Tuesday 26 June 2012

Robbed at knifepoint and other wholesome fun in Costa Rica

Following on from the last post, the Costa Rican immigration officers wanted to send Hector back to Mexico a SECOND time when he arrived back in the country (after being told he would have no dramas when he came back in!).. Fortunately Hec dug his heels in for a few hours and refused to board any planes until he'd spoken to the Costa Rican Head of Immigration (who could speak English which was a welcome change!) .. this guy saw sense and decided that Hector wasn't a threat to national security and let him into the country.

We met up at the hostel I was staying at.. Hector was a little worse for wear after almost three days in limbo!

Keen to get some waves and get the hell out of the concrete jungle ASAP we got a taxi then bus from San Jose to a place named Liberia. The excess baggage charged on the boards as we were loading them on the bus was a bit suspect but we bit the bullet and paid up ($$ probably going straight into their beer fund!). This ride would normally be around four hours but delays from roadworks stretched it out to a good seven hours..waiting in a line of traffic in a cramped bus in the tropics with no aircon = sweatfest!

Four of us from the bus teamed up and managed to get a ride to our final destination - Tamarindo - with a local dude who had a van. Tamarindo was not what I expected. It was fully westernised; banks, hotels, casino, countless restaurants and surf shops etc. They nickname the place TamaGringo for good reason. In the 1994 surf movie Endless Summer II they actually came to Tamarindo - back then the place was little more than a dusty road and some basic accommodation. I would've loved to be there back then.

We managed to find a dorm room in La Oveja Negra hostel which was a pretty laid back surf themed backpackers..they even had a surfboard rack in the room. Perfecto.

Finally we got some Costa Rican waves, a fun beach break with chest high waves. It felt so good to get wet again! It's definitely a party town in Tamarindo.. It seems every bar would have free drinks for ladies for at least the early hours of the night. Ironically the ladies nights seemed to have more guys there in anticipation of the hordes of anticipated females that never eventuated haha. I had to take it pretty easy in Tamarindo as I had a terrible case of man-flu which I'm still battling with as I type (ended up picking up some antibiotics for a chest infection). Pretty sure I almost died.

One night while I was in the hostel attempting to cough my lungs up, Hector goes out to check out the town. He's walking along the beach back to our hostel in the early hours and four guys jump him. They catch him off guard, knock him to the ground and steal his phone and a pile of cash. He cops a few kicks on the ground before managing to get up and drop one of them. The other three take off down the beach and he chases the bastards.. they re-group and he sees the glint of a shiny metal blade in the dim light. They're all holding knives! Shit, time to get out of here he thinks.. as he turns around to gap it one of them slashes him with his knife! Fortunately they only manage to slash his jean shorts and he escapes with a few bruises and a heavy story to tell! 

^Hector's arse rip!!

We go to the Tourist Police the next day and do the big report.. a word of warning to anyone who ever gets robbed in Central/South America.. make sure that the police report is signed, has a case number, and has the official police stamp on it. Heard of a few travelers who had their insurance claim declined due to a lack of these things!

Met some cool people here in Tamarindo but it was definitely time to move on. We cruised down the road to Playa Negra; a sleepy little town with not much going on apart from a few basic restaurants and some good surf breaks. We found ourselves out of water the night we arrived, no shops were open and we didn't trust the tap water so shimmied up a coconut tree and drank coconut water to stop ourselves flaking out entirely..Had a few surfs but the swell forecast was looking dismal so we decided to move on after a night at a little place there.


^puppies from the hostel @ Playa Negra

Hector had a spare phone on this trip, but it had a broken screen. He headed to San Jose to get it fixed so it could replace his stolen one, and I manage to get a cheap ride with three self described Canadian muchacha locas (crazy girls) to a place called Santa Teresa. They had a van with a legend of a driver named Carlos (or Carlido as he was affectionately known). 

Santa Teresa was epic. Super fun waves, beautiful beaches with rainforest right down to the beach, good food and the accommodation - The Funky Monkey - was awesome. There was a good crew of people there from all over, everyone was really friendly and made hanging there a real good time. Nacho, the resident chef, kept us all well fed with some epic food.. including the amazing almond pancakes drenched in maple syrup.


