Thursday, October 13 (Day 42)
The wave has taken me under and, fleetingly, I panic. Relief comes as I gasp for air and choke out the water from my lungs. I don’t seem to be making much progress with my surfing. I guess forty is a bit late to start, but why not? The waves are huge and relentless today. It takes some effort to hold on to your surf board as you venture further out from the shore in search of the ‘perfect wave’.
After two hours of effort I do finally manage to stand up on the board. This is ‘base one’ in the surfing learning curve. From here on in I will need to be able to do this regularly, and only then will I genuinely be able to start riding the waves and be able to call myself ‘a surfer’. One of the lads I came down here with, who’s from Derry, has ended up with a broken nose from the waves smacking the board against his face. Michael has also got blood coming from his mouth after falling off and getting properly whacked. I’m going to call it a day and take satisfaction from my small bit of progress, before I get my teeth knocked out.
Today is day 42 of my trip i.e. the halfway point of my adventure in New Zealand, Fiji & Samoa. This thought leaves me feeling slightly deflated. At this point in time, I do want to go home and see my mum, nan, sister and nieces but, otherwise, I have absolutely no desire to return to ‘reality’. And, of course, I use that word reality, loosely, almost in jest. There are billions - trillions - of different realities in this world, every one of them as real as you want them to be. Is getting up every morning at the crack of dawn, driving to work and doing the same thing over and over again, year upon year, ‘reality’? Yes, it is. But, trying to ride a treacherous wave on a black sand beach on the west coast of New Zealand is also reality. And I bet this reality feels a hell of a lot more ‘real’ than the previous lifestyle choice I mentioned.
I guess it is the starting over again, back to square one, uncertain what the hell am I going to do with my life reality that is the one I have absolutely no desire to return to. Still, at least I can put that off for another 42 days.
Thursday, October 6 (Day 35)
I have been feeling a bit like a time traveller of late. What happens is that I sit chatting to somebody and they start saying stuff that I remember coming out with and thinking ‘back in the day’. You don’t meet many Kiwis here. The people you generally knock about with are aged between 19 and 27 (most in the lower end of that range) and pretty much all of them have almost the same identical conversation with you and all the other travellers, every single day. Pretty much all of them are trying to work out ‘what they want to do with their lives’, remark about how ‘crap it is back home’, and bemoan the fact that some of their ‘mates are starting to settle down back home’ (and it scares them). Then they tell you how good the full moon parties are in Thailand. How you should definitely visit Cambodia, because it is the place to go at the moment. How they are planning to learn Spanish and save up to go to South America one day. And, finally, that they want to travel as much as possible now because ‘when you are over thirty it’s pretty much impossible to do that stuff anymore’.
Half of the time I keep quiet and just listen (and silently reminisce in my head), hoping they are not going to ask me certain questions, but the questions inevitably come anyway:
“So dude, are you planning to go to Cambodia?”
“No, I went there in ‘98” (This usually provokes an uncomfortable silence)
“What do you do back in England?”
“Well, actually, I’m a journalist in Latvia”
“When did you graduate from uni?”
“Umm, urr (Should I lie?) … ninety three” (Collective gasp)
The only part of this conversation where I can have any real input is the bit where they talk about not having a clue what they are going to do with their lives. Suddenly the generation gap closes –for a brief moment or two- and I am the same as them. “No idea, to be honest. I’m just going to see what happens in the next few months. Maybe I will find some answers while I’m travelling.”
What do I want to do with my life? Over the years I’ve been a big fan of making ‘wish lists’. Whenever, I have felt a bit lost I’ve grabbed a pad of paper and started writing:
Things I want to do:
In past years this list included: Teach English in Japan; Write a Novel; Travel alone across Central Asia; Attend the Copa America in South America.
Fast forward to 2011 and I have managed to cross off a good fifty per cent of my wish list items while, along the way, I found I no longer wanted to do some of the things e.g. live in Kiev for a year.
The last time I tried to write a list was in Argentina, ten days after my life and future plans fell apart. Wish list read:
Nine weeks on, I am still feeling damaged beyond words but a centimetre or two of daylight must have entered my world, because I am able to start penning a new wish list; one that extends past a desire to simply ‘hide’. New wish list reads:
Feel happy again
Write a novel (and actually get it published)
Not go travelling alone in the future
Help people (not exactly sure how, maybe through my website or by creating a charity)
Find unconditional love (good luck with that one)
Spend as much time as possible with family and friends
Write a trance tune (!)
As wish lists go it rather betrays my damage and general lack of ambition for certain things. But it is definitely an improvement on my last wish list, nine weeks ago.
…the lie low continues in Raglan. I wake up in the mornings with a view from the window next to my bed straight out to sea. I can surf, pretend to be a surfer, write, do long bike rides, swim, sunbathe, read, enjoy a sauna, and I just don’t see the point of leaving this place until it is time to head back to Auckland for the Quarter Final on Saturday.
Wednesday, October 5 (Day 34)
Raglan - Ngarunui Beach - Manu Bay
What would you know? Just as I am finally beginning to unwind from my magazine proofreading work and the rugby, the project manager of the magazine suddenly comes back at the very last minute (when I thought we were ready to send to print) with requests for several new (loyalty-free) photos, proofreading of adverts(!) and additional text for one of the articles. With the 10-hour time difference it is not as if I can Skype anybody in the middle of the Latvian night and ask for bloody photos.
