The other morning we went surfing half an hour outside greater Monrovia to a beach break in Congo Town. We parked at A La Laguna, an open-air bar bordering the lagoon that you paddle across to get to the beach. My family had scheduled a conference call on Skype, so I waved to the owner and sat in the parking lot as Nate and Keith paddled out.
A little later, I locked up the car, put the key in my leash and walked through the muddy grass to the edge of the lagoon. The group of young men perched on the sandbar, who had their backs to me watching the boys surf minutes before, shifted slightly so I was now in their field of vision. I took a few steps, pushed my board into the warm water and slid on top of it, gliding for a moment and then sticking my fins abruptly in the mud.
My graceful entrance interrupted by the shallowness of the water, I walked for a few meters, pointed towards the center of the lagoon that I hoped would become deeper, trying not to think too much about what was in the mud between my toes. When the water started to cool, I sensed it was getting deep enough to resume paddling and I did, making it all the way to the sandbar's edge where the group of men were still looking my way without overtly watching.
"Hey, ju!" they called to me.
"Ju" means "girlfriend" in Liberian slang, a gendered term more familiar than the "fine girl" used to address young women who are complete strangers. When I'm driving, men I pass call me "ju" all the time, shouting enthusiastically in a bid for my attention, which is usually returned with a jubilant thumbs-up from their side. Male attention in Liberia is friendlier and less aggressive than I'd expected.
We chatted a bit about surfing as I tried to figure out where a nice rip tide would carry me out past the inside waves. There was a gentle medium-period groundswell coming in, with overhead sets every ten minutes or so. Without the onshore winds characteristic of rainy season, the water was glassy -- perfect conditions for me at the moment. One man was more articulate than the others, and told me he wanted to learn how to surf.
"Do you know how to swim?" I asked him.
"No," he said.
"Learn how to swim first, then we'll talk about learning how to surf," I said. "You have to paddle strong and be able to hold your breath for a long time under the water."
Most Liberians rightfully steer clear of the ocean, which is an angry, rip-tide mess for swimmers. After a few drownings last year, UNMIL and many NGOs make staying out of the ocean a condition of employment.
"Are we going?" the man's friend asked him. "No way, man. I want to stay and watch the ju surf!"
Beach breaks, where the waves break wherever they feel like it, have given me a beating since I moved here. First, there was the day at Kendeja where the shorebreak was so powerful it ripped my hooded rashguard out of my hands. Then, there was the shore pound at Sargo, where I bodyboarded back to the beach when the sidesweep threatened to wash me up in Sierra Leone. I won't mention Thinker's, or the days it's been to heavy at Fisherman's or Mamba Point. At that moment, though, I really wanted to make it outside.
I did, paddling out with Nate who'd come back to get me, making it after a few duck dives during a nice long lull. I caught a few waves, head-high rights with big drops that closed out after 10 meters or so -- short rides compared to the easily 200 meter lefts at Mamba Point. It was fun waiting for the sets to come in, but next time I'm staying inside to catch the smaller, more frequent ones. I like the pushiness of beach breaks, the whitewater everywhere, the mayhem of not knowing exactly where the next waves will be.
After an hour or so, we went in, saying goodbye to the now-dispersed crowd and walked back through the lagoon.
"Why don't we walk on the shore?" I asked Keith, pointing to the few men who'd stayed to watch us as, flip-flops in hand, they edged their way through the muddy grass of the lagoon.
"The snails in the mud carry river blindness."
I stopped, mud squishing between my toes. I visualized small snails squirming under my toenails, laying eggs and secreting their parasitic offspring into my skin. I knew nothing about river blindness, really. I was completely inventing the entire trajectory of my future demise.
Keith is a dentist and has lived here a long time. "What do you know about river blindness?" I asked him. "Nothing," he said, "but I'm wearing booties next time."
Great, I thought. A resident dentist and an new MPH, and we know nothing about one of the leading causes of morbidity in West Africa. I tried to paddle again but had to give up when my fingertips kept brushing mud. We walked faster.
I tried to remember some slides from my class in International Health. "I think it gives you boils," I recalled, more confident as I noticed a handful of people with raised boils on their faces since we moved here. "You know," I added hopefully, "before you go blind." I paused. "I'm sure we could take antibiotics."
I've since re-learned that river blindness is actually transmitted by fly bites and does not give you facial sores. I'm still wearing booties.