Amazon

When morning breaks we are stiff and grumpy. We have been tossed around on dirt roads all night, jolted over speed bumps, woken by angry motorbikes buzzing past us in the darkness. We’ve passed through roadblocks and forded rivers, squirming all the while, trying to find comfy positions in the back of the bus while the children’s heads loll like pendulums with each turn. I feel like every spring of that worn seat has scored its curved imprint into my buttocks.

We all spill out into the village at dawn. Buildings on stilts list heavily over the river, peeling paint, warped boards, lianas tangled round gables. The water moves past, thick like treacle. Somewhere above us we hear the metallic skiffle of iguana claws on corrugated roofs.

We eat breakfast in a dusty wood space looking out into jungle: rice and beans, guava juice, a small cup of instant coffee. Talk is limited. There is an outhouse with a toilet back in the woods, but it doesn’t flush and everyone needs to go.

Deep in the Putumayo region, somewhere near the Colombian border, this village has no name on the map. It is merely a stop off point on the Cuyabeno river, a jump-off point into the Amazon, a backwater in the truest sense of the word.

A motorized canoe glides up and moors on the jetty. We board clumsily. We are handed lifejackets and ponchos, our luggage is stowed under tarps. I look around at my companions properly in the daylight. There is my family, looking dazed and pale, two Ecuadorean girls chattering, a young looking boy from Norway and our guide, Diego, a slight, elfin character, alert and bird-like. At the tiller is Carlos, our local riverman. He has broad impassive indigenous features, a wide white-toothed grin, bare feet.

Then we cast off and we enter a new world.

The river is bronze and torpid (“Café con leche water, rich in tannins and sediment,” says Diego) but then we skim through patches of black ink (“Agua negra, poor sediment. See how it is thin…”). All traces of mankind disappear behind us, we see no more villages, just thick curtains of leaves. The canoe glides along with a growl, banking around the bends in smooth lazy curves. Occasionally we cross another canoe and sometimes Carlos waves or shouts a greeting in local dialect. Mainly the river runs slick and silent around us, bubbling and swirling, merging into low hanging branches and shrubbery that in turn blend up into endless stories of green primary growth.

We see many wild things on that first voyage. Diego runs a low commentary, voice rising to signify the rarity of the target, pointing and calling, directing Carlos from one side of the river to the other, doubling back for a missed monkey troupe or to investigate a rustling in the bushes. Six or seven types of monkey we spot, deer, Ananinda birds, ancient prehistoric turkeys, kingfishers, spiders an eagle? Arthur wakes up, becomes more and more animated, pointing and chirping like a little cricket: “Is that a white-throated toucan Diego?”

At one point the grey skies above us open up and we cruise on through a deluge, everyone scrambling to put on black rubber ponchos, peering out from under dripping hoods. All sounds recede beyond the drumming of droplets on wet tarp. Birds disappear, movements on the river are masked by the splashing. Carlos grins and guns the boat forward through vertical sheets of water.

Our lodge is a fairly rudimentary affair. A boathouse by the riverside with a couple of hammocks and some bare wooden steps. A raised duckboard trail leads around a square of cleared grassland wherein lie piles of lumber, home no doubt to various highly venomous snakes. There is a feeling of jungle torpor, the smell of decay and lethargy. A basic canteen area houses a long single table and benches. There is a row of thatched cabins with dormitory style rooms. We have a double bed and two singles in our bedroom, each tented with a mosquito net. The walls are bare, there are no shelves, no chairs, a basic bathroom out back. No electricity of course, except for two hours in the evening when the diesel generator is switched on to charge cameras and essentials. There is no phone signal, no hot water, no WiFi. This is the Amazon. “We are explorers!” I tell the kids, “Not poolside lounge lizards.” Matilda gives me one of her most lizard-like looks:
“I am not an explorer,” she says, flicking out a forked tongue, “long live lounging!”

We’re back in the canoe a few hours later, venturing down sinuous tributaries, spotting an anaconda curled on a submerged branch; pink river dolphins breaching in the distance; a mother sloth with cubs on her back. “Is it a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth Diego?” asks Arthur.
“Show-off” I mutter.

And then we round a bend and we’re at an unexpected lake. It is vast, lost somewhere deep in the forest, encircled by ancient woods. A flood plain, Diego tells us, those floating bushes we see are actually the canopies of tall submerged trees. We dive off the canoe and swim. The water is sweet to the taste and I imagine it rich and dense, teeming with a million bacteria, microbes, nematodes, wild diseases that they don’t even have names for yet. The sun is setting and the lake water is dark around us. We see dolphins breaching in the distance, I am sure that they are not the only creatures splashing here. Arthur and Matilda turn into river otters, they dive in time and time again, duck each other, scream, laugh, try to pull Diego into the water, dive down to find river weed. I am happy to return to the boat after a few minutes. Menna does not go in.

Later over dinner, Diego asks us to guess what creatures were swimming with us in that lake.

Piranhas?
“Of course! The piranhas are everywhere in the river. Maybe we will go fishing for them tomorrow.”
Crocodiles?
“Caimans in fact. Especially the black caiman. It is the largest one – up to six meters long. He will grab you with his jaws then twist and roll to break your bones. Then he pulls you down under to drown. For large mammals like you, he would probably store you underwater a while to rot before eating. What else?”
Anacondas?
“Yes too. They will be hunting once the sun falls. We saw one once the length of three men, round as a barrel in the middle where it was digesting something… big. There are many snakes there in the water too, coral snake, water moccasin, maybe boas.”
Beavers?
“No. River otters though, very aggressive. Will fight a jaguar.
Other reptiles?
“On the mud bottom you will find electric eels. They use low voltage electricity to sense and to hunt, kind of like a radar. Then they can generate a high voltage charge, enough to stun a tapir. They have a suction bite so they clamp on to their prey, then they can shock again and again. No charger needed!”
Oh good. What else?
“The most dangerous of all… the candiru, the toothpick fish. Never pee in the Amazon! He will swim up your urine and right up into your, ahem… penis! And he sticks out his sharp umbrella spines so you cannot pull him out again. Then my friends, he will start to eat…”

When the conversation dies down we go to bed, for there is nothing else to do. It is dark and there are no lights in our cabin. Despite the overnight bus ride and the long day we have just had, sleep does not come easily. We lie for some time under our mosquito nets listening to the sound of the jungle around, imagining snakes on the floorboards and tarantulas under the pillows, feeling river-borne parasites squirming in our guts.

Our dreams when they come are slow and heavy: brown waters and submerged coils, shadowy shapes moving in the murky depths, the lighting flash of the electric eel, that first agonizing bite of the bloody toothpick fish…

Brazilian Road Trip: Day Four.

It is Mother’s Day. It has crept up on us out of nowhere. We had hoped to buy Menna exotic gifts, overwhelm her with massages and beauty treatments, plan activities and sentimental demonstrations of our love. Everything is shut for hundreds of miles around though, and we’re on a roadtrip. So we haven’t actually got any presents and the main activity today will be driving.

Matilda gets very stressed about these events. All festivities are important to her but no reality can ever match up to the rarified aesthetics in her head. Consequently event planning for her is always a bitter exercise in disappointment mitigation. Today we fall particularly short.

I watch sleepily as Matilda creeps out of bed at six, clears her bedside table, places it at the foot of our bed, then carefully arranges a selection of cards and a fortune teller together with flowers that she has picked from bushes in the garden. She has not anticipated the rotating fan though and every time it swings around the cards flutter down to the floor and petals float away in the breeze so our room soon has the dreamy aspect of snowfall. I watch her silently rearranging her composition several times, getting crosser and crosser before she thinks to switch off the fan. Good problem-solving, I think to myself and drift back to sleep. Whenever I open an eye, Matilda is pacing around anxiously in the gloom waiting for her mother to stir. It takes a long while.

The kids were up late last night frantically sketching cards and in lieu of actual gifts they have crafted a paper fortune teller. When the fortunes are revealed – surprise! – they turn out to be Mother’s Day treats. I helped with the origami, but have not overseen the fortune writing and consequently the little rats seem to have put me on the hook for most of them:

#1: “Daddy will book the next three places we stay in!”
#2: “Daddy will buy you a bottle of champagne when the bars open!”
#3: “Arthur will try his best at school all week!”
#4: “Daddy will do all the driving!”
And so on…

Mother’s Day breakfast is the same as all of our breakfasts. Eggs declined, lots of fruit, a straw-like cassava pancake the Brazilians call tapioca and speak of with disproportionate pride, guava jam, weapons grade coffee. We fill ourselves up and plan the day.

We have now learned that Jericoucoura is effectively shut to us. Yes, we can drive there, but their lockdown is the strictest in this region – that is to say no shops, restaurants, no bars. No beds for the inbound traveller. Beach restricted. Roadblocks and identity checks. A hostile environment.

This was to be the zenith of our arc and now a thousand kilometers into our trip we are trying not to feel deflated and directionless. We turn southwards instead towards Pernambuco where there is a point break we want to surf. I book accommodation for the night at a random town that doesn’t even make it into our Lonely Planet.

It is unusually hot today, even for Brazil, and Pernambuco is as boarded up as a borehole, boarded up as an abandoned boardwalk, boarded up as all the other boring boarded towns we have been to recently. The surf is great though, a nice little pealing right hander that breaks on a coral reef. They can’t board that up.

The girls wallow in a rock pool while Art catches waves and I chat to a French guy in the surf who wants to air his grievances about the referee in that morning’s rugby match between our two countries. The Six Nations tournament is a hemisphere away and a mental shift too far for me right now and I am only able to nod stupidly and agree that the ref probably had been bribed by the English. Deprived of a decent argument with the Rosbif that God has delivered him on this of all days, the Frenchman drops in on me and steals my wave with Gallic insouciance, then surfs all the way into the beach and disappears.

Mother’s Day lunch is a bit of a flop. The only food in town seems to be spit-roast chickens which are being illegally sold in plastic bags out of a garage. Menna is in one of her vegetarian phases and will not compromise.
“You go ahead, I’m not hungry anyway,” she says in her martyr voice. I am painfully aware of Fortune #6 (“Daddy will buy you a lovely lunch”) and feeling my shortcomings I make us tour around for ages, hot and hungry, looking for vegetarian options for Menna, ignoring her protestations (“It’s Okay! I’ll just eat the crackers”), and eventually letting the heat get to us. Suddenly everyone is hungry and tired and sweaty and shouting at each other. Angry words float around the car together with the greasy aromas of roast chicken, hot tarmac and sweat.

In the end I find a filling station supermarket and send Menna in with my credit card to buy herself pitta and tomatoes while I simmer away outside. With Fortune #6 technically completed, we find a beautiful beach and sit in the shade under a mango tree. The kids and I tear into the roast chicken with our fingers, covering ourselves in grease and sand. Menna daintily nibbles at a pitta a few feet away. We are all happy again.

As we get back into the car we receive an email from the hotel cancelling our booking for tonight “por causa do COVID!”. I always like it when they capitalize the Covid, it makes it feel like a military acronym: “Collapse Of Vast Irradiated Deathfarm!”. Shit, we better not stay there then!

We now have nowhere to sleep tonight. As I am driving for the next five hours (as per Fortune #4), then I will need to default on Fortune #1 (“Daddy will book the next three places we stay in!”). It is another Mother’s Day fail. Menna starts wearily tapping on her phone. I try not to catch Matilda’s eye in the rear view mirror.

That night we take Mother out for pizza in the bar near our new hostel. At some point we have crossed a state line and no-one here cares about Coronavirus. The town square is full of kids engaged in complicated courtship rituals. We watch emissaries scurrying backwards and forwards, carrying messages between gangs of teenage girls and boys on opposite benches. Couples kiss in the shadows of doorways and emerge from behind curtains of bougainvillea, the air is full of romance. It is an ideal place for Mother’s Day dinner. There are three flavors of frozen pizza on offer in our restaurant and one of them is vegetarian – this is going well! I enquire gallantly about champagne, mindful of Fortune #2, but the guy just laughs. We get two Mother’s Day beers instead.

Settling In

We are still in Brazil. We don’t have any means of escape. The mercury sits somewhere over 40˚c. The Covid statistics have not improved, if anything the crisis here is deepening. Somehow we have found our rhythm though and relaxed into our new home. Pragmatism has kicked in.

We know where to find iced coffee and where to pick up croissants or emergency icecream. The swimming pool keeps us cool. There is a gnarly surf break just beneath our house. It’s great for an early morning session but the paddle out is hard and the waves are a little too intense for Art, so most days, once school is done, we end up driving twenty minutes down the coast to a mellow point break that he loves. He catches wave after wave there and messes around with small Brazilian surf kids in the water, swapping boards with them, clowning around.

The bay curves away off into the distance, tangled vegetation dark against a creamy cliff with pink layers like a slab of cake. It is known as Praia Madeira and so there is a kind of linguistic familiarity. We have already explored the Portuguese Island of Madeira, stayed in the Nicaraguan town of Maderas, climbed Volcan Madera, now we surf at Praia Madeiras. The Portuguese Madeira (or madera in Spanish) means wood, as in ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’ or better, ‘we are not out of the woods yet’. The backdrop to this beach is a crazy forest that runs up the sheer face, palms clinging tenaciously to the rock.

Today the sea is glassy, the waves are clean and the bay is full of dolphins. They surface next to us as we sit waiting for the set. Menna and Matilda go for a long swim and find themselves in the middle of a pod. There are fins and rounded sleek backs, then once in a while a spray of frantic fish that skim like stones on the surface, then a dolphin surges right up behind them, effortless, predatory, grinning. That explosion from the deep is unnerving when it happens close by, but then we get used to it. Dolphins are great surfers.

We went for a hike in the nature reserve on the cliffs above Praia Madeira yesterday morning very early. We followed woodland trails looking for snakes and armadillos and then we came to a point where the woods fell away and we found ourselves out on a promontory, looking down on our point break all empty in the early morning. Between the break of the waves we could see shadowy shapes skimming around in the water that we at first took for rays, but then one came up for air and we realised they were turtles. Our surf break was also their hunting ground. There must have been ten of them at least, illuminated by the early morning sunlight, surprisingly agile under the water.

Now we are in on the secret. We know we share these waters with turtles too. They are underneath us somewhere, flitting around, leaving bubble trails like jet streams. There must be sting rays and lobsters as well, baracuda, eels, maybe sharks. A hidden world of muted sounds and vivid textures always beneath us as we float over the reef.

And so it is that we unbend a little more, integrate a little closer, worry a little less. We chat to people. We book a couple of quad bikes in the afternoon. It is one of those ultimately selfish activities (like jet-ski) which are super fun to do, but intensely annoying for anyone else around. I am normally averse but today we’re in a ‘whatever’ kind of mood. It’s a release. We scream around cliffs trails, the kids gripping on tight to our waists. I try to leave skid marks in the red sand, aim to get all four wheels off the ground. The wind stings my face. Matilda screams and whoops behind me. Our blood is up, we stop at a deserted safari lodge so we can ride horses and shoot things with air rifles and bows and arrows.

As we drive back home, we see this little stretch of coast from a different angle. The sun is stetting now and from our vantage point up high the landscape has a new geometry. Euclidean planes in red sandstone, surging cubic structures, recessed cliffs like scalloped teeth-marks, undulating lines of sea-sculpted sand.

If we’re going to be stuck anywhere in Brazil, it may as well be here.

The Eye of the Storm

It’s hot here and humidity is building. It feels like a storm is on its way, Despite the air conditioning in our apartment I am sweating as I sit in my boxers at the breakfast bar.

Menna and I exchange glances for a second, then we both look away, go silently back to our tasks. I’m jabbing away at my iPad, supposedly checking flight sites but secretly writing this, she’s scrolling on her phone looking at visas requirements. There’s a figurative thunder cloud in our apartment, mirroring the real ones that are amassing outside. The kids are laughing away down in the pool all oblivious, but things are pretty dark indoors.

Our arrival in Brazil went pretty well, all things considered. We completed three flights over a thirty hour period. None were delayed. We only got charged $200 for the excess surfboards. We didn’t take our masks off for the whole period except to swig water and cram airline sandwiches down our throats. The kids mainly behaved themselves. Menna ferociously sanitized our hands at half-hour intervals. We were all forbidden to touch surfaces, people, seats, our own faces. Our hire car was waiting with roof rails as specified, so we could tie on the surfboards. We didn’t get kidnapped or hijacked on drive from the airport. We made it our hotel and ate a celebratory dinner, tired and happy, congratulating ourselves on a new frontier.

The headlines that greeted us on our first morning gave us a shock. Brazil had set a new record for pandemic deaths on the previous day.

