If only love were as simple as the sea

 

 

My guy Michael is an avid surfer. Crazed, actually. His boards (one long, three short) are festooned like fine art around the house. His wetsuits (a selection) are arranged with reverence in the closet, a rubbery all-sea, all-season wardrobe. His feet are radically callused and his kelp-proof hair buzzed short, all in service of his sport. And this obsesses his mind, body, and soul, much more than any girl – even his girl, this girl.

So when he invites me on a 10-day surfing “safari,” I am stunned yet thrilled. I mean, it’s not like we are more than four, maybe five months into the relationship. I slightly suspect my purpose in coming along is less to impress him with my travel savvy and romantic charms and more to do with my job: sitting on the beach to oversee the safety and well-being of Michael’s flip-flops while he frolics in New Zealand’s legendary surf. Yet I cannot help dallying with the fantasy. There we’ll be, Michael and I, strolling hand-in-hand along the sand, laughing together during moonlit midnight skinny dips. Maybe—just maybe—our tentative, mincing romance will be goosed forward by the island’s balmy beauty.

And so, here we are, screaming out of Auckland in our rental campervan. Michael’s boards (one long, one short) joyride along. We are no more than fifty-three minutes off our thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco. It is 5:00 a.m. New Zealand time, dead-of-night dark, and already my Kahuna is dressed for his baptism in the local waters, that is to say, naked but for some boardshorts. Come dawn, the scenery gets heart-stopping. Volcanic, river-swept, desolate: Here in New Zealand the descriptive “pristine” isn’t kidding. Wild, clean, and everywhere, the sea; each twist in the road reveals a vista of startling beauty.

We speed north along the Whangaparaoa Peninsula until we screech up to a beach our guide book calls Pikiri. I am almost speechless at the spectacle. It is an arc of flawless white sand fringed in ferns and flowers; it unfurls, I swear, for forever at the edge of a dazzling turquoisey-green bay. We are completely alone but for a far-off fisherman, who bobs in his boat beyond the frothing breakers.

“Oh!” I manage to squeak.

Michael fairly squeals, “Let’s check it out!”

We hop from the campervan and the snap of salt air, the smile of the sun, make me giddy. Call me a hopeless romantic, but come on! We have arrived at paradise. We trot onto the beach and Michael, rapt, gazes out to sea. His hands are raised to shield his eyes from the glare and I am not at all sure he is breathing.

“All right!” I say. “Here we are, we made it. Have a great time!” I of course expect the excited surfer to grab his board and fly into the water, and I cannot wait to be abandoned to my beach towel for hours, nay, days. Curiously, however, Michael simply gazes; then gazes some more. He scans the water left, gazing, and gazing still, he scans the water right. He mutters something, that is, if I’m not mistaken.

“Excuse me?”

“Wind’s onshore,” he mumbles.

That’s surfer speak for I’m not going out. But why? Before I can ask, we pop back into the campervan and peel away from Pikiri, fluffing dust along a dirt-and-gravel road, the kind that in remote New Zealand makes up most of the off-highway byways. Up ahead lies Mangawhai Heads. “Good beach and bar breaks” are here, according to Michael’s surf-guide. Our campervan careens into the parking lot. Here, the waters are all sun-shimmery and full of blue maomao fish and bottlenose dolphin. Out we hop. Jogging over to a desolate dune, Michael assumes the stance while I pop back into the campervan to bikini-up and prep for a nice, long beach flop. I am just winding up my tedious SPF-30 routine when he appears at the sliding side door.

“Right’s not right,” he says.

Pop back into campervan. We fluff more dust for some miles and next pull up to Te Arai Point, stop, and again hop out. Beautiful, droopy kowhai trees bright with brilliant yellow flowers – New Zealand’s national bloom – frill the beach with the sort of foreign-looking flora that says we are far, far from home. I have barely inhaled the heady Kowhai scent when I am hustled back into the campervan, so fast I lose a hair clip and an earring. “Right’s all right,” Michael says, and guns the engine. “But a left would be better.”

I mean, really. Does this make sense?

Then we arrive on a breezy bluff above the beach at Mangawhai Heads. The surf unfurls below in elegant foamy curls that look like pure possibility. The solitude is stunning: Just us, the gulls, and the dawning concept that I am the only surf bunny in the world who doesn’t get it. When will there be some surfing in this surfing safari? I look over at my “dude,” in the parlance, and surreptitiously inspect him for signs of funk that all our driving around checking things out has not yet resulted in a surf. We have traveled thousands of miles to practically the end of planet Earth, after all; the beaches we have seen have looked idyllic for hanging-10, carving-up, or showing-off the whatever-it-is that makes big-wave riders, like my guy Michael, experts at their obsession. I am so hoping to hear it just once from him: the “L” word, as in “Later, Babelini!” Yet, the guy seems eerily fine with all our hopping-and-popping along the coast; he appears downright pleased with his not-surfing the best of New Zealand. I do a mood check to be sure.

“Are you having fun?” I ask. Michael is frozen in his not-breathing, sea-staring stance. He seems not to have heard me.

“ARE YOU HAVING FUN?”

“Are you kidding?” he says. His jaw drops into duh position. “I am absolutely stoked.”

“So, then, go!” Teasing, I shove him in the direction of the water. “Surfers surf, no?”

There is a long – very long – comatose moment. Michael then replies, although not in so many words: No.

“Needs south wind.”

