November 16, 2009

From Sick to Surf

What a difference a day makes! My fever broke shortly after I posted my last blog entry and I woke the next morning feeling quite well. I went window shopping with my roommates, Joelle and Laeticia, as a way to explore the town, and then took a long walk down the beach for the first time.

Byron Bay is your typical beach town, including over-priced boutiques mixed with bohemian shops selling sarongs and hemp anklets. As I browsed the shops, bombarded by exciting new Aussie styles and beautiful women in fashionable clothing, I couldn't help but feel a bit self-conscious in the practical, quick-drying, mix-and-match apparel I had packed for my 6-month journey. Though I may be a relatively confident woman, we ALL have our moments. I had to remind myself that I had brought sensible clothing for the lifestyle I would be leading and the places I would be visiting.

While browsing through a few second-hand sale racks, I quickly realized that part of my "funk" was due to the fact that I hadn't showered since arriving and was still exuding that "sick" smell. I promptly returned to the guest house to shower and launder all of my worn clothing.

I had been informed by my roommates that the local laundromat charges approximately $9 per load. As a backpacker, every penny counts, so washing my laundry in the sink seemed the best choice. And I was pleased to discover a clothesline tucked away on a side porch at the guest house that we are free to use. Though, leaving your clothing outside overnight is unadvised, as many have had their items stolen. I left mine there to dry, hiding a few of my favorite pieces behind the non-tempting items, and headed for the beach.

My feet hit the sand and I immediately remembered that while I truly love the mountains, I am also part beach. The feel of sand scraping underneath my toes, the salty air and the sound of the waves crashing quickly filled my body with the sense of peace that I get from being in nature. I began to walk away from the crowds that had filled Byron Bay for the weekend, hearing the street music fade behind me, and welcomed the silence broken only by the crashing waves and a few fellow beach walkers. I made my way to The Pass, an area just south of the main beach at Byron where the water, even at high tide, just barely meets between the steep, rocky shore and a large rock outcropping. Pausing to take in the sights and to feel the warm water drift over my toes, I noticed a brush turkey on shore. Its red head and bright yellow wattle were a strong contrast to its dark feathers. I tried to get a photo, but the turkey was having none of that and ran off into the trees.

I made my way up some wooden steps to a platform built upon the rocks. As I gazed out over the clear turquoise water and watched the waves crash against the rocks, I felt some of the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion that had built up over the last month silently slip away.

On my way down from the lookout, an older couple greeted me on the steps and we struck up a fine conversation. Alan and Betty were both born and raised in Australia, got married right out of school, bought some land to clear and built a farm that they maintained for 56 years. They had recently given the farm over to their son and had moved to Byron Bay to enjoy their golden years by the sea. They asked about my trip and expressed their concern over my solo travels. I assured Alan I would not be hitchhiking and that I did not need to meet his neighbor's unmarried son. I wished my momentarily adopted grandparents well and was on my way.

Back at the guest house that night, I chatted with Jules, a red-head from London with a full figure and an insatiable appetite for adventure. She told me about the surf lessons she'd been taking with Mojo, a local surf school located across the street from the guest house. I felt the butterflies beating in my stomach as she spoke, which I immediately recognized to mean I had already decided I would be taking my first surf lesson the next morning.

After a restless night of sleep full of anxiety dreams, I awoke early in anticipation of what the day would bring. With my sunscreen and water bottle packed, I waited for the van on Mojo's front steps, thankful that Jules was there with me. She and I get along quite well, and I took comfort in knowing I had a friend with me for the lesson. The van pulled up and we piled into the crowd. I took the last seat up front with the instructors and immediately began to chat them up to determine whether I would, in fact, be safe under their instruction.

Tommy, the lead instructor, is originally from England, traveled to Ausiland about a year ago to get away from the cold and rain, and has been surfing his whole life. He has a light-hearted, laid-back sense of fun and humor about him that seemed to calm my nerves a bit. His side-kick, Chrisso, is a tall, chubby 16-year-old who was born and raised in Australia and started surfing as a little boy. He has a boyish sense of humor and likes to tease, but makes you feel quite secure due to his massive presence.

