I had been in Australia for two weeks and I already felt like I was getting behind on the cultural experience. The to-do list was obvious: see a kangaroo, see a koala, not die from a poisonous animal, etc. The only thing I could check off was “walk around the University of Newcastle, getting the second-most-painful sunburn of your life.” I was in Newcastle to do something totally Australian, something I could never do in my native land of Arkansas, something that would make me blend in with the natives and unlock some carefree spirit within me that would make me forget about schedules and the fact that the grocery stores closed before dark. For one semester, I wanted to be the Australian stereotype: tan, bold, and fun-loving.
Then, in the midst of my university’s orientation, I saw Matt the surfing instructor. He fit the exact image of what I imagined Australians to look like; he was tall, tan, a little bit stocky. His blonde hair fell into his eyes, his blue board shorts rode low on his hips, and his matching blue tee-shirt made him stand out among the well-dressed university students. He was also older than the passing crowds, which gave him some kind of authority to the offer I was about to take.
“Surf camp,” he pitched, handing me a brochure the same color blue as his outfit. His voice slurred with enthusiasm, reminding me of a sports broadcaster. “We’ll pick you up at the train stop. You’re guaranteed to stand up on a surfboard by the end of the two days.”
As the Australians say, I signed up flat chat.
A week later, after classes let out on Friday, about twenty university students waited at the train stop for the camp bus, which would then drive us an hour and a half up the coast to Seal Rocks. I waited with my two American friends and their Swedish roommate, all of whom I had met a week earlier. We swatted mosquitoes and chatted about our surfing experience. I had never had an interest in surfing until coming down under. I liked swimming in the ocean, yet I was just as happy to read
underneath a beach umbrella. I had been water-skiing once, ten years before. That was the extent of my water sport experience. The conversation lasted until the bus’s supposed arrival time came and went. I told myself I didn’t care about schedules anymore, that I was on my way to becoming Australian.
Thirty minutes later a chain of cars drove up. I recognized Matt immediately.
“The bus broke down,” he said with the same enthusiasm that hooked me the first time. “So we’re here to rescue you in cars.”
My friends and I ended up as Peter’s passengers in a little black sedan. Peter was from Holland and had been in the country only a month or two. He didn’t look much older than us.
“This is actually my first time driving in Australia,” he said. I had trouble interpreting his tone through his thick accent. “I hope I remember to stay on the left side of the road.”
“That’s a little scary,” Heather said.
“For me it is, but we had a staff meeting in a bar before we knew the bus broke down. I had a few, so I’m feeling better. Don’t worry, I’m not drunk, that was like two hours ago.”
I tried to go to sleep so I would think it was a dream when I died. Jonatan later remarked, “I never thought I’d hope for a bad driver to hurry up and get to the mountains. I thought he’d be more cautious on the curves than he was on the straightaway.”
Then we found out our car caravan left a person at Hungry Jacks, our one pit stop to allow people to grab something to eat. He caught a ride with the non-broken bus carrying campers up from Sydney. But the tone had been set. You could still ride in a car and be forgotten. It was every man for himself. Surf camp was going to pit us against nature, against human society; the weak would break down, and the winners would come out Outback and Great-White-Shark and No-Ozone-Layer tough.
This was something I understood deep within my soul. It was the initiation I had been waiting for. I kept telling myself I didn’t care about the chaos. It was the Australian way.
It was eleven p.m. by the time we arrived at the campsite. This consisted of a giant sleeping room with at least twenty bunk beds. A loft overlooked the area, housing three bunks and a cot. My friends and I headed for the loft. Everyone else headed for the saltwater pool and the bar, the other two sections of surf camp.
But I could party any night. This was my one chance to surf and I wanted to be well-rested for the challenge. Except I couldn’t fall asleep. I had heard something from my roommate before I left; bedbugs in Australia had increased five thousand percent in the past eight years. I listened to Olivia shift in the bunk above me, to Jonatan turn on the cot beside me, convincing myself the crawling feelings on my skin were not indestructible armies. Five minutes later, Olivia shot out of the top bunk.