Went out to Tortuga island for a scuba dive day trip.. it's a really beautiful spot. 

The dive itself was pretty cool, the viz wasn't as good as it could be due to the rainy season resulting in nutrient rich water with a high plankton count. Saw some cool shit including a swim through cave which was loaded with big fish and a heap of white tip reef sharks. The highlight for me was the nest of ornate rock lobster. Despite not having a pair of gloves the hunter-gatherer urge was too strong - I managed to back one under a ledge and pull it out and simultaneously ripped my hand up on it's spikes! Worth it of course. With lobster successfully caught, I started having doubts and thought maybe it's a marine reserve. I let it go but kept a few stray legs that fell off in the tussle which I later boiled up. Turns out it would've been all good to keep the whole thing and I'd inadvertently let my dinner go!

Met up with Hector at a joint called Jaco.. it's another very touristy town, but some great food (I don't think I could ever get sick of burritos!) and it's a $3 taxi ride to some fun waves at the next beach, Playa Hermosa. Playa Hermosa is a punchy little wave, which breaks close to shore, with peaks breaking down a decent stretch of the beach to disperse the crowd.

I've seen a metric shittonne of wildlife so far. I'm yet to see a sloth or a toucan.. these are def on the hit list. Hopefully when I visit one of the National Parks I might get lucky.

The plan is to head south from here and bounce our way down the coast to a place called Pavones for the next swell. This wave is the gem of Costa Rica; a long long looooonnngggg left.. I've heard that you can get a two minute ride.. maybe a tall story.. hopefully we get to score it and find out!

Thursday 14 June 2012

Californian Cruising, Mexico City Madness, Costa Rican Carnage

21 hours of bus/taxi rides, flight delays and airport queues lead us from the tropical paradise of Fiji to the utopian metropolis of Hermosa Beach, California. It was like stepping into the set of a Baywatch episode; sunny with beautiful white sand beaches complete with row after row of beach volleyball nets, a beaut concrete walkway that ran adjacent to the beach, lifeguard towers every few hundred metres.. I expected to see Mitch and Pamela jogging down the beach at any moment with rescue tubes in tow. Alas, the search for Pamela continues =(

Hector and I were staying in Surf City Hostel; a backpacker's joint right on the beach in Hermosa. When we arrived in the late arvo we were frothing to get in the water and get some waves, it was only 2 foot but still a few fun ones to be had. This was no Fiji however, the water was cold, murky, and laden with all sorts of plastic, paper and general rubbish.. it was filth! I was trying my hardest to keep my mouth shut when duckdiving!! 

We got a taste of LA crime early on in the piece; Hector was walking towards the door of our room (which had been locked when he left) and saw that it had just been swung open - it was actually still moving. Around the same time he saw some guy making a hasty exit down the hallway. He figured I must've unlocked the door and been in the room already... and when he saw I wasn't there he put two and two together.. that mother 'ucker had been 'ucking with our shi'! It was too late to give chase - the guy would've been long gone. I arrived moments later. He would've been the most sorry crim' in the whole of California had we caught the bastard in our room!! 

Our initial response was full blown panic - our wallets, passports, cards, everything of value had been right there out in the open. A quick check over and nothing appeared to have been taken, we figure he must've heard Hec's footsteps just after getting in an wisely decided to bail emptyhanded. We definitely used up a Get Out of Jail Free card then - a good lesson not to be complacent (it was the first time we let our guard down on the trip and it was only for such a brief moment!).

Right below our Hostel was a bar called Waterman's; a surf themed bar playing surf vids on the screens, and cranking out tunes from Sublime, Bob Marley, The Red Hot Chilis etc. The food was epic too.. cheap and good fresh healthy meals.. All of this combined with a few Longboard Lagers and I was pretty much loving life. There were a heap of other bars in the area that we checked out.. one thing that I struggled with was the mandatory tipping culture.. If you don't tip you're basically giving the bar staff the middle finger and they won't serve you again! We met some really cool locals while out and about.. everyone was really friendly and there was a good vibe when you went out. And for the morning: the super cheap Rise n Shine breakfast and bottomless champagne or mimosas for an hour!

