Leaving Medicine For Surfing With Monica From Chile
The reason I love traveling is that the people you meet while on the road tend to impact your life in more ways than can be imagined.
I meet Monica 15 years ago in northern Brazil. I was picking up a friend at the airport in Salvador when we meet and later when I saw her again while surfing, I told her I was going to Itacare in a few days and asked her if she wanted to join me. She said yes. We lost touch after that and a few weeks ago, she emailed me after a 15-year hiatus.
In this episode we speak for the first time in 15 years; we talk about the pandemic in Chile, surfing in Sri Lanka, Peru, and other fun places. Monica tells the story of leaving her job as a doctor to pursue her passion for surfing.
Let's do it.
Hello, hello, hello! How are you today?
I'm great. How are you?
Oh, I'm wonderful. OK, great! It looks like everything's working perfectly. I'm super excited about having you here. How long has it been since we spoke?
You mean the last time we saw in person?
Yes, yes, yeah.
It might be more than 15 years maybe.
Wow! That is so exciting. Oh my goodness. I'm so excited. So how are you? First of all, how are things in Chile with the COVID?
Well, things have been well-managed, I think, in terms of public health. The way the authorities have managed the situation is they got prepared as soon as they knew or heard about what was going on in China. And then they started offering jobs for physicians and getting the hospitals - public and private - ready for the worst-cases scenario, I would say. And then in practical terms, they have been managing the quarantines in this sort of loose, or not so loose fashion, and advancing as soon as they know how many people or they confirm how many people have the virus or not. And then that determines what communities or provinces will go into quarantine and for how long.
And they've been increasing the number of tests. So they are starting to detect the asymptomatic people. And the number of people that have died has been pretty constant, I would say. It started on a low number, one, two, and it hasn't changed from 10 to 15 for the last, I imagine, a week. I used to play the news on a daily basis.
And I think if we are positive, we should get the least amount of news and information on this area as we can.
Yeah, I agree. So what is quarantine look like there? Can you go outside?
I was in quarantine for a week in the area where I am staying and I live with my mother right now. I am staying at her apartment or the apartment we rent and during quarantine you are not allowed out at all, unless you have permission from the police. You go into their webpage and you ask, you have different sorts of authorization. And they've been getting stricter on that. One is, for example, you need to go to buy food, so that gives you three hours.
If you need to go to see a physician, that gives you-depending on what kind of decision, that would give you at the most twenty-four hours because they know hospitals or physicians could be seeing a lot of people or that could take long so they give you more time. Then they send some special permits for sons or daughters to go see their parents. That gives you, I think, two hours. And then there is things that like you have to go to an office or something and do things. And then there are the special permits for the people that are supplying foods or that clean the streets or that need to work for delivery from restaurants or other areas, they have a special permit that they ask for them for only once. And they give it for a week, I think. I'm not sure.
But things are moving and going forward. The health authorities have said that our curve has been sort of slowly rising and we have supposedly not reached the peak yet and this would be around next week or the following. And now that we have more tests and more positives, this have not increased, but there are three hundred and fifty patients in ventilators. You have to think that the population in Chile is around 17 maximum, 20 million in contents considering the whole immigration and everything. Counting everybody it must be around 20 million, which is much less than the United States. I think the United States is around six hundred million, right?
380, I think. In my state alone of California, there's 40 million. So...
Imagine, that's more than.
...we have doubled. It's crazy.
And in the city of Santiago, where the capital is, we have half the population, almost 10 million...
...in only Santiago. So Santiago has been mainly the area where most quarantines in different communities have been exercised and there is an outbreak up in the north, in the city of Antofagasta. There was one in the extreme south, but everything that is started here was related to people traveling for vacations in March when prices go down.
So many people were coming back from areas that had infection. That's how it is started herewith.
And are the beaches closed or can people surf, or not so?
Well, people are surfing. Some beaches are completely open and people are surfing like Pichilemu in the south. That's three hours from Santiago in the south, and in the area where I surf, which is the central area. From 7:00 a.m. to 11 a.m., no one is controlling anything so people are surfing, but not everyone in surf is surfing. It depends on who you live with, how scared you are, and how you want to manage or respond to the situation.
But for example, last week we had a holiday, I think it was the first of May. And that implies every holiday that we have, like a three-day weekend, long weekend - this is tradition, it occurs every year, and every three-day holiday, all the people from Santiago leave and they leave for other areas of the country, the coast, and the south. And that has been problematic because they've established sanitary controls in all the points where you can leave the city. And that control, in spite of that, many people are feeling, I don't know, maybe claustrophobic or something and they have had the need to leave town and go somewhere else.