“I just saw a huge Australian spider,” she said, emphasizing Australian. Obviously, deadly.
Jonatan sat up. “That was no spider. It had a tail. A huge rat tail.”
This was serious; we had escaped death once that night only to face another assault on life. We flipped on every light switch in the loft, but none of them work. We would battle with only the lights of our iPods and cell phones.
Heather, Olivia, and I went to go tell somebody. We passed Peter, once again drunk, and everyone on the bus that came from Sydney, until we finally found Matt. He and the bartender were holding beers, leaning against the back wall.
“We have a problem,” Heather said.
“There was something in my bed. Someone said it had a huge tail. He said it was a rat,” Olivia said.
“A big tail, huh?” Matt said. “It could be an opossum.”
“Yeah, probably was. They’re definitely around here,” the bartender confirmed.
We were panicked and believed it. Later, I would remember the more transparent stories of Drop Bears, animals that hid in trees and fell on people. The Australians were pulling a joke on the Americans, as though making a point about our culture. As in opossums, rats, mice, and bedbugs won’t kill you, so take a vacation every now and then.
“Let us know if you see him again,” they dismissed us quickly.
Olivia shared my single bottom bunk and we slept back to back, turning when we heard someone downstairs cry and shriek and wonder drunkenly where the hell her bed was and where Megan went. We heard our critter scurry back and forth on the bed above us, what the next morning the guy who slept above Heather would confirm was a mouse.
“It ran across my face all night,” he said.
Maybe Jonatan had exaggerated the size of the tail a little bit. I didn’t try to soothe myself with mind games. Having a mouse run across your face was gross, but at least it wasn’t an opossum. Every woman for herself, after all.
It was a beautiful day for surfing. Our bus rolled along the coast as Matt dejayed with the music people play during surf sequences on movies: Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Wipe Out.” The coast appeared and my stomach dropped with excitement. Then we saw the size of the waves. A collective sigh of disappointment washed over the bus.
“Those are tiny,” someone behind me said.
Matt began to laugh from the driver’s seat. “Oh boy, guys. I have good news and I have bad news.”
It appeared he only had one level of energy. I told myself to keep my optimism levels high. I didn’t trust Matt’s opinion of good news.
“The good news is the waves are awesome today.”
We looked outside again as the bus continued along the coast.
“The bad news is that your pubes are going to be red for a long time.” He laughed again. “There’s a lot of seaweed out there.”
Saying there was a lot of seaweed out there was like saying Mount Everest was kind of big. Flakey seaweed covered the surface of the water. It looked like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.
I was paying money to swim in gunk.
We parked as close to the coast as we could and unloaded the equipment that had been riding on the top of our bus. The contraptions looked nothing like surfboards. In fact, they looked like boats. If they were any larger, they would have been boats. Matt was not even calling them surf boards. He called them long boards. As in, my, what long boards you have. All the more to knock you unconscious with.
Practicing the “pop up” on land was easy. We were all university students with some level of athleticism that youth gave us. It also led me to believe the hard part of surfing was standing up on the board. I found the hardest part of surfing was getting my board into the water.
Imagine trying to swim a canoe up river. As an afterthought, Matt told us to either dive through a wave or paddle on top of it. I decided to paddle over the first wave and ended up further back than I began. Next, I tried to duck under the wave. This rammed the long board into my hip, leaving a bruise that lasted a week.
It was so hard to get the board out, I had probably only attempted to stand less than ten times before lunch. Every action I made was met with an equal or greater ocean force pushing me to land. I believe the ocean’s main job is to keep humans out, and it took every ounce of energy to stay in, on top of the water instead of rolling around scraping my arms on shells on the bottom of it.
Things were looking grim for the two-day guarantee, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I told myself I would be stronger after lunch. We ate sandwiches of white bread and lunch meat, and then we were going to take a walk to a lookout on some rocks.
