I am who I say I am.

Our place in Ribamar was run by Jose, a tattooed surf hipster who talked a big game. He greeted us on arrival and sauntered around the house, talking expansively about his portfolio of rental properties; various big waves, the local night life. There were hints of a kid somewhere back in Lisbon and a girlfriend, also conveniently distant, in Sintra.
“Sometimes I sleep here, sometimes there, sometimes in one of the other houses. I just see what I feel like.”
Nice set-up, we thought (or was it just me?), AirBnB keeps the rent flowing in, hassle free, while he surfs all day, parties all night and keeps his dependents at arm’s length. Is this an economic model we might consider for the future?

Alas, as with all things that are too good to be true, the ideal didn’t stand up to prolonged scrutiny. During our stay Jose’s grandeur gradually ebbed away like the tide. He went from owner to implied partner, then manager and eventually he settled as a glorified caretaker (to the distant and fearsome Miss Maria, who we never met, but who Jose kept scrupulously updated through a rapid-fire stream of text messages). Jose had a single dark room at the back of the complex with a mess of ketchup bottles, complicated coffee apparatus, ashtrays and piles of clothes. He would emerge from this little cave around midday in his skinny jeans, silver bracelets jangling, baseball cap awry, blinking and scratching. His footloose agenda seemed to be rather on hold. I suspected he usually crashed in any of the rental properties that were vacant, though I doubt Miss. Maria ever got a text informing her of this.

We talked whenever we met in the courtyard but Jose would often get called away just as I was getting a review of the local skateparks, or a description of the killer octopus in O Pescador. The Sintra girlfriend seemed to stay in Sintra much less that Jose might have wished. She was a strong-jawed, hard-eyed lady, and seemed to have him firmly in check. The kids were scared of her and maybe I was too. She would sit chain-smoking outside our back door late into the night and I would have to make excuses when Menna told me to take out the rubbish.

There was always a surfboard propped outside Jose’s door, but on the days when the swell got big at Coxos, he lay suspiciously low.
“Dude! You are mad to surf there. It is far too heavy this wave!” He admits one afternoon when I tackle him,
“But you said the entry point was tough and it was a fight to manage the rips. I thought this was your local wave.”
“Yes, but only from watching I know this. I don’t go in there to surf. I am only surfing for a few years. I like the beach break over at Santa Cruz. This is where I learned”. In this moment of candour and mutual levelling, I am able to confess that I too am far too poor a surfer to attempt most of the big waves we have spent hours talking about with such implied familiarity. We have both tacitly overstated our abilities. Now we bond over the pragmatic unlikelihood of ever being able to surf Coxos, Supertubos or Nazaré.

We all liked Jose more and more as his pretences dropped over the course of the week. Our leaving impressions were of a super open and pleasant guy who loved to chat but would sometimes get a little carried away with the detail. I have a lot of time for people who don’t let reality dull a good story. Menna likes to mother lost souls. The kids would do skateboard tricks for Jose in the courtyard and he would applaud.

Our relationship was slightly strained on departure though, when Jose spotted what looked like fresh graffiti all over our gleaming white doorframe. Stars and lightning symbols had been scrawled at waist height together with – the smoking gun – a clearly visible ‘A’ and an ‘M’. The kids made a good attempt at denying all knowledge of this, but the evidence was fairly incontrovertible. Under sustained interrogation they broke down. It had been an experiment. Scientific really. They had used the leaves front the potted agave plant here, which gave out a little juice like this, which when smeared on white paint, leaves a dark line like that. Arthur had done a project on cycads last term, so it was all in line with the school curriculum. Homework almost.

“It’s just leaf juice Jose. I’m sure it’ll come off easily!” I chuckled and we enthusiastically grabbed cloths and set to it. Jose frowned and grimaced, sent texts to Miss Maria. After twenty minutes of scrubbing it is clear that agave juice actually does not come off white walls. We offered to send Arthur back next day to repaint it, but after silently appraising him for a moment and estimating the quality of workmanship he would deliver, Jose declined. It is best he takes care of it himself he told us with a sigh. The Sintra girlfriend rolled her eyes.

We leave Ribamar with the kids in disgrace.

Who Dares Paddles

For the next ten days we floated up and down the coast. We were based for a while in Ribamar, a sprawling little village strung along the coastal highway as it loops up through the hilltops. It was a good place from which to explore a long run of scalloped bays with exotic longwinded names: Ribeira D’Ilhas with it’s stone shelf and excellent left point; Praia do Banco do Cavalinho (Pony Bank Beach?) where the rockpools are perfectly round like manholes in the flat rock; Praia de São Lourenço, with smuggler caves high up in the cliffs and a suddenly shelving beach which generates a booming shore break, no good for surfing but awesome scary-fun for children to mess around in. Our favourite bay though was the closest and also the most notorious: Coxos, another of the famous big wave spots of Portugal. It comes with this ominous warning in Surf Europe:

“Coxos is a right-hand point break. Long, fast and furious, the wave is no kindergarten: heavy sections can turn the barrel of your life into a nasty beating. Lots of water running along the rocks make getting in/out of the water a game of patience and know-how…”

Surf Europe Magazine

It’s a world class wave and the swell is pumping, so what do the Nicholls do? Well, they paddle out of course! Not on a surfboard though, because they still value life, but just with their little naked feet, in the shallows. It seemed like harmless fun, but when there are giant Atlantic rollers battering the beach, even venturing knee-deep into the water means taking your life in your hands. We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again. That is to say within minutes we nearly lost Arthur, who got totally smashed by a giant wave, properly rolled around in the shingle and then sucked back out to sea underwater. I grabbed a handful of his shorts and yanked him up again just as the lifeguards came running for us and the beach turned silent.

Arthur thought it was hilarious but not the lifeguard. We got an earnest lesson on how to paddle without getting drowned. We felt chastened and we went to sit quietly up on the cliffs to watch some people who knew what they are doing instead.

Watching waves is mesmerising, particularly when they are breaking like this. We spent some hours up there on the cliffs, sitting in the sun, tuning into the ocean. It’s very hypnotic: the rhythm of the swell, the power and force of the break, the subsonic roar, the moment when a huge wall surges up and seems to hang there in the sunlight, the lines and swirls of the waveform clearly illuminated for a moment before it all crashes down in clouds of foam.

There was a whole crowd up there on the cliffs, standing, chatting, photographing, sitting on rocks and camper chairs, maybe sipping beers. We were all watching the surfers (only two!) who had braved it out that day, offering them encouragement, criticism, armchair wisdom. Our kids loved being part of this scene and sat quietly for ages up on the rocks, murmuring appreciatively about a particular face, tutting and pointing out where the surfer should have taken off to get deeper into the barrel, or, best of all, moaning with horror, little hands over their eyes, when our hero got caught inside and took a hammering.

The next day I surf at Praia Azul where it is not nearly as big as Coxos but still worryingly huge and messy. I imagine the audience up on the cliffs, and spend the session with their eyes mentally upon me, gravely critiquing my performance as I get smashed around. I see Matilda peeking through her fingers as I am caught out of position, (“Daddy’s getting a beating, she will be saying!). I hear phantom cheers as I finally catch one after many minutes of drift. I paddle back in after an hour or so and get turned over by the shore break, rolled twice, sucked back out and then dumped upside down on the sand. The comedy finish! Oh, they’ll love that!

The beach is empty, the kids are building a sandcastle and no-one has seen a thing. Menna gives me a casual wave like, oh, there you are!

I take a bow to the imaginary clifftop audience and invite them back to my next session.

We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again:
And, by that destiny, to perform an act,
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge

The Tempest. William Shakespeare