One time in Sao Tome, I offered to paddle a village boy into a wave. He was probably only ten years old, and when I waved him over he left his cheering buddies in the shore break and eagerly dog paddled over the smooth cobblestones, towards me. I motioned for him to hop onto the board in front of me, and he did, which just so happened to orient his little naked black butt only inches from my face. I had thought I had waved to one of the few who were wearing shorts, ripped and torn as they were. Quickly I reconsidered my strategy for the surf lesson.
“There ya go, buddy,” I called, pushing, rather than paddling, him into his first wave. He rode for a moment on his belly and then was dumped head first into the rocky sand. I was momentarily concerned, but then his little head popped up from the whitewater already laughing, shining the wholesome grin of new discovery. The gaggle of groms wading closer to shore promptly lost their composure and rushed me, clamoring over each other to be the next. I carefully chose between the ones wearing shorts from then on.
Six years earlier, the legendary surf explorer, Sam George, visited the same islands just looking to sample a few new waves. Sao Tome, a tiny group of islands off the coast of West Africa, having been an integral piece of the Portuguese slave trade in the 1600s, had been recently run by a dictatorship that restricted tourism.
Ruined evidence of the slave trading past.
The 1990s saw the second smallest nation in Africa finally accept democracy and open up to the tourists of the world. Considering themselves quite possibly the first to surf the area, Sam and his traveling mates found a few fun waves and considered the trip a success. However, as in most experiences, the more meaningful discovery was a group of humans, who theoretically had never been exposed to the world of surfing, and yet since they were faced with waves, had devised a strategy to ride them. The travelers marveled at their stumbling upon an example of indigenous surfing in West Africa! Since they had been riding on crude wooden belly boards, Sam pushed a few of the native groms into their first stand-up waves using his technologically advanced longboard. The trip photographer happened to capture that wondrous moment when one of the kids stood up for the first time, with Sam in the background cheering him on.
Just over half a decade later, Sam decided to return to see what had become of that one photographed boy in particular. I questioned the chances of actually finding one specific African in a continent of countless. Sure, surfers have “that look” that despite myriad differences in culture always stands out. Still, this boy would be about 18 now, past the culturally acceptable age of frolicking with friends at the beach all day. What were the chances he’d still be surfing, rather than off in the city making a living? Regardless, I was thrilled by the invitation to join the search party.
We spent a week in Gabon, hoping to see the famed Hippopotami in the surf. We shared an intimidating surf session that consisted mostly of paddling against a strong current in latte colored river runoff, in an area most definitely filled with crocodiles and plenty of other toothy creatures.
Sunrise in Gabon
From the safety of a boat we journeyed upriver to admire regal elephants with free reign over the National Park.
We even enjoyed the rare opportunity to tickle a couple of kindergarten aged orphan gorillas, all the while our goal of finding Sam’s protégé lingering in the back of our minds.
Our accomoations in Gabon were called “gentleman’s camping”.
We came across a local boy jumping off a bridge into the river
Of course, Sam and I had to try it as well!
The people of West Africa are beautiful.
A local home.
Our doubts grew larger as our chartered plane touched down in Sao Tome. We learned that a luxury resort had overtaken the lovely crescent shaped beach, on the adjacent and romantically titled, Ilheu de Rolas (Island of the Turtle Doves), where the village of native surfers had previously resided. Most of the villagers had apparently been displaced, possibly hopelessly scattered.
A Sao Tome woman weaving.
A boy selling dried fish.
Thus, it was with low expectations that we drove into Porto Allegre to check a point break that Sam had sampled on his previous trip, while awaiting a ferry to the resort island. Once the bay came into view, we took in an immediately encouraging sight. Upon pulling up closer, we were amazed to see a naked boy looking to be about eight years old, stand-up paddling a wooden surf craft across the smooth surface of the sea. There wasn’t a wave under his board, but it was close enough to get us excited.
My doubts were certainly not erased. I was however eager to jump out there on my own surf craft and try out the sun sparkling, shoulder high rights peeling along the point with not one other fiberglass surfboard in sight. Bikini, fins, sunscreen all in their proper places, and I was ready to charge out there, led by a deliriously giddy Sam, who had just stumbled upon a crude wooden object about 6’ long that looked a lot like a surfboard leaning up against a shack near the water.
