Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Day I Realized I'm not a Zen Master

My first day back to work in 2010 started off pleasantly enough. I work as an Account Director in an advertising agency, and the entire industry had shut down over the festive season. After a good ten days on leave, I felt pretty relaxed and carefree. I had spent time with friends, travelled, thought about ‘life’ and read a little about philosophy and Buddhism. Now it seemed like things were a lot simpler than I had thought before. I wondered why I had ever felt stressed about the “little things” in the first place, “Boy,” I thought, “that was silly. This year will be much better.” Maybe I was becoming a Zen Master – things would just roll off me now.

It was my client’s first day back on the job too, and she was still in the leisurely pace of things. She sent me the first email of the year wishing me only the best with “compliments of the season.” Unfortunately this was not to last. We corresponded throughout the day about a particular project that had suddenly become “extremely urgent” (as so many things do in the advertising industry), and within a span of four hours she was busy throwing a telephonic tantrum, angrily shouting her frustration and making unreasonable demands in my ear.

Having fallen out of the swing of things in the “work world” during my fabulous leave, my guard was down. As my temple started to throb I wondered where all that happy vacation-vibe had gone to. Is it possible that all that goodwill towards mankind I had acquired while frolicking in the great universe of “what should we do today?” could just disappear – like it had been suddenly flushed down the corporate toilet?

Struggling to retain my carefree mindset, I wondered what it is about going on leave that puts us into such a state of “who we really are,” and why we can’t we stay that person all the time? Why should one part of me live Mon thru Friday during the day shift and the rest of me, the “real” me, live afterhours and on weekends? The truth is, the office is full of forced social interaction that requires you to be on your best behaviour all the time. Think about it – how many times have you been pleasant to someone you really can’t stand, or laughed at the boss’s jokes even though they weren’t really funny? The best corporate successes are masters of disguise and suffer the worst cases of Personality Constipation.

Maybe this explains the split personalities people develop in the workplace – you might have experienced the “email” personality? Usually this is an unlikeable personality that expresses herself with lots of bold words and exclamation points, and contrasts the “in person” personality which is usually much more pleasant and soft spoken. Outside the workplace multiple personalities are considered unnatural and psychological prescriptions applied, but at work – well, it’s pretty normal.

I wondered if everyone in the Corporate World was experiencing a day like mine the effect that might have on the global psyche. Imagine the impact of millions of cranky, frustrated employees all around the world shouting and throwing tantrums all day long. Wouldn’t it be better if we could all just go back to our “real” selves, spend time doing the things that really make us happy, and think about Life some more?

My temple still throbbing, I went home that evening and self-medicated with a glass of wine. I was surprised at how much the whole experience had affected me. I didn’t know the answers to my questions about why the workplace is the way it is, but I had made two realizations. First, the holiday was over – I had been unpleasantly and irrevocably thrust into 2010, and second, I knew without a doubt that I was not a Zen master.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Unpolished Eland's Bay

The wind was picking up from breezy to howling. I had been sitting on the beach, enjoying a pleasant moment alone and view of the beach from under my gazebo until it nearly blew away. With one super gust it started to flex and I jumped up to put it away before it could break. It seemed to take forever to fold the frame down and I tried to stay focused even with the flapping of the cover in my face and the wind pulling in all the wrong directions. I must have been quite an entertaining sight to passersby, dealing with all of this on my own, but to my amazement they seemed not to notice me and my flapping gazebo at all, like I was invisible. I finally managed to get the thing down and packed it away to safety, and even though I was covered in dust and sand, and had somehow lodged a thorn in my foot, I couldn’t help feeling a little triumphant.

I turned back to the view of the beach, littered with piles of dried kelp, empty mussel shells and the odd crayfish tail. The sun was setting behind the mountain, a misty haze filtered the air and a set of perfect waves were peeling down the line – one of the best left-breaks around. I was in Eland’s Bay on the West Coast of South Africa, an out of the way place with a subdued charm that would be easy to dismiss at first glance.

A rough-and-tumble town, Eland’s Bay makes no effort to cover up its soul as a true fishing village. The Crayfish Factory at the Point is the center of activity for a salty bunch of fishermen who wear standard-issue green overalls and operate weathered row boats out to sea, the same kind you find being used as decorative lawn ornaments all over the West Coast’s more touristy neighborhoods, placed like maybe they had washed up in that spot a hundred years ago never to be disturbed again.

