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Chaos, Crowds and Clarity: Notes from a Mid-Atlantic Isle

12:37 4th July 2008 by
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Words by James Pribram • Photos by Will Henry

Playa de las Americas

I remember him well, sitting there on those stairs, motionless. He looked to be thinking about heaven and hell, as if he were staring into a face full of invisible eyes. His arms were covered with tattoos, his face consumed by a rat’s nest of long, scummy hair. His breath smelled like he’d been dead for 10 years. I knew him well, but then again I didn’t. He didn’t live in this world; he had his own – a world of imagination that he celebrated alone, which was visible only through his eyes. The driving force for that eternal moment of his life – only for today, never dreaming of tomorrow – was the power of his mind. A fascinating mind, always at work, asking and questioning … what was it that made one’s worth?

He questioned humanity. He asked me that day, “Do you think I’m dumb?” Then he added: “And if so, why? Is it because I’m not part of the farm? Not one of the cattle, standing in line with my hand out, like the rest of them? Are you a product of your money with your big homes and fancy cars? Can you buy yourself, too? Or do you know who you really are? Are you an individual who speaks from the heart and not from your wallet? Do you dress to please or just to be? Are you part of the garden or just another tree?”

Here I was some 15 years later, wondering if this was what my old best friend had been talking about? It hit me in the head like a ton of bricks. It was here that I began to rethink things myself – here in the Canary Islands, on the island of Tenerife, caught inside in the chaos of Play de las Americas.

Perhaps it was the local history – that the Romanians ran the drug trade through here – that I thought of my old friend Tanner. He was once just like me; he lived and loved the sport of Hawaiian kings. Too bad for him that he traded in his surfboard for long stints in prison. Surfing has always kept me straight.

Although Tanner’s whereabouts is unknown to me now, I could imagine him being here with me, pointing at all the fat Europeans walking in every direction like ants hassled out of their secret dens. It actually pains me right now in writing this… thinking about Tanner, once known as the nicest person you could hope to meet, who traded in his life and surfboard for cocaine.

Play de Las Americas

Surfing in Tenerife

From daytime to nighttime, from the shore to the ocean, contradictions scream in every direction. Beginning with the boardwalk that runs through it, las Americas is littered with people, surrounded by stores, fi lled with ugly signs all jumbled together, a chaos whipped up like mashed potatoes in hell … I
can’t stop thinking to myself that this is nothing like the Canary Islands I’d imagined .

The ocean lies nearby in sharp contrast. It sparkles under the sun’s warmth, textured ever so lightly with just a whisper of breeze. A dark blue sea sits out there in peace, its eternal presence guarded by the locals that ride her every day. Strange as it might seem, this would be like protecting Space Mountain at Disneyland.

You walk through town (las Americas) in the daytime and you can feel the spirit and the ghost of the night before. They had played hard and partied harder in the strip clubs and brothels. You can feel it and see it in the neon fl ashing lights where it seems that trouble is forever hiding just around the corner. The locals talk about the African immigrants, setting sail and risking it all to make it to one of the Canary Islands. Dangerous, they say … even
ruthless. They line the boardwalk selling things and bugging the passersby under the watchful eyes of the police, who are sure to keep them moving. It’s a cycle that repeats over and over, like an old friend who keeps going back to the drug they call cocaine.

So strange the way some countries can make you feel. This place, Tenerife, is strange. The vibe is strange. The waves were great, but now it’s time to move on.

Luckily, in today’s world, you can get in a car and drive to wherever it is you want to go. So it was that on an overcast, somewhat windy day we headed up Tenerife’s biggest attraction, the snow-covered volcano that rises 3,000 feet above the ocean.

With Will Henry (director of Save the Waves) and film-maker Vince Deur along for the trip, I felt like a kid on some sort of field trip as those two split the driving. My sense of direction is horrid and with all the confusing roundabouts here, I’d just as soon sit back and give Vince a hard time about his
driving. I’ve suffered too many concussions to drive in these circuslike conditions (at least that’s what I tell them).

