Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Riding the waves in Nicaragua

Realize your dream of being a 'surfista' -- even if it's just for five fleeting seconds

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I always knew I could be a surf dude. And I particularly like the ring of the Spanish handle, surfista.

Fred Martines, 27, was my surf instructor from Coco Surf, underneath the aptly named Pirata Bar (Pirate Bar) in Las Pe±itas, Nicaragua. The place is a haven of tanned, nubile, dreadlocked 20-something hippie types. Some local, some vagabonds from far-off places. The Jolly Roger flag flew overhead as I grabbed my board.

There was minimal dryland instruction. Then it was into the surf.

I couldn't recreate the instantaneous explosion -- going from flat on the board to a balanced stance, ready for action -- that Fred wanted. Mine was more lumbering than explosive. I did get on my knees easily enough, but then the climb mostly ended in only a fleeting nanosecond of triumph until I tumbled into the sea, only to surface to Fred's grinning face yelling, "Vamos! Ariba!" (Let's go! Up!)

The next command was "nada, nada" (swim, swim), the idea being able to travel faster than the wave as it rolls in. Sadly, I always seemed a little too early or a little too late. Too early and I was tossed into the churn of the washing machine-like surf. Surfista Fred smiled when I cursed his "ariba" commands with expletives as I struggled to climb onto the board yet again while the ocean surged around my waist.

Another important word was "abajo" (down) -- as in duck down under the wave as you head out. Otherwise you get a face full of ocean surf. Not just in your face, but your mouth, your eyes and your nose, as if blasted through a firehouse.

Sadly, it wasn't the Hawaii Five-O theme running through my head. It was that Toby Keith song, I'm Not As Good As I Once Was.

But you couldn't beat the grin on Fred's face as I surfaced, progressively more scratched and beaten up each time. His surfista life looked like a good one to me.

I had tried surfing before a couple times in Costa Rica, with similar agonizingly incremental improvements. Here's a metaphorical comparison of the two countries. In Costa Rica, my teacher spoke English, they gave us wetsuits and it was a mellow break splashing onto a wide, clean beach fronted by trendy bars and restaurants. But Nicaragua isn't Costa Rica. Here, much like the country, the waves were disordered. They crashed onto a haphazard shoreline of ramshackle buildings and overgrown vacant lots. Fred spoke not a word of English and down the beach the red flag flapped in the wind, signalling dangerous water.

This village was called Las Pe±itas, down the road from the beautiful colonial city of Leon. It was a fascinating mixture of idyllic and post-apocalyptic. My best guess was that the area had been slammed by a hurricane years earlier and was only being rebuilt in dribs and drabs. For better or worse, it was still on the ground floor of development.

Down the Nicaraguan coast at Playa Madera, near the more developed tourist town of San Juan Del Sur, I gave it a second chance. At Las Pe±itas, it was just Fred and I. Playa Madera attracted a much more committed crowd, with various surf camps spread through the rough and scruffy surrounding hillsides.

And the waves were bigger.

Sometimes if I missed a wave and it broke in front of me, the sound was like a freshly poured glass of soda water, with a drizzle of mist coming off the back of the wave. A stream of ridiculously tanned and fit young Nicaraguans, 100 pounds including their dreadlocks, gyrated along the crests of the waves like they were born on a board.

After trying in vain to catch a few of these big waves, I switched tactics and decided to ride in on the surf after the wave had already broke. And, lo and behold, it worked. I was up. For five triumphant seconds.

Sixty waves, one five-second ride. But I came out of the water humming, "I'm as good once as I ever was."

--Potmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2014 E4

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