Where the surf's up, the pressure's down
Seattle Times staff reporter
Out here on Oahu's sandy North Shore, also known as the surfing capital of Hawaii, the fall of Kandahar was not nearly as newsworthy as the fall of Cindy's Gifts and Jewelry.
The trinket shop was the fourth business in town to close since Sept. 11. All of Hawaii has felt the precipitous drop in tourism since the terrorist attacks, none more so than beach towns like Hale'iwa (pronounced hah-lay-ee'-wah), which depend almost entirely on tourist dollars.
In the words of one of the most respected men in town, Steve Gould, surfer, writer and curator of the Hale'iwa Surf Museum: "We've been whacked."
Interestingly, the most unaffected group has been the "full-time" surfers who make up as much as a quarter of the town's population.
We're not talking about the handful of professionals who make six figures a year through contests and endorsements, but the dudes and dudettes who live to surf and do as little as possible of anything else. The men and women who live hand-to-mouth, pick up odd jobs and crash five to a room in tiny seaside rentals, and who sometimes evoke disdain from nine-to-fivers who see them as loafers and deadbeats.
Whereas most of us aspire to climb the ladder as fast as we can, they'd rather recline (except on a wave) and get to wherever, you know, whenever.
They come from down the street and as far away as Brazil and Japan. And Cleveland. Some give up everything to live "the life," and commit, for as long as it lasts, to staying as unencumbered as possible.
It's a phase for most; the chosen path for a few. Surfing becomes recreation and religion; their boards, vehicles of transport into a watery high. To hear them say it, preferably before the pot pipe comes around, nothing's more exhilarating than catching a good wave and riding in the silence of a perfect "tube" — the hollow created when the wave curls all the way around.
The North Shore is home to the famous "Banzai Pipeline," named for the perfect, cavernous tubes that form out of the winter surf, December through February.
Hale'iwa, a town of about 2,500, is the historical hub of the North Shore. Boosters say it has the highest surf-shop-to-resident ratio in the world, a claim completely unverifiable but that looks good in brochures
A sign at the entrance to the surf museum reads, "No shoes, no shirt: No problem." Shops and restaurants line a mile or so of the main road through town. Occasionally, a store will close early with a sign on the door, "Gone Surfing." The clerks are often surfers who work part-time, or work afternoons and nights so they can surf in the mornings.
Kanoa Dahlin, 27, spent years serving shave ice at Matsumoto's Market. He's part Hawaiian, Japanese and Portuguese. He is superbly bronzed and compactly muscular, a description that fits about a third of the residents, male and female. He's been surfing since age 4.
Besides working at the market over the years, he's also designed T-shirts and made surfboards.
"I'm just barely making it. I'm on the borderline," Dahlin said, while watching the waves one recent afternoon at the Pipeline. He had no woe in his voice.
The beach that day, like every day, was dotted with people who'd made it a point, even an art, to live on the borderline.
A few dozen feet away, Jimmy Blears, 52, a surfing champ in the early 1970s, shot the breeze with a couple of lifeguards. Everybody around here knows Jimmy. He's talkative, balding and soft around the middle, and looks, like haoles (the Hawaiian term for Caucasians) here sometimes do, distinctly overcooked
When his best years as a surfer passed, he worked as a lifeguard, and when he couldn't lifeguard, he gave lessons. It was easy. All you had to do was put a sign on your car: "Surf lessons." If you didn't have a car, you'd put the sign on your surfboard and plant the board in the sand. And you could always don an apron and cap and serve shave ice.
One way or another, Blears figured out a way to spend his entire adult life playing on the beach. As one of his overcooked comrades later said: "We never want to grow up!"
There is that other school of thought, as mentioned earlier, that looks upon this crowd as a bunch of arrested adolescents. Slackards. "Beach bums" was the '60's term. "What good do they do society?" we might ask.
But there's another way to look at it: They lived simply long before simplicity became a movement. They made their happiness contingent on something as abundant — and free — as ocean waves. They seem blithely unaffected by, even oblivious to, the vicissitudes — economic or otherwise — that make the rest of us anxious and stressed. You don't fear loss when you don't have anything to lose.
They face their own set of risks, to be sure: sharks, rocks, other surfers, to name a few. On the day we visited, a surfer was thrown against a reef and badly injured. He was rushed to a hospital. Some of the lifeguards feared he was paralyzed. The waves at North Shore kill or maim a number of times every year.
Then there's the risk of waking up one day, 50 years old and asking, "What the bleep did I do with my life!?"
The drive from Hale'iwa back to Honolulu takes 45 minutes without traffic, as much as double that with traffic. Nowadays, there's almost no such thing as no traffic on Oahu. The island, 44 miles long and 30 miles wide, has become a sprawling bedroom community for Honolulu. This means long commutes for thousands of nine-to-fivers.
We plunged into the afternoon commute. Long lines of cars, sometimes bumper to bumper, crowded Kamehameha Highway and later Interstate H-1. The expressions of people sitting in traffic look the same all over the world. At one point on the drive, at a particularly slow, sweltering stretch, it became a lot easier to entertain the frivolous notion that, risks and all, the dudes and dudettes on the beach had something of a right idea.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216, or email@example.com.
Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-8133, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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