I’m not a surfer.
Would that I was.
When my kids took it up in their early teens I got to kind of enjoy it vicariously through them. Of course they were living one of my fantasies. I was 14 when the Beach Boys formed; I was 15 when I saw Blue Hawaii for the first time, and I’ve envied the lifestyle I perceived ever since.
So I was secretly thrilled when my kids began to surf. By then, we’d transplanted from the hulking, grey, un-surf-able waves of the Irish Sea to the Canary Islands, where surfing perhaps isn’t what it is in California or Hawaii, but, still, it happens. I was transport for a while, until they got their own.
They introduced me to surf videos and the heavy rock music that had taken over from the innocent harmonies of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. It was compelling stuff, speaking to the excitement and the thrill of riding with nature, the zen of being at one with the ocean.
The most memorable video of all was The Endless Summer*, which, even by then in the 1990s, was vintage. This movie is more than just THE classic surf movie, it embodies a lifestyle many of us dream of, the nomadic search for ……..? Well, in the case of Mike and Bob (if I remember the names correctly) it was endless summer. When the waves drop at home in the US, they chase their dream around the world.
As they begin their journey in West Africa, they are seen running out of a hotel to try their luck in this warmer part of the North Atlantic, surf boards tucked under their arms, and dozens of local kids watching as if they are crazy.
That scene has changed surprisingly little since 1966. Arriving at the beach in NGor, as I do in June, it’s easy to pick out the hotel. It’s the largest structure there. Sadly, it appears that the staff know nothing about the movie. Two of the guys from our surf camp wander in to look around, and speak with them. But, then, why should they? Endless Summer is an iconic movie, but only in certain circles.
But what the heck is a 71-year-old, non-surfer doing at a surf camp you ask?
The answer is twofold. One: one of my sons, Austin, was volunteering at NGor Surf Camp, and, two: Senegal is a country I have long wanted to visit for personal reasons. So this is why I find myself shuffling off my shoes and (compression) socks on a beach, at the end of which I can see THAT hotel, the one Mike and Bob had so eagerly run out of more than fifty years ago. Hotel NGor Diarama, was built in 1953 and looks as if it has been renovated in fairly recent times. It certainly occupies an idyllic position, overlooking the beach and bay of NGor.
For me the flight to Senegal is only half the time of a trip to my homeland, England, and truth is that the Canary Islands, as I realize during my week, has elements of the two, the laid-back yet the pressured, the vibrant colours yet the polluted highways. Had I travelled from, say, London, where I am now, the difference would have been more intense. But back to the beach …..
I wriggle the warm sand through my toes. I hate wearing shoes, and only wear them when it’s really necessary. My son hefts my not inconsiderable bags (because I am taking equipment for him for a lifeguard course he is teaching) into a an elderly boat with an outboard motor, as I roll up my pants and wade into the warm water to be graciously helped into the boat by our driver. This becomes a daily thing, and I do it with what I consider nonchalance until the day that a traditional pirogue arrives in place of the usual boat, and I end up on my back, feet in the air, and laughing too much to be embarrassed. Folk reassuring told me that they had seen much more ungainly boardings, so dignity only slightly dented.
We chug away from the beach and I turn towards Îsle de NGor, my destination. My journey has been a gradual leaving behind of the cacophony of the world, from the buzz of the small but modern airport in the north of Tenerife, to the relative serenity of the brand-new Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar; from a smooth taxi ride along immaculate, new roads accessing the airport, then the chaos of Dakar, to the sandy streets by the beach in the suburb, NGor; and then from the lively beach scene, where kids play soccer, vendors hawk T-shirts and pareos, and the boat-taxis wait for customers, to an even more laid-back beach on the island. Life seems to have been winding down palpably over the three hour trip.
First things first: Austin dumps my bags just inside a bar/café shack on the edge of the beach, and orders lunch, as he jokes with the owners. He’s been here long enough to know everyone, and everyone makes me welcome because I am his mother, including the delightful lady who joins us for a while to take the weight off her feet, and rest from selling her trinkets. Without asking me to buy anything at all, she slips a pretty bracelet onto my wrist, and tells me it’s a gift, because my son is always nice to her. I mumble my thanks in schoolgirl French. This is to be repeated by different vendors many times over the week I am here, never pressure or pleading, much smiling and laughing, no intrusion and some charming gifts. It’s a way of life.
