First Person, Far Flung: Nicaragua
The evening we arrived in Nicaragua, my friend Rebecca and I strolled down the beach to scope out the surfers. At the far end of a long scimitar of sand called Playa Manzanillo, a high promontory of pale sedimentary rock jutted out into the Pacific, golden in the setting sun and capped with a lush toupee of jungle, whittling a consistent curl of whitewater off the incoming green swells. As we watched, a lone surfer paddled into a wave, popped to his feet, and carved a lazy serpentine line along the glassy barrel. “That’s not us,” I said to Rebecca.
Much closer to shore, wading in the white foam, two little boys in swim shirts belly-flopped onto longboards and rode in until they beached, giggling, on the sand. I pointed. “That’s us.”
We’d come to Mukul Resort, the first five-star luxury resort in hopeful and ascendant Nicaragua, to surf. Or, to start to try to learn to surf. The trip had been my idea. My childhood fear of the ocean had, in recent years, given way to a full-blown romance with it, and surfing seemed like a good way to get close to my new honey. Rebecca didn’t really care about surfing but had come along for three reasons. First, she was game for a challenge. Second, her two daughters were away at camp for the summer, and she was having a Brooklyn mom rumspringa, the aims of which dovetailed nicely with Mukul’s yoga classes and spa treatments and rum cocktails. Third, in addition to being my friend, she also happens to be my literary agent—and so is obligated to support my whims.
“I’m scared,” she said, eyeing the sea and the frolicking children with suspicion. “But I’m going to try.”
“Don’t be scared,” I said magnanimously. “You’ll be fine.”
I grew up in Southern California, in the thick of surf culture, but as a kid, I’d never dared more than an occasional shallow water foray on a boogie board. Now, I regret my timidity because surfing, like all sports requiring good balance and a limited awareness of one’s own mortality, is best learned young. My high school was just a few miles inland from the excellent breaks at San Clemente and Dana Point, and I could tell when there had been a morning of particularly good waves because, by the time I arrived at 7:45 a.m., the trees around the parking lot would be full of wetsuits: black neoprene carapaces doing backbends over branches, hung up to dry by the kids who’d surfed before school. I regarded those tan, salt-dusted classmates with perplexity. Literally nothing could have made me get up any earlier, let alone the prospect of a dawn dip in the ocean. SoCal’s coastal waters are cold and tend toward a darkness and murkiness that (not entirely incorrectly) suggested to my youthful imagination the presence of sharks, as well as something less easily named but far more ominous: an abyss both topographical and existential, a swallowing blackness as distant and absolute as outer space. That, I believed, was the essence of the ocean, and, again, I wasn’t entirely wrong—though the horrifying-abyss angle wouldn’t have made a good pep talk for Rebecca.
As an adult, my fears have not disappeared (let’s all agree the ocean merits a healthy caution), but they’ve been gradually overridden by a joyous fascination, a compulsion to be near the water or on it or in it whenever possible. In the past five years, I’ve taken the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic; I’ve tended bar and wrangled passengers on an Antarctic tourist ship amid the towering swells and relentless winds of the Southern Ocean; I’ve swum in open South Pacific water with humpback whales. My favorite T-shirt reads, “The Sea Hates a Coward.” Surfing seemed like a logical next step. And, as a Californian, I probably had an instinct for it, right?
Our first morning, Rebecca and I moseyed down the beach to meet our new mentors, Ryley and Lenny. In the grand tradition of surf instructors, both were handsome, sun-bronzed, affable dudes with zinc-smeared noses and a fondness for the word stoked. Ryley was originally from Northern California, and Lenny was Nicaraguan; both worked for Tropicsurf, a company that sets up shop at luxury resorts around the world and offers a standardized system of instruction designed to move clients up a ladder of surf ability ranging from level one (“kooks,” such as myself) to 10 (“Kellys,” as in 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater).
