No matter what you think or how long you’ve surfed there, you don’t own the wave. Photo: Barefoot Travel

The Inertia

A snippet of conversation overheard on the beach in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula while looking out at a four-to-six foot south swell peeling across an accommodating sand-bottomed point break got me to thinking about…demographics. Demographics, as in, “dem-o-graphic: relating to the structure of populations.” Perfectly natural, having just seen a panga motor up with a local surf guide who deftly deployed 12 surfers into the inside lineup.

“Surf school,” said one visiting surfer. “Gotta be from Puerto Jimenez.”

“Yeah,” said the other. “Only a local would do something like that.”

A particularly new development, so far as surfing demographics go, with the sight of rank beginners being shepherded out into exotic lineups formerly reserved for “hard core” surfers becoming more and more common around the world. Bali, Baja, Fiji, Central America, Lemoore (okay, Lemoore doesn’t count); I don’t know about you but I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints lately from traveling surfers who’ve found themselves having to navigate their way through rafts of soft-topped, rash-guarded neophytes clogging the inside sections at some of their favorite ‘dream” destinations.

The scenario might be current, but the ire certainly isn’t. I can’t count the number of times I’ve encountered surfers from my country, enjoying waves breaking in someone else’s country, who’ve somehow developed the attitude that the locals who’ve picked up boards and begun taking advantage of the resource are in some way interlopers. This goes double for so many of those crusty, older surf travelers (pick any of those at your favorite far-flung spot) who, being not only unwilling to share their

“discoveries” with fellow countrymen and women, are pointedly resigned to the presence of surfers whose country and waves they’ve “colonized.” And those are the nice guys. Consider the rigid protocol of many of the salty, pre-resort, Mentawai charter skippers, who maintained a long-standing rule against leaving any boards, broken or not, on any of the islands to which they’ve brought their clients.  God forbid the local kids take up surfing and ruin the whole thing.

Sure, there are those places where indigenous surfers eventually took their rightful place at the top of the food chain: Puerto Escondido, Bali and Tahiti come to mind. But there are still plenty of those surf breaks where foreign surfers (meaning us) feel that they have some sort of moral superiority, so much so that the sight of a local surf guide introducing 12 new surfers into the lineup would be cause for comment, as if by doing something “like that” he might be doing something wrong. More wrong, somehow, than the typical back paddling, drop-ins and, “I’ve been surfing here since 2004” cold shoulders exhibited by visiting surfers further up the point.

You’re not from around here, are you? Photo: Juan Jose Zevallow

Beginning with 1966’s The Endless Summer, perhaps the most culturally insensitive surf movie ever made (Bruce Brown’s sales manager playing an African “native” in elaborate blackface? Really?), the whole idea of surf travel has been romanticized with a decidedly ethnocentric slant — we of the First World, or “developed” nations, being the ethnos in question. For more than a half century, at least, surf tourists have been “discovering” and naming faraway surf spots, much the same way 15th century European voyagers discovered and named the North American continent. And like those early conquistadors, very few of our barefoot adventurers gave little thought to the impact their behavior had on the indigenous population. This is why surfers traveling to Mexico, for example, who in decades past were fearful of running afoul of the dreaded “federales,” are now more likely to get rousted, harassed and even chased out of town by local surfers, who, in increasing numbers, are asserting their water rights in the same manner established years ago by visitors from El Norte. A painful irony lost on most of those fleeing gringos.

So what does all this have to do with a Costa Rican surf guide bringing surf school clients to waves first ridden and populated by North American surfers? Put characteristic surf-selfishness aside for just a moment and consider this diametrically opposed point of view: Culturally arrogant surf tourists have for decades directed their best efforts to hoarding another sovereign country’s wave-riding resources; to honor the so-called “search,” and keep others from enjoying what is perceived as a personal right. On the other hand, the local surf guide with the panga has decided to share his waves with visitors to his country; sharing the stoke that surfers of every level of experience are searching for, while supporting his family in the process.

So who the hell are we to tell him he shouldn’t?


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