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Guidebook

Aug 18, 2018

The Fresh Prince of Polynesia

In this era, the most competitive time in the history of surfing on tour, there are three or four surfers at any given time flying the Hawaiian flag. Michel Bourez hauls the red and white Tahitian flag all by himself. Can he beat the Hawaiians?

WRITTEN BY

Jon Coen

This story was originally published in print, in the Spring 2014 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

It’s one thing to have a mountain, wave, or trail right in your back yard. But it’s another entirely to grow up at a world-class sporting venue. Picture a preschool T Rice learning to link turns at Jackson Hole, or a Sam Hill riding the hills of Western Australia with training wheels, or even 21-year old surf phenom, John John Florence getting pushed into waves at Pipe, the measuring stick by which all other surf spots are graded, which happens to be steps from his backyard.

Now imagine growing up on Tahiti, a spec of land in the middle of the ocean, formed by a series of geologically violent volcanic eruptions, and comprising of craggy cliffs lurching out of the blue South Pacific.

On this lush island is a place where massive Southern Hemisphere swells travel thousands of miles to come pulsing through a deep trench and crash with life-threatening explosions on a reef as rough as a cheese grater.

Teahupoo, as it is called, is essentially the watery playground on Tahiti where Michel Bourez grew up.

The channel at Teahupoo in Bourez’s Tahiti, brings the crowd closer
than any other event in the world. PHOTO: steve dickinson

Bourez, a seven-year veteran of the ASP World Tour and considered one of the strongest surfers on the planet, not only because of his physical strength, but the force with which he surfs, has lived his entire life in Tahiti, the hub of French Polynesia.

Franck Seguin

Hailing from Rurutu, his quiet pride and prowess in the water is the modern embodiment of the very Polynesians who had migrated through Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to settle Tahiti. He’s known in the surfing world as “The Spartan,” for his resemblance to the chiseled warriors of the film “300, Rise of an Empire” and for his potent carves known to decimate wave sections. His Firewire surfboards — the most technically constructed boards on tour, shaped by Australian board building legend, Nev Hyman — have to be reinforced to hold up through his turns.

Every family has at least someone who surfs, from the father, to brothers or cousins”

No one complains about growing up in Tahiti. Bourez’s father, a math and physics teacher, was a multi-sport athlete most accomplished as an outrigger canoe racer. An early version of the outrigger was likely the craft that the first peoples of Southeast Asia migrated to Tahiti in. It’s been an Olympic sport for nearly 100 years.

Compare this spectator at Teahupoo to a sweaty middle aged man at a football match in Manchester. Surfing has the best fans. PHOTO: steve dickinson

Make no mistake, Michel was a great canoe racer, but he was an all around waterman and also a talented surfer. And when it came down to it, he preferred paddling for waves to simply paddling. “My father didn’t like that decision,” remembers Bourez. “He didn’t realize there was any future in it. But once I dedicated myself and he saw the path, he supported me 100 percent.”

Surfing is a huge part of Tahitian culture. Like Hawaiians, Tahitian family days are spent at the beach.

“Every family has at least someone who surfs, from the father, to brothers or cousins. It’s just got a great vibe and brings happiness to the family,” explains Bourez. “For me, it was about the freedom. You’re in the ocean and there are so many things you can do on a wave. You’re out there with your friends and you’re using you’re entire body. And no one can tell you how to surf.”

Vetea David was the first Tahitian to make the ASP World Tour, qualifying in the late 1980s. Like Bourez, two decades later, he was known as a power surfer. Bourez was too young to have known David in his prime, but as he got older, he learned about and respected the doors David had opened.

He also has a great amount of respect for Raimana Van Bastolaer, Tahiti’s fearless ambassador to the heaviest wavemaker on the planet. At the age of 18, Raimana took him to Hawaii for the first time.

The Spartan, poised like the Tahitian warrior. Photo: Franck Seguin

“Raimana is a Tahitian legend,” says Bourez, “We still hang, surf and talk all the time. But he was so good to me. I was so stoked to travel and he hooked me up with my first sponsors. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Bourez explains all this from Coolangatta, Australia where he’s preparing to surf the first event of the 2014 season. Idyllic in its own way, it’s an altered scene from the traditions of Tahiti. And the peeling, performance-oriented wave is far different from the man-eating reefs of his island home. No one has nightmares about this place like they do about Teahupoo.

