Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Relaxation, Redemption, and Rediscovery of the Real Meaning of GNARLY

Please note that this is the second entry being posted at this time. You’ll need to scroll down to read the first post, and then you can scroll back up to read this one.

Ok, so I’m sitting here on the deck of my over-water bungalow with a rainbow filling the sky to my left, huge waves crashing on the reef out front, and a sailboat anchored in the lagoon to my right. I’m wearing nothing but a bathing suit, I’m sipping fresh mango juice, and I’m chilling out to the soft melody of a ukulele wafting in with the breeze from next-door. I have no idea what day it is or what’s going on in the world, no recollection of what winter feels like, and no concept of the significance of the words hurry or worry other than that they rhyme. But wait just a minute, now, before you start muttering expletives about what a chump I am! I have nasty, bleeding wounds all over my body; my top-of-the-line surfboard rests next to me in two, tragically separated pieces; and each day I find myself confronting head-on my previous failures, my greatest fears, and my very mortality. Ok, so maybe I can’t convince you that I’m not living in paradise – because I am – but it is, I promise, a unique variation of the paradise you probably imagine. Whether you want to believe it or not, I’m not staying at the Hotel Bora Bora; though my little bungalow is spectacular in its location and charm, life here on Tahiti-Iti is simple and unpretentious. Few people speak more than a couple words of English, so I’m faced with the challenge – as I had hoped – of speaking continuous French. Rainstorms mean hunkering down in my bungalow with a book for as long as they last, and sunset is the same as lights-out in this laid-back little village. Most uncharacteristic of the paradise you probably imagine, though, is the nature of the thing which drew me here in the first place: surfing. Surfing here is much more than recreation – it is, instead, a battle of epic proportions, a constant struggle to believe in myself and my abilities, to coexist temporarily with nature in its most violent and dynamic moment, and to cope with the realization that death has never before seemed so tangible. It is within this little paradox – this paradox which has allowed me to do more reading, learn more French, and place myself in more life-threatening, life-fulfilling situations than ever before despite the fact that I have forgotten what it means to hurry or to worry – that I have found my niche here… here on this magical, Polynesian dreamland of an island called Tahiti. Join me for a tour…

I suppose from the moment I stepped on that plane in Los Angeles I knew I was headed to paradise. The seats and wallpaper of the Air Tahiti Nui jet were various shades of tropical blues and greens, and the selection of movies included the latest surfing thriller May Days, which was, as a matter of fact, filmed exclusively here in Teahupo’o. With four seats entirely to myself, I stretched out for a nice long lap, and when I woke up, it was Hello French Polynesia. Things got interesting right away – which is how it always seems to be with me for some reason – when I found myself rolling that infamous, eight-foot-long boardbag along beside me through the Pape’ete airport looking for someone with a little sign saying "Alex Gould" or even just someone who looked like he too were looking for someone. But to no avail, and I finally admitted to myself that the odds of my new family showing up at 10:30 PM on that night after just one conversation with me, in broken French, over two months earlier probably weren’t so high. A guy working in the airport noticed my boardbag and chatted with me for a while about surfing – telling me he’d probably see me in the water that weekend at Teahupo’o because there was a huge swell on the way that he wouldn’t miss for anything – and then pointed me in the direction of the nearest, cheapest pension. I feigned excitement about the swell (you see, in Tahiti, it’s exactly backwards – people like me pray for small, small, small waves; and, when there are big waves, we pray for onshore winds or some other legitimate excuse for not being able to surf) – thinking slim chance he would see me in the water during a big swell – and headed for the pension, called Chez Fifi. As things would have it, Chez Fifi is located about halfway up one of the volcanoes by the airport, so I was completely drenched in sweat by the time I made it up the hill with all my luggage, and it was, by then, well after 11:00. Luckily, le patron was still awake, and, within minutes, I had crashed on a dormitory bed. When I awakened the next morning and sat up in bed, I realized I was next to an open window; I groggily put on my glasses and looked out and was just floored by the vista. Ocean, mountains, reef, sunshine… I knew suddenly that the second leg of my journey was underway and I was in for a treat…

I finally managed to get in touch with the Rochettes that morning and arranged to be picked up at the airport (I couldn’t take a bus because of my boardbag). Teva, the father, was fifteen minutes early by Tahitian time (meaning he was 45 minutes late by Western time), but I expected this and was just pleased to be hitting the road. Teva is a big guy, really nice and sincere, and, like every Tahitian, takes his time going about things. The 1.5 hour drive from Pape’ete to Teahupo’o became a 2.5 hour drive as Teva made a couple stops along the way, took time to greet people on the side of the road (he seemed to know everyone), and chatted with me about surfing (realizing that my French has improved dramatically since our pre-Senegal phone conversation). He, too, informed me that a huge swell was on its way to Teahupo’o – adding as a sidenote that some pros from Hawaii who had heard about it were currently in transit – and asking if I knew about the big "tuubes" (elongating the u in tube in kind of a goofy way) at Teahupo’o. I responded that I was well aware of the tubes at Teahupo’o but probably wouldn’t be surfing them if they were very big. He laughed and insisted that it wasn’t a big deal – that the Hobgood brothers, Bobby Martinez, "lots of other surfers…" – ride the tubes with ease every year at the Billabong Pro Teahupo’o Contest (one of the nine stops on the world tour of surfing) and that those surfers all stayed at his house too. Once I got over how cool it was that I would be sleeping in the same bed that C.J. Hobgood once slept in, I informed Teva that I was most definitely not a professional…well, except in Senegal, that is!!

