An Island Addiction
Getting a fix somewhere in the West Indies
Words by Zander Morton, photos by Chris Burkard
“Hey boy, you got five minutes to get ova here!” came a threatening voice from behind, in an immediately recognizable thick Caribbean draw. It is a woman’s voice, and she’s not playing games.
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Our commercial flight back to the states leaves in fifteen minutes. Boarding closes now.
“My friends are coming through security, I can see them in line!” I lie, frantically, to the intimidating female airline employee in charge of seeing everyone onto this flight. In reality I have no idea where my cousin Asher Nolan and photographer Chris Burkard are, I’m only trying to buy time. It’s too no avail. “In four minutes none of you will be going anywhere.” S*#t.
I’m flustered, I feel like a virgin traveler fumbling around the airport as though this is my first time flying. Ben Bourgeois made it to the terminal with me, but still no sign of Asher or Chris. Neither had cash to pay the departure fee, and the airport ATM was conveniently out of money. Asher took off on foot to look for another bank machine and left Chris with the gear, while Ben and I came through security hoping they might hold the flight just a few minutes for us. So far, no luck. I’ve even asked to borrow cash from strangers in exchange for a personal check, but the blood red ptyrygiums in my eyes don’t seem to be helping my plea. It’s a fruitless idea anyway, I wouldn’t have time to run out of the terminal with money and make it back through security anyway. S*#t.
Today, what should have been a relaxing morning at the airport has turned into one hell of a stressful day. This Caribbean Island is only our layover destination, a quick stop on the way home after our chartered airplane dropped us here. We’ve been at another, much smaller island, a small blip on the map amongst a large sea of over 7,000 that comprise the West Indies. And where we’ve been, it hasn’t mattered one bit what’s been happening to the rest of the world. The entire globe aside from one deserted, untouched beach on a small islet has disappeared into the background of our minds these past four days. The empty, spitting, overhead tubes have taken a toll on our psyche. Our minds are stuck on one track, and it’s hard to snap back to reality. So now, dealing with the real world and real people feels foreign.
This trip started at an NFL football game. The Jacksonville Jaguars had just beaten the Oakland Raiders when the jumbotron TV screen flashed an image of the roof at the Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Vikings, collapsing under the weight of 20 inches of snow from “the most severe December storm in history.” Ben Bourgeois didn’t need to look at swell models and wind forecasts, he’d seen enough already. That same storm would jet into the Atlantic Ocean two days later, and Ben knew exactly what that meant and where he needed to be. This time I was coming with.
Ben has made a career out of spontaneous, last minute; ‘go anywhere anytime’ decisions in his years traveling the world. From an outsider’s perspective, judging from magazine covers, it appears each and every trip heeds perfect waves. In reality, it can be quite the contrary. Traveling the world on a whim is a crapshoot.
One time, he recalls, on an expedition heading out of Morocco and deep into the Western Sahara desert searching for waves he ended up completely lost. For two straight days his crew drove, stopping only to sleep in the dirt, without seeing the ocean. By the third day, he realized no one, not even the so-called ‘guides’ had any idea where they were going. Worst of all, they were out of water, hadn’t seen a hint of civilization for 24 hours, and were forced to drink box wine while navigating their way out of the desert. It was a complete debacle. After five days they arrived back in Morocco, without once setting foot in the water.
Another time, he was rerouted to a small airport in Norway where he had to rent a car and drive to meet the rest of the guys on the trip. Blindly, he picked a route on the map that seemed quickest, only to be brought on a white knuckle 20 hour drive through the snow and mountains to make it to the coast just in time to miss the only day of surf by a few hours.
Fortunately for Ben, he never learned his lesson. He never learned to trust his better judgment and stray away from blindly going on trips, because if he had, he’d never have stumbled upon this island and more importantly, this wave.