We started on land, sitting on our blue longboards while Ryley drew diagrams in the sand to illustrate the mechanics of breaking waves and offered safety advice about rip currents and not diving headfirst into shallow water. Then we practiced a few pop-ups to get a feel for the motion. To stand up on a surfboard, you do an upward dog yoga pose for about a millisecond before executing an equally speedy sort of low roundhouse into a sideways crouch, landing with your feet aligned on the board’s longitudinal axis. This is not the easiest maneuver even when the board is on dry sand, let alone when it’s teetering atop a churning heap of moving water. “Perfect!” Ryley said, brimming with optimism after our shaky practice attempts. “Let’s get out there.” We picked up our boards, strapped their leashes around our ankles, and walked out into the water.
In the Pulitzer Prize–winning surf memoir Barbarian Days, William Finnegan writes that “Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered.” Less eloquently put: Surfing is hard. Finnegan is talking about the slow accrual of knowledge and skill that is the life’s work of a serious surfer, the deep intimacies with certain breaks cultivated over time. Even achieving the most basic competence, however, means spending hours upon hours floating in an unpredictable ocean waiting for a rideable wave and, when one finally comes, probably just falling or (much worse) getting in the way of a better surfer. Many popular and accessible breaks are less secret gardens than locked ones, jealously guarded by skilled regulars who have little patience for beginners.
One of the great advantages of being a beginner at Mukul, which gets its name from a Mayan word meaning “secret” and has an air of mellow seclusion bordering on otherworldliness, is that for the most part we shared the ocean only with the pelicans. When the tide was right, several small boats might be anchored off Playa Manzanillo’s point break, disgorging a handful of day-tripping surfers to swim over to the lineup, but they were always gone by late afternoon and weren’t bothered by our ineptitude anyway, as we stayed much closer in. The beach itself is inaccessible by land except via Guacalito de la Isla, the 1,670-acre development that contains Mukul, as well as privately owned residences, and is the passion project of Nicaragua’s first billionaire, Carlos Pellas Chamorro. “Don Carlos,” as everyone refers to him in reverent tones, comes to the resort often and has a particularly spectacular villa on the water, complete with a waterslide for his grandchildren. One afternoon, we saw him in the beach restaurant, greeting employees by name and resembling, with his white beard, khaki fishing shirt, and radiant congeniality, no one so much as Richard Attenborough welcoming guests to Jurassic Park. (Fortunately, the only reptiles we saw at Mukul were indolent basking iguanas.)
That first day, Ryley and I walked out until the water was up to our waists. “OK, hop up,” he said, and I clambered onto the board. I turned to look at Rebecca, who was being steered through the waves by Lenny while clinging to her board as though it were the wing of an airplane in flight. I gave her a thumbs-up. In my professional life, she and I are as closely bound as a two-man luge team. There’s no one I depend on more, and I’d be lost without her cool-headedness and perspective. But, after surfing together, I’m glad we do our jobs on land. A small wave rolled toward her. She looked at me, wild-eyed, and yelled, “What happens now?!”
“You go over it!” I said. Lenny pushed down on her board’s tail, and she bopped over the wash. Everyone laughed, Rebecca a little warily.
Ryley turned me around. “OK, here we go,” he said as a wave approached. “Paddle, paddle!” He gave my board a gentle shove onto the wave. I pushed up with my arms, swiveled, stood, and immediately fell into the water.
Over the next three days, Ryley and I repeated this process roughly a million times. I’d lie there like a slug while he, my faithful manservant, swung me into position, and when a wave came, he’d give me a helpful push while I paddled. Occasionally, I’d stay on my feet for a while, wobbling in toward Don Carlos’s waterslide before starfishing off to one side or the other. Then I’d stand up in embarrassingly shallow water, walk back out, and try again. I wish I could report that I made steady progress, but the conditions became more difficult as the days passed—the current stronger, the waves bigger—which more or less canceled out my baby steps forward.
For her part, Rebecca, who is small and strong, would pop up almost every time and stand there in a textbook crouch like a tiny ninja while Lenny, clinging to the back of her board and acting as a human rudder, guided her toward shore. She’d extracted a promise from him never to let go. “I’ve lost my nerve,” she confessed after the second day, when the waves had grown intimidating, closing out into onrushing piles of whitewash. But she hadn’t, not really, because she’d stayed out, kept trying, and came back again on the third day. Sometimes, she’d tell Lenny she needed a break, and for a while, they’d sit side by side on the beach while Ryley and I watched from afar and wondered what they were talking about. (“His mother,” Rebecca reported when I asked, “and how he’s been having trouble with ear infections.”)