My kiwi mate Sam and his beautiful Brazilian wife Silvia live in Hermosa, it was really cool to catch up with them when I was there. Silvia is due to give birth soon, and I just happened to be there when the baby shower was on. Sam asked if we'd like to come along and promised there would be some amazing seafood BBQ action going down (he works for a company that markets and distributes fresh seafood including a heap NZ seafood). We went out to his boss' place right up in the Hollywood hills where his wife and maid had prepared an amazing spread of seafood; NZ snapper ceviche (raw marinated fish), and fish tacos with a choice of BBQ'd halibut, wild Alaskan salmon or more NZ snapper, along with a million other fillings made for the best feed I'd had for a long time, and good company to boot. Oh and the dessert was all time!

 ^Pretty sweet formwork (sorry the engineer in me had to do it!)

Birchy (Sam) took me to Trestles for a surf on the Sunday (Hec was a little too hungover haha). I was stoked to get the chance to surf such an iconic break. He picked me up early, I armed myself with a Latte Grande from Starbucks, and we did the 90 minute mish to Trestles. When we got there and he mentioned the word 'wetsuit'.. my heart sank - mine was still hanging up in the room of our hostel!! It was a cold and grey day already but determined to actually get a surf I decided I'd hit it in boardies and see how long I lasted.. 

It didn't look too promising as everyone else in the water had a full length steamer and some even had booties on! Ah well I might as well reinforce the crazy Kiwi image and paddle out. I completed the 'Five Wave Challenge' that Sam set with ease and actually lasted almost 40 mins before the shivering got too much! It wasn't the best Trestles but still good fun... It would be amazing on a good day.

We hired a few cruiser bikes (it seems that every bike in Hermosa was a cruiser)
and did a bit of shopping on our last day in Cali. Mine was a real dud.. the chain fell off about fifteen times throughout the day, and with these bikes the ol' backpedal brake is the only means of stopping, of course when your chain has fallen off it leaves you brakeless.. had a few hairy moments including narrowly missing a brick wall and almost taking out a pedestrian!! The crazy thing was how chilled out the Californians were on the roads.. they have so much patience with pedestrians and cyclists (even the ones who temporarily forget they're meant to be driving on the RIGHT hand side of the road haha!).

^ Yes, still amused with simple things

The flight from LAX to San Jose was via Mexico city.. I've flown into a few big cities before but this was absolutely mind blowing.. the place is HUGE!! Mexico city area has 21 million people, and by the looks of things they like to cram them into a pretty tight area. There was some serious bust going down on the runway in the plane next to us.. policia and a heap of official looking dudes checking out the cargo.. bit of vid off the iphone below:

So we're in Mexico City airport and the lines are huuugggeee.. the bastard of a thing is that we have to collect our baggage from the carousel, take it through customs then check it in again. Our anticipated problems of traveling with surfboards are being realised as we're told our oversize boards need to go to line K2.. we eventually manage to find K2 and find yet another ridiculously long line.. The guys in charge only speak Spanish ad I'm trying my best to tell them that our plane is due to leave in 20 mins and we need to get the boards on the plane!! I eventually show my ticket to the right Mexican and he gives us the express lane treatment.

After all this stress we breathe a sigh of relief as our connecting flight is showing delayed on the screens... Hector goes off to find some internet as I go up to the info desk to find out how long flight seis-cinco-seis (656) is delayed for.. 
'Oh nooo, sir, your flight leave now.. you must hurry!'
Oh christ.. Hector's nowhere to be seen and I have visions of our luggage spinning around abandoned on some luggage carousel in Costa Rica waiting for some local baggage handler to give it the express route home! I make the call to bail so at least I can look after our gear.

I get to Costa and my stuff comes out but Hec's doesn't.. must've known he didn't board. I team up with Paddy and Soph, a couple from Sydney, who kindly offer for me to team up with them for a taxi to their hostel. 

I manage to get internet there and find out Hector is on the next flight from Mex City to San Jose in Costa Rica. Easy. Or at least it should be. 

Poor Hector is under the microscope from the Costa Rican authorities when he arrives the next morning as he missed his previous flight (I suspect they thought he was picking up some illicit cargo in Mexico City!).. they pull him up on the fact that he doesn't have an onwards ticket out of Costa Rica and won't let him into the country (this is technically a requirement but rarely enforced). 

