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Eddie Would Go (And I Wanna Be More Like Him!)
Hawaii is one of those places I always knew I would get to eventually. It strikes me as a place that every American who likes to travel (and doesn’t mind flying for long stretches at a time) doesn’t have a choice but to visit at some point. Who in their right mind hasn’t dreamed about sipping a tropical drink on a white, sandy Hawaiian beach while watching surfers and hula dancers and wearing a lei of fresh flowers? Visions of Hawaii have been so ingrained in our culture (Elvis songs, tv shows, hula girl Halloween costumes, casual Friday Hawaiian shirts, and so on) that we don’t even seem to think of it as a real place where people live and work. More like one big, contained, controlled resort paradise for anyone who needs a break from winter (or life). A place where it’s never cold or rainy, there’s no pollution or litter, everyone has their own private waterfall to swim beneath, and the volcanoes erupt on command for our viewing pleasure. A tropical Disney World, if you will, with grass-skirted dancing ladies instead of cartoon characters, always eager for a photo op.
Strangely, it never appealed to me that much. I’m just not really a tropical beach kinda gal. For starters, I always feel a bit like a misplaced albino when walking along a beach surrounded by perfectly-bronzed college girls who all look as though they just got back from competing in some sort of Cancun Spring Break bikini contest. Secondly, I have a fairly restrictive fear of swimming in deep water (depending on the circumstances). If the water is dark or cold, if the undertow is strong, if I can’t see what’s beneath me, and if there’s the remote chance that what’s beneath me involves spines, fins, teeth, claws, shells, scales, pinchers, tentacles, beaks, buggy eyeballs or jaws, then I’m out. Ditto for large, scary sea plants.
Not only that, but I’m a big fat wimp when it comes to water sports. When scuba diving, my mind wanders to horrific scenes of myself in one of those locked compression chambers, recovering from a case of “the bends” because I had to sneeze and therefore swam too quickly to the surface for fear of sneezing my face mask off. When snorkeling, I normally trip over the flippers enough so that I get flustered and end up just walking backwards into the water, looking thoroughly ridiculous. Then I go on to whine about how the rubber mask strap rips out my hair when I take it off. Further whining ensues when I get salt water in my nose, eyes, mouth and ears, when the water washes off the sunscreen it just took me 20 minutes to apply, when my clothes are soggy and cold, and when the sand is too sticky to wipe off so I have to walk around with sand in every single nook and cranny that I possess. Water-skiing is out because the falls hurt too much and there’s no way to control my own speed, my arms are too wimpy for me to be any good at tubing, and surfing seems like a great way to lose a swimsuit bottom with everybody watching. Shark cage diving? SO many reasons why that will never be happening. Cave diving or cliff jumping? No thank you. Shipwreck diving…HA!
And yet, the first stop on our trip happens to be a water sports mecca like no other. Mostly because I wanted to at least see what all the Hawaii fuss was about (and check off one more state), but also because my husband gets as excited about tropical beaches as I get nervous about them, and this is his trip, too. And though I don’t necessarily yearn to participate, I must admit I do indeed love watching surfers. Boy, do I love watching surfers! There’s something pretty mesmerizing about looking on as we small and breakable humans head out to challenge the ocean, no matter what it’s serving up, armed with only a little board. Something about it brings about a feeling of pride in my species, that we might be so bold as to take on the sea. What other creature has such brass? So, after staying one night in a Honolulu motor lodge (that we later found out was a filming location for the Hawaii 5-0 movie) we headed straight to Oahu’s North Shore and a beachside hostel called Backpackers Vacation Inn/Plantation Village to see if we could catch a glimpse of surf culture.
As it turns out, spending time in the North Shore is like being dunked head-first into a spinning whirlpool of surf culture more so than casually dipping one’s toe into it. Surfing oozes from the pores of these people like, I can only assume, nowhere else on earth. At any given moment, night or day, you are within a stone’s throw of a sun-bleached, brown-skinned, messy-haired, barefoot surf bum headed to or from the beach, board in hand. Surfing is a religion, a life choice, a priority that falls somewhere between food and shelter. Jobs are only a means by which to be able to afford to surf. Surfboards and boogie boards are piled into the back of trucks, strapped to the roof of Volkswagon vans and open air jeeps, and tied precariously to the sides of rickety, salt-weathered bicycles.
Shoes are fairly rare in these parts, even in restaurants, shops and grocery stores. Shirts seem to be entirely optional as well. This came as a bit of a surprise while I was waiting in line (apparently entirely overdressed) at the grocery store. Ironically, they were selling wetsuit-like shirts in the shirt-optional grocery store, along with flip flops and more surfing magazines than celebrity gossip rags at the checkout line. Oh, do these people love their surfing.