Tahiti is shaped like a lopsided figure eight; the larger part, where Pape’ete (the capital of French Polynesia) and most of the other cities are located, is called Tahiti-Nui, and the smaller part, where Teahupo’o (pronounced "Choh-po’oh; the apostrophe indicates a glottal stop) is located, is called Tahiti-Iti or Le Presqu’ile ("almost island"). The two sections of the island are connected by a small isthmus at the town of Tarava’o. The interior of both parts of the island is volcanic, with jagged, verdant mountains rising to over 7,000 ft. Tahiti’s only real road, called La Ceinture ("The Belt"), hugs the coastline of the island, though on Tahiti-Iti it goes only as far as Tautira on the north coast and Teahupo’o on the south coast (the east coast remains accessible only by boat). Thus, Teahupo’o, where I am living, is nicknamed "The End of the Road," which, I must admit, helped to seal the deal when I was trying to decide where to spend the summer. Teahupo’o – and Tahiti-Iti as a whole – is much less developed than the rest of Tahiti. There are no real hotels here – just small, family-run pensions and homestays – nor are there banks, internet cafes, fancy restaurants, etc. Relatively few tourists come here, and those who do are not typically the type who vacation on Bora Bora; as Lonely Planet says, in addition to a "steady flow of surf pilgrims," Teahupo’o and Tahiti-Iti attract "independent, outdoorsy folk looking for a more authentic glimpse of Polynesia." I’d say I fall under both of those categories, wouldn’t you? My bungalow here in Teahupo’o, which I mentioned earlier, is located 1.5 km from the end of the road, on oceanfront property, propped up over the lagoon on stilts. It’s situated in a little cove, and the calm, turquoise water stretches out for over half a mile to the end of the barrier reef, where the lagoon ends and the open ocean begins. The bungalow is nestled under palm trees a few hundred feet from the house in which the Rochettes live. Teahupo’o itself is a charming little village with a rhythm unlike that of any other place I’ve been. I took a walk to the end of the road the first day I was here, and I found myself liking – and falling into – that rhythm very quickly. Kids playing football in the road stopped their game to shake my hand, girls riding by on bikes flashed me aloha signs, and women gathered at the local gossip hotspot paused to wave and grin as I passed. Tiny houses, many with nothing more than a curtain for a door, line both sides of the street; rushing rivers cascade down from the mountains and into the ocean; and a tiny wooden church, painted entirely white, sits tucked away in one of the valleys amidst a patch of wildflowers. I find so much beauty in the simplicity and slowness of life here. The way in which the white tiare flower is tucked behind the ear. The greeting of women with a kiss on each cheek. The nonchalant, relaxed peddling of bicycles up and down the street at all hours of the day. Even the long, patient waits at the snack bars and at the bank in Tarava’o. It’s as if the people here have realized that hurrying is pointless – that they’re all seeking the same things and headed for the same final destination and that all that really matters is the grace and elegance with which they live in the meantime. Most of all, the people here seem happy, happier than any other group of people I’ve ever encountered. The way in which children play half-naked in the ocean, in which fishermen unload their bountiful catches after a day at sea, in which families sit outside gazing at the sunsets and rainbows which so often fill the sky with color…even the way in which the untold number of canine residents of Teahupo’o run yelping through the streets as if they’ve found their own little doggie paradise. On my way back from that walk on the first day, I saw a pack of those dogs running, and I couldn’t help but see on each of their faces a big, slobbery grin; maybe it was imagined, maybe not, but – either way – I couldn’t help but grin myself, totally enraptured by life here at The End of the Road.