Experts warn Brazil facing darkest days of Covid crisis as deaths hit highest level” says the Guardian, March 3rd.

We field a flood of messages from far-off well-wishers, politely wondering whether we had taken total leave of our senses. When we booked our Brazilian tickets things seemed to be in a better state, we say. We had met travelers returning from Brazil with inspiring tales. We had talked to locals here. The forums spoke of sustainable travel, wild landscapes, rural communities far from the lurid highways of commerce. We wanted to show our children a different culture. Our main concern was crime not coronavirus. The Covid stats were flat, we repeat.

We leave Natal and drive to Pipa Beach where we have booked an apartment. The sullen heat takes our breath away but the condo seems like a nice place to spend our first week. It is spacious, a little run-down, bougainvillea is entwined around the balcony. It seems safe.

Brazil’s Covid Crisis Is a Warning to the Whole World, Scientists Say” The New York Times tells us, March 3rd.

This theme is repeated across most of the international press. The eyes of the world seem to have turned upon Brazil. Judging from all the reports, we are in pretty much the worst place that one could be right now, the epicentre of the viral maelstrom, the birthplace of a deadly new variant. The hospitals are in crisis, the president is negligent, people are dying in their thousands – and we have chosen to travel here!

Menna is in tears. We have an argument:
“I told you we shouldn’t have come.”
“You didn’t tell me. We both made this decision!”
“Not really! It was you who wanted this. I feel totally unsafe. I want to leave!”
“We discussed this for days before we bought the tickets. We’re in this together! The road less travelled remember, that’s what we do. A life of adventure!”
“I want to leave.”

She has a point and I have to acknowledge it. It feels like we’ve (I’ve) led the family into unnecessary danger. As a state, I keep telling myself, the Covid rates per capita here in Rio Grande do Norte are way better than the UK and most of the world. Brazil is a federation that is two and a half times the size of the EU. You can’t treat it all as a single country – you need to assess the situation at a state level. But it doesn’t work.

“Brazil’s variant breeding ground is a threat to the entire world” Washington Post, March 4th.

Friends send us medical journals and papers. They point out statistics around mortality rates, hospital capacity and access to oxygen. They speak about government policy and vaccine hesitancy. There are no vaccines here anyway we say.

After our argument I know I need to make this right. I pledge absolute cooperation enforcing strict hygiene protocols with the kids and moreover that I would find some early exit options from this plagued nation. With admirable foresight I have bought us return flights here instead of the usual one-way ticket, so I know I have this get-out-of-jail card in my pocket. If things get too hot we will simply bring forward our return dates, flee back to Mexico, then find somewhere else to go where people won’t feel the need to send us concerned messages and call us crazy.

There is a tolerance for death’: Brazil battles fresh Covid storm” Financial Times, March 8th.

Outside our gates it doesn’t feel like the people are battling Covid storms. They are strolling around without masks, laughing. The streets are full, there is a roaring trade at the empanada kiosk, the surf is pumping and social distancing seem to mean a 20cm gap. Pipa Beach is a famous beauty spot and the weekend warriors keep rolling in from the city. Perhaps there is a tolerance of death here.

I am normally overly optimistic about danger while Menna is overly cautious, but now we both find ourselves nervous and hesitant. We can’t relax. We shrink back in the street as a laughing group of surfers approaches, we use contactless card to pay for our coffees, I entirely disinfect when I return from the supermarket, we don’t eat out. We go for long family walks along deserted cliffs and surf away from the pack. Arthur scampers around as always, picking things up, climbing on anything he can. We chase him around with alcohol spray.

“Brazil’s hospitals close to collapse as cases reach record high” British Medical Journal, March

When Biden reverses Trump border policy and bans all inbound travellers from Brazil, even for transfers, it renders our return tickets (via Dallas) completely invalid. My exit plan evaporates like smoke. The rest of the world quickly follows suit. No-one is keen to welcome travelers from Brazil with their tolerance for death and their exotic variants.

I comb the internet when our patchy wifi allows. There is a brief ray of light when I manage to find some alternative flights to Ethiopia and I get very excited about throwing a crazy twist into the adventure, but there appears to be some kind of armed uprising going on there. I reluctantly move on. Menna is keen on Tahiti, but then overnight the island goes into full lockdown.

Together under storm clouds of our own making, Menna and I sit silently, side by side, tapping on our screens, hoping for answers. Outside is a nation ravaged by infections. Mutations are bubbling away all around us. Thunder rumbles and the smell of tropical rot lies heavy on the air.

After five days of searching, we can find no realistic way to get out of this country at all.

Enough fussing and whining! How much longer will the crying go on?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, after two straight days of record COVID-19 deaths in Brazil. March 5th.

………………

Momentum

We end up staying in Cozumel for an indulgent ten days. Not because it is the best desitination we have been to, but we simply don’t know where to go next.

Arthur and I find a surf spot that we like at Chen Rio on the east coast, it is big and choppy, and to enter the break we have to wade over a coral forest that lacerates our feet. There are three or four local surfers that we meet there, tough older guys in their fifties, but they welcome Arthur and I into the pack and help us find the exit point on our first day so we don’t get smashed into the reef. Even so I kick a sea urchin coming out of the sea and Menna has to dig many deep spines out of my toes that night.

Wheelie!

One Sunday we picnic on the beach besides the break and get sunburnt. As we pack up Menna spots a crocodile wallowing in a swampy stretch of water inland, right by where we have parked the car. I edge down the sandy bank to get close and take a good photo as it lies immobile at the waters edge. Suddenly it lunges up into the air to snap at a dragonfly and it scares the absolute living daylights out of me. That scrabbling dash back up the sandy bank is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

We manage to finally go on the snorkelling trip that we were supposed to do on Matilda’s birthday. We get a boat to the outer reefs and spend a long time floating serenely above coral cities that surge out of the white sands. We see an eagle ray, turtles, octopus, lobsters and multitudes of brightly coloured fish that I don’t recognise. After various different snorkel sites we are taken to a lunch spot where the lagoon extends for miles at waist height and the water is a crazy toothpaste green. We stand in the sea eating ceviche and guacamole with cold beers.

Then suddenly a dark shape appears.

Arthur investigates.

It’s a Manta Ray!

We potter around Cozumel in our little rental car, exploring wild litter-strewn beaches in the south and rock shelves where the sea is forced up through geysers. We drive down through mangrove swamps to the north of the island and park up on a desolate muddy marshland. An obese boatman offers to take us ‘over there’ for one hundred pesos, gesturing vaguely at a sandy spit across the water.
“What is ‘there’?” we ask.
“What is anywhere? There is a playa muy bonita there.”
”Take us there,” we say.
We find ourselves on a deserted promontory where the remnants of a resort hotel decay gently in the sun. The palm fronds have moulded off the beach huts. There is an old wooden scaffold in the shallows where hammocks once hung, it is now a sea gull perch and for a short time our climbing frame. A troupe of racoons hold dominion in the empty bar. We play there alone until sunset when our boatman drifts silently across the estuary to take us home.

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this little Caribbean corner, but we must keep moving onwards, we cannot stagnate. But Menna and I are unsure where to go next. The clock is running down now on our grand tour and we just have a couple of months left. We need to maintain momentum and that means moving onwards from Mexico – but where to? Asia is still shut, most of South America is quarantined, USA is too western, Canada is too cold, returning to Europe feels unadventurous.

We find ourselves immersed again in that familiar nocturnal morass. Beery nights in hot apartments whispering about visa requirements while the kids sleep; analysing Covid stats and lockdown policies that change daily. For a long time we try to find a route to visit our friend Nico in the Caribbean, but key flights are canceled and we can’t make the connections work. We try to get to our friend Dan in Colombia but the quarantine rules there are getting tighter.

After five nights of circular discussions we have decision fatigue, so when one of us throws a curveball (I can’t remember who), it sticks somehow. Brazil! Yes, that could work. it was pretty terrible in the early days of the pandemic, but the covid caseload seems to be flattening out now. Besides, it’s a huge country right? And when you look state by state, there are areas that are doing way better than most places in Europe. And the climate is great. There’s no quarantine. The surf is epic. And we could learn capaoiera. And it’s fuckin Brazil man! Home of samba, Pele, the Amazon rainforest, Ayrton Senna…

And so it is, late one night in the dying days of February, ignoring all the horrified reactions and earnest advice, we book extremely expensive flights from Cozumel up to Dallas then onwards to Saõ Paolo and finally to Natal up in the Brazilian Noreste region.

Once the tickets are paid and the commitment has been made, the kids are over the moon but Menna and I find ourselves in a strangely emotional state. We have made an grand gesture for freedom (we think), we have found impetus and forward motion (we hope). We are taking the road less travelled and renewing our commitment to the adventure (right?).

There is an ominous drum beat though somewhere in the background. Slow now but gaining tempo.

We pretend not to hear it.

Spot the boy

Winds of Fortune

After a couple of nights in Cancun we’ve had enough. We move on to Holbox, a small Caribbean island off the Yucatan peninsula. A ferry leaves from a scorching port and twenty minutes later we are a little wooden shanty town where the roads are just sand and clay and the only mode of transport is golf buggy. It seems a little desolate at first, in the way that poor Caribbean communities can do – corrugated iron shacks, stagnant pools of ground water, rusted car skeletons – but then we emerge into a charming little town square, tree lined streets of restaurants and bars, a white sand beach thronging with travellers, kitesurfers and fishermen. We see dreadlocks and beards, fire spinners, a guy doing a roaring trade selling organic empanadas on the beach. The tattoos are soulful, feet are bare. It is the antithesis of Cancun.

There is no conventional surf on the island, the coastal shelf is too gentle, but the winds are strong, so Arthur and I are going kitesurfing. Arthur is a total beginner and while I used to kitesurf a fair amount, it is about a decade since my accident on Lancing Beach and I haven’t been back out since.

It is a burning day when we walk round the island to get to kite school. On that long hot walk, I can’t help dwelling on the accident, obsessing over it perhaps, so it starts to feel like I am trudging towards some kind of reckoning.

We are back in our Brighton flat. It is Father’s Day and there is a new, loud baby boy in our lives. Menna is telling me something, laughing and crying. She is pregnant again! We drink champagne. And to celebrate my heroic contribution she will take me kitesurfing. I haven’t been out on the water since before Arthur was born.

The conditions are not so different on the day when we rock up to Kite Beach in Holbox though the sea is warmer here. The wind is blowing about fifteen knots or so, the waves are rolling in, there are white horses on the lagoon. Arthur gets led away by chatty Cathy to learn the rudiments of wind theory. I end up with a laid-back Czech guy called Henrik for my refresher session. I tell him I am nervous. He eyes me up and down and tosses his dreadlocks.
“Ach, you will probably be ok,” he says.

I have two kites – A 9m Cabrinha and a 13m Slingshot. The wind is strong and the smaller one is certainly right for the conditions. Somehow while inflating it I pull out a strut, or a valve blows or something. It deflates rapidly and is useless. I can either to go home now, or take the bigger kite and be over-powered for the session.

Henrik and I set up the kite on the narrow spit of beach between the lagoon and the thorny bank of brushwood. He’s putting me onto a 17m, even larger than that time before. Kite technology has come on some way in the last decade, he tells me. There is more power in the new shapes but you also get much more control. I nod and smile insincerely.

I’m not a great kiter but I have just sired a new offspring and I am feeling invincible. And as soon as I set off I know it is the right decision. The water is cold bottle green, whipped by crisp winds, the sky pale blue. I am screaming along, clearly out of control, hitting waves, crashing, relaunching, wiping-out spectacularly in the deeps. I shout a lot. Life is great right now.

Arthur is out on the water already before we have even set up our kite. He suddenly looks tiny underneath the huge clouded sky, bobbing in the waves, attached to a green kite that is straining on the lines. He is too young for this, I think to myself, how can he possibly take on the elements? How will they catch him when he gets blown away over the sea’s face like an abandoned crisp wrapper?

After an hour on the water it is time to wrap up. Quit while ahead. Menna is feeding our baby up on the headland, her face is turned to the horizon in that way that wives look out to sea, waiting for their absent seafaring husbands. I will ride in and perform a stylish stop in the shallows for her. Perhaps a little jump to finish off. 

Henrik surfs the rig out to our launch spot on the sandbank, leaving me to walk across the lagoon to meet him. It is a slow wade through chest-deep water in my harness, helmet and the annoying lifejacket he insists I wear. I make the far sandbank and am transfixed by a group (school? platoon?) of five or six stingrays that are hunting there, gliding along in perfect formation in the turquoise waters. They skim beside me as I walk over to where Henrik is waiting.

Of course I wipe out on Lancing Beach. That is how the universe works. My board catches an edge in the shallow water. I flip face-down into the shore break. Undignified, but no immediate harm done. Except that as I fall, I unleash a combination of factors that dramatically change my situation: Firstly I pull hard the kite bar, putting my too-large kite in the maximum power position. Secondly the kite drops in the sky, finding a 45˚ angle downwind of me, an area known as the Power Zone. Thirdly a major wind gust happens to occur at precisely this moment.    

“It is a big kite,” says Henrik in the present, “so you will let it do the work. Keep it high, do not drop it too low. If you go too much downwind past the buoy there, then you must come back in and we will walk back upwind on the sandbank. If you go past the end of the spit we are in trouble, for you will get blown out to sea. Ok you know what do do. Off you go and I watch”

It is the closest I have known to true flight. A sudden whiplash acceleration upwards, legs pedalling, mouth gasping, eyes wide. In a second I have achieved a crazy stomach-lurching height, Lancing Beach is stretched out far below. Then the upward force dies and there is a weightless moment at the apex before gravity reclaims me and the rocks rush up. Blackness.

I look mutely at Henrik but his face is bland, expectant, it reflects none of my fear. Alone I must go into the wind and waves, still reverberating with that long-ago bone-shattering impact. The kite strains at its apex pulling greedily at me.

Then we are moving and the breeze blows the past out of my mind, salt spray washes the worries away. I am pulled into the present, floating on turquoise waters, smooth and slippery as a sting ray. The kite hangs above me silently, capturing the power of the wind. We find a balance between the force of the kite, the position of the board, the pull of gravity, the angle of the waves. It all works perfectly for a minute or two, then I hit a trough and the equilibrium disappears. I wipe out.

I recover, set off again and next time I crash harder. I smash the kite down into the water and struggle to relaunch it. I drift fast downwind for many minutes with my kite twisted and shuddering on the sea’s surface, swamped by waves. The lines are taut and tangled, attached to my harness, pulling at me. People can see I am struggling and shout things at me from far off, but I can’t hear them.

Somewhere far away back towards the coast I see a small boy suddenly plucked out of the water by his kite, then there is a big splash. I nearly smile.

I feel the fingers of panic gripping my gullet and the bitter taste of self-recrimination – of dreadful inevitability. That sense that I have put myself in jeopardy once again. Why do I seek pursuits where the highs are overshadowed by fear and disaster? I am treading water, swallowing water, the lifejacket is bunched around my neck. How do I find these situations? I drift towards the end of the spit, the point of no return, alone, the vast open ocean waiting beyond. I shout impotent insults at the kite and at myself.

Finally the wind picks up a little and ponderously my kite turns over, then lifts. I finally get it up into the power zone and perform a desperate and humiliating body-drag back into shore. I trudge a long way back up to Henrik who smiles and shrugs, takes the kite from me and zips off in search of my board, floating somewhere far out to sea.

Then minutes later we start over. Again the fears of the past fade, replaced by the rush of the present. Lessons float away unlearned, for while it is true that disaster seems ever waiting, there is a corollary that I also know to be true: it always works out alright in the end.

Soon I am up and riding again, hollering, crashing, skimming, laughing, flying, drowning, wading back time and again to receive Henrik’s quiet advice.

But this time I do not snap my humerus in two like a twig, I don’t damage my shoulder socket, there is no morphine, no surgery, no titanium implants, no year of rehab.

Just wind, waves and the spectre of imminent disaster, riding beside me like a shadow. Like an old friend.

I sign myself and Arthur up for another session tomorrow.

The higher the hill, the stronger the wind: so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.

John Wycliffe

Sting Ray

Humankind has depleted the oceans and destroyed coral reefs. We have hunted, fished, polluted, driven many marine species to extinction. But sometimes the fish fight back.

Today was such a day.

The normal way of things has been inverted: a human has been hooked by a fish. More specifically a small girl has been pierced by the barb of a sting ray.

I am listening to a podcast on the beach, not quite asleep, not quite awake, digesting my lunch in the sunshine. Menna, Matilda and Arthur are somewhere out in the waves. Then somewhere in my half-dream, screams of pain intrude, jarring with the mellifluous but self-righteous tones of Sam Harris.