I’ve never seen anything like it. This cannot be real. A four-foot, aqua blue right peels on a long, shallow sandbar only 20 feet from where I’m standing. White sand with a slight pink hue stretches in every direction. Small trees and shrubbery line the beach behind me. No one says a word. Another wave, this one slightly larger, detonates in a foot of water and peels to our left, around the corner and out of view, without a drop of water out of place. The ocean is so clear and the sky so blue, it’s hard to differentiate between the lip line and the horizon. Ben smiles, this is his third time here, and the third time he’s seen this exact scene laid before his eyes. It’s as though this place is stuck in some strange time-space continuum. In reality, that’s not the case. This spot is so fickle; you’d be hard pressed to see it break a handful of days any given year. Which is exactly why, for the third time in three years, Ben (along with Asher, Chris, and myself this time) are the only people here.
The next few days are a blur, like a dream where everything is too good to be true. The kind of dream that when you wake you try hard as you can to squeeze your eyes shut and go back, back to that moment so you can stay in it forever. We hung on the beach, under a makeshift shelter built from a white sheet and tattered driftwood, from sunup to sundown, only taking our eyes off the ocean to rest them momentarily, so not to get immediately sucked back into the ocean before first slugging some water and reapplying sunblock. The waves were too inviting. We simply couldn’t stay away. By the last day, we had become completely desensitized to riding and watching perfect right tubes.
It took less than 24 hours to regain our senses. Back at the airport, only hours before we are set to embark back to cold, wintery Florida, Ben pulls up the forecast for the next week. It’s our first bit of Internet access in a few days. Within seconds, his eyes go wide. Strangely, it looks as though there is another large swell coming, the first time he says he’s ever seen that happen. “We have to stay,” he propositions, without any sense of doubt. “This one might be even bigger.”
With that the tiny wheels in our brains start turning. Flashes of empty blue water tubes dance in front of our faces. It’s too tempting, like an addiction to heroin it doesn’t matter how much we just had, it will never be enough. We forget about Christmas. Forget about our families. It’s going to be soo good. Chris’s wife says he can stay, but he has to be home by Christmas morning. That gives us just enough time, and we change our tickets. The change fee doesn’t matter. At this point, nothing aside from getting back to that wave is on our mind. We’ll do what it takes. Anything.
“I’m sorry, but there are no plane’s available during the holidays.” The charter company is shutting down for Christmas, and inadvertently, shutting us down as well. There is nothing we can do. Aside from swim, which momentarily seems like a feasible idea, we are stuck. Stuck right here, completely out of luck. Without any other options, we get back on the phone and change our flights, again. There will be no more empty, blue tubes for us this year. We are going home.
“Tick, tick, tick!” You’ve got thirty seconds to get on this plane, barks Mrs. I-am-really-enjoying-this-too-much airline employee, when I spot Asher and Chris darting through the sea of people crowding the terminal behind us. “I cannot believe we made it!” says Asher; sweat pouring from his beet red face, as our visibly disappointed gate attendant quickly escorts us to the plane. I smile at her, and she scowls back. I can tell she isn’t happy we held up the plane, and even more pissed off that she didn’t get to see us stuck for the night. Some people love to dwell in others misery.
Asher ran two miles in flip flops before he found an ATM at a local bank that allowed him to take out cash and pay his and Chris’s departure tax, and then bulldozed through hundreds of people in the security line to just barely make this flight. He is passed out asleep within minutes of boarding. Ben, on the other hand, is visibly rattled. He looks sick, and a bit white in the face. I ask him what’s wrong. “I was secretly hoping Asher and Chris wouldn’t make it in time,” he admits after takeoff, “It would have been an excuse to stay. We could have found a way back over there.” Suddenly, I feel it too. A wave of grief, like we’d just made a very large mistake. I wish we could turn this plane around. “I’ll be kicking myself for getting on this plane for a very, very long time,” he mumbles, staring blankly out at the ocean below.
It’s all clear now, the stress of the day had clouded our vision. Why did Asher have to make this flight? We should have stayed. My parents would disown me. Ben’s sisters would’ve killed him. Chris would be divorced. Asher’s daughter wouldn’t soon forget. But like all good addicts, none of that would matter just long as we were over there getting our fix.
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