Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Learning to Surf on the Road

Learning to Surf on the Road: 5 Good Spots and 5 Helpful Tips

No sport has quite as strong a sales pitch as surfing—a solitary rider dancing across the face of a glassy wave, seeming to master it in one moment and in danger of getting swallowed whole the next. This hard-sell is especially effective on the road, where people make a specific effort to try new things. Anyone who’s traveled for long stretches has at least been nibbled by the surf-bug and it’s become increasingly rare to meet a backpacker who hasn’t given it a shot once or twice. But what about those who really want to “get it,” who dream of carving a perfect bottom turn and long for the days when the feeling of a board under their arm is as natural as a backpack on their shoulders?

Those desires and a healthy mixture of love and respect for the ocean make a good jumping off point. The next step, whether you are already on the road or just in the planning stages, is to think about where to learn. The place that you choose can frame your entire experience and make all the difference in the world. Don’t you dare try to learn at Pipeline (sound ridiculous? It should), don’t try to learn at G-Land, Jeffery’s Bay, Trestles or Bells Beach either—if a wave is iconic, has a pro tour stop named after it or is mentioned wistfully in Point Break, it isn’t the place to start your surf career.

But don’t worry, there are plenty of spots that are perfect for beginners—here’s the list:

1 - Oahu, Hawaii, USA

A lesson on Waikiki Beach

A lesson on Waikiki Beach

Oahu is home to “The North Shore” a seven mile stretch of the best breaks in the world. Even rookies recognize names like Pipeline, Log Cabins, Sunset and Waimea—but those are spots that should be left to the rippers.

Beginners should look at Waikiki, the inside break at Haleiwa, Chuns Reef, Cockroach Bay and Puena Point. All five locations boast slow, rolling surf and locals who understand that many of the people in the water are just getting their feet wet.

2 - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

The tourist invasion has spoiled Kuta on many levels. The sand that used to be white is now grey, there is a very centrally located McDonalds, surf shops owned by Australians vastly outnumber local businesses. Still, the guesthouses are cheap, the waves at both Kuta and Legian are gentle (and even when they’re not they pile onto a sandy bottom) and you can definitely find plenty of likeminded beginners to push you in your progress.

3 - New South Wales, Australia

Bondi Beach in Sydney

Bondi Beach in Sydney

Every state in Australia (excluding the Northern Territory, which isn’t one) has a few good options for learning to surf and hosts at least one world class break. It’s no surprise that the country has become as connected with surfing in the minds of travelers as Hawaii or California. For beginners landing at the airport in a fit to get going, New South Wales is likely to be the best choice. Bondi Beach, right in Sydney, is a sandy-bottomed break that is usually forgiving with learners.

Another favorite is Byron Bay, a longtime stopover for itinerant backpackers. The vibe in the water is just as friendly and welcoming as the vibe on land.

4 - The Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

Jaco Beach in Costa Rica

Jaco Beach in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is getting more and more visitors who arrive with the specific intent of learning to surf. It is a land of surf camps, where boat-hire, instruction and professional photography are all readily available. The entire west coast is loaded with sandy, cruisy learning spots where many beginners catch their first wave. Dominical, Nosara and Jaco all have good starter waves with plenty beachside bars ideal for trading stories.

5 - Central & Southern California, USA

Seriously, you thought we’d forget? California is still a surfer’s paradise and can’t be ignored as a surf destination. And while the whole state has plenty of incredible surf spots, warmer water makes the central and south more ideal for those just starting to stand up.

In Central California, Santa Cruz’s Cowell’s is one of the planet’s most renowned beginner breaks. The wave is long and forgiving, with plenty of push to allow you to get to your feet. In Southern California shoot for Navy Street in Santa Monica, San Onofre, Doheney and Newport Pier in Orange County and Mission Beach in San Diego.

