What Do You Do When a Global Pandemic Hits While You’re Surfing Abroad?

In March, coastlines all around the world including those in Central America.Photo: Courtesy of Grant Ellis/SURFER Magazine

The day I left New York City for Managua, things were almost still normal. Subways were packed, offices were full and bars and restaurants bristled and jangled as they do in the city. While there had been a handful of cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, reported within the state, no one was wearing any masks. Not yet.

I had been due in the Philippines for a freelance assignment—to tour a burgeoning new rum distillery, take some photos, get the back story, pontificate on the finer points of rum making, etc. It wasn’t a vacation per se—in my 9 to 5 life, I am a “service journalist,” which means I write reviews of everything from kitchen knives to coolers, fishing rods to patio furniture—but certainly a very welcome change of pace. And while I was over there, I figured I might as well tack on a few extra days to chase the rum with some quality waves. In the weeks leading up to the trip, however, news surrounding the impending pandemic broke.

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We all knew about it, of course, but it was on the other side of the world, and few outside of newsrooms seemed overly concerned. SARS, bird flu, H1N1, and other pandemics had all come along with their own forewarnings of doom and gloom, but they had all gone by without wreaking much havoc on the Western Hemisphere; why would this be different? Well, like hurricane forecasts and tsunami warnings, we never really know until they’re here.

A few days before my departure date, New York began to see a flurry of cases of COVID-19, and my flight and trip were canceled altogether. On one hand, I was concerned about the signal this sent about the potential seriousness of the situation. On the other, I’d already cleared myself to be out of the office for 2 weeks, and, well, there were plenty of other flights to wave-rich destinations that could be booked last minute on the cheap.

I got online and scrambled to find a place with warm beach breaks aplenty, cheap local food and suds, and even cheaper lodging and settled on Nicaragua—a place I’d had on my surf trip bucket list for years. I booked a roundtrip ticket to Managua and after scouring the more remote sections of coastline to the north, found a $17-a-night beachfront shack with a pool on Airbnb. I convinced myself that none of this was especially selfish or opportunistic: I’d be around few people, and even my doctor confirmed that viruses like this don’t tend to fare too well in the tropics. Perhaps going surfing in remote Nicaragua even bordered on public service. Maybe, for once in my life, getting barreled could serve a greater good.

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A week before my departure, I sat across a table from my painstakingly-cautious-but-prescient father, who does not surf and grilled me as much as one can grill their adult son.

“Are you worried you’ll have trouble getting home?” he asked.

I half-heartedly considered this, then shrugged and said something to the tune of, “Better to be there than here.”

My father looked puzzled, but reluctantly agreed in part because he could tell, probably better than anyone, that I needed to unplug and go catch a few waves. It helped that he too had read that the tropics were at least somewhat immune to viruses such as the one just beginning to gain a foothold in New York.

Either way, I couldn’t have cared less. I had already made the decision to leave, to go surf, and there wouldn’t be any reconsidering. The works were in place and the gears were spinning, and my better judgment—or reality—was not going to get in my way.

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Right now I am perfectly, completely, and utterly alone in the surf. The water is as tepid and indifferent toward me as I was toward my father’s fear that I might get stuck here, and it feels good. Offshore winds are blowing, and they probably will all day. The swell is a steady 3 to 6 feet at 13 seconds or so, and has been for nine days running. It is washing away a winter full of swells that I missed while at work. It’s hard to even picture my last wave at home in New York—just a vague notion of some gutless, waist-high dribble. In this tropical bliss, that seems like a lifetime ago.

Things are quiet in Nicaragua. Impending pandemic aside, there are very few people, let alone tourists around. I’ve been waking with the sun and surfing alone for at least an hour or two before maybe, just maybe, another surfer paddles out.

Apart from daily check-ins with editors, I am off the grid. My agenda, day in, day out, is a familiar routine to the itinerant surf traveler: surf, eat, catch up on back issues of neglected magazines, surf again, come in for a cocktail, more food, a procession of bottles of local suds, bed by 10 p.m, and up early for more. It is a veritable Groundhog Day.

New York is by now living out a very different version of Groundhog Day. Shelter-in-place orders are in place, and only businesses deemed essential—grocery stores, pharmacies, and a few others—are open. Offices, restaurants, bars, theaters and stadiums are all to remain shuttered until further notice. There are some 20,000 confirmed cases in New York alone, and the estimated death toll in the US is in the hundreds and doubling almost daily—casualties are mostly among the elderly and people with preexisting conditions, but not always. We know that the virus spreads through close contact, and that the virus can live and linger on surfaces for an extended period of time and that a vaccine is months away at the earliest.

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I’m supposed to fly home in a few days, but I’m beginning to have second thoughts. If this thing really is as serious and deadly as they say it is, should I be passing through John F. Kennedy International Airport—one of the busiest airports in the country, located in the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak? What if I pick up the virus along the way? What if I unknowingly pass it to my neighbors in my apartment building, or to my aging parents?

I lose the thread as the Pacific lobs another set of A-frames my way. A little out of position for the first, I turn on the second one: A shampoo cover-up after the drop, then two long, drawn-out turns to the shoulder.

A question pops into my head as I paddle back out: “What if I just stay here? Pescado frito, langosta a la plancha and these waves all to myself?” There are certainly worse ways to ride out a global pandemic.

