Day 105 – A Christmas Gift from Santa (Teresa)

I’ve always wondered why people take so much pleasure in hitting certain numerical milestones – what is it about the number 100, or any round number, that gets us excited? My 100th day passed by completely unnoticed, but now does seem as good a time as any to take stock of progress. So, how am I doing?

Well for starters, my travels in Central America have been very smooth. No yellow fever, no food poisoning, no aggro from locals or travellers, no muggings at gunpoint, no dodgy moments at all really (apart from that $5 bus ticket I paid for 3 times, which was funny). I don’t believe in tempting fate, but feel free to touch wood on my behalf (how is your mum?). I’ve spent a bit more cash than intended, but that was always going to happen.

True fans of the Gump Method (hi Mum, hi Dad, hi Rebecca) will remember the promise I made to myself back on Day 12; I wanted to ‘get good at’ Spanish, Surfing and Salsa – the three S’s. I concede that these are not the most noble of objectives – I’m not building any wells or teaching English to orphans – but for now I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and it’s great. 

Unfortunately, after my last post, 97 days into not working and travelling in mostly Spanish speaking, surfable countries I was, in all honesty, having a 4th S – a Shocker. Marks out of ten would have been: Spanish 2/10, surfing 3/10, salsa 0/10. Must try harder. 

Santa Teresa 

Keen to make meaningful progress in at least one area I made my way to Santa Teresa, a surf Mecca on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast with consistent, year round waves and a distinctly higher than average ratio of beautiful people riding around on quad bikes.

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Athletic physiques, sun-kissed bodies, long hair (especially on the men) and a LOT of tattoos were the first things I noticed on arrival. Occupying, at best, one of those four categories I knew I would have my work cut out to fit in, but I arrived with a steely determination and some factor 50 with one objective in mind: surfing.

After an epic journey south from Nicaragua involving 8 public buses and a ferry in one 24 hour period, I arrived in a hot and dusty Santa Teresa in the week of Christmas. As a festive treat I decided to splash out, spending $30 per night on a private room at Tranquilo Backpackers; rock and roll.

iguana.jpgSadly when I rocked up I was met by an extremely tranquilo unoccupied building: I had booked 6 nights in a hostel that had closed 3 months earlier. Shiiiiiit. Thankfully Booking.com resolved the situation quickly, so all was well as I settled in at a new hostel with a friendly local iguana, before enjoying my first beachfront yoga session, assisted by a local pooch who had a few moves of his own (and a wandering right paw).

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Pura Vida

Everywhere in Costa Rica locals use the term ‘Pura Vida.’ The direct translation is ‘pure life’ but they seem to apply it to anything from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’ to ‘cheers’ to ‘isn’t this great!’ At first I found it annoying, but after a week in Santa Teresa I finally got the idea.

At first glance Santa Teresa is little more than a friendly and chilled out surf town, but to fully understand its Pura Vida lifestyle you need to experience another 3 S’s – sunrise, sunset and surfing.

As the clock approaches 6am the beach is quiet but surfers are guaranteed to be making the most of the glassy, warm waters as the sun rises and the yogis complete their early morning practice. It is a beautiful, cleansing and peaceful time to be alive (disclaimer: photo below is not actually sunrise but pretty much captures it).

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The true essence of Santa Teresa can only be experienced at sunset. Every evening, without fail, what feels like the whole town makes its way to the beach as the sun goes down. Families and friends, locals and travellers all socialise around huge bonfires as incredible sunsets illuminate the silhouettes of surfers catching the final waves of the day. Its simplicity and purity can only be understood first hand.

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Surf (and Darts) Club

While I must give a shout out to the amazing (sexycute) crew at La Posada Hostel, with whom I shared much of my leisure and surf time, the story I want to tell here starts and ends with an Italian surfing legend called David.

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David followed his passion for surfing to Santa Teresa 18 years ago when it was barely more than a dirt track with 3 or 4 cars passing through daily. He bought up some land (which has since gone up in value by around 20x), fell in love with a lovely Canadian woman (hi Jessica) and proposed to her in their first week together (lad).

