Saturday, July 02, 2011


Another long drive with Chico Max and Leo, and the 20-song playlist was starting to annoy me. They let me play my music for the last hour of the trip, despite their dislike in my chick rock taste. I had just bought the Florence and the Machine album and insisted on playing it.

“Please, no more!” Leo begged me to stop. Changing wetsuits in front of each other didn’t phase the two genders, but certainly music choice was where the line would be drawn. I could tell they were in agony, and I eventually surrendered my music privileges to their 20-song playlist.

We came to the quaintest little touristy beach town yet. With tents in the center of town selling t-shirts, shells and nearly everything else with the words “Pichilemu” on it, I knew that surfing wouldn’t be the only exciting thing I did here.

Max drove us to the big break at Punta de Lobos. We walked to the cliff edge and watched as 9 foot waves threw a surfer on his board down one of the longest runs of the day. I watched in awe.

“You’re not going to surf this. We decided you’re not ready.” Max informed me that I’d be surfing at La Puntilla. I trusted their judgment, but felt left out that I was succumbed to a petty little place called Little Point as opposed to Wolf Point.

One of the highlights of Pichilemu was the hostel we stayed in—Hostel Case Verde. I walked in and was instantly greeted by four girls talking about how excited they were to go surfing the next day. After claiming our bunks, we collectively exhaled in the common area and mingled with the characters of the hostel.

I shared about my time in Puertocillo and my surfboard injury in a more noble light. When they questioned my story, I lifted my chin, revealing the shiner that was growing in vividly.

Nim had worked as an iBanker in the financial district of London until the death of her father led her to decide whether banking was really worth her hard-earned time on earth, thus sparking her traveling journey of at least 6 months. And traveling beside her for the last month was Miriam, a Dutch girl, whose American-taught English was slowly transforming and was gaining a bite of British influence adopted from the outspoken Nim.

Jasmin had made a promise back home in Germany to her newly divorced parents that she would find an internship by the end of the summer, before she was allowed to spend their money. The loophole? Traveling as much as you can, and spending what you can until your parents get a hold of you is a good plan B and a good deterrent for avoiding a bad home situation.

These stories led me to think if I was running from anything. My iPhone was soon hijacked by Nim out of boredom for better music and without contest from me.

“Oh, I love Florence and the Machine,” she said and I chuckled, wishing Max and Leo were in the room to hear that. The new album was interrupted by ringing noises, which caught me off guard since I knew I couldn’t afford anything other than airplane mode. Somehow I had wi-fi… and a voicemail from home.

I took the phone to the bedroom and realized that yes perhaps I was running from something. My very drugged-up sister had left me a message in English words that made no sense. Having spent a week in Chile, where no one was collectively fluent in the same language, I was looking forward to a coherent conversation in my home tongue. This wasn’t it. I finally decided that I was far enough away to let it go and trust that she was in good care, which she was. I needed to be this far.

With the little count of reality still scratching at my mind, I wished for some luck on the water at La Puntilla.

I was on the water now and left behind all my inner-thoughts at the rocks. Jasmin and I followed Leo to the bigger breaks. We paddled past the crowd of beginners, past the plastic boards, past the friendly “holas” and the “olas buenas” conversations to the deeper part that no beginner dared to brave. Of course, that wasn’t enough. Jasmin and I had dreams of surfing Punta de Lobos, and this was a sad compromise. That was until we realized the waves approaching us were overhead. This was the best setup. We were in deep waters away from rocks, so we could afford to take risks, but I didn’t realize that the waves were also a lot stronger. Each steep ramp threw me down the wave so fast, I forgot to stand, and then had to hear from Leo about how real surfers stand earlier. This was my first overhead wave, and I didn’t want to risk falling, so I bodyboarded each time down and stood when I felt comfortable to Leo’s dissatisfaction.

The next wave was different. I paddled, caught it, stood, fell, without even realizing I had caught anything, and of course without taking in that security breath, just in case I was where I was, on the wrong side of the ocean. Instead of light, fast and exhilarating—dark, tortuously slow, and terrifying. The calm, fetal position wasn’t working, so in a panic, I swam toward an unknown direction as sure as I could be, but quite honestly, I couldn’t tell you what that did other than waste my energy. I surfaced and gasped with tears and whimpers following. After a few more deep breaths, I quickly gained my composure and prepared to pretend as though nothing had happened. I looked around for Jasmin and Leo, but I couldn’t find them. Another big wave came through from the distance, and Jasmin emerged on top of it for a few seconds before taking a painful spill on her board. I found her when she came up, and the panic of being held under for her didn’t go away.