And now I am awake, up and running towards the sound. Menna is first on the scene and gathers Matilda up out of the waves. As I approach I can see her left leg stuck out rigidly, the thick trickle of blood glistening on her heel. I awkwardly receive her from Menna and carry her back up the beach. She screams and sobs and a crowd gathers. Everyone wants to give advice and practice their English or just be part of this exciting event.

“What happened?”
”¿Qué pasó con la muchacha?
“Was it a barracuda?”
“A sting ray no?”
“¿Una raia dices?”
“You have to take her to Emergencias right now.” says a lady with diamanté earrings and a no-nonsense voice. “I’ve seen this before.”

This is not a great option for us. We are a couple of hours from the nearest hospital, which will probably be riddled with Covid, and we don’t have a car. This doesn’t feel like the kind of injury that justifies an ambulance. “No problem guys. Is fine. My husband can drive you.” She cranes her neck and looks around, but husband has slipped off.
“Our buddy Josh got hit by a sting ray in Costa Rica” I said. “He was ok after a short while. I think he peed on it or something.” I’m aware that it sounds like I don’t care much about my daughter’s wellbeing, like I’m just trying to avoid the hassle. I catch Menna’s eye and am relieved to see she is thinking the same.

‘You must put her foot in hot water’ says another woman in a yellow swimming costume, a wealthy Managuan lady down for the weekend I think. “Like real hot. It’s going to hurt, sure, but you gotta stop the acid. Is it hurting now honey?”. Matilda howls and nods.
“That’s it. Hot water! No pee needed. That’s what we’ll do,” I’m liking this scenario more and I give a thumbs up and an encouraging smile to Yellow Costume.
There are three or four kids watching the scene, chattering away in Spanish, laughing. A huge muscled American surfer with a tiny head wanders over.
“Hey man, was that a sting ray? Nooo! I got stung by like five of them last year. That shit hurts so bad! You got to dig out the spine. Hey, look at this” hopping in a circle to show us all a scar on his sole. “Got one went right through my foot here.”
“Take her up to the bar, they’ll have hot water,” says Yellow Costume waving a well manicured finger. We all troop up to the beach bar.

“The barb snapped off inside me so they had to dig it right out with a knife. I was just sitting there, like crying and hollering and drinking rum. Man! So bad!” says Muscles.
“It’s early for sting rays. They only come when the water is colder.” Diamanté is seeing her authority diminish. “Was there blood? Perhaps it’s a scorpion fish, or a jellyfish. How do we know? She should go to a doctor. Don’t you worry sweetie, my husband’s gonna to take you. It’s gonna be ok. Where is he now?” More urgent head swivels but husband is still lying low. “Was there blood?” she repeats.
“I don’t think it’s too early for rays,” says Muscles. “the hurricanes messed up all the currents so it’s running colder than usual. You should go down to Marbella beach, there’s always loads of sting rays there. They like to, you know…”, he mentally tests out options, “…breed, in the bay.”
We assure Diamanté that there was indeed blood. She looks a little sour like we’ve conspired against her. “She still should go to a doctor in case there’s an allergic reaction. No se sabe! We gotta truck, it’s big. My husband gonna fit you all in.”
We are English, we specialise in polite but firm. “It’s alright thanks, my wife is a doctor. Maybe if we just sit her down for a bit.”

We put Matilda down on a sun lounger at the beach bar. She sobs, hides her face away behind the crook of the elbow, embarrassed about the attention. Menna inspects the wound for snapped-off barbs but Matilda is jerking her leg around wildly.
“There was another time I landed on this piece of coral,” says Muscles. “Sliced open my calf through here, under the tattoo. You know that coral can grow inside you? I saw it happen once to this guy. He was like a human cactus! I didn’t know if I was gonna wake up one day with like stalactites growing out my skin.”

The waitress from the bar come up with a bowl of hot water. She’s seen this drama play out before. We put Matilda’s heal into the water and she screams and jerks it out. The waitress gives a little smile, like ‘they always do this…’
Yellow Costume is in the ascendency. Diamanté has faded back to the second ring of onlookers.
“It’s got to be as hot as she can bear,” she says, “that’s the only way to neutralise the acid”. She makes the waitress add further boiling water to the pot.
“Or are they stalagmites? Which ones are the ones that go upwards? Though I guess they would have grown straight outwards really, so could be either. Like a dinosaur!” says Muscles enigmatically.

Matilda will not submerge her heel in the water and is converting her pain into rage. She howls and spits like a little wildcat, tenses her leg upwards, kicks out. I test the water temperature, it is really very hot. But probably bearable I think. She can do this.
“Come on sweetheart,” I say, “let’s just give this a go. The hot water will take the venom away. It’s hurting right?”
“Go away!” Matilda screams at me, “You’re hurting me!”
“I’m not touching you darling but you do need to put your foot in that water. Otherwise we’re going to have to take you all the way to Granada to a hospital there,” I say, really working on my calm tone.

Morwenna does her doctor thing.
“Let me explain from a medical point of view why we need to do this Missy,” she says in a soothing but matter-of-fact voice, “you’ve been injected with a venom that is irritating your skin and working it’s way up through your blood.” Matilda screams again. “We need to flush out the venom with hot water. It will take away the sting and reduce the risk of infection.” Menna gently pushes Matilda’s foot into the water.
“I don’t care! I don’t care about venom in my skin.I’m not putting my foot in that water,” says Matilda kicking her leg high into the air.
“You see your nervous system is getting agitated by the toxins,” Menna continues.
”And we’re getting agitated by your screaming,” I add. “It can’t hurt that much surely.”
“It gotta to be real hot honey or it don’t work,” cuts in Muscles, “they actually poured water from the kettle onto my foot when I got stung. I got blisters all over afterwards, but hell, even the burns were better than the stinging.”
“I bet it won’t hurt anyway. I’ve checked the water and it’s fine. Look! I’m putting my finger in now. Hardly hurts. This is a great chance for you to practice being brave!” I say with a smile. I try to hold her hand.
“Shut UP Daddy! You’re making it worse! You don’t know what it is like!” screams Matilda through clenched teeth, snatching her hand away. “You’ve never even been stung by a sting ray.”
“No you’re making it worse.” I snap, calm voice lost, “You’re making such a fuss. And we’re all going to have to drive all the way to Granada and hang out at a bloody hospital if you don’t put your foot in that water. We’ve all spent enough time in hospitals already. Come on!”

Yellow can see that I’ve lost control of this situation. She squats down next to Matilda and grabs her hand.
“Look at me girl. Your foot needs to go in that water to get rid of the stinging. It’s gotta happen. I don’t care if you shout. Shouting’s fine. You shout at me all you like, but you get your foot in there at the same time. This is for your own good.”
Matilda has never experienced a complete stranger ordering her around in a tough-but-warm-hearted American-Nicaraguan accent and is unsure how to respond. She’s taken aback and stops screaming for a second.
“That’s right girl. Now put that foot in the water. You look at me. You look into my eyes. You’ve got this honey.”

“Yeah. That’s what I said. Good stuff!” I murmur, feeling kind of displaced. Matilda lowers her foot into the now-cooler water. She jerks it out again theatrically, and then allows Yellow Costume to gently push it back down again. She writhes and makes some extraordinary grimaces but keeps it in there.

Yellow costume has prevailed. She owns this situation now.
“You gotta watch out for an allergic reaction, like if she gets bumps or something,” says Diamanté quietly. It is a last gesture, she knows she is defeated. “Come on honey, we got to go find Daddy.” A shape detaches itself from behind her and we see she has a girl with her, about Matilda’s age, who has been literally hovering in her shadow. “Hope you get better now,” she says to Matilda and they walk off down the beach.
“I broke my leg one time,” I say to Muscles, “snapped the femur clean in half!”
“What, surfing?” he says.
“Nah, on a scooter. Crashed into a lorry.”
“No way!” he says.

We huddle around the invalid for the next twenty minutes. Some people drift off . The amused Nicaraguan waitress periodically tops up the tub with hot water, Matilda groans and writhes, puts a weak hand upon her brow. We bring her fries and ketchup and horrifically sweet cherryade. People put damp towels on her head and shield her from the sun. Yellow Costume talks to her the whole time in a low monotone, murmuring encouragement and words of wisdom. Menna hugs Matilda tight and whispers in her ear. At some point Arthur wanders up with his surfboard under his arm to see what all the fuss is about. He’s impressed with the injury but he’s made a friend in the waves and after a minute or so he runs off to play with him.

After a while I see that my presence isn’t required and I go back and finish off my podcast.

Limping home.

Hog Tide

Arthur and I are going fishing today with our buddy Josh. All the charter fishing companies in San Juan del Sur have terrible reviews – but they are cheap! – so we have chosen one that seems a little less terrible than the others, or perhaps a little cheaper. It is called Hog-Tide Fishing. The logo features a pig in eye-liner winking.

We have a 5am rendezvous in town, which means an early taxi for Arthur and I. It’s one of those annoying meetings where everyone is late and then you do a lot of aimless hanging around anyway, grumpily calculating how many extra minutes after your 4:30am alarm you could actually have got up.  Arthur does not say a single word for two hours, which I suppose is a kind of silver lining.  

The three of us are joined on this expedition by Jason the boat owner, a scrawny surfer called Simon with lots of facial hair, and Candy who is together with one of the two guys, though I’m not sure which. It looks like Josh and I are bankrolling this expedition and the others are on a freebie. Lastly there is Capitán – real name not given, definite article not required. A silent, competent local who is there to do the work.

The owner Jason has been described in many of the Trip Advisor reviews – sometimes admiringly, more often not – as a real ‘character’. He is certainly larger than life, with a lumbering swagger, a range of eye-opening opinions and a good southern drawl. He has a beloved pet pig back home in the States it turns out, hence the shop name. I think about the bondage reference, the sexy pig logo, and various questions bubble up – but it is too early in the morning.

Jason hits us up for the payment straight away – cash only please – and we have to fumble across a large pile of notes. He then asks for another $50 as a tip for Capitán, his paw thrust out insistently. He’ll make sure Capitán gets it later, he assures us. I would prefer to give him a tip directly, but Jason is very firm on this point. The fifty dollar bill disappears into his pocket.

As we finally set off to sea, there is dark line stretched across the horizon. Arthur and I have barely seen a cloud since we’ve been in Nicaragua, but now we watch the front advancing towards us with a sense of inevitability. The rain is cold and insistent when it hits and instantly brings a nostalgic memory of wet days mackerel fishing on Plymouth Sounds. I have only brought a t-shirt and I’m soon soaked through, so for warmth I pull Arthur into a bear hug and refuse to release him.

This has been billed as a day of sport fishing and surfing. We will catch big fish then catch big waves, anchoring at hidden reef breaks that are only accessible by boat. It soon turns out though that we are not going big game fishing in the true sense, more coastal trawling. We potter backwards and forwards along the shoreline in our stubby little vessel, a couple of lures strung out behind us, eventually hooking a bonito which Josh pulls in. We all pose for pictures with it.

We nose up to a couple of beaches and reefs up and down the coast but the surf is flat and blown out and our boards stay in their bags. Jason suggests a swim, but none of us wants to get in the water. We stay on the boat, sliding around on deck, telling stories to warm ourselves up.

Simon is a real character. He alternates between moments of stillness and sudden uncoiling position shifts. To chat with him you must be light on your feet, spinning and twisting to follow his moves.
“I fast every Sunday, it makes you feel great. Complete digestive flush.” he tells us from a lotus position on a locker, “but Monday, it’s like Disneyland” – squatting on the cabin roof – “I’ll eat just about anything! Ice cream, burgers, shrimp you name it.” Big hoot of laughter as he twists around a stanchion. “For the rest of the week I’m vegan.” The scion of a rich Armenian family, he has bought land in Ecuador and built a yoga and surf retreat that is also a cultural collective, a local community centre and various other things. He has a ski lodge in Colorado, he is negotiating a land deal up the coast here in Nicaragua. Soon he is talking about potential investments we might consider together.

At one point we stop the boat and drop handheld lines. It’s like crabbing off the pier. Jason catches a baby grouper which he conscientiously throws back in, only to see it flap weakly for a while on the surface before being snatched up by a gull, which is in turn attacked by other gulls, so the rescued fish is literally pulled apart in mid-air above us. Scales and fins rain down onto the deck.

I haul in a red snapper. “That’s a nice catch” Says Jason, “That’s one of the best fish you can find round here.”

There is a lull when none of us catches anything for half an hour and Jason suggests cutting up the Bonito. He makes some rudimentary gestures at Capitan, who silently guts the fish, cleans and filets it with precise knife-work, then adds soy, lime and chilli. We crowd around and eat it with our fingers, directly out of a plastic tub, stuffing spicy raw fish into our mouths. It is eight in the morning and it tastes fantastic. We look like savages, huddled around in sodden clothes, chomping away silently with soy stained mouths.

Jason comes to life after the first couple of fistfuls of bonito sashimi.
“I first came down here for a bachelor party – that was some event I can tell you. You met the girls here?” He gives us a leer and a wink that for a moment replicates uncannily the winking pig logo he’s got embroidered on his chest. “It was so good I went home and sold up. Hauled my ass back down here and got me a boat. And since then… Good times.” He indicates the ocean expansively.

Arthur catches a large grouper with his handheld line, pulling it in himself. His grin is enormous and the sun comes out at the same time. The mood on the boat improves.

“It must have been hard getting a business up and running in this environment” I say to Jason.
“Oh yeah. No shit. No tourists means no trips. It’s been drier than a bone in a box round here last couple of years. I had to sell my car!” He says. “But you know, you can live pretty cheap round these parts.’ I guess it hasn’t all been good times then.

Jason is off and running. He outlines various contentious views about the government here, the females, the intelligence of the locals. “Don’t worry about him” he indicates Captain, “he don’t understand a damn lick of English. Most of em don’t. Me n him, we got our own sign language we use.”
“He does speak English” Arthur whispers to me. “He was teaching me how to gut the fish earlier.” Jason offers us a beer.

Capitan reels in a macarela.
“That’s the jackpot that is.” says Jason. “Tastiest fish in the sea. You guys got lucky!” We all pose for pictures with it.

After a three hours on the boat we have caught five fish and we are ready to go home. “You guys can keep all the fish.” Jason tells us “And hey listen, y’all should drop around to the shop some night, I do fish fry-ups in the evenings sometime. Bring along some beer and join in the fun. I do like free fishing trips too, just for my friends. You’d just have to pay the gas. And a tip for Capitán. It would be pretty cool” I think Jason is lonely.

Back on shore I ask Arthur how it was. I feel the trip hasn’t lived up to expectations, that it wasn’t the sun-soaked marlin chase in deep seas that I had described. Arthur looks up at me, soggy and tangle-haired, splashes of soy sauce on his cheeks.
“It was brilliant Dad! We’ve got to hang out with Jason more. Can we go out with him again?” I think back on the other fishing trips we’ve been on – rainy mackerel hunts in Plymouth, casting lines from various jetties in Spain, trawling from a boat in Greece, crabbing in Norfolk. We’ve never actually caught anything before. Well, nothing we could eat anyway.

The bag of grouper and snapper feels heavy in my hand. We will go back, throw it down on the table. Arthur will gut it. The girls will cook. There will be a feast. We set out for the high seas at dawn like real men, and now we will return home, wet and salty, laden with our catch.

I hope Capitán got my tip.

Frigate Birds

We are sitting on the beach of Majugual watching frigate birds gliding far overhead. Their silhouette is unmistakeable: a long crucifix shape, wings raked back to a point. They are motionless as they circle the thermals, but when they dive then their tail opens like a swallow’s, so they can fine-tune their trajectory, finding the optimal angle to hit the water and seize the fish beneath.

We’re not the only ones watching the birds. Every time they leave their distant circuit and start their long dives, an old man emerges from a patch of shade above the beach. Fishing rod in hand he bounds down the scorching sand. He is surely some way into his sixth decade but he still has an impressive turn of pace. He charges straight into the water, wading out to where the waves are breaking and starts casting lures into the area that the birds have indicated. He reels them in furiously and casts again, and the again, until he is rewarded.

We’ve watched three ventures so far and each time he’s landed at least one fat fish – they look like bass from where I’m sitting. He then runs back up above the water line and buries the still-flapping fish in the sand, before returning to the breakers. On this cue, a little old lady comes trotting down in her apron (they are all so energetic!). She digs up the catch and whisks it back up to the little taverna tucked up in the tree line, the simply, but appropriately, named Foods-Drinks. Sometimes there’s a man with a net who jogs down too if the shoal looks abundant, but he’s a less urgent runner and always seems to arrive too late.

