W hat is the worst type of vacation to take? One that is designed to make you feel bad about yourself. For example, if you are not adventurous, if your idea of fun, like mine, involves spectating, reading, eating, or simply, in the “l’art pour l’art” spirit, sitting for its own sake; and if additionally you are (probably) the clumsiest person in the lower 48, tripping over invisible bumps and walking into door knobs – well, then, maybe a vacation in a country known for its athletic opportunities with a tour company aimed at the adventure-seeking backpacker is not ideal. I surf the web. Not waves. Made of water.
Finally, my nerve caught hold, and I attempted to wobble quickly to my feet. However, wobbling rarely happens quickly and I crashed into the sea. I surfaced and found myself… giggling.
Yet, there I was, in New Zealand, which, according to a sweatshirt I bought is “The Land of Adventure.” Week one of my two week excursion would be spent on a Stray Travel tour bus zipping around the North Island, feeling bad that I was not interested in what Stray had to offer: lounging in a geothermal pool on Hahei’s beach of hot hot HOT! sand (thank goodness I didn’t; I got a rash on my feet just standing in it) and inner tubing through small, muddy caves looking for glow worms in Waitomo (I’m claustrophobic). I wouldn’t be jumping out of a plane at Taupo (afraid of heights, too) or white water rafting or sledging (huh?) or zorbing (double huh?) or hiking across a volcanic crater at Tongariro National Park for eight hours (eight hours!?!).
I will interrupt my tirade to answer the obvious: why New Zealand? My best friend and travel buddy wanted to visit an old high school friend spending a year in Wellington – if we were ever to travel to New Zealand, why not now? The decision to go with Stray was simple enough: I work in theatre. I am poor. Hostels are cheap, and a tour would make the trip more informative and interactive.
Plus, I love Lord of the Rings and I thought I’d see some Hobbit-filled sites and filming locations. [I did not. My best friend is not an LOTR fan and had no interest in over-priced tourist traps.]
My best friend is easygoing. She went to New Zealand to visit a friend, take pictures, and return home content to have spent two weeks away from work in a beautiful country. I am a bit more neurotic. I spent a lot of time in New Zealand feeling guilty that I had this opportunity to experience new things and I was wasting it. I never felt bad about not wanting to skydive until I found myself with a group of people all gung-ho about skydiving. At which point I plummeted into a self-esteem spiral, wondering why I am not adventurous, what am I so afraid of, and am I going to go through life having never really lived? I was supposed to be on vacation and I was burdened with self-loathing.
I had to do something. I couldn’t take seven hundred pictures and not experience one real Kiwi adventure. I couldn’t return home with only stories of what I saw – I wanted to tell what I did. So, looking over the itinerary for Stray, I determined that I would surf in the small beach town of Raglan on the North Island’s west coast. Our hostel, the Karioi Lodge, offered one-day lessons through the Raglan Surfing School, including wetsuit, long board, (brief) instruction, and the chance to ride the waves of nearby Whale Bay. They guarantee you’ll stand up on your board.
I’m not sure what propelled me into this stubbornly blithe idea. I grew up at the Jersey Shore and I love being near (and incessantly photographing) water, be it ocean, lake, river, or babbling brook. But I have never been much for water sports. I can barely swim. Wouldn’t skydiving be the obvious choice? I’m good at falling. Surfing involves balance and I can’t walk on a curb without flailing into the street. But I was in the “Land of Adventure.” I needed to shore up my self-esteem, to step outside my comfort zone, to know a tiny adventurer lurks beneath my neurotic, bookworm (ahem, couch potato) skin. Why surfing? Who knows. Water soothes me, so even if I broke my neck, at least the steady crash of the waves would keep me calm.
You can never take baby steps into the unknown. It’s always a giant leap. First, my best friend had zero interest in oceanic frolicking. Doing something new by myself…well, anxiety level, meet roof. Then, our Stray bus ran late, so upon arriving at our hostel, the four of us who wanted to surf (me and three other girls: Scottish, Canadian, and Dutch) literally hopped off the bus, threw our bags in our rooms, change into our bathing suits, and flew to the converted barn where our preliminary lesson was held. After slithering into already damp, sandy wet suits. Anxiety level, meet sky. However, once wriggled in, I was not about to battle my way back out of that slippery suction cup of a suit.
So many people I met in New Zealand were foreigners who came for a vacation and stayed, including the Czech girl who taught our surf class. The pre-lesson went okay. Anything is easy on dry, flat, unmoving land. I felt silly jumping to my feet from a prostrate position. Vague fears of sharks (are sharks indigenous to this area? I did not think this plan through), losing my slippy-slidy contact lens, and embarrassing myself spectacularly in front of strangers swirled in my head. But soon these thoughts are replaced by a looping chant: paddle, arms set, raise body, slide knee forward, pop up. If I repeated the steps enough, maybe I can…who am I kidding? I’d be lucky if I didn’t drown.
