It started like an Avicci video. I was smack in the middle of finishing my History and Journalism degree in Pamplona, bored out of my skull interning at a dying local newspaper. Is this what life is, I thought to myself, being a slave to my alarm clock and spending hours squinting into a screen?
On top of that, my last vacation was still hanging over me. I’d gone to surf school in Portugal that Easter and was still stoked over having caught a few whitewash waves. Delusions of looking as good as Kate Bosworth on a surfboard were still riding barrels through my mind. So I took a break from contemplating the death of print and waiting for actual tumbleweed to roll through the 1980’s office and googled “surf camps in San Sebastian.” Only 45 minutes from Pamplona, the chic resort town of San Sebastian is known for being an absolute foodie haven, but the surrounding beaches of Basque country are great places to surf, especially if you’re still learning.
After laughing at their outlandish website, I booked a stay for my next weekend off with Stoke Travel. Little did I know that I would be meeting a bunch of weird and wonderful humans who in time would become my European family. It would have been difficult not to fall in love with surf camp, perched on a beautiful hill overlooking the beach of Zarautz. But what really struck me was the absolutely uninhibited nature of people. And I’m not talking about the staged, tactically-tousled #freespirits that populated Instagram feeds. These humans were totally judgement-free, and as a first-time solo female traveler, this was a fantastic atmosphere to be in. Life’s biggest problems were good surf conditions and a good time. These were my people, the bohemian weirdos I knew I was always destined to meet and never did through consistently conservative schooling.
I repeatedly extending my stay, to the point that Stoke staff members told me they needed crew at Oktoberfest. If I wasn’t going abroad the following semester, I would have jumped at the chance. Instead I vowed that after finishing university, I would make a pit-stop at surf camp before joining the real world.
Fast-forward two years later to the summer after I graduated. I made good on that promise to myself and signed up as volunteer staff at Stoke’s San Sebastian Surf Camp. Summers have always been transitions for me. The freedom from routine and time for travel and self-reflection allow you to change a lot in a few short months. Still, there were certain summers that were particularly transformative, that had a before and after to them. This one at Surf Camp definitely took the cake.
Aside from being able to surf every single day and fall more in love with it, I did things I never thought I’d do. I’d lived in Pamplona for five years and gone to the fiesta of San Fermin four times but never run with the bulls, until I found this bunch of crazies who convinced me to do it with them. I went to the Wine Fight in Haro, a lesser-known Spanish fiesta that to this day is my favourite. I crowd-surfed at BBK, the world’s best medium sized music festival headlined that year by Chet Faker, the 1975, Bastille, Foster the People and Prodigy. I was one of thousands of revelers dancing on beaches and riverbanks at street parties in the Basque Country, the nights lit up by gorgeous fireworks.
Most importantly, I discovered a lot about myself, what I wanted and what made me happy. The best thing about traveling solo was that I could go into any situation without having to answer or worry about anyone but myself, and this was liberating. I had gone into the summer still half in a relationship. I came out of the season, and the relationship, with much more confidence, valuing my independence and vowing never to settle again.
Eventually, I moved to Barcelona, where Stoke has their headquarters, to work on their summer boat parties. Back home in the Philippines, I was seen as an other because of my Spanish heritage, while of course at my university town I was a foreigner. I fell head-over-heels for Barcelona, not only because it was beautiful, but because I fit right into this melting pot where travelers, immigrants and locals continuously crossed paths. Add to that the artsy eclecticism that’s been represented since Gaudí’s time to the present graffiti scene and you have the perfect ingredients for my dream city.
I spent the next two summers working in Barcelona for Stoke, which is a young, fun and fast-growing company. The great thing about that was being thrown into loads of different roles, constantly changing things up and figuring out what I liked and what I didn’t. On the other hand, Stoke felt the growing pains of any start-up, so there were moments of pure chaos. But as a young, travel-hungry fresh graduate, the good largely outweighed the bad. And at the end of the day my co-workers and I all shared the same goal. The way I came to work for Stoke was not unique, most of us had started out as customers who never wanted to go home. We were lost boys and mermaids who made a life in the Neverland that is working in the travel business of Barcelona, and what we wanted was to keep traveling and sharing amazing experiences with new people.
After almost three years, it was time to move on. It felt like graduation all over again. The Stokie’s are still my best friends in the city, the ones I call on the weekend or when I need to vent after a long hard day at my new job. Cheesy as it sounds, I met the most amazing people at Stoke. One of them, a certain former surf camp manager, is my boyfriend of two years and co-parent to our adopted dog. But that’s another story.
I’m now coming into my first post-Stoke summer. Although I dread the inevitable FOMO I’ll feel when I see photos of my friends having the time of their lives at festivals, I have no regrets. My life would have taken a very different and much more conventional turn had I never become a Stokie. And if I miss it too much, I know Stoke’s just like the Hotel California. You can check out anytime, but you never really leave.