Long before I became an expat and started reading travel blogs, I was an ardent fan of expat books and travel books. Admittedly, many of them had to do with food such as Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo or chef David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris. I laughed at Bill Bryson's attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods and tried to immerse myself in Parisian expat life with the classic Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast. I developed a better appreciation for PBS's Europe through the Back Door host, Rick Steves, when I read his book, Travel as a Political Act which I highly recommend.
|Celebrating New Year's Day 2013 watching surfers -- Tamarama Beach, Sydney, Australia|
However, what I've never had an interest in is surfing books. My book club recently decided to read Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, an autobiography by Willian Finnegan. That's what I like about book clubs. They expand my horizons and get me to read books that I may not have chosen on my own. Looking back through my photos though, surfers apparently appeal to me enough that I snap pictures whenever I see them.
I've always thought of surfers as the laid back sort, depending on sheer luck to catch a wave. I picture the Beach Boys and Gidget movies. Finnegan dismantles this stereotype. His desire to catch the perfect wave has him trotting around the globe for years analyzing reef charts and weather reports. He bounces back and forth between Southern California and Hawaii during his childhood before heading off to Fiji, Australia's Gold Coast, Ethiopia and South Africa after university. Along the way, he taps into locals' insider knowledge of the best season and the best launching point for the best surfing. Surprisingly, settling down in both San Francisco and New York City does not dampen his enthusiasm to drop everything and hit the nearby surf whenever he hears the ocean's siren call.
|The first time I ever spotted a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) was 2009 off the Malibu Pier. |
The ice chest on the back caught my eye and had me wondering where exactly he was headed to picnic.
I'm amazed that he keeps heading back into the ocean with all the beatings that he's taken over the years. At one point, he convinces someone he's a war veteran by showing off the numerous scars on his back actually caused by scraping across coral reefs as he washes over then as the wave dies out. He describes the difference between simply holding his breath underwater while at rest to holding his breath as he dives deep to escape the brunt of a mighty wave pummeling down on him. Despite the adrenalin rush, he attempts to slow his racing heart to conserve oxygen and resists the urge to gasp for air as he climbs back up his board's ankle leash to hasten his ascent to the surface after the wave passes over him.
|Surfers at different stages of action in Malibu|
In the same way that I can look back and recall details of a perfect dessert, Finnegan writes about each location's surf characteristics so that you feel like you are right there with him contemplating the best plan of attack. At times, I felt that I could pass an Oceanography exam with the knowledge he imparts about the effect of reefs, underwater canyons and trade winds on the size and movement of swells. To be truthful, I eventually started skipping over his protracted wave descriptions.
|Indulging in the classic Hawaiian tourist activity of watching surfers -- Ho'okipa Beach Park, Maui, 2010|
Barbarian Days is an intriguing book even if the reader is not a surfing enthusiast. While his surfing life is the heart of the story, it's his motivation for his world travels and the seed of adventure. In search of a mostly undiscovered perfect wave, Finnegan and his friend, Bryan di Salvatore, spend a week on an uninhabited island in Fiji subsisting on wild papayas and sleeping on hastily constructed platforms to keep away from venomous sea snakes that slither ashore at night. (Tip: Keep your hands in a fist when swimming amongst venomous sea snakes because they have small mouths and will not be able to bite down on you.) Needing money in South Africa, he takes a job teaching at a Cape Town school for blacks towards the end of apartheid and unwittingly gives his students high hopes for attending a white university by earning a certificate, not fully comprehending how biased the system was. He ends up in a Thailand hospital, delirious with malaria and flat broke, wondering how he'll pay the hospital bill -- a nightmare that many a backpacker on the Banana Pancake trail worries about. Years after visiting Samoa, Finnegan and Salvatore finally realize that their host family spent an ungodly amount of money on them, yet all they gave in return were a few trinkets.
|The water was filled with surfers despite this sign -- Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia 2013|
As with many other long-term world travelers, Finnegan begins to feel pressure to return to the real world, settle down and get a real job. The social conscience he develops traversing the globe eventually turn him into a hard hitting, award winning journalist writing for the New Yorker magazine covering stories like racist skinheads in Southern California and conflicts in the Sudan. He interviews a Mexican general face-to-face to confirm rumors that the general systematically tortures police under his command. And when the research and reporting get him down, it's surfing that provides his escape. While he was initially reluctant to "come out of the closet" as a surfer, fearing that it would undercut his reputation as a serious journalist, he must certainly feel validated when Barbarian Days was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for a Biography or Autobiography this week.
|Surf Rescue clears everyone out of the water at Bondi Beach after a shark is spotted nearby.|
Despite the loud warning horns, the surfers were the last ones to get out. -- Sydney, Australia 2013
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