Friday, April 22, 2016

In Search of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

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.

If I ever took up surfing, this is the only way I could do it -- without water and on solid land.

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

Of all the tales in Barbarian Days, the one that resonates with me the most is that of Dr. Mark Renneker who is both a renowned cancer care physician and king of the Ocean Beach, San Francisco surf scene where he's known as simply "Doc." According to Doc, "A lot of cancer patients and survivors report that they never really lived till they got cancer, that it forced them to face things, to experience life more intensely." For me, travel serves the same purpose that surfing provides for both Finnegan and Doc. It's a way to embrace life and live it fully with a hyper awareness of all that's swirling around me.

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  1. Hi Michele, I have read a lot of memoirs (and that means everything I can get my hands on) about around the world sailing and mountain climbing, neither of which I would actually do in real life, although I feel very connected when reading the book. I think I would enjoy this book about surfing (and other things). I've also read a lot about settling down in a country other than my own, like Italy, Spain, France, Morocco, Mexico. I'm not sure if they satiate or accelerate my desire to travel!

  2. It's great to read about other people's adventures and be inspired by them. We don't have to follow in their footsteps though, just enjoy the story! :-)

  3. I love your "recalling desserts" line. I can totally relate. Surfing is on Jim's Cherry List...not mine! Great post!

  4. I"ve always had a secret desire to live the "surfing lifestyle" but apparently it wasn't strong enough because I have never acted on it. But this is very interesting - gonna have to give it a read. Aren't book clubs great?

  5. I always considered surfing a dangerous enterprise. I love the ocean and often watch them as they ride the waves. Every time I see them falling my heart sinks for fear they won't make it back.

  6. It's ironic that most surfers are so far from the stereotype. It's a sport - and a lifestyle - that intrigues me greatly, but it's one of the paths I didn't wander down. I'll have to pick up the book - and maybe a surf board again. :) #TheWeeklyPostcard

  7. Reading Finnegan's description of what it's like to be out in the surf confirmed to me that I never, ever want to take up surfing.

  8. I think the beach bum lifestyle may appeal to me as long as no one expects me to paddle out to catch waves. I love book clubs so much that I'm now in 2 of them.

  9. Jim should read this book. It's a great way to vicariously enjoy surfing.

  10. I totally agree. One of the best things about reading adventure stories is that I can kind of feel what it's like while not stressing out my danger-averse personality.

  11. I think all that reading accelerates my desire to travel. I keep finding out about great new places to explore.

  12. I hope you enjoy the book. Maybe it will convince you to dive more into surfing.

  13. This sounds like a very interesting book and I'm even more intrigued now that it's won a Pulitzer. I love how you weaved your collection of surfer photos with your thoughts. We love watching surfers when we're at the beach near home. I admire their patience and resilience to find that perfect ride and wave. Thank you for all the suggestions on the books. I need them this summer during long flights.

  14. thanks for this recommendation. I know with whom I'm going to share your article! He is a writer and surfer :)

  15. What a fun book - I've never been interested in surfing either, but your story has given me a new appreciation for the sport. Funnily enough, I know a Bill Finnegan and he likes to surf as well. I'm going to tell him about this book. :)

  16. I lived very close to the beach in Sydney when I was a child. I remember once hearing the shark bell. I swam to shore as fast as I could, ran up the beach, grabbed my towel and didn't stop running or look back until I was home. i still don't know if there was actually a shark but it more or less put me off surfing for a long time.


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