They now have 2 great kids, loads of friends, a surf shop, some lovely rental accommodation (Check out Rio Carmen Rooms), surfing on the doorstep and more Pura Vida than you could imagine.

I approached David’s surf shop, “The Shit Hole” (the name came to him in a dream) looking for a rental board and a lesson. What I did not expect from this visit was great friends, significant improvements in both my Spanish and my surfing, membership of Darts Club every day after sunset, and even an invite to Christmas dinner.

But first, the surfing. If I was going to break the Rules (surf instructors must have neck length hair, deep suntans and washboard abs), I might as well break them in style. I’m guessing David’s abs were last seen sometime in the 20th century (sorry David if that’s inaccurate), and as he donned a hat with a chin strap to keep his face out of the sun, he did not look like your typical surf dude with attitude.

Appearances can of course be deceiving, as David was undoubtedly the coolest (and most effective) surf instructor I’d ever had. When he wasn’t tiptoeing up and down his longboard he was giving me great tips and advice, helping me to catch some decent sized waves properly for the first time.

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I had been waiting for something to click and, in Santa Teresa, surfing day-in-day-out for hours on end it finally happened. Rather than sitting there thinking about all the technical points I had to remember – wave direction, board position, when to paddle, when to pop up – at some point I stopped thinking and just did it, which is when it started to work.

To be clear, I am still a crap surfer on an 8 foot 6 inch board, but after a few days in Santa Teresa I was finally getting there, catching big, green waves and riding them laterally (rather than in a straight line towards the beach). It was an incredible feeling.

(Another disclaimer: the photo below is not of me; I was somewhere nearby, probably underwater).

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Santa’s Gift

Surfing on Christmas Day in Santa Teresa was yet another lifetime highlight which I will never forget. After a couple of days spent out of the water due to a big swell, the waves were still pretty huge and I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but I was determined to make the most of my remaining time before an early morning Boxing Day departure.

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While I enjoyed every minute of it, I had a really tough day. After catching a couple of early waves I spent most of the morning and afternoon in the ‘washing machine.’ As the sun descended on my final evening session I gave my camera to a friend in the vain hope (both senses of the word vain) of capturing some shots of me actually surfing before I left (spoiler alert: she didn’t get any).

I don’t know if it was the pressure of it being my last day, or an awareness that the camera was rolling, but I got the crap kicked out of me more in that half hour period than in the whole previous week.

While my time in the water might have looked unpleasant to an observer, there is a weird sense of enjoyment in getting thrown around like a lottery ball by the natural forces of sea and moon. Still, after about 15 or 20 minutes of constant battering the adrenaline wears off and you just want a hug.

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Desperate to catch one last Christmas wave I finally found a long enough break in the sets to make my way to the calmer water outside, straddled my board, looked to the horizon and prayed to the Surf Gods:

“Dear Surf Gods, I know I haven’t always been your greatest disciple, but you have really taught me a lesson in the last half hour and I would be so, so grateful if you could let me ride one last wave in to the beach. I don’t care about photos or videos, I don’t want anyone to see – this is just between you and me.”

Less than two minutes later a big set came in. I saw that the second wave was a ‘left’ (easier for me) and paddled like crazy as I felt the board lifting up behind me. I took off and immediately turned the board left, saw a load of whitewater (I had misread the wave, which was actually breaking to the right), did a big heel-side turn, rode it along the shoulder and, as per my request, surfed it casually all the way back to the beach. It was the perfect Christmas present – thanks Santa (Teresa).

As I eked out the last bit of energy from the wave I saw David and the gang waving from the beach. Proud of what was definitely my best ever wave I did a little salute, before realising that they weren’t celebrating my success but were frantically trying to signal the rocks immediately ahead of me.

