National Geographic : 2015 Feb
58 national geographic • February 2015 For half an hour I floated near the takeoff zone, waiting for my chance, before I finally spotted what appeared to be an unclaimed wave. I spun my board toward the beach and paddled hard. But just as I gained speed, a stone-faced teenager on a bodyboard finned up the same wave. He planted his hand firmly on my shoul- der and pushed me off the wave, simultaneously propelling himself down its face. I gave up and paddled in. So much for “aloha,” I thought. But over several weeks in Makaha I came to grasp that what looked like thuggish protection- ism was in fact more complicated. Hawaiians, after all, are the original surfing fanatics, having embraced the sport since roughly the time of the Crusades. They are also, in some sense, survi- vors. Since the coming of the first white men in the late 18th century, their history has been col- ored by loss—first of numbers, as imported dis- eases burned through their ranks, then of land, nationhood, and culture. Even hula dancing all but vanished. For Hawaiians—an increasingly imprecise term after waves of immigration to the islands and generations of intermarriage— surfing is a tangible link to the precolonial past and a last remaining shard of cultural iden- tity. It’s also a testament to Hawaiians’ almost By John Lancaster Photographs by Paul Nicklen In the islands where surfing began, the waves on that particular day were a disappointment—mushy, chest high, and annoyingly infrequent. Still, Hawaiians have never needed much of an excuse to grab a board and hit the ocean, and the takeoff zone was packed. Teens on shortboards. Moms on long- boards. Grade-schoolers on bodyboards. A guy with a gray ponytail on a stand-up paddleboard. Some had tribal tattoos in the style of Polynesian warriors. Straddling my surfboard in the deep water beside the reef, I surveyed the crowd with a knot in my stomach, feeling that I didn’t belong. Makaha has long been known as a beach where haoles, a Hawaiian term for white peo- ple and other outsiders, venture at their peril. Located on Oahu’s west coast, far from the glitzy North Shore crowds of Sunset Beach or Pipeline or the package tourists at Waikiki Beach, it has a reputation as a tightly cloistered community dominated by descendants of the ancient Poly- nesian seafarers who settled the islands. Even those Makaha residents who have come to terms with the United States takeover of Ha- waii in 1898—and some still have not—are deter- mined to prevent the same thing from happening to their waves. Stories are legion of visiting surf- ers being chased from the water here, a few with broken noses, after breaching some unwritten rule. I was eager to avoid the same fate. John Lancaster profiled Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, in the February 2012 issue. Photographer Paul Nicklen’s most recent story was “Yukon: Canada’s Wild West,” for the February 2014 issue.