Seek Journeys: Surfing in Costa Rica with Dana Wisbar

Dana Wisbar is our very own administrative and operations extraordinaire (if you’ve received a customer service email or Seek order, chances are Dana was behind it!). Last month, Dana embarked on a spontaneous surf trip to Costa Rica, where she embraced much more than the swell. Read on for her insightful reflections about technology, Mercury retrograde, and how to break through imposter syndrome.

Dana in front of a lush green tree wearing the Seek Collective Oberoi Top

Prior to a few weeks ago, I worked on the same 2015 MacBook Pro that got me through college studying textile design and printmaking. Recently, one of my clients laughed at me when I pulled out my beat-up first generation iPhone SE. My own parents have marveled at how someone as lackadaisical as I could be trusted to organize inventory, let alone help plan websites. They know me as the daughter who had so many unpaid parking tickets her car got booted; who got kicked out of beauty school at 18; who went to Paris and decided not to come home for a while. I’ve gone through many stages of imposter syndrome since beginning to work in fashion. Often working harder and harder to prove to myself and everyone else how “on top of it”, organized, and reliable I am. But over the last few years, I’ve found myself moving more and more towards organizational and administrative work. Somehow when it’s not my life, I can see the bigger picture. 

Though today my daily working life relies on it, there was a time when I eschewed technology, thinking myself above something with such built in obsolescence. But during art school, I realized that the key to gaining freedom to roam was in the computer—or at least in my ability to become computer savvy. By the end of college, I was designing my textile repeats almost entirely digitally. 

As I've become more proficient, the very technology that has granted me some of the freedom I craved has also formed a new kind of leash. There's not a moment that I’m not connected to a vast amount of information—images of strangers’ seemingly perfect lives, text messages, a navigational system, a camera, a calculator, apps on apps. Essentially, my phone offers me endless ways to not be in the moment. 

At the end of April 2021, I was invited to join my friends Matt and Brady on a last minute, two week surf trip. I booked my trip right on the cusp of Mercury Retrograde. (I follow astrology the way some people follow their favorite sports teams.) It gave me an uneasy feeling, but I put that thought off. In my experience, Mercury Retrograde is less about complete system failure, and more about going inward to reassess. Mercury, ruler of communication, gets a bad rep for causing things like fights with family, mechanical failure, delayed travel. But I've always thought these failures were due more to our inability to slow down. Our inability to watch our words. Our inability to read the fine print. What Mercury Retrograde can teach us is to slow down and stop. To think, move, and speak intentionally. To reassess what is and isn’t working for you. Mercury in retrograde forces you to go back. To look back at old hurts, past relationships, old behavior, and old modes of being. It allows us to reflect, gain a sense of self awareness, and move forward. To realize not only who we were but who we are becoming.  

We left San Francisco the day before my birthday, and nothing but our first AirBnb in Liberia was booked. We would decide where we were going as the swell dictated. In other words, the plan was that there was no plan. Luckily before we left, Brady’s brother called us to say that one of the biggest swells in two years was hitting Costa Rica. We should drive all the way to the South first—there was no way we would be able to surf the waves pounding the North, and anyway they might be closing out. This was the closest thing we had to some kind of direction, and it ended up working out beautifully. I did also intend to do some work while I was away, so I brought my trusty 2015 MacBook Pro and my smashed, yet still operational, iPhone.

Upon arrival in Liberia at 8:40 p.m., the first thing we did was try to get our rental car—but the office turned out to be closed. After a couple of very stressful false starts, we secured our car and hit the road the next day, having learned our first lesson of traveling in a place like Costa Rica: All the devices and maps in world can’t prepare you for the wild cards you might encounter. We came to find that everything we thought we knew and understood was wrong. We had to look up directions to places before we left anywhere with WiFi. And even then, these wouldn’t show you if the road you were about to go down was unpaved, nor did it fix the fact that there are no actual addresses in Costa Rica. You essentially have to follow coordinates and look for land markers that explain where you are. There are also a lot of bugs, and if you don’t look carefully, you might find yourself screaming while ants bite your feet and you flail about in a panic. Our stress levels soared as we realized that our way of life; our overly connected, look up addresses with ease, and expect paved roads, way of life was gone. There was no such thing as getting somewhere easily, and our rush to get to the next break or the next place felt off beat with the place we were in. But we began to adjust. We began to exercise trepidation and some caution when looking at maps. We found ourselves slowing down, double checking. We began to watch where we stepped. 

All that being said, the surfing was great. Our first spot Boca Barranca had a hand painted sign proclaiming it, “The second longest wave in the world!” We surfed for hours, and it would have been easy to get stuck on surfing in Boca Barranca. But Matt insisted that we drive all the way South to Matapalo.

On the way down we made several stops, but my favorite was the San Isidro mountains. We stayed in a house on stilts in the middle of the jungle, and it was incredible to wake up in the trees. We ate at a Soda—small family run restaurants on the side of the road that serve fresh local food, juices, and coffee for about $5.00. The Soda had an incredible view of the mountains and the coast. We even saw a Toucan from this Soda, and considered it to be a sign of good luck. I had the best shower of my life, with a complete wide open view looking out over the rainforest. We all agreed that it would be easy to spend several days here, but we had to get back to the coast. We hightailed it down to Matapalo.

