock, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone as a “Grease” cover band called Bario La Planeta launched into their set. Only in Nicaragua can you wash up at a beach and find yourself singing “Go Grease Lightning” in the company of of junkies, flunkies, do-gooders and gringos with baffled looking Nicaraguans looking on in puzzlement (see video).
Late in the afternoon, guys and gals who actually knew how to surf – and how to surf well – got into the act but I still had no idea what the hell was going on and I’m pretty sure that most in attendance didn’t gave a damn who won. I’m told the party raged until 3 a.m. and Agusto Chamorro won the men’s open competition. In the world of competitive, but not exactly cutthroat surfing, I’m betting that none of the “losers” left the beach broken hearted.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]