I turned around to survey the rest of the group while we played the "name game." The majority were Aussies on their weekend break from work, plus some Germans, a couple English, and a Fin. They all seemed quite comfortable with the fact that we were about to plunge ourselves into the ocean with large, buoyant boards attached to our ankles, and unsuccessfully attempt to ride the waves rather than get pummeled by them. I informed the instructors that I am not very comfortable in open water, not a very strong swimmer, and was quite nervous about surfing. Tommy assured me that Chrisso would keep an eye on me and that I would have a good time.

We arrived at Flatrock Beach, a much less populated beach that featured a good beginners' swell for the day. Tommy talked us through the surfing conditions, teaching us about on-shore versus off-shore winds and the direction from which the waves were coming. We were each given a surfboard to carry on our heads down to the water's edge. Beginning boards are long, wide, and thick and made of foam that makes them extremely buoyant, giving you a bit more stability when first attempting to stand on a board in the water. They are also very heavy and cumbersome. I felt terribly wimpy having to put my board down numerous times to rest along the brief walk to the beach.

We all gathered in a circle with our boards, and proceeded to do a bit of a "warm up" that consisted of some light stretching, a short jog, and wheel barrow and pony races. The laughing and silliness picked up my spirits and calmed my nerves for a bit...until we sat back down for the lecture about rip currents. The butterflies immediately returned and my blood pressure rose. We practiced "popping up" on our boards in the sand to get a feel for the steps. While laying face down on the board with your feet dangling just off the end, you paddle and look behind you for good waves. When you see the "right one" coming and you feel it push your feet, you paddle hard three more times. Then, with your hands under your shoulders, you lift up your upper body, pull your back knee in to the side, pull your front knee up to stand on your front foot, push your upper body upright with your hands, and stand down in your knees with your weight on your front foot and your hips aligned parallel with the board. Seems easy enough, right?

The instructors sent us off into the water, dragging our boards along with us. I stood at the water's edge for a moment, staring at the massive waves coming toward me (well, they seemed massive to me), took a deep breath, and plunged into the water.

...Two days later...

My entire body feels as though I've been put through a washing machine, and I don't mean the gentle cycle. I've taken two surf lessons and have gotten my butt kicked right and left by the waves. I am covered in bruises and sand and board rash and have swallowed my weight in seawater. And I'm hooked.

Despite the fact that the wind had shifted on the second day to an on-shore direction and the current was much stronger, I improved drastically from the first lesson to the next. I became more confident in the water, relaxed, and had more fun. It took every ounce of energy in me to chug through the wash to get out far enough with the board to even attempt to catch a wave (there is an efficient way of doing this, for which I have yet to learn), but I stood up a handful of times on my own and even managed to awkwardly ride a few all the way in. And once you've caught one wave, you want more.

I do plan to get at least a third lesson, but I'm giving my body the day off today. A nap on the beach and a walk to the lighthouse are on the agenda.

And now for more random thoughts and observations:

1) My hair is HUGE here. Humidity and saltwater have turned my usually relatively flat hair into a large, frizzy, curly mop. I'm not gonna lie, I kind of love it.
2) It's a strange feeling to meet such great people, connect with them, and then part ways a few days later. There are always more people coming and going. More on that later.
3) A few more favorite items that I brought along on this trip: a clothesline that I can hang literally anywhere, the organizing packs to keep my things sorted in the backpack, and a sarong (which turns out to have many uses).


  1. love the blog! glad you are feeling better and have wasted not a single sec getting the adventure going...(start a station on Pandora... Jan & Dean will transport you into the 50's CA surf scene)

  2. I LOVE your blog! LOVE IT! It's so exciting to read about what adventures you're getting into each day and how you're connecting with your new found friends and a Florida-like foreign land. I'm so psyched to hear how surf lesson #3 totally need to get Jules or someone else to take your picture while riding a wave (especially to check out that curly Aussie mop of yours)!