Bright side: Raglan is beautiful. Or, more accurately, magnificent. The water of the Tasman Sea was a crystal clear azure, and wave after perfect wave came flopping cheerfully to the shore. It was a friendly ocean that greeted me. Though it was late May, closing in on the start of New Zealand’s winter, the water was not icy; at least it didn’t feel cold thanks to my ickily lubricated wet suit. We only went out to chest deep water, so maybe I wouldn’t drown after all. Maybe.
Raglan is famous for having one of the longest left hand breaks in the world, which doesn’t mean much to me, but apparently it’s a big deal. Our instructor warned us about the possibility of a strong undercurrent (oh, goody!) and gave us an onshore landmark to align ourselves to avoid drifting too close to the treacherous undertow. I thought there would be more of a lesson, some training wheels, something – but suddenly, it was up to us, up to me, to…catch a wave.
Mostly I paddled for waves that didn’t crest in sync with where I wanted them to (the ocean doesn’t bend to my will, surprise!) Occasionally I paddled, felt the right moment, and was too chicken to pop up. I couldn’t control my fear. Yes, the weather was more perfect than I had the right to hope for given the impending winter, and yes, the water was warm and happy and salty, but something was bound to go wrong. I have no instinct for the athletic, no joy in the physical. Why do I put myself in situations where failure is inevitable?
Finally, my nerve caught hold, and I attempted to wobble quickly to my feet. However, wobbling rarely happens quickly and I crashed into the sea. I surfaced and found myself… giggling. It was, after all, silly. And…fun. I bobbed with the rolling water as it slid to the shore. The sense of weightlessness can make a girl feel good about herself and I wondered why I didn’t spend all my time in the water. I tugged at my surfboard, attached to my ankle by a short cord, and pushed myself back into the water to try again. It was not the only time I wiped out, but I was strangely unembarrassed by the ungraceful way I collided with the water. The other girls weren’t doing any better, and incredibly, I was the first one to. Stand. Up. On. The. Board. ISTOODUPONASURFBOARD!!!
Okay, it was only for a split second before my balance remembered it didn’t exist, but it was the most glorious split second of my life. In that moment, I understood why people dedicate their lives to this pursuit, how it can take on a spiritual level. What could be more zen than ceasing to fight the forces around you, than being patient until those forces are ready to bear you up, then living in that moment fully and joyfully without regret when it’s over, accepting its singular beauty and preparing to wait again for it’s sporadic and blessed arrival? The earth mother cradles you in her arms, you are the universe and the whole universe is in you, redemption is entirely possible…
More to the point I stood up more than once! (There is photographic evidence.) Only four or five times total, never for very long, nor on very big waves. I also plunged into the water with such full-bodied force that I thought I’d drown as I flailed back to the surface. But each time I broke through into the sunshine-sweet air, body banged up from unceremonious encounters with my board, I pointed myself toward deeper waters, pushing against the current and lugging the twice-my-size chunk of foam with me. As an iridescent sunset approached, I gazed at the horizon and contemplated that I was on the other side of the world from home and out of my comfort zone in many, many ways, but surviving – and enjoying myself. The two hours we were allotted for our lesson went by too quickly, and I sadly soon found myself in the changing room, trying to peel myself out of my wetsuit (I understand now why bananas don’t peel themselves.)
Later that evening, after eating a delicious home-cooked soup provided by the Kairioi Lodge, my body began to ache in places I have never felt before. For the next several days, lifting my bag three feet to toss it into the back of the Stray bus was nearly impossible due to the complete and absolute, perfect pain of every single tiny muscle in my entire physical being. But it was so entirely worth it. So entirely necessary to growing myself. I embraced the moment. I did not let my fears and anxieties overwhelm what was a small but earnest interest in taking on the Tasman Sea. I may not have become an out-and-out thrill seeker from my experience in Raglan, nor can I claim it was the quintessential New Zealand adventure (maybe I should have tried sledging or zorbing for that). But I am much more open to at least thinking about considering the idea of taking risks. It’s really those moments where you don’t have time to think (as I didn’t when I disembarked at the Raglan hostel) where your best and truest self has the chance to shine through. I had an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and that will, I am sure, lead me to push my personal boundaries again. The chance to surf off the coast of New Zealand is once in a lifetime. Don’t let those chances slip by, even if you don’t consider yourself an adventurer.