This is quite a show and I sit there watching for a while. There is a mildly slapstick element to the sprint down the dunes, the fully-clothed plunge into the sea, the frantic speed of it all. Over time it becomes apparent that this is serious work though and smiles give way to admiration. The silent crouch under the palm tree reading the frigate birds, the sudden explosion of energy in the midday heat. This is a family team, I decide, they have fished these shores all their lives. They use the wisdom of their ancestors, following the birds to find the shoals, grilling their fresh catch on charcoal fires with wild garlic and lime. This interplay between man and nature feels primordial, maybe it has beeen passed down generational lines over hundreds of years. I can imagine indigenous tribesmen, squatting high up in the meagre shade centuries ago, squinting into the blue, twining nets between their fingers, ready for the abrupt shift from stillness into motion. The sparse landscape around them would be exactly the same as it is now.

I try to talk to the fisherman as he trudges back up after one foray, but he is taciturn and unwilling to talk through his ancestral history with a random gringo in the heat. In any case the birds are falling again, right at the other end of the beach, and he’s got a long run to do.

We decide that we must go and eat some of that fresh fish at Foods-Drinks. When we sit down for lunch however we discover we have made an unfortunate misunderstanding about who was supposed to bring the bankroll (Menna for sure), and of course they don’t take credit cards. We managed to stump up about four dollars in change and so the family ends up sharing a quesadilla and some patacones for lunch. We cannot participate in the fish-to-plate ritual. We must remain voyeurs, observing the ancient tradition from the outside, uninitiated, reduced to writing about it in blogs. I saw little old lady delivering a plate of fresh sea bass to a nearby table though and it looked really good.

Dwarves and Goblins

We part company with our friends for our last two nights on the Caribbean. Josh and Meg stay in Puerto Viejo with a vague plan to head onwards to Mexico. The Nicholls retreat to an ecolodge in the jungle to ponder next steps. For us it is complicated. We had intended to make our way south through Panama and then on to find friends in Colombia, but both countries are now implementing pretty severe government restrictions of the sort that we don’t want to get wrapped up in. Mexico is a hotbed of Covid. Peru and Chile are no longer open to travellers.

Now we are not with our friends, all of our dwarves and goblins can come back out to play, those secret travelling companions of ours. Menna lives with friction drag – a dragon who wakes whenever she hasn’t eaten for four hours – and we must all tread carefully if we are not to get scorched in her devastating fires. Matilda has a host of little dwarves that travel with her – Grumpy, Sleepy, Lazy and Unhelpful are the ones we meet most days, though Disgusted often comes around at dinnertime.

Arthur gets possessed by a leprechaun if he doesn’t get exercised regularly; that is to say he goes all hyper and annoying, sings tuneless songs, asks a million questions, irritates his sister, breaks things.

I myself have wailing spirits trapped deep inside the bones of my battered body: broken shoulders that moan, the rebuilt femur that hums when the weather changes, a neck that won’t turn properly. There is the djinn of apathy too that rises in me in the early afternoon hours.

It is the money goblin though that has become the most insistent recently. He travels around most places with us now and has started to insinuate himself into our conversations in a most unwelcome way. ‘Everything is over budget here in Costa Rica’ he whispers as I drift in the afternoon haze. We had originally planned to eke out our money in various low-cost African, Indian and Asian destinations. Then Covid trapped us in expensive Europe for several months and now we are finding that Costa Rica is hardly the cheap developing economy we remembered. Last time we were here Menna and I would rent a house for $250 a month, but now we are spending that in three nights. We’re not good at tracking to a budget but we have a feeling that if we were, we would be looking at some worrying red numbers right now.

Once the money goblin is riding on your shoulder, he makes everything uncomfortable. ‘Does Matilda really need another set of goggles?’ He is outraged! ‘She has lost six pairs already.’ The kids are hungry and Menna’s dragon is starting to smoulder. ‘We can’t afford that nice restaurant on the beach though’ he wheedles, ‘Let’s head over to the backstreets and find a local kiosk where we can eat cheap. We’ve all got pretty tough stomachs now’. The little ecocabin in the trees where we are staying is lovely, ‘but there is a sweaty little concrete hostel in town where the rooms are half the price and they throw in the cockroaches for free’ he pleads ‘let’s move in there!’.

We have various late night conversations, Menna (safely fed), the goblin and I. And eventually we hatch a plan to get our spending under control. There is a place we know where there is some pretty heavy civil unrest and that is keeping tourism away. Furthermore they have recently been battered by two destructive hurricanes that have destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. You can only enter by land and it’s strictly a one-way deal, the borders back into Costa Rica are shut. Most of the commercial airlines have suspended their flights there. It’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America – in the world even! But the surf is great if you can get to the breaks, and it’s a place we know and love.

Everyone has warned us against it, but at this point that just deepens the appeal. We’ll go to Nicaragua.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
No.
Give them me. Give them me.
No.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them

Harold Monro, Overheard on a Salt Marsh

Ghost Town

When we were last here in Playa Grande we lived with a wild crowd. There was Rob, a Bahamian drug dealer who had done some fairly serious jail time in Miami. I forget his girlfriend’s name but she was pretty with semi-dreadlocks. She had lived through tough times and this had left her with a vicious streak and a tendency to hysteria. Then there was Benny, an alcoholic chef, flushed and vitriolic at work in the kitchen then soft and wet-faced in the early hours; he would occasionally proposition Menna and then pull me aside to apologise, sagging and spitting into my ear. There was another English boy there too at the time: Ollie. They called me posh, but he was posher. He worked as a hotel manager nearby. His parents would periodically send him food parcels and once a hamper from Fortnum & Masons, which he would consume unabashed, occasionally throwing tidbits to the crowd of ravening travellers lounging around.

Other surfers, punks and lost souls drifted in an out of Casa Iguana. We surfed and smoked weed, got loaded, played pool at Kike’s joint. Someone would come home with five bucks of fresh tuna from the fishermen on the beach and we would eat it raw with chilli and tequila shots. We hung Benny’s bike from a tree once while he was passed out drunk in a hammock. It stayed there for a week.

Now we are back at our old haunt. We are staying in Casa Iguana once again, but over the intervening years it has shrunk, the big sunny garden has been divided with a wall and gravelled; shaded by tall cycads and leafy rubber trees. The place is run by a neurotic South African lady. The ghost of Rob is still sitting in the corner though. “You wanna bump?” he asks as I unpack the bags and stack the surfboards.

“The beach is this way.” says Menna brightly to the kids, “Let’s go and watch the sun set.” We have been in the car all day and now we can hear the waves, or perhaps it just that we need to step out of this garden that is full of shadows and nostalgia. We head out into the dust and sunlight of the road, but the access routes have changed and we go the wrong way, down into the forest, past barking dogs, on a winding swampy path that leads us for twenty minutes to the estuary edge.

We finally emerge from the twilight of the trees. We find the river mouth lit up like tin foil under strip lights and I am rocked by a deep sense of déjà-vu. For a few months in 2005 we lived in Tamarindo, on the other side of the river, and we used to paddle our surfboards across this estuary every day to seek out the better surf break. Sometimes if the tide was coming in fast and the water was high, we would get swept right up-river when we paddled homewards at dusk. Menna and I would wind each other up with tales of the huge apocryphal crocodile which was said to live in the muddy river waters. It turned out the crocodile wasn’t so apocryphal after all. It surged out of the water a couple of years ago and took a bite out of an elderly man who was standing in the water. It mangled his leg pretty bad and he had to have it amputated. The victim was a high court judge and he took the town to court, won himself a big pay out. The upshot is that these days you can’t paddle across the river any more, but have to use one of the boatmen that sit like mosquitos on the water, whistling at you from their dugouts.

Today we don’t want to cross the estuary to Tamarindo anyway, we want to walk back around the headland to get home. The sunset is pretty much over and it wasn’t a good one anyway. The moon will be full tonight and we have a springs tide at its peak, running high and stormy. Waves are swamping the beach, throwing foam and flotsam right up to the tree line. We can’t walk around the point to make the main stretch. We get soaked trying and are forced by the waves back into the undergrowth. We clamber back over broken foliage, get scratched by brambles, sink into waterlogged sand. The ghost of Benny rattles dimly along the forest path behind the tree line. He is weaving erratically on his bike and shouting something I don’t understand. Matilda falls over and cuts herself. Dark is falling.

We finally make it back to our apartment, which is both hotter and smaller than we remember. We bargained hard on rent and in a last negotiation twist, the neurotic South African lady removed the air conditioning remote and will only give it back for another $10 a night. A thin phantom dreadlocked girl sits in the hammock and nods with a tight smile at this righteous manoeuvre. The kids don’t understand what is so special about this cramped apartment anyway; they are tired of listening to our old stories and don’t want to share a bed in a cramped room. Without the chatter of the ghosts and the film of drunken stories the place is just a rundown set of rooms. “This place is absolutely totally nowhere near as good as our last house” says Matilda definitively.

The surf is glorious though over the next few days, mellow and glassy, visible lines stretching right out to the horizon. Arthur and I surf morning and night. The break is near empty yet at the same time it is crowded with ghosts and memories. I fail to catch a cracking wave and watch as Rob slips silently into the barrel. “I missed so many good waves while I was inside,” goes his calypso lilt as he paddles back out afterwards, “Now I’ve got my freedom again man, I’m just gonna catch right up.”

And over there is Bob on his sky blue epoxy board, paddling and hollering. Behind him is the German man we call Jesus, with his flowing blond hair and Teutonic precision, his girlfriend on the beach applauding another text-book ride. There are those dark Mexican brothers with the perfectly trimmed beards and the film-star cut-backs. I can see that scary muscle guy with the neck tattoos who keeps snaking my waves. A crowd of ghosts live in this ocean and they are waiting for us every evening. Together we see in the sunsets, call out the sets, we fight for the peaks and float in the lulls.

But Arthur is out there too, my own warm little surfer boy, my flesh and blood; full of life; smiling and chatting non-stop, wanting to make sure that I’ve seen every single wave he’s caught. He silences the ghosts and pulls me back to the present.

Trouble in Paradise

It is a perfectly timed crime. Arthur and I are out surfing, the girls have just arrived on the beach, half hour behind us, bringing the school bags. Matilda is now doing spins on her bodyboard in the white water while Menna guards camp.

The light is perfect and the waves are good. Menna steps away – just a few feet down towards the water to take photos. This is enough. While her back is turned, they slip silently out of the mangroves, snatch both of our bags, and melt back through the wall of leaves and twisted branches.

We chase them of course, right out of the water, all bare-foot and salty. Or rather we chase shadows and the idea of who they might be. Menna and Arthur run over the rickety walkway back home to find our car and then tour all the coast roads, peering suspiciously at anyone they pass, checking in litter bins for discarded possessions. Matilda and I push into the mangroves and come across a tracery of overgrown trails that lead back into the darkness. We find the first bag ripped open and dumped just behind the tree line, our swimming costumes, goggles and towels not worth their effort. Of the rest of our stuff there is no trace.

We talk to a pair of lazy police officers, who are reluctant to leave their car, and we ask at Lola’s Beach Bar. This kind of theft is fairly common, we hear, there have been a few this year. Nicaraguans probably, or Colombians. Or someone from somewhere else anyway, indicates our waiter, smoothly shifting all blame to those symbolic ‘others’.
“They will have been watching you” he adds ominously over his shoulder as he walks off to serve a new table. A local gringo emerges from the undergrowth, barefoot and carrying a machete, and is initially a suspect but then he speaks long and bitterly about the time he himself was robbed, and his theories about the thieves.
“They dig holes in the floor man and they stash the shit in there.” He says, waving vaguely at the mangroves, “So you can’t catch them with your stuff. And then they’ll walk out all casual. Someone’ll come back later after dark to collect it all. Assholes!”

We hold a family council in Lola’s. The police aren’t going to help, the locals aren’t interested, we are on our own. The school bag contained a lot of stuff: two iPads, a laptop, a GoPro, Menna’s diary, the kids school books, pencil cases, suncream. None of it is covered by insurance.

We will head into the mangrove swamp, we decide. We will follow the paths and look for tracks, try to see signs of fresh digging. Perhaps they have discarded some of our less valuable stuff – the books and diaries will just be excess weight to them. Perhaps they are still in there and we still surprise them with a crafty little ambush. The hunter will become the hunted!

We buckle up with our remaining possessions and walk along the beach. We find an entry point and plunge into the mangroves. It is dense in there and there is lots of scratchy undergrowth, thorns pull at our shins and leave toxic scratches that burn long afterwards. It is nearing noon and the day is hot, but we have no water – they have stolen all but one of our bottles. Things move in the undergrowth and we wonder how many of Costa Rica’s twenty three species of venomous snake are native to the mangrove. I am only wearing flip flops. At the beginning we carefully note each broken twig, and stop to examine indentations in the mud.
“Fresh footprints” Arthur mutters knowingly “probably half an hour old”, relishing his role as child sleuth. After while our conversation gets more sparse as we get hotter and more parched, then it dries up completely. We grimly fight our way onwards.

Sometimes we step ankle deep into swamp mud and pull back hastily, for who knows what is squirming away down there beneath that thin surface crust? The tracks twist and fork and I find them disorienting – the mangroves go back half a kilometre inland and run for several kilometres along the beach. Arthur and I get separated from the girls and then we quickly get lost. The impracticality of this quest is starting to weigh upon me. What if we do suddenly come across a gang of hardened Colombian thieves in their swamp hideout? What will we do then? Wave Arthur’s penknife and the one remaining water bottle at them, then perform a citizens arrest? Mosquitos bite our ankles and spiders get in our hair, magpies shout mockingly at us from the canopy.

We decide to call it a day and head blindly towards the sound of the ocean. The path has disappeared and so we must fight our way out through brambles and the clutch of dead wood fingers. We finally emerge hot and sweaty out of a thicket, right behind an elderly couple sunbathing on the beach.

We walk back along the sand to join the girls. Arthur and I have a deep discussion about materialism, wealth inequality and the ethics of punishment. But as Arthur sets out his case for knifing the thieves to death in the mangroves I am only half listening. I am distracted by a noise in the background, carried faintly on the wind. It sounds like a far-off chuckle, drifting out from the woods.

They are in there somewhere. In their underground den perhaps, beneath the hollow tree. They are reading Menna’s diary and listening to my playlists on Spotify. The kid’s drawings are pinned up neatly on their wall. They are writing this blog post on my iPad.

And we are not from Colombia cabrón! We are Venezuelan!

Beach Bums

Guanacaste is the northern Pacific region of Costa Rica. The hottest region in the country, it was once covered in tropical dry forests. In the seventies, much of this was cut back to make way for cattle ranches but now under government sustainability programs you can see stretches of new growth as the land is rewilded and reforested. It is still cowboy country though, where they breed bulls and ride hardy Spanish criollo horses.

It is also where the best surf breaks are found and consequently where Menna and I made our home when we lived here in 2005. Cold and damp from the cloud forest, run-down, a little stressed, we make our way back there now.

We choose the beach of Avellanas as our base. This was a secret spot for us all those years ago and we share bleached memories of endless waves, pelicans, creamy banano con leche under the palm trees. Menna got tumbled in a barrel here and sliced her back to the bone on a fin, leaving a perfect crescent scar that we agreed was better than any tattoo. I think it was here too that I once saw a sting ray leap straight up out of the water. There was a difficult river you had to drive through back then, so Avellanas would be inaccessible for most of the wet season and somewhat off the main tourist circuit, but the surf here was always worth the trip. The wave was famous for holding a perfect shape in almost all conditions.

The area has been developed of course in the intervening years. There is a paved road now, more cabins and hostels, a handful of beachfront bars. Overall though the feeling is much the same: a dusty, sun-dappled, village where nothing moves fast except the hollow right at Little Hawaii peak; it is an outpost for the more adventurous expat settlers (mainly Dutch and Canadian). We stay with a delightful Quebecois couple who have just emigrated to Costa Rica to work remotely, learn surfing and run a handful of eco-cabinas down in the shade by the river.

Fine sands, rock pools and crazy sunsets, a dark mangrove jungle framing the beach – the location lulls us. We loosen our grip, let down our weary guard. It is hard to be street smart in a place with no paved streets and we need a break. We don‘t think about bogey men hiding away in the shadow of the trees. When you are in the sunshine you don’t remember the clouds.

It’s nice to be back here again after all these years, Menna and I whisper to each other. Who would have thought that one day we would be surfing here with our kids. It’s like a dream!