We eat freshly caught, freshly cooked fish, and drink cold, local beers. Truly, it doesn’t get much better than this, I am already chill. Eventually, still bare-footed, I follow Austin up a narrow, sandy pathway to the surf camp which is to be my home for the week. It’s low season, and the few other guests, surfers, of course, are staying in another building, a minute away. My room is basic, and spotless. Normally it would sleep 3 people. One double bed and one single. Austin explains that the electricity only comes on after 7pm, and the water pressure isn’t what I am used to. Neither of these are a problem. This is a tiny island, and it is Africa.
I open the terrace door of my room, unpack, then tip toe up to the roof terrace, where Austin is leading a yoga class. The Camp is coming to the end of its Surf and Reconnect Month. Body cramped from travel, I sit on a chair, but take part as I can. As we pass some quiet moments in meditation, the evocative call to prayer echoes across from a mosque on the mainland. The beauty and meaning of this moment is not lost on me. It’s a meeting of worlds and beliefs, caught on the breeze.
After, I crawl happily under my mosquito net and nap as the warm breeze wafts in. It was an early start.
That terrace door stays open all week, so safe is this wee island. It’s only 800 metres long, threaded by narrow sandy alleys, lined with colourful gateways, walls draped with bougainvillea, the occasional tree hung with the work of a local artist. Some impressive-looking houses hide behind high walls, because this is also becoming a get-away for Dakar’s upwardly-mobile set. The beaches are small, of vibrant yellow sand, mats laid out under parasols if you have the inclination. The vendors of trinkets and colourful clothing, beads and bracelets, ferries or strong, spicy touba coffee never hassle. There are two, main beaches, and they are much cleaner than the beach across the bay in NGor, where it cannot be denied, plastic pollution, is a problem. There are a few bars, which serve food. It isn’t cordon bleu, but it is fresh, brought across on the boats from the mainland, and it is all you need. Life here is pared down to essentials, but those essentials are colourful, and closer to the rhythm of life than we have been in the West for a long time.
The island is so small, and so quiet, that there is almost nothing else to say — except, of course, that there is surf.
My understanding of surfing is probably more spiritual than practical, but I do understand that this place is iconic, almost sacred, within this world, and I am up early next morning to get some shots of the guys making that early morning swell. The photos in this post aren’t going to do the scene justice, because I am sitting here at the back end of summer in London, and I left my camera and its card in the Canary Islands, so the pics are going to be all from my phone. But I need to write this now, and move on.
NGor Surf Camp was founded nine years ago by Jesper, who came from Denmark, and, romantically, for all practical purposes, never left. He simply fell in love with NGor Island, and lives the surfer’s dream. Would that we could all find our own paradise this way!
When I arrive the camp is almost deserted by high season standards, but the routine is the same. Information about the swells, winds, weather and day’s events is chalked up by the time I get down for breakfast every day. I never hear the bell ring to indicate that there’s a massive swell, but, of course, it’s low season for a reason!
Breakfast is eaten at a long, communal table on the ground floor terrace, overlooking a small and immaculate pool, though when it’s high season, other tables in other areas around the pool area and inside are brought into use. We tear into fresh baguettes, delivered daily from the mainland, an assortment of lush jams (coconut, papaya and mango and more), boiled eggs, and local fruits, so ripe they drip down your chin in sticky pleasure.
Dinner, sometimes local dishes and sometimes more familiar cuisine, like pasta, is eaten at the same table, when the day’s triumphs, spills and jokes are shared. I can only listen with interest, and imagine what it must be like when the table is full and the waves high. Surfers’ craic.
I learn something about surfers, something I’ve long suspected, many are travellers too. Generally, they travel with purpose, in search of the next wave, of course, but conversation often turns to travels and other related stuff, so I wasn’t always the fly on the wall. No-one else here is near to my age, but surfers are open-minded and non-judgmental. They are all young, tanned, some restless, some contented, but all with that desire to live a life less ordinary, and with that casual self-assurance born of having seen something of the world.
I spend a couple of days taking photos for the lifeguards’ course Austin is presenting on behalf of Proactiva Beach Safety, and I spend another day writing on my terrace. The rest is just chilling. I snorkel one morning from a tiny beach by the other house, but the water is churned up. Waves are rolling in, just not surf-able ones! This is the only day I don’t leave the island, but I would be perfectly happy just to wander the alleyways and sit on the beaches. It is quieter than ever because it is the end of Ramadan, the feast known more commonly as Eid al Fitr, but here in Senegal as Korité. As with Christmas in England, or Thanksgiving in the US, everyone has left to visit family, three days later it is noticeably more lively, and I see faces I haven’t seen in my first days.
