After Lisbon, I stayed in Portugal for almost six more weeks – mostly in Peniche, a small city about 100 km north of Lisbon that’s known for its surf. The surf was the why I came to Peniche – well, more specifically, the surfers. The breaks in and around Peniche, specifically at Supertubos, draw both amateur and professional surfers to its shores. I planned to photograph the amateurs until the professionals arrived for the 2016 MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal, but as I explained in an earlier post, minutes before leaving the States, I decided not to bring my camera. So, what in the world was I going to do for five weeks in a place I booked to shoot surfers…when I can’t shoot surfers?
A lot, it turns out.
In a hostel…for over a month
Prior to visiting Peniche, the longest I had stayed in a hostel was something like a week. In Peniche, I unpacked. I stored my pack underneath the bed. I moved in. I stayed in a four-bed dorm at Next Level Surf Camp within walking distance of Supertubos, and I made that walk many, many times.
On most mornings I had a routine: get up, do yoga, eat something small (like a hard boiled egg), do my 5k loop, then come back for shower and breakfast.
For the first part of my stay, there were five of us that latched onto each other (myself, another American, two Germans, and an Aussie), and when we weren’t on the beach, we spent an insane amount of time cooking and playing cards.
The hostel drove us to the supermarket daily, and since there weren’t many inexpensive restaurant options nearby, we cooked almost daily. And since only two stove burners worked, we all spent a lot of time in the kitchen in the evenings. We cooked together. We ate together, as well as we could time it. We shared vegetables and plates of food. We rushed out the door and down to the beach to catch the sunset.
To this day, no sunsets have come close to the magnificence of those I saw in Peniche.
Then slowly our number was reduced. Each person left for home or for the next stop on their journey until it was just me. I did meet other people and make other friends while I was there, but it was never quite the same as the first five.
The Surf Competition
Every year the World Championship tour of the World Surf League is held at Supertubos, or on surrounding beaches, depending on the waves and the weather.
The first time I hit the beach at Supertubos, I could see the skeletal base of the viewing platform just beginning to rise up out of the sand. Each visit to the beach, it grow just a bit more. Rumors had Kelly Slater skipping this portion of the contest, which would have obviously been a huge disappointment. Fortunately, it wasn’t true.
Each morning on my jog, I passed the small apartments that would house some of the pro surfers during the comp. Each morning my heart fluttered at the thought of actually seeing the world’s best perform in person. John John Florence and Slater were the two I was dying to see. I still couldn’t believe the contest was free to view. What other pro-sports allows you to see the best-of-the-best for nothing?
Backpacks and outside food allowed. Some of the guys from the hostel would just bring their breakfast plates and mugs to the beach and eat on the sand as the first contestants hit the water.
Each day I was up early to see what time the call was and whether the contest was on. Some days, yes. Some days, no. Some days, hour delay, then hour delay, then yes, then no. Some days the beach changed without any information being offered on the app or the website. Some days I’m in a rental car with people from four different countries trying to find the beach where some guy in the bakery said the contest had moved.
Some days I came back in a cab. Some days I literally ran to the beach when I learned the contest had suddenly re-started after hours of delays. I was on the beach (whichever beach) for the vast majority of heats. And, although I can remember none of it now, I was suddenly an authority as to who advanced to what round after winning or losing a heat. I was HOOKED.
Jumping. Screaming. Groaning. Gasping. Holding my breath. I even got a few decent shots with my mobile. But the great beauty of not being trapped behind the camera, was that I got to enjoy every second. I saw the 360’s. I saw them sail out of a tube when we thought for certain they were buried. I saw them catch air. I saw boards break. I saw the excitement. And the disappointment. And I was there when John John got the World Title.
I was ecstatic. I was only a few feet away from the best in the world doing what he’s best at, and he’s a monster.
And I did not miss my camera for one second.
From what I gathered, Next Level was owned by Farley, and his brother Caesar and Caesar’s wife Ana worked with him. Together the three of them did everything. Farley was the business end, Caesar taught surf lessons, and Ana drove the van for most of the supermarket runs and pickups/drop offs and did everything to keep the two houses in order. She never stopped. In the morning, she would drive to the bakery to pick up fresh bread for breakfast, then set the tables, brew the coffee, heat up the milk, etc.
Unfortunately, there were some people staying at the hostel who did not clean up after themselves. So, before Ana could set up the breakfast, she would have to clean the kitchen. Some days, it was terrible. Empty beer bottles and dirty dishes and pans everywhere. She also cleaned both houses daily (a necessity because of all the sand), changed out sheets as people left, made the beds of the people still there (I’ve never seen a hostel do this!), and wash towels, sheets, etc. as needed. She also ironed the sheets – ironed the sheets – after washing them. That is beyond anything I would do in my own home.
I love Ana. She is so kind. She took me to a doctor twice and translated there and at the pharmacy (stupid ear infection from spending too much time in the water). Since I was in Peniche so long, we saw each other daily and chatted often. I’m grateful to call her a friend. I started getting up a little earlier to help clean the kitchen and set the table for breakfast. The first time I did it, I didn’t say anything. I just waited in the common area and heard her gasp when she made it into the kitchen. She came back in and genuinely thanked me. And she was truly grateful, because that’s who Ana is.
I started accompanying her on the bread runs in the morning, were I would grab an espresso and a pastel de nata, one of my favorite treats on this earth. Those simple moments at the start of the day were some of my favorite memories of Peniche. I do miss Ana, and if I’m ever in Portugal, you can bet I will visit her.
Surfing through fear
I’m pretty terrified of water. Well, I’m pretty terrified of any water-related situation where I would have to swim. Because I can’t. I did take lessons before leaving the States, and while I made it farther than I ever have in the past, 30+ years of fear is hard to shake. I’m just not there yet. I’ve never swam in water over my head, and I’ve never swam well or far in water I can stand up in. And the ocean? Forget about it.
But because I want to grow and face fear and push boundaries, I decided to put myself in a situation where I was more frightened than I can remember being in years: I took a surf lesson.
I spoke with Caesar about it at length before signing up. I wanted to feel him out. I knew he was a good surfer, but I knew I needed more than that. I needed some serious hand-holding and someone who respected my fear. If he was the kind of person who was going to dismiss it, belittle me, or disregard my fear, I wasn’t getting in the water. If he was the type of person who believed the best way to teach is to throw everyone in the deep end, I wasn’t getting in the water.
Well, I got in the water, and I survived. I can’t say I was a successful surfer by any stretch, but I can say that for me, I came a long way. Even got my feet under me once…kinda.
The board was mammoth and difficult to handle. The first time I walked into the water holding that behemoth and sporting my too-big-on-top wet suit, I was almost in tears and my kneecaps were shaking. I think I turned around twice to leave, but Caesar saw it each time and called me back. I told him I would try it another day when there were fewer people. I knew I needed the extra attention, and the waves were hitting my board and spinning me around in circles, and the water was freezing, and I was scared and trying not to cry.
Dude. Surfing is hard. That board was huge and it flopped around like nothing. I swear I was lying in the middle, but a wave would hit funny, and I would instantly be underwater. With the board on top of me. Every. Time. Thonk! On the head. I may have spent just as much time underwater as I did above.
And to the surfer I used to make fun of when hours after surfing saltwater would randomly stream out of his nose? Sorry, dude. I get it now.