We go to a night market at the skatepark and eat burgers and drink beers with the expat crowd while Artie loops relentlessly around the concrete bowl with a pack of feral skater kids. We light an evening bonfire in our garden. We befriend a huge locust in our outdoor kitchen. Arthur and I get stung by jellyfish in the waves. Our alarm clock is the roar of howler monkeys in the trees above our cabin, as they define their territorial limits at 5am each morning.

We ease into a routine that is perhaps too relaxed, too predictable. Breakfast at six, early morning surf, morning homeschool at our favourite beach bar, Lola’s, where we can always find good coffee, cold smoothies and fast wifi. Then a picnic lunch, a siesta, a sunset surf, dinner, games, bed.

For three days we float around like this in a happy state of sun-dazed lassitude. But on day four they get us…

An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.

Victor Hugo

The Landlord

On our second day in Corcovado I wake early, around five am, and go down to the beach to look for nesting turtles before the sun rises.  I walk for a couple of kilometers but see nothing, so I creep back into camp, grab my surfboard and paddle out for a sunrise surf. I make my way through the break and out to deep water, and then there is a moment when the sea softens and quietens, flattening like a mirror as the first rays of sun break over the horizon. I am totally alone in the limitless ocean and it is one of those quasi-religious experiences. It is briefly marred by another round of coughing, and there is the blood again. I spit it out in bright red swirls that float on the water’s surface.  There is no pain and I feel physically fine, it is just like my body has decided to remove some excess ballast. It passes. I float on.

A couple of minutes later a fin slowly breaches the water dead in front of me, very close. It glides along silently for a few metres and then sinks back under the surface. I am mentally far-away in that moment and I watch it with detachment. Dolphin or shark? I ask myself. How amazing it would be if a bottle-nosed dolphin was to suddenly jump out of the water and maybe come to play. I lie down on my board and carefully lift my legs out of the water. I see the fin again a few seconds later, now five meters to my left, gliding smoothly away. It is a substantial fin, not sharp at the tip but slightly rounded, a deep charcoal grey and matte; sunlight does not seem to reflect off it. Then a third time in the distance it breaches again, still on the same bearing, heading away up the coast. I lie and ponder things for a minute, but then the swell picks up and the set comes through. I catch a long ride through many rolling sections, right in to the beach. It is a good enough wave that I decide to paddle back out for more.

I catch another three or four waves until I see Meg on the beach, waving furiously at me and beckoning. I can see that she is anxious and I paddle in hurriedly, thinking that one of the kids had been bitten by a snake. It turns out to be no less of a tragedy: Meg has seen an anteater being savaged by one of the guard dogs in the camp. The dog was pulled off, but the wounded creature has limped away along the beach into the undergrowth by the water’s edges to die. We can hear it panting and rustling in a nest of fig vines that tangle back into the sandbank. I am very keen to see an anteater and we attempt to lure it out with coaxing noises, thinking perhaps that we might nurse it back to health, tame it, adopt it. Unsurprisingly it does not come out.

After breakfast we meet Alvaro, a local guide who we have booked to take us deep into the Corcovado jungle. I tell him about my fin story and he chuckles.
“Dolphin? No! A dolphin is swimming with leaps and jumps. No, no, no. My friend it is a shark that moves in straight lines with the fin like this,” Does a gliding move with his hand. “It is mainly bull sharks we have here, but he will look at you and think you are too big. He is going to the river mouth. A tuna or mahi-mahi is nicer for him. Bueno! It is worse for you if you get a crocodile in the sea moving between the rivers.”

Josh and I check this out on the internet later and got a stern list of shark risk factors: surfing alone, at dawn, near a river and various others. It seemed that I had broken every single rule. Nonetheless the three of us go surfing again that evening, but this time we take Arthur along as bait.

I never got a sense of threat from that smooth gliding fin, rather an insulting lack of interest, as I think back on it. There was no change of course as it cruised past me. We simply cohabited for a moment in the waves.

In surfing slang, sharks have many names: ‘the men in grey suits’ sometimes or the ‘Noahs’ (a cockney riff I suppose on ‘Noah’s arks’). My favourite term though has always been ‘the Landlord’. It has the gravitas that this apex predator is due. We humans are out of our milieu in the sea, we float and submerge ourselves temporarily for kicks, then we return to dry land. As unreliable short-term tenants of the ocean we might get our eviction notice at any point. We must know our place, make sure to pay our dues and never disrespect the Landlord.

Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn or night since some sharks are more active during these times.

Avoid entering the ocean near a river mouth

Avoid entering the ocean with a bleeding wound.

Do not surf, dive or swim alone

“How Common Are Shark Attacks in the Beaches of Costa Rica?” The Costa Rica Star

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Another month passed somehow as we meandered our way down the southern coastline of Portugal. Without the anchor points of the school dropoff or work, we were subject to some pretty surreal distortions of time. Some days were featureless and stretched out like old chewing gum, but then everything flicked into double-time and we couldn’t cram enough stuff into the hours we are awake. ‘What did we do that week after Aterra?’ I asked the kids, but whole sections of our recent past have compacted into a series of fragments and we can’t tease them apart, only watch the showreel and listen to that crackling soundtrack. And it’s bloody Bob Dylan of course.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles.

A week in Vila Nova de Milfontes was disappointing. After many frothy recommendations from fellow travellers we were excited when we arrived, but our AirBnB was small, dark and expensive; we were in a boring suburb and we had to drive twenty minutes to find indifferent surf. The streets were too rough to skate on. On one beach trip we lost our beloved old Nikon camera, an inexplicable disappearance that puzzled us for days. We went standup paddling on the river mouth and got caught up in a gale so Arthur nearly got swept out to sea and was very shaken. We saw a man dying in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident. 

I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Near Aljezur we found a crumbling old sun-baked mansion, perched on a hill that overlooked the sea on one side and estuary plains on the other. It was full of eccentric African ornaments and Swedish books and it flooded whenever it rained. We loved it. We extended our stay for over two weeks there. Menna and I dusted off old memories from a weekend break we took near here a decade ago and bored the kids with them (“Look children! That’s where we sat and drank vinho verde – or was it port honey? – and watched the fishermen come in!”). We threw a lavish Halloween party for all the family, that is to say, the four of us, project-managed ferociously by Matilda. The organisation took her nearly a week, what with all the baking (severed-hand pies!), inventing complicated spooky games (spider web dash!), choosing the perfect film (Adams Family!) and it culminated with everyone ‘sleeping over’ in our bedroom. We were all tucked up by nine, which is how our parties generally end these days.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.

We hit the bottom of Portugal and turned the corner onto the south coast. Salema was a pretty little town that seemed to have been packaged up for winter hibernation. We walked the empty streets and spent some time observing a colony of stray cats living a enviable life on a abandoned mattress behind the recycling bins. Our nearest proper surf break was Zavial, a fast hollow wave that jacked up suddenly on a shallow sand bank to create perfect turquoise barrels. It was fantastic to watch and dangerous to surf. We went on a boat trip and standup paddle boarding with our friends Josh and Meg and explored the coastline from the sea. A section of porous sandstone cliffs, full of caves with shell-fossil walls and twisted stone columns rising up out of the waves. The boat trip turned into lunch, into dinner, into a birthday party that went on until nearly midnight. (Midnight! I know right?) I had my first proper hangover of the year next day. A night or two later the whole family awoke to intense strobe light in the early hours. We thought must be some malfunctioning streetlight, but it turned out to be the most epic electrical storm going off right above us. It felt like the world was ending.

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line /
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine

As we drifted along, it felt like our time in Portugal was winding to an end somehow, but our future beyond was still misty and worrisome. Lockdowns were looming, but not just here, everywhere we looked. Menna and I had long muttered arguments on beach walks about where we could go if things got bad. Africa was dangerous, Australia was shut, South America was sick. We expended ever more energy into loving Portugal and some days we thought that maybe we could winter here and it would be ok. We would find a remote house on the clifftop and stock up with winter provisions, surf huge cold Atlantic waves, watch lightning strikes out at sea, go for wind-blown walks in the early light. These stone houses are built for summer but we could find one with a wood burner and we would huddle around it and read the Greek myths aloud to the children while the viral armageddon raged outside.

A worried man with a worried mind / No one in front of me and nothing behind / There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne …I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train.

Atlantic Highway Blues

After a month in Baleal it feels like autumn is closing in. We decide it is time to head south. The purpose of this year isn’t to live comfortably in a modern condo for months on end, it is to find adventure dammit. We are getting fat.

We spend a couple of nights in Azen Cool House, a chic guesthouse parked incongruously in the middle of a paintball and treetop climbing course. We lie by the pool while rifle shots and the screams of the wounded echo over the matting fence. I catch Arthur and Matilda sneaking onto the range in a commando crawl like a little pair of feral war orphans looting the battlefield. They are on a mission to collect intact paintballs which they will later fire at various (inappropriate) targets with Arthur’s catapult.

Arthur is below the minimum height to go climbing, but there is a slack line, archery and a giant basement rumpus room where he expends some of his considerable energy on the punch bag. I get the gloves on and spar with him for a while. He is getting worryingly strong now, all muscle and sinew, and I am feeling old today. My injured shoulder snags when I threw a left hook. I manage to land a couple of good blows anyway to give him a message then I slink off, feeling like the old grey alpha wolf who knows that his days at the top are numbered.

We eat a Sunday fish lunch in a quiet restaurant on the cliffs by Praia Magoito. I don’t have cash to pay the bill so the proprietor gives me a lift up the hill to the nearest bank. As we drive he tells me a sad tale of empty tables and rising costs; of fine sea bream thrown away uneaten. This place would have been packed on any Sunday last year he says, indicating the empty square. All his family members are working free shifts now to get the restaurant through the crisis. I think of all the melancholy restauranteurs up and down Europe at this very moment, standing in empty dining rooms, polishing glasses perhaps or twisting napkins in their hands as they look out on silent streets and forlorn town squares. Johnny Cash growls a soundtrack to my reverie: There’s nothing short of dying, that’s half as lonesome as the sound, of the sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning coming down…

Next day we move on to Costa Caparica and stay in a graffiti covered hostel where local kids come to smoke weed and play banging Detroit techno in the garage. It is in the sketchy end of town and we are advised to completely empty our car, which is a total ball-ache, particularly as we are only staying for one night.

We take our skateboards down to the boardwalk. It is a public holiday (Republic day!) and sunny. The world is out on promenade. There are Lego apartment blocks that loom over the esplanade and in the distance we can see the misty silhouette of abandoned fairground machinery. There are bars and restaurants made from shipping containers placed up and down the seafront, so we mooch for a couple of hours then try to get dinner, but everything mysteriously shuts down around seven. There is only one place left open and the waitress there is so incompetent that we give up and walk out after half an hour of trying to catch her attention. We find ourselves some dinner eventually and then get the kids hot churros as a treat. We go back to our shared room in the hostel and watch Twins, getting slightly stoned on recycled marijuana smoke.

At three in the morning Menna’s godfather dies after a long illness. For perhaps an hour she paces around our room, whispering to family members in the darkness. She spends most of the morning in tears.

Arthur and I go for a surf before breakfast and I have two collisions with the same girl. The first time I go left on an indifferent wave and she takes a right, so we meet in the middle. No harm is done but ten minutes later I am paddling out through the set and she wipes out right in front of me, gets rolled in the barrel and her board (a rather elegant wooden single-fin) comes flying at me. I roll to avoid it and it smashes down just where my head had been, and the fin sinks deep into my deck. She has about a second to make an apology before we both get hit by the next wave and then a few more after that. I am left with an ugly axe wound right in the centre of my brand new surfboard and have to grumpily paddle back to shore.

Menna is sad, I am grumpy and the kids take the brunt of it. I grill Arthur mercilessly on syntax in a café-based homeschool session and Menna and Matilda both end their lesson sobbing. We head back to the hostel to pack, parking our car outside on the narrow street so I can load it. Occasionally other cars arrive and they mount up onto the pavement to inch past, until the driver of a Citroen Picasso decides he doesn’t want to do this, and instead honks me to move. I haven’t got the surfboards strapped down yet and I gesture for him to squeeze past, but no, he really doesn’t fancy it. I point again and offer to direct. He refuses. We argue and I call him a shit driver. I hop in the car and reverse up in order to tuck in further and I end up hitting him. ‘Now who is the shit driver?’ he asks me as he rings his insurance company. He possesses a far better command of English than I had credited him for.

We catch up with an old friend in Melides for lunch. This means we have to put our calamities behind us and crank up the smiles.  Joe has a beautiful little house up in the hills and a brand new kitten that a local bartender left on his doorstep last night.  He plans to open up a yoga retreat soon on his land, or a standup-paddle rental bar in the local town. Or both. Once the bank comes through with the funding that is. Joe is an entrepreneurial type but it’s a tough time to be launching a small business in this environment. I remember that ghostly cohort of sad restauranteurs and wish him luck.

Anybody there?

The family dynamic has changed as our travels have progressed. The kids have grown up, and we are no longer as protective over them as we were back at home. We push them out into the world to explore: ‘Take your bikes and check out the place for us,’ we say when we arrive in a new town and want to unpack in peace (or have a siesta). We want them to build confidence and independence over this trip, to learn initiative and be at home in a variety of situations. Sometimes they get terribly mouthy though and I wonder if we have gone too far.

We are all a little socially hungry at the moment. Coronavirus means that the flow of travellers that one normally meets on this kind of trip has dried up somewhat. When we stay in a campsite there is a vibe and perhaps some fleeting friendships can be made over that week. Camping long-term is hard work though, and in any case the season is over now, so we mainly stay in rented houses, inserting ourselves for a week or so into some residential area of town where the locals have little interest in hanging out with tourists. Having kids with us, we don’t go out drinking and partying much in the evenings, which closes the door to many chance encounters.

It’s not all barren. Menna meets local girls in her yoga classes, I chat to other surfers, we exchange stories with tourists when we drop into the surf hostels for a drink and to use the skate ramp. Random baristas get a quick life history together with our coffee order.

We don’t see many kids around though, certainly not English speaking ones now term has started and all the sensible international parents have repatriated themselves. Arthur plays football on the beach with local Portuguese kids, getting along as boys do, without needing to exchange any words. Matilda struggles.

So what does this mean? Well, us Nicholls do pretty much everything together. We go surfing, we go on walks, we go on sightseeing trips, we play games in the evening, read books out loud and have film night twice a week. I wind up the kids, play silly pranks on Menna. She tells me off and the kids laugh at me. Menna and Matilda bake bread and cinnamon rolls and go running together on a Sunday. Arthur and I skate around town and have mock fights with bamboo sticks that occasionally get serious. We have all our meals together and argue over what music to play during breakfast.

Arthur and Matilda are inseparable now. They have strange catchphrases and songs they have invented, imaginary games that last for many days. Even when they are arguing furiously and hate each other, they still hang out together. Menna and I have the evenings. We spend long hours discussing life, what we will do in the future and planning the next stage of our travels. We concoct wild visions of the post-apocalyptic future once Covid has decimated 90% of the population. We watch horror films on Netflix.

We have been gathered up, shaken around and thrown on top of each other, and generally we have found it fine – until suddenly one of us has had enough and throws a tantrum. Then we rant and rave for a while, go off for a walk then come back chastened and wanting forgiveness.

This is travelling after all, it’s what we signed up for. It’s intense.

Down from the mountain

We left the mountain and went back to the normal world. Back to electricity and phone signals and running water. Back to the sea.

We strode down like heroes. Forged of iron, unwashed, streaked with warpaint of river mud, shins scabbed up and parasitic trophies lodged deep in our livers. We had been put to the test up there in the rocky scrublands, far away from civilisation. We had confronted our demons and reevaluated our guiding principles; a lonely company bound together, hiking upwards through rocky scrubland, sticks in hand, using stars and the lichen on treetrunks to find our true north. We had seen snail tracks meandering on river rocks and we had read something there of our own true nature. Our children had changed. Arthur could now slip silently into a muddy pool and emerge several minutes later with a crayfish squirming between his teeth. Matilda was a little less scared of spiders.

We missed the ocean and its breezes though and also, dare I say it, the convenience of modern digital life. It seemed as though driving back into Baleal was a kind of celebratory homecoming, even though we had only ever spent three days there. It was the first time on this trip that we had returned somewhere and this time we were going to stay put for a longer period. Throughout July and August we had spent no more than a week in any single location. It was time to halt the never ending packing and moving, arriving and departing, loading and unloading the bloody car. Perhaps the kids could even meet someone their own age. In a moment of zeal we tried to enroll them into a local Portuguese primary school but the bureaucracy was prohibitive.

