As I rolled into town early one Sunday afternoon in a rickety local bus my mind turned from humorously optimistic visions of magically transforming myself into some fantastically talented surfing superstar to more immediate concerns, namely my somewhat less inspirational surroundings. At first glance Taghazout is a shabby little town dumped messily along the waterfront that somehow manages to be both dusty and filled with dubiously grimy puddles at the same time. Upon further exploration, however, well, it still looked very similar. It is a strange combination of traditional and modern – despite a burgeoning surf community built around, at last count, 15 (!) surf camps, and all the nonchalantly cool and suspiciously fit young people they attract, Taghazout remains a dry town (meaning you can’t buy alcohol, not dry air that leads to sinus problems and big time humidifier sales), and has neither a gas station nor a single, solitary ATM (despite the surf camps generally charging a pretty penny and remaining mysteriously unfamiliar with the modern wonders of VISA and Mastercard).
The ATM thing being the most surprising, since in most other places in Morocco ATMs are as ubiquitous as supremely average chicken skewers or taxi drivers with toques and moustaches. The fact that they rarely work is beside the point, I think.
Since it was a Sunday the town was particularly busy, veritably filled with teenage boys from Agadir out for a big day of lurking on the beach in loud groups, frolicking loudly in the square while touching each other far more than seems necessary and storming the 6pm bus in a loud, teeming mob, cramming at least a hundred of them into every available space on the bus then waiting uncomfortably, absolutely baffled that the bus driver they had just physically manhandled was in no mood to take them back to the city for free. So that was pretty cool.
But, luckily for us tourists, people don’t come to Taghazout to see pretty town squares, or palm-lined boulevards, or even to participate in locally famous Petanque tournaments. We come for three things, apparently:
1. The amazing waves
2. To pay up to $32 for bottles of sunscreen
3. To watch herds of goats rummage through messy piles of trash
For me, the plan was a week at Surf Berbere surf camp enjoying the whole package – ocean-view apartment accommodation, leisurely breakfasts on a deck overlooking famous Hash Point, fun communal meals on the cozy rooftop terrace, board rental, daily lessons, lunches of slimy canned tuna sandwiches and cookies, and unlimited access to funky damp wetsuits. Hugely popular with beginner surfers thanks to its wide variety of breaks, consistent and predictable waves and bevy of surf schools, Taghazout seemed like the perfect place to broaden my ocean going horizons. I certainly felt I was long overdue to add surfing to my list of ocean hobbies which, currently, only rather unimpressively consisted of scuba diving, snorkelling, body boarding and scampering daintily up the beach as the tide comes in an threatens to tickle my toes. I also did a little bit of stand up paddling in Honduras last winter but nothing adventurous and I probably fell off too often to consider myself a true SUPer just yet (once seems like plenty when the water is flat and you are armed with a giant paddle). Of course, I have also been known to stand in waist high waves with a peculiar clenched look on my face while slyly relieving myself into the ocean, but that hardly seems like a marketable skill, let alone one that will get me invited to hang with all those good-looking people in terrific shape who love smoking hash, honestly admire blond dreadlocks and still use the word “dude” without trying to be ironic.
Surf Progress Report – Monday
Feeling sporty and prepared in my still damp wetsuit. Told I looked snug and slender. After warming up with a series of violent jerky stretches (my versions, anyway) and a group jog down the beach (think Chariots of Fire in full neoprene) we circled up and learned the basics:
1. Firmly attach the board to your leg via ominous rubber leash
2. Lay on the board face down (never on your back, I learned)
3. Jump violently to your feet whenever you see fit
We were assured that if we followed those steps to the tee then Step 4 – a vicious and painful wipeout – would simply take care of itself.
The instructors then began teaching us hand signals they could use from the beach so as to eliminate the need for them to actually enter the water.
Day one – we learned “come in” and “come to me”. Seemed a tad redundant.
Entered the water. Got up numerous times. Fell awkwardly an equal number of times. Retired to the beach exhausted.
Our week’s group was not as diverse as one might have imagined, consisting of a group of twelve students from York University in England, as well as my roommate, an English nurse who was actually born and raised in the city of York. We marvelled at the coincidence all week long. Then there was me, and a German guy, and a Peruvian brother and sister who live in Barcelona, and then a whole bunch more Brits taking a twelve week long (!) instructor course (I can only assume that weeks 3 through 12 involve a lot of first aid, an in-depth study of the evolution of surf hair culture, and learning how to build your own board using only parts from VW vans and used roaches).
Surf Progress Report – Tuesday
Added the counter clockwise arm windmill to our warmup repertoire and it made all the difference. Was told I needed to place my hands further back on the board, and that I had to “jump up better”.
Learned how to cover my head when being tossed by waves – came in handy far more often than I had hoped. Also learned another hand signal – pointing the left (my left, their right) means go to the left (their right).
Back into the water full of optimism and boiled egg, although results were disappointingly similar to day one. I might have carved ever-so-slightly to the left once, or that may have just been the direction I was falling. Started to notice a painful ache in my left elbow as the day wore on, chalked it up to typing withdrawal symptoms.