So, "What’s a typical day like in paradise?" you want to know. I wake up early – in fact, earlier than I have woken up since…well…probably since high school. Vaiani, my "mom" usually delivers breakfast to my over-water deck around 7:30, which is about the time I become fed up with trying to sleep through the cacophony of the roosters anyway. Vaiani is wonderful – both in terms of her personality and, more importantly (hehe), her culinary skill. I honestly think she could pass for a head chef in one of the top restaurants in Pape’ete. She cooks me breakfast and dinner everyday, though she makes so much food that there’s almost always enough left for lunch too (even the way I eat). She reminds me often to mangez bien ("eat well") and believes that a big breakfast is an important start to the day (and I concur)…so, breakfast, brought to me on a big colorful tray, is always comprised of a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange, mango, papaya, or pineapple juice; a bowl of at least 5 different fruits; a French baguette; a cup of yogurt; and typically either a 3 egg omelet stuffed with all sorts of delectable treats, a huge plate of banana pancakes, or a giant breakfast sandwich on coconut bread. I don’t think I’ve had the same dinner meal twice, so I won’t list all the masterful creations I’ve enjoyed, but here are a few: grilled mahi-mahi with mashed potatoes and a gigantic bowl of soup (with fresh shrimp); an overflowing chef salad with several types of meat accompanied by an exquisitely seasoned steak and a vegetable medley; Chinese lo mein topped with grilled chicken breast and served with a bowl of sautéed shrimp and crab meat. Tahitian cuisine is the product of Polynesian, French and Chinese influences (France and China having made the biggest impact on the local culture; if you weren’t aware of the Chinese influence, you might be surprised to know that the Chinese horoscopes are read on the news every night, the vast majority of stores in Tahiti are owned by people of Chinese origin, and white rice and lo mein are two of the staples of Tahitian cuisine). All the meals, of course, include fresh French bread and often a helping of the local specialty poisson cru, which is raw fish mixed in mayonnaise and coconut milk. I was a bit worried the first time I tried this, but once I had tasted it I just couldn’t stop – it’s definitely the most amazing seafood dish I’ve ever had. The fish used for poisson cru is so fresh that it’s usually been out of the ocean for only a couple of hours, and the resulting taste is nearly addictive… Anyway, after taking my time with breakfast, watching boats go by, and checking the waves on the reef, I typically suit up and head out to surf (which is a major outing involving either walking several kilometers or hitchhiking and either paddling a couple kilometers or finding a boat and convincing its owner I’m a nice guy) or, if I can think of an excuse not to go tempt death, take a nap. After surfing or napping, it’s usually a little reading or studying French on my deck, then maybe some relaxing in the sun with Jack Johnson tunes playing on my laptop in the background. Once I’m tired of that, I might go for a walk down to the end of the road and chat with locals for awhile. Since Teahupo’o is so small that everyone knows one another, I guess I’m a little bit of a celebrity with some of the kids, so I never leave home without an entourage of bicyclists. I honestly don’t think the kids here ever go to school because I see them every single time I go out, no matter what time it is. Regardless, I enjoy hanging out with them, chatting about surfing, and reminding them all – but especially the kid who calls himself the Boogieman (he likes to boogieboard) – that I don’t have any stickers to give out (because of the sponsored professionals who come here, stickers sporting surf-industry names are a very hot commodity in Teahupo’o). I’ve gotten to know some locals who are about my age, too, which is especially nice because it means I don’t always have to surf alone. After the kids accompany me home and ride off on their bikes (typically in the opposite direction they were going when they saw me…what a life, I’m telling you!), I usually play with the Rochettes’ dogs for a bit. There are four awesome dogs, including two lovable, 4-month-old puppies named Chambeaux and Tysan, who are nearly identical (they’re brothers), inseparable, and by now completely attached to me. I usually conclude the day with a snorkel on the reef in front of my bungalow, freediving 10 to 25 feet down to explore the reef edge and look for hiding fish. Not that there’s any shortage of fish near the surface, of course. Just floating along, I find myself surrounded by angel fish, tube fish, eels; big fish, tiny fish, schools of fish; reds, oranges, yellows, and, of course, the amazing variations of blue for which the South Pacific seas are famous. When I venture out further in the lagoon, I attach the leash of my longboard to my leg and also take my very wicked dive knife, which makes me feel just a little bit better. I swim in just as the sun is beginning to set, dry off, and stretch out on my deck to find out what extravaganza of color the sky holds in store this time. I eat dinner either with the Rochettes or on my deck, do some more reading (it’s so nice to have a chance to read for pleasure…I’ve already sped through several books, including the 1200 page masterpiece Atlas Shrugged, which I believe I finished in 4 days), talk to the family for awhile, and then hit the sack early. The sun sets here at 5:30, and, as I said, that basically means lights out in Teahupo’o. Except for the roosters, it’s a sleepy village…and I kind of like it that way.