I jumped off just in time, averting a couple of hundred dollars of board damage, at which point I simultaneously thanked the Surf Gods and apologised to them for showing off. Pride comes before a fall, but I still couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

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I followed up my best ever wave with our daily game of ‘darts cricket’ back at the Shit Hole while listening to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and other old favourites. With the only shared language of this international Darts Club (hi Luca and Ezekiel) being Spanish I also finally made some progress in that area (thanks also to Mayla and Juana, mí profesoras de la ‘playsha’).

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The 25th ended with a huge, international Christmas dinner at David and Jessica’s house with around 30 guests, all of whom brought a dish from their own country (I made shepherds pie). The fact that they annually invite so many people into their family home on Christmas Day speaks volumes about these people and, for me, is Pura Vida on toast. Friends, family, beach, sunshine, surfing, food, drink and fun.

It was a brilliant finale to a wonderful day and week. Big thanks to David, Jessica, their family and friends, Darts Club, the La Posada Hostel crew and all the other wonderful people I met in Santa Teresa. I will be back.

Pura Vida.

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Day 97 – Canyoning, Surfing and Turtles – the good, the bad and the ugly

After eating volcano for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the first few weeks in Central America I was relieved as we headed to lower altitudes. First on the agenda was a trip to Somoto, in the far north of Nicaragua, just a few kilometres from the border with Honduras.

I haven’t yet mentioned the poverty in Nicaragua, but the further we travelled from the main cities, the more evident it became. In the north the ratio of horse-drawn carts to cars was noticeably higher, and the quality of housing deteriorated significantly. We were shocked to see our second dead horse of the trip, in a crumpled heap at the side of the road, seemingly left for the vultures to clear up.

Our family-run accommodation in Somoto was rustic – they had a large selection of poultry on site which was killed and plucked on demand depending on our dinner orders. It was the closest I’ve been to my food and, being rather squeamish for a grown man, I found it a bit of a mental struggle as I tucked into a grilled chicken I had made eye contact with a few hours earlier.

On a lighter note, the chickens spared for egg-laying duties roamed free with the geese and turkeys, climbing up a tree whenever they felt like a nap.

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The Good – Somoto’s Canyoning Cooperative

The main attraction of Somoto is a deep canyon, ‘discovered’ in 2004 by European scientists but known to the indigenous people for millennia as La Estrechura (“the narrow”), and originally formed somewhere between 5 and 13 million years ago.

As a way of sharing the economic benefit of their natural phenomenon, the local communities in Somoto formed a cooperative, distributing the guiding duties evenly between people from the various local villages. In an area with so much poverty this can only be a good thing.

We climbed, swam and jumped our way down the river which runs through the canyon. Despite it being dry season with lower than average water levels the adrenaline flowed as we jumped into the water from a 12m ledge. I didn’t get any photos of that but here are some towers made from rocks. You’re welcome.

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The Bad – My Surfing Abilty

After Somoto we made our way to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur (SJDS), a surfing town well known for its party scene and especially Sunday Funday – an all day ‘pool crawl’ where participants travel between three different pool parties getting increasingly twatted. In a country that is generally cheap for travellers I was impressed by the entrepreneurial instincts of whoever came up with this concept, which essentially involves charging people $40 for a t-shirt. After going too hard on the Saturday night we never made it to Sunday Funday, but this is apparently what it looks like.

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By the time we caught up with the revellers later that night on the beach, the well-behaved Fundayers in the photo above had transformed into swathes of staggering zombies, high on a cocktail of rum, vodka and various other substances unknown, except for the Aussie couple who happily informed us they were on acid as they whirled in and out like a pair of Tasmanian devils.

After making limited progress in the South of France and Spain I was excited to try some surfing in the warm Pacific waters of Central America. With a range of surf spots and consistent-but-not-too-scary waves, SJDS is a good place for beginner surfers, so I grabbed the longest non-foamy board I could find and got amongst it.