Tips for learning to surf on the road

If none of those spots are on your itinerary don’t worry, most countries with good waves have at least a few breaks that can accommodate beginners. Take the time to seek them out. Look for a wave that breaks onto a sandy bottom not a reef, has an easy take off point and is of manageable size. Finding a break that meets those pre-requisites will make learning easier and faster, but what’s even more important is taking the time to learn the right way. Some surfers learn faster than others because of natural talent, but more often than not it’s a matter of approach. Surfing takes some time to get a hang of—here are five tips for how to speed up the learning curve:

1 - Take Lessons

Lessons on Kuta Beach, Bali

Lessons on Kuta Beach, Bali

What this means is “take lessons from someone who knows how to teach, not just how to surf.” There’s a lot to learn from a good instructor and even after learning the fundamentals beginners can gain skill faster with someone keeping an eye on them and giving them detailed advice. Look for an instructor that you connect with, a program that has good equipment and a student-teacher ratio no higher than four to one. Every one of the spots listed above has reputable surf schools operating nearby.

2 – Choose the Right Board

Your first surfing experience could easily be derailed by having too small of a board. Rookies should start with a long board or a fun shape, something that will float you and allow you to feel the sensation of being propelled by the wave. It may also be a good idea to start out on a board that is soft on top.

Dustin Campbell, the General Manager of INT Softboards, says, “they’re made for safety and incredibly user friendly. Beginners aren’t going to get hurt riding them.” If you’re renting make sure that you know the damage policy and that you get a leash to go with the board.

3 – Learn the Right-Of-Way

Courtesy matters in crowded Santa Cruz

Courtesy matters in crowded Santa Cruz

Surfing has a natural set of rules, dictated by safety and the desire for everyone to have a good experience. The most crucial rule is that the surfer who is on their feet closest to the wave’s peak has right-of-way. Another way to put it is that if you are paddling and you see someone standing and coming down the line towards you, it’s your job to get out of the way.

You should 100% without-a-doubt learn how to be a courteous, polite surfer before you set foot in the water. This is particularly relevant for travelers, surfing at someone else’s home break. Defer to the locals, don’t try for every wave, smile, be friendly. Naturally, mistakes are bound to happen. If you do cut someone off a sincere apology goes a long way.

4 – Hold On

Surfing is by no means an inherently dangerous pastime, especially in the conditions that suit beginners. But still you have to keep your wits about you, be aware and consider others. One of the most important things you can do is hang onto your board. All too often inexperienced surfers see waves about to crash on them and dive under, leaving their board to drag behind (if they have a leash) or to go rocketing toward shore.

This can easily lead to injury and will definitely annoy every other person in the water. Instead, learn to duck dive or turtle roll right away, so that even if a big set comes in you won’t feel compelled to leave your board behind. For more info on the “do’s” and “don’ts” of courteous surfing visit www.surfinghandbook.com

5 – Have Fun

For most of us, surfing is a pastime. It is a diversion and meant to be a time to laugh, to reflect and to enjoy ourselves. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to other surfers or comparing your progress to that of other beginners in your class or group. Surfing, even when practiced by the ancient Hawaiians, was always something done just for the fun of it. Surf with that spirit in mind and you’ll find that people in the lineup will be friendly to you and willing to offer advice.

With that said…Welcome to the tribe!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure: Ecuador

Choose Your Own Adventure: Ecuadorian Rain Forest

You arrive in the surprisingly bustling city of Tena, Ecuador after an incredible week spent in the Galapagos Islands. Tena is the last major outpost before a hundred or so miles of jungle and then Peru. Bisected by rivers, the town hosts five different Adventure Travel Operators offering tours that all seem to be interesting and perfectly fun. You:

A) Sign up for one of these tours.

B) Decide to go a different direction, by renting a bike and trying to find a lagoon along the Rio Anzu recommended by a local, using a map drawn on a napkin.

Interesting choice! From the best you can ascertain using your wobbly Spanish skills, the spot you are looking for is approximately twenty miles away, slightly uphill. You begin your ride at eight in the morning with all of your camping equipment strapped to your back. Speaking of equipment, you:

A) Bring insect repellent and extra batteries for your flashlight.

B) Bring along Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Of course you did! Who needs insect repellent in the Amazon Basin? But at least you're taking a book that you've read seventy times along. You pedal through town and toward your intended destination. When the pavement gives way to rocks and mud you know you're headed in the right direction. While marveling at just how heavy your backpack is you find that there is a screw pointing upwards from the bicycle seat and poking into your tenderest areas. You:

A) Begin to curse the seat, the bike and your backpack for increasing the gravitational force that pulls you into it.