For a soft-spoken kid, Bourez did not make a quiet entrance to the world stage. He earned a wildcard slot to the Quiksilver Pro France in 2007, went out, and eliminated Kelly Slater, a man who has dominated his sport more than any other athlete in history.

In 2008, Bourez was selected as one of just a handful of surfers to take part in Red Bull Rising, a training camp for young athletes featuring Australian surf coach Andy King and a “management” role that took care of the athletes’ travel needs for a year on the World Qualifying Series.

“I was really keen to do it. Andy King knows exactly what he’s talking about. And to have that structure – to not have to worry about the flight, rental car, and accommodations was huge,” Bourez said. “I was able to really focus on each event.”

With a fantastic start to the 2014 season, Bourez is looking to rise above the field. PHOTO: franck seguin

“He was so agro as a kid. He wanted so hard to be where he is now”

He was 22 and attacked the next season. He surfed consistently and in late November of that year, he won the Reef Hawaiian Pro in heavy barrels, the first jewel of the Vans Triple Crown, securing himself a coveted position on surfing’s biggest stage – the ASP World Tour.

“Michel is a self made athlete,” explains Raimana. “He was so agro as a kid. He wanted so hard to be where he is now. He had some good support around him at the right time, the right place. His family and friends, were always behind him.”

But the ASP World Tour was no joke. In fact, Bourez has hung through possibly the most competitive time in the history of surfing.

In 2011, the ASP dropped the number of elite surfers on tour from 44 to 32, making it insanely more difficult to stay onboard.

Franck Seguin

Yet Bourez still managed to make the finals of the Oakley Pro in Bali last year and win the Reef Hawaiian Pro again (not an official World Tour stop, but a Prime-rated qualifying event with the best in the world).

Then there’s a whole crop of kids who have come up behind Bourez – Australians, Californians, Brazilians, and most notably, a fellow Polynesian, John John Florence of Oahu, Hawaii.

Florence is considered by many to be a future World Champ, maybe of multiple titles. But Bourez insists there is no inner-Polynesian rivalry between he and the Hawaiians.

“When I go to Hawaii, I hang with the Hawaiians. They have the same way of life as Tahitians – pure Island style. It’s the same culture, so it makes it easy for me to do my job. I don’t have to deal with localism. I always feel welcome,” Bourez states.

And it works the other way too. “We always welcome the Hawaiians to Tahiti too. It’s a give and take.”

But on the tour, there are three or four surfers at any given time flying the Hawaiian flag. Michel is left to haul the red and white Tahitian flag all by himself. TheHawaiians include a veteran, Freddy Patacchia, 31, who has made a strong return to the forefront in the last year, 26-year-old Sebastian Zietz, of Kauai, who won the Vans Hawaiian Triple Crown in 2012 and turned heads his first year on tour, and another noted power surfer from Maui, 25-year-old Dusty Payne.

The Channel at Teahupoo has caused him all kinds of stress in the past. “Of course I know I am the main face of Tahitian surfing. All I can do is my best.” PHOTO: steve dickinson

For Bourez’s part, he said, “I just do my thing. I have to just rep myself, my family, and my friends.” There’s a hint of conflict in his voice. “Of course I know I am the main face of Tahitian surfing. All I can do is my best.”

Bourez finished the 2012 ASP Tour ranked No. 15 in the world and bettered that in 2013 by finishing in the No. 12 spot in one of the most historic seasons ever.

Meanwhile, he and his longtime girlfriend, Vaimiti Laurens, have had a son. Vaimiti is an elementary school teacher and travels with him when competitions coincide with the extended breaks that Tahitians get from school every five weeks.

Bourez is truly enjoying fatherhood. “Vaimiti’s brother surfs. All of our friends and neighbors surf. We live right on the beach. Sometimes my son spends all day in the water,” Bourez says. “We just try to have fun when we’re all together, But I don’t need to push him to surf.”

Bourez did not make a quiet entrance to the world stage. he earned a wildcard slot at the Quiksilver pro France in 2007 and eliminated Kelly Slater, a man who has dominated this sport more than any other athlete in history.