Church Street holds most of the town – a hotel with a restaurant and bar, and a few small shops where you can buy basic essentials noted on the sign-board outside, like “braai hout” (firewood), “vleis” (meat), “melk” (milk) and “brood” (bread). You can get by with English but if you really want to connect with the locals you’d better brush up on your Afrikaans.

We had planned to camp at the local caravan park, located right at the beach. But with a growing gale-force wind and the sense that I was being exfoliated away by the airborne sand, we needed a back-up plan. We decided to enquire about accommodation and by a stroke of luck there was a cancellation! I wondered if the weather forecast had anything to do with it? The sense of relief was pure joy as we went from feeling stranded outside in a dust-bowl to jubilation.

We stayed in a cabin, more of a Wendy-house on stilts. It was tiny and looked to be built with the love, sweat and tears of the owner himself, nail-by-painstaking-nail. The place had no-frills yet everything you need for a perfect weekend away – a view of the sea framed by the Babbejaan Mountains (“Baboon Mountains”) to the left and Verlorenvlei (the “Lost Marsh”) on the right, one of the largest natural wetlands along the West Coast*, where sunrise breaks through the morning fog to reflect pink, yellow and orange. The peaceful quiet is broken only by the occasional passing of a freight train that runs through the center of town on its way north towards Namibia.

The beach in front our bungalow was a perfect launching point for our kayak, with a few channels of calm-water opening up between the waves. We readied the kayak and our fishing gear, hoping to come back with some of the West Coast’s famed sea-fare, and waited for an ideal moment when the water was at it most approachable. When it was time we took off, paddling hard and fast to get through the arriving set of waves. The walls of water came rising towards us lifting the kayak higher and we crested each one of them but only just in time. Not in the mood for a swim, we kept up the pace and paddled hard with deep full pulls in unison until we reached the backline. After a quick celebration and a few breaths we dropped our fishing line and trolled around, visiting the surfers in the water who were waiting for the next set, and then watching them take off with hoots and laughter. It was nice to experience Eland’s from this vantage point and share in the excitement of the moment.

We paddled back towards the Crayfish Factory and two fishermen in a row boat, about to go off on a mission. They were friendly and chatted with us about our fishing efforts, telling us about some magic spot 5-miles away where we could “definitely” catch the crayfish we were dreaming about. We said maybe next time, it seemed a bit far and they laughed as they began their paddle away.

Back on land we decided to go for a walk up in the hills where you can visit a Bushman Cave, just south of the Point on the “wild side” that’s unsheltered by the bay. You reach the cave after only a few minutes uphill from the road and its opening forms a perfect arch that looks out towards the sea. Inside, the walls are filled with 5,000-year-old** traditional rock art including paintings of antelope like the Eland, sheep, fish and silhouettes of people. The most incredible paintings though, are the hundreds of red handprints, all over the wall, seeming to reach out towards you from another age.

The beach below the cave is a gathering place for what seems like hundreds of seagulls, cormorants and other types of birds. We walked towards them and caused quite a stir, with crowds of them squawking and taking flight as we approached. No matter what direction we took a new path opened up and I imagined, in a mischievous kind of way if Moses might have felt like this crossing the Red Sea. When we finally made our way to the water’s edge I understood what all the fuss was about – a storm had brought up a big swell the week before and with it thousands of mussels had washed onto the beach, still alive and fresh from the sea. The birds were gathering the mussels, flying high in the air and dropping them on the rocks below, breaking them open for easier eating. Some of the shells were as big as my palm, the biggest I’d ever seen – and we immediately took our opportunity to gather a few treats for ourselves.

Happy and sun-burnt we returned to our little bungalow on the beach, grilled the mussels on a hot fire, enjoyed a glass of cool champagne and watched the sun set. A seafood lunch and an amazing view, it was the perfect finish to a West Coast getaway.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Kayaking Cape Point

The alarm clock went off before sunrise, startling me from a half-sleep. All night I’d been falling into excited dreams about my day to come – a kayaking journey along the southern Cape Peninsula, all the way to the Point. Steeped in the history of sea exploration, trade and the havoc of its infamous storms, Cape Point’s powerful presence had pulled me away from any kind of restful sleep.