B) Notice an eighty year old woman gathering wood and carrying it in a basket held by a strap across her forehead and decide that you never have the right to complain again. Ever.

Bravo! You were able to do both things simultaneously. Though I don't know if the bike will ever forgive you for the things you said about it. You continue riding and arrive at the place your napkin map indicates as the beginning of a slight incline. You soon realize that you have apparently mistranslated the phrase "slight incline" -- the intended translation should have been "straight uphill for five miles." Finally, by mid-afternoon you arrive at your destination. The lagoon is incredible, a pool carved by a stream and tumbling over a series of cascades into the river. You:

A) Camp here on high, even ground.

B) Set camp another half-mile away, on a patch of sand surrounded by granite boulders on the banks of the big river because it seems more idyllic.

Hmmmm, it's certainly more work, but so be it. No one can deny that the spot you choose is everything you ever imagined a tropical rainforest to be. The jungle trickles right out onto the boulders and the little pool of water next to your camp hosts thousands of tadpoles and baby frogs. In the distance the clouds hang in the trees like long, twisted tendrils of smoke. Almost immediately a brilliant blue butterfly the size of a dinner plate lands next to you. In fact, the area seems absolutely ripe with different butterflies. The number of butterflies and moths that have landed right on you during your lifetime jumps from one to about two dozen within minutes. As you make camp, the sun is beating down and when you need a break you ride some small rapids using a giant plastic jerry-can as a floatation device, a trick learned from the Bujigali Boys in Jinja, Uganda.

Your best guess pegs the time at about four o'clock when you start to gather wood for a fire. You quickly discover that finding dry wood in the rain forest is not the world's easiest task. You resort to burning the blank pages and editorial notes from Huck Finn to get a few fallen leaves dried. These giant leaves, once dry make an excellent fuel but the bigger twigs dry more slowly. It feels a little like starting a fire in early spring on the Necanicum River in Oregon, except for when a spider that looks as if it was specifically engineered to flood your body with deadly venom crawls out of the wood that you have just gathered. Then it becomes all too clear that you are in a foreign land. You struggle for more than two hours to not be bit by such things and get a steady flame going. Near sunset you roast onions, garlic, potatoes and carrots in the coals and heat up a can of lentils. Darkness settles in and you try to keep yourself from feeling a little spooked. Your fire doesn't provide enough light to eat by so you use your flashlight. The batteries burn out by the end of your meal which may be a blessing because (although you start itching for a day or two) the light was attracting sand flies and they were biting you everywhere, even some of the same spots where the bicycle seat was gouging you. You hear heavy thuds off in the jungle-- you recognize the sound as rain just in time to dive for your tent. The rain begins falling in marble sized drops and with force. A flash of lightning makes the whole river visible for just a second before everything goes black and the thunder smashes above you. You:

A) Remember something about Amazon river tributaries being prone to flash flood and move camp now.

B) Keep the thought in mind and bide your time by eating a Nestle Crunch Bar carried along for just such emergencies.

Okay, you've decided to stay put. Every few minutes you reach your hands blindly out of the tent to see how much that innocent looking little tadpole pond has infringed on your spit of sand. You go through alternating moments of panic and relief and decide you will write to the people at REI to thank then for the quality of their tent rain-flies. The storm booms along for hours. It is a long night, filled with worry but you never wake from your fitful naps to find yourself floating down river, which is a good thing. At first light you poke your head out of the tent. Your camp still hasn't been breached. You feel very, very lucky. However it is still raining and considering how little you slept, you decide to laze around in the tent for a little while. You figure this can't keep up much longer. You are:

A) Correct, the storm weakens.

B) A fool, this is the rain forest, it's right there in the name! The rain continues steadily, with a few touches of far off thunder splashed around for effect.