Granted, this is the surfing high season, which would probably explain the traffic jams on the way to every major beach and cove. It is clear that no matter how much the local people here eat, sleep and breathe surfing, watching those waves never gets old for them…not ever. We dropped our packs into our bungaloo and headed right out to the beach to settle into the sand alongside all the other spectators and watch the waves roll in.
When I say waves, I don’t mean gentle ripples lapping at the shore like what you would hear when holding a conch shell to your ear. No, what we encountered when we walked out onto the beach was a display of the power of nature that did a fine job of reinforcing my fear of the ocean. Huge, pounding, angry swells pummeling the beach with a thunderous crash before churning up into a froth that sucked the sand backwards into a sweeping, jagged current resembling a class V river rapid. We watched, wide-eyed, as they kept on coming, each looking more massive and closer than the last. Forbidding danger signs were posted along each beach that we walked to, warning of dangerous riptides and currents, telling us there was absolutely no swimming allowed. And yet, at each and every beach these danger signs were whole-heartedly ignored. Surfer after surfer plunged into the waves, ducking their heads underwater just as the huge swells crested so as not to get knocked out as they crashed down, and then paddling with all their might against the currents that threatened to yank them out to sea.
Our hostel host, who sounded a bit like Keanu Reeves, had informed us that there was a big storm offshore and therefore the waves were ‘totally epic’, and also that we were within easy walking distance to the infamous Banzai Pipeline, an area featured in surfing movies (not necessarily good ones, Blue Crush anyone?) and used for competitions. We headed that direction, stopping along the way for a fish sandwich and a pineapple smoothie at one of the local food trucks, the Shark Cove Grill. Oddly, there are very few restaurants in the area aside from a few food trucks that have more or less set up permanent residency by piling rocks on either side of the wheels. To our delight, we realized that this is because the stretch between Waimea Bay and Pipeline, where we were staying, is not a very ‘touristy’ place. There are no hotels, no spas, no visitor centers. Just peoples’ homes, a church, a surfboard shop, and the Foodland grocery store. The people around us are mostly locals, and this is their life. A wonderful, laid back life that revolves around whether the waves are big or small. Could I live this life? No way. But it fascinates me nonetheless that other people are.
Once we reached Pipeline, it felt as though we were the last ones to show up to a beach party. The hoards had arrived to watch anyone who dared venture out into the frothy, swirling mess. And there were many who dared. So very many! It became clear that although I had assumed that waves this size were only tackled by professionals that are featured on the cover of Surf magazine, I was grossly mistaken. From what it looked like, every resident of the North Shore and their Grandma could surf this caliber of wave. There was a constant stream of surfers making their way to the water, along with boogie boarders and (perhaps the most crazy of them all) photographers wearing only flippers and a snorkeling mask. People would hesitate along the edge for a few minutes, interpreting the rhythm of the wave sets, sometimes saying a little prayer and crossing themselves, and then they would break into a run, leap belly-first onto their boards, disappear into the white foam, and we wouldn’t see them again for a while. Sometimes a very long while. Eventually, they would bob to the surface and head out to the deep, slogging their way through the current to join the other 40 or so people floating over the swells as they waited patiently for the perfect wave.
Back on the beach, we were surrounded by what had to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-end camera equipment. Photographers had set up tripods with enormous lenses and weather shields from one end of the beach to the other. I felt a little silly pulling out my lowly point-and-shoot to get some shots, but I did nonetheless. We sat and watched with a sense of awe that so many ‘normal’ people were able to take on such intimidating, behemoth waves. There were people over 60 and people under 13. There were women in bikinis, and heaven only knows how they managed to keep them on. There were small children being encouraged by their parents to play in the surf, which made me cringe in horror as if they were being encouraged to play on a busy freeway. It was all a very surprising scene, and one that made me entirely fall in love with the North Shore for all its’ bizarre normalcy.
We spent the next few days exploring the Waimea Valley with its’ lovely tropical flowers and swim-under waterfall, browsing the surf shops in Hale’iwa (where we realized that a surfboard can cost upwards of $1000!), sampling the local spicy pork burritos and P.O.G. (pineapple, orange, and guava juice) at Kono’s Big Wave Café, eating sushi bowls at the Pupukea Grill food truck, attempting to rent bicycles that were literally held together with duct tape (we eventually abandoned that idea), and swimming at Waimea Bay Beach. To be fair, I watched as Dwayne did the swimming, and got a bit nervous every time I saw him duck into a wave that could capsize a ferry. But he survived, and all the bellowing from the lifeguard tower’s loud speaker was directed at some other yahoo that was getting dangerously close to the ledges.