At the beginning of March, the World Tour opened with the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Coolangatta, Australia. This year, the ASP is a whole new game. The main governing body of professional surfing was taken over by ZoSea Media. ZoSea is an entertainment holdings company headed up by Paul Speaker, former president of Time Inc. Studios and board member at Quiksilver with Terry Hardy, Kelly Slater’s manager. The goal has been to better present surfing (a traditionally fringe sport) to a larger audience. Traditionally, the event sponsors have produced the webcast and owned the rights to their events. This year, the sponsors will simply pay to have their name on the event, but the ASP will own the media rights. ZoSea has worked out media deals with Youtube, Facebook, and ESPN. It’s a bit controversial, as surfers and fans are unsure of where the sport is going. But Bourez remains positive.

“It will be a little different for us. I’m sure there will be a few changes to the way they’re driving the ASP. But the ASP realizes where they should be and everyone feels like it’s going in the right direction.”

Backed by longtime sponsors Red Bull and Hurley, the start to Bourez’s 2014 campaign couldn’t have gone any better. He came out of the gate in average conditions at Snapper Rocks in Australia, and laid down the lethal frontside gouges he’s known for, one after another – bam, bam, bam. And he took the round one win over Owen Wright, the very talented Australian who had just returned from a devastating back injury, and California’s Kolohe Andino, son of pro surfer Dino Andino, thus raised in the very bosom of the surf world with top caliber sponsors and coaching.

In round two, he faced Patacchia, who referred to Bourez as his “island brother.” Even after throwing down multiple versions of his trademark power turn, Bourez fell short of Patacchia’s backhand attack. But it was one of the better heats of the day and signified a bright start to the season.

Photo: Franck Seguin

Through his career, Bourez has set attainable goals each year and achieved them, but he has yet to scalp one of those elite Tour victories. One thing that’s puzzling is the lack of a good result at Teahupoo, where he is the only surfer who gets to sleep in his own bed.

In 2011, when the swells reached superhuman size and power, he missed the quarterfinals by less than two points. He has yet to really put his mark on that event, even with the entire pro surfing world and half the population of Tahiti watching the action on everything from luxury yachts to wooden canoes. Between the wave and proximity of the crowd, it’s a very intense arena.

“Maybe the pressure of having an event in Tahiti gets to me. I know that wave better than anyone. But the vibe of the whole surf world and all the boats in the channel is so different than any other comp,” Bourez said.

There’s a whole crop of kids who have come up behind Bourez including a fellow Polynesian, John John Florence of Oahu, Hawaii. Florence is considered by many to be a future world champ, maybe of multiple titles.

Younger surfers in general seem to be at a disadvantage at some of the best waves on the planet. In the last ten years, Parkinson, Fanning and Slater have won a combined 51 tour events and every single title. Fanning and Parko are both 32 years old. Slater is a full decade older. As good as the young bucks surf, statistics show that the surfers who have competed at these waves for ten or fifteen years understand the intricacies involved in getting the best scoring waves.  

Before the Tour morphed in the last five years, surfers had more time to go to a venue and develop intimate knowledge of the wave and skill. Slater knows Cloudbreak like a lover. Fanning made it his life mission to rip Teahupoo. Bourez would like to go learn other waves as he gets into his 30s.

Then there’s the fact even being the most powerful surfer in the world isn’t quite enough. John John Florence has a power game similar to Bourez but is also one of the best barrel riders with a complete aerial repertoire.

“The only thing is missing with Michel is his air skills. Once his has this, he will dominate the tour, no questions,” said Raimana.

The real factor going for him is that determination, the focus, just like his tattooed Tahitian warrior ancestors. That’s something “The Spartan” already possesses.

“He surfs or works for himself and his family first and foremost. The only pressure he has, he puts on himself. He doesn’t need to prove anything to us Tahitians, French, or foreigners,” explains Raimana. “We’ll always back him up no matter what. We love the person, the surfer he is. Whoever is supporting him will be blessed by his work. We love Michel.”

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Travel

Jun 14, 2019

Riding Through Rajasthan

On the back of an indigenous Marwari horse, known for its warrior spirit, a female-only group rides 160 miles across India through villages that have never been visited by foreigners.

