A few years ago, I found myself sitting in a Nicaraguan border patrol office, arrested and terrified. I wasn’t wearing any shoes – I had lost them three or four days previous, and it hadn’t been necessary to get any – and my feet were dusty and sweaty. I left damp, dirt filled footprints along the cool hallway on my way to the office, where a large man with a larger mustache and mirrored sunglasses sat behind a wide oak desk. His boots were up on his desk, beside a pistol of some kind, and his anger smoldered across at me from behind his chrome lenses. I smiled nervously at him, pretending like I hadn’t just tried to pass a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill off before crossing the border back into Costa Rica.
The room was actually very pretty in a classic Central American way: white tiles with a ring of bright, decorated ones circling the top of the walls, a wobbly fan spinning lazily on the ceiling. Outside the small slatted window, I could hear old diesel motors and parrots, men yelling and dogs barking. It was a pleasant enough space to be in, away from the stifling, windless heat just outside the window. But I would have given anything to be out there. Anything to get away from my own stupidity.
You probably know that feeling, and if you’re anything like me, you probably want to avoid it. While surf trips can be some of the most rewarding, memorable experiences you’ll ever have, you can also find yourself in some pretty hairy situations if you’re not careful. Of course, not being careful is quite often part of the fun, but just in case you’re past that point in your life where you just don’t give shit (approximately 18-25 for me), here are a few quick tips on how you can preemptively save your own ass.
1. Getting arrested in a foreign land
There are all sorts of horror stories about people getting thrown in prison for arriving somewhere with a butt full of drugs. This is especially true in surfing, where rumors of “entrepreneurs” using drug smuggling money as start up cash for some of the biggest surf companies have been floating around for years. I sort of hope it’s true – some guy sailing the seven seas with a cargo hold full of black tar heroin, stopping in far-flung destinations to alternately surf perfect, empty waves and sling poison to the locals is a much better story than a guy printing t-shirts in his garage until Macy’s picked up his clothing line. Whatever the case, getting arrested anywhere, let alone a place where you don’t speak a lick of the language, is scary as mierda (Mexico)/eek (Indonesia)/merde (France).
Just like the shark attack, the most sure-fire way to stay out of some dingy dungeon where all there is to eat is rat’s tails is to just not do anything illegal. Of course, that can be a bit of a grey area in some countries, where police pay isn’t necessarily in the form of a paycheck. I’ve been pulled over for nothing in a two separate countries, and all I had to do was shake a hand and grease a palm. It’s accepted. Now, I’m not saying it’s common practice everywhere, so that’s one you might want to feel out a bit first, before you find yourself chained to a wall with a sore butt and a mean case of scurvy. Bribery isn’t exactly expected in most places, but if you’re going somewhere where it’s an accepted form of ticket payment, it doesn’t hurt to carry around a bit of extra cash (well-hidden), just in case.
And if you’ve done something so horrible that bribery just don’t cut it, or you’ve done something in a country where bribery is also an arrestable offence, just give the ol’ consulate a call. If you’re really nice, they’ll probably be able to get you home, where you can pay for your offense like a good old, down-home criminal.
2. Shark Attack
Unless you’re Steve Irwin or Mark Healey, you’ve probably had that little twinge of fear at some point in your surfing career. We are, after all, sharing a space with a creature that has evolved into a nearly perfect killing machine, so it would be fair if you’ve leaked a bit of pee or squealed like a 5-year-old girl once or twice.
If you don’t want to soil your shorts every time you see a fin, there are a few things you can do to avoid a (very unlikely) shark attack. Obviously, the best way to avoid a shark attack would be to practice abstinence, but let’s be honest, quitting the ocean all together isn’t really an option. There are a few other options that may or may not work. Everyone’s seen those goofy looking wetsuits you can wear that, according to the manufacturer, make you look like a zebra. They also are supposed to scare potentially aggressive sharks away, because zebras are the sharks’ only natural enemy. Nope, that’s not true. Everyone knows that zebras are an apex predator. Apparently, though, these goofy suits mimic the coloration of sea life that sharks don’t like: Lionfish, or broccoli, for example.
And then there’s the Ocean Recreation Comfort Apparatus, or ORCA, that NoBite Technologies came up with. In a nutshell, it shoots out sounds that sharks don’t enjoy, kind of like that time you left the house because your wife/husband/child/dog was whining about something when you had that hangover. But here’s the crazy part: the folks over at NoBite are offering a $1 million guarantee. The jury is still out on how much a leg is worth, but it’s probably more than a million bucks.
3. Hospitalized with no travel insurance
If I could count the number of times I’ve fallen out of/off of things in a foreign country, I would probably have a much better memory than the one I’m currently working with. It’s not that I’ve fallen off things so many times; it’s just that the vast majority of those accidents have occurred after consuming vast quantities of some kind of toxic substance in a sweaty, humid place while trying to impress a Swedish/Australian/human female. They were never impressed, although an incredibly beautiful (although mangy) golden lab once consoled me while I was weeping in a dark field after a donkey bit me in Thailand. If you happen to get a bad injury in a foreign country, one that requires immediate hospitalization, you’re pretty much screwed – but hopefully alive, so you’ll have that going for you, which is nice.
Here’s the key: you need to find that ever-so-delicate balance between a few stitches and a massive, hemorrhaging head wound. That way, you can avoid both possible death and a hospital bill larger than your family’s gross earnings for the next three generations, which they will appreciate. But if you can manage, remember RICE: rest, ice, compression, elevate. If you can get home with your busted leg resting on the seat back in front of you (you’ll want an exit row for this one), then you’ll save a lot of money and be able to tell your friends that you took a 22-hour flight through a thunderstorm with a broken femur. They will be impressed, and the Swedish/Australian/human female will also. *
This one’s pretty easy to avoid, but it sure does suck if you don’t. Don’t go in the ocean. Actually, to be really sure, you should stop bathing, stop going out in the rain, and stop drinking water. Secondary drowning is real thing, people, and you should be terrified of it. Next time you choke on a sip of water, imagine that it’s worked its way into your lungs, and while you sleep, it’s pooling in one corner, slowly killing all those little pink bronchioles, or broccolis or whatever. Yeah, water is a stone cold killer. I’ve also heard rumors that it had something to do with Jimmy Hoffa.
But if you’re not willing to stay dry for the rest of your life, you should make yourself aware of local currents, rips, and places where you just shouldn’t swim, even if you’re Michael Phelps and have webbed toes. Be honest with yourself about your surfing abilities. Some of the greatest surfers in the world have drowned, and if I’m being honest, you are probably not one of the greatest surfers in the world. Maybe you are. Kelly, are you reading this? If in doubt, don’t go out. Yes, you should push yourself. Yes, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is important. But if you’re just average-Joe surfer, maybe the Code Red swell at Teahupoo is something you should watch from the channel.
*Don’t actually do this. Get travel insurance.
Have a worst-case scenario story? Tell us about it in the comments section below, in all its gory details. Read past installments from The Call of the Wild Adventure Series.