One time at surf camp
30 BEFORE 30 - Celine Novenario () - November 14, 2010 - 12:00am

This must be what it’s like to go on a blind date, I thought as I sat in a bus from Lisbon bound for Ericeira, a quiet surf town on the west coast of Portugal.

I booked a five-night stay at Ribeira Surf Camp upon the recommendation of a stranger and set off solo with just a backpack, hope, and a prayer. As the bus drew closer to the destination, paranoid thoughts flooded my mind. What if this is a scam? What if I hate surfing? What on earth am I going to do at a surf camp for five days then?

Thankfully, it turned out I was in for one whirlwind of a love affair.

Love at first ride

I signed up for full immersion in the surfer life: beachside accommodations, lessons twice a day, and keeping company with surfers from the first cup of coffee till the last bottle of cerveja.

My initiation was picture perfect: a one-on-one session with Edoardo, an Economics student from Turin who was spending his summer making surfers out of tourists.

For my first lesson, we stayed in the espuma, so called because of the foam-like appearance the water takes on after the waves have broken. The broken waves produce sufficient power to carry the surfboard without being too overwhelming for the beginner. The objective was to get accustomed to the feeling of the board catching a wave and, if possible, to stand.

Edoardo positioned my board and pushed me out when good waves came along. I wiped out continuously and felt like I was at a saltwater-tasting rather than a surf session.

Exploring Sintra and the dramatic ramparts of the Castle of the Moors was a nice little break from surfing. Photos courtesy of NOEMI BERTEL, MELANIE GEH, ROLF PACHLATKO and MAGDALENA SCHWERTL

“Relax,” Edoardo said. “Go through the steps slowly.”

Then, as if someone flipped a switch in my brain from sheer panic to utmost clarity, it happened.

Edoardo thrust the board onto a wave, I pushed myself up, put two feet squarely on the board, stretched my arms out, and surfed my first wave. With a jubilant whoop, I jumped into the water and turned to see Edoardo with his hands raised victoriously. We did it! I surfed! I rode the waves until the sun set, a sliver of a new moon started to shine, and the sky turned a rosy pink. An infatuation had begun.

The good with the bad

Falling in love means taking the good with the bad — whether it’s an infantile best friend or a hostile mother.

My new love’s inseparable friend is called paddling. For my second lesson, I joined the advanced students for a surf lesson “outside” to catch the waves just as they were breaking. The surfing went fabulously; I picked up right where I left off and rode every wave I was given. The paddling, however, was dismal. With pitiful upper body strength and no understanding of how to paddle around the breaks, I alternated between resembling a rag doll being tossed about in the Atlantic and a hamster stuck in one spot despite moving nonstop. It took a few lessons for me to realize that waves come in groups and it’s easier to wait for the set to pass than to try to break into the pack. When I finally learned to navigate around the breaks, paddling became significantly less laborious. It’s still not my favorite thing in the world but when you’re in love, you do what you gotta do.

Taking a break

My first surfing lesson at Ribeira Surf Camp was picture perfect.

On Day Three of surfing, I found myself unable to stand up on my board. I’ll never know if it was due to the instructor switching my board or the accumulated exhaustion from days of paddling, but I just couldn’t do it. I decided it was time to take a break from surfing. My newfound surfer friends and I skipped the afternoon session and hopped on a bus to Sintra, a beautifully preserved town steeped in Romantic architecture and designated a UNESCO heritage site.

We explored the National Palace, the residence of a long line of Portugal’s kings, from the Moorish rulers to the first Portuguese monarchs. We trekked through the breathtaking ramparts of the Castle of the Moors located high up on the hills of Sintra.

The afternoon spent soaking up the spectacular views, magnificent azulejos, and intricate Romantic architecture was a nice change of pace. But the cliché holds true in surfing as it does for love: absence makes the heart grow fonder. By the time we were on the road back to Ericeira, I was itching to get back into the water.

Facing fear

Amidst the bliss, one fear lingered. I’ve always been afraid that I’d fall off the surfboard, get hit on the head with the board, knocked out unconscious, and end up floating facedown in the ocean.

On my final day of surfing, I had to face my fear.

During the morning session, I saw a nice looking wave rise up behind me and was about to get up from my board when — THUNK! Another student’s rogue board connected with my left cheek. I didn’t get knocked out though; I just laid back down and rode it like a body board to the shore. Rather than let fear take over, I found myself later surfing to the cheers of a beginner’s class.

Later that day, I was so excited to end my last session by surfing a great wave that I forgot a cardinal rule.

Early on, I was taught to always protect my head with my arms when I get off the board precisely to avoid the scenario I’ve long feared. This time, I forgot, and sure enough the board shot off a wave and walloped my head with a resounding thump. But I was fine. I faced my fear and learned that while facing it can hurt, it comes with great lessons — and sometimes even great bliss.

Everything in its own time

I thought I’d missed out on surfing when I traded in the Philippines’ stoke for Manhattan’s skyscrapers. But my little project forced me to seek out surfing, my new love, in an unlikely place.

In my quest to woo the waves, I discovered a special spot on the shores of the explorers and came away with a unique and unforgettable experience that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

I came, I surfed, I conquered. I fell in love.

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