The sirens and seagulls outside the garden walls of this little guesthouse I’m staying in are a type of music, an invitation to see what secrets I can find in the alleys of this castle city on the Douro. I was on my way home last night when I saw a group of ten women–red dresses, high heels on slick cobblestone–going somewhere. I was curious. I followed them. They went, as I thought, to the section of Porto where the bars were, the nightlife, a group of about twenty chanting and dance-fighting capoeta on a bar-lined alley. The women, all from Northern England, were here for a “henning,” a bachelorette party. They invited me to a place called the Gin House, a spot that served nothing but gin and tonics made from your choice of about seventy gins. (Apparently, this is popular in Portugal now.) When I left the women to their “henning,” the streets had filled up with two thousand people, men and women, mostly young, but some in their sixties and seventies.
I left Baleal yesterday because I had a bit of the ghost in me. The town was creeping towards a low-season slumber, surf town’s lull into when the swell and contests and the summer have evaporated. Sure, there were the people left from the surf companies and the WSL doing post-contest mop-up and trying to squeeze a little vacation at the end of a long run through Europe, but the parking lots full of campers were slowly leaving, or figuring out how to stay, how not to return to their cold climate countries and make a go of it there, how to continue operating as if on a mild sedative. When I heard the women from one of the sponsors come back to her friend, complaining that it takes a half hour to get anything done in Portugal, I knew she was talking more specifically about the character of a surf town. She was doing what people do when they leave a place, find fault in the town or the people they spent time with in order to make the going easier. But these fishing-villages-cum-vacation/surf-towns find themselves in flux when the off season comes. Before Rip Curl discovered the wave here seven years ago, I’m pretty sure it was nothing more than a sardine and crop economy with a small university. Now the streets are lined with surf schools. All week surfers buzzed the dirt roads for surf between Baleal and the recently constructed golf resort. I raised my head this morning from my screen just in time to see a man with his wife on a wagon-cart pull the reigns of their donkey to turn onto the dirt road by the surf lodge. The waves had gone flat. The rental cars that had potholed the dirt roads had disappeared with the contest and the surf. The drug dealer with the pointy elf shoes and mini shoulder pack I saw around town and handing little pouches out to a girl who worked for the sponsor and her techno trance-dancing friends was gone. I’m always suspicious of what happens to these towns when the party is over. If you’re not surfing and you don’t make art and you don’t work on a fishing boat or in the fields, there’s not much to do except get high, get laid, get the zombie in your eyes.
For me, the end of the contest meant I could try and see a little bit of Portugal, try to find a rhythm in a more “authentic” fishing village with surf, or in a city. As I drove up to Porto yesterday I kept thinking that about how people always run away from the smell of need, of desperation’s edginess, how you can see it after some poetry readings, how its thin elixir had mixed into the beads of sweat on my skin in that town. I needed to go out on the road, to break the bubble I’ve been living in at home, with its strict schedules, truncated and sterile parent conversations. But when I went out on the road, I knew I had to stick to a strict schedule, to not drink, to stay away from the espresso after dinner and late nights. I knew that this trip was also about managing my time and independence away from the schedules of home, of my wife and kids, the things that have grounded me for ten years and longer. I know myself to want to taste everything, read everything, get my hands dirty, put myself in the middle of whatever looks interesting. But when I don’t sleep, when I sample all the alcohols of a region and go art crazy like I have, I become distracted, dependent on the validation of friends, the kindness of strangers, of the surf.
My worst habit, when in disarray, is to flirt. Flirting is cheap validation. It is easier than making friends with guys. It is easier than concentrating when tired, than writing or reading, then leaning into my loneliness and displacement. I receive no immediate validation when writing. I receive an immediate response when flirting, but it’s disingenuous and gets me into trouble. The last night of the contest I took two women out to dinner. They were nice and smart and I was desperate for the company. I didn’t think they were that much younger; I didn’t really think about it. They were in college. I was buying them dinner the way older people were generous to me when I was in my twenties. At dinner two guys kept staring. At the party, after dinner, a group of guys approached the women and asked if I spoke Portuguese. When they found out the girls spoke Portuguese and I didn’t, they started asking why they were hanging with their father.
Had Strider, almost as an act of sympathy, not told me about the championship party at the contest site, I would not have known. I am neither a WSL elder statesman with a competitive pedigree, nor do I have street cred as a big wave “hellman.” I have nothing to offer as a surf business executive, and, as the guys pointed out at the party, I’m sort of like Hunter S. Thompson’s middle age son. At home, parents refer to me as a hard-core surfer. Out here, with my ankle so swollen it looks like a pumpkin squash, I’m not even a core surfer. And you can forget being “hard.” On the other hand, my respect for these young people and for the people my age that work putting on the tour has only increased. I’ve barely been able to keep my shit together. Megan Grant, the site director for the WSL and her colleagues live like this, putting on an unbelievable show, setting up and tearing down entire villages in a different part of the world under radically different conditions every month. That the competitors stay focused in their twenties and don’t get sucked into the circus – I never would have ended up left behind in a vineyard at their age!