Should I feel guilty if I stay? What if I get sick? Above all else, I would be most ashamed to put the weight of my selfishness at the feet of the local healthcare system. But is that where my hypothetical guilt ends? I’m far from my family and friends, but given the social distancing guidelines, what difference does it make if I’m 2,000 miles away versus 6 feet? And as for my job, I’m fortunate enough to be able to work remotely during the shelter-in place order, and whether that means writing from my cramped apartment in Brooklyn or an empty beach in Nicaragua shouldn’t make any difference to my boss.

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I know that I wouldn’t even be having this internal debate if it was anything other than surfing weighing down one side of the scale. I have other pastimes, vices, and devices to put my mind at ease, but surfing seems to be the one I cling to tightest in anxious, uncertain times. Maybe it’s something about its utter uselessness. I fish and spearfish, but those come with a clear objective of putting food on the table. I enjoy sailing, but that has a point A to point B aspect. In surfing you just catch a wave, paddle back to the same point, and do it again. It has no transportation value, there’s nothing tangibly gained in completing a turn, a wave, a session. You just feel better for it. Especially during times of high stress, like, say, amid an escalating pandemic.

Back on dry land after my session, I learn that both Costa Rica to the south and El Salvador to the north have closed their borders. My father’s words suddenly seem much more like a premonition than they had some weeks back. The universe, it seems, might make the decision to extend my trip for me. And I’m only getting more comfortable with the idea. Time moves as if it were on benzodiazepines and a steady stream of Toñas, the local lager, cannot and will not break the bank. Dinners consisting of fish caught that same morning do not cost half a day’s pay. Not to mention the lobster, which are in season. I wouldn’t even have to ride this out alone, as I’d managed to convince my partner and roommate, Chloe, to hop on a last-minute flight herself rather than face the prospect of an indefinite separation.

The math pencils out: between the two of us, $17 a night plus who-cares-how-many plates of lobster and longneck Toña equals a sum we should be able to manage for a while. As for work, well, Chloe brought her computer. She won’t mind us sharing it, right? Yes, this plan could work. Things would be fine. Better, even.

Candidly, things weren’t exactly great back home even before the pandemic. New York is an adult dose in every sense, and it had been wearing on me lately. Like so many Brooklyners, I mindlessly trekked across the East River each day to work in Manhattan and bludgeon my very being with the colorless monotony of office life, only to barely shore up the means to perpetuate my baseline New York existence.

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What am I doing living in New York City, of all places? I left a plush, affordable life aquatic aboard a friend’s sailboat in Fiji, where time stood still all together and fresh coconuts and picture-perfect waves were never beyond arm’s reach or the next sunrise. Where gin-clear waters and chalk-white sand defined a very different commute.

I had gone to Fiji to give my friend a hand moving his boat to New Zealand for cyclone season. I packed up my life in Charleston, South Carolina, and sold my fishing skiff to get there. Before we headed to New Zealand we spent several months surfing and fishing the waters around Tavarua—Cloudbreak, Namotu, the Yasawa Island chain and other places that I wouldn’t name under pain of torture.

After we had crossed down to New Zealand, the tentative plan was to cross back up to Fiji at the end of the season to do it all over again. But even gin-clear water and white-sand beaches lose their luster in time. I lived out a dream I’d probably had since I first saw Peter Pan or read Robinson Crusoe, and I’m eternally grateful to have done it. But I was coming into my 30s with no relationship, no real source of income, no assets to speak of, and no real trajectory. An adolescent adrift in the South Pacific, essentially. Sure, I was treading water—a writing assignment here and there, and living aboard another person’s sailboat was dirt cheap—but I had no momentum, and it was time for a change. I felt sure of it.

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A popular bumper sticker I’d seen in island bars the world round read, “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” I needed to re-engage and let society—or maybe just myself—know that I was not lost to some far-flung island, talking drivel to a volleyball, even if it came at the cost of giving up empty conveyor belts of surf over Technicolor reefs.

Well, what’s the opposite of “here”? New York City, of course. The epicenter of everything, I’d guessed, as far as a paycheck and a sense of importance go. Now, it seemed, it was also the epicenter of pestilence.

This beach, on the other hand. The swell never left, and I have had my choice of perfect rights and lefts with offshore wind or no wind at all for the past several days. The few tourists that were here have mostly left, and those who stayed are sailors with no port of call beyond Nicaragua for the foreseeable future. They’re not here for the waves. The closest they get to surfing is cheering from the beach, koozie-clad beer in hand, which is just fine by me. I am happy to reminisce about sailing days with them back ashore—from a safe distance.

Being here reminds me of that time in many ways, and maybe that has as much to do with my wanting to extend our stay as the pandemic does. It’s easy to keep the unpleasantries of reality, whatever they are in that moment, at arm’s length when you’re in a tropical lineup. I know because I’ve seen that escapist movie, I was in that movie. But the longer you stay, the harder it is to pull away and move on with your life, which still seems important, although the jury is still out.

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The Nicaraguan government has not made our should-we-stay-or-should-we-go decision for us, and at this point I need to have the discussion outside of my own head. At dinner with Chloe, I float the idea that maybe we should skip our flight home, but she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for extending this particular escape. Chloe, who is a French citizen but has a Green Card in the U.S., feels uncertain about whether or not she might be let back in at all. The thought shames and sobers me, though not enough to stop trying. I take a few other tacks: the food, the cost of living, the terrors of going home. All of it to no avail.

“We have a life, a home,” she says, “and what if we get sick here?”

She is, of course, right.

And so we agree to keep our flight. To take what precautions we can and travel back to New York. Back to reality, whatever that looks like. At least for now.

This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and was republished with permission.

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