That day, when I left New York for Managua, everything was almost normal. The metro was crowded, the offices were crowded, and the bars and restaurants were teeming and humming, like in a city. Despite the fact that several cases of the new coronavirus COVID-19, registered in the state, were registered, no one had masks. Not yet.
I had to come to the Philippines on a freelance assignment – to tour the growing new distillery, take some photos, get the background, pontificates about the intricacies of making rum, etc. It was not a vacation as such – in From 9 to 5 years old I service journalist ”, which means that I write reviews of everything from kitchen knives to coolers, fishing rods and patio furniture, but, of course, a very pleasant change in pace. And while I was there, I thought that with the same success I could spend a few more days chasing the rum with quality waves. However, a few weeks before the trip, news of an impending pandemic flared up.
Of course, we all knew about this, but it was at the other end of the world, and only a few outside the editorial offices seemed overly concerned. SARS, bird flu, H1N1 and other pandemics – all together with their own warnings of death and gloom, but they all went through without causing much harm to the Western Hemisphere; why would it be otherwise? Well, like hurricane forecasts and tsunami warnings, we will never know while they are here.
A few days before my departure in New York, a flurry of COVID-19 cases began, and my flight and trip were completely canceled. On the one hand, I was concerned about the signal that it sent about the potential seriousness of the situation. On the other hand, I had already cleared myself of my absence from work for 2 weeks, and, well, there were many other flights to wave-rich destinations that could be booked at the last minute on the cheap.
I went online and started looking for a place with plentiful beach breaks, cheap local food and foam, and even cheaper housing and settled in Nicaragua – a place that I had on my travel list for many years. I booked a round-trip ticket to Managua and, searching the more remote stretches of the coastline in the north, I found a $ 17 beach hut per night with a pool on Airbnb. I convinced myself that none of this was particularly selfish or opportunistic: I would be few, and even my doctor confirmed that such viruses do not develop too well in the tropics. Perhaps surfing in remote Nicaragua even borders on public service. Maybe this time in my life, getting a trunk can do more good.
A week before my departure, I sat down at the table from my painstakingly cautious, but prudent father, who does not surf and does not fry me as much as you can fry their adult son.
“Are you worried that you will have problems returning home?” he asked.
I hesitantly thought it over, then shrugged and said something like: “It's better to be there than here.”
My father looked puzzled, but reluctantly agreed in part because he could say, perhaps better than anyone, that I needed to turn off and go catch some waves. It helped that he also read that the tropics were at least somewhat immune to viruses, such as the one that was just starting to gain a foothold in New York.
In any case, I would not care less. I have already decided to leave, go surfing, and there will be no review. The work was in place, and the mechanisms were spinning, and my best judgment – or reality – did not bother me.
Right now I'm completely, completely and completely alone in the surf. The water is just as cool and indifferent to me as it is to my father’s fear that I might be stuck here, and it’s nice. Sea winds blow and they are likely to be all day. The wave is stable from 3 to 6 feet in 13 seconds or so, and has been running for nine days in a row. It washes away a winter full of waves that I missed at work. It's hard to even imagine my last wave at home in New York – just a vague idea of some ruthless dribble to the waist. In this tropical bliss, it seems, a lifetime ago.
In Nicaragua, everything is calm. Not to mention the pandemic, there are very few people around, not to mention tourists. I woke up with the sun and surfed for at least an hour or two before, maybe, just maybe, another surfer would fall out.
In addition to daily checks with editors, I am not online. My agenda, every day, is a habitual thing for an itinerant surf traveler: surf, eat, go up to the back questions about forgotten magazines, surf again, come to a cocktail, have more food, a procession of bottles of local foam, go to bed at 10 pm, and early for more. This is real Groundhog Day.
New York now lives on a completely different version of Groundhog Day. There are shelter orders, and only those enterprises that are considered necessary are opened – grocery stores, pharmacies, and some others. Offices, restaurants, bars, theaters and stadiums remain closed until further notice. In New York alone, there are about 20,000 confirmed cases of the disease, and the death toll in the United States is in the hundreds and doubles almost daily – the victims mostly occur among older people and people with pre-existing conditions, but not always. We know that the virus spreads through close contact, and that the virus can live and linger on the surface for a long period of time, and that the vaccine can appear in a few months.
I have to fly home in a few days, but my thoughts come to the background. If this is really so serious and deadly as they say, should I drive through John F. Kennedy International Airport – one of the busiest airports in the country, located in the midst of a nation outbreak? What if I pick a virus along the way? What if I unknowingly pass this on to my housemates or my aging parents?
I am losing the thread as the Pacific takes another set of A-shaped frames. A little out of position for the first, I turn on the second: the shampoo covers after the drop, then two long elongated turns to the shoulder.
The question arises in my head: “What if I just stay here? Pescado frito, langosta a la plancha and are these waves all for themselves? Of course, there are worse ways to survive a global pandemic.