Finally, around noon by your best guess the rain lets up enough to go outside of the tent. You stand and realize just how shockingly, appallingly, mind-numbingly lucky you actually were. The river has risen by four or five feet in some places, at least two in most places. You however were protected on all sides by those granite boulders and your camp site hasn't changed much at all. Don't go patting yourself on the back just yet, Bear Grylls, remember that you chose it because it was "idyllic" not "well protected." Either way, you're not out of the woods. You will have to find a way to get your backpack and bike back above the cascade and onto the path. You spend the day trying to find navigable eddies near the banks of the river where you can wade with your gear to shore and then wind through the jungle back to a rickety bridge over the lagoon. The spot that was so peaceful yesterday is now absolutely raging with whitewater. You work through most of the day, drink the last of your water and use a safety rope tied to a rock so that you can splash around in the lagoon without getting pulled over the falls. Finally, you begin the bike ride back toward civilization trying to get there before darkness falls, racing down hill, knowing that you have to make it back to Quito on a six hour bus that night for your flight to Los Angeles at nine in the morning. With more butterflies fluttering around you, tropical birds calling from somewhere in the distance and the fog wound tightly around the treetops you realize:

A) There are things and places that you will visit that can never live up to the way they were described in the books you read as a boy. The rainforest is not one of them.

B) You will absolutely be back here one day.

C) Both of the above.

Thailand’s “Banana Pancake Trail” and 5 Insider Tips for Escaping it

Thailand’s “Banana Pancake Trail” and 5 Insider Tips for Escaping it

thaisunsetThere’s a story that’s been handed down for years from one backpacker to another as they parley in guesthouse lobbies throughout Thailand. It’s usually told by an elder of the tribe, anointed in patchouli oil and sipping a watermelon smoothie. The story is tinged with inaccuracies and a hint of self-righteousness, but that rarely distracts from the narrative. It follows this basic script [with brief editorial notes]:

“Once upon a time there were two travelers [named Tony and Maureen Wheeler] who decided to write their first Lonely Planet guidebook [actually their second] called Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. The book became so popular that it was nicknamed “The Backpacker’s Bible” [true] and travelers could recognize the yellow cover from a hundred yards away [I’ve heard up to a mile]. Soon business were literally [figuratively] fighting to get a mention in the book and they all ended up serving western breakfasts and Pad Thai which isn’t even a real Thai dish [sure it is, in fact it’s the national dish]…And now everyone who comes to Thailand just follows The Banana Pancake Trail…”

So what is the Banana Pancake Trail?

bananapancakeIt’s a reference to the track laid down in 1975 by the Wheelers, the ruts etched deeper and deeper into the landscape with each of the eighteen subsequent editions of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. The name comes from the fact that westerners, while traveling, are famous for enjoying certain creature comforts—particularly familiar foods.

Not long after the first edition of the Backpacker’s Bible hit shelves savvy business owners noticed that if their menus boasted banana pancakes and muesli alongside the traditional Thai breakfast soups johk and kao tom they seemed to fare better with budget travelers.

But the Banana Pancake Trail has come to embody more than just menu items. It’s a reminder that for many young travelers a trip through Southeast Asia (Thailand in particular) often ends with the unsettling feeling of having followed someone else’s footsteps a little too closely. This inevitably takes some of the thrill out of the adventure.

Because of this, the conclusion drawn by the self-styled road warrior delivering the Lonely Planet lecture is that Thailand has become a destination best left to package tourists. They assert that it’s no place for “real” travelers anymore. But the fact is—that’s just not true.

Actually, Thailand is still rich with every attribute that made it attractive to the Wheelers way back when: incredible food, welcoming people, remote white-sand beaches and accessible cultural heritage. It also still holds plenty of gems for those looking to get away from the crowds.

Here are five recommendations on how to uncover them:

1 - Ask the right questions

thaiislandsGuidebooks like the Lonely Planet make a habit of recommending that you ask locals for up-to-date advice. But in a country that sees as much foot traffic as Thailand, this question becomes skewed. The friendly Thai people are quick to name spots where they think you might be happy, places where the other tourists seem to visit. When asked, they’ll usually refer you to locales firmly on the beaten track: Khao San Road in Bangkok or the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Pha Ngan.

