Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Big Waves = Lazy Blogger

I've been pretty lazy about posting recently, but I think it's understandable. I arrived in Bali, Indonesia about two weeks ago, with one goal in mind: to learn how to surf.

Bali was "discovered" as a holiday destination in the 1930's and has been attracting droves of visitors ever since. The island is the crown jewel of Indonesia's tourist industry, with most of the development concentrated in the frenetic Kuta area. It draws a very diverse crowd, Australian/Japanese surfers, shoestring backpackers, ethnotourist, and upmarket luxury travelers.

What is surprising is that Balinese culture of the island is surprisingly intact. The local population is still very much traditional, and somehow manages to intake mass tourism while preserving the bulk of its traditions (see "Indonesian Contexts" for more on such traditions).

But back to surfing: I tried surfing for the first time about 9 months ago, in California, and was instantly hooked. I'm not one for adrenaline sports, but surfing blends a physical rush with a certain organic beauty; sweeping across the ocean on waves breaking against tropical beaches is often nothing short of sublime.

A little history lesson: The sport originated in Polynesia, notably Hawaii, having been firmly established as part of island culture there when Captain Cook arrived in 1778. Upon witnessing a surfer, the captain stated "I could not help concluding this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea." He got it right.

However, the sport truly took off in the 20th century with the invention of lighter fiberglass boards, and mass media (surfing movies such as "Gidget" telegraphing the experience across America and the world). By the 1950's, millions had taken up the sport, and a professional surfing circuit was coalescing. Fast forward to the present, and surfing has a worldwide following marketed to by a multibillion dollar global industry.

I won't bore you with a discussion on wave mechanics, so in short, a wave "breaks" or rise up out of the seat to form a ridable face when it passes over certain seafloor topologies. As such, waves can break over beaces, reefs, and so on. A surfer will paddle out to the "line-up" (usually identified by triangulating your position with two landmarks), and watch for approaching waves. Waves tend to come in sets of anywhere from ~5 to 20 waves, so often you can find yourself sitting on your board for a while. However, when you spot a wave, you start paddling towards shore, in an effort to match its speed and thus catch it. As soon as it starts to carry the surfboard, you quickly spring to your feet, executing the "pop-up," probably one of the toughest things for a beginner to learn. Once on the wave, you can ride it directly into shore, but its more fun to ride diagonally across the face of the wave. If you're good, you can execute various manuveurs, slashing up and down the wave, and even accelerating vertically over it. The most exciting, coveted and iconic of advanced surfing techniques is riding a "tube" or getting "barrelled." Only possible at a specific type of wave, tube riding entails surfing inside a wave that is breaking onto itself, thus forming a hollowed out tube of water. Since such waves often form in shallow water, and exert considerable hydraulics, they can be very dangerous (a notable example being the Banzi pipeline, where surfers have been killed).

Surfing is a strenuous sport, requiring considerable physical strength. You have to paddle constantly, to get out to the line-up, or to maintain position out in the ocean (there can be a lot of currents, rip tides and wind) and the pop-up entails rapidly hoisting your own bodyweight. Additionally it can be dangerous depending on conditions and experience.

Mostly though, it's just really fun. Couchsurfing once again proved to be the greatest travel tool, as I linked up with a local expat surfer upon arrival, Jacopo Simonetta, a laid-back Italian who moved to Bali 6 years ago to surf full-time. Jacopo was great, stereotypical italian meets surfer dude, who served as our surf mentor. I was to learn that Jacopo liked to push his students, when he took us to our first surf break, Batu Balan. As soon as I got out there, I knew it was going to be a rough ride. I'm in decent shape, but after paddling 200 meters out to the lineup, I was exhausted as the first set came in. I was also about to learn what it was to be "caught inside." When sets of waves break, it's a good idea to be outside where the waves are breaking (generally, this means left of right of the breaking face). It's a bad idea to be directly in the path of the wave, which is exactly where I was that first day out in the water. I won't soon forget watching a 6 foot wave jack up in front of me, as I experienced a sinking feeling that would soon become tangible. A second later, and I've been ripped off my board, as I swirl around underwater, feeling like I'm in a washing machine. Erupting to the surface, gasping for air, I look over just in time to see the next wave of the set bearing down on me. Repeat steps one and two a few times, and by the end of my first day, I was pretty beat. I tried catching a few waves, but it was just a another iteration of the same two step process, except that instead of being immediately dumped on by the waves, I was thrown face-first into the water (while trying to pop-up), and then dumped on by the waves.

A few days later, I still hadn't popped up on a wave at Batu Balan, but Jacopo decided to mess with us anyways by taking us to Dreamland, a pleasantly named surf break that is completely misleading. Dreamland is no doubt a gorgeous spot, where aquamarine waves break a few hundred meters out from soaring limestone cliffs. But the day we went out, it was a big swell, generating 6-10 foot waves. That might not sound very big, but when you're an inexperience surfer, it will scare the sh-t out of you. My cousin Naj and I paddled out, but I decided to wait outside the line-up while I watched Naj try a wave. Things looked optimistic, as Naj started to pop-up on a giant wave, and I cheered him on, but he hadn't generated enough speed to actually catch the fast moving waves. He also wasn't fast enough to evade the next wave of the set, and this time, he was caught "inside." I saw his little brown head disappear behind a wall of blue, and a second later, his board fluttered up into the air, having been vertically ejected by the force of the wave. I could only grimace, and I carefully paddled back to shore myself. There was no way in hell I was going to offer myself as a sacrifical lamb before the surf.

The next few days, we retreated to smaller breaks with 1-3 foot waves, and finally learned to pop-up. For the past week or so, I've been sticking to it, slowly grasping how to contend, and harness the turbulence of a breaking wave. It's been incredibly frustrating at times; I can't count how many times I've paddled into the line-up next to a pretty surfer girl, stroked for a wave, hoping to pop-up and impress previously identified girl, only to make face-first contact with the water shortly after popping up. And to add insult to injury, the same girl has then often cruised effortlessly by on the next wave as I get caught inside. To add injury to injury, one of the most dangerous components of surfing is your board itself. When you wipe-out, there's no time to see where you're board's going, and sometimes it's heading right at you. In the past three days, my board has given me a bloody nose and has left a large gash in my forehead (a wave caught my board from behind me, shot it into the air, and it landed fin-first on my head).

But as trite as it sounds, the challenge is a big part of what makes it such an addicting sport. It's not a team sport, and outside of professional surfing, it's not about competition. It's a very individual pursuit, one that almost underlines the existential loneliness of the human experience. You're out there, all alone, on an infinite canvas of water, and although a mentor can give you advice on shore, learning how to pop-up, to drop-in, to cut-back, all of that comes much more with experience in the water. And you face a lot of danger alone, be it perceived, or real. It's amazing how little a human voice carries on open water, and when you get caught inside, pulled out by a rip tide, or nailed by your own board, it's largely up to you to get yourself out safe.

The other big part of the sport is riding the waves of course. Racing at 10, 20 or 30 miles an hour across the ocean, gliding up and down a wave is pretty indescribable. One cannot help but conclude that such a man feels "the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea."

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