Pop we go, back into the campervan. We hop and pop our way north, ever north, and the beaches become a blur, each to me more perfect than the previous. There is Whananaki (“a local favorite,” according to the surfer’s guide), and Mimiwhangata Park (“will have waves when other beaches are flat”). The guidebook tells us that seductive Sandy Bay, on the Tutukaka Coast, is hot hot hot for world-class scuba diving around the offshore marine reserve of Poor Knights Islands. But when we careen off the road, pull up to the beach and hop out, I am no longer the wide-eyed surfer’s girl who in all innocence expects “Cowabunga!” to be the next word on the wind. Am I the fool who believes there will be a cry of “Surf’s up!” As if.

Surfing must be something like love. A careening hunt from beach to beach fueled by a heartload of hope that up ahead lies, at last, The One. Here at Sandy Bay, a small surf beach that venturing north along the Tutukaka Coast kicks off a succession of bays where there’s even more opportunity to surf (or not), I ponder the possibility that traveling with a mostly-naked man in relentless pursuit of something elusive could be teaching me something important. Something it would be good to get. Something maybe like love: the perfect wave to seek and seek yet never ride.

“Wow,” I say at first sight of the beach. Faster than the syllable slips my lips, my travel companion goes, you guessed it, pop, back into the campervan. “Michael, come on.” This time I whine. Yet I am astounded when in a wordless rush he does not flip the ignition but instead wiggles into his wetsuit, wrestles a board off the top of the van, waxes it to high stickiness, and runs, dashes, to the water’s edge.

Between us lies an expanse of powdery sand, lavishly gilded by billions of tiny, perfect shells in the palest of peaches and pinks. The sea shimmers in a rhapsody of aqua and green. It is my turn now not to breathe. What a gorgeous spot to flop for hours! I load my beach bag – hat, glasses, snacks, trashy tell-all – and dance my happy feet to a spot among the shells where, should he catch a wave, which of course he will, I can rave over Michael’s display of surfer-mojo. “Yay! Go you!” I’ll hoot. The last thing I see before drifting…dreaming…snoozing the drooling, snore-filled snooze of the jet-lagged is Michael crouched in the sand, eyes on the sea, hands raised against the glare. He’s gazing.

What is it, twenty minutes, twenty days later? I am jolted awake. A body drops beside me with an oaf. “It’s closing out,” Michael croaks, winded. He isn’t even wet.

On surfing safari, a girl owes it to herself to rework her notions of romance. To be sure, volcanic islands along the Pacific Rim of Fire, like New Zealand, may promise a lot of, well, heat in the love a couple ignites or renews on them; the balmy subtropical climate may woo one into a woozy state of “I’m in love!” when it’s really confusion behind the daze. What does it mean that Michael won’t surf? I look for the metaphor. Does this portend doom for our relationship, a sign that down the road there will be no let’s just go for it? As the day grows long, we do more not-surfing around the dazzling Bay of Islands, where the pretty British Colonial town of Russell charms me but doesn’t soothe my fear. The map says we’re zooming toward Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s northernmost tip. Here, the native Maori believe their spirits leave the island at death. Michael and I in the campervan aren’t talking much. I am alone with my foreboding and he focuses dead ahead on the road, which now winds toward the town of Kaitaia and the phenomenon called Ninety Mile Beach. Ninety curvaceous miles of beach it is, indeed – a surfer’s Sangri-la where honestly, I’m thinking, there has to be a spot right enough to entice my reluctant Kahuna into the water. Ninety miles is ninety miles! Surely here a surf will happen. Our campervan careens into Kaitaia, and after out-hopping, per usual, Michael and I plop down on stools at a beach shack that serves fish-and-chips wrapped in newsprint.

“Good on ya, mate,” says a mostly-naked fellow two stools over. I can tell he’s a kindred spirit to Michael: his boardshorts are sea-battered and salt-worn. I eat; they chat. And before I know it we are going pop, right into this Kiwi’s campervan for a ride that rockets this way and that until eventually, here I am, flying along the beach in a topless ATV called a “quad.” Up front Michael and his new best friend speak Surf, while in back their boards bounce as high and hard as my derriere on the crooked seat. I try not to fall out. The ATV whips to a halt on a remote rock shelf. Little glistening pools hold tide creatures – anemones, starfish, and crabs. Surf-spray spits salty drops on my face as the waves, rising higher and higher and huge! curl and crash and foam.

“Right’s all right, mate,” says Michael.

“Right, mate. Left’s right right as well,” says his friend.

“Right.”

“Right.”

And just like that, they’re in the water. With hoots and “Wahoo!” they surf the waves breaking left. With joy and “Banzai!” they ride the waves curling right. The endless hours of sea-gazing that have led to this moment are not pointless, the careening drive from beach to beach far from a waste of time. The surf-guide tells me that Michael’s comatose act on shore is really a crucial part of the sport. For if a surfer is not considering the waves before he (and by this I mean he or she) rides them – how they’re timed, in what configuration they arrive, whether or not there are onshore or offshore currents or riptides – how will he know, really know, the soul of the swell to which he is committing his efforts? If a surfer is not holding in his heart the wave above all that will ask of him his greatest skill and answer his highest desire. Otherwise, how will he live its thrill when, at last, it arrives?

“All riiiiiiiiiiiiight,” comes a cry from the water. I look out in time to see Michael dancing in the surf on a wave so smooth and well-curling and perfect – so right – that even from the beach their dance looks like love.

That’s when I get it, this lesson of love and life and Surf: Never settle for less.

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