[Back when the Parthenon was still freshly buffed marble, Greek mariners shared tales of seductive creatures that lay on the shores of the Mediterranean. They had porcelain skin and hair of silk, but it was their voices that made these Sirens irresistible. When their sweet melody made it beyond the waves, passing sailors were drawn to the shore, wrecking their ships on the rocky coast to be stranded within earshot of the ineluctable sound. Like the ancient Greek sailors, surfers are willing to risk everything once they find what calls to them. Perfect waves are our siren song and many a career, relationship, and bright future have been dashed to pieces on the rocks that front them.]
Sometimes life is only as big as your imagination. In his mid-20s, Mike Dobos was working 14-hour shifts, six days a week, in a Florida milk factory. He says if he hadn't made the right decisions, he'd "still be milking cows in Florida." Nowadays, he says, "Most people know me as the grumpy night watchman at the Hotel Mundaka." In 1995, Mike scrapped together savings from the gig at the dairy and used it to visit an airline stewardess he'd met in the Caribbean. She was living in Madrid at the time, and knowing how much Mike loved to surf, she booked him accommodation right next to a wave she'd heard about in the north of the country.
The hotel turned out to be the one-year-old Hotel Mundaka, and the goofyfoot arrived to meet a run of swell he just couldn't believe. Ten days later, he still hadn't had enough, and canceled plans to meet the stewardess back in Madrid. About that time, Marco, the hotel owner, was working night and day. In broken English, he mentioned to Mike how, if Mike could learn Spanish, he'd have a night shift available for him. At the time, Mike says, he knew enough of the language to order a beer and ask for the bathroom. So, he returned to Madrid, and then to Florida, where he hit the books and taught himself.
A year later, Mike returned to Mundaka and asked for a job. In the end, things didn't work out with the stewardess, but Mike says, "I ended up falling in love again, except this time with Mundaka." When your vacation becomes your life, he says, you end up leaving a lot of the familiar things behind. Mike doesn't often speak English or see his family or childhood friends. But he lived through Mundaka's golden age, witnessed the wave's competitive history unfold, and is now on a first-name basis with its champions. "If you told me 20 years ago what I'd be doing now," Mike says, "I would have laughed in your face." Well, he's still laughing.
[This series originally appeared in our August 2012 Big Issue, “The Distant Shores”]