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WRITTEN BY

Margaret Reynolds

The adventure began before we even arrived at our destination. Racing through the twisting narrow back allies of Delhi, we were late. Our train to Ganganagar was leaving in ten minutes and we hadn’t made it through the swarm of Delhi traffic to the train station. We rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt as the road ahead was completely closed off at the intersection with no hope of a resolution any time soon. Honking horns, a constant accompaniment to Delhi traffic, now rose to a crescendo of cacophonic sounds as frustrated drivers expressed their annoyance. “Out! Out!” our guide shouted, and we leaped from the van and ran through the street. We were weaving around traffic which bolted forward erratically to gain inches, trying to maneuver their way free of the jam, while we stayed alert to avoid being bumped or hit. Some drivers called out to us in Hindi words we only understood by their tone. Blindly following our guide, using our adrenaline to power us through the crowd, we made it to the train and our sleeper cars minutes before departure and hoped that the bags coming behind us on porters made it too!

Author Margaret Reynolds is an experienced horseback rider who prepared for this trip with previous rides in both Europe and Africa.
Some of our group in the sleeper car of train.

Awaiting us in Hanumangarh, a short distance from Ganganagar, was the Bhatner Horse Fair, a once-a-year festival to celebrate, compete, and market the famed Marwari breed indigenous to India and unlike any other breed worldwide. Missing our train would have meant missing the Fair and it was an event that we planned our entire Rajasthan riding safari around.

“We discovered that we were the main attraction.”

The next morning, we arrived at the fair. It was the last day and while most of the events were completed, we discovered that we were the main attraction as they rarely had foreigners, and there were no other women there. We were given the red-carpet treatment since we were accompanied by Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately known as Bonnie, a nobleman of the Shekhawati clan and reputed to be the savior of the Marwari’s. He has dedicated his life to the promotion and protection of the breed which he considers the true ambassador of Rajput culture and heritage. We were followed by a beehive of fair attendees, drawn to us like honey, and even interviewed by the local media. It became clear that our presence held so much more value than just our own education and enjoyment; we could offer support to Bonnie’s cause through our words and interest, as well as in undertaking the week-long safari to showcase these beautiful steeds to his countrymen.

Bonnie educating us on the horses while being observed by other fairgoers.
In breeder tent at the Bhatner fair with Bonnie, our guide and emissary (Margaret wearing bright scarf).

The next day we greeted our horses and mounted into traditional military saddles. The horses were proudly adorned with cloth martingales baring the rich red and saffron colors of Dundlod Fort, and the ride began past sheep herds along the Indira Gandhi Canal. These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari across 160 miles of desert. We rode through the heart of Rajasthan, across the Thar desert, far from the bustling cities of the Golden Triangle, now populated by robust crops of millet and mustard enabled by the newly built canal system.

Our group freshly mounted ready to ride out. Margaret and Noel on far right.

“These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari.”

The route was a new one as each year the progress of India’s roads, establishment of new agricultural fields and corresponding fences creates the need for a different trail. We passed through villages that had never been visited by foreigners. Women and children came rushing from all directions to shout “Hi” and “Hello” and shyly wave at us. We were followed for miles by young men on motorcycles whose English focused on the word “selfie” as they came armed with their cell phones to take pictures of this unusual parade of noble horses and white-skinned foreigners. We were welcomed guests wherever we traveled.

Passing through a village in Rajasthan.
Being greeted by villagers along the route.

Our first night by the village of Raika Ki Dhani, we were greeted by dozens of villagers who came to watch us—they observed us sharing chai and popadum, a crispy tortilla-like bread spiced with pepper whose flavor snaps in your mouth just like the texture, as we sat around the fire and chatted about our day. Bonnie regaled us with entertaining tales from his many adventures such as the time they were almost attacked by misinformed villagers who thought his group was hunting their sacred antelope. The locals stood quietly, respectfully, yards away and crept ever closer like sandhill cranes, en masse one step at a time, until the camp staff intervened.

Evening view of tents.
Inside view of the tents.

“We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever.”

In the morning, the son of the landowner on which we camped, fluent in English, came to us requesting our presence at their home in the village so we could meet their women. Delightedly, we accepted and drove to their brick and adobe home in the village. Many generations live together, and women join the family home of their husbands. When we arrived, there were a dozen people and when we left many dozens as villagers heard of our presence and joined the gathering. The women are beautiful, graceful, and shy but so friendly and welcoming. It didn’t take long to bridge the language barrier as they let us hold their children, shake their hand, and take many pictures together. We aren’t sure who enjoyed it more. We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever by the time we left.

