"You girls ready?"I raise my head from my pillow. I am shoulder deep in industrial-grade bedding, trying to pull the last dregs from an uneasy, however jet-lagged, sleep. Light pours through my window, slicing through the white strips of the blinds. Estela, in the opposite bed, is a moderate-sized lump under her covers, tufts of her black hair peeking out. As a fellow East Coaster, she must be feeling jet-lagged too. She mumbles something, sits up, blinks.
KT stands in our doorway, arms akimbo, grinning at our groggy faces. She's already dressed and exhibits no signs of fatigue; she is tying her long blond hair into a no-nonsense knot, watching us in good-natured amusement. Her sunglasses sit perched and at the ready atop her head.
It is 8:00 a.m. The first day of surf camp. At 22, I'm the baby of the group -- a surprise, but not unusual -- the only recent postgrad among vacationing professionals. Adrenaline hums through my morning grog. I'm excited but dodgy, unsure if my Queens sea legs will carry me. The waves are different beasts here, I am certain, not the occasional, clumsy rollers of Far Rockaway. My on-again-off-again year of lugging my nine-foot monster onto the A train for an afternoon of paddling around may not suffice in a place where some kids can surf before they learn to read. But as the old adage goes, ready or not... Here I come.
I stretch night-stiff shoulders, reorienting. Less than 12 hours ago, I arrived at the San Diego airport, a thick coat of East Coast pale on my skin. Now I am in California, tucked up in an empty dorm at UCSD, easily the most well-maintained college campus I have ever seen, and am about to go headlong into the Pacific waters.
Beside me, Estela begins poking through her stack of moisturizers. She is small, 28, but looks not a day over 18, with big brown eyes and the languid stature of someone younger. She is, after all, on vacation, a celebratory one of sorts. On the short ride from the airport to the college, she announced she had just received her U.S. citizenship. The citizenship is a mere legality. She returns to her homeland of Peru each summer and frequents the beaches there, where she first discovered surfers but never dared try it herself. "I'll still be Peruvian," she said in the car, looking into the distance. "I'll always be Peruvian." And, 1500 bucks and a round-trip ticket later, here she is, at surf camp, a bona fide American.
Out in the common room, a surf video plays on the small television. I watch as bikini-clad women slide down the face of impossible waves, boards staggeringly small in comparison. The women are fierce, concentrated, fearless. I watch their paths and wonder if any of them thinks about death, namely her own, at the hands of an often-brutal Mother Nature. I take in their relaxed stances, their smooth turns and effortless maneuvers atop their boards, and gulp... Just a little.
Beside me, Eris and Leslie are slathering on sunblock. Eris rubs a thick pad of white zinc across her nose, careful to fill in the space around the little ring piercing her right nostril. She is the only one of the group who has been to Surf Diva before, but in a stroke of bad luck, she sustained an ankle injury two days into her trip. "But I'm back," she says, with a smile.
Leslie follows suit, zincing up her nose. The back of her tank top lists a selection of Maui-isms, including my favorite, "Speak softly and wear a loud shirt," which, as it turns out, describes Leslie to a T. Truly the strong, silent type (but wickedly funny when talkative), her wardrobe boasts bright teals, oranges, and rich blues. Twin scars lace each of her knees where, a few years prior, doctors put in state-of-the-art, fully bionic new ones to replace the worn-out natural ones. This, however, seems not to deter her. Eris, whose voice is musical and frequent, is similarly attired, wearing a fiercely patterned surf-inspired skirt. She tucks a few last-minute items into her wet-dry fanny pack, giving a few to Leslie for her matching one. A silver-haired couple in their mid-40s, both are avid water women, and references to their kayaking and boat trips abound. They seem, though both are hardworking medical professionals in various capacities, to be on a permanent vacation.
Denise, whose long legs take up most of the U-shaped couch, is the exact opposite. A single mother of four teenaged boys and recently divorced, she is a nonstop mom and provider. Yet, despite the kids and heartbreak, Denise has the spryness and poise of a graceful adolescent, broad shoulders and strong stance indicative of her experience as a triathlete. Not surprisingly, she keeps the pace with her boys, snowboarding with them and, the summer previous, taking them on a week-long surf clinic adventure in Santa Cruz. "My guys were much better than I was," she laughs, leaning into a cushion. She's from Sacramento (by way of Indiana) and has a mash-up accent that is half Midwest, half California. It seems a miracle that she has managed to carve out five days for surf camp. The night before, as we swapped introductions, she revealed to us her desire for a real, true vacation and, with a twinkle in her eye, the possibility of getting a tattoo. "I wanted to do something for me," she'd said, with conviction. "I want to have a Denise Week."
I flop down on the couch myself, tugging at the straps of my bathing suit, and page through a magazine. Almost as soon as I do, KT appears, wet suit draped over her arm. "Let's do it," she says.
The first thing I notice about the UCSD area, aside from the sheer volume of space, is what fills it. Cacti rise from the carpeted lawns of freestanding stucco palaces; fences drip with bright flowers and an overflow of waxy green leaves; palms shoot skyward on tall, bending trunks. The houses, alkali white, yellow, peach, sit peacefully behind oversized birds-of-paradise, roofs capped with terra-cotta tiles. The weather is balmy, sun warming everything without being obtrusive, humidity barely detectable. Skies are clear in all directions, small planes pulling advertisements cutting across the unbroken blue.