So that is what we did throughout September. We stayed in a nice apartment full of gadgets that seemed like the height of luxury (a gas barbecue, hot showers, a dishwasher!). We walked through bamboo plantations to get to the sea. We met locals and surfed every day. Menna signed up to a yoga class and then pilates too. The September term started and brought with it an unwelcome new routine of homeschooling – the twin evils of discipline and structure. Matilda got a new bodyboard, I got a new surfboard. We skated up and down the empty road outside our front door. We visited the walled castle town of Óbidos and the misty island of Berlenga. Arthur learned to drop in on the quarterpipe skate ramp down at the nearby hostel. We did long walks across the cliffs northwards, or over the dunes to Peniche. We marked sunsets out of ten from our roof terrace.

In short we lived a fairly normal lifestyle, and of course we got bored. Before long Menna and I were right back in the realm of anguished late-night conversations about the purpose of this trip, the definition of adventure, the meaning of life, the pursuit of happiness. Dangerous destinations started to get thrown into the mix: Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Morocco. Our dreams were of deserts and reef breaks and scarlet macaws.

It was time to head south.

Ericeira

It’s a nightmare driving around Ericeira. The streets are narrow and cobbled with a one-way system that only seems to apply to foreigners, while locals are permitted to come racing the wrong way and then face you down – anda tourist! – until you reverse back up. We rattled around for a while in circles, trying to find our new place. On one particularly tight corner we get properly jammed in, with Menna out in front of the car, alternately beckoning eagerly forwards then and squealing ‘Stop! Back!’ until I have see-sawed my way right into the bend and am revving and farting diesel smoke into the faces of all the brunch-eaters outside a vegan café. Eventually the owner came out and helped extricate us before I scared all her clientele away.

Once we find our apartment and ditch the car, Ericeira becomes a pleasure to stroll around. The houses are all built in the traditional style: gleaming white walls; contrasting blue fascias and architraves; burnt orange roof tiles with ornate chimney and gable work. Walking the streets is a tactile experience, the limestone mosaic calçada are warm and slippery smooth underfoot. It makes me want to go barefoot, though no-one else is doing this, and dog shit still exists, so Menna makes me put my flip-flops back on. The centre is traffic free and home to boutique surf shops and organic cafes, restaurant tables and the overspill from bars. Bougainvillea features heavily. There is noise and movement everywhere until there isn’t. You turn a corner and hit a pocket of stillness.

Our apartment here is tiny and opens right out onto a street that is too narrow for cars to park in but serves as a pedestrian thoroughfare down to the sea front. We leave the door open when we are home. Sometimes we sit out on the step with a beer and chat with passers-by as if we’ve lived here all our lives. Sometimes I play the guitar badly. Menna makes a worrying friendship with the Brazilian surf instructor who lives opposite. The kids rattle around on their bikes or play shouty games and try to climb the lamp posts.

There is a small port which we walk through to get to the beach that gives a glimpse of old world Ericeira. There they dry-dock all the fishing boats, then pick them up by tractor and tow them back out to sea as needed. It smells like a port should – of brine and sea-weed with an oily undertone of rotting fish – and it is full of weatherbeaten old sea dogs sitting around playing cards. It is messy and real, contrasting with the postcard town above. The gulls fight over huge spiny crabs that have been discarded there in the sunshine.

Life here feels easy. We get fresh fish from the mercado. We settle into our tight space and have a well-coordinated furniture rotation routine, so the table is prominent at mealtimes and the sofa comes out in the evening. We leave our surf and skateboards propped up outside the front door and hang our washing on a pulley system out on the street, until someone steals our wetsuits from the line one night and we get more cautious. We surf most days and there is an epic skatepark where Arthur is desperate to spend all his time (politely waiting his turn at the ramps as local street rats muscle in and pull impressive aerials). We wander down to the harbour wall most evenings to get an ice cream and watch the sunset. I find a charming old-school barber and have my first haircut since lockdown. He cheerily ignores all my styling requests and sends me home shorn and brutal. Menna makes a Portuguese caldeirada fish stew, dark and spicy, with squid, ray, conger eel and prawns.

After some days we are more attuned to our new town and start to pick out the weave of the social fabric here. We are part of a large and transient tourist component that stay in hostels, camps and short term lets. Entwined with the tourist group are the seasonal visitors who have come here to surf or are on retreats, working as instructors, yoga teachers or masseuses, and have a slightly longer-term legitimacy. Then there is a tribe of settlers who, drawn by the waves and the liberal vibe, have moved here permanently, put down roots, started businesses, formed a little artistic community. They live in shorts and flip-flops with flexible work patterns that accommodate tides, swell and good living. They frequent each other’s restaurants and cafes and chat on the street and in the surf. One day when we finally settle somewhere, I think, it would be good to be part of a vibrant and committed scene like this. Close-knit, stress-free, fun. A group of like-minded people, living outside where possible and tuned in to the rhythms of the ocean.

Then there is the local young no-fear generation, big aerials in the skatepark, aggressive carving in the waves, World Surf Tour aspirants with flamboyant surf-skate moves and great tattoos. And of course you have the older Ericeira locals who have been residents here for generations, moving slowly in time honoured circuits around the port, town squares and the market. A soberly-dressed, polite, churchgoing people, passing their twilight years on benches around the city, impassive observers of an ongoing sea-change that relentlessly reshapes their landscape. I think I would also like to grow old like this.

For now though we are content to be in the floating tourist group and wander round aimlessly, absorbing the vibe. Nothing very exciting happens to us in Ericeira but we feel happy and lazy and well-fed. By the end of the week we are starting to get twitchy again though and we talk about heading off somewhere wild.

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

Massacre of the Innocents

We got back into Portugal at midnight on a Friday. Reunited with our car at Lisbon Long Stay, we drove valedictory laps through some industrial estates before eventually finding our room for the night. Menna had booked somewhere cheap and cheerful and we had no idea what we would find. It turned out to be a huge ‘family room’ with a chintzy Louis XIV vibe, high up in an apartment block. There was no private parking and it wasn’t the kind of neighbourhood where you just left a car piled with possessions on the street, so I unloaded the bikes and the boards in the dead of night and we carted them on up to the fifth floor. Our suite quickly became the cluttered dosshouse we were used to.

We were down in Café Angola early next morning. We ate custard pastries, drank exotic juices and got very engrossed in a snooker match that was playing on a tv suspended over the bar. At some point Menna and I remembered that it was our wedding anniversary and we had a quick peck over the table while the kids made grossed-out faces. She admired the croissant crumbs in my beard; I thought the guava on her breath smelled like the tropics. A man called Wilson eventually won a dramatic last frame and took the semi-final.

Over the next two weeks our intention was to explore the area between Peniche and Ericeira, starting North and working our way down. Our first stop was Baleal, three hours from Lisbon, on the (toll-free) scenic route, where we would camp for the weekend.

Urban Art Camping was an indulgence for the boys. The website had various soft focus pictures of graffitied walls and skate ramps, laughter around communal barbecues, brightly coloured surfboards tossed artfully upon the grass. We had booked a ‘chalet’ (trailer) for the weekend and looked forward to immersing ourselves into the party scene.

I had to raise a admiring hat to the Urban Art marketing department when we arrived, for those careful blurred shots had made so much of what there was little, and made so little of what there was most: hard earth and grit, a veil of dust hanging in the heat.

There were some murals there it was true, and a skate ramp too, in an area of sandy wasteland among abandoned breeze blocks and plastic pipes that coiled like snakes in the silt. There were also two concrete barbecue grills as promised. They were hidden on a little walkway between the toilet block and a chainlink fence that looked out onto a desolate vista of weeds and rusting agricultural machinery.

The website certainly hadn’t mentioned that the site was right next to one of the most decrepit, rundown chicken farms that can ever have flown under the animal welfare regulation radar. The tang of ammonia and chicken shit hit hard when the wind turned westerly, cries of tortured poultry haunted our nights.

We were one of approximately five occupied berths in the campsite, so the bonfire surf vibe was muted. It became quickly clear though that the real residents here were of a different species entirely, and they were having quite the party. Flies everywhere! They came coursing into our trailer if we left the door open. They danced over my face when I tried to siesta. Matilda had twelve of them in the shower with her. Their buzz bored deep into the cranium.

There is a family philosophy that we don’t kill any creatures unless they are mosquitos. No stamping on spiders or harpooning manatees for the Nicholls. Live and let live. I have to explain to the kids that there is however going to be an exemption on flies.
“But Dad, why? They’re not actually hurting us.” Asks Arthur, rightly.“Is it ok to kill something that just annoys you? Can I kill Matilda then?” There is some difficult semantic legwork to do to build a moral case for this one.
“They carry diseases and they are super annoying. It’s just better for the world if we reduce the fly population”
Arthur proves coherently and at some length that if you were to eradicate the fly population then, in a complicated web of cause and effect, there would be at least sixteen other species that would become extinct including, somehow, the Golden Eagle.
I am reduced to: “But they eat crap and then crawl on your face. They vomit digestive juices on you and then lick it back up!” And then I am plunged into a long difficult period of self-reflection. Why can’t I argue a better case for the morality of fly swatting – or at least a more eloquent one? The fly has faster reflexes than any other living thing. They are perfectly adapted to their environment and clearly a highly successful species. They play a vital role in the decomposition of biological waste. Perhaps we should just leave them alone.

Our campsite apart, Baleal is a beautiful little village. The old town sits high on granite island and its churches and towers make a classic medieval roofline silhouetted against the afternoon shine of the westward sea. It connects to the mainland by an isthmus: a single span of tarmac that runs through a spit of beach with a unspoken ‘who dares first’ priority system. There are curved bays with fine white sand and turquoise waters on either side. This is ideal surf terrain as there are waves approaching the spit from two opposing directions, so it works on both northerly and southerly swells, and one side will pick up an offshore whatever the prevailing wind direction. We eat toasted cheese sandwiches and pickled lupini beans at a café on the cliffs, marvelling at our luck.

There is a series of beautiful beaches to the north of town with terracotta sandstone crags towering above them and this is where we spend Sunday. The waves are booming and I have one of the best ever surf sessions until my leash breaks, leaving me with a long swim back into shore. There is no harm done though and we walk the dusty road back to our campsite tired, scorched and happy. I find my spot behind the loos, fire up the barbecue and cook us up a chorizo-themed feast to finish the weekend in style. I am mellowed by surf and sun, the wastelands now stretch in front of me like a blank canvas full of promise. I superimpose all sorts of heroic and unlikely visions of the future there.

The mood evaporates later though when we return to our cabin and are greeted by a terrifying sight. We have left the door open and the flies have invaded. The ceiling is dark with them, so are the walls. They are flying lazy loops in the kitchen like they own the place. There are too many to count, though Arthur tries.

We have a family meeting. While it is true that we are a peaceful lot who seek no quarrel, tonight the fight has been brought to us. The sovereignty of our very trailer has been attacked and we must respond. We arm ourselves grimly with towels, magazines and Grandma’s fly swat, and we stride forth with murder in our hearts.

I have only fragmented memories of that night. A strange dark ballet. Metallic swirls in the dusk. Menna howling and swinging wildly. Arthur grinning diabolically as he leapt from chairs, his face streaked with some dark residue. Fluorescent lights flicker like strobes. The air-con unit groans. Dismembered limbs and wings; dark streaks down the wall; piles of small furry bodies amassed upon the floor. Matilda is a blur, twirling and stamping, teeth gritted, letting out animalistic cries. But still they pour in. They are in the plug sockets! Under the fridge! Hiding in the toaster! Sweat, blood, buzzing, shrieks. We killed them in their hundreds. Stamped on their mute bodies. Plucked off their wings. Did we…eat them?

We drive out of Urban Art Camping at nine the next morning still twitchy and agitated, the bloodlust barely subsided. We leave the crime scene behind us and flee south.

Somewhere in the car there is a buzzing sound.

Nazare

Nazaré is Europe’s big wave Mecca and we are here on pilgrimage. We are not the only ones either, a wave of this notoriety pulls a crowd. Firstly you spot the life-or-death hardcore surf crew with their deep tans and bleached eyes. Then there are the others, softer, like us, who seek vicarious thrills from the sidelines. Around all this is the periphery: the tour operators, guides, rickshaws, buskers and falafel vans.

For your surfing to qualify as ‘big wave’ you have to be paddling into monsters that are 20 foot high or greater. As a family we watched Riding Giants, the seminal big wave documentary, when we were staying in Croyde – some decades ago it seems now. It tells the story of a wild renegade scene, a group of guys who had dropped wilfully, out of straight fifties society and set themselves up on the undeveloped North Shore of Hawaii. They slept wild on the beach, lived off the land and discovered and surfed the largest waves that had ever been ridden. This scene then grew over subsequent decades as boards developed, bigger spots were found and new generations of surfers pushed the boundaries ever further. As surfing became commercialised, the big wave hunters remained splintered from the mainstream in their own secret club, a circuit without sponsors, a cabal of riders with their own mystique – until films like Riding Giants brought exposure. Now the XXL and other big wave competition are worldwide; Arthur and Matilda can recite the roll-call of largest waves ever surfed. They drop those exotic names casually into conversation: Waimea Bay, Pipeline, Mavericks, Jaws, Teahupo’o, Cloudbreak, Nazaré.

They know the big wave legends too, the stories of mythical waves were hidden in plain sight, or thought impossible, crazy, chimeric until some hero stepped forwards. Mavericks, one of the biggest, ugliest, heaviest waves in the world, was surfed alone by Jeff Clark for 15 years because he couldn’t convince anyone else it was worth the long dangerous paddle out. It was said impossible for such a wave to exist in California. Greg Knoll paddled for three hours in a unique storm swell to be the first to surf the third reef at Pipeline. Jaws was thought too fast, and heavy to surf until Laird Hamilton got a jetski to slingshot him right into the heart of the tube. And Nazaré is a deep water dragon who awakes only when the wind is right and direction of the swell merges with cold funnelled up through a 130 mile underwater canyon. This is a wave that is commemorated in shrines and for hundreds of years meant only death in this little fishing village. Until someone persuaded Garrett McNamara to come over from Hawaii to take a look at it. The picture of him riding an 80 foot smoking black mountain put the town right on the surf map.

Nazaré itself is built on legend. A twelfth-century lord hunting up on the cliffs; a white hart; a sea mist. Our Lady of Nazareth reached down from the skies to miraculously suspend his horse as it reared out over the void, she brought him back to safety. Now the old town that bears her name, with its churches and shrines, sits proudly up on that clifftop. It is connected by a funicular railway to the lower part of town, which, seen from above, is a labyrinthine swirl of of red roof tiles, white walls and narrow streets that extends down the South beach. Old ladies salt their fish in the traditional way out on the sands. A surf school runs lessons in the mild waves in the bay. A veneer of wave-generated tourism sits uncomfortably over the traditional fishing village, ‘Rooms for Rent’ say the handwritten placards that women in traditional dress wave at you. Surfer Paradise! Nazaré Monster Wave Tour! American Burger Bar! At the other end of town, Praia do Norte, where the big wave breaks, is still wild and undeveloped.

We stay in a place belonging to Tim Bonython, a veteran wave-chaser, photographer and filmmaker.  It is a stylish apartment in the old town.  There are moody prints of giant waves on the wall and a DVD copy of Tim’s latest film The Big Wave Project has been left casually on the coffee table.

We watch it of course and we are immediately plunged into the gladiatorial world of big wave surfing. A spectator sport quickly becomes compulsive when the penalty for poor performance is death. When your adversary is as implacable and relentless as the ocean then you are deep in a classic myth archetype: man – small and flawed but big of heart – doing battle with the gods. In high definition slo-mo. We find this sense of poetic heroism throughout the Big Wave Museum within Forte San Miguel, housed right under the iconic red lighthouse that features in all those famous Nazaré surf shots. The gallery of hero’s weapons is laid out for us here, in this case the wall of ‘big wave guns’, huge elongated surfboards that can achieve the necessary paddle speed to catch a ten storey wave that is moving at 20mph. The padded wetsuit, with it’s impact protection and buoyancy aids, is up-lit in the shadows, glowing like armour. There are elegies to those who have fallen, messages to the wave. “Nazaré, you gave me the best and the worst time of my life” says one marker-pen homage, scribbled on a broken surfboard.

We go down to Praia do Norte but it is deceptively, quiet. There are some fairly mushy waves breaking late on the shore. You can see the water is seething though in heavy roiling surges, churning up behind the break, sucking back from the beach in dark angry rips. We watch some surfers paddle out and they get pulled around, dunked under the water for long times. They don’t catch much.