While I was able to catch a decent number of ‘green waves,’ the best of my (inauspicious) surfing career thus far, I was still a way off from really getting the hang of it, riding them in a straight line towards the beach, unable to really turn the board at speed. We didn’t get any photos of me surfing, but my efforts were broadly as successful as Andy’s attempts at a yoga headstand.

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It was clearly time for a lesson. I followed our Rule Number One of Surf Club, which was to find a deeply tanned instructor with hair to chin level or below. Tony was my 22 year old mentor; he gave me some useful tips on technique and, crucially, how to read waves, but seemingly to no avail as my abilities deteriorated – the conditions were sub-par, but so was my surfing.

As the waves got bigger and the wind blew harder I ate an increasing number of ‘salt sandwiches,’ spending a few precious seconds on the board before Mother Nature sent me cartwheeling underwater. Like a trainee pilot amassing flying hours I hoped that my perseverance would eventually pay dividends, but after another 4 days in the water it just wasn’t happening. On the plus side, we did some excellent synchronised jumping.

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More Good – Turtle Hatching

A few miles down the road from SJDS is Playa Hermosa, an epic, windswept and largely deserted beach that stretches as far as the eye can see towards Costa Rica. On the first night I spent in the Playa Hermosa Ecolodge I was one of only two hotel guests, sharing an incredible view of a clearly illuminated Milky Way with only the geckos, turtles, and a German bloke called David.

The Ecolodge is active in its protection of the turtles that lay their eggs on the local beaches, taking some eggs for safe keeping and hatching before releasing the baby turtles back into the sea.

P1000245 (1)We watched one of these releases, as the lucky little turtles were treated to a beautiful sunset on their first ever swim in the Pacific Ocean.

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The Ugly – Turtle Soup 

In Popoyo, another surf spot to the north of SJDS, I witnessed what would have been one of the most beautiful natural sights I had ever seen, had it not been ruined by a local egg thief. Reclining in a beachfront hammock I noticed a stir and followed a few people down towards the shore, where a large female turtle was struggling up the beach with a full belly. As the fascinating scene unfolded we kept our distance as she dragged herself slowly along the sandbank.

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A local guy was with us, watching intently as she reached her chosen destination and started digging a deep hole. I naively assumed he was there to ensure that none of us disturbed the turtle with our photography efforts, but it soon became apparent that he had a more sinister motive: his breakfast.

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Accepting the sad reality of what was about to happen I made my way back to the hostel; I didn’t want to witness the rest of the proceedings. A German couple were less acquiescent, challenging the man as he picked up the turtle and moved it down the beach.

Their valiant effort was most likely in vain as they reburied 8 of the 60 or so eggs that she laid in a different hole. The man disappeared with the remainder in his t-shirt-basket, leaving a distressed turtle flapping away, trying to refill a non-existent hole.

Perhaps I imagined the sad expression on her face, but the turtle looked genuinely dejected as she eventually made her way back down into the sea, concluding a sad chapter for both turtles and humans.

Maybe this man had a starving family to feed; maybe he was unaware of the turtle’s protected status. We consoled ourselves with the fact that there are many successful conservation efforts going on throughout Nicaragua, and hoped that this was an exception rather than the norm.


Next Stop: Christmas in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

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Day 50 – San Sebastián

Whether Chaucer or someone else coined it, the proverb Time and tide wait for no man has been around for hundreds of years. Raising my bat to celebrate a shunemployed half century I now understand it better than ever.

Managing a travel day, like managing a workday, is all about prioritisation. The difference is that at work there is usually a clear winner for what you should be doing.  There is no “should” when travelling; there is only “do and do not” (thanks Yoda) and options are limitless.

While I’m enjoying my freedom it’s easy to get sidetracked; time is only on your side if you force it to be. After 4 days of pancake-flat water at a renowned surf spot I’ve realised there’s not much I can do about the tide.


Time 

Shunning the structure of the working week I anticipated an abundance of ‘me time;’ I would be gaining 40 plus hours each week, surely resulting in time aplenty for my stated travel objectives and other favoured but neglected pastimes such as reading, sitting and Netflix.