I become adept at stepping into the boats (until the day the pirogue turns up, but the less said about that the better!). My long-legged son walks at a phenomenal pace, so I am almost running to keep up, whilst trying to take in everything around me: the beach scene with a few obvious tourists, dozens of kids playing football, the guys waiting for customers to ferry across to the island, or fishing boats coming and going, some athletic, young men running along the shoreline; the dusty road beyond the beach with stalls selling fruit and others selling clothing; the chaos when we emerge onto a busy road lined by shops and cafés; the haggling with taxi drivers; the rubbish piled into a corner of a square (it is collected, but there are no containers meanwhile).
Clearly there is poverty, but there are contrasts too; at the airport a flashy couple who might be mistaken for hip hop performers in the West, on a ferry a young woman with a chihuahua in her handbag, some big cars on the roads, a French-style coffee shop, and of course there is THAT statue and the swanky, new airport.
In addition, in NGor, there is Bayékou a trendy, rooftop bar overlooking the dusty square behind the beach. With its chilled rosé, its western-style food (best fishburger ever and melt-in-the-mouth tapas) and its stylish seating with alcoves along one wall where you can lounge, it would be a class act anywhere in Spain. It’s here that we come to watch a couple of World Cup matches, the most important, of course, being Senegal’s first game. The place fills with an international group of supporters, clad in football shirts or Senegalese colours, and I realize that this place, though not expensive by European standards, is way above the means of the guys down on the street below. I glance down after our team scores its first goal, but the street is almost deserted, presumably everyone is watching at home, or at a friend’s.
One day we squeeze five of us into a taxi to visit Îsle de Gorée, but this is something which demands its own post. Stay tuned.
Another day, when there is no surf around the island, we go in search of it along the mainland shore. I am surprised to see how well-organized it all is, after all, Senegal is not the first place you think of when you think of surfing ….. though it might well be in the future! We settle on Yoff, a long, white-sand beach, but, with a big plastic-pollution problem. Beach clean ups are beginning to happen here, though, and given that they are only really just taking off in other parts of the world, they are not too far behind.
I get some decent shots, despite the hovering haze, and we lunch on delicious fish and rice. It might be possible to have too much fish and rice, but not if you’re only here for a week!
For Austin this is his last surf session here. New opportunities and a different kind of life are waiting for him. I can only guess at how he will miss these acres of golden sand, the simplicity of this lifestyle, and these smiles. The people of Senegal are, as I knew they would be, despite the poverty, the friendliest I have met anywhere.
I know that I will be back. I am more certain of this than about anywhere I have ever been. I know that what I have seen these last, few days has been only a glimpse, only one side of life in here. I didn’t hear any mbalax, Senegal’s musical gift to the world, I didn’t see any of the famous sabar dancing, I didn’t see the forests and wildlife, and I only glimpsed the pandemonium of Dakar which I have heard so much about. I didn’t get to Casamance or St Louis (where there is an annual jazz festival in May) ….. so I have plenty of reasons to go back ….. but mostly, for the smiles.
Re: NGor Surf Camp I should confirm that there was always enough electricity to charge my phone, and my notebook and my camera – all I needed! Over the week, the Wifi was intermittent but I’d picked up a local SIM card at the airport with data, and it was more than I needed for a one week stay. You will find a link to their website in the text, but do check out their Instagram account too! I was in no way whatsoever asked to write about it nor will I be recompensed for writing about them. I don’t think that Jesper even knew I had a blog …. well, let’s face it, it’s not been much of one of late anyway!
I flew Binter, the Canary Islands’ small, independent airline, and my totally unsolicited opinion is that it’s the best airline I’ve flown with in a long time. It’s a short flight, only a little over two hours from the island of Tenerife, so the food provided was good for what it was, and the staff were, simply, the best. I have nothing but praise. Austin, having done the trip several times over 8 or 9 months, is a big fan. I appreciate that the longer the flight the more difficult the logistics, but Binter could give bigger airlines a few pointers.
*Endless Summer used to be available on YouTube, but it seems to have been taken down quite recently, so I can’t give you a reliable link, sorry.