This blog begins with my dad, who has never surfed and has therefore found his way to the beginning of an entry with this title under questionable pretenses.
Anyway, my dad occasionally makes reference to things he learned while in the Boy Scouts—how to build a fire from scratch, how to decide what trail to take at a fork in the woods, and how to wrassle a grizzly bear. I think he would probably talk about his time in the Boy Scouts more often if my brothers and I didn’t tease him whenever he brings it up. Perhaps this is out of self-consciousness; the three of us barely made it past the Cub Scout stage. By the time we neared the age where we were old enough to march in the Fond du Lac County Memorial Day Parade, we had bigger fish to fry.
One valuable thing my dad may have picked up from his merit badge-chasing days, however, was a willingness to experiment (i.e. with fire-building techniques) and try new things (a choke hold on a grizzly bear). Whether my brothers and I were learning to snowboard, trying to play guitar or going to South Africa, he and my mom encouraged us to pursue new endeavors.
This also may stem from my dad’s love of science. A biology major in college, my dad is now a dentist (I like to call him Dr. Tim Medicine Woman in tribute to the science-loving, pioneer protagonist of the television show I watched if Saved By The Bell and Hey Arnold weren’t on). Biology has led him to believe that before asking someone how to do something, it doesn’t hurt to try doing it on your own. A good case in point was the time he chastised me for not using the Scientific Method to determine why my printer wasn’t working. Just around the time I was deciding whether background research came before or after forming a hypothesis, my dad presented me with my printer, fixed and ready for action.
I certainly had a desire to try new things when deciding to travel to South Africa. I wanted, however, to be more adventurous not only in the things I was willing to try but in how I was willing to try them. I have no doubt that I used to take risks. But whenever I began trying to learn a new language, play a new instrument, or get accustomed to a new school, people who were ready to help were always close by. While this was very comforting, it was also sometimes very stifling.
Perhaps I had avoiding such the crutch of comfort in mind when I made the potentially stupid and quite certainly embarrassing decision of trying to surf without having received a lesson. Some of our group had decided to take an overnight trip to a nearby town called Muizenberg for a day of catching rays (check), mingling with the attractive locals (negative) and hopefully surfing.
We arrived and dropped our bags at the traveler’s lodge where we stayed. After a chat with the man who runs the place, an older bandana-wearing man called Dion (“Like Celine,” he told me), some of us headed to the beach while others went to grab lunch. After a few minutes of throwing a frisbee with my housemate Sam, I saw another housemate, Terry, approaching us with a wetsuit on and a surfboard in tow.
“How much is it?” we asked Terry.
“One hundred rand for a wetsuit and board for two and a half hours,” he replied.
One hundred rand is about $12, so we immediately realized our friend had landed a deal. But he had also landed this deal from someone who had offered us the same two-and-a-half-hour bargain with a lesson for 270 rand. Reasoning that a lesson would be unnecessarily expensive, boring and maybe even unhelpful, Sam and I went to collect wetsuits and boards. Fifteen minutes later, we were posing for the killer photo below and preparing to enter the ocean.
The idea, Terry told me, was to look behind until I saw my wave. As it neared, I was to lie flat with my stomach on the board, beginning a strong, fast front-crawl stroke with my arms. As the wave reached me, it would hopefully begin to carry me forward. Then I would push myself to my knees, rise to my feet and ride the wave to shore, all the while looking like a total badass.
There were a few holes in this plan. On Attempt #1, I was too far forward on the surfboard and when my wave came, the nose of the board sank under water. I was crestfallen…I hadn’t even had a cool wipeout to accompany my failure. Determined to get up, I paddled back into deeper water, carefully positioned myself further back on my board and waited a few moments before another wave came.
This time I got up. I had apparently positioned myself so I was neither too far forward nor too far backward on the board. As the wave approached, I paddled frantically, occasionally looking behind to see the wave swell larger and come closer. Once it caught me, I felt as though three sets of hands were lifting me above the water. I gingerly pushed myself to my knees, which wobbled as I slowly rose to my feet. Arms outstretched, I scanned the beach as I completed my five-or-six second ride, eventually falling as gracefully as a lanky 6’4” guy can.
I probably got up another five or so times that day and even rode a few waves all the way to the shore, but none of the rides could quite compare with the feeling of the first one. It was one of those all too rare senses of having accomplished something completely on one’s own.
As luck would have it, I got another chance to chart some new personal territory the very next day. As some of our group prepared to take the train back from Muizenberg to our house in Observatory, my housemate Ryan and I decided to stick around and hike a section of Table Mountain National Park that we hadn’t seen before.
I’m glad we did. Of the four major hikes we’ve had (including last Friday’s trek up Lion’s Head to view a gorgeous sunset along with a view of the lights of Cape Town’s night life), this was clearly the trail that the fewest number of feet had stepped on. Wildflowers marked the trails we sometimes followed and sometimes formed as we made our way towards rock walls that were formidable by our standards. Pulling ourselves to higher elevations, we eventually reached our desired destination: a cave. Called Dragon’s Cave, the cubby-like space had an opening that allowed us to look out across Fault’s Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and essentially how far we had come.
We continued on, every once in awhile stopping by a rock to share some victory wine. Soon, we had descended the mountain and were back on the road near the train station where we would board to head back to Obz. Surprised to find we had hiked about 5 km, we again celebrated by picking up gourmet snacks at a grocery store and fighting exhaustion, we finally hopped on our train, satisfied that we had gotten our time’s worth in Muizenberg.
It feels a little strange when I think about how much some of these things meant to me. Simply trying to surf is pretty inconsequential. But a month ago, I probably would have laughed at the idea of trying to do it without a lesson. There was also never any serious danger in the hike Ryan and I took Monday, but the fact that we were making new trails made me feel a sense of adventure that I never seemed to allow myself so much at home. Hell, I even felt proud of the fact that most of our house went to a South African Springboks rugby match Saturday; most of us don’t know all of the rules or even much of the scoring involved in the sport, but nonetheless, we went and tried to figure them out.
There is certainly nothing wrong with asking questions in a given situation, but sometimes, it pays to give something the old college try before trying to get someone’s help. We always run the risk of failing, and we probably often will. I tried making scrambled eggs for the first time Saturday, for example. They tasted like crap. But you know what? I tried again Sunday, and they were a little better.
I think part of studying abroad is putting oneself in situations where there is no choice but to try something without agenda, preparation or guidance. Sometimes, the effort will crash and burn (my egg-making escapade, my plan to teach students how to tune guitars, learning the moonwalk). But other times, we might surprise ourselves with what we are capable of.
It turns out catching a wave does put you on top of the world. Who knew?