El Porto, California
One morning, while surfing and watching the planes take off over the smokestacks, I decided I should visit a foreign country. Fast. Somewhere I’d never been. Alone. Just leave. One way. Make no plans. Tell no one. And come back whenever I’m ready…and ideally before any of my employees or friends knew I was gone.
Where? As far as possible!
Immediately, I searched flights on the internet with the intent to book one. Not the absolute soonest—that one was ten times as expensive. No need for huge rip-offs. I searched for the flight I wanted 2 and 3 months away to get an idea of the normal rate, then found and booked my ticket at the same price. 6 days away. That gave me more than enough time to pack.
Monday July 18
The hour before I left for the airport, I threw a 6 ft surfboard into a board bag, put a pair of jeans and an extra pair of boardshorts into a backpack with a couple books, plus my work iPad, toothbrush, deodorant, electric razor, phone charger, my skateboard…and a 30 inch guitar, the smallest they make, bought special for the trip so it would fit in my carry on.
My landlord’s son dropped me off at the terminal. I left my surfboard at the oversize luggage desk and walked through security. When we took off at 5:35 PM, my hair still wet from surfing earlier that afternoon.
Tuesday July 19
I was awoken by the pilot’s announcement that we would soon be landing in Amsterdam. I pulled up the window shade. Sunshine, blue sky, white wisps of clouds and ocean. Then coastline, and as we passed over it I could see sand beaches and even waves. Waves! I had no idea Amsterdam was near a beach. Surfing? Here? I hadn’t even thought about it.
I had booked a one-way flight to Cape Town, South Africa. This layover in Amsterdam was an additional prize, sandwiched between two 11-hour flights. I had intentionally chosen the maximum layover available: 23 hours.
From my seat on the plane, I Google-mapped surfing. I pulled back the map to reveal the coastline a mere thirty miles or so from Amsterdam. Immediately I saw HighTide Surf and Food offering rental boards, a surf school…and Mexican food. Mexican food? HighTide? Just by name alone I knew it was the place for me.
In under sixty-five minutes I was out there. Not just at the beach, but in the water, on a surfboard. It was 100°F—the hottest day of the year, they told me. Blazing sunshine. Topless European women sunbathing on the beach and wading out into the water. Children running around and splashing one another. Some lovers necking in the sand. Perfect.
The cook at the HighTide beach cafe rolled me a joint minutes after meeting me, refusing my offer to pay him for it. Entering any place with a skateboard and a guitar and all your possessions in one backpack invites questions, and answers like mine invite a lot of friendly responses—like an offer to share a joint.
Surf session over. HighTides Surf and Food behind me, I skateboarded away with my gear on my back. There were now no Uber drivers. Too far from Amsterdam. No English-speaking passersby. Everyone spoke the native foreign tongue, clearly some Germanic language; I recognized many of the words because I’d taken a few semesters of German in college. What language was it? I didn’t even know the name of the language they speak in the Netherlands! (It’s Dutch, I later learned.)
On the advice of the single English speaker I found near the beach road, I skateboarded to a bus station and rode the bus all the way to downtown Amsterdam. I arrived before sunset. Skateboarded around downtown to the canals. Bought some weed at coffeeshop. Found a Mexican restaurant. Had fajitas and margaritas. Looked on my phone for a nearby hostel. They were all completely booked. Walked to a handful of them to make sure. No luck. Found a hotel room nearby at 10pm. Dropped my gear in room and skateboarded around the city to see the nightlife scene. Wandered into a bar, but it was too crowded to order a drink and too loud to talk any strangers I might meet. Went to a weed-smoking coffeeshop instead and smoked a joint while people-watching and looking for a conversation.
Nothing doing. Probably no one was friendly because I was still in my board shorts, with my sandal-clad feet still sandy from the beach and my sun-bleached blonde mop of hair unkempt and brushing my shoulders. This far from an ocean, people no longer recognized me as a surfer and mistook me for homeless. It tickled me to no end seeing the surprise on cashiers’ faces when I bought things without flinching or asked to be upgraded to a room with a balcony back at the hotel.
While I couldn’t get a balcony, they did give me a room with 20 ft high ceilings and a jacuzzi bathtub. The latter I enjoyed immediately, relaxing my aching traveler’s body while enjoying another Amsterdam joint.
I was gone by 7am Wednesday, skateboarding away for the train with my backpack over my shoulder, a joint in one hand and coffee in the other, bound for the airport again!
Cape Town, South Africa
Wednesday July 20
A quarter til midnight, we landed in Cape Town after a 12 hour flight. I spent it sitting next to a beautiful blonde German medical student on her way to her first residency at a Cape Town hospital. The whole flight felt like a very enjoyable date and ended with me dropping her off at her apartment before continuing on to the most consistent surf break in town.
Thursday July 21
In the wee hours, just over three days since I left California, I found myself in the beach town of Muizenberg on the outskirts of Cape Town. I had just booked the room hours earlier, while on the plane from Amsterdam sitting next to the beautiful blonde doctor.
The hostel owner met me at the door. Said I was the only guest. Asked where I was from and what I was doing. I told him I was surfing around the world with no plan.
He pulled from a cabinet what looked like a stack of plastic lunchboxes, slid one from the stack, and popped it open to reveal buds of marijuana. Loose in the box alongside the green nuggets of pot and a pair of scissors was a pack of rolling papers. He cut apart a bud and rolled it into a joint, lit it, took a puff, and passed it to me.
Marijuana is decriminalized in South Africa, but not legal for sale. That’s actually part of the reason I chose to come to South Africa. I love countries like this!
Later that morning, I was smoking a joint between surfs while skateboarding through a beachside parking lot when I met some of the people who would make my trip really outstanding. A pretty mother in her early forties stood with the waves breaking behind her, watching her teenage daughter skateboard circles around the lot. Somehow or another we ended up in conversation. She asked me where I was from and what I was doing in town, and just like that our friendship was cinched. Her name was Katrin.
“How are you going to surf all the great beaches in Cape Town without a car?” Katrin asked.
And without knowing where to go? And without someone to take you?”
It was settled. She and her two young daughters would take me! Saturday. Just two days away. They insisted.
Friday July 22
I skateboarded to the three surf shops I found in Muizenberg after morning surf, with lunch and yoga in between. By sunset surf, I’d made a whole set of local friends at a pub not more than two blocks from the beach. I told the bartender I was in from the other side of the world for just a few nights, and immediately she introduced me to a dozen or so people ages twenty to thirty five or so, all seated together at a big picnic table.
“Almost all of them surf,” was the first thing she said of them.
They welcomed me like a long-lost cousin. One very outgoing and friendly black girl of around 25 introduced me to her adopted 22 year old white sister, just out of a long-term relationship which she described as miserable. She was happy to be free. They brought me with them to a very good Mexican restaurant where they introduced me to more people, including the chef/owner, who insisted on giving me free shots of tequila as they closed for the night.
The chef was an immigrant about my age. Long hair like mine, so tan I couldn’t tell if he was white or native or Asian, with a few piercings and tattoos that gave him the look of a lanky but muscular pirate. He told me the story of how he’d founded the restaurant just two years prior. After his old restaurant in Madagascar (where I think he was from) went out of business, he learned to cook Mexican food while living with a friend, then moved to Cape Town on a lark.
The next morning, I met Katrin at her car. It was a tiny, European clown car situation, a four-seater the size of an American two-seater. We piled in, a passenger in in every seat and my surfboard slid in sideways and then wedged between our heads and the roof. The girls had to duck under it to be seen or heard by us in the front. And Katrin in the driver’s seat had to look around it in order to see out the back window. No matter! The girls were clapping their hands in the backseat and we were off.
Over the next 9 hours, Katrin drove me to every surf break she knew in Cape Town—which was a lot, because she’d grown up surfing there. It must’ve brought some joy to revisit these places, to show them to the virgin eyes of a foreign stranger. Each place was beautiful beyond description and completely unique. Some surf spots had rolling hills of sand like small mountains that took us well over thirty minutes to traverse from car to water. There were steep mountain roads carved into rocks. Looking out the window, I saw the whole city of Cape Town below (or so it seemed to me, so ignorant was I of the local geography). There were mansions overhanging ocean cliffs.
I insisted on treating Katrin and her daughters to lunch. We hit surf spots until dark. By the time they dropped me back at my hostel, I was too tired to meet up with the local girl I’d met the night before.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Sunday 24 July
The plane touched down in Johannesburg. The first thing I remember was being told by an airline employee that I wouldn’t be allowed to board my next flight to Australia, as I had no visa.
Visa? Who the hell needs a visa, I thought to myself. Certainly I would have learned about this when I was booking my flight—something I had done just the day before, from the hostel in Cape Town before leaving with Katrin and her daughters for my marathon surf Saturday.
A visa for Australia? The airline workers had to be kidding.
But they were right. Quantas Airlines was not letting me on. They wouldn’t even let me in the gate, in fact, without all the documents necessary to enter Australia.
Out of sheer desperation, I looked up the American-in-Australia visa situation and found I could get one in about 15 minutes applying through my phone. No kidding. I did this. Waited for the Visa to arrive by email. It came in six minutes!
I boarded, and I left for Australia. Just hours earlier I was surfing sunrise before being whisked away in a car to the Cape Town airport. I fell asleep on the plane out of Jo’burg (as the locals call Johannesburg). And when I woke up, we were touching down in Australia.
Monday 25 July
We landed around noon. All day to surf, I thought.
But I thought wrong. Upon entry to Australia I waited to pick up my luggage, just my surfboard in a surfboard bag. And when I grabbed it, I was apprehended by Australian Border Patrol agents.
They escorted me to a large room of X-ray machines and interrogation tables. They must have had 15 stations, but I was the only non-officer in the room, and I had all four of them surrounding me, pointing to a metal chair. They asked for my carry-on bag, told me to sit down, dumped the backpack’s contents on the table and began going through them, asking me about each one. Since I’m me, it was nothing but surf wax, a wax comb, pens from my shop, books and notebook paper, and stickers from my surf shop for me to hand out to people. They didn’t want any of my stickers (though they did ask the meanings of a few).
The agents asked me why I was planning everything so last minute. Was I wealthy? How could I afford to live such a way? I asked them to define “wealthy” in a world where multi-billionaires run companies that don’t draw a profit, where some people are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt yet living comfortably while others I know have positive balances in their checking accounts but labor at minimum wage jobs. They shook their heads in disgust.
Finally, they asked me, “Where are the drugs?”
I figured that was the point all along. I was probably a target because of my hair and being dressed like a beach bum who didn’t care about the clothes and lifestyle that went with Border Patrol Officer social norms. It dawned on me still that these people had the power to keep me out of their country simply because they perceived me as subversive.
The agents asked me if my guitar was real. I said yes. They asked me to play it for them, so I did. I’d been playing it on request in Muizenberg, in my hostel and in bars and coffeeshops, even in the airport in Amsterdam, and always the audience was warm. This audience was cold and confused, like I was trying to communicate with beings with no soul. I felt like I was prostituting myself. I wondered how they would have reacted if I’d just told them that the guitar didn’t work, or that I couldn’t actually play it. Things were already going pretty poorly. At least now they knew my guitar wasn’t a fake and I wasn’t either.
The agents finished going through everything I had in my possession. They didn’t find any contraband, which they seemed visibly disappointed about. I wondered if they’d bet money on finding drugs. Shaking their heads, they let me go.
A couple hours after I arrived, I was skateboarding out of the airport toward the train station, my surfboard strapped over my shoulder, bound for Bondi Beach.
Bondi Beach, Australia
It was a normal train ride, through a town that reminded of suburban Queens, New York in sunny springtime. Within two hours I was booked and checked in at Noah’s Bondi Hostel, with my own room and a window view of the surf break below. I made it out for sunset sash just in time.
The waves were well overhead, the locals seemingly all expert surfers catching air and landing 360s. People were really good and had the most casual attitude toward their skills. The water was biting cold, just like it had been in Cape Town, about 55° F, and I was surfing without a wetsuit (I didn’t want to lug a wet one around the whole trip).
I paddled out, and once more I was riding another water mountain, harmonizing with the Great Engine in a foreign land.
Tuesday 26 July
The shower situation at Noah’s Bondi made my memories of a Camp Lejeune Marine Corps barracks seem luxurious by comparison. There were two group showers, with a wet tile floor that looked as if it hadn’t been dry in decades. Bathroom stalls stood between the showers, sharing that wet floor—a pool of excess shower water and whatever liquids and excrement washed over from the toilets.
I tried to put it out of my mind while I was in there, and then decided I should just get a decent hotel, if only for the shower. I hadn’t had a proper room and facilities since Amsterdam. The Cape Town hostel’s facilities had been very nice, but it was still a group bathroom at a hostel.
After morning surf just steps away on Bondi Beach, I walked a couple blocks to the nicest hotel on the water. It had large balconies overlooking the beach and a Ferris wheel. I booked a room there, asking for the one with the best balcony view, and then went back to the hostel to get my things.
I’d only been staying at the hostel about 12 hours but already I’d met a half dozen friendly men who took me in and gave me a lay of the land.
There was Leandro, a Brazilian man in his forties who was living at the hostel, working construction 40 hours a week and dealing weed on the side. He’d been in Australia about three years to intermittently work hard labor and travel the country for months at time. He’d been all over the island nation in an old Nissan SUV he slept in when adventuring. Another one of the guys spoke of frequent trips with Leandro, traveling for weeks at a time. And then there was another guy whose name escapes me now. A good-looking Frenchman who’d been a stage actor in Paris during his twenties and, now 33, was in his second year of sabbatical, living the wanderer’s life in Australia.
There was an Italian guy, an electrician from Rome who worked for himself back home. He’d been in Australia for the better part of two years as well, was working as an apprentice for an Australian electrician because his license didn’t transfer from Italy. He said he earned more money and lived more freely here in Australia, despite the professional demotion. And there was a guy from Tasmania, a real loud young guy whose accent made him seem British to me. He couldn’t stop telling me about the new job he’d just gotten for $40 an hour as a bartender. From the way he spoke about his plans to kick back his feet at the job, I could tell he wouldn’t last long at it, but he seemed like a pleasant enough sort.
Those gentlemen helped me score half an ounce of weed from Leandro and showed me around to their favorite pub. I had half a mind to invite them over to my new digs at the hotel a couple blocks over—but I rethought it, just as I had rethought purchasing a full ounce of weed and sharing it with the group. Such generosity, I’ve learned, sometimes generates more envy than goodwill.
I hung around with the guys on the hostel roof deck for breakfast and lunch after morning surf. It was a shame to leave them. If I’d really needed to save money or wanted to live like a road dog, then Noah’s Bondi would have been a never-leave type of place. But then, it might not be there for long. The owner’s son told me a fantastically sad story about the family putting the building up for sale to avoid bankruptcy from some other business deals gone awry. In a few months the place would likely be torn down and turned into a luxury apartment.
But I had no reason not to leave to enjoy something more comfortable. And I couldn’t bring my hostel friends with me. They were all dead broke and talked frequently of how best to gather scratch. I couldn’t bring them with me to my comparatively expensive hotel (which for $350 and an ocean view balcony, I considered a pretty damn good deal). My room at Noah’s had been $49 and most of the pals I’d made were just renting bunks for $12 a night.
So my last afternoon and night of my trip, I enjoyed alone. I went to a fabulous outdoor pool called the Iceburgs, which was built into a cliff right on Bondi Beach, overlooking the surfers. I got a massage there and had lunch. I tried to persuade and even bribe the staff to let me work out in their weight room, but they told me that it was members only. I worked remotely for a while, calling my shops and employees and suppliers—work I do so much that it feels as automatic as breathing.
After sunset surf, I rode that big Ferris wheel, had a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant, and went to bed early so I could surf at dawn before my flight back to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, CA
Wed 27 July
At 11:45am Wednesday July 27th, my plane took off from Sydney. My hair was still wet from surfing that morning in front of the big Ferris wheel outside my fabulous hotel balcony.
Due to crossing the International Dateline, I landed in Los Angeles after a twelve hour flight, at 8:45am Wednesday July 27th. Within two hours, I was right back where I started: surfing the waters of El Porto, watching the planes take off over the smokestacks... Aspirations of a global surf nomad.
Woodrow Pack Landfair is the Adventure Correspondent for HighTides Journal and the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Land Of The Free (Harbinger Book Group, 2014), about an indefinite 48 state motorcycle journey he began in 2006, and about the personal challenges fought years afterward while pursuing a life of artistic and professional freedom on the road. Three years after his first book's publication, in 2017, Pack purchased El Porto Surf Shop (the #1 surf rental shop in Mainland USA) and moved to El Porto, California to surf and write every day.
Partially inspired by El Porto Surf Shop's many international customers, Pack is currently pursuing a personal goal to surf every coastal nation on planet Earth - as a means of seeing the world, learning different philosophies, and making friends across the globe. The first 19 countries of that journey are the subject of Pack's second book Here To Surf Vol. 1 in bookstores December 2024.
Pack is a graduate of the University of Texas where he studied English Literature on full academic scholarship from the United States Navy ROTC, and was the only walk-on member of the 2005 College World Series Champion Texas Longhorn baseball team - among several soon-to-be major leaguers. At the University of Texas, Pack earned Midshipman of the Month, Student-Athlete of the Month, Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll, served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, made three trips to the College World Series in Omaha, and was twice voted Teammate Of The Year by his teammates.