That assumption proved naive:

  1. A pleasant but unforeseen effect of publicising my shunemployment was a succession of coffees, lunches and nights out. It was brilliant catching up with so many friends, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, but it’s no surprise that retirees wonder how they ever had time to work.
  2. Time evaporates when travelling. Days not filled with activities are spent researching destinations, arranging transport and accommodation. Personal time can be hard to come by, especially when sharing a bedroom with 11 people.
  3. To top if off I’ve been writing this blog which takes forever. I just hope someone out there appreciates the lack of spelling misteaks.

As a result my first 50 days have whizzed by, I’m still only 71% of the way through Sapiens and haven’t watched a single minute of Stranger Things 2.


Tide

With the Biarritz surf scene approaching its annual low tide I made the short trip across the border to San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basque Country locals. Famed for its culinary scene, San Seb boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other European city, an almost unmatched selection of pintxo (tapas) bars and a surf season that extends a couple of weeks beyond its French neighbour.

I rocked up at the Etxea Surf Hostel next to San Seb’s premier surf spot, Zurriola Beach, increasingly conscious of the need to spend my time on things I actually want to do, like surfing. In the lounge area an American guy was freestyling on the guitar. He was a strong musician but a dubious lyricist:

I smoked a bunch of joints, in the morning and the night,

I smoked so many joints, most I’d had in my life. 

Listening to Johnny Hash did not feature anywhere on my to do list so, in line with my new views on time management, I left him to it.

The hostel turned out to be incredibly social with a great atmosphere. While this photo taken on night one by a local bike saddle suggests I was escorting my nieces and nephews to the nearest skate park, the age range in the hostel turned out to be quite broad.

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Despite a few travellers in their 30’s I was clearly the oldest guest until the perfectly named and excellent human being Jerry Valentine spared me that honour.

Jerry is a very young 55 year old retiree from New Jersey who spends his time either chasing waves or saving lives at Avalon beach on America’s Jersey Shore. Give him a high five from me if you see him next summer.

Avalon swimmers will feel extra safe with Crawford, who lifeguards at the same beach, on duty. Stacked like shelves, the de facto fourth Hemsworth brother combines with Jerry, 35 years his senior, to form an unlikely but perfectly balanced travel partnership.

Last but not least is Sebastien – Chile’s answer to Steve Stifler and my first official new BFF – a surfer, skateboarder and future Warren Buffett. Being hilarious in a second language is a skill I do not possess but value highly and the Stifmeister has it in abundance.

I’ll let you guess who is who in the photos below.

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Rather than maximising personal time I took the opportunity to hang out with this crew, which swelled and ebbed as others rolled in and out of town. We were not collecting Michelin stars but enjoyed the rest of what San Sebastián has to offer.

We walked everywhere, taking in the beautiful scenery both in the city and its surrounding hills. We drank Spanish wine, local cider and monster G&Ts. We think we enjoyed but don’t really remember a couple of 5am finishes at the entertaining but creepy dabadaba.

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One thing we did not do a lot of was surfing. One surfable day out of five was a poor return but I was encouraged to catch a couple of clean waves; a glimmer of hope.

Not surfing freed up plenty of time to live like locals, eating delicious and reasonably priced pintxos. To contextualise the brilliance of this city may I introduce Bar Sport.

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If you were to put Bar Sport on Old Street roundabout in London it would contain a selection of strippers and people wanting to knock you out. In San Seb it’s a fine culinary establishment serving exquisite pintxos while Real Madrid entertain on TV.

(Vegans please look away now)

Goat cheese with jamon and chutney, crabmeat vol-au-vent, pig trotter and mushroom fritter, sirloin steak with piquito peppers, foie gras on toast, king prawns on a stick, squid stuffed with crab and two glasses of Rioja for €25.

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It was absolutely banging; I can only imagine the culinary wonders available in this city for those willing to spend serious euros.