“I came up and I was like where am I? I couldn’t find anyone or the shore or anything.”

Having just experienced the same thing, I suggested that we spend some time near the beginner waves to gain our self-confidence back, and Leo agreed that we needed some more practice responding to the fast moving waves.

There we met up with some familiar faces from the hostel among hundreds of others. This was a place where every wave was a party wave, meaning several surfers would paddle for the same wave at once, but no one actually ever caught it, which was ideal for the people who could. This was until we saw two surfers collide, and then shrug and laugh. I was relieved to be in this joyous atmosphere, but my fiberglass board was cringing, so we headed back to the hostel for lunch.
Waiting solemnly at the bottom of the stairs were more hilarious characters staying at the hostel.

Tiger was an actor who had shot a movie in Pichilemu that took 2 weeks less time than he anticipated, and decided to simply not change his return ticket, but from his attitude, it seemed as though he would have been content with never returning at all. He fully embraced the town by taking Spanish classes, surf lessons and making friends with the locals. Tiger had also just come from La Puntilla and had broken his third rental board in 3 days. He stood there like a child in trouble, holding a short board with a slash mark across the tail. Pete was one of the owners of the hostel and shook his head in disbelief looking at the damage. How would he explain this to his close friends at the surf shop?

The Casa Verde Hostel and its owners and temporary dwellers collectively made me feel at ease, like a home should be, and the surfers and I made an intense routine out of our days that a home base to retreat to was needed.
Chico Max

7AM watch the guys surf Punta de Lobos
9:30AM breakfast
11AM I surf at La Puntilla
2PM lunch
4PM afternoon surf session
7 dinner
…sometimes we had an early dinner and a sunset surf session. This was my life for a week.

A week into this surf trip and my appetite was no longer shy. On Friday, Leo and Chico Max brought out Tilapia and rice with a side of sliced tomatoes and avocado for lunch, I amazed them with the ability to finish before them. Having gone on surf trips with guys before, I became increasingly impressed with my surf guides’ master cooking abilities. Marinated pulled pork, seasoned steak, fresh fall-off-the-bone fish, with veggies and rice on the side. I could easily get used to the rigorous schedule they had me on.

“Liz G, it’s the last weekend of summer, and the hostel is having a seafood night for dinner, tomorrow. What do you say we relax, enjoy seafood night with our new friends and go out to the club?”

I know I needed a break and I was looking forward to bonding with everyone from the hostel. Two more travelers came in a few days before, Tim and Kai, and I felt like I didn’t get the chance to greet them yet.

Like a real household, we designated chores for each other, setting out the forks and bowls and expanding the table, while Pete worked his magic in the kitchen. A huge steaming pot came to the table consisting of mussels, clams, scallops and several other shelled creatures boiling in broth. If Casa Verde wasn’t a home already, sharing this feast together made it real.

A few times, I had been reminded that other than the residents of Chile in the room, everyone else had been traveling for several months with many more to go. And up until seafood night, I wasn’t traveling, I was “vacationing.” I say I needed a home to come back to at the end of the day, but these guys needed a home to come back to after leaving Bolivia. And it all seemed to make sense why Nim made her bed everyday; this wasn’t like home to them. This WAS home.

Although bonding made me want to spend more time with my temporary family, the schedule of the week I was used to made me restless after a few hours.

“I want to go surfing,” I exclaimed, but Chico Max and Leo made plans based on what we agreed to before, so instead I walked to the beach, board in hand with Tim and Kai.

Tim was an arborist from Melbourne, Australia, a rugged, resourceful and remarkably selfless guy, who was Punta de Lobos worthy. But because he was also go-with-the-flow, and willing to do anything to surf, he accompanied us to La Puntilla for the smaller waves.

A few paddles past the rocks, I started to reconsider whether putting all your weight on your stomach after eating a seafood feast was a good idea. It wasn’t. Although I had come a long way to surfing overhead waves this week (still bodyboarding at the crest, but standing much earlier), I had also been breaking new ground on different types of surfing disasters. So far, I had been hit in the face the hardest, held under the water the longest, and thanks to seafood night, I was now puking in the water. Check!