“Don’t take your shoes,” Matt told me. “We’ll be jumping off a rock.”
For the whole walk I thought about how much more pleasant the experience would be if I had had my shoes on. I pinched my foot on a rock, I couldn’t get the grip I needed to jump off into the swimming hole, and the rocks burned my feet in the sun.
“Sometimes it’s hard being a tour guide, you know?” Matt bared his soul as people attempted to get high enough on the rock to jump into water and not other rocks. “It’s not all jumping and swimming. Everyone expects you to be the last one to leave the party every night because you’re the tour guide. So it’s shot after vodka shot, even if I don’t want to.”
If I had had shoes, I would have stormed off.
That afternoon I caught my first wave, although it didn’t register until I was on the ocean floor. I had been too concerned about balancing my weight, about standing up properly, about not running into another surfer. I wondered if it was fun and wished I had noticed it happening. I told myself to be more Australian, that this was an adventure I needed to pay attention to.
When we returned to camp, the staff brought out celebratory pitchers of sangria for us to enjoy before dinner. Except dinner was an hour and a half late, and everyone was so drunk by the time it was ready that eating was the last of anyone’s concerns. It did ease people’s dignity about having seaweed plastered over their bodies, still, after minutes in the shower. Matt played the guitar, amplified so loud that it was hard to talk to anyone over his soundtracks, acoustic versions of all the surfing songs we had listened to earlier. I played one round of flipcup, but people were too drunk to set the ground rules and three different teams declared themselves winners. I abandoned the sangria and spent the rest of the night picking seaweed out of my hair and dancing with whoever was next to me. When I finally went to bed, I buried my face into my pillow to escape the smell of seaweed. And to protect it from mice.
Sunday morning brought a hangover to ninety-five percent of the camp.
“But the best hangover cure is surfing,” Matt promised.
Sunday was serious. We went to a different location with significantly less seaweed, powered by a slightly more somber collection of surf music.
“Here is the key,” Matt said. “You want to ride the riptide out. That way you don’t have to do as much work getting out there.”
I panicked when I heard riptide. I could hear my dad repeating instructions on what to do if you get caught in one: essentially, don’t panic and swim like hell in a perpendicular direction.
“You don’t seem to have much enthusiasm,” a girl beside me commented.
“I’m from Arkansas,” I explained.
She laughed. “I’m from Kansas.”
I did not ride the riptide out. I hoped my father would be proud that his advice was so solidly stuck in my head. Instead I continued my method of body slamming my hips into the long board to prevent beaching myself. The second time I made it out to where the waves were beginning to break, I saw a dorsal fin stick out of the wave. And then I understand why surf camp was so miserable. There had to be drama for the movie producers to pull from when a shark finally ate me. It would be the climax.
“Dolphins,” someone yelled gleefully.
But it was too late. I didn’t even attempt to surf back in. I paddled and let nature do her job, and I was back on land within seconds.
The people from Kansas and I were the first to quit. As I picked seaweed off of me and watched other campers ride the riptide out to catch a wave on their boats, I realized I hated surfing. It was painful, and the moment of glory took at least five minutes of set up for less than ten seconds of joy. In fact, the only fun I had had at surf camp was samba dancing after one glass of sangria.
I returned to my university dorm feeling sore and defeated. People sat in the cafeteria watching Australian movies. I sat until I thought I would fall asleep, then I left. I knew not every Australian was the carefree surfer dude, but it had been fun to pretend I could become that way when I joined their culture, to think all it took to fundamentally change the fact I liked having my life together was to change locations. When a roommate knocked on my door to see if I wanted to go out, I declined. Surf camp hadn’t changed me. I was every bit as an uptight American as I had been originally.
“You’re really tan after surf camp,” my roommate said.
And that was good enough for me.
About the Author:
Allison Frase Reavis
is a native Arkansan currently living in Carrboro, North Carolina. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.