And the only permissions that you have is either if you go to a funeral, or if you go to see a physician, or if you're working in between towns and you have a special permit. But aside from that, if you are going, they check your car, they check if you are not under quarantine because many people that do not have any symptoms and are in quarantine because they tested positive, they don't care and they go around. And if they catch you, they can fine you or they can send you back home.
And long lines of cars. I believe I don't know how many but a lot of people try to leave town. Some were sent back and others were able to leave. And they showed some areas with lots of tourists. But the idea is that Santiago is the main area where people are infected so they do not want people to leave areas of infection.
But that's the random thing about this. You cannot control everyone. So that will show whatever will happen in three or four more days.
Yes, yeah. Wow! Well, that's quite a story. It's very similar here. We're a little further along in the process, but a lot of our beaches are also closed, some are open. In my town, the beaches is open in the city, but it's closed all around it. So people are flocking to one particular area. And so it's quite complicated, actually, but I am still getting in the water and that's keeping my sanity levels a little better.
Oh, that's great. I haven't gone to the ocean since this thing has started in Chile. I'm not even counting. I live on a day to day basis.
Well, that's the best way to live anyway.
Because if you're thinking about the future, you can go nuts. People are starting to have depression because they are quarantined, and they start to think what you cannot do, things that you wanted to do and you are not doing. If you start thinking like that, it could be really depressing also.
Yeah, for sure. So let's pivot and go back to where we met. Do you remember where we met...
Of course, I remember.
..and the exact situation?
Yes, I remember. Because I consider you one of my mentors.
Oh, thank you so much. That's awesome.
So this is related, of course, to surfing. And I was learning to surf, and as you know, the Pacific is very cold and I like warm water. And so I decided to, things went the way that it was cheap for me to go to Brazil and I didn't want to go to the south area of Brazil because the water was not as warm as I had heard, that there were good waves to learn, good waves to surf in the northeast area of Brazil.
So saved some money, bought a ticket, and went to buy.
And I would check out what beaches were for beginners and things like that. And I think you even told me that you had seen me at the airport in Salvador.
I think so. Yeah, I think I did.
Yes, and as a beginner, you watch in the ocean trying to see what I wanted to do, and then I met you, and then you said, "OK, these are not good waves. I'm heading tomorrow to a bit south, grabbing a bus, going to Itacaré. You want to come?" And I said, "OK! Let's go."
But where did we meet exactly? Were we...
I think we met at the beach.
..in the hospital?
We met at the beach.
You asked me where I was staying. I'm remembering now. You asked me where I was staying and I've told you I was to stay at some place that was very small, that there was no one there, that I didn't know anybody. And then you said, "Why don't you come and stay over where I am. It's a good place with surfers, good vibes." And I switch places, I think on the next day or maybe the day after that.
And then in the hostel, that's where we talked about Itacaré, maybe.
Yes, and then we travel to Itacaré by bus.
Yes, I remember you were afraid of traveling by night. You have had an accident. I remember that.
You made a huge impression on me. I remember almost everything.
Well, you know, what happened is I had taken a trip to Nepal a couple of years before and the bus flipped over. It flipped upside down at night. So I had been in that bad bus crash. So, yeah, I didn't want to travel at night. Now, it's not a problem, but I think it was still too recent in my memory.
And you know, it's being studied now. The famous post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. And one doesn't realize that might have symptoms or anything until you face a situation which is really stressful and then you are like in the adrenaline mode for some time.
Yeah, wow! And do you remember Severine, the Swiss-French girl?
Not her face, but I remember there was this girl. Yes, I remember her.
And then my friend Aron was there. He had just finished the Peace Corps. He was in Itacaré.
Yes, I remember. And you had met them before me, I think, because you introduced me to them.
So Aron lives now in my town. After that trip, he was from Minnesota, which is in the middle of America. And after that trip, he called me and he said, "Hey, I'm in the neighborhood. You want to go surf?", and I went and picked him up. And that was 14 years ago and he never left. So he ended up moving to my town and became one of my best friends.
Wow, that's great!
So that trip was very special for me because I met him on that trip also.
Yes! That place aside from everything, we went when it was low season, so there weren't too many people. I remember that. And then, you know I went back to Itacaré like about six times.
Oh, you have?
At that same time period. Every year I went to the same place, I made some friends, and then I went to see some areas. I had adventures. I rented a bike. The guy who rented it to me said, you know I always travel with very, very, very small budgets and so the guy said, "OK, you want to rent the bike?" And I say, "OK, I have money for only one day." He said, "Just take it. You know I trust you." This was old times. "Take it. I know you would like it. Take the phone. If you can, you call me and you tell me you will stay at the other place where I was like two days, nowhere is, when you get bad, you come back." And you had to put it on a ferry, you had to cross a river, the Rio De Contas River, I remember.