I contemplated turning over for just a few more minutes of sleep, but then remembered the weather forecast – a perfect window early in the morning. The swell would be small and the wind very light, but conditions would deteriorate throughout the day. Since the point is known for fickle weather conditions I decided the snooze wasn’t worth it after all, and stumbled out to the kitchen to get the coffee going.

The car was loaded just as the first morning light appeared, the sky turning purple. Driving towards the launching point at Buffelsbai via Simonstown the road followed the course of the mountains on the right and the sea on to the left, a winding cliff-side road overlooking False Bay. The sun began to rise, an orange globe reflecting across the quiet, kelp-strewn water and warming the rounded boulders lining the beach. The calmness of the scene belied the feeling of anticipation getting heavier inside me.

Finally arriving at Buffelsbai, I saw a bunch of fishing groups in motorized boats going out in the same direction as we were planning. Lots of excited banter circulated as one group of men after another slipped into the water – cheers and jeers, sizing up our craft – a basic 2-person sit-on-top kayak, and tall tales of some faraway reef that held the promise of catching the “big one.” I assured them we would not be joining them on the reef this time.

Our turn to launch, we set off and got into the rhythm of our paddling, making our way under our own steam. Birds in formation glided nearby, low, just skimming the water’s surface. I looked down as we moved over the water – it was clear and the kelp seemed to be reaching eerily towards me with greenish-brown arms from another world. As we got into deeper water my heartbeat picked up its pace and we rehearsed our no-frills safety plan, just in case we were paid a visit by a sea monster.

The plan had three parts. First, if the sea monster knocks the boat and you fall off, get back in. Second, if you are nibbled by the sea monster and lose a limb, get to shore. Third, remember the National Sea Rescue phone number and dial it when necessary. My dreamy state of mind instilled by the peaceful paddling and amazing scenery was now feeling clouded by worry. I wished we hadn’t brought up the subject.

We continued on passed Rooikrans (“red cliffs”), a famous spot where anglers risk their own sort of danger by hiking down a near vertical drop for the chance to catch a Yellowtail or other predator fish from the rocky cliff-face that dips into deep ocean. The rock is thick and has stood the test of time and the worst of storms. Passing fishermen along the shore we seemed to cause a bit of consternation and excitement, and we waved to one another and passed happy conversation.

Around the corner we found a sea cave cut by the wind so deep we dared not explore too far. The sound of the waves echoed inside and surged back out again like the place was alive and breathing.

Continuing on I could see the Point ahead and the international weather station above at the top of the mountain. Both my heart rate and the height of the swell increased, rising and dropping like a see-saw. I felt like I was entering a zone where I probably shouldn’t be. The colour of the sea was changing to a dark, deep purple and as we moved closer to our destination we passed over a lake of sea foam churned up by the crashing waves on the rocks. I could see the reef the fishermen had mentioned off in the distance and there were lots of boats sharing the action – but their presence was no comfort to me now.

The swell was so high now I felt like I was on some kind of a rodeo ride, bucking me hard and threatening to throw me but there was no way I was getting off at this stop! I took care to keep the balance, gripped my paddle, breathed deep and in this chaos tried to relax and enjoy the view of Cape Point’s rocky finger, battered yet still reaching out to the southern seas, framed by the Benguela current on the western side and the Agulhas on the eastern side. I was astonished to realize I was sitting in the place of their convergence and the height of their colliding energy. The moment felt heavy and there was an ancient presence all around me. I saw the faces of the great spirits looking down from the ridges above. Now I knew with absolute surety that I was not supposed to be here, but here I was anyway, stealing a timeless moment and seeming to get away with it!

We stayed just long enough to document the moment with a photograph, an amazing view of the lighthouse from our fragile spot floating on top of the depths of the sea. Then we began the paddle back towards False Bay where the friendlier Agulhas flows. We left as quickly as we could, taking care not to be caught and toppled by a rouge wave. We reached the zone of sea foam where the swell height seemed more manageable and I began to breathe a little easier. As we moved along the swell height continued to fall, along with my heart rate, and the grip on my paddle eased back to normal. Now in calm water the rhythm of the paddle strokes formed a quiet aftermath and I could not stop smiling at the amazing gift I had just experienced.