The Osa Peninsula where Matapalo sits is kind of remote. It’s right next to Corcovado National Park, one of the last old growth rainforests on the Pacific Coast of Central America, and the biodiversity is unimaginable. We stayed at a completely open air house, with the ocean only steps across a small lawn. Macaws flew around squawking to each other in pairs during the day (they mate for life apparently). Capybaras ran across the lawn picking up coconuts. Monkeys invaded our kitchen at night, and geckos and frogs climbed the walls in the evening. We surfed the most beautiful and fun right at a place called Playa Pan Dulce. It was uncrowded, deep in the forest, and rocky. Sea turtles popped their heads up to say hello occasionally, and moms and their daughters shared waves. Even with fairly large waves coming out the back, there were several smaller places to catch them. Matapalo felt like we had found a secret. 

I was still working everyday at this point, so despite being in the middle of the jungle, I was still very much connected to “my world”. I was also trying to take so many pictures that my phone ran out of space. Then one morning, it died. My smashed first generation iPhone SE couldn’t take the humidity. I had known this could happen, but even I felt myself hit with a sense of panic and technology withdrawal. Yet it also required me to lean more heavily on the people I was with. Without my phone it hit me how faraway from home I really was. I continued to work on my computer, and could message people from there. But I knew I would not be able to take anything but memories home. Every view, every beach, and every town and person could only stay with me. Matt noted that in all his travels all over the world, he had never had a camera until now.

The irony of this, of course, is how in the moment surfing forces you to be. Surfing elicits a kind of mindfulness you don't experience in less hectic sports. Every second, from paddling out, timing the sets and waiting your turn, and the patience and perseverance it takes just to ride a wave. You are completely subject to an element of which you must surrender. You must work with the ocean to ride its waves. When you are in the right spot, catching a wave is effortless. It’s a good life lesson in not forcing something. To catch a wave you have to go over the edge, yet pull back enough to not nose dive. You have to move with what is happening. It’s complete in-motion meditation. You can’t be in something as big as the ocean and feel like anything besides the present is all that important. The life lessons and awareness I receive from surfing is endless. Surfing opens you to the ways in which you are of the earth. Feeling the changes in the water, noting the presence of marine life, entering the food chain. It’s all very humbling.

It was with these lessons that I remembered one of the most important ones: when you fall, don’t flail and struggle. This is a waste of energy. Let yourself get dragged. Allow yourself to surface. If you find yourself in the impact zone, dive deep. My phone was small potatoes, and I needed a grown up phone anyway. I couldn’t keep going to meetings with something that looked like it belonged to a teenage boy who fell on it while skateboarding.

We headed to Pavones, the longest left in the world. While the waves were way too big for us to enjoy from the main peak, we did get to see some spectacular surfing there, and we found a spot suitable for us to surf. I actually caught my favorite wave of the trip there—a long, beautiful left I surfed all the way to shore. 

We decided to head back to the magic of Matapalo, and we stayed deeper in the jungle this time. It was here that we decided to take a stroll onto the beach in the middle of the night, where I found a swing to swing around on. Matt thought I was with Brady, and Brady thought I was with Matt. I ended up getting left on the beach, facing the super dark of the jungle alone. In my struggle to find the path home, I fell over a log and cut my head. Though I was all in all fine, I did end up accidentally bleeding on the sheets of the AirBnB. Luckily, the caretakers were the kindest family, with a sweet kid named Jefferson who was eager to talk and surf with us. He took us on a small hike with a view of the peninsula, and he let us hang out in their backyard one morning and feed monkeys platanos. I gave a blue, Seek Wayfarer Scarf to his mom before we left as a thank you and sorry for bleeding on your sheets gift.

Our last stop was all the way north in Santa Theresa. Overrun with tourists, it was a jarring transition from the peacefulness of Matapalo. We stayed in a full on town house here, complete with marble floors, A/C, and hot showers. I woke up early one morning and began my daily ritual of coffee and check email. My laptop was set on the slightly lopsided couch. As I stood up the get a hot coffee top off, my computer slid ever so gently off the couch and onto the white marble floor. The last link to my overly connected life now had a cracked screen. I stood in disbelief. Many thoughts went through my mind: How much Mercury in Retrograde could one person take? What was I not understanding? Should I even get on a plane? But also…How am I going to afford this? I would now have to replace both my phone and my computer upon return to the states.

We surfed another magical spot called Cabuya. Here the sea turtles were in abundance, and the waves swung wildly from almost flat spells to huge bombs coming out the back. But it was deep and fun! It was also the only spot in Costa Rica the held me down anything similar to a Northern California wave; slamming you deep down and coming back for you over and over again. 

It was also here on our last day, that I realized that it would all be okay. I had fallen, and I needed to stop struggling. I needed to let go and be dragged. I needed to trust that I would come up to the surface. I needed to work with this wave and remember that failing is how you get better. I needed to trust that this version of Mercury in retrograde was helping me to revise. I wasn’t the irresponsible version of myself anymore. I still got some parking tickets, but I paid them. I still loved to travel, but I actually wanted to go home, not always roam endlessly. I wasn’t the imposter I had felt like inside. Old computers and smashed phones were out, but so was self doubt and fear of learning or looking dumb. The younger version of me that knew how to go with the flow—the one who didn’t like technology—was still there, and I could tap into her whenever I needed. I didn’t need to desperately try to get to the surface, I would come up anyway. Mercury had taken away the out of date tools I was relying on; literally and figuratively. This revision was helping to shape me into who I am becoming and letting go of some of the things that no longer worked for me. There is something about being so far from home that can bring you back to who you really are, if you’re open to it.

I can’t say I was entirely sad to go home. I kind of felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation. But I knew I would be back—for a less rushed trip with minimal electronic devices. I also managed to get a new computer with an updated operating system and Adobe programs, and a new phone that nobody will laugh at me for. 

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