Transcript of a live “Mixtape Memoirs” performance (performers were asked to describe a song that took them back to a time of love), Emerging Writers Festival, Adelaide 2014
I’m here to tell you a story about the time I fell in love with an 82-year-old black man and a Peruvian hairless dog. I know it sounds like the world’s most depraved threesome, or a standard headline on Vice.com, but bear with me.
It’s May 2011. Osama Bin Laden has just been killed; Pope Jon Paul II has just entered the pearly gates, leaving the door open for that quitter Joseph Ratzinger; and a song titled “Party Rock” performed by a guy called Red Foo is enjoying its third week atop the Australian and UK charts, proving once again that humans are largely a bunch of idiots.
Meantime I was in South America – part of a two-year international mission to find epic waves and – try not to vomit here – to “find myself”. I’d just arrived at a fishing town called Lobitos on Peru’s North Coast. Now, you’re not likely to find Lobitos in any guidebooks. It’s a dusty wind-swept hamlet that used to be one of South America’s most ballin’ towns because of an oil boom in the early decades of last century. But these days the eerie speck on the map consists of a bunch of dilapidated shacks, crumbling shells of old mansions and scores of spooky decommissioned oil rigs out behind the waves.
Rocking up to this surf camp, a rickety two-storey wooden compound, I noticed military slogans and propaganda stencilled on the walls. Lobitos used to have strategic importance to the Peruvian government so it once housed thousands of troops, and this surf camp used to be a key training facility. Casting your mind back you could picture these gnarly soldiers doing pushups and marches, but looking around my new digs all I could see was a bunch of unwashed misfits, travelling surfers, stoners and miscreants, all drawn to Lobitos by its perfect waves and it’s “off-the-beaten-trackness”, to steal a shitty guidebook phrase.
We were all housed in tents we rented from the owner and plonked at the edge of the second storey overlooking the sea. There was Eddie – a walking paradox – the prison-jacked and tattooed Northern Californian surfer who, when dropped in on or ran over by another surfer, would respond with, “It’s all good, bra, peace and love!”. Eddie spent his time out of the water reading a book called The Power of Kindness and doing his daily yoga routines, but could’ve cracked all of our skulls like walnuts if he’d desired. There was the merry gang of young Novocastrian surfers, whose exceptional surfing skills were matched only by their world-class bong-smoking abilities. And there was Kelly – the handsome yet stinky British expat hippie who’d never left. He’d been in Lobitos for 18 months and spent much of his time taking folks on expeditions into the desert for mind-bending San Pedro cactus ceremonies.
But the family member who made the biggest impression on me was Chola – the camp owner’s semi-domesticated Peruvian hairless dog. Now, if you’ve never seen a Peruvian hairless dog, they’re these compact and mangy things with basically no hair except for a tuft of neon red wisps on the top of their head and chin – like rusty steel wool. Chola’s skin looked and felt exactly what I’d imagine an elephants to, only with more scars, blemishes and strange growths scattered among its canvas. She was disgustingly slender – all bones and harsh angles – and the skin sagged around the sides of her mouth like some ungodly grey scrotum. But for all her hell spawn looks, I was enamoured with her and her deep, searching brown eyes. Each surf she’d walk the few hundred metres with me to the water’s edge and when I returned to shore she’d race up the beach to play with me the whole way back to base.
Days in Lobitos were spent in a blissful haze of intense relaxation, reading and writing, only interrupted by gut-busting surfs in flawless waves. And all of this each day cost about the same price as buying two pints at the bar at home. It took me a few weeks before I noticed the soundtrack to this euphoric fog. Whenever I was laid up in a hammock I’d hear this Caribbean-soaked guitar strumming gently yet piercingly in the background. I became acutely aware that part of the reason I’d been so ecstatic each day was its soothing jazz tones. I became committed to finding out who the magical artist was. Locating the baked Novocastrian whose iPod it was, I asked him “who, pray tell, is the purveyor of these heavenly tunes?” His response was typically eloquent: “Fark knows ay, some cunt in Chile put it on me iPod with a bunch of other shit”. So, after thanking him for his help and allowing him to step back into his bong haze, I picked up the iPod and discovered the artist was Ernest Ranglin. Using the camp’s 1990s-speed internet – which also made it really laborious to have a wank in your sketchy two-by-two semi-transparent tent at night with your luminescent laptop screen – I looked ol’ Ernest up on Wikipedia to discover he’s a hugely influential Jamaican guitarist who helped define the ska genre.
With Ernest’s help I was accomplishing all the things I strive towards in day-to-day life. I was fit as fuck courtesy of the surfing, which also rendered my skin Hollywood tanned, rather than ghostly Adelaide white; I was expanding my brain learning Spanish; finishing a book every few days, and even writing tons of words, albeit on my shitty WordPress.com travel blog. And every morning, little Chola would slink into my tent and curl up around my feet. We’d spend the next few hours asleep and jostling positions for warmth until the sun peeped over the horizon and I’d go surfing. I’d cop a ribbing from the boys, who delighted in pointing out when Chola was licking her elephant-y private parts or the foul bum of one of the Lobitos street dogs, but I didn’t care. We were the best of pals.
It was at about the five-week mark that I began getting restless. I had deep cuts on my feet that weren’t healing from all the surfing, and a couple of new residents at the camp were adding a negative vibe to the once utopian air. So in mid-June I packed my bags with a mix of sadness and anticipation and headed north for Ecuador and beyond.
In the years since I’ve been based back in Oz. My shitty travel blog somehow impressed the publisher of a bodyboarding magazine who gave me a chance at being editor. I heard my little friend Chola passed away last year. Nowadays I head overseas only twice yearly and just for little 10-day trips. And while I know it’s entirely feasible for one to travel forever, age-old worries about the future, career and buying a house, have meant for now I’ve written off the chances of departing on another year-long surf odyssey. But I’ve come to grips with that. And one of the main reasons is that when I’m at doing the dishes or stressing over a deadline all it takes is chucking on some sweet sweet Ernest to be immediately transported back to Lobitos, where the air is thick with the love for your fellow man and the warm comforting mass of a miniature wispy elephant friend on your feet in the morning is a timely reminder that each day is a gift.