23 July 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part Two


You should see me in my daydreams. I am glory on the slide. I drop into waves that are well overhead and rip up the wall. I disappear beneath barrels and streak through with my hand tickling the swell. I watch myself from the shoreline, both surfer and observer. The me on the shore is enthralled. The me on the board is all cool nonchalance.

Lying on the roof of the public boat from Bawa to Si Rumbo, I let my daydreams reel. My eyes were closed and my smirk was fixed. The sun was being pleasant and the breeze was being nice. I was going surfing.

In Si Rumbo we left our boards at the harbor; food before surf. We went to a seafood shack on the beach and hand-picked a kilo worth of red snapper. While that was cooking over open-flame we watched the waves roll in. The burbling of anticipation was mostly stifled by a feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

After lunch, with greasy fingers and bloated bellies, we retrieved our boards and worked our way down to the shore. I took a half-stick of wax out of my back pocket and lathered up the board. Frames from the daydream dropped over reality like misplaced slides and my confidence flitted unconcerned--a happy little bird unaware of its place in the food chain.

I hadn’t paddled out since I moved abroad. That startled me when I thought of it, so I scanned through the years trying to disprove it, but I couldn’t. In those five years I had forgotten a very important truth: I am absolutely shit at surfing—I am not my daydreams.

Fearless because of forgotten failures and remembered fiction, I strapped on the leash and followed Arman down to the entry point. Three steps in the leash jammed between my toes and I almost did a header into the coral.

From there, it got worse.

Arman, who could probably walk barefoot across a set of steak knives, scampered across the coral, dove in and paddled into perfect position in like eight seconds. Meanwhile I was standing knee deep in breakwater trying to figure out where to step without putting a coral nail through my foot. The incoming shore break pushed me around, and the board kept slipping out of my hand thanks to the sweat pouring from my pits. I hissed and winced about the sharpness, then muttered recriminating curses about my namby-pambiness. When I had finally pussyfooted my way into deep enough water I dove in without waiting for a lull in the sets. Stupid.

I was on a 5’11 slip of fiberglass and from the second I glided into the water it didn’t feel right; my sternum was digging into the board, my balance was off, my paddling was getting me nowhere.

These were the smallest waves around but they were still overhead and fast. I tried to duck-dive a wave and felt it pull me back a good ten feet. I popped to the surface and paddled hard but the next wave pulled me back just as far. I whipped my head around, worried that I might be coral bound. By the time I fought through the rest of the set I was exhausted and my sternum was on fire, it felt like a pestle being mercilessly ground into mortar. I ignored the pain as best I could and dug in hard, but the next set came up quick and once again I was outmatched.

I let an F-Bomb fly like an angry flare. Arman spun around curiously confused and paddled my way. He caught a wave in route—just ripped that salt right over the wound.

“Follow me; it will be easier if we jump off the jetty.”

And so we did, and it was easier. We approached the waves from the back and took a quick breather. I rolled off the board and let the water cool my face. I ran my thumb across the inflamed circle on my sternum. My only emotion was disbelief.

But the daydreams…

The waves kept rolling in; breaking right—always right. And we were the only ones on them. I took a few deep breaths and forced my confidence back into place. If this was going to work I needed that filter.

Arman shouted, "Go! Go! Go!" at a wave I didn't see coming. It rolled up behind me beautiful and mean. I froze. The pretty lady had caught me looking and I knew I was about to get bitch-slapped for it. I made a half-ass attempt to pop-up, covered my face with my arms and cannonballed over the drop. I came up sputtering and laughing. Even getting bitch-slapped can be fun.

I kept missing and I kept making mistakes. I dragged my knee, I scooted too far forward on the board, I paddled too soon and looked back just in time to turtle. Name a mistake and I made it. My sternum still hurt, my balance was still off and my paddling was still getting me nowhere. So, with each miss, with each mistake, failure became less fun.

I tried to keep myself focused on the adventure of it all. "Look at this swell! You're in Sumatra, man! And these are the practice waves!" But I wasn't falling for my own pep talks. A new emotion had replaced disbelief: GUILT.

The waves came at me like rippled mirrors and in the reflection I saw a dude who couldn't daydream. A poser. A kook. I was in a grand library reading pop-up books. I was in the finest of restaurants smashing Twinkies with the salad fork. My pretty little confidence had been minced and gnashed--reduced to gristle wedged between gum and tooth.  
We stayed in Si Rumbo that night with the intention of surfing again in the morning but it wasn't meant to be. Standing on the jetty, where the waves kicked my ass with perfect rights, we looked down at clear unperturbed water--snorkeling bullshit. Seriously, Chinese divers would have pushed more water than the tide did that morning. I know how stupid this sounds, but that felt like rejection.

Take your little rain cloud and crawl back to Bawa, kook.

The public boat took hours that felt like days. I laid on the roof, and put a wet shirt over my face to block the pissed off sun. I didn't daydream. I wouldn't allow it. That afternoon I wasted time rewatching TV shows. That evening I ate dinner and went straight to bed; no village, no tuak. Mentally I was throwing punches at my disappointment, but physically I was all punched out.