Despite the lack of surf in San Seb there was plenty to do (and eat) over 5 days and I would highly recommend a visit. Whether you have time and cash to burn or just want to escape for the weekend on a tight budget, a trip to San Sebastián is both time and money well spent.


Next stop: Bilbao

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Day 45 – Ridin Solo

Word of the day

Joie-de-vivre: exuberant enjoyment of life (French)


Along with the film Notting Hill and red cherry Muller fruit corners I classify Ridin Solo by Jason Derulo as one of my guilty pleasures in life. Few would argue it’s a classic but what Jason lacks in songwriting ability he more than makes up for with autotuning and joie-de-vivre. I am particularly fond of listening to Ridin Solo in the all too familiar “Jonesy’s back” post break-up phase, but did not expect to be humming it on my first night in Biarritz.

(Jason has kindly offered to provide the backing music as you read the rest of this post)

My first six weeks of freedom hadn’t been too testing; jumping from place to place in Germany and France I was either travelling with friends or visiting them in their home venues for guaranteed fun and ready made social circles.

A one man trip to the south of France was hardly a major challenge but it was a step up; for the first time I was actually backpacking and didn’t know anyone in my destination. I would either have to make some friends or find some of Jason’s joie-de-vivre in my own company – I’d left Pieter the white tiger in London.

I rocked up at the Biarritz Surf Hostel with a spring in my step expecting to be fist-bumped by some radical bro; the French version of Brad from Neighbours. Instead I was greeted by a note on the door detailing the entry code and my sleeping arrangements:

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I would be staying in the delightfully named ‘Brown Room.’ Perhaps they’d heard about my surfing ability and were predicting the future colour of my underpants.

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There was an eerie silence as I walked up the stairs and realised the building was deserted. On reflection perhaps Halloween and surfing weren’t quite the happy bedfellows I’d imagined when booking my flights.

Recalling my recent epoophanies I felt reassured; ayahuasca clearly wanted me to catch up on some admin so I replied to a few emails and bought travel insurance.

I decided to leave in search of sustenance and bumped into a friendly group of Brits eating dinner in the kitchen downstairs. As Michael Jackson’s You Are Not Alone replaced Jason Derulo in my head I felt uncharacteristically self-conscious chatting to them.

Are you travelling alone? Yep

Are you a good surfer? Nope

What do you do for work? Nothing

What did you do before nothing? Umm finance, investment stuff

Oh so you were an investment banker? Nooooo

Despite this unpromising introduction they kindly offered me a slice of pizza. I politely declined; I was on a solo joie-de-vivre mission and marched into town, taking my Kindle just in case.

Thursday night in Biarritz was lively but after tip-toeing in and out of a couple of bars it felt a little too French; my conversational skills weren’t up to the challenge so I decided to keep my powder dry. Dinner for one please Monsieur.

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I made a single glass of wine last an eternity before walking back to the hostel, slightly disappointed in myself but looking forward to an episode of Narcos and a good night’s sleep.

When I returned the British foursome’s pizzas had been replaced with a deck of cards; they were playing drinking games and ploughing into their remaining alcohol supplies. They again invited me to join and this time I gratefully accepted, downing a welcome shot of rum. God Save The Queen.

My solo excursion had been underwhelming but thanks to these benevolent strangers I rediscovered my joie-de-vivre and had a really fun evening.

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The fun continued as they heroically went out to a local club until 4am while I went to bed, happy with my first day as a lone ranger.

The next day I was invited to join their morning surfing excursion. I was even more grateful for the companionship as I was repeatedly battered by large waves, barely getting onto a knee let alone two feet. I have a long way to go before achieving my ‘Get Good At Surfing’ goal. My attempts at volleyball were marginally more successful.

Rosie, James, Flo and Jos were a lovely group; entertaining, cheerful (we did our serious faces in the shot below to look professional), interesting and all doing jobs that make the world a better place. They dropped me back at base before heading off to the airport. I waved them off, grateful to have been taken under their collective wing.

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Next stop: San Sebastian (Spain)

What is The Gump Method

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