Surf City, South America

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Surf City, South America
December 2, 1997

Looking through the guidebook for Lima one can quickly become overwhelmed. There are hundreds of "can't miss" museums and cathedrals stretched across the sprawling city. The Museo Nacional presents the unearthed treasures from the tomb of the Señor de Sipan. Downtown, previously vacant colonial buildings house collections of contemporary art from around Latin America. The Museo de Oro boasts one of the world's finest collections of gold works.

A sense of guilt nagged us as we left these offerings behind and instead boarded the bus for Lima's other treasure: the beach.

Lima and environs have long been recognized as having some of the best surf beaches in the world. Not the curling breakers and turquoise waters of Hawaii, granted, but this is South America after all. Our friend Andrew had borrowed a tabla, or surfboard. Now, as we waxed it down, we stared out at the little figures cutting through the surf.

"Doesn't look too hard," I offered.

We shook our heads. This was going to be fun.

It's amazing how poor perception can be.

Paddling out into the swelling surf I struggled to keep my stomach pinned to the board, but kept slipping off. The waves rolled under me like a roller coaster, shifting my vision from the sea to the sky. I looked back toward Nancy, standing anxiously at the water's edge. I tried to shout a word of encouragement, but caught a mouth-full of foamy yellow froth. Couldn't possibly be pollution, right?

Further out I went. I strained to see where the other surfers were catching the waves, but the ever-present spray from the buckling sea stung my eyes. Almost certifiably blind without my glasses, I was having trouble even discerning the board in front of my face. When was I supposed to cut over? The group of surfers and boogie-boarders I had seen frolicking from the coast were nowhere to be seen. I could, however, see the foaming froth and hear the crashing roar of the breakers to my left. Into the maelstrom I headed.

I tried to keep Andrew's advice in mind. Eager to protect me from a beginner's fate, he cautioned to take a deep breath before plunging under an oncoming wave. No good. Before I knew what had hit I was dragged underwater and flipped about in a chaos of swirling sea. I clawed at the water, straining to reach the surface. Another wave crashed over me just as I broke free and I coughed out sea water to keep from drowning. How is it that despite our best intentions we can only learn through experience?

Desperately hugging my board I floated, trying to clear my senses. Another wall of water rose to engulf me, but to my disbelief a surfer casually stood at its forefront, slashing through the water. Looking on from my bobbing-cork perspective I couldn't believe the speed at which he raced past. I instantly realized I would not surf today. As the power of the sea became eminently clear I began to wonder: What was I doing out here?

Well, I determined, everyone must begin somewhere. Despite my instinct for survival I turned the board back out to sea and began paddling. I resolved to at least reach the break where I had seen the surfers congregating. Perhaps in the comfort of strangers the sea would lose its fearsome size. It was no use. My arms and neck ached from the struggle of fighting against the surf. I glanced back to the shore and somehow it was only 50 yards away. For the last 20 minutes I had been battling against the oncoming break, getting nowhere.

How easy it is to turn around. Within moments I was lurching through thigh-deep water. I cleared the surf and stumbled punch-drunk up to the beach. Nancy raced down to meet me.

"Oh honey, we were watching you. You were getting pounded out there."

Yeah, I smiled. "I got worked."

So much for Surf City, South America. Oh well, there's always Costa Rica.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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