Alternate Fun on the Burican Coast

An interview with war correspondent, author, and surfer David J. Morris

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No matter the focus of his writing, David Morris tends to stake out a point of view that’s distinct from popular opinion. In his travel piece for issue 24.3 of TSJ, that meant giving the pursuit of waves a backseat to reveling in the discomforts of backpacking along the Burican coast, an isolated Central American peninsula divided between Panama and Costa Rica. Morris found equal parts surf, poisonous snakes, and nearly impassable high tides to navigate, which suited him just fine. A war correspondent and former Marine, Morris’s newest book, The Evil Hours, is a multi-layered study of PTSD. Yet again, this aspect of his work takes a fresh perspective on a much-examined topic. “As a culture,” Morris explains, “when we think of how to make ourselves well, we have a tendency to turn to neuroscience and the hardwiring of the human body as the way forward. I wrote the book to try to look at PTSD in a different way—to understand what it means mythically.” Through his stories, Morris has a way of redeeming moments of adversity. In this conversation with TSJ, he spoke to the value of “Type 2 Fun”—the brand of surf travel that gives his latest piece for the magazine its title.

Tell me about why you decided to hike Burica? It sounds like this was your first time traveling there.

I’ve always been drawn to the edges of maps. That was completely the appeal of Burica for me. It’s at the edge of the map in every conceivable way. It’s a super-isolated peninsula in the southwestern corner of Costa Rica. I tend to not like traveling in places that are already at the center of most surfers’ imaginations, so I had always avoided Costa Rica for that reason. It just seemed too easy. But Burica is a little geographic oddity that’s been overlooked by surfers for the most part. It’s split right down the middle between Costa Rica and Panama, which was the result of a war in the 1920s. The border was drawn by the US Supreme Court after they were asked to intervene by the two warring parties.

It’s interesting you mention the history of conflict because that larger idea is present in travel pieces you’ve written for TSJ. Beyond your background writing about war, why is that worth including in these stories?

Surfers are often the first people to travel to an area emerging from conflict. They’re way ahead of the Lonely Planet set in terms of going places after a period of war—whether that’s in Africa or parts of Central America in the 80s. Even more recently in places very close to home, like Mexico, the cartel wars have changed the country and what it means to travel there. For a lot of west coast American surfers these events shape the experience of finding waves.

Morris on assignment in 2007: “I was embedded with 1st Recon Battalion west of Fallujah,” he says. “This was a taken by a Sunni fighter who picked up my camera and started snapping away.” Photo: Morris Collection

What were some of the particular navigational challenges hiking the Burica peninsula?

The tricky thing about Burica and one of the reasons it’s remained isolated is that it’s almost designed to repel human interest. It’s completely ringed by these low rocks. For about a half mile out, the water is only about 10 feet at its deepest. The swells rolling through there prevent safe passage for a lot of boats. It’s almost un-landable but our boat driver got us close. His little outboard motor hit a rock, he shut it off, paddled in a little farther, and we jumped out. You can’t tell this by looking at a map or unless you talk to locals, but major portions of the Burica peninsula are completely isolated at high tide. The trip had to be planned down to the hour in order to make sure were timing our hikes with the low tide. Beyond that, the biggest danger in that part of the world is the pit vipers—one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. In Burica the locals said if you get bit by one they just strap you on a horse and hope you get to a hospital before it’s too late. But the amount of time it would take for a horse to make it back to a clinic, under ideal conditions and tides, make the odds of survival really low.

Could you explain the idea of Type 1 and Type 2 Fun that give this story its title? How did that concept frame your travels in Burica?

Type 1 versus Type 2 fun is an idea that the photographer on the trip, Elliott Woods, was talking about. The idea of Type 1 fun is that’s it’s something that’s enjoyable at the time you’re doing it. But Type 2 fun is more lasting because it’s little painful or requires some effort but it makes a good story.

Would you still enjoy Type 2 fun as much if you weren’t writing about your experiences afterward?

I think so. A lot of people, if they’re really being honest, will say the most difficult experiences traveling seem kind of great by the end. Those are the things people end up talking about at bars and around campfires. I have a mountaineering background and in climbing there’s more of a willingness to suffer. The first surfers who explored off-the-map places really had to work for it and now that seems less important to a lot of surfers. They prefer places that are easy to access—going to a resort or renting a car and checking into a hotel.

Why do you think more surfers have opted for comfort as opposed to an ethos similar to mountaineering?

In a lot of ways surfing is a victim of its own success. It’s so photogenic that it appeals to people who know nothing about it. You can’t say that about too many other pursuits. Tennis isn’t very interesting to people who know nothing about the game. Surfing is so elemental that you don’t need to know anything in order to be moved by it. So it’s easy to feel drawn to surfing and, at the same time, to completely overlook its original spirit of adventure.

David Morris’s feature story on the Burica Peninsula is featured in issue 24.3 of TSJ.