All around us the villagers swarmed, not quite sure what to make of us, but definitely interested.
It was a bit unsettling, being watched so closely by so many curious eyes. We paddled up the point and at least fifty children ran along the shore and took seats on the rocks beneath a big shady tree. Each time one of us caught a wave the crowd erupted in cheers and laughter. The waves weren’t very powerful but there were a few sets that surprised us with their size. Other than the lone paddler and the unclaimed surfboard-looking object we didn’t see much evidence of surfing. No surfers joined us in the lineup.
Sam, the constant entertainer, performing for the crowd.
Back on land, Sam did find someone who recognized the photo of his African protege. Amazingly, not only did the young man still surf, he lived right there on the point! He happened to be in town that day but his father assured us he would return in a day or two. We retired to the resort satisfied, feeling that our mission had already been accomplished.
For me, the truly memorable piece of the whole experience really began the following day. After breakfast, we returned to the point to see if Sam’s friend had showed. It was overcast and the waves were significantly smaller. At first it hardly seemed ride-able. Since the young man had not yet returned from town, Sam decided to take the opportunity to get an interview with the boy’s father and I borrowed his longboard to try to catch a wave or two. I found a few in the waist-high and under category, but mostly I sat in the lineup and appreciated the place I was surfing and the admiring crowd on the beach. Soon their cheers increased in volume, and I was just sitting there doing nothing. They were hooting and clapping but there was no set on the horizon. I wondered what they could possibly be getting so worked up about, and then looked back to see a handful of locals paddling out to join me! Three of them were sitting up with their legs stretched out in front of them on wooden rafts about a foot wider than shoulder width and something like 5’ long. They were made of three to five thick round logs tied together, depending on the size of the kid floating on top. For a paddle they used a long piece of bamboo cut lengthwise. More interesting to me were the two paddling towards me on their stomachs atop those curious looking wooden surfboards. One of them looked to be not much older than 7 or 8. He sat cautiously on the shoulder along with the rafters. The other charged out towards the peak and spun around on one of the first waves that came in. Compounding my excitement, he awkwardly jumped to his feet and let the whitewater propel him towards shore. The crowd went nuts and I wholeheartedly joined them.
I reveled in the novelty of my surfing mates. Other than big smiles and a few “thumbs up” gestures, we had a hard time communicating. My Portuguese is limited to a few simple phrases, and his English was non-existent. Eventually, I realized that Spanish was close enough to extract a few simple details, like the fact that his name was Bernadine and he had shaped his board himself. It later became apparent that when a fishing canoe was retired, the surfers would use machetes to cut the sides into surfboards.
He looked at Sam’s longboard with at least as much interest as I was showing his board, and after I caught a few more long glides, we switched. Suddenly I found myself on a 5’ long piece of waterlogged wood that other than its pointed nose, hardly resembled a surfboard at all. Since it was the side of a canoe in it’s previous life, there was so much concave in the deck, laying on it felt more like laying in it. The bottom was rounded as well, and not even evenly, and of course there weren’t any fins.
While sitting up on it, I sank to my armpits. As the session went on and the wood absorbed more water, it became even harder to paddle, but it duck-dove like a dream! I paddled a bit deeper towards the peak with a set approaching, then turned and paddled towards shore. The wave started to lift me up and I tried to get to my feet, but as soon as I began to push up, the board started spinning and quickly realizing this attempt was not going to be successful I decided to focus simply on not losing the board in order to avoid a long swim over urchin decorated rocks in order to retrieve it. Bernadine watched me struggling in the whitewash and laughed. Meanwhile, he had been catching what must have been the best waves of his life. After one or two false starts, he was pointing the longboard towards shore and gliding until the wave faded into a ripple. He had never ridden a board with fins before, and as I was definitely realizing, fins help a lot. My main challenge was to keep the board from spinning before I could stand up and it was not easy. On one wave I decided not to fight it and actually performed a full 360 before finally setting the rail in the proper direction and actually standing up to ride down the line. Bernadine was paddling out and witnessed my success. We shared a smile of absolute camaraderie and enjoyment. It was awesome!
