Barrel

There’s this innocent, sweet article about surfing in Guam.

Barrel2.jpg

(A famous wave in Cape Town, at Noordhoek beach.)

It’s still dark outside when Nick arrives. A strong southeast wind had blown through Cape Town the night before and the streets are littered with fallen sticks and leaves. From somewhere nearby a rooster’s crow peals incongruously. “Howzit?” Nick says. He smiles then looks shyly at the ground. “Howzit,” I say. We stand there in the darkness for a moment. A straggling remnant of wind flows down the street, then backs off again. It hasn’t rained, but it smells like it has.

Barrel1.jpg

Nick’s two boards are already tied neatly to the roof of his Golf. We slide mine in underneath the other two and I throw my bag in the trunk and then climb into the passenger seat and we slip out into the empty streets. We are going up the West Coast to look for waves. South Africa’s West Coast is a den of waves.

Nick is particular about where we go, and when, and why. There are many variables to consider. Optimal conditions require a perfect symmetry of these variables. The wind direction, the swell direction and size, the time of the day, which determines the tides, high and low, even the day of the week, which is a critical factor in how many people will be in the water – all of these are parts of a delicate equation that must be worked out on the fly. We’re going up the West Coast because the variables there on this day are working in our favor. The surf there, says Nick, should be working. “Cooking,” he says with a smile, “Cooking.”

As we’re driving, Nick is talking about a massive barrel he got the weekend before. Surfers talk about barrels as if they were rare animal sightings. The bigger the barrel, the rarer and more beautiful the creature. Some surfers get barreled more than others. Some, the very proficient, or those very lucky who happen to live in places, like Indonesia, where the waves curl into barrels on a daily basis, spend a good amount of time “in the tube.”

That’s what a barrel is, a tube of water.

It is what you see when you see pictures of surfing, men or women crouching or standing inside of a rounded and hollow space, surrounded on all sides, but not touched by, walls of water.

“I was standing,” Nick says, “like this.” He takes his hands briefly off the steering wheel and raises them as far above his head as the car will allow. “Straight up, touching the roof with my fingers.” I watch his fingers graze the car ceiling.

“I was fully upright, it’s the first time that’s ever happened to me.”

“Must’ve been massive,” I say, imagining the size of the wave that would allow such a hollow space to form, in the first place, and then hold its shape and move, parallel to the shore, without breaking.

Nick nods, smiling.

“It’s weird,” he says, “I can remember what it looks like inside. I can remember seeing the water, seeing that I was closed in, I can see the exit…” He trails off.

I look over at him and he’s trying to puzzle it out.

“But I can’t remember what it feels like.”

I don’t say anything.

“I can remember everything,” he says, “Except the feeling. It’s almost like it didn’t happen at all.”

This, to my mind, is the near perfect physical expression of the present moment, the vanishing, that infinitesimal suddenness that occurs when the mind goes blank. There is no past, no future. Nothing else is possible, or even desirable, because all of it, including one’s own awareness, has ceased to exist. I think this is why Nick can’t remember what it feels like, because his mind has stopped twisting and turning for a moment. He has entered an absolute stillness, become unhinged. There are no tethers, and no need for tethers. To my mind, it is an approximation of a flash of enlightenment. The fact that he can’t remember it, I say to him, is a sign of encouragement. I envy him this.

But now he is anxious, he says. He’s jittery and nervous in the car.

“It’s like a drug,” he says, “You want more, you can’t say why, but you can feel the need.”

He smiles when he says it, but he’s dead serious.

— South Africa, 2010


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