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Eyes shielded by double-polarized sunglasses, I take it in from the windows of the Betty Bus, an ex-Hilton shuttle painted pink and appropriated by the Surf Diva team. Trucker flames stretch from cab to grille, and the horn, which is blown liberally, pipes out a piercing rendition of "La Cucaracha." KT pilots this behemoth, pushing the gas until the poor thing groans.

The landscape slides by. Betty jounces and rattles under me, and I tuck my knees to my chin, watching as a strip of ocean reveals itself from between a clot of palms. Waves peel lazily toward the shore, three distinct tiers of them, beautiful sets seen only in books. I close my eyes a moment, trying to put it all together, trying to put it all in place.

I. Am. Here.

My four fellow surf campers recline, taking in the scene as well.

"Beautiful," Denise murmurs, legs folded up under her.

Estela is perched on her knees, nose to window, video camera poised.

"This is amazing," she squeaks, pressing the lens to the glass. "Oh my God!"

KT guides the Betty Bus into a parking lot, a jammed stretch of concrete flanked by a sizeable park. Gaggles of schoolkids tear across it, kicking soccer balls, tossing Frisbees, or just plain chasing each other, backpacks falling to the ground in careless heaps. They are unsupervised and seem impervious to the shadowy threats that bordered my city childhood -- pickpockets, perverts -- instead throwing themselves full force into their games. None of them, I notice, looks over a shoulder, narrows an eye and, I wonder, perhaps they don't have to.

KT parks the bus, and we pile out and head over to the waiting equipment truck to get our gear. Boards abound, neon and inviting, leashguards dangling like tails, wet suits and rashguards on racks. The sun is already hot on my back so I forgo the wet suit and am handed a ten-foot longboard, a massive, soft-top/fiberglass hybrid with a giant single fin. I hoist it atop my head, feeling the weight of it, turning toward the horizon. The water sparkles in front of me, an impossible shade of blue-green. Under the tentlike shade of my board, I watch as the waves roll in, carrying and swallowing surfers as they go. I have never seen sets so clean, so plentiful, so expansive, so big. This goes on forever, unmarred by man-made rock formations or barriers, and clots of surfers sit atop their boards, waiting for the biggest and best.

Denise walks beside me, a big pink board on her shoulders.

"I'm nervous," I tell her, turning my head ever so slightly.

"Don't say that!" she laughs. "I'll be nervous too!"

We reach the Divas' brightly colored pink tent, where we are given a crash course in safety. KT is joined by Crystal, the wide-smiled, blonde-streaked Aussie who kicked off our group introductions the night before by inquiring "till ahs whoi hev yew cam to sehf die-va." She and KT clamber into wet suits as they instruct. The message is clear. Surfing -- or "Seh-feen" in Crystal's drawl -- is fun but dangerous. Clustered together like expectant schoolchildren, we are told about riptides, stingrays, and jellyfish. We are told to cover our heads after wipeouts, shuffle our feet to scare off potentially dangerous creatures, and coat ourselves in sunblock to avoid melanoma. Belly down on our boards, we are taught the basics of paddling, where our feet should be and where to place our hands.

Then we hit the water.

The Pacific, usually cold, has warmed some. My toes curl in the sand, and I watch as the incoming foam swirls lightly around my ankles. The horizon line is blurry, sky dropping into sea. I stare at it a moment before continuing on, stepping gingerly to avoid trodding on what my friends term "the real locals." My fellow Divas are spread out beside me, swaddled in neoprene.

We are instructed to catch the rippling leftovers of the broken waves as they shuffle along toward the shore, and for this I am thankful. The Divas, in red caps and red nylon T-shirts (a.k.a. rashguards), are our landmarks, our cheering squad, and our boosters, holding our boards, which we have been told to ride in on our stomachs, until the right moment, when they shove us headlong into the bedlam.

The first few waves are delicious. We slide across the water, belly down, whooping in delight as we pull up beside each other and head for land in near tandem. There it is, that launched-from-a-cannon feeling, and I coast along like a seal. No bumps, no jerks, no hitches, just gliding, gliding, gliding. When my fin hits the sand, I stop, roll off, and start over. Giddy, I splash back toward the group, board in tow.

The sky is bright above us and the rides go on forever, impossibly smooth, and we catch wave after wave after wave. By the time lunch rolls around, I'm already tuckered out. The whitewater is rough, powerful enough to knock me back. There is no time to sit and wait, bobbing up and over unbroken waves, no moment to enjoy the sun or the sounds or the colors; we're too far in. It's constant pounding, pushing, and shoving, and my body is not used to it. When we break for lunch, I collapse on the grass, my fellows in various states of disarray, and warm in the sun.

We reassemble, and after practicing our popups -- the quick motion with which surfers rise on the board from their stomachs to their feet -- KT and Crystal usher us back into the water, donning their red caps. After precious few wobbles, my fellows spring into action like experts. Estela, the only surfing virgin, glides along perfectly before holding her nose and keeling over with a Chaplinesque smile. Eris catches one in, followed by Leslie, who, not to be held back by her two replaced-and-bionic knees, hops up as well. Denise cruises along, tall and balanced, as I flail about. I cheer and scream -- I'm good at this -- but my will is failing. It is rapidly becoming clear to me that I'm doing something horribly wrong. My feet line up, won't do what I wish them to. My arms skid, my legs tangle, my board goes this way and that, and I end up in a heap at the shoreline, embarrassed, frustrated, and deflated. Each time it's a different problem; I can't get my feet to plant firmly on the board, much less lurch myself to standing. I can't get a grip on the board, and it shoots out from under me, nose plunging under the whitewash and tugging me along for the ride. It all goes by so fast, I can't tell what I'm doing and am left feeling spastic, hopeless, and disgruntled.

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