Invited inside a local village family home.

The ride was swift with many fast canters through the desert, lined up side by side on a sandy two-track, with every horse competing to be in front. Astride the powerful Marwari thundering through the desert is an experience in which your soul is freed, and you are in the moment, feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors past. You hope it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t. She is a successful endurance horse that can go forever and is pleased to show you her power and speed.

The famous Marwari inward tilting ears—view to the desert.

Animals are esteemed in India. Cows, dogs and even pigs are considered holy and roam freely throughout India, including the cities. Drivers don’t honk at them even though they honk at everything else. They feast on grass and garbage or food provided by shopkeepers or families. While those of us in first world countries drive through our suburban neighborhoods, expecting to see the standard home with two car garages and the glow of multiple TVs, as we passed each home in the village we found a courtyard with a camel which served as the beast of burden pulling carts of supplies or crops, a few water buffalo that provide milk, a dog or two and likely sheep or goats for milk and meat. These precious animals, so essential for survival, are well cared for in a country known for its poverty.

The indigenous Marwari horse.

Life is simple in the villages. Days are repetitive and the work is essential –laundry, gathering fuel, cooking, and tending fields. Our presence in their villages provided some respite from the day to day existence. Often, a young boy would lead the way through town shooing goats, cows, or other animals out of our path and showing us the way to the community water trough so our horses could have a refreshing break, feeling pleased with his important role.

“The earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.”

Unlike the cities with their explosion of people and constant stench created by the recipe of uncontrolled diesel fumes, sewage, and trash, the villages were peaceful and calm. Here the smells were not of diesel but of livestock. Camels, so common in courtyards and hitched to carts, are ruminants. They chew and swallow their food into rumens where it is fermented, then burp it back up into their mouths later for more chewing. It smells a bit like a compost heap on a warm desert day. Cow patties are the most common source of fuel and they are being shaped by bare hands, then dried for use, usually within the courtyard or sometimes on the roof. Inexplicably, these smells weren’t offensive as they seemed harmonious with the way of life and the use of the land and its resources. For this Midwestern equine enthusiast, the earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.

Riding through a village.

We rode for 6-8 hours a day stopping for a break mid-day for lunch and a rest, avoiding the hottest sun of the day. Just before lunch, Bonnie’s staff raced ahead of us in the “gypsy” jeep to set up a small camp, with chairs and sleeping pads and to prepare the food, a buffet of vegetarian delicacies such as dal and curry flavored vegetables with steamed rice and endless chapatis. We were reliably greeted by villagers or passers-by, a camel driver, or young lads on their bikes, as we rested. Our biggest challenge was in finding an appropriate and private spot for a comfort break without being observed.

Men gathered with invitations to their homes.
Photo Op and Interview with the local press while the crowd watched. Margaret in a bright scarf to right of the horse.

“The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause.”

Our eight days through the desert was not a ride for the inexperienced. For those experienced riders who have come to believe they have tried it all, this ride surpasses expectations—not just because of the majesty of the Marwari’s but for the combination of culture, history, and riding which is unparalleled. I have worked up to this event by riding through other countries from Europe to Africa and the magic of this ride transcends them all.

Riding through a village being led by a young man.

The Marwaris, which drew us to India like snake charmers beckoning cobras, were everything we expected and more. We learned that they are banned from exportation which is leading to declines in the quality and popularity of the breed. The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause as we have so much respect for these amazing animals.

Dancing Marwari.

The days included challenge and leisure; hardship and comfort; and speed and stillness which have come to define India to me. It is a country of contrasts—from city to village; from western dress to traditional kurtas and saris; from Muslim to Hindu; and from ancient to modern buildings and customs. It is a country with many possibilities and it was exciting to experience first-hand the range of the country’s legacy and promise for its future.

Margaret Reynolds is a speaker, author, and advisor to organizations on improving business performance and increasing revenue growth. She is an avid competitive trail rider, winning back to back National Championships with NATRC in 2017 and 2018. Every year she and her adventurous friends find a new country to explore on horseback. mreynolds@breakthroughmaster.comhttps://www.breakthroughmaster.com/

Feature image: Group send-off at Bonnie’s Dunlod Fort

 

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