The right question in this case is not “where should I visit? Eat? Stay? Etc.” it’s “Where would you visit? Eat? Stay? Etc.” One of my favorite places in Thailand is a tiered waterfall called Ti Lor Su. Tourism officials at the waterfall told me that it gets ten-thousand visitors annually but that more than nine thousand of those are Thai citizens. No offense to the Wheeler’s, but I’d rather to put my faith in a statistic like that than a book when deciding where to visit. Three days after hearing backpackers complain about the prevalence of other backpackers in Bangkok I spent an entire day cliff jumping at Ti Lor Su and never saw another soul.

2 - Be intrepid

thaibeachHere’s a secret: every single one of Thailand’s National Marine Parks (and there are 22 of them) allow camping. I once considered sharing that tip to be a crime, like giving away how Houdini did the Water Torture Trick. But like Houdini’s escapes, a bold spirit is required for making use of any good travel secret. Thailand is full of remote corners and beautiful sites just waiting to be uncovered. Anyone who has traveled the country thoroughly will rave about places that get little mention in the Lonely Planet. In 2006 I spent two-weeks camped with a handful of friends on an empty beach less than an hour by boat from some of Thailand’s most overrun tourist traps. We paid seventy-five cents a night.

3 - Learn the value of a good map

I first learned about the usefulness of real topographical maps from my surf buddies. It’s common for surf-vagabonds to study maps with burning intensity. By comparing the layout of well-known breaks to the position of unexplored beaches and reefs they have found hundreds of previously unknown waves.

Thailand is a great place to apply this sort of thinking: you want to see the far north but don’t want to be at a place as clogged with tourists as Chang Rai? Check a map to find someplace geographically similar but smaller. The people will inevitably be less burnt out on visitors and the cost of living will be significantly cheaper.

4 - The Fibonacci Spiral – Think concentric circles

A Fibonacci Spiral constantly increases in diameter as it expands outward. This is exactly how I recommend traveling through Thailand’s tourist mainstays. Here’s an example: because of their guaranteed customer base, the food near Khao San Road (Bangkok’s ground-zero for backpackers) has seen a huge drop in quality. Even if you’re staying in this area try walking a Fibonacci spiral away from your hotel when looking for some place to eat. The further you get the fresher the ingredients will be, the richer the flavors, the friendlier the service and the more authentic the experience.

When making your spiral be sure not to avoid residential neighborhoods. The best meal I ever had in Bangkok was at a small restaurant built into someone’s garage with two plastic tables, a matron who didn’t speak a word of English and a clientele of locals from the neighborhood. It wasn’t just my best meal because of the cultural realism either. The food was better and less expensive by a power of two.

5 - Plan for a Festival

songkranfestSoutheast Asia on a Shoestring makes passing mention of festivals and national holidays but backpackers rarely let such things dictate their plans. This is incredibly convenient for the rest of us, because Thailand boasts some of the world’s best festivals at times that don’t line up with the Commonwealth of Nations’ school holidays.

Try to set your trip for Loy Krathong, held on the full moon in November, and make your way to Chang Mai. There you will witness the waterways filled with floating Krathong (banana leaf rafts lit with candles) and the night-sky speckled with flying lanterns. It’s truly a stunning sight.

If you’re visiting in the spring shoot for Songkran, one of the world’s most unusual, fascinating and brilliantly chaotic festivals. Songkran marks the Thai New Year and spans from April 13th-15h. During the celebration businesses throughout the country shut down (particularly in Bangkok and Chang Mai) and citizens partake in a national water fight. The streets are filled with revelers signing, spreading mud paste on each other’s faces and dumping water on each other. It challenges Spain’s famous Tomatina Festival for both messiness and enjoyment. Both Loy Krathong and Songkran offer excellent opportunities to connect with locals.

At the end of the day, finding a way off the Banana Pancake Trail is simple—all it takes is a spirit for adventure, a thirst for something new and a willingness to split from the pack. The only downside is you might have to try a new dish for breakfast. I’d say it’s certainly worth the trade-off.

Additional photo credits: Pancake by soma-samui.com on Flickr, Songkran Festival by Wyndham on Flickr, All other photos by Steve Bramucci