Later that night, Pete set a campfire, and the Casa Verde family sat outside nursing pisco colas and wrestling with the dogs, Pichi, Turi and Flaite while music blasted from the house. We took all the surfboards and wetsuits out of Chico Max’s SUV and headed to town for the Waitara Club; a crowded place that I barely remember.

I woke up at noon. Max suggested that if we eat something lean and healthy we would feel better.

“I want pizza.”
“Really? You don’t want grilled vegetables and rice and fish?”
“No, I want pizza.”

After a short tour around the town, we found a pizza place and I ordered two pizza “slices.” Although, it tasted like something from an elementary school cafeteria, the grease and simple carbs did the trick.

By Monday, I was well rested and ready for a long session. Half of the surfers from the previous week had gone back to Santiago to work or start school. The swell in La Puntilla had increased to overhead in all parts, and I had the best 3-hour session of the trip, standing at the top of the wave and riding the fast waves through until they fizzled out. Unsure of what the previous week’s struggle would amount to, I was relieved to be making some noticeable progress.

Back at the hostel, there was a more serious tone. Pete’s girlfriend, Michi, asked me if I felt anything bizarre. There had been a small earthquake, a rumble, while I was on the water. I came here knowing that rumbles in Chile were common, but the serious tone brought a reminder that the yearlong anniversary of the record-breaking earthquake was the next day. Although the center was hours away, in Pichilemu, alone, nearly 300 people had died.

“Tag it or lose it.” The awkward silence was broken as Pete discovered that someone forgot to tag their food in the fridge. He took out a yogurt and pretended to open it before Nim and Miriam came barrelling through the door to stop him.

“Tag your food, ladies, or I eat it. That’s the rule, and I like strawberry yogurt.”

Pete knew he had a needed role to keep the atmosphere light, and he put on some Bob Marley and shouted the lyrics to make us all smile again.

Summer was officially over and our family was preparing to disband, and had I not been reminded that I was working the next Monday, I would have followed one of them. Some travelers were headed North toward the hotter beaches of Peru, and others were headed South towards Patagonia or to climb the volcanoes in Puccan. Pete and Michi were going back to Santiago, and housekeeping duties were replaced by Benjamin, a crazy surf nut, who made up words and had a liking for Nim who he nicknamed Lady Gaga. Nim called him Jamon, ham in Spanish, which the rest of the house adopted.

The waves these next few days were pathetic. On the water, I would see something promising headed toward me, then I would turn around and paddle, and by the time I turned around again, the wave would disappear. This was quite frustrating, but shorter sessions allowed me to further bond with my family before they left—before I left.

We were running low on food, and this cute little restaurant at the bottom of the driveway looked promising. At this family-owned joint, you could order one of three kinds of fish, grilled or fried, with rice, veggies or mashed potatoes. We ended up going three times after that and I learned more about Tim, Kai and Nim, the only ones left other than Miriam, who had met a Dutchman and disappeared often.

Leo was getting tired of speaking English and went back and forth a few times with Chico Max in their singing Chilean dialect.

“Pasa la cola, ahuevonao.”

That was not how you say pass the cola, man. These weeks taught me not repeat anything I learned from them. On top of Chile having a separate sub-language of dialect and expressions, Jamon and Leo had become known to make up their own words and expressions as well.

“Mira,” said Leo. Look in Spanish, but to Leo, it was also an expression that something was amiss. A limping dog came to greet us at the restaurant. It was the neighbor’s dog, Nerd, which was good news, because Nim thought she had lost him nearly a week ago, when she went to take the dogs for a walk. The hostel owners would remind her about it frequently and tease her, but they knew Nerd would find his way home, eventually.

With Nim and Miriam on the bus headed North, the rest of us decided to take a day trip to Puertocillo one last time before we went back to Santiago.

Leo and Chico Max said I was ready to surf Puertocillo again.

“The waves are the same height, but you have your sea legs, now. You can do this.”

Our hostel picked up and relocated to Puertocillo for the day. I wish I could say that I trumped those 7-foot waves, but my mind wasn’t in it. I focused on the waves closer to the shore and had some unsuccessful half-assed attempts. I got what I needed out of this trip, even if I didn’t ride out a barrel, I was ready to go back to New York. Tim, Kai and Jamon went in one car, and Chico Max, Leo, and I went in another, back to Santiago.

On the ride back, I wondered if anyone at Casa Verde would remember me amongst the several others they would encounter on their continued trip. I will never forget them.