By the time we returned to the village the following day, word of our visit had spread to surrounding areas and the main street of town, if you could call it that, was packed with spectators. They were very curious. The kids were simply baffled by us.
They followed us around in big packs, laughing and whispering to each other things I could only imagine. They did know a few English phrases, things like “I love you, baby!” no doubt taken from a movie or a song, and they would repeat it often although it didn’t seem they were very sure of the meaning. We were taking photos of the scenery, and they were very eager photo subjects. They would cram in front of the camera and pose and then immediately rush over to see themselves in the digital camera picture window and laugh and point at each other’s faces or poses.
Sam’s protégé, Shun, had finally surfaced. Sam was literally beside himself with pure joy. Shun seemed excited as well, although also very shy. He was not at all sure how to deal with all the fuss being made over him, or the wireless microphone attached to his shirt, or the huge high definition camera pointed at him to catch his responses to Sam’s interview.
When he stripped down to his underwear and hit the water on his own wooden board however, he came alive. The waves were even smaller than the day before, and I heard Bernadine saying something that could only have translated to, “you really missed it, the waves were much bigger yesterday!” I told Sam what I had heard and we laughed together. Despite the completely different cultures, we were all surfers and because of that we shared plenty in common.
There was another boy that showed up with a hand carved surfboard. His name was Mano and he looked to be around 14. He and I were about the same size, so when it was time to trade equipment, I chose him to trade with since I figured my shortboard would float him better than some of the bigger guys. Like the others, he was ecstatic but shy. We traded waves all morning and tried our best to communicate. I rode each of the wooden boards in turn, and even tried to catch a few waves on one of the rafts. In the end I had urchins in my feet, splinters in my stomach, and was completely exhausted. It was the most challenging surf session I’ve ever had. But, watching the excitement of our new friends getting the best waves of their lives was unforgettable. Shun turned out to be the best surfer of the bunch. He was the only one I saw get to his feet on one of the wooden boards and successfully ride down the line. It was amazing. Sam was incredibly proud.
Unfortunately, our time had run out. We returned to the resort for one last afternoon and then stopped by the village on our way out of town to say goodbye. I had already mostly emptied by bag of clothes to give away. They fought over t-shirts and tank tops a little too viciously and I had to step away for fear they would rip the clothes right off my body. Such was the neediness in front of me. Sam ceremoniously handed his longboard over to Shun. Even the producer on the trip donated his board to the village. I had been thinking of leaving mine as well, but I had just gotten it and it was a pretty good board. I’m supposed to return my boards to Rusty when I’m finished with them, and sometimes it takes a while to get them replaced. During our goodbyes, Mano was nowhere in sight, so I figured the clothing would suffice as an adequate donation. We were almost getting into the trucks to drive out, when Mano ran up, dripping with sweat. He had been working in the next town and heard we were back to say goodbye so he dropped everything and ran as fast as he could to see us one last time. I watched him ask Bernadine if there were only two boards donated and the look of disappointment on his face when he answered in the affirmative made up my mind.
I went over to the truck and pulled my board out of its bag. He watched closely as I showed him how to put the fins in and attach the leash. I showed him how to wax the board and gave him all the wax that I had. I put my arm around him to pose for a photo and he was literally shaking. He gave me a huge and very sincere hug and then pulled away in embarrassment. The trio of women watching, one of which would later introduce herself as his mother, motioned for me to give him a kiss, so I did, lightly on his cheek and he smiled, blushing.
We tried to get the three surfers together for a photo with their new boards but suddenly, Mano was missing once again. “What is he doing this time?” I wondered. Just then he came running back clutching a big whole fish, wet and fishy as if it had just been pulled from the ocean for dinner. He handed it to me proudly and I tried to seem very happy about it. We got the photo, I threw the fish into the back of the truck, and we drove off in a flurry of waving. Throughout the long ride back to town I tried to digest the experience we had just shared. Mano had wanted to repay me somehow for the board I left him, and gave me the only thing he could think of, probably the only thing he had. The whole situation was simply amazing. I’ll never forget it.