At our bungaloo, there was a lot of excited buzz from our roommates about the waves being large enough that competitive surfers had been flying to Oahu from all over the world in anticipation of the ‘Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau’ surf competition. This is a surf competition in Waimea Bay that only takes place when the conditions are just right, and for this reason it hasn’t been held since 2009. According to Wikipedia, “the irregularly-held tournament is known for a unique requirement that ocean swells reach a minimum height of 20 feet before the competition can be held. (Open-ocean swells, rather than wave faces, are the preferred method of Hawaiian wave measurement.) As a result of this requirement, the tournament has only been held eight times during the history of the event, most recently on December 8, 2009.” We felt immensely lucky that we were visiting during a time when the waves were so large that we might get to witness an elusive surf competition that’s only been held eight times in history.
Alas, the perfect conditions didn’t materialize and the competition wasn’t held. But that didn’t stop the entire town from showing up at Waimea Bay to either risk heading into the massive breakers themselves or to cheer on someone else who was fearless enough to do so. We laid out our towels on the beach to watch the amazing show, and after a while I got up and walked down the beach to get some shots of the sunset. When I returned, Dwayne had befriended a guy on a neighboring beach towel. Turned out he was born and raised on the North Shore and he and his wife lived just up the street from our bungaloo. He would have been out there surfing the Waimea Bay giants himself had it not been for an injury. He offered us some Coronas, and after a few minutes of chatting he invited us to his house so they could cook us dinner. What a show of kindness towards strangers, and what a positive reflection upon this region and its people. It’s not everywhere that the locals offer you beer and chicken five minutes after introducing themselves. What a wonderful place! We accepted, and headed off to the Foodland to buy some extra chicken and beer to contribute.
The evening was spent talking about politics, dogs, and (what else?) surfing. They showed us various types of surfboards and what types of waves they would be best for. They explained when to use the ‘shaka’ (aka, the hang loose hand sign), which apparently works quite well as a thank you when other drivers give you the right-of-way at intersections. Who knew? We talked about surf culture and surf heroes, the uniquely Hawaiian way of measuring wave height (from the back instead of the front), and we learned about “Eddie”. Eddie Aikau is an iconic figure in this region, a legendary surfer and the first Waimea Bay lifeguard who rode big waves back in the 60s when it was virtually unknown to do so. He and his family, native Hawaiians who have done much to protect the people and landscape of the North Shore, are treasured by the locals as an inspiration. There is a saying that can be found posted or written here and there, it reads “Eddie Would Go”. As it was explained, when someone is considering whether or not to ‘go for it’, be it an enormous wave or some other challenge, they say this to gather the courage needed to move forward. Are the waves too big? Meh, Eddie would go.
What a powerful character he must have been to have that kind of personal influence on people as they are facing their fears. Imagine being the central part of a mantra that is used to inspire others to push their own limits and become more than they think they can be. Eddie was lost at sea when he was 31, while trying to go get help for the people stuck on a boat he had been crewing on that had sprung a leak in the Pacific.
How can we all live the sort of life that Eddie lived? Fearless, selfless and pioneering. These are the type of people I have envied all my life, the ones who are able to ‘just go for it’ despite their fear. Fear is something I think about a lot, something I struggle with, and something that I am hoping this trip will give me the opportunity to take control of (more on that later). I am the same age now as Eddie was when we was lost, and if I died today I would not be remembered for saving lives and achieving things that other people would be far too afraid to attempt. So, what would I be remembered for? With any luck, these travels and experiences will help me to determine how I hope to be able to answer that question.
We left the North Shore and headed towards Honolulu on New Year’s Eve, eager to get started on the rest of our trip. As it turned out, Hawaii ended up being the perfect launching pad for our little adventure. There are so many places in the world (perhaps all of them) that put on a show for the tourists so that all you experience of the place is what you see on the glossy brochure covers. The experience is packaged and neatly presented so that whatever positive stereotypes have been instilled, whatever vision of paradise is already in your mind, that’s what is painstakingly delivered to you. Hawaii is no exception. There are, of course, the phony Polynesian village luaus and the leis handed out at the airport. There are overpriced helicopter rides and giant, floating tricycles and tour boats clogging the bays and coves. But underneath that façade, Hawaii is real. There are giant, sumo-wrestler-looking Polynesians that ride around in the back of trucks playing the ukulele and singing songs. Not for the tourists, just for fun. There are chickens running amok in every yard and street, and people flashing the shaka to their friends. And every salty, golden, messy-haired surfer from every cheesy surf movie is actually out there, heading into the pounding waves of Oahu’s North shore each and every day. It was so refreshing to see. Hawaii certainly exceeded my expectations.
After wandering around Waikiki Beach for a while, sampling some pineapple soft serve and rainbow shaved ice, and making our last phone calls home before turning off our cell phones for 6 months, we rang in the New Year with Mai Tai’s and butterflies in our stomachs. What a year 2013 will be!