Arman went out with his fishing buddies and stayed out until 3am. The next morning, for different reasons, we were in a quiet kind of mood. U-ti made me a tomato and garlic omelet and I mixed myself a sugary coffee. Arman was fiddling with something under the table so I arched him an eyebrow. He pulled up a day-wrecker joint and a smile bloomed on my face. What an absolutely perfect surprise. I put on music to match the mood and we smoked while a playlist called, Chill did the talking for us. Other than the occasional, “Good song” we didn’t say much at all. It was a lovely Bawa morning.


Let's leave MB and Arman where they are for a moment. Trust me they won't notice we're gone.

Not everything that happened in Bawa fits into The Surf Chronicles narrative, but there are things just off the page that deserve to be brought into focus.

The Food...

I stayed out of the kitchen, but whatever U-ti was doing back there was damn close to magic. The staple meal was fish caught moments before served with mountains of rice and coleslaw lightly seasoned with salt and orange juice. Lunch was often the Indonesian staples, fried rice (nasi goreng) or fried noodles (mei goreng). And on a celebratory evening when U-ti's sister was in town a little piggy lost its life so that we could gorge ourselves on thick-cut chops served with rice and grilled eggplant. I expected to get skinny on Bawa and instead I blissfully fattened up like I would on a trip home to mom and dad's.


If you were to look down during practically any Bawa scene you would see an adorable little puppy named, Poochu. In Indonesian his name means "ant" but he did not earn that name because of his diminutive size, he earned it because he fell asleep on an ant hill and yelped when they started munching on his little puppy pee-pee. Everyone on the island loves Poochu. Little kids ride by calling his name, grown women stop by just to baby talk him, “Aeye Poochu!!” Poochu has many friends.

The Characters...

Much of Bawa's charm is wrapped-up in the charm of its residents. One night we went to the village and found the evening crew bumming because the TV was busted. I had my laptop with me because it needed a charge so I set it up on the picnic table and put on an episode of Game of Thrones. No less than fifteen people eagerly gathered around my little computer and watched the images flash. Inside the shop I had a sudden thought, a concern: are there boobs in that episode? A collective gasp followed by shrieks of laughter gave me my answer. I darted outside. Fourteen people were leaning forward with eyes wide, and one old lady was pissing herself with laughter. I peeked at the screen and caught Grey Worm perving on Daenerys’ right hand lady. The camera pulled back and focused on her perfect booty. The old lady loved that ass. She was pointing at the screen and clapping. Just howling. Funniest damn butt she ever saw.

“Sorry,” I said with a shrug.

“Bagus! Bagus!” she replied catching her breath. Good! Good!

Let's get back to MB and Arman. Right now they are listening to, The Avett Brothers and leveling out. Arman is telling MB a story about how he once saved a man's life when the man's leash got caught in the rocks, and how that man wanted to bring him to America to work and earn money for his future, and finally about being rejected by U.S customs officials. MB is petting Poochu's belly with no excuses to give.


I tried to float along in the Bawa lifestyle. I relaxed on the beach and swam. I went running in the morning and found big thick vines to swing on. I chilled with new friends and ate stellar meals. And despite all that goodness, I felt the irresistible urge to move on. My failure in Si Rumbo was to blame. It was ruining my Bawa buzz. 

Sorake Beach is the most famous surf spot on the big island of Nias and that is where I wanted to go. I knew it would be an easy place to rent a board, and I hoped that somewhere along the shoreline there would be waves small enough for me.

Evening. Speckled rays of sun give a golden haze to the canopy above. I am sitting on a wooden bench under the eaves, rereading a page I turned without understanding, the words spliced by daydream frames. I watch Arman pull-up on a scooter made of neon and metal. He is carrying a bulging canvas sack.

"Young coconut?" he asks

I watch him pull bright green bulbs from the sack. He picks up a machete, a curved wicked looking thing, and hacks at the top of the coconut, spinning it in his palm as he goes. He hands it to me and I see that he has exposed a quarter-size hole where the stem used to be. I don't like coconut water; the store bought kind. I am unsure about this. I tilt it back and half the juice runs down my chin. It's warm and a little sweet. It tastes unwashed and wild. I drink again, greedily. It's good. Damn good.

Arman sits across from me and plugs my computer into speakers he borrowed from a neighbor. Music is a luxury and he plays it any chance he gets. I have to tell him, but I'm nervous, I'd promised I would stay longer.

“I have to leave early. I want to go to Sorake. Surfing, ya know?”

“Okay, man. “I’ll go with you. I need to go anyway.”


“Yeah, sure. We can take my motorbike.”

Settled. I run my hands across the coconut, it feels smooth and waxy, except at the top where the machete splayed its fibrous flesh. I want to remember the sensation. I want to remember everything, because this is my last real Bawa moment.

I watch a family of pigs edge toward the porch. I hear U-ti coming--she always knows. First the broom and then her. "Chu-chu-chu," she says. The piggies scurry off with squeals that sound like cries. In the distance a startled rooster crows. U-ti turns to go back inside. Surprise and disappointment color her face. She still believes they'll learn.

I hear my name. Arman is passing a joint across the table. I reach carefully avoiding its brightly burning tip. "Last one," he says. I pull deep and exhale with exaggerated languor. And again. I turn up the volume because I love this song, Leonard Cohen growling something pretty. Over the music and the muzzled effects of memory burning the hammock is playing its siren sweet and light.

One more sip and I’ll be there...   

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