In his innocence, he grabs a few notes out of his wallet and says 
'Let's go now and buy a bus ticket to Panama'. 
Of course the dude behind the counter doesn't speak English and thinks he's trying to bribe him - even worse they have video footage that tells the same story! 
Nek minnut.. Hector is with a full time security escort who doesn't speak a word of English and there's nobody around who does. Poor bugger is held there for 20 hours and his passport is stolen at some stage when he turns his back...Fortunately his passport shows up in lost property (WTF?!) and he has to catch a return flight to Mexico city.. They say that if he leaves the country he can get back in tomorrow no dramas as long as he has the ticket out of Costa Rica.

I'm still in San Jose, just another big noisy city in a tropical country and I need to get outta here! Today I got a taxi to the bus station and bought a ticket to Nicaragua for Hector. Sent him a copy so he can show it to the authorities and get let into the country .. hoping he gets through the customs this time around.. we're both hanging out for a surf!!!

Saturday 9 June 2012

Fiji Time

Fiji time... the term used to define the phenomenon of nearly everything running behind schedule in this super laid back country. Those of you who know me well will understand why I fitted in here perfectly! Quite fittingly, our plane from Fiji to LA was four hours behind time; a bit of an inconvenience but it left me with a bit of time to update the blog so it’s all good. Apologies to you non-surfers for the excessive use of surf lingo throughout this post ;-)

I was so stoked to fulfil the dream of surfing Fiji, a dream I’ve had since first watching Pat and Wingnut tearing the place apart on the old school surf flick The Endless Summer II.  It hasn’t really been on the cards until the past few years (since Frank Bainarama’s military regime overran the government here). Previously the only people allowed to surf the legendary Cloudbreak and Restaurants breaks were those staying on the extremely expensive resort on Tavarua Island. In fact, just before the military's coup, the exclusive rights to the break had just been extended another 29 years! Anyway, it was good news for us as we were able to stay at a cheap surf camp called Rendezvous on the main island, it was basic but still did the trick for somewhere to sleep. Cloudbreak is around a 40min boat ride from the camp, which was a surprisingly cold affair at times - if you ever go make sure you take a good wind & waterproof jacket!

On the second day of the trip we’re steaming our way out to Cloudbreak with high hopes: low tide, the wind is light offshore and the swell is forecast to build during the day..  the trip out there is filled with speculation as to what the day will bring; is the wind good? Has the swell kicked in yet? How big are our gonads today? Will we get back with boards and bodies intact?
The scene that greets us as we pull up to the reef is so far above and beyond our expectations it’s almost too surreal to comprehend.. the swell has well and truly kicked in. Eight foot sets are detonating on the reef, so clean and perfect, with barrels you could fit cars into. GULP... this is a slight step up from yesterday’s two foot session!  Almost more unbelievable is the fact that there are less than ten people in the lineup.. 

We watch from the boat as John John Florence takes off deep on a solid one.. no grab required as he weaves through the sickest and deepest backhand barrel I’ve probably ever seen, everyone in the channel is roaring at full noise. His barrel sense is absolutely freakish!

Adrenaline levels are sky high with the realisation I’m gonna have to man-up and surf this; time to wax up the trusty 6’9” rhino chaser and get stuck in.  Second wave I manage to sneak into a solid barrel; there is so much room inside these waves it’s almost a joke! To my relief I manage to escape the beast without destroying myself or my board. I manage a few more waves then the king himself, Kelly Slater, paddles out. He’s a friendly guy and is as frothing on these waves as we are! He proceeds to get barrelled off his shiny bald head with so much style and shows us all how it’s done. Pretty amazing experience to see the world’s best surfing one of the world’s best waves (on a day that even the pros were saying is the best they’ve ever seen it!).

The definite highlight of my trip is when Slater is on the inside next to me, a little too deep, and calls me into this wave which is one of those that you know is just going to hit the reef perfectly. I’m super deep myself but when Slater calls you in you aren’t exactly gonna wuss out and pull back are ya?! I set a good line and a huge section throws out in front of me and I’m waaay back in the barrel bouncing around on the foamball... the section keeps throwing and throwing and I’m still holding on... after what seems like an eternity this thing finally lets me out.. all the crew in the channel are hooting.. yep, definitely the best barrel of my life!

