Thursday, March 1, 2012

When in Hawaii

I've always been of the mentality that, when in a place who's culture differs from your own, the best experiences are to be had when you fully submerge yourself in that culture. Which is why, when Annie and I visited the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, there were few items on my to-do list that ranked above surfing.

To be clear, I had never ridden a wave in my life. The closest I had come to surfing was listening to The Beach Boys - I cannot even snowboard successfully, but I knew that if I left Hawaii without experiencing this quintessential element of Pacific-island life, I would have left Hawaii with regrets, and no one should leave Hawaii with regrets.

Annie was less thrilled with the idea of hanging ten. As an avid consumer of Dateline Exclusive stories, she was certain that she was going to be on the next late night interview show, minus a few integral limbs that would surely be snapped up by the ferocious sharks that we lying patiently at the bottom of Hanalei Bay. But being the dutiful wife she was, she gave in to my desire for adventure, and on one sleep-deprived, time-zone shifted morning, we headed up the singular blacktop road on the island to a rickety surf shop on the bay that gave Puff the Magic Dragon his birth.

At the shop, we gathered the necessary surf shirts and contact information, then headed down to the already-toasty sands of the bay. When we arrived, a deeply tanned high school boy with sun-streaked scraggly hair met us at a row of cars that lined the beaches reluctant border. He sat in a rickety old GMC pickup, its bed the resting place of a dozen surfboards of various length, as well as some old fast food wrappers and spare tools.

Surfing U.S.A

Introductions were made, and within minutes we were in the water, boards in tow. The salty spray in this alcove rarely gave waves that were more than four feet high, which made the bay ideal for novice surfers to hone their craft. We waded out into the water until we were chest deep and past the breaking of the waves. Annie, our guide, and I haphazardly climbed aboard our borrowed boards, the gritty surface scratching our arms as we prepared to luge ourselves back to the shoreline. As we sized up the ebb and flow of the water around us, our mentor shared with us some of the tell-tale signs of a good wave. We tried to comprehend his tips, but in the end, we were really just waiting for his signal to start paddling toward the sand.

When he gave the signal, we both began to paddle for our lives, fleeing from the wrath of the oncoming wave. As we gained momentum, our arms burned from pulling at the water. When we felt the swell of the water catch the end of our boards, we launched ourselves up from our bellied positions, and for approximately two and a half seconds, we both surfed.

When the force of the wave hurtled the board on toward the sand, my feet were only loosely in contact with the surface. The surfboard careened from under my precarious perch and, before I new what hit me, the world had turned cerulean and surrounded by frothy bubbles. I paused a moment to take in the sensation of my body hurtling through the underwater scene, then my back made firm contact with the sand below, snapping me out of my submarine daze. I kicked against the ocean floor and splashed my way back to reality.

Standing in knee deep froth, I shook the water from my ears, collected my board and triumphantly charged back into the oncoming waves. I looked over to my wife, who had taken a similar dig into the brine as mine. She was all smiles. The fear of lurking teeth in the unknown depths was nowhere to be seen on her beaming face. We repeated the above scenario several more times, with variations on the same wipe-out. Then once, as I returned from an unsuccessful attempt, I saw Annie fly by me, crouched on her board like a Polynesian pro. She skimmed the water on her board, and even steered the craft as she settled to a stop in the calm waters that lapped against the sand. She hopped off the board and did a little dance of triumph. The first successful surf of our trip!

It's all Fun and Surfing Until Someone Loses a Finger

I eventually notched a successful ride on my belt, and we were really getting the hang of the sport. Then, on a return from a mildly successful run, I was dragging my board behind me as I slogged through the waves. As I gripped the cable that connected the board to my ankle, I felt a sharp pain in my smallest finger. I looked down, and I saw blood all over my hand. The sting of the salt water burned in the open wound as I tried to wash away the blood and determine my injury. I beckoned for our instructor.

"Whoa! You alright buddy?" Our mentors eyes went wide as he saw the bloody finger.

"Yeah, I'm alright, I just busted my fingernail off." The reassurance was as much for me as it was for him.

"We'll, you think you can still surf?"

"Maybe I should at least get a band-aid or something?" He directed me to a medical kit in the back of his truck. I told Annie to keep surfing as I dropped my board on the sand. The wound was not dire, but it smarted like someone had slammed my finger in a door. I reached the truck and began wading through the surfboards and fast food garbage with my good hand. After a few futile moments of ineffectual shuffling, I heard from behind me,

"Eh, what you looking for man?" The call was not hostile, but casually curious. I turned around to find a rusty old truck, at the wheel a man who'd been in the sun for more hours than I'd been alive. His red-clay skin looked like cracked leather, his salt-and-pepper hair flowing wildly from beneath a tattered baseball cap.

"I split my finger while surfing. Just looking for a first aid kit." I started back to my task.

"Come on over here. I'll fix you up." The old islander reached for his glove box. As I approached, I saw that his first aid remedy consisted of white gauze and duct tape. I extended my bloody digit.

"Whoa. That's a nasty cut man." He wound the linen around my finger, then reinforced it with the tape until my finger had a silver cast that secured my wound.

"Get back out there and surf man. You'll be fine."

And I did. The finger still stung, especially as I paddled into an oncoming wave, but as soon as I caught the crest of a good wave, I forgot all about my bloody finger.

And no sharks were ever sighted.


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