I was never ready to come in. “One more good one?” I’d wheedle Ryley after our time had run out. He’d obligingly get me into position, and when the wave came, I’d immediately forget whatever he’d reminded me to concentrate on (say, hopping directly to my feet rather than putting my knee down as an intermediary step) and land in a splash yet again.
“Don’t get discouraged,” he said. “If you can just get the feel of the pop-up from these lessons, then you’re stoked.”
In fact, I was stoked. I liked being in the water; I liked the sense of possibility that came with each new burst of paddling; I liked the waves’ indifference to my clumsy attempts to ride them, the necessity of humility. Ryley told me that the students who struggled the most tended to be dads taking lessons with their kids. The kids, whose small bodies weren’t heavy enough to easily tip a longboard, stood up and stayed up, riding in to shore over and over again, while the heavier, less flexible, less balanced dads kept falling in various undignified ways, sometimes getting frustrated enough to punch the water or the board, neither of which could be bullied into being more helpful. One of the key tenets of luxury is consistency, and people who choose to stay at five-star resorts like Mukul are paying, in part, to know that they will be comfortable at all times, that all their needs will be met. Luxury surfing, therefore, is something of an oxymoron. The consistently gracious and knowledgeable instructors can do only so much for you because, at the heart of things, you are entering into a one-sided partnership with an unfathomably powerful natural entity that’s incapable of caring about your comfort or needs or feelings, be you kook or Kelly.
One afternoon, Rebecca and I went on an outing to Granada, a city of colorful colonial architecture on the shore of massive freshwater Lake Nicaragua. In some ways, it was a relief to be out of the cloistered resort, among the non-soothing sounds and non-aromatherapeutic smells of daily life, among people doing things other than lounging or strolling or unobtrusively delivering rum cocktails. But then, after a 90-minute drive home in the dark, dodging pedestrians, dogs, horses, tractors, tuk tuks, and all manner of cars and trucks on the Pan-American Highway, it was a new relief to return to Mukul and its indulgent languor. When not surfing, we might hang out by our villa’s plunge pool, reclining on chaises like two Cleopatras among the meticulously manicured tropical plants. Later, we might bestir ourselves to do an hour of Vinyasa yoga in an open-air, thatched yoga palapa high above the beach, where the cries of parrots and the eerie groans of howler monkeys punctuated the instructor’s murmured directions. It’s tempting to conclude that life, like surfing, is all about balance, but luxury like the kind on offer at Mukul is almost too rarefied to be factored into a balanced life. Such concentrated ease and pleasantness is, perhaps, more like the apex of the food pyramid, the little triangle of sweet things we’re instructed to consume sparingly.
That said, I did not argue when I was told I absolutely must experience Mukul’s spa. A collection of thatched structures perched high on a steep hillside like the nest of some relaxation-obsessed eagle, the spa has six separate suites with benignly New Age-y names like the Healing Hut and the Crystal Temple. After my massage in the Ancient Sanctuary, the attendant pushed back a curtain, opened a hidden door, and ushered me out into the night. A freestanding bathtub awaited on a private patio, round slices of oranges and lemons floating on the water. The lights of the resort were far below, but the sound of the surf was loud as I lazed in the tub. Above me, fireflies pulsed among the palm fronds, and on the horizon, far out to sea, lightning flashed.
I thought about the black waves rolling in, unridden and unseen, and a flicker of my primal unease with the ocean’s dark expanse returned, though it was made piquant, even delicious, by the contrast with my coddled surroundings. I considered that, beyond consistency, luxury is derived from a sense of safety: My citrus-filled bathtub was indeed a sanctuary, a vantage from which I looked out at a world whose dangers seemed to have nothing to do with me; it was paradise, and all paradises are fantasies. Why not give in? I closed my eyes. I brought back the sun, the day, the feel of the water under my paddling hands. I visualized myself doing a perfect pop-up—first arms, then feet—and in my imagination, I stayed up, stayed balanced. I could almost feel what it must be like to turn the board along the wave, carving, pushed forward by the ocean, by an energy that had come from a storm thousands of miles away.