And now what you’ve all been waiting for…what you’ve all been dying to ask… "What is it like surfing the most dangerous wave in the world?" Teahupo’o, "Chopes," "Kumbaya." The wave which instills fear in the greatest surfers on earth. The wave which is heralded almost universally as the most challenging on the planet. Transworld Surf Magazine says it’s a "surreal, ledging left that looks more like an avalanche or a tidal wave than anything you’d think was surfable." Pro surfer Keala Kennelly says it’s the only wave in the world "with teeth." After barely making it out of the tube on an epic wave in 2000, Laird Hamilton, the greatest big-wave surfer in history and very possibly the bravest man alive today, sat down on his board and wept. And me? The guy who doesn’t even live at a beach and whose entire lifetime worth of experience on a surfboard is less than what most surfers accumulate in one year? I can give a one word answer: GNARLY. Yep, just take that old-school surfer word that everyone scoffs at, pump it full of steroids, repackage it, write Death all over it, and you’ve got Teahupo’o. The craziest, scariest, most frickin’ Insane with a capital i thing that I’ve ever seen in my life. You’re sitting there on your board in the most beautiful blue water you’ve ever seen, the ocean is as calm as can be, birds are flying overhead, fish are playing underneath you, a soft breeze is blowing against your back, and behind you is an unreal panorama of jagged green pinnacles soaring upwards into wispy clouds. All the world seems at peace. Then, you feel it coming. You hear it. You hear a jet-ski engine start up a hundred meters further out. You hear people start screaming and cheering on the dozen or so boats idling fifty feet away in the safety of the channel. You notice that the professional photographers swimming around in body armor have repositioned themselves. Then, you see it. A huge mountain in the distance and growing steadily larger as it eats up the distance between you and it. The ocean behind you is suddenly dropping away in a bizarre, unnatural manipulation of the laws of physics. The mountain is curving around the reef so that it’s taken the form of a "U," and it’s beginning to unleash its fury. A tow-in surfer pulled by the jet-ski you heard a few seconds ago has let go of the rope and is flying across the face of the wave, trying to outrace the aquamarine beast before it eats him alive and piledrives him into the jagged coral reef three feet below the surface. His face is contorted by the g-forces, the wind, and, of course, the fear; no one knows if he’s going to make it. Buried deep within the barrel of the wave, he flies by a few feet away from you, and you can no longer see him – you yourself blinded by the spray of water which shoots forty feet into the air and falls like rain for almost ten seconds. Then, you see the arms go up, the arms of all the people watching from their boats, and you watch as the surfer is spit out of the tube with a jet of water, his own arms raised in triumph and exaltation… Words don’t really do Teahupo’o justice. The best – and easiest – thing for you to do is just perform a Google Search – type "Teahupo’o + surfing" – and look at the pictures which come up. Then, remind yourself that the pictures don’t really do Teahupo’o justice either and that it’s ten times scarier and more intense when you’re actually there.

Here’s how Teahupo’o works. French Polynesia is the most remote chain of islands anywhere in the world. That’s the same as saying that the islands of French Polynesia are further from any continental landmass than any other point on earth. The island of Tahiti is surrounded almost entirely by a barrier reef. However, over time, parts of the reef are eaten away; the resulting channels which connect the open ocean to the inner lagoon are known as "passes." The pass in the reef over a half-mile off the shore of the village of Teahupo’o is known as Hava’e and is infamous because of the wave (which is also called Teahupo’o) it produces. The coral reef beside the pass – known for being exceptionally sharp and jagged – lies just 2 to 4 feet beneath the surface of the water. The seaward side of the reef, however, drops vertically downward hundreds and hundreds of feet to the sea bottom. Thus, the energy which has been traveling – and growing stronger in the process – for days across the widest expanse of open ocean in the world meets the shallow reef head-on with nothing to slow it down. The result is one of clearest examples to be found anywhere of the incredible power of nature. While Teahupo’o is not as big as some waves (though it is nevertheless enormous), it throws more water over the lip of the wave at any one instant than any other wave in the world. It is known for being as "thick" as it is "tall," and what this means is that there is a gaping hollow within the wave resembling the inside of a pipeline and called the "tube" or the "barrel." Teahupo’o was thought to be unsurfable until 1985-86, when surfers were able to ride it successfully by tucking into the relative safety of the tube to avoid the deadly whitewater flowing over their heads. Still, only a handful of people had ever surfed the wave until 8 years ago, when the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) found out about it and made it one of the nine stops on the World Tour of surfing, in which the 44 best surfers in the world surf the best waves in the world to fight for the world championship. Even today, Teahupo’o remains relatively off-the-map, and the few surfers who do make pilgrimages here are almost exclusively professionals and semi-professionals. To say that I’m out of my league is an understatement. In an article chronicling the histories of the 8 top surfing meccas in the world, the only thing Transworld Surf Magazine has to say under the "Surfability" category for Teahupo’o is this: "Don’t even think about it. Anything over three foot is not suitable for anyone but expert surfers." So what in the world am I doing here, you might wonder…

Basically, I wanted to spend this summer in a French-speaking country where I could surf. During the summer months the Atlantic Ocean is more or less flat, so that eliminated places like France and Senegal and basically narrowed my search to French Polynesia (Réunion and Mauritius are in the midst of an outbreak of the chikungunya virus; in simpler terms, you shouldn’t go there). My only other concern was finding some type of homestay that would allow me to experience the local culture. After weeks of searching on the internet, I noticed a footnote in an online article that mentioned something about homestays being possible in Teahupo’o because some of the families had begun hosting professional surfers for the annual contest. The footnote said to call the mayor of Teahupo’o and provided a number. It turned out that that number was incorrect and that no one seemed to speak any English, so the going was tough, but, with the help of one of my French-speaking friends, I was at last able to arrange the homestay with the Rochette family. I knew before I arrived that I was not qualified to surf Teahupo’o, but I figured, with good judgment and a little luck, I should hopefully be able to surf it on the "smaller" (that’s smaller; not small) days and survive. I came armed with three boards and a healthy dose of that "attitude of invincibility" that my mom always rags me about, but, at the same time, I wasn’t taking anything lightly. Somehow, though, I still managed to find myself right in the middle of things and asking, "Why does this always happen to me?"…

It was the first weekend here, the weekend of the big swell that everyone had told me about. I’d already told Teva that I was not going to surf during the swell, but he came and chatted with me after I had woken up and convinced me that the swell hadn’t really picked up too much at that point. He said it wouldn’t really arrive until the next day and that, though the waves were "building," they weren’t too big yet. So he said something to the effect of "Why don’t you hop in the boat with your board, and I’ll take you out there just to look. If you like what you can see, you can surf; if not, you can return with me." Thinking "might-as-well," I shrugged, went through an abbreviated stretching routine "just in case," waxed up my board, threw on my rash guard, and hopped into the boat. As we sped across the lagoon, people watching from the shore who probably figured I was a pro waved aloha signs and hollered, as if they were cheering me on to some unimaginable battle. When we got to Hava’e Pass, there were about a dozen boats idling in the channel, professional surf photographers swimming in the impact zone, pro riders – several of them wearing helmets – from a number of different countries in the water, and jet skis and tow-in surfers further out to sea (as a side note, tow-in surfing, in which surfers are whipped into waves behind jet skis as if they were water skiing until they catch the wave and let go of the rope, is the most recent innovation in surfing and is done regularly in just a handful of locations, places which feature the biggest and most challenging waves in the world). I was kind of dazed by all this, and I suppose my brain stopped working for a minute. Teva and I watched a few waves come through that actually didn’t seem too incredibly big, and then he turned to me with expectation. I sort of looked behind me to see if there were someone else in the boat for whom his glance was intended only to realize that I was alone and that he expected me to jump out and paddle into this lineup of world-class surfers challenging a world-class wave. He grinned and gave me an encouraging "Allez!" ("Go!"), and before I knew what I’d done I had dove overboard. I got sized up by all the pros and experts as I paddled tentatively towards them and was greeted by a series of terse Bonjour’s, La ora na nana’s, Hola’s, and What’s up’s. One of the coolest things about surfing a wave like Teahupo’o, though, is that everyone there means business. Everyone understands the risk and the danger, and everyone understands everyone else’s reasoning for taking on that risk and danger. The tangible solidarity which exists in the lineup is probably not all that different than the solidarity felt by soldiers heading to battle together. Additionally, even during a swell like the one we were experiencing, there were no more than 20 surfers in the lineup at any one time. So, as I figured out when I arrived in the lineup, the custom is for arriving surfers to go around and greet each surfer already in the lineup personally. This usually involves an aloha sign or the "palm touch followed by fist pound" which reigns as the handshake of choice for the younger generation here as well as the surfers. With these greetings comes a sense of community – the same sense of community I witnessed at the Pro Competition in Senegal, during the typhoons in Taiwan, and in the waters of Costa Rica – and I think its ability to unite people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests is one of the greatest aspects of the sport of surfing.
Anyway, I was in the lineup and "ready to charge" at this point and just wanted to wait and watch someone else take off on a wave. That’s when it happened. The first set arrived, and it was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my life. As I described earlier, the jet-skis revved up, the crowd went mad, and the paddle-in surfers around me began jockeying for position (the person closest to the breaking part of the wave always has priority) in case the tow-in surfers passed up a wave. And me? I just kind of sat there dumbfounded at the mountain rolling towards me, realizing that the swell had most definitely already arrived, and glancing back at the channel only to see Teva leaving in his boat! The next 3 hours were a mixture of awkwardness, awe, and conflicting desires. I had one of the best seats in the house for watching an absolutely unbelievable show, but, at the same time, I had to stay constantly aware of my position. The larger the wave, the further out it breaks, so sometimes very large sets would come through and everyone would have to paddle straight out as hard as possible to avoid being "caught on the inside" and destroyed. Those moments were my only real adrenaline rushes of the first three hours – and, believe me, it’s quite a rush to paddle head-on towards one of those mountains and then paddle straight up its near vertical wall of water when it is milliseconds from caving in and taking you backwards over the falls and into the reef – but the thought of trying to surf one of the smaller waves wouldn’t leave me. As he had promised, the guy I’d met in the airport that first night showed up after a little while and paddled over to me to shake hands and see how things were going. I confessed that I hadn’t taken a wave yet, and, though he reassured me that there wasn’t a single person in the lineup who wasn’t afraid, he also said, "You’ll never know if you don’t try." I was also under the mistaken impression that Teahupo’o would never be much smaller than this and concluded to myself that this day seemed as good as any to tempt fate. Finally, my chance came. A smaller wave – still larger than any I’d ever surfed in my life – and a nice, clean face that hopefully would give me time to bottom turn and tuck into the barrel. I paddled hard. It lifted me up and I almost had it…but it passed under me. One of the most pitiful things in all of surfing is getting "caught on the inside," particularly after having paddled for a previous wave and just barely missed it. That’s exactly what happened to me on that day. I turned around to see a huge set rolling in. Everyone else, fifteen feet further out, was already paddling out. Having just finished a sprint paddle, my arms were tired, but I paddled for my life nevertheless. A guy had been evacuated just a few hours earlier with a dislocated shoulder due to a similar scenario. The last person to die at Teahupo’o was impaled headfirst into the reef after being caught inside. As the wave reared up in front of me and the whitewater began falling in what seemed like slow motion, I knew I wouldn’t make it. The next thing I knew I was underwater, being pulled in, and my surfboard, clamped by a set of menacing liquid jaws, was torn away from me with no trouble. I finally surfaced to find myself intact, but the leash connecting my board to my leg had snapped and the board was nowhere to be seen. With more set waves approaching me, I swam for my life – pretty terrified – diving as deep as I could under each wave. I managed to survive the set and was picked up by one of the rescue jet-skis that wait in the channel. As I’d seen (in movies) my heroes like Laird Hamilton do after epic big-wave wipeouts in Hawaii, I grabbed onto the sled which is pulled behind the Red Bull jet-skis, hauled myself onto it so that I was lying on my stomach, and hung on for the ride – and when I say hung on, I’m talking about an iron grip. The ride itself was actually one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever been through, as the driver navigated through the impact zone, outracing incoming waves and dodging above-water rocks, at speeds of probably 50 mph – my face, all the while, just inches above jagged coral. Finally, he spotted my board, which I grabbed in-transit, and he then shuttled me quickly to land, anxious to get back to the break. I stood on the beach shaken and dazed, amazed at how quickly everything had happened and upset with myself about how my first attempt at Teahupo’o had gone but also feeling newfound respect for the power of the ocean and a sense of gratitude that I’d have another chance to challenge it…

After my first encounter with Teahupo’o I was humbled yet also made anxious, scared yet also infused with energy. I hung my broken leash over my bed so it would serve as a constant reminder of what I still had to prove to myself. The swell was neither the right time nor the right atmosphere for me to take on Teahupo’o. I knew deep down that if I waited, entered the right mindset, and charged on my terms, I was more than capable of surfing Teahupo’o. For the two days after my first incident, I didn’t sleep well at night, having repetitive nightmares about the wave. During the day, though, I practiced visualizing myself surfing it successfully, and I ran positive images through my mind over and over. I fixed the dings in my board, stretched a lot, and just tried to stay positive. Finally, the waves died down a bit, and, after a couple hours of procrastinating ("I think it looks like it might rain…"), I decided I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t give it at least one go with 100% commitment. I gathered my thoughts during the 2 kilometer walk to the spot where surfers begin the paddle out and was dismayed by how quickly the reprieve passed. Before I knew it, I was out there, back in the lineup, and, though the waves were smaller, they seemed to pack almost as much force as they did the previous session; additionally, the bizarre U-shape of the wave around the horseshoe-shaped reef was as pronounced as ever. Coincidentally, a couple of surfers from Virginia Beach were the only others out, and, though they were semi-pros who travel all over the world to surf, the fact that someone from my neck of the woods was surfing Teahupo’o made me feel slightly better. Before I knew what I was doing, I was paddling after another wave, and this time I made it! I survived the drop, bottom turned, and carved down the line a bit before tucking in as the wave started to curl up over me. I was pretty stoked and paddled back out quickly to get several more solid rides. Some guy in one of the boats in the channel said "Nice ride, dude" as I paddled past after riding one of the biggest waves of my life, and that simple compliment had me all smiles (though, of course, I had to pretend like surfing Teahupo’o was no big deal to me) until my last ride, when I took a bad fall and went down on the reef hard. I came up in a small pool of blood and realized that my feet, left leg, left arm, and both hands were cut up pretty badly. The paddle in – which takes 20-30 minutes of hard work depending on whether the tide is incoming or outgoing – was a little nerve-racking because I was trailing blood, and I kept checking behind me, but I made it in okay. When I got home and had finished cleaning out and superglueing shut (yes, it works) my wounds, I took down the broken leash from over my bed, wrote in bold letters in my little notebook "I surfed Teahupo’o," and went to sleep content with myself.

Since that time, surfing here in Tahiti has been a series of ups and downs, a cycle of encountering failure, coming to terms with it, and then redeeming myself. After successfully surfing Teahupo’o, I was on a high and continued to surf it well and gain confidence. I got my most thrilling ride yet a couple days later and was well on my way to riding with style. I dropped into a really good-sized wave, grabbed the rail of my board during the bottom turn, and – seeing the wave ahead of me really starting to pitch out – pulled up into the tube. It was a stand-up sized barrel – the first of my life – and for a second, I remember thinking "Whoa…I’m in the barrel at Teahupo’o…" Unfortunately, I didn’t actually make it out of the barrel, and it was lights out about 2 seconds after that thought entered my mind. Nevertheless, this was a huge achievement for me – I mean, you command instant respect from any surfer in the world if you tell them you got covered up at Teahupo’o, regardless of whether you made it out or not – and I was totally stoked. Unfortunately, it was also the apex of that particular string of successes. The waves were building continuously, and the offshore wind was increasing steadily as well, making the waves more and more difficult. The next wave I took was a monster as far as I’m concerned – a huge, dredging barrel that would have guaranteed me the tube ride of my life had I made it. Teahupo’o, as I mentioned earlier, is a left, meaning, as a regular-footed surfer (I stand with my left foot forward), I have to surf it "backside" (my back is to the wave when cruising down the line). Surfing backside is more difficult than surfing frontside, and, to complicate things, I have far less experience going backside (almost all the waves I rode in Senegal, for example, were rights). Had the wave I chose on that fateful day been a right, I think I would have made it, but it wasn’t, and I just couldn’t make it into the barrel. My drop-in was squeamish and I grabbed my rail to try to straighten out and get in the tube, but I sort of overcompensated and ended up riding too far up the wave. The tube caught up to me and just flipped me upside down washing-machine style, piledriving me downward. When I finally stopped doing back handsprings off the reef, I surfaced to find two thirds of my board gone. My 6’4" Cannibal work of art…the love of my life…destroyed! Though I brought two other boards with me to Tahiti, one is a longboard/funboard I’m using solely for paddling around the lagoon, and the other is a 6’8", very floatable epoxy board belonging to my brother and not intended to be ridden on anything remotely like Teahupo’o (plus, he won’t be very happy if I break his board…not that he can do anything about it though…). So my dance with Teahupo’o had ended. It was over. I returned home with both my board and spirit in shambles, once again defeated by Teahupo’o and the power of the ocean…

But then, once again, a light. Teva, feeling sorry for me (which was nice, because everyone else just wanted to console me by saying "Yea, I broke my board out there last week…"), led me into a guestroom in his house and pointed to the corner: a surfboard. Not a super nice one, but definitely one that could be ridden at Teahupo’o. Game on! I was reenergized and back in the hunt. Another day out on the reef and a day surfing the shorebreak at the end of the road, and I was again gaining confidence. Then, I made a huge breakthrough in hooking up with some of my local Tahitian friends who were heading out in their boat to spend the day surfing Vaira’o, a pass in the reef about 8 kilometers away that is realistically accessible only by boat. Though Vaira’o is also recommended only for expert surfers, it is slightly more forgiving and less intimidating than Teahupo’o. We flew across the lagoon at the boat’s top speed, with one of the guys sitting on the bow so he could indicate – by holding out either his left or right arm – which way for the driver to turn to avoid the coral heads which touched the surface. At last we arrived and were thrilled to see beautiful, glassy little lefts cranking out one after another. I was ready to rip, but these guys were automatic like machines, catching every wave that came through. Finally becoming a little impatient at having to concede wave after wave to surfers with priority, I paddled deeper into the impact zone and at last found myself in a position of having priority. The wave was bordering on close-out and normally I wouldn’t have taken it, but this was finally my chance and I had to go for it. I couldn’t really make it into the barrel and tried to skirt around the whitewater but got eaten up and went down on the reef, surprised by the power of this wave which had appeared much tamer than it actually was. Despite this realization, I still couldn’t believe my eyes when I came up: a second broken board! Once again in need of redemption, I paddled broken-heartedly towards the boat, where I watched my friends catch one awesome wave after another. We had lunch together and it was a fun day, but I was pretty upset. I couldn’t conceive of how this possibly could have happened again, particularly on the first wave of the session and in such a strange way. Once again, I found myself depressed in paradise, searching for answers…

There are only two real beachbreaks on the island of Tahiti and only one of these is realistically accessible from Teahupo’o: Papara. I’ve spent the past few days surfing there on board number three, my brother’s epoxy. The waves there, in all honesty, are better than most of the waves I’ve surfed in my life (head-high on average, fairly long), but the break is packed with people and it’s not really what I came to Tahiti to surf. Nevertheless, it’s been fun surfing there, and I’ve had some great rides. Additionally, hitchhiking to get there (usually via a 3 vehicle shuttle each way) has been very rewarding. I haven’t met any characters quite as eccentric as those I met while hitchhiking in Taiwan (read about them at www.funinchina.blogspot.com under the Taiwan section), but the drivers have been exceptionally nice and provide me a great means by which to practice French. Meanwhile, I bide my time and try to come up with a new plan for taking on Teahupo’o once again. I very well may be done surfing Teahupo’o, but, then again, Tahiti has been full of surprises thus far, so don’t count me out just yet. I think I’m beginning to realize, as well, that the battle was never really between me and Teahupo’o but was, instead, between me and myself. It’s a battle that took on epic proportions here at Teahupo’o but one that can continue to be fought elsewhere and is not limited even to the medium of waves. Though the wounds I received while fighting it here may never fully heal, I was never really beaten either. I was reminded of my limits and of the fragility of my existence but I was shown also just what I’m capable of achieving if I believe in myself. Courage – not even Teahupo’o can drown it.

In concluding this first post from Tahiti, I should note the amazing cultural experiences I’ve had out of the water as well as in it. Teva’s cousin visited last week with a cooler full of fresh fish he’d just caught and invited me to come check them out. I wasn’t really sure what he wanted me to do as he tossed them around, so I just sort of "ooh-ed" and "ahh-ed" each time he showed me one. Afterwards, though, I had no problem deciding what to do as we sat around watching the World Cup on TV while eating tons and tons of delicious fish. While the mahi cooked, we ate poisson cru – straight out of the ocean. The conversation eventually centered on the topic of sharks, and he and Teva seemed to find it hilarious how worried the visiting surfers – myself included – always are about sharks. They explained how two surfers at Teahupo’o had once paddled furiously over to their fishing boat and pulled themselves onboard, screaming that there was a shark in the water. Seeing it, Teva chuckled and told them to get back in the water; it was only 2 meters long. I kind of expected them to reassure me, "Oh, there aren’t any sharks here," which is the answer I’ve gotten in most of the places I’ve surfed, but, instead, they laughed and told me about all the varieties of sharks they’d seen – inside the lagoon and outside of it – and about the 3 meter plus sharks they occasionally see. As an afterthought, Teva’s cousin remembered that just that day he’d caught a white tip reef shark in the lagoon near where I snorkel all the time; he proudly led me down to the water and flipped it over so I could see all the teeth. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I saw my first shark in the water: a black tip, about 4 feet long, swimming a hundred feet away when I was out at Teahupo’o. There were a couple other guys surfing with me, and I pointed it out to them; they nodded with indifference, and we went on surfing… Another really cool cultural experience I’ve had occurred the other night. Some of Teva’s relatives were hosting a festival and celebration, and I was invited to join them. They grilled heaps of mahi-mahi and also barbequed a pig, so the food was outstanding. Even more interesting, though, were the dance performance and show that some of them put on. The dancing wasn’t professional quality, I’m sure, but it was nevertheless extremely beautiful. The motions are so fluid and exotic as to be almost hypnotizing. It was obvious that the performers – mainly young women – had spent a lot of time practicing, and the crowd of relatives and friends were very supportive. I have to laugh when I think about what I saw and juxtapose it with what I would have seen if I were staying at the Hotel Bora Bora (by the way, I don’t really mean to be ragging on Bora Bora). What I saw was an authentic performance – a little rough around the edges, perhaps, but full of meaning and pride and intended not for video camera-toting tourists but for the very families of the performers. I was so glad I had chosen to do another homestay. Moreover, when I was sitting there under the tent in the pouring rain watching the dancing and listening to three elderly masters of the ukulele play in beautiful harmony, I was hit by the scale of just how much I’ve seen in the past couple of years. No, I haven’t visited as many countries as a lot of people or even traveled as much, but I’m beginning to string together some pretty incredible experiences. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in Africa; last year I was in a tiny mountain village in China; the year before in Latin America; now I’m in Polynesia. Each experience is so vastly different from the others, and each culture is so unique. It’s not like comparing Britain with France or Spain with Italy. Though the list of places I still want to visit stretches on ad infinitum, I’m at last managing to piece together each corner of the globe into one coherent picture – piece by piece, slowly, making sure I understand before I move on. Putting together the pieces of my global puzzle means also putting together the pieces of my personal beliefs, my outward perceptions, and my self-identity, and I can feel myself becoming a more complete person with each trip. I just hope I’ll be fortunate enough to be able to continue this learning process for the rest of my life.

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll probably make just one more post about Tahiti and may not finish it until after I return home in mid-July. Originally, I had planned to stay longer in Tahiti, but, because I leave in early/mid August for Taiwan and I’ve been gone so much, I want to spend a little time at home with the fam. I still have a couple weeks left, though, and plan to make the most of them. I’ve got a 2 day summit attempt planned for Mt. Aorai, Tahiti’s third highest peak and a classic climb. I also plan to visit either neighboring Mo’orea or the more distant Rangiroa, a coral atoll, where one of my new friends has a place. Stay tuned for the next update, enjoy life east of Eden, and keep on being Gnarly! Parahi nana and aloha.


At 1:19 AM, Blogger Yinyan said...

Glad to see that you're still alive :)
Despite the length of your posts (I was wondering if I would ever stop scrolling) I am still an avid reader who not only checks every other day--if only to see that you're still breathing- but actually reads every word. By the way- I thought superglue was slightly toxic(if your wounds don't fully heal you can blame it on the superglue later), and that McCandless quote describes your spirit perfectly. Your redefinition of Gnarly was pretty funny- my brother was reading over my shoulder and cracked up, and surprisingly your descriptions of everything Tahiti kept me more entertained than the World Cup game, although I still managed to see Italy's two goals in the last two minutes of OT.
I hope you continue to have eye-opening experiences, although your eyes might be ready to fall out by this point :) And despite the fact that I want you back here in one piece I hope you get to try Teahupo'o at least one more time, maybe someone else will take pity on you and lend you another board.
Let me know when you get back- I'm probably going to be in the DC area the weekend of the July 21st, maybe I'll make a side trip to see you ;)


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