One part of the experience which may not sound problematic at first was the way we were “forced” to spend the whole day on the beach – surfing, lazing around, playing soccer, reading, etc. But, trust me, there are downsides – no shade, no bathrooms, no way of finding out if I got any new “likes” on the latest photo of me pointing at another big rock. And with 82% of our group being comprised of pale Brits and me, we managed to cultivate a pretty epic crop of sunburns throughout the week. Geometric chest patterns, hands swollen up like boxing gloves, ears peeling like week-old onions, and noses redder and more shapeless than an expat’s liver. And that was just the one guy.
Surf Progress Report – Wednesday
Elbow simply gave out as I tried to get out of bed. Painful, and unpleasant the way my face ended up mashed into a cover blanket with worrisome stains and a faint odour of insecticide. Spent entire breakfast experimentally bending and straightening my arm while frowning deeply to denote concentration and assessment. Ultimately decided I would have to take the day off. Wrote out a blog entry by hand, did some laundry, made some real headway in the book I was reading and took a photo of some goats eating trash which I was very pleased with.
A rotating wave of sickness was making its way through the camp, laying folks low with painful fevers, uncomfortable nausea and a variety of other symptoms which are reportedly less than ideal when sharing a bathroom with 8 other people. Theories abounded – the flu, brushing teeth with tap water, the food, the raw sewage draining into the ocean nearby, unchecked fascism. You name it. Was I to be spared based on over a month of acclimation to Moroccan cleanliness standards? Oh ho, you’ll just have to wait and see like everyone else.
Surf Progress Report – Thursday
Only 5 of us surfing today, the rest took a day trip to Agadir market to buy souvenirs and alcohol.
Elbow much improved, wetsuit still damp. Smelled similar as well. Switched to a smaller board at the behest of an instructor. Soon earned the facetious nickname Wobbly McWobbleson, and deservedly so. Eventually switched back to my original larger board, or as I called it, Big Foamy. My confidence soared, along with delusions of competence. My final day of formal instruction yielded some heady nuggets – “those are the kind of waves you want”, “get up faster”, and “don’t forget to turn and stuff”.
Later on I hiked up to a tiny village at the top of a large hill where I enjoyed some tremendous views, a welcome feeling of isolation, if only for a short time, and gained the knowledge that even far from the corrupting influences and temptations of city life (scantily-clad foreign women, smoking in large groups on sidewalks, shopping around for the best deal on biscuits) Moroccans still believe it makes sense to dump large quantities of trash right outside their windows. But, ooh, the sunset…
Surf Progress Report – Friday
Big day, expecting it to all come together. This may have been overly optimistic. Positives: elbow holding up, getting better at choosing waves for their size and timing rather than aesthetic value and because I was tired of paddling, no problems getting up.
Negatives: definitively confirmed my suspicion that surfing is really hard.
One last hand signal – looking downward, palm to forehead as head is slowly shaken from side to side, meaning “you really don’t get it, do you?” Not to be confused with a similar signal incorporating a nod instead of a shake, meaning “yes, you’re right, it was me who gave you gonorrhea”.
Last night for all the Yorkies and our token German so we celebrated by drinking copious amounts of contraband booze that was never travelling to the UK anyway, and waking up shocked and vomitous with what appeared to be the worst hangover I’d had since the now infamous “four days of debauchery” ball tournament of 2011. All right, maybe that hangover part was only me, and as it turned out, upon further examination, there was a bit more to it than that. Seems I had picked up some version of the same thing so many others had fought with at one time or another throughout the week but, unfortunately, since everyone was leaving there was no one left to offer sympathy and consoling “hmmming” noises while secretly doing a mental touchdown dance to celebrate that it wasn’t happening to them. The end result was that I didn’t go surfing, and in fact didn’t make it anywhere other than the bed or the bathroom until 7pm, and was in the midst of rather indisposed transit between the two – beard, wild greasy hair, bloodshot eyes and clad only in a pair of saggy underwear – when introduced to my new roommate, a friendly Brit whose good humour faded visibly as he sized me up, his right hand twitching slightly before he stuffed it deeply into his pocket where it would be safe from prying handshakes.
Through a supreme effort of will I made it out to a restaurant where I gorged on half a Sprite, one triangle of stale bread and 5 mouthfuls of Moroccan soup before returning to bed, exhausted and nauseous, where I entertained myself by lying painfully awake and worrying myself even sicker about the 5 hour taxi and bus journey to Marrakech I had planned for the following day.
Surfing Progress Report – Saturday
Dreamt of all the amazing things I would have achieved, all the unruly waves I would have tamed, all the promising waves I would have wasted, had only I been able to eat a cracker without puking.
So ended a fun, active, educational week in which I met a lot of great people, had an outstanding time, watched a lot of good surfing and, most importantly, learned a lot about surfing – how to do it, how not to do it, what happens to the skin on your body when you do it wrong, how wetsuits can be used to limit sunburns, and where I fall in the hierarchy of surfers, namely, pretty damn low.
But I can now unequivocally say that “I’m surfing, I surf, I’m a surfer!”, and I feel that it is my prerogative whether or not too add “A really shitty one, though”. I think I’ll just go with whatever feels right at the time.
Can using squat toilets extend the life of your pant legs? Find out in my book Random Acts of Travel: Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting.