Out of Office Reply is Associate Editor Taylor Paul’s column on surf travel, big waves, and other manly bits
Photos by Jeff Flindt
When Matt Myers stepped off the plane in Gabon, West Africa, he was a grain of salt in a sea of pepper. He'd just flown for 22-hours from San Francisco and was spun out. Delirious. Alone. And yeah, f–king nervous. Apart from Hawaii and Bali, this was his first real travel experience. Yesterday he was at home in Santa Cruz, and now he was standing in the Libreville Airport among hustling moneychangers and slow moving ceiling fans, choking on the sweat of a crowd of Africans. What was he doing there? He had to remind himself to keep his guard up when Marco approached him with a wide smile. He'd been warned about con artists, but at this point, talking to someone was better than nobody.
I feel partly responsible for Matt going to Gabon. About a year and a half ago he'd called me, as a couple of other friends had, and asked if I'd gone to Gabon on a recent trip I'd taken to Africa. Apparently SURFING was scrambling to get surfers on a trip to West Africa to meet photographer Jeff Flindt and a supposed swell. I hadn't been to Gabon, but had fond memories of West Africa and insisted he go. He told me it would blow his entire travel budget. I told him go. He said he'd miss a ton of school. I told him go. He said the other surfers had backed out, and he'd be alone. I told him that'd mean more coverage. Go.
And he shook Marco's hand. Marco spoke English, and was willing to house Matt while he waited for his luggage (it was lost), and show him the nearest ATM (he'd been swindled by some slick moneychangers). Marco held Matt's hand through two days of stagnation and paying $15 for plates of spaghetti with watery sauce. Days he should have spent in another part of the country with Jeff Flindt. The swell had already arrived and wasn't going to last.
Matt's luggage came and he took the next flight down the coast to meet Flindt. He was exhausted when he finally saw the surf: a muddy, four-foot A-frame that Matt said "was like a machine." He paddled out and surfed for three hours, battled a sweeping current, and nabbed some backside tubes that almost made the trip worth it. Almost.
While he and Jeff connected on a few, it wasn't what he'd ventured to the sticks of Africa for. The surf went flat after that first day and for the rest of the ten-day trip he blew through his entire travel budget (and then some) on transport and the most basic food and lodging. And the payoff, the coverage in SURFING magazine, was minimal. Just a couple of pages. Lifestyle heavy. Postage stamp sized surf photos. The pages smelled of skunk.
But while Matt's surf trip was a bust, the experience was not. (Beware: forthcoming cliché revelation of why we travel.) He befriended some French ex-pats who showed him around the bush. He drank alcohol (fermented with a hallucinogenic root) with a local chief, who told him about his three wives. He played soccer on the beach with giggling grommets and a deflated ball. And he met Marco, his new friend and savior, who taught him the benefit of accepting a stranger's hand.