We shiver and remember the graphic descriptions of the wipeouts that we heard on the Big Wave Project. The ability of a wave to smash you down 50 foot under the surface in seconds, rupturing your eardrums, twisting limbs, breaking vertebrae. Then to hold you down there, rolling and spinning in your dark-water prison for long minutes. We’ve all experienced enough miniature versions of this scenario to understand the world of panic and limp helplessness that waits down there under the waves. We won’t be surfing Nazaré. The wave is hypnotic though and we sit for a long time up on the beach, just watching the suck and pull of its waves.

Bem Vindo a Portugal

Coronavirus was riding hard on our tail. Incidence rates were spiking across the northern provinces of Spain, the travel bridge with the UK had collapsed, so we fled to Portugal.

We drove out of Galicia on empty motorways and over huge bridges that looked down upon a world of faraway bays, rivers, and ravines. There was hardly anyone on the roads so we felt free to slow right down and drink in the view. The kids were deep in their Kindles and Menna and I listened to music, checked Covid stats and ruminated on where in the world we might eventually end up. We had surfed in the morning and still felt the tang of salt on our skin. It seemed we might go anywhere.

We were worried about what checkpoints and controls we might have to go through to cross the border though (do we have our travel insurance documents? Is there some form we should have filled in? Will we get temperature checked?), but in the end we just drove over the Minho river unremarked. ‘Bem-vindo a Portugal’ says a sign, and it’s done.

Our first stay in Portugal is on the coast, 100km south of the border. We cruise through Porto, wishing we could stop. We drive along the dusty roads of the Beira province, along tarmac which deteriorates with every kilometre southwards, where old men in hats sit out at the roadside with offerings of squash and pumpkins. Through the deserted streets of Mira we cruise, and a small boy on a scooter stares wide-eyed at our loaded English car as if we were the armoured cavalry rumbling through his town. We have picked up some deep electro-country beats on the radio and now in the heat haze, everything through the windscreen seems like it’s moving in slow motion.

And as we drift along, feeling strangely stoned, I realise that this is something that I associate with Portugal. This sense of temporal dislocation, a winding down of the clock. There is a different time scale here, it is a slow moving dance that is elegant but tinged with mournfulness. There is something in the architecture, the bullock cart full of watermelons, the town squares where the old men sit out. You see it in the young girls with their dark eyes on the boardwalk, even as they smile and chatter together.

There is a Portuguese word which has no direct translation in English. It is saudade, a suggestion of melancholy and nostalgia mingled in various ways. It is the dream of something that has not yet happened, or something that could not happen, or something that will never happen again. It is deep in the music and the literature of Portugal (think fado). It’s not an active sadness though so much as a sense of vague pleasant wistfulness.

I think of a people only loosely tethered to the present, drifting through slow courteous interactions, smiles tinged with a sad charm, always half-imagining a better world that is somehow denied to them.

In the wild seas off Portugal, saudade surfers skim offhandedly across huge Atlantic breakers, dreaming mournfully of perfect waves that could never be.

I explain this theory to Menna in some depth but her view of Portugal is different.
“But even the small towns here seem to have a real sense of community,” she says, “The houses are brightly coloured and people gather together, chatting on street corners and outside bars. There’s much more soul than in some of the empty towns we saw in Spain. Everyone seems happy to me.”

I concede that this is true on the surface, but I hold onto my theory that somewhere beneath there is a deep melancholic vein of saudade, It feels poetic and I’m in that kind of mood.

Menna and I work out that apart from Italy, where my parents live, Portugal is the country that we have most visited together: this will be our eighth trip. We love this place. There is something in the faded elegance and courtesy, the relaxed hospitality, that pulls us back. We too live through wistful moments of detachment, I think secretly to myself, where reality can never match the impossible ideal. We dream of the life that we might lead, the places where we could be, the people we might become.

“Saudade. A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

Manuel de Melo

“A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.,, [it is] not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

Aubrey Bell.

Galicia

We spent a week camping in Galicia, right up in top left Spain, but round the corner now, staring westwards out into the Atlantic. Our campsite was pretty in a dusty, sun-dappled sort of way. We had a tent under the pine trees with four beds, a lamp and a fridge. It seemed to be a short stay campsite, all around us tents popped up and disappeared daily and a bubbling soundtrack of excited Spanish coursed around us like a stream around a rock. At the weekend highly dressed girls would emerge out of tiny tents to go and party, but they would be gone by 10am the next morning. We lived in the middle of all this movement and chatter in our own peaceful little world.

Apart from one night on the ferry, this was the first time that all four of us had all slept next to each other. There was a whole new range of nighttime whistles, snuffles and whispers to get used to: Matilda sitting up and giggling mid-dream, Arthur rolling out of bed for a pee in the early hours, breathing rhythms that rose and fell through the sleep cycles. The kids claimed that I snored terribly and did many lurid impressions, but I never sleep on my back so I found this unlikely.

The campsite was run by a father-son combination. There was also a mistreated old lady who did the cleaning, who might well have been mother. The son had big dark eyes like a water rat, and the same wild flickering gaze when he rattled through the camp commandments on our check-in. You notice eyes so much more now everyone is wearing masks. He scurried around the campsite, in a tight Homer Simpson t-shirt and short yellow trunks, conducting a fruitless war against the ants. Arthur found him hilarious.

“Dad, I just busted him crouching down behind our car. He looked at me and said ‘Ants you are too many. Die now’ and then he did this kind of dance and sprayed poison all over the floor. He’s so weird!”

The father ran the camp café. He didn’t like us and showed it by charging us a different price every morning for the same four croissants, two coffees and a loaf of bread. He only dropped his scowl once when Menna took him a red wine to uncork for us, and on seeing the label his eyes widened and he talked urgently and at length about its unique properties and then shuffled off to his living quarters to show her that he had this exact bottle himself. It was a very average wine that we had grabbed at the supermarket in town, but we sipped it carefully, trying to understand the hidden qualities that inspired such passion in the granite-faced old miser.

Our campsite gave straight out onto the beach. There was a large turtle shaped rock which the kids dived from and also used as a good vantage point from which to hurl seaweed grenades at their parents and other passers-by. Better still though was the next bay south, Playa Lanzada, a long beautiful beach which curved obliquely to the prevailing wind and swell. At the near end it was sheltered and calm as a millpond, but at the far end we discovered a break with beautifully spaced lines of waves that the offshore wind made steep and glassy. We surfed a couple of sessions there every day. I paddled so much that I tore the rotator cuff muscle in my left shoulder.

North of the campsite, after the end of the urban drift, there was a worn old boardwalk that wound its way out of town. We took this one day and wandered some miles through a series of deserted bays, through a landscape of evocative rock formations where sly faces and stray creatures loomed up in our peripheral vision. We came upon an old military site where artillery emplacements still pointed blindly out to the Atlantic. We ended up having our picnic down in a cove, right under the shadow of one of these rusted cannons. As we ate a sea mist rolled in around us and we were cold for the first time since arriving in Spain. We built a driftwood shelter and there we huddled together to warm ourselves awhile before wandering on our way.

The Desolation of Salinas

As we drove through the grim port streets of Avilés we were starting to feel really uneasy. This wasn’t how it was supposed to look. A rusted maze of industrial pipelines, graffitied warehouses, yellow smoke seeping from stained factory chimneys. The occasional pedestrian looked at our laden British car “Extranjeros?” they muttered to themselves menacingly, “Foreigners?”.

Menna is tense. She’s booked this one.

“I’m sure we’ll turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves in beautiful countryside.” I say comfortingly, but she’s hunched over Google Maps which tells a more precise story.
“We’re two minutes from our destination” she says.

And so it is. Salinas is linked to the industrial entrails of Avilés by a narrow sandy road that cuts through some scrublands. There is a screen of pine trees that blocks the worst of it, but it can’t hide the gantries and chimneystacks that loom high in our rear view mirror.

We haven’t researched this next leg very well. We have been nurturing an image of Salinas as a charming little surf town, telling others how quaint it is, but at some point in our journey today we have realised that this pipe-dream has absolutely no foundations. We got our first reality check when we scanned the surf report in Magic Seaweed and found a rather sniffy description:

Always crowded. Some localism. Ugly, urban setting with tower blocks and concrete walkways. Residential and stormwater pollution together with industrial pollution from the nearby factories of Avilés. Good beach facilities including a surfing school. Plenty of shops and bars nearby.

“Well, at least there are some shops and bars right honey?”

The seafront is indeed dominated by a row of imposing concrete towers and it turns out that our apartment is on the fifth floor in the last one of them. We’re met at the roadside by nervous masked Maite, who, with handbag under her arm, guides our car in an uncomfortable half-jog down into the subterranean carpark system. She tells us at length about a complex system of keys and the risk of getting imprisoned behind self-closing doors in a series of underground concrete corridors and steel storage vaults. We nod and smile exaggeratedly behind our masks, throughout her longwinded instructions, covering our internal dismay. In the meantime Arthur has exploded out of the car like a ferret out of a cage and wildly skateboards around the carpark, covering himself in soot and diesel. We shout at him.

The apartment is small and carefully decorated with black and white magazine pictures of film stars that have been cut out and glued directly to the wall. It faces not towards the sea, but back towards Avilés. There is a whole wall of homage to Brad Pitt, mainly taken from a single photo shoot which we date as of the mid-nineties, some point between Thelma and Louise and Twelve Monkeys. The place is immaculately clean and there is some heart there. The kids room is dark purple with a life-size mural of Spider-Man painted in a wild but enthusiastic hand, and they are immediately happy to be in there. The door closes and they start to rearrange the furniture.

Later we get a burger on the boardwalk and watch the waves, which are absolutely huge. The same swell that we saw in our last days at Dreamsea is still battering the coast. There are some great surfers out there and we get to watch a masterclass in big wave surfing.

The next morning we are up late and determined to find the best of Salinas. Architecture be damned, there is a hidden heart that beats in this city, we say, and we will seek it out.

Breakfast doesn’t start well. We can only find one nearby bar and all they will do for us is tostadas. ‘What is this?’ We ask stupidly. ‘It is toast’. Dry, white toast in fact that crumbles to powder. Four pieces piled up for us on a single plate with some hard butter that makes it disintegrate and apricot jam which we use to stick it back together again. The service is surly. The coffee is very good though we tell each other, aren’t we lucky. We must come back.

Arthur and I have brought out our skateboards, for there is a long smooth pedestrian promenade that runs along the sea front and it might well be the best thing about Salinas. We cruise along, feeling cool, weaving our way in and out of walkers (losers!). The girls meander behind. The sun is out, the waves look good and the day is yet ours.

Once we’ve checked out the boardwalk we peel off the seafront and head up into town to find a supermarket. On a bumpy towpath I do an exaggerated swerve round a couple of old ladies. As I smile gallantly at them, I hit a weird patch of tarry black grit that had no business at all being on the path, my board instantly sticks and I go properly flying. I hit the tarmac pretty hard and it hurts like hell. The old ladies come darting to help me and then they remember about Coronavirus and pull up, circling around me, clucking and twittering in Spanish, very agitated. Menna and Matilda run up and after a second or two I leap to my feet and tell everyone very loudly how fine I am. “Estoy bien, ningun problema! Un poco sangue, hahaha, nada màs!” I have a deep cuts on my elbow, both hands and my hip.

We limp off through a park, inspecting my injuries, and then we cut across the canal. In a surreal twist, I look down from the bridge and one of the old ladies is squatting right in the middle of a glade below us. She is peeing, her buttocks exposed like wrinkled white balloons. I look away shocked. “Don’t look down!” I mutter to Menna, all puritanical, but the kids overhear and immediately rush over giggling. We savagely whisper threats at them until they are back under control.

“What is wrong with this town?”  I ask no-one in particular.

I am still pretty shaken. Menna sits me on a bench and makes me eat dry croissants. We find our supermarket and load up on provisions for the week: fresh tuna steaks, salads, chorizo, olives, crisps, jamón, a really nice Rioja. We can still turn this situation around. Adventurers like us thrive on adversity.

I am gingerly skating home when I hear a primeval howl of frustration behind me. The zip has given way on our rucksack and Menna stands frozen in a pool of destruction. Our shopping is all over the pavement around her, ham glistens, tomatoes roll, olive oil seeps, shards of broken glass are glinting green in the sun. There are dark rivulets of Rioja running down into the gutter like blood. Matilda bursts out crying with the emotion of it all. A passerby tuts and shakes his head before hurrying on.

That evening I come down with a fever.

A Session to Die For

On the last day of our stay at Dreamsea I was invited to come along for a surf session with the instructors. There was a serious swell forecasted and a bunch of them were getting up early before work to go and catch some big waves at a Gerra, a distant beach which is ‘much more pumping!’ than Oyambre where we normally surf. I wonder if I am ready for this, but it is too good an offer to turn down.

Despite my good intentions, I ended up staying up late the night before. I can never turn down a pub quiz. I got a few hours of restless sleep but was already awake when my alarm went at 5:45am, visualising alternate scenarios where either I totally amazed everyone with epic surfing – of the kind that I had certainly not shown in any of the sessions so far – or where I drowned. I quietly eased out of the tent and dressed outside in the darkness, where I had a small pile of clothes waiting. “Don’t die” said Menna sleepily and rolled over.

There was mist below the pines and a morning chill. It was either that or I was shivering from nerves (how big exactly is ‘big swell’?). I was the first one at the rendezvous and struck a nonchalant pose by the gatepost: surfboard under my arm, wetsuit over one shoulder, wishing for insouciant cigarette to hang off my bottom lip. Gradually the others appeared in ones and twos and a minibus roared up to the gate. We loaded the surf boards onto the roof. We were six all together, I was the only camp guest and I felt a little like I’d gatecrashed a private party.
“You coming too?” I am asked, surprised, by Matteo from the kitchen. Even though the camp is very relaxed, there is the inevitable division between staff and guest, no matter how much ping pong you all play together. Is my presence restrictive? Are the team unable to relax properly and enjoy their session? Do they feel they need to look after me? I was offered a banana and ate it in silence.

We drove along the high coast road and already the waves looked big. We parked on the cliffs and the waves looked bigger. We climbed down to the beach and the waves look bigger still. Glacial green mountains rolling ponderously inwards then smashing down with percussive impact, throwing spray high into the air. The white water is foaming and heaving and sucking. The paddle out looks long and dangerous.

“My God! We gonna surf today!” Says Gigi, good-looking Italian receptionist.
“Those waves look like Bali when it gets big on the reef” says playboy Manu, camp owner.
“Hombre! Last session like this I broke my board” says Victor, our surf coach, though it is understood that he is not on duty now. I am on my own here.

They’re smiling and joking and doing complicated warm up routines. Getting pumped. No one notices that I’ve gone silent and am contemplating quietly hitching a ride back to camp.

But you can’t right? All the bravado; all of the tales of Costa Rica; kids looking up at me with little disappointed eyes, ‘But Daddy, you said you could surf anything…’ (‘That was a frickin joke Arthur! Go back to bed damnit!”). Some things are worse than death by drowning.

So of course I paddled in after them and it turned out just as you would imagine. I quickly lost the others; saw them find the outbound channels; make quick progress out in the gap between sets; paddle up and over those vertical rushing walls that would soon come crashing down on me. Then we were separated by angry mountains of salt water.

I spent a long time in the impact zone on that paddle out. I had some bitter moments of self realisation there. I made the line-up fifteen minutes later, tired and breathless, salt water in my belly, but that arrival felt like a triumph in itself. Friends! Safety! Of a sort. We were bobbing on our boards in a loosely strung-out line, pulled around by rips and currents, floating up over the rollers. I triangulated myself against various reference points on the faraway land. I mustn’t go too far out (too long to paddle in again) mustn’t go too far in (get caught by the big sets) mustn’t drift too far right (rocks). And eventually I found a kind of peace there, in the perfect antithesis of surfing, trying my hardest to go precisely nowhere on a board. Occasionally I would give a thumbs up or shout “nice wave” at one of the others, as they caught another epic ride. It felt good to be part of the pack.

“Go Weeliam, go! Go! Paddle now!” Victor shouted at me, totally breaking my zen. Startled, obedient, I turned and paddled. I was in just the right position and for a moment I felt the wave loom up behind me and saw the line I would take inscribed on it. I felt then that I might do something amazing on that wave. It was so big and steep though that I just screamed my way down the face for some eternal frozen moments, then totally failed to make the turn at the bottom, got caught up in the break and tumbled underneath for a long time. As I rolled in the darkness, twisted and massaged by mighty underwater forces, I reflected on just how amazingly that wave might have gone. And that was pretty much the highlight of the session. There was another time when I drifted out of position and got badly caught inside by a set of five big waves, but I don’t count that.

