Plunge into the sea
tears mingle with the water,
everything is right.
The ocean has a pull on my soul like no other force I’ve ever encountered. Well, maybe the stars. But I only get to swim in the stars on special occasions. The ocean has always been there. And in her wild and mysterious ways, she clears the mind, cleanses the soul and rejuvenates the body.
I was lucky enough to grow up, for half of my life, beside the sea. I remember falling asleep with faraway waves lapping against my eardrums and the smell of seaweed hanging thick in the air. I loved the morning mist that evaporated like steam off the ocean’s surface. I loved her distant horizons that graced my rearview mirror as I wound my car around the mountain.
She was there in South America, in 2012, when I left home and spent two years roaming foreign lands, hitchhiking along the Pan American highway, finding adventure and ‘libertad’. To be nineteen years old and suddenly freed from the world of time and routine. I watched the rippled reflections of yellow light bounce off the sea in Valparaiso, a harbour city on the coast of Chile. And even for that month I spent in Bolivia, traveling along the Amazon river, with sweaty skin and opened eyes, I could never shake the feeling that something was missing. Soon after I lived in a town in northern Peru and finally, I learnt to surf. The owner of the hostel I worked at, had an old longboard he’d been using as an ironing board (naturally his greatest passion lay in the thrust of a soccer ball), and somehow it all fell into place.
I started taking the board out every day, fumbling on foamy waves, fighting against the rough currents and white water that fought to pull me under. I ran in the mornings, trying to get fit. Running has never been my thing. But that surge of adrenalin felt good. I began to get hooked on the feeling of sprinting towards the ocean, bare feet on hot cement, leashing up and diving into the icy sea, paddling out, sun rays dripping onto my skin. There aren’t many things in life as great as lying on a surfboard, 8am on a weekday morning, pelicans diving in between the waves, the ocean a blinding blue. What I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm and this intense connection with the sea only grew stronger.
Living in Ecuador, inside a wooden hut on the beach, she used to creep into my bed at night, drying out my skin, leaving salt in my hair and sand between the sheets. She was like a beautiful companion, a careless mistress. How can one not have an intense relationship with the sea?
I think my fondest memory of the ocean was one night with my friend Frances in Colombia. We were on a beach called Playa Blanca, along the Caribbean coast. Sometime around midnight, two cartons of red wine in, we decided to take off our clothes and go skinny dipping, merging with the transparent liquid. I remember seeing sparks of glitter drip from her long dark hair, specks of neon blue light. We were mermaids under a sky full of stars. Bioluminescent plankton, the ocean’s own little Northern Lights. It felt like we were the fairies from our school girl dreams. I fell in love, deeper and stronger, with her magic that night.
Whenever I go home to my parent’s house, I walk down to the sea, plunge into the cold water or sit alone atop the rocks at sunset and pretend it’s my own little private beach. The Twelve Apostles, the blue sky, the seagulls, the stillness- all of it brings me back to myself. When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, my doctor told me that surfing would be difficult due to my port. A port is the small metal appliance they insert beneath your skin, into which they can directly inject the chemotherapy. The fluids go straight into a catheter which is connected to one of my main veins so the chemicals can get into my blood faster. I know it’s all very weird. Anyway, the port sticks out a little under my chest and the doctor said it would be uncomfortable with the wetsuit and the board and everything. So I didn’t surf. I gave up the one thing that brought me so much joy, so much release. It was never about catching the best wave or being the fittest person out there, sometimes it wasn’t even about the actual waves. Just being there. Just being out in the ocean, away from land, away from traffic and people and politics and money and society and all the internal dialogue that persists. Just free in the surf, feeling the pull of the currents, ducking under the crashing foam, pretending I have gills, embodying a fish. Lying on my board with the sun on my face, feeling that rush of catching a wave that cannot be explained. The rush so many have felt before and so many will continue to feel for years to come. I forgot how much I thrived on that feeling. I forgot the way the ocean can wash you clean of anything and everything and propel you into the present moment.
The day after my ninth chemotherapy, after a 16-hour sleep, I woke to a stream of sunlight slipping through my bedroom window and a burst of energy vibrating through my veins. I woke up alive. A wise friend gave me some sound advice. He said, “Shock yourself more often”. I questioned out loud,”What haven’t I done in ages? What would shock my system the most right now?”
So that’s how I found myself, driving to Muizenberg, board in the back of my car, as I weaved through congested Friday streets. It didn’t matter about my fitness levels, it didn’t matter about how long it had been since I’d last been out there. It mattered about me being there now. I grabbed my stick, zipped up my suit and stretched my legs. I couldn’t help but feel courageous as I walked to the ocean’s edge, the wind sharp against my shaved head. I guess having your appearance be so radically altered in a short amount of time forces you to compare yourself to who you were in the past. The last time I surfed I had been a different person. Now I felt so much more stronger, so much more alive than ever before.
Everytime I return to the sea I cannot help but think about all of the times before when I’ve laughed, cried, danced, swam, floated and frolicked in the waves like a child. It brings back memories, moments, smells, tastes, people. It’s nostalgic, comforting and intoxicating all at the same time.
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea.”- E.E.Cummings