Surfing isn’t about catching a wave. Fly-fishing isn’t about catching a fish. Nothing is about anything.
I’ve recently completed a five-week assignment in Nicaragua. I had to visit a lot of places, some more desirable than others – and I decided to save the best for last. In my view, that’s the gorgeous southern Pacific coast, and nearby Isla de Ometepe, the volcanic island rising up in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua.
I’ve been to both of these places before. But the last time around, I was a backpacker traveling with friends. This time, I was alone.
There are pros and cons to going solo. But one good thing about traveling alone is that is frees you up to engage more with the people around you. And in this part of Nicaragua, it’s all surfers. Surfers – serious surfers – the kind that come from around the world to surf the famous breaks around Popoyo and San Juan del Sur. The kind that bring their own boards from New Zealand or Colombia or the United States or wherever they’re coming from.
I spent a lot of quality time with surfers and their surfboards in taxis, on crowded buses, on the backs of trucks, under the shade of a palm trees, sitting on the sand, watching the sun go down. They were all great to be with, no matter their age, sex, or nationality. Because they all had one thing in common: a true and deep enthusiasm for being outside.
I’m not a surfer myself, but what I observed is this. Surfers talk about the conditions, the breaks, the crowds, “dawn patrol,” swells, surf pangas. But the jargon is more like an ice-breaker, or a cover for the real conversation. Once you talk to a surfer for more than a few minutes, you realize this: they just want to be outside. They just want to be in the water all day. They want to be in the water at sunrise, and later in the morning when the sun is hot and beating down, nearly blinding everyone who’s floating on the surface. They want to feel the sky change as the afternoon rolls on. And, yes, they’d like to be in the water at sunset, too. Surfing is one way to do that.
The same could be said of skiing and snow, hiking and the mountains, wakeboarding and a lake. I think of when I learned to fly-fish in Argentinian Patagonia. I remember that I wasn’t that interested – I only did it because it was part of a story I was writing. The whole thing seemed like a lot of effort, and I had to wake up so early and put on all the equipment, and the water was freezing. It was only later, when I’d been standing waist-deep in a stream for hours, watching the condors circling high overhead, feeling the rhythm of the current, seeing the colors change in the mountains, that I suddenly got it. Fly-fishing is an excuse to stand in the water all day: to think about nothing and everything.
(Of course, shortly after this revelation, I felt a tug on the line. My guide, Martín, helped me pull in our big catch of the day, a silvery salmon. We threw him back, as you do in these protected waters. But the surprised look on Martín’s face, I thought, was priceless.)
Surfers and fly-fishermen appear to be practicing a sport, and they are. But they’re also reveling in a meditative pleasure that most of us don’t know about. You spend a couple of hours hiking or hanging out on the beach, checking your phone the whole time, and you feel like you’ve had some kind of an outdoor experience. But the surfer and the fisherman stay out all day. They see and hear and feel things that they can’t describe (and wouldn’t feel the need to, anyway, it’s not the point) – things that are subtler and more beautiful than anything that can be captured on Instagram or expressed in a text message.
(Not that I didn’t try).
But I find myself more interested in those moments in travel, and in life, that can’t be shared with anyone, that can’t be described. You can’t take a picture: it’s already gone.