As we drove the winding road up the mountainside, the atmosphere of the island began to change. Stunning views opened up beneath us as the day changed from warm to cold. Near the top, the slopes were covered in pine trees, and a forest of lava rock spilled down from the volcano towards the surrounding ocean, glistening far below.Local Boogie

I had heard there was localism in the Canary Islands, but this was silly. I’ve been to Hawaii more times than I can count, and to Tahiti a half a dozen times, without any hassles. I was taught at an early age to respect the locals and your beach environment (any environment for that matter). I grew up surfi ng a little reef in front of my parents’ home in Laguna Beach, California, and I was once one of those local loudmouths. Luckily, I grew out of it. I say ‘luckily’ because surfi ng in its truest form should never be associated with violence or ego-fi lled bravado. It goes against everything surfi ng was founded upon, beginning with the spirit of Aloha.

Surfing in Tenerife

So when I paddled out by myself to a reef that had a mini-Sunset peak fi ring on the outside with no one except for the local boogie-boarders surfi ng the inside and off to the right (which was an entirely different wave), I couldn’t help but laugh when they lit me up with a full array of insults.

Given that two cameras were documenting my every move, I understood that they worried about us blowing up their sacred spot in the media, but I firmly believe in not revealing the particulars of spots I surf on my travels. That’s not my style. In the end, we eventually made friends, and that’s what surfing should really be about: respecting one another and becoming friends over the course of the day.

Two Brothers

Walking down the ancient cobblestone, rock-riddled road, I was beginning to believe that I was actually in the subtropical paradise that I had imagined the island of Tenerife would be. Will and I followed the road towards the beach past an old farmhouse and down a trail through a fl ower-fi lled valley. Beyond, the ocean was a startling dark cobalt blue, and waves broke along a rock-stacked point following the reef’s point-like formation on the outside, which made the drop steep and full of boils with a current running sideways like a river.

Sitting on the inside I couldn’t help but look up in awe at the vertical cliff looming hundreds of feet above and into the sky. There was a formation at the very top – two huge boulders sitting side by side as if they were looking down on this beautiful beach, which fi red off an epic righthander. The twin formation was known as the Two Brothers.

The Journey

Surfing in Tenerife

Surfing has always been about the journey – the path less traveled some might say, although these days there seem to be more and more surfers every day. But perhaps that only adds more magic to those days when you find the best waves. Yes, the path that all surfers search for, the one that sometimes ends up costing our relationships as we repeatedly abandon our loved ones for periods of time, is all a part of the surfer’s dream of surfi ng perfect waves in strange lands … and perhaps fi nding out who we really are. My trip to Tenerife was nothing short of an inner journey. From the moment we arrived (via frostbitten London) in the tourist district of Tenerife, a town that reminded me more of the TV show Lost than the subtropical island I was expecting, I had to adapt to my preconceptions and flow with the reality.

The first couple of days of a trip are always the toughest as you try to fi gure out where to go and where not to go. After a couple of days on Tenerife, we knew where to go. There was no shortage of good waves. But also, in the process of discovering them, I fell in love with surfing all over again. It felt almost as if my surfing career and life had come full circle.

We were supposed to be on a surf trip, but it turned into more of a spiritual awakening along the way. We met with a little resistance, as we do in life, but we kept to the path, and in the end found some great friends. In particular two brothers, who will remain nameless, left a lasting impression on me – two bothers that shared a bond of brotherly love. One was there for the other as he fought his way back from a series of life’s hard knocks. Happily, he was once again smiling, surfing, and playing music. It almost seemed as if surfing had saved him.

It doesn’t save everyone, though. It didn’t save my friend Tanner. But what’s so special about surfi ng is that it does have this power to save people and, who knows, maybe even places, too.

Peace.

James Pribram is a regular contributor to The Surfer’s Path. His eco-warrior surf adventures with Will Henry and Save the Waves are supported by XS Energy Drinks.

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