Should I feel guilty if I stay? What if I get sick? Among other things, I would be very ashamed to put the weight of my selfishness at the feet of the local health system. But on this my hypothetical guilt ends? I am far from my family and friends, but given the principles of social distance, what difference does it make if I am 2,000 miles away from 6 feet? As for my work, I’m fortunate enough to be able to work remotely while ordering housing, and does this mean that a letter from my cramped apartment in Brooklyn or from an empty beach in Nicaragua should not matter to my boss.
I know that I would not even have this internal discussion if it was something other than surfing, burdening one side of the scale. I have other entertainments, vices and devices to calm my mind, but it seems to me that surfing is what I aspire to in troubled, uncertain times. Maybe this is something in its complete futility. I fish and spear, but they are set with a clear goal – to put food on the table. I enjoy sailing, but it has point A to point B. When surfing, you just catch the wave, row back to the same point and do it again. It has no transport value, there is nothing tangible in the completion of a turn, wave, session. You just feel better about it. Especially during times of severe stress, for example, amid a growing pandemic.
Back on land after my session, I learn that Costa Rica in the south and Salvador in the north have closed their borders. My father’s words suddenly seem to be a presentiment rather than a few weeks ago. It seems the universe may decide to extend my trip for me. And it gets easier for me with this idea. Time moves as if it were on benzodiazepines, and the constant flow of the local Tognas camp cannot and will not break the bank. Lunches consisting of fish caught that morning do not cost half a day. Not to mention the lobsters that are in season. I wouldn’t even have to travel alone, because I managed to convince my partner and roommate, Chloe, to jump at the last moment on the plane, and not to face the prospect of an uncertain parting.
The math looms: between the two of us, $ 17 a night, plus those who care about how many plates of lobster and Ton’s long neck, equals the amount we should be able to manage for a while. As for work, Chloe brought her computer. She will not mind if we share this, right? Yes, this plan may work. Everything will be fine. Even better.
Frankly, everything was not quite good at home even before the pandemic. New York is a dose for adults in every sense, and it has been me over the last time. Like many Brooklynans, I thoughtlessly traveled across the East River every day to work in Manhattan, and clogged my essence with the colorless monotony of office life, only to strengthen the means to perpetuate my basic existence in New York.
What do I do, living in New York, from all places? I left the chic, accessible water life aboard my friend's sailing boat in Fiji, where time still stood together and fresh coconuts and perfect waves were never out of hand or the next sunrise. Where clear waters and fine white sand define a completely different thing.
I went to Fiji to help my friend transport his boat to New Zealand for the cyclone season. I gathered my life in Charleston, South Carolina, and sold my fishing skiff to get there. Before heading to New Zealand, we spent several months surfing and fishing in the waters around Tawarua – Clouds, Namotu, the chains of Yasawa Island and other places that I would not call under pain of torture.
After we got to New Zealand, the preliminary plan was to return to Fiji at the end of the season to do it again and again. But even clear water and white sand beaches lose their luster over time. I had a dream, which I probably had had since I first saw Peter Pan or read Robinson Crusoe, and I am infinitely grateful for doing this. But I was already over thirty, without a relationship, without a real source of income, without assets that could be spoken about, and without a real trajectory. Essentially, a young man adrift in the South Pacific. Of course, I walked on water – a written assignment here and there, and life on another person’s sailboat was very cheap – but I didn’t have an impulse, and the time came for a change. I was sure of that.
The popular bumper sticker I saw in island bars around the world read: "We are all here because we are not all there." I needed to re-enter the battle and let the society – or maybe just myself – find out that I wasn’t lost on some vast island chatting with volleyball, even if this happened due to the abandonment of empty conveyor surf lanes over Technicolor reefs.
Well, what is the opposite of “here”? New York, of course. I guessed that this is the epicenter of everything related to salary and a sense of importance. Now, it seemed, it was also the epicenter of the epidemic.
This beach, on the other hand. The wave never faded, and I had my own choice of ideal rights and leftists with or without offshore wind for the past few days. The few tourists who were here mostly left, and those who stayed were sailors who in the foreseeable future do not have a port of call outside Nicaragua. They are not here for the waves. The closest they get to surf is applause from the beach, with a beer in hand, which I like. I recall with pleasure the days of sailing with them on the shore – from a safe distance.
The fact that I am here reminds me in many respects of that time, and perhaps this is just as connected with my desire to extend our stay, as well as the pandemic. The troubles of reality, whatever they may be at that moment, are easy to keep at arm's length when you are in a tropical lineup. I know, because I saw this film about escapists, I was in this film. But the longer you stay, the more difficult it is to step back and move on through life, which still seems important, although the jury is still out.
The Nicaraguan government has not decided for us “we must stay or we must go,” and for now I need to have a discussion outside my own head. At dinner with Chloe, I express the idea that perhaps we should skip our flight home, but she does not share my enthusiasm for continuing this particular escape. Chloe, who is a French citizen but holds a Green Card in the United States, feels insecure about whether she can even be let back in. Thought shames and mourns me, although not enough to stop trying. I take several other tricks: food, the cost of living, the horrors of returning home. All this to no avail.
“We have life, a house,” she says, “and what if we get sick here?”
She, of course, is right.
And so we agree to keep our flight. To take precautions, we can return to New York. Return to reality, no matter how it looks. At least for now.
This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and has been republished with permission.
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