The other day I found out we are dumping nuclear wastewater into the ocean.
The news broke me in the way most environmental news does. It's heavy. I spiraled down an emotional cliff, feeling no power or control for many things I care about.
Even though some of my work is in sustainability and ocean conservation, it doesn’t feel any less potent. Sometimes I wonder why I keep trying.
When I feel this visceral sadness, I have to look inward. I'll sink into the Knowing. And that voice whispers to me, “Cristina, be grateful for now.” I immerse myself in gratitude of all the experiences that live inside of me.
One of those is surfing. I wanted to write about it so I could have a happy visual of all of us enjoying the ocean. Because it's all I can do to stay sane.
"The Knowing feels just like warm liquid gold filling my veins and solidifying just enough to make me feel steady, certain." - Glennon Doyle
I am writing this for my deep, indigenous love of the ocean. I didn’t come to first love it, in an indigenous sense, however. Even though I am Hawaiian, I did not grow up surfing.
I am a huge advocate of starting new journeys later, because this is how I began many things. It wasn’t until I was 31 that I started my surf story.
I’m what I like to call the world’s most professional beginner. I’ve been surfing in 10 or so different countries in this large world, with no special talent for it. I am very much okay with this. I have never stayed in a place long enough to advance. But anytime I get into the ocean, I am reminded why I try.
Maybe you’ve also tried, and it’s not for you. Maybe you’d like to try again. I wanted to write about how I came to it, and perhaps you’d feel inclined to too. For the record, I don’t envision myself ever surfing waves higher than 3 feet. But this isn’t why I was called to it.
It is the rituals in surfing that bring me back, which have nothing to do with skill-level. I love waking up at dawn, and the marvelous feeling of peace that comes with walking barefoot to a fresh ocean. The beach changes everyday no matter how often you come, as many surfers have told me.
I love the morning communion on the shore, before skin and board touches water. A slow stretch, a studied gaze at those in the ocean and the break, unwrapping the leash to set around my ankle. I never take much with me besides towel, water and sunblock. You are a pilgrim of the ocean. No belongings are needed where you are going.
I love the texture of water that crashes onto my body, and the sheer force of mindfulness you contend with. You can’t think about your to-do list, an argument, your instagram. There is no time. The ocean doesn’t give a shit. You look for wave, try to hop on, repeat. Swallow your fear over and over.
When you wipe out - which you will do more than you catch a wave - you must surrender. You can’t fight the ocean because she will always win. This intense surrender is the best part.
In any grand adventure or hobby, I realized there is one thing that clues you into whether or not you love it. It’s what I call the worst moment test. If I can imagine it is raining, and I have to put on a very tight wetsuit at 5 am caked with sand, and then get into cold water where I don’t catch a single wave— and I am still excited to surf, then, yes. I will honor the call. Over and over.
I have failed at trying to be a surfer many times, especially in my 20s. I grasped at any surface-level connection to my culture because I didn't know any better. In fact, even after all this time, I have only surfed twice in Hawaiʻi. I did not grow up in a magical surf wonderland bestowed on the very tanned, glistening people in life. But I tried to be one of them.
One summer I bought a wetsuit with my savings. It sat in a closet for a decade. I desperately wanted to be like my father, who at 50, could catch a wave with ease. On a family vacation in Florida, I went surfing with my dad, and flopped in the water for hours as he zoomed past me. I've dated some very fun surfers, and I learned many things. But none of those had to do with surfing.
It wasn’t until I got the ego beat out of me while surfing during Sri Lanka’s off-season did I really did come to an all-encompassing love (more on that story later). Then, like a wave, I moved forward and did not stop.
Some of the times that pop in my head…
Holding my board on a very bumpy scooter ride, as my surf guide took us to a reef-filled, local beach tucked into a Costa Rican jungle. In the late afternoon, I surfed my longest wave there, all the way to shore. A man cracked open a coconut for me as I emerged out of the water, and I slurped fresh coconut juice in the 3pm sun.
Spending a week in a villa on Portugal’s Algarve coast, at a serene retreat with other surfers. We were shuttled to a rugged beach on early mornings, before the crowds spilled in. We peeled off our wetsuits in the afternoon, lunch prepared by a chef waiting for us on a surfboard.
Walking barefoot down a jutting cliff at sunset in Verkala, India with a board above my head, attempting to surf during a hefty high tide. While local families played on the shore, I saw one of the pinkest skies saturate the water, a drizzle of rain washing over our skin. I caught no waves that day, but I still remember the way the water felt.
Portugal's Algarve Coast.
Lunch break in Portugal.
Verkala, India's cliffside surf.
Checking the waves before the walk down.
Here is some non-professional surfing advice from a non-professional surfer:
First off, if you want to attempt a love of surfing, don’t go to those places that zoom in multiple groups a day to the sea like it’s Disneyland.
I highly recommend Soul & Surf, which specializes in mindful retreats and lessons. There are others, like Surf with Amigas and Dreamsea. There's also flyers that surf guides post at local surf shops (emphasis on locally-owned). You can also ask whoever’s working at a surf shop for help too.
Make sure to take reef-friendly sunblock. I use this one.
One day, I dream of opening up a nonprofit surf school; one that teaches tourists to surf for free. For payment, they volunteer to do a beach cleanup. Free 2-hour surf lessons for 2-hours of volunteer work. How it makes money I haven't figured out, but that's not the point.
I say this openly because I hope someone does it before me if I don't get around to it.
Give up on the mindset that you will look cool. It is that sport for many. But enjoying the water is the best part. And you’ll miss it if you aspire to be Kelly Slater.
Once, I was deep in conversation with a guide in Central America. She had a harrowing experience where she was held at gunpoint, and nearly killed in her hometown. She immediately moved to a surf town and bought a board, even though she never surfed. This particular beach I knew to be difficult for a beginner, and I was always scared of its power. “Surfing saved me,” she said. “It is the best therapy in the world. I don’t care about anything but trying. It releases something inside of me.” Kindly remember the ocean is about therapy, not your ego.
Also, get travel insurance to ease your peace of mind. I like this one for international trips.
Do a party wave.
In my 30s, I joined a few girls in Moliets, France at a surf camp. We slept in tents together, surfed, traveled to Spain with kids a decade younger than us.
Most of all, we joked that, even though we could afford a hotel, we all indulged in this idea of an idyllic camp life, even if we were dirty and sometimes the toilets didn't work.
We also did something supremely important: many fiesta de olas, which means party wave. It is where you and your amigas catch a wave together, sometimes holding hands as you glide down. This isn't something we made up; a party wave is pretty much universally known.
Our coach would clap and hoot in the water every time, and others sometimes joined. It became a thing to look at a wave and someone shout “party wave!” Sometimes someone wouldn't make it the entire wave, falling off balance. But that didn’t stop it from being fun.
Post surf lie-down in Moliets, France.
It took me about 5 years of surfing before I found out that it was created by Hawaiians. I had been away from Hawaiʻi for so long. There was so much I didn't know yet about my own indigeneity. But here I was, thriving in my cultural practice.
Surfing helps me remember what matters. It helps me remember what mattered to my ancestors, as we have touched the same ocean. The resonance of its pull is built into my bones. The sea also becomes my ancestor, and I am in reverence of its sacred story that has existed for millions of years.
I am wildly intuitive again; no shoes and salty beach hair, luminous and untethered. I return free; washed clean like a polished rock from the sea.