My magazine gives me zero budget for photos, so absolutely every photo we use must be free. Yes, that lovely word ‘free’. I have had instances where one or two photos have screwed up my time for several days at a time, sending emails and making phone calls; getting given the wrong kind of images; wrong quality images; and, finally, my colleagues not liking the images I get and demanding I find alternatives.
Yes, it comes with the territory but it never, ever helps when everything is so bloody last minute. Just to complicate matters, a thunderstorm has taken down the town’s Wi-Fi across the board, and I have been temporarily sent back to the dark ages.
I am supposed to be joining a surfing lesson class at one of the world’s finest surfing beaches this afternoon but now I am running out of time. There again, if there is no internet, there is sweet FA I can do about it for now. I don’t suppose my boss will be too understanding of my circumstances given that I am 10,000 miles away on a jolly. And, no, I don’t expect anybody reading this to have much sympathy for me either...
The internet fleetingly returns, I pull a rabbit out of a hat, and I am back with two minutes to spare for my very basic surf lesson. I was thinking my lesson would be on the beach, but instead Californian Josh talks me and two young German girls through the moves we need to know in the hostel car park, fits me up with a wet suit and board, and gives me the keys to the hostel car. “Off you go. You will be fine.”
This wasn’t something I was expecting to be doing: driving an old banger down the New Zealand coast in an almighty thunderstorm with surf boards tied to the roof, two 22-year-old German girls in the back seats, peering through the rain and the wipers for the turn off to one of the world’s best surf beaches.
The weather is shocking. I mean, you would never think of setting foot out of your car with it sheet lightning and raining like it’s the apocalypse, unless you really, really had to. But I need to change into my wetsuit and get my arse down to the beach. I can’t actually believe I’m doing this. I’ve spent so many occasions hanging around with surfers or hippies in surfing towns during my life and never actually surfed because of my lack of confidence in my own ability and here I am now trudging across a volcanic black sand beach and out to sea with a surf board the size of a house under my arm.
Thunder rumbles and a lightning strike hits somewhere not a million miles away. This surfing lark certainly isn’t easy. I know what I need to do but some small detail goes wrong each time the right kind of wave comes along. I seem to have swallowed half of the ocean and my eyes are red roar. Then suddenly, I catch my first wave and body board it for what seems like 30 seconds, until I reach the shoreline, where I fall off and fill my lungs with more sea water. The waves are gigantic and the ridiculous storm is making me feel - well not to sound too clichéd – very, very alive. The dramatic setting, thunder, lightning, huge waves and monsoon-like rain are enough to make this feel very special, regardless of my none-too-impressive attempts to surf. When I do finally call it a day, and carry my board back to the beach, I realise that my thighs are aching like I’ve done a half marathon. I think I only nearly came close to drowning twice. Truth be known, I never did pull off the stand on the board and surf bit. But I did manage a full five seconds surfing on my knees, a bit like a nervous Yorkshire Terrier in the back of someone’s pickup truck.
It feels even more silly driving back with the surfboards on the roof – like I’m a real surfer or something. I feel like such a fraud.
Back at Raglan Backpackers I wash down the board and surfing gear and jump straight into their 42-degrees Jacuzzi. This can’t be bad.
While all the twenty-something surfing chicks and Californian ‘hey man’ surfing dudes talk about their day’s exploits I lie back in the Jacuzzi and pretend for a minute or two that I am just like them: young, cool and very good at surfing. Nobody seems to notice the 40-year-old fraud perched in the corner of the Jacuzzi with a cold beer in his hand, smiling to himself.
From dreary Hamilton at 8.30am..... to gorgeous Raglan at 9.15...
Monday, October 3 (Day 32)
It is getting to the stage where I am getting up at the crack of dawn and literally legging it from some of these hostels. I just can’t put myself through the torture of using their showers and hanging around here one minute longer than I have to. No shower now since the day of the South Africa game.
The Hamilton Monday morning rush hour is a depressing spectacle. It is grey and chucking it down and makes me want to be elsewhere. I sit at the bus stop and watch all the local kids go to school in the torrential rain and then catch the 23 to Raglan. I need a lie low. I want to be somewhere chilled, off the beaten track and near the sea. I also don’t want to travel far, and so the 50 kilometres to the coast is just the job.
Talk about Beauty and the Beast: once out of dreary Hamilton it’s almost immediately back to gorgeous scenery and when the completely empty bus (i.e. only me on it) reaches Raglan, I seem to be in the most attractive little town I have seen in all of NZ. An almighty thunder storm takes out the town’s electricity and I hide away in Orca, by the waterfront, enjoying the coffee, sea views and the lightning show.
The joy of modern communication – me working 10,000 miles away in a library in a small surf town, proofreading a Latvian magazine. I get five hours solid work done and go for a stroll.
This is the most charismatic town of the trip: quirky shops, interesting colourful buildings, palm trees and views of the harbour, mountains and sea. There is almost a touch of the Caribbean about this little gem of a place.
I am content in the evening to cook myself a big meal and lie around munching chocolate at the surfers’ backpackers. I feel done in and want a lie in.
For the record, here is the quarter final line-up:
Saturday, 8 October
Ireland v Wales
England v France
Sunday, 9 October
South Africa v Australia
New Zealand v Argentina