writer, photographer
An Ode to the Travel Ordeal

The road gives, and takes, in the most wonderful ways. Photo: Robert Bye//Unsplash

The Inertia

Traveling is wonderful for precisely the same reason it’s awful, and the element of surprise is a beautiful thing. The search for novelty leads to strange and unexpected discoveries at the cliff-crested break of dawn, but it also leads to off-road excursions gone awry, angry locals, tires slashed, or even more mundane occurrences like diarrhea and reef cuts and lack of cell reception where you needed GPS directions. And for all the planning in the world, you can’t account for everything you’re going to run into. And that’s why you go.

But no matter how the trip goes, there’s always some sort of ordeal. I’d like to define ordeal, as ranking far above a minor inconvenience, but far below full-blown disaster. If disaster is getting air-lifted out of the country due to a car accident, an ordeal is running out of gas on the highway without an international driver’s license. Booking your hotel one night off. Forgetting to pack your retainer for a month-long stint in the woods. Things like that.

The funny thing is, ordeals usually make for the best stories and some of the most memorable parts of a trip. Sometimes they make the trip altogether. For example, on a recent jaunt from Oahu to the Big Island, the week went by without a hitch, until my friend and I had the fabulous – no, genius – idea to save $100 on a hotel for the last night and simply crash on the comfy, palm-printed couches in the Hilo airport until our flights took off. It was a brilliant plan, we’d save time and money, and we could do the hour-and-a-half drive at a reasonable hour instead of at three in the morning. Except we didn’t account for one little thing: the airport is closed from 10 p.m. until five in the morning.

When our Uber driver dropped us off, (after pulling over multiple times to try to puke out the window, but that’s neither here nor there) she asked us incredulously, “where are you going to sleep?” We looked at each other, using every ounce of effort to stifle our giggling. “Um… on a couch or something?” Had people never heard of spending the night in the airport? Clearly, this woman was a little behind on the trends.

We sauntered up to the TSA check-in, and there was no one there. In fact, there was no one in the entire airport. The doors were locked. It dawned on us that perhaps we had made a tactical error. Was it possible that not all airports are open 24/7? This one wasn’t, at least.

So, we weighed our options: book a hotel nearby, uber an hour and a half back to our airbnb, or sleep outside. You can guess which one we picked. And, god bless ‘em, the airport had outdoor WiFi, so the two of us spent the next six hours setting up a luggage fort and laptop movie theatre, watched a couple episodes of Trailer Park Boys, and called it a night.

Broken Boards, Remote Airstrips, and Taxi Mafias: An Ode to the Surf Travel Ordeal

Post session, when it’s all worth it. Photo: Philip Kammerer//Unsplash

No one bothered us, the weather was good, and the next morning we (somewhat deliriously) caught our flights and that was that. To this day, we can only imagine what the person reviewing the security footage must have thought.

Now, some travel ordeals are a little more painful. For example: a couple weeks back, a swell was due to hit a little island far more remote than Bali (meaning far less crowded than Bali). I won’t say where because I understand keeping things discoverable and not blasting locations online is important, but I’m sure you can figure it out. Anyway, plenty of surfers had the same idea to catch a flight out of DPS and land on this island, let’s call it Santosha (ha!) in time for the swell. Exactly one day before, in fact.

The flight was jam packed, pretty much exclusively, with surfers. We were on one of those propeller planes: small, with seats basically on top of each other. The cabin was about a thousand degrees, reeking of coconuts and BO. I can’t make this stuff up.

It was my first time making this particular journey, so I figured it was all normal. Apparently, it was not. After watching a vivid sunset over perfectly groomed rice fields and little else, we landed on a tiny airstrip, and it hit me that we were pretty far from… well, anything. The airport was air conditioned, surprisingly, but after all the bags came through the conveyer belt, about twenty people were left standing around still searching for their board bags.

I sat on the ground with a couple other surfers I’d befriended, a beautiful Swiss girl and her jacked Aussie friend, and a friendly Brazilian guy who’d come from G-Land. Somehow, not one of our board bags had made the journey from Bali. We were informed that our bags were coming from the next flight from Lombok. Informed is a poor word choice, actually: after being swarmed by concerned surfers, this information was dispersed from the mouth of a casually dressed Indonesian man around the dismal group of travelers.

Shoot, I thought, knowing I packed everything in my board bag. What I thought was smart packing ended up being my demise: now, I had no board, and even worse, not even one pair of underwear to my name. We waited around and shot the breeze, secretly wondering the fate of our luggage. To bide the time, the Aussie guy offered to buy us drinks. He came back looking bummed: Muslim country.

Over an hour later, word got out that the plane from Lombok wasn’t making it. “Too dark to land,” we were told. Too dark to land? No one could believe it, but it was dark, and I wasn’t keen on traveling a long way in a foreign place at night. My new Swiss friend went into the Lost and Found office to see what would happen with the board bags. Apparently inside the office was a table with four Indo dudes sitting around smoking cigarettes. It became evident this was not going to be quickly resolved.

We called it a night and went outside to find a taxi. The guy who’d written down our info to get our boards to us the next day (and I mean literally written, like pen and paper) shuttled us into a taxi. The price was the same no matter which taxi you took, because it was the “taxi mafia,” okay, fine. The drive to “Santosha” was apocalyptic and fun all at once: with no stuff to drag us down, we rolled down the windows and took in the humid, smoky air. It was a nice smell, something near freshly cut grass and old flowers and something else I couldn’t put my finger on.

Packed in the backseat, we swapped travel stories: my eyes widened at photos of the crazy wildlife at G-Land, Australian slabs, islands I’d never been to, islands I had spent time on. For a minute, boards or no boards, everything was okay. I felt silly for worrying about all my stuff: I had so much of it I couldn’t carry it with me, and here I was whipping past piles of burning trash and tiny houses filled with little children and crowded storefronts selling hundreds of little plastic bags of food and mopeds everywhere on these narrow streets on the way to beachfront accommodations. Who was I to complain?

But the trip and its holier-than-thou realizations vanished when I got a glimpse of what I would be missing out on the next day. The plane from Lombok wasn’t rolling in ‘til noon, at least, and the two-hour ride to get our boards from the airport meant we were not surfing that day.

Seconds after a barreling left broke, a perfect A-frame reeled left and right, followed by an impressively empty and hollow closeout, and then another perfect left farther down. It was too perfect to be true. Oh wait, it was, because I couldn’t surf any of it. I tortured myself for an hour, sitting in the blazing sun and watching people carve line after perfect line on a seemingly endless supply of waves.

Instead of wasting the day, we checked spots (and this is actually heaps easier when you’re not contemplating a real surf session: it’s easier to be impartial to staying put, to see things as they are) and a local restaurant on the beach. I couldn’t help but feel at peace knowing I had my lack of board to thank for my new friends.

And when we got our boards late the next night, they were all dinged, but we slapped some resin tape on ‘em and got out there. There was no clutter in my mind, even with a little crowd at the takeoff zone, even with the dings, even with missing the best day of the swell… it was over now, and I didn’t even care: I’ve never, ever been more grateful in my life to get in the water.

More ordeals are always on the horizon, I’m sure. And at the heart of these ordeals are the best, and craziest, experiences. To me, that’s motivation enough to travel.


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