Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lord of the Rats

Drive thirty minutes south of tourist trappy Tamarindo on dirt roads, past the 'pot farm' and a few small wooden houses, and you will come to the Lord of the Rats. Fifteen years ago, Pablo was a pioneer of Costa Rican surfers, offering cheap accommodations and 'burgers the size of your head' to house and fuel the budget surf rats drawn to the legendary waves of Playa Negra.  Today the dank dorm rooms and overpriced food don't draw the same crowds.  He seems like a friendly guy, but every once in a while Pablo randomly shoots off his guns, so we walk quietly past his compound on our way to the beach.  His pioneering spirit lives on in the surf rats who flock to Costa Rican beaches year round. 
Surf rats form packs in cheap accommodations on beaches throughout Central America. They vary in age from the youngsters out of high school and college, who turn their back on 'real life' and enjoy themselves for a couple of years before buying a suit and getting a job in a cube-farm. There also the grizzled middle-agers who work on the west coast of the US growing pot or cutting timber during the summer to make just enough money for a flight down South, making this long distance commute every year and returning to their same favorite surf spot like monarchs migrating from Mexico to Canada. Rats either camp on the beach in ancient tents held together with duct-tape or cram like sardines into dingy dorm rooms, cooking ramen noodles for dinner in a crusty hot pot while exchanging stories of epic waves or monster barrels. Younger surf rats tend to travel in packs, descending like locusts on fooz-ball tables and lugging their dusty backpacks onto dilapidated schools buses. Older rats are loners, waiting quietly like Buddhas on dusty roads while they try to hitch rides with their board and meager belongings.

The surf rats who apparently live solely off bananas, rice, and waves have started to influence our travel lifestyle. Waking up early in the morning to beat the crowds on the waves, eating bananas for breakfast and napping in a hammock to restore our strength, our hair is scruffy from too much salt water and our skin brown despite going through a tube of sunblock a day. While we aren't sleeping on the beach in our board bags to keep costs down, we have resorted to the occasional ramen noodle meal. We can't claim true rat-dom however, as we own cars and laptops, and are rarely averaging under $15/day for living expenses. But, as we're traveling for a year (or more if we can stretch our budgets) and the prospect of finding employment when returning home is looking increasingly grim, the rat lifestyle has definitely increased its appeal.


  1. It appears you picked a good year to not be here. We seem to be pinning too many hopes on Obama but he seems to be our best chance at this point. Anyway, here in the frozen north, the sun is shining, the cats are smelling Spring, and Alan is vacuuming the upstairs--life is good!
    Aunt Kay

  2. long live the rat dream!

  3. Never mind who I am, sufice it to say that I am these guys' neighbor in Costa Rica, somone in the know, and I was reading this blog and read how they have been influenced by the rat lifestyle. When I read "waking up early to beat the crowds on the waves" I had to call "bulls@#t on that! I haven't seen any of them roll out of bed before 10 a.m. They are more likely to catch the evening sunset session than dawn patrol.ha ha ha And today I went shopping with them in Tamarindo. . . at AutoMercado where you can get all the tastiest designer imported stuff like Snickers bars and Pringles. And as their neighbor I have been sharing meals with them and know for fact what they eat. . . no cold canned raviolis eaten out of the can with fingers here! PLEASE you guys! Gimme a break!

    I was a bonafide surfrat from the Panama Canal in the mid seventies. . . we were called the "juniors" back then. We really did sleep in our board bags. Our Moms' made them for us out of cotton cloth and sewed a drawstring into them. Shoot, I even conned my mom into sewing me together a pair of surf shorts with wax pocket complete with velcro enclosure. . . and velcro was like the latest thing back then. They were yellow. Had her copy a pair of Hang Ten shorts a friend brought back from a trip to the States and I personally sewed the two little feet onto them.

    Back then we all screwed a Cerveza Panama bottle opener onto the front bumper of the jeep to open our beers, carried a P-38 military can opener on our key ring, and connected our homemade bungycord leashed to our legs when we slept on the beach so nobody could rip off our boards while we were asleep. Yeah, I know. . . you're calling bulls@#t on me now. "Who could possibly sleep through a thief stealing your board on the beach when three or four juniors (rats) are camped out tegether" right? Refer back to the bottle opener on our bumpers to open our beers and it might make sense to ya. Nobody had a tent. . . driftwood and palm fronds baby! And that was luxurios living. We all had an Igloo in the trunk or behind the jeep seats, a duffle bag that never left the vehicle with a towel, pair of shorts, a couple cans of raviolis and a bar of parafin wax or some candles to wax the board.

    For my 18th birthday I got malaria from a surf trip to a newly discovered surfbreak in the north of Panama called Santa catalina. Surfed epic 8 foot with a bunch of guys from Santa Barbara on an article mission about Santa Catalina. The cat was out of the bag. . . thanks Bissel, Greenough and Dan. Catalina has never been the same. But surviving the malaria was my right of passage from Junior (rat, grom, etc) to bonifide member of the pack.

    Yeah, I was a rat, bueno, a "junior" but it was a title I wore proudly. I am glad I passed onto training up the rats that followed after me, but cherished my junior days. They were good times. And when the pack would call us the juniors it wasn't in a negative context. Sure we looked up to them, but we reminded them of a really great period of their lives too. And in that, I think they envied us a bit.

  4. Great read!! Thanks for keeping at least one cube rat entertained...


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