After the last hold-down I decided that I’d proved my mettle enough for one day and paddled alone back to shore. I had been out for less than an hour.

I sat cross legged on the beach and thought I might meditate for a while while the others finished, but I was far too adrenalised. Instead I watched the white walls and red tiles of far-off San Vicente light up in the morning sun and I congratulated myself on a heroic session.

Did I catch any good waves? No!
Did I have fun? Not really!
But did I survive? Yes!

So let’s take that as a win shall we? A war story: I was out there in the big Gerra swell of 2020. I couldn’t wait to tell the kids how big it was!

Dreamsea

In the foothills of the Cantabrian Cordillera, somewhere between Santander and the baroque palaces of Comillas, we found Camping Huelguero, a neat little spot, fringed with flags and pine trees. As we drove through the site, wondering if those regimented rows really captured the true spirit of camping, we found a smaller hill right at its centre, deeply wooded with oak and eucalyptus, where a steep winding access road was marked out in chalk. We took this track upwards and there, nestled in clearings between the trees, were the tents and rolling walkways of Dreamsea Surf Camp.

It was perched there like a crusader encampment above enemy lines; all bamboo structures, white bell tents emerging from the vegetation, fluttering banners and downtempo beats.

We arrived in this serene oasis and promptly vomited the contents of our car out onto the decking, under the bemused gaze of a handful of surf-bums drinking daiquris at the bar. Bikes, surfboards, skateboards and yoga mats are piled up, wetsuits, backpacks, bags overflowing with laundry (we only left Plymouth two days ago – how is this possible?), electrical wires, a box of school books, half a bottle of Llaphroaig, a badminton set.

We were urged to chill. Just let the luggage sit there, someone will probably deal with it.  Come and take a tour…

There was a central living area with a canteen, bar, chill-out zone and some kind of Swiss Family Robinson bamboo shower block. A teak yoga platform juts out over a gorge, then down a twisted path is an elemental dance floor, sunken in a hidden glade where tree roots tangled with lighting cables and lizards danced in the sunbeams. There was a skateboard ramp and a rack full of bikes and longboards and surfboards for you to help yourself to.

Our bell tents sat on a raised wood decking and they had carpets, beds made of authentic looking coffee pallets with proper linen and there was some kind of antique chest there under the yucca plant. For pampered city folk easing into a life under canvas, this seems like a pretty good start.

There was an ethno-organic-Bali-soulsurf kind of vibe that permeated Dreamsea.  It was super chilled and a consequently a little chaotic.  The showers didn’t have hot water; someone was going to get around to it but they’re probably off surfing right now.  You wandered to the bar to order your sunset mojito to find that bartender, manager, and pretty much everyone really, had downed tools for an impromptu group session on the skate ramp and they’re really into it, and pulling some pretty gnarly moves, and it was probably better not to disturb them.  

The camp was staffed by a tribe of young beautiful people with floppy hair and great tattoos, usually with a beer in hand. They loved to chat. It seemed to be a mandatory requirement that all personnel not only surf, but skate as well, and they were keen to prove their credentials on the ramp that is conveniently right by the bar. Arthur, with his new birthday skateboard barely out of his wrapper, was in total awe. Within three days he had been fully assimilated into the crew and was taking his turns on the ramp and being earnestly coached on how to throw a healside turn. Despite being a longboarder myself (read middle-aged sedate cruiser), this scene was seductive enough that I wanted in. I gave it a few goes and predictably I wiped out hard each time, and soon had cuts all over my feet and elbows. Everyone was so encouraging though, I wanted to nail a big move just to please them.

These were the Lost Boys and Wild Gals of Surf. Chasing the next big wave and some impossible dream, unable or unwilling to put down roots, talking animatedly about what adventures they might find next season (I have a friend in California! I hear the surf in Bali is going off! Head for Sri Lanka dude!). Always looking for something around the next corner: girls, boys, waves, enlightenment, but never having quite found it yet. I liked them a lot. Come and have a mojito! Let’s go and have a dance! Hey Steve, get the BMX onto the skate ramp! They inhabit a celebratory live-for-the-moment kind of world. I think that’s what we’re looking for too.

It became apparent there is a bit of a cult thing about Dreamsea. The Cantabrian location isn’t a one-off, there is a list of sites that reads like a roll call of the surfer heartlands – Bali, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Portugal. The staff drift between them, and the more avid guests challenge you for prior visits, before listing the four or five that they’ve stayed at, with their relative merits. We wondered if we were in a subtle indoctrination program. Perhaps we would wake up hungover one day in Bali with Dreamsea hoodies, a collection of tattoos and a rinsed-out bank account.

Victor, our surf instructor was from the Canary Islands. He had a moustache, zinc warpaint and melancholy eyes. His passion for surfing was huge and the kids absolutely loved him. We got a family coaching session on day one: drills and technical instruction on the beach then out together into the breakers where Victor pushed the kids into the smaller shore waves while shouting instructions at me and Menna as we surfed further out at the back.

“No Weeliam, in the bottom turn you must look for your line, then lead with the hands. Shoulder and hips will follow… It’s like salsa! You dance salsa right” Wrong Victor, I dance a kind of jerky techno.

“No Manna, two step pop-up only! Why your knees?”

Our days quickly settle into a pattern that looked something like this: wake, sunrise yoga session, breakfast. Arthur and Matilda do some reluctant school work in the central living area. Morning surf coaching. Picnic lunch on the beach. Afternoon surf coaching. Beach chill, visit local town, eat ice creams. Menna tries to make us all go for a run and sometimes we give in. Skate ramp. Ping pong. Cocktails. Dinner in the dining area. Party / salsa dancing / quiz / concert. Bed. Repeat.

It’s exhausting, but we all made good progress at surfing. The waves were big but mellow. I had my pop up totally re-engineered. The kids are very enthused and would do anything that Victor says. All of us feel our shoulder strength building: we can paddle for longer, catch bigger waves. Arthur is getting the parallels between surfing and skating, it is not long before he starts to put together some fairly slick looking turns on the skate ramp.

We talk to Victor about his tattoos and he weaves a life story around them.

“This one has the lion waving the Rasta flag. People all say it looks like the gay flag but it is not. And ok, so what, I still like it. It was done on a beach in Thailand. This one is the mermaid firstly because of the sea but also because of what she symbolises about love, you know, it never works out and it’s all like an illusion really. You think you’ve found the one but then something always goes wrong. It disappears.” Shrug. “These ones on my shins are High Tide, Low Tide, very common. This one here, ‘Be Everything You Can Be’, was from an advert, a big sign outside the house when I was staying all alone in Canada. It gave me big motivation…” He stops and sighs, something of that lonely Canadian winter flickers across his eyes. “So anyway, the tattoos are my history. Now let’s go surf!”

Matilda won Wave of the Week in a campwide prize ceremony. There was some confusion when she wasn’t there to receive it and we had to drag her out of bed at 11pm in her pyjamas. She was all sleepy and confused but very proud. So were we. So was Victor.

Why We Ride

I got pulled into surfing because it felt cool and alternative, shallow though that sounds. Menna grew up in Cornwall where the surf culture permeates, so she had an excuse. I still don’t know how an obsession with waves grew so voracious in a lad who grew up in landlocked Hereford and couldn’t even swim that well. Certainly it had something to do with Point Break, a film that detonated deep in my adolescent psyche and left some pretty deep marks. I had an image of surfers as a bunch of carefree, muscled, tanned, laid-back Gods of the Sea. And who doesn’t want to be in that gang? It’s anti-establishment but it’s not nihilist. There are associations of punk and skater culture on the one side, and a spiritual, at-one-with-nature, mysterious soul-surfer ethos on the other – but there’s a stick-it-to-the-man kind of vibe that bridges both camps. It’s aspirational, particularly to anyone who believes themselves to be liberal and non-conformist. We know of course that many elements of surf culture today are as manufactured and infiltrated by big business as any of the tribal demographics that are packaged up and marketed to us, but even so, it came from something pure and simple and the value-set feels good.

The reputation and culture is enough to get you out there into the ocean (probably on a foamtop). You want to give it a try. You’re ready to rip! Then you get to find out the first hidden truth at the heart of surfing: for something that is predicated around such a simple ideal – to stand up and glide for some seconds on the unbroken face of a wave – it is astonishingly difficult. There are levels of complexity that hide behind that simple premise, and once you start breaking down the constituent parts, then they quickly become complicated and technical. Position on the board, paddle techniques, getting out back (over waves, turtle-roll, duck-dive), reading sets, understanding wave shape, anticipating the break point, the paddle-in, the pop-up, stance and positioning, turning and moving on the wave face, power zones, when to bail, wave priority and etiquette.

When you start out it seems like a trick has been played on you. Something you assumed would be so straightforward is in fact fiendish and full of hidden artforms. But whenever you watch anyone who is half-decent, their movement on the wave is so graceful and elegant it strips away the complexity. A great surfer seems to embody a mental and physical sense of flow that seems otherworldly and very connected in form to the ebb and swell of the sea.

So you have a choice. Either you realise it is too hard and will take too long to master, and so you give it up and maybe turn to golf. Or you are fired up by the challenge, your desire to be a zen master of the waveform is strong enough for you to take the first steps on a long winding road where progress is measured against a far off horizon that never seems to get any closer. You must learn to take beatings, that are many and varied, yet specific enough to have names – the Hold-Down, the Spin Cycle, Caught Inside, On the Head and the worst one, that sinking feeling when you think you’ve just made it over a large breaking wave, only for it to suck you back over the crest to topple down the face with the full force of the wave (and maybe your board) landing on top of you. We call that Over the Falls.

You have proper realisations of ‘this is it. I’m actually about to DIE!’, not just once or twice, but tens of times: moments when you are thrashing blindly in deep water, having been spun viciously, now swimming towards the surface in desperation, lungs empty, only to realise your leash is tugging you the other way and in fact you’re swimming downwards. But as the beatings get worse (you’re progressing to bigger waves) so do the moments of victory get more intense. You catch a wave right in the sweet spot and suddenly you’re there, in a moment of sunlight and silence, the universe crystallised down to a single point of time and emotion, as you scream down a wall of water, knees compressing with the g-force as you bottom-turn into the wave and see it stretched out in front of you like an emerald highway, and you ride it for perhaps five seconds, maybe even eight. Two or three waves like that in a session will sustain you for weeks. You’ll talk at length about them to anyone who’ll listen.

Over time you get to understand another of the dichotomies of surfing. The emotional intensity is driven on one side by the feeling of flow, elevation and ‘oneness’’ with nature when you catch a wave. On the other side it is pushed by adrenaline and pure fear when the wave catches you. Above and below. Fear and joy. Effort and grace. You’re never quite sure which side of the game is responsible for that aching, shaking, drained feeling you get once you finally climb out of the surf.

Your mindset changes over time of course. A large part of any surf session involves sitting out on your board beyond the break, examining the topography of the ocean. You’re trying to anticipate wave size, speed and peak from a distant bump on the sea’s face. Is this set spaced out? Are they clustered? Doubled-up? Where will they spike? Can I catch this? Am I in danger? You need to calculate all of this before the wave reaches you in order to select the right waves and get in position to catch them, or identify the ‘clean-up’ sets and get safely over them. So you sit watching the ocean with single-minded focus. For long stretches. In silence. Floating. It’s a lot like meditation really and it’s an addictive part of the game. You see a lot of surfers off-session just sitting on beaches, cliffs, dunes, zoning out and watching the waves build and crash. I’m writing this now in a notebook, sitting high up on a dune, watching the waves peal in between sentences. They look sweet today, coming through in well ordered lines with a slight offshore breeze glassing up the faces.

A moment of honesty here. Even after a year of surfing in Central America, trips to Bali, Sri Lanka, Hawaii and various European sessions here and there over the following fifteen years, I am still not a good surfer. Not close. I don’t catch lots of the waves that I paddle for. I don’t link beautiful turns on the face and I can’t do a snappy cutback. I have been deep inside a few barrels, but flailing around, off my board and preparing for an almighty beating. But I love it and I want it always to be a part of my life. “The best surfer out there is the one who’s having most fun” as the zen master once said. So I try always to smile as I get sucked back once more over the falls.

Surfing is such an amazing concept. You’re taking on Nature with a little stick and saying, ‘I’m gonna ride you!’ And a lot of times Nature says, ‘No you’re not!’ and crashes you to the bottom

Jolene Blalock

Covid Don’t Surf

What drew us to North Devon, other than having nowhere else to go, was the surf.

Since our year in Central America we still think of ourselves as surfers. Yes, it’s true that barring a couple of weeks in Bali in 2008 and a very occasional session here and there in Cornwall or Portugal, we haven’t really surfed properly in 15 years. But it’s like riding a bike right? And so, once we get down to Devon, boards loaded on the top of the car, many readings of the swell reports en route, heated discussions about pressure systems and fin types, we are ready to wind back the clock and dive back into a life on the waves.

A storm system battered the South West on the Friday a few days before our arrival and our go-to forecaster Magic Seaweed is showing that there is still going to be some solid swell on on our first morning. It’s a little big for Menna’s first day, but I’m itching to paddle out.

The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strong powerful strokes. My shoulders wake up, instantly responding to the demands with some innate muscle memory. I navigate a large incoming set without too much difficulty, timing my duck dives to slip smoothly beneath the breaks. The cold water hits my face like an invigorating tonic. The waves are coming in neat clean lines, about six feet high and barrelling slightly. It‘s big, but nothing compared to Puerto Escondido in 2005 – or that gnarly reef break we surfed in Panama. Getting out back, I feel my heart rate is nicely elevated, lungs are working well, there is blood coursing through my muscles. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak. Fellow pros. They look at me and recognise one of their kind.

I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. Then my chance comes. The last wave of the set breaks late and the peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except for me out on the edge of the pack. I paddle hard for it, feeling the tail of my surfboard lift, getting my chest down and accelerating my strokes just as the wave ramps. Then there it is: the glide, that most amazing sensation as my speed matches the wave speed and then we are planing together. I am high on the face of the wave and bang in the pocket, the wave face is crumbling right next to me. I explode to my feet and I’m off, left rail wedged into a green wall that swells and builds in front of my board. The ride picks up in pace as I take a sharp diagonal down the wave face and then a sweeping bottom turn. Up to the top and it’s time for a cutback. My board carves a tight S shape to turn back towards the break and refind the pocket, which I’ve now outpaced.

On and on the wave runs and I’m drawing beautiful lines. My fins carve a white signature into the green face for all to see. It’s a moment of pure harmony between man and ocean. The tears in my eyes are only half from the wind.

And then a soft fade back to reality. This is a composite of several daydreams I’ve been having on the way to Devon, and they have carried me happily right up to this moment. This moment now. My surfboard under my arm, a hero’s pose, standing calm and ready at the water’s edge

The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strokes that feel rather laboured and ineffective. A big set comes in and I remember the adrenaline shot of fear as a huge slab rumbles towards you. I remember how huge a wave looks from your low vantage point at its base. I remember the feeling of impact that resembles nothing so much as a ton of liquid cement being poured on your back from height. There are relentless white walls lined up angrily in front of you, and you need to pass through them all before you find yourself in deep calm waters. Inefficient duck-dives rob you of air and leave you floundering in foam before the next wave crashes right on top of you. Poor paddle technique means you lose meters of progress with every wave you pass.

And so it happens today. I get caught in the impact zone for a long time, shoulders quickly weakened, lungs on fire, salt water in my stomach. For several waves I have to ditch my board entirely and just dive under, feeling the leash on my ankle yanking frantically as my abandoned board gets smashed around on the surface. Finally there’s a gap between sets and I’m able to limp my way out back, gasping and red faced.

I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. I’ve no heart to go after anything myself, I’m exhausted already. I try to get my breathing back to acceptable levels and slip into a reverie. I don’t notice that everyone has suddenly started paddling fast for the horizon. The clean-up set has arrived, a group of monster waves that are far larger and therefore break far deeper than the rest. One by one everyone makes it over the crest of the first roller, but I’m caught inside again and I take the full impact of the first big wave and then its companions. I am dragged deep under and spun around flailing, emerging for a frantic breath before getting hit by the next. And the next. I get swept far enough towards shore that once the super set has finished, I’m way out of place again and have to do another weary paddle back out.

As I reach the line up again I see a beautiful wave coming through. The peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except one lad. He paddles hard for it, feeling the tail of his surfboard lift, getting his chest down and accelerating his strokes just as the wave ramps. I am totally in his way. He is forced to pull out at the last moment and he mouths something at me which I can’t hear. I limp my way to the edge of the pack. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak and they look like pros. When they look at me it is clear that I am not one of their kind.

But I will be.