And then there was like an hour and a half in motorcycle next to the ocean. And you had to wait to let that coincide with the low tide because you had to cross two river mouths. And if it wasn't the low tide, it was impossible. But the road that was on the middle of the area was really bad even for a motorcycle.
So the adventure was going in the sand and it was so much fun. And then I go to a little bar that a friend had named me from somewhere and she told me, "You have to go to Bar Das Meninas. You have to meet this girl. She's just like you. You're going to have a great time." And that's why I rented that bike. I just stayed like three days or four. And then I went back. It's a very nice area. I don't know how it is right now.
So when was the last time you were there?
Oh, almost ten years ago, maybe more.
Oh, wow! So it's been a while.
When I met you, I started to go to Itacaré every year for like, five or six years. And then I stopped going, and I started to travel to other areas.
Yeah, it's such a special place, Itacaré. Such a special place. I have never been back. I've always wanted to go back. And I ended up spending a lot of time in Brazil later on. But I stayed in Floripa, Florianópolis for several months, and then I lived in Rio for a while. So I lived and surfed around Rio and then Santa Catarina in the south.
OK, I know all those areas, yes.
Yeah, so many beautiful beaches and just incredible waves and, I have a real love affair for Brazil and I haven't been back. What I've noticed is, I tend to concentrate on an area for a couple of years and then I move. I went to South Africa for about five years running and then lately I've been going to Indonesia, to Bali and Sumatra and a couple other places. But anyway, we can talk about that some other time.
But Brazil for me, that trip was a very special trip. And then when I got your email, I was like, "No way. I can't believe it!"
You can't remember me when you saw my emails?
Of course I remember you, yeah.
You know what I remember? I was really afraid, I think until a short time ago, I have to confess, of open water and I didn't know why. And then I realized I had almost drowned learning to swim in an Olympic swimming pool when I was less than five. And I had no recollection of that. It was hazy, so that was the reason why I was so afraid of open water.
So it was something that I had to work on for many years, as you can imagine. But I remember that one day when we went into the ocean, we had to paddle. I don't know, I think I didn't catch any waves or anything. But you told me, "OK. Now you get your prize because you have worked so hard."
And this is for people that, you have to want it so much that you have to do the hard part, which is on the first part. It doesn't matter how long it takes if you are hooked on it you got to commit to overcome that beginner's part until you feel more comfortable and in sync with the ocean, I think. So I remember that.
It's such a gift. Sometimes I try to explain it to non-surfers and it's a very difficult experience to try to explain to someone because there are so many elements. There's the ocean, there's the wind, there's the tide, there's the movement of the water, the currents. So you have so many elements happening at once. And then you have yourself in all of those elements, yourself and all your fears and all your worries and all your happiness that you bring that meets the majesty of the ocean. And it's been my greatest teacher by far and my greatest love for sure.
I think exactly and I feel exactly the same. And I think it teaches you so much about yourself also, and if you learn how to manage frustration-I mean, I think this is one of the activities that you do, that you can end up crying of frustration. Sometimes you feel that you have mastered something and the ocean always teaches you that maybe you haven't. Or when you are always to advance in any area of life, you have to pass that comfort zone that leaves you on your status quo.
You have a status quo that you reach a status quo in anything, and then you can stay there for as long as you like because you reach a comfortable spot where you are dominating or controlling, you know the scene, you know everything about it, and you feel good with yourself. And this is in any area you know, professionally or whatever, riding a bicycle. And then you cross the street, without looking and you'll get run over. The same thing with the ocean. You saying you have mastered it and you push yourself through that comfort zone and say, "OK. I can manage three-foot, great! OK, let's see what happens with five." And maybe it wasn't what you expected, and that's what I like, like how it changes every minute, every day.
I've never quitted. I've gotten distracted, but have never stopped.
Well, you live in such a beautiful country for surfing, too. I have to admit, I've never been to Chile, and shame on me, but everything I've ever read or heard of surfing there, it's a special place to surf. So I'm glad that you found that in your own, in yourself, and that you can experience that where you live.
Yeah, for sure. I always like to travel because I think that's in my nature and it might be in the nature of all surfers to explore. But sometimes if you like to surf so much, you have to compromise in not being in the system, for example, not earning a lot of money or whatever. So what I do is I save until I have enough money to go whatever I want to go. I pick the place or the place appears in some magical way. And I say, "OK, I will go there." And then when I have the money, I go there.
