Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The great unknown...

One can never really know the ocean. As far back as we can tell it has been a source of worship and devotion; a vast mystery that has provided both life and death with the same arbitrariness. It's character, while omnipotent, is otherwise indefinable. In Spanish the ocean is given a masculine characterization "El mar", yet in French a female one "La mer". The ocean is the most prevalent part of this world, yet we know so little of it.
If there is anything that I have learned from my time with the ocean, it is that I will never truly understand it, that I will never truly know it. I've learned that despite an utmost respect and appreciation for its power, the ocean holds no allegiances. That regardless of how well one thinks they know the ocean, it will either reward or strike out against all with impartiality

Being back on the coast I'm reminded of my life back in El Salvador. I used to wake in the morning to beams of sunlight streaking through my ragged blinds, my bed sheet crumpled at my feet from the creeping heat of the day to come. I would throw on my board shorts and walk out the door, stand there for a minute stretching my arms taking in the smells and sounds of the tropical coast. I would grab my board and saunter down the lush forest path towards the ocean, reflecting on last nights festivities, visualizing the impending surf. I arrive on the beach and like every other morning am awed by the perfection of the glassy waves as they peel across the point one after the other in synchronized succession. I wade into the water and lay on my board to begin my long and uneventful paddle out. Reaching the point with my hair still dry I find my place in the already busy lineup.
Here, where the water is warm like a bath tub, the crowds arrive with the rising of the sun.
The humble surfers will follow etiquette, but the humble are often few and battles for the waves will inevitably be fought. My time will come and I'll catch my wave deep on the peak, the slow point-break so forgiving as I drop in to its steep slope. I ride it out, up and down the face of the wave, all the way into the shore. I paddle back around to find my next wave. That was El Salvador.

I'm in Canada now, and I'm quickly reminded of how easier it is to be a surfer down south, and how dedicated one must be to surf here on the Northern Pacific coast. I'm reminded of how immense the ocean actually is, and of how little I understand it. Here I wake up in the morning curled in my heavy blanket, I hop out of bed and quickly throw socks, pants and a thick sweater over my shivering body. I walk outside and the damp cold air hits my nostrils, a gray faint light fights its way through the overcast sky. I grab my wetsuit out of the shed, it is soaking wet and icy cold from the surf the day before. I throw my clothes off and I begin to slip it on, one agonizing pull at a time. With the wetsuit on I grab my board and apply some soft wax, I begin the walk down to the beach. Rain spatters down and blows into my face as I tread through the dark forest path, the thick tangles of bushes and ancient trees line my way to the crashing ocean ahead. I make it to the beach, a sprawling bay lies in front of me, the ocean is angry, huge waves are breaking sporadically. I wade into the frigid water and walk my board out as far as possible, jumping over the smaller waves as they break, not yet ready to completely immerse myself. The water deepens and I hop on my board and start paddling hard, determined to make it quickly to the outside - the one place of relative tranquility among the madness of the beach break. A huge wave breaks a few feet in front of me, I duck dive deep, the cold water hits my face like a hard slap and takes the breath out of me, I come up shocked.
Every first duck dive at the beginning of the day leaves you shocked like never before in the cold waters of the ocean.
I finally make it to the outside and relax for a moment, always maintaining a careful watch on the horizon for a big set, those giant waves that break much further outside than the rest, always sending a few careless souls rolling to the inside.
I paddle around a bit searching for the right spot, my patience rewards me and a perfect wave forms up in the distance. It is a monstrous wave, swelling up thicker and thicker as it rolls towards me. It hits me as I'm paddling hard, trying ever so desperately to capture the moment, to get on this one unique wave before it breaks into foamy whitewash and disappears to never be seen again. It is peaking now, the lip of the wave beginning to curl, I push hard and fight to make the drop over the face of the wave, but it is too late. The wave breaks suddenly with such speed and power that rather then gliding down the face of it I find myself free falling from its very pinnacle, my arms flailing as I fall through the air, my breath held in anticipation for the punishment the ocean is about to deal me for testing it. I land hard and am sucked up by the wave as it crashes on top of me, I relax and let the force spin me, my wetsuit is flushed by the frigid water. I come up eventually and take a deep breath, disoriented I quickly look for my board; in earnest I need to leave the impact zone if I want to avoid being tossed around like a toy. I hop on my board and paddle out again, angry at myself for not making the wave, respectful of the ocean for putting me in my place. This is the Northern Pacific.