The arvo session at Restaurants was almost a joke it was that much fun.. the most amazing wave I've ever surfed.. fast long barrels and the most rippable end section. We were lucky to get this on as it needs a solid swell - guys can come here for several trips and never even get to see it breaking so we definitely had luck our side.

The next day is still solid but the wind is cross-shore and the swell’s all over the show. The lineup is understandably empty. First wave I get held up in the lip on takeoff and get absolutely drilled.. the washing machine morphs into the cheese grater as the beast of a wave pins me to the reef and drags me in all directions, scraping my back over the coral and leaving a fair chunk of my skin on the bottom! I manage to get a few more waves with my back on fire just to prove that it hadn’t got the better of me before retiring to the boat for the day.

Over the next few days we had more surfs with Slater, Mick Fanning, Johnjohn Florence, Jack Johnson, Parko, Fred Pattachia, Taj Burrows and a handful of other pro surfers (they were all there for the Volcom Fiji Pro). The waves were still solid and good for the majority of the time.. a bit more skin was lost to the reef as well!

To escape the comp circus and get some uncrowded surf we head down to The Beachouse (cheap backpackers) on Saturday arvo on the express bus from Nadi.. we’re the only non-Fijians on what is a very crowded bus..  For the majority of the two hour bus ride I’m sitting next to Mary, a large Fijian woman, who unfortunately took up a fair bit more than her allocated seat width..  I was holding on for dear life around the corners to stop myself sliding off my half seat as our crazy bus driver tried to break the sound barrier.

The next day we manage to head out to Frigates, which breaks on the same swell and wind as Cloudbreak, only it’s an exposed reef WAY offshore (took us well over an hour to get out there). The water directly adjacent to the reef drops off to around 60m, accordingly this wave has a huge amount of raw power. As waves approach you don’t get much warning; they hit the reef, a heap of water draws off and they stand up. During the surf I’m paddling back out near the end section and am confronted with an angry, growling beast of an eight footer, the arms are in overdrive and I know I’m going to get the beating of my life if this thing gets me. I'm the most scared I've been on the trip so far as the lip breaks a good metre in front of me. Miraculously, I manage to scrape under it and pop out the back!

We managed to finish the session boards and surfers unscathed (no mean feat) and on the way home we checked out Yanuca Island, in this place there were dozens of massive bats flying around the bush laden cliffs.. it was really surreal.. it kind’ve reminded me of that scene from the Wizard of Oz with the winged monkeys.. Despite this crazy factor the place is the epitome of a beautiful tropical island – it was great on a grey day but on a sunny day it would be truly amazing.

The next day was a surfing layday; I went out diving with sharks as I heard people come from all over the world to do this dive. I was pretty shit-scared but once I got in the water and saw the first few sharks I quickly realised they were much more interested in the big bins full of tuna than me! It was pretty nuts having huge bull sharks (around 3m long and dear god they were WIDE) coming to within arms length of us at times.. the highlight was the 12foot tiger that showed up - super lucky with this one as they hadn't seen a tiger for over three weeks. One of the Fijian dive guides showed he had a serious set of coco's by hand feeding a jumbo sized tuna to this massive shark. Check the video I made of this dive here:  https://vimeo.com/43378247

The main guide gave us a bit of background about the sharks around the place - interesting stuff. Unfortunately Fiji has been letting China come in and thrash the crap out of the fish in their waters (in exchange for money of course), a lot of illegal long-lining is also done close to shore in areas where they're not allowed but the authorities turn a blind eye.. The fish and especially shark numbers have, according to the numerous locals I spoke to, dropped considerably in the past few years. There is a huge demand for shark fin soup in mainland China and the sh*t is even showing up on menus in Fiji! It's a pretty sad outlook for Fiji's fish at the moment.
The next few days in Fiji were a blur of snorkeling, consuming too much Fiji bitter, surfing the fun little right in front of our resort on the high tides, unreliable internet connections, sunbathing and reading the Hunger Games trilogy in hammocks.. livin’ the dream!

Already had a few days in Hermosa Beach, California. Such an epic place - will update soon.