But I think you have your local spot and that's going to the beach where you don't go. That's the surf trip. I mean, you go for the day with a friend to a beach that is two hours away from where you are learning, that will be a different break then you will have to learn to surf it.
And what about women surfers in Chile, is there a pretty good crew of women surfers?
I think Chile, it's very particular because as it may be in many countries, there is not a lot of support. There has never been. This has changed a bit since the old surf in the Olympics situation arose. I would start in 2009, probably, or maybe before when Sofía Mulánovich from Peru became a world champion, many girls said, "OK. I don't have to look up to somebody that is very far away whom I never know."
Sofía Mulánovich has traveled all through South America. She has come to Chile many times. And also since surf became more global, things get to Chile very late before all the global things started becoming easier. Because it's far away from everything and it's hard to go or to come here. So in terms of women, I think now you see a lot of women surfing or trying to surf. In terms of women with a good level of surfing, that's only a few.
But, I would say it might be a third generation or a second generation now of young girls that are really motivating to be the best surfers they can be. I think it's a couple that are competing in the US - feminine US, but the level is not the greatest level. I would say what Chile has is what Ramon Navarro told me.
We are so far back in terms of development of the surf culture that what we will be if we are famous is big wave surfers because here we have big waves every day. It's rare for it to be flat. I mean, there are many areas of the world where in summer it's flat.
Here, we receive all the swells from the north and from the southern Pacific and they all come. And so we are different. It will depend on what time of the year you are where you can go surfing. If you like big waves, there will always be a swell. It could be every two weeks.
And women surfing, there are more and more women surfing. But, Chile has some waves in the north, which are very good for bodyboarding, and what we are famous in is bodyboarding. We have female and male bodyboarders that are world-class.
Interesting. Just like the Brazilians, I guess. Wow! So what have you been up to, what's in your world right now, and what do you concentrating on, besides COVID and getting over that?
I don't know if you remember, I used to be an emergency physician.
I do remember.
I quit that. And one reason was surfing, but also the other reason is, they call it the burnout syndrome. I was doing lots of shifts, like four or five shifts, twenty-four-hour shifts a week, and that could be a reason. But I started to watch this differently in terms of I'm not the emergency physician that is saving lives, but that if I happen to save someone, it's not me that is saving someone. It is that I had with my knowledge to be there because that person was not their time to die. So I started thinking about you are what you are and what you do. In a spider web of everybody, or the human race or the world of whatever, we are all one.
And so surfing I feel it so strongly that I say I cannot continue living in Santiago. I tried to start to work as a physician in Viña del Mar, which is the central coast that has not the perfect waves, but it has waves where you can surf, and it has ocean because Santiago has no ocean. But we are an hour and a half away and there is no way I was going to go three hours a day without traffic every day.
So I started looking for some job as a physician, which sort of work after a while. I started to stay with some friends and then, somebody saw me translating documents from English to Spanish and say, "So, you know English! I have a friend who does simultaneous translation, interpretations. Do you want to meet her?"
And I say, "OK. Let's do it." Checking the signs.
And then this is about eight years ago or maybe more, I started to do simultaneous interpretations and translations and that is very well paid so I can work ten days a month and I have enough money for the rest of the month.
Great! And you can surf.
And I can surf and then, progressions depends on being constant. So I can at least surf three or four days a week, which has allowed me for a bit more progression. I'm not still that good, I consider. But people say I'm not. I don't know.
I'm good in very small surf and I'm very bad on my bad side.
But I've been in some overhead waves, I've been in some waves like I'm very afraid of my abilities and not very confident, but I've been working on that too, and I'm having so much fun. You never have to lose having fun. There was a time where very stressful for me to go surfing because I was pressuring myself, "I cannot be afraid. I'm a good swimmer", and I was afraid anyways because the ocean is always big here in Chile.
So I got over that, fortunately. I've been trying to go back to travel. My distractions, which are merely related to couples and trying to work things out. My distractions are all managed and I think my only interest right now and priority is surfing. So what I did is in one of my jobs working as a translator, I helped a friend who was importing things from Australia. And I got to meet Terry Fitzgerald from Australia. And we became friends, and he is my mentor also.
So I had a talk with Terry and this is the most recent part of me. I had a talk with Terry and I go, "Terry, my progression is so slow, I don't know what to do. The ocean is always cold. It's always big. I'm tired. I love warm water, please." And he grabbed my phone, picked the map, the Google map, and said, "OK. Go here." And he showed me Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka, yeah.
And I went there. In 10 days I think I had more progression than in many years and I went in low season, I met great people. The only thing I want to do is go back.
But I've always wanted to go to South Africa. I mean, Africa, the continent in general. I like the music, I like the culture, I like the history, and I started thinking about, "It's so expensive to travel".