The beauty of surfing is that it can be done almost anywhere that there is a coastline. The right conditions are surely to create waves at some point in time, the variety of waves are infinite. The direction in which they break; the speed; the size; the thickness; the form all make the ocean the most diverse playground in the world for those looking to ride the waves.
My respect for the ocean grows with everyday I spend in its presence, and I will always approach it with the utmost humility. For I have experienced its wonders and received its fury. But still, I do not know the ocean, I never will.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Getting here...

Perhaps my feelings are somewhat anachronistic, but I can't suppress that special sense of adventure and excitement that I get when I head west. Somehow the "west" remains in my mind a frontier to be explored, a vast land that evokes that pioneer spirit of centuries ago. Of course, upon arrival in the city of Vancouver such feelings are quickly overwhelmed by those well known emotions that arise every time I find myself in a busy metropolitan.

Visiting this city with an open mind, one can easily sympathize with those segments of society that so ardently protested the billions of dollars spent on the Olympic games here. Homeless people abound in this seemingly luxurious city - it is a place of stark contrasts. The bedraggled man pushing his shopping cart of plastic bottles past the latte sipping professional in her designer jacket serves as a reminder of the ever present disparity in this rich nation of ours. The pockets of lush green coastal wilderness interspersed between skyscrapers and condominiums speaks to our tendency to make nature conform to us, not the other way around. Captain George Vancouver wrote so many years ago of British Columbia:

"To describe the beauties of this region, will, on some future occasion be a grateful task to the pen of a skillful panegyrist. The serenity of the climate, the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that nature put forth, require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined."

Needless to say, his desires have certainly been realized. I am grateful to have this beautiful land to live in, but I can't help question at what cost it has been developed. Driving along the highways that wind through ancient growth forests, you see in the distance huge swaths of trees clear cut for this "industry of man" as Captain Vancouver put it. First Nations peoples are quite visible here, which at first glance seems positive, but perhaps this visibility is a result of forced assimilation after having their lands stolen or poisoned, and their ways of life bulldozed over literally. I'm not sure how to reconcile these thoughts, knowing that I take advantage of this "industry of man" like any other here, but I suppose awareness and appreciation are important first steps.

I arrived at my final destination, the town of Tofino on the western extreme of Vancouver island, late in the day. Starting from Toronto I had taken a plane; a train; a bus; a boat; and finally a car all in the same day. Despite this making for an interesting trip, it was admittedly easy and uneventful. Just being here however, has stirred in me nostalgia for my last adventure out west, when me and my friend Tristan made our way across Canada by foot and thumb to arrive in Tofino for a summer of discovery and disaster, of laughter and despair. I remember vividly standing in the cold rain at the side of the highway north of Toronto, wondering how we were ever going to make it all the way across this vast country. I remember Tristan and I taking turns sleeping in the back of one of the several trucks that happened to pick us up, while the other entertained the lonely soul behind the wheel. I remember trying to sleep in an emergency stairwell in a residential building of a small town, lying cold and damp, thinking about how someday I would write about this. Finally we arrived in Tofino and the summer unfolded to set us upon our respective paths.

Now here I am again, in this place that has played a big part in shaping the person that I am today, and I'm not quite sure what to feel. Although getting here was not quite as adventurous as I had hoped, I'm glad to be here, but something about this place feels so much different than I remember it. It is cold and rainy as I write this, every few hours the wind begins to blow hard and the overcast skies open up to unleash a torrent of rain that rattles the structure that shelters me. The town seems barren, the thousands of summer migrants having not yet arrived. The ocean is churning and the waves crashing, it is angrier than I ever remember it from my former days here. This is the true Tofino I suppose, the Tofino felt for eight months of the year. The rugged, stormy, unrelenting Tofino. I think I like it.