What many people from Chile do is when they go to Indonesia or when they go to a faraway place, they stay for the most time that the Visa allows. So they could be up to three months to get your money's worth. But my job and the way I'm living right now, I have a priority, which is my mother.
And so I just started thinking, "If I come in these priorities, I cannot stay for three months anywhere. So is this going to mean I'm going to stop traveling?" So I say, "I should do like all these guys that I translate for." Sometimes a physician comes from Belgium and he is into it two days. And he leaves to another meeting in Brazil and he makes the most and I say, "OK!"
So to Sri Lanka, I went for ten days, plus four days to get there and two to get back. So it was all in all 14 days, but I made the most of it and I say,"This is a place where I will be coming back." So part of the tourism to go into the northern area or I just stuck to surfing.
I just surf, surf, surf until I couldn't surf anymore. And then, thinking of going back if I want to. And then when time comes, some things are right, I will be able to stay more days. But I decided not to stop traveling because I could not stay for more. If I save that money to go someplace, I will enjoy it as long as I can stay and not worry about how much I spent on the ticket.
The thing is, where you live, I know you want to go visit a new culture in a faraway land. But, you've got Peru and, you've got Ecuador...
Yeah. I've been to Peru many times.
...and you have so many great places that I would consider world-class.
But I understand the feeling. The feeling is you want to go somewhere far away and experience a new culture. And, that is also the attraction of a surf trip. It's not just about the surfing. It's about everything that happens in the process of getting there and learning something new and meeting the people along the way. Like us, we met 15 years ago in this small town, right in Brazil.
Travel itself is beautiful. But if you add surfing to the travel part, then it's like the perfect package. It really is.
I agree. I agree. I try to be a journalist for some time for a surfer journal.
Yeah, well you're one right now.
I did many interviews. I interviewed some Brazilian competitors in Itacaré. There is one day that they used to do, I think they still do it, Aqueous. But I was there in 2009 when it just started and I met some Brazilian competitors. We went to Peru. I covered some competitions there, I wrote for some magazines, I interviewed Sofía. Then I wrote for some Peruvian magazines. And then when I came back to Chile, I say, "OK! I'm going to be the surfer journalist and I'm going to live out of this."
And you know in 2009, even though that's 10 years... no, 10, 11 years. Ten years ago, there was nothing. I came to realize when I was in Chile that I could not even get one month's rent pay if I was going to do that. So I had to go back to translation interpretation. Now, with all the media and everything, the paper magazines are not a very good thing to be thinking about that will give you your support in life.
So that's why I went back to translation and well, like in Peru, I stay there in Punta Hermosa - beautiful place, met lots of people, learned about the history of Peruvian surf. Very interesting. And now, as you are saying my exploration will be around Chile. I know many areas, but I haven't surfed many. But I surf an extreme south wave, which is Ricahue.
I think it's called. I might be sending you the wrong name right now, but it's at the level of the 10th region. We have 13 regions in all from north to south. So this is very extreme south, much more south than there is Chiloé Island around that area. If you see the map, it's around that area and there is a small surf school from that area. And it was great. It was like a surf trip to another different coast.
Amazing! Oh, I would love to do another podcast where we just talk about all of the surf in Chile and all the different spots just to help educate people, because I think...
That would be great.
...there's so much opportunity there, and you know it really well.
And there's interesting surfers' story also in Chile. So it would be great to talk about that.
Yeah, let's do that again some other time. That would be awesome.
Well, I want to thank you so much. This has been such an amazing journey for me and it's been a real gift, an honor to have you back in my life. And I look forward to many more conversations with you.
Well, I thank you for inviting me, and it's been great and I agree with you when you say that surf has given us so much happiness and so much. And I'm so thankful for learning to surf, for getting me into the ocean and being in nature.
If anyone wants to get a hold of you, do you have like a Twitter handle or some place?
I have Twitter, but I think, it's not that I don't know how to manage social media. It's just that I don't like them because I like to be in nature so much more. And if you get too much in your phone, that becomes your world.
And my phone, in general, is far away from me. So I have an email. And from there, WhatsApp is my social media and Twitter.
If anyone wants to get a hold of you, they can contact me through Wave Tribe and I'll hook them up.
Fantastic. No problem. And if they come to Chile, I'll be happy to give them some pointers, give them some names of locals in different areas. Chile is a very long country. Four thousand kilometers. Surfers, in spite of increasing in numbers, you can always get some good friends to carry you along.
Awesome. OK. Muy bien, monabrazo mui grande.
. Muy bueno tu charle, Derek. Ablamos.