11 August 2014

Bali Belly

In that moment between wake and sleep I felt the hot fire and I was wicked confused. Hangover? How? Then reality arrived and I realized it was so much worse. I duck-walked to the toilet with one hand on my belly and the other hovering over my already clenched butt—just in case. The steak sandwich I had put in the night before had become a frothing pot of black tar with only one way to go. I might have cried a little. Not because of the pain you understand, but because my iron gut, an eat anything from anywhere machine, had suffered a most heinous defeat at the hands of Bali Belly. And to think, I was excited to visit The Island of the Gods.

Sumatra had been one of the better travel experiences of my life; chilling on the shores of Lake Toba, adventures on Bawa, surfing in Sorake, an absolute all-timer. But I was starting to miss the backpacker crowd, I wanted to tip back a few and tell travel stories with my people. I chose Kuta Beach because that’s where the party is. I wish I could unchoose it.

Kuta Beach is the worst place I’ve ever visited, and that ain’t the hot poop talkin. When tourists find a place they like and locals start liking the tourist money there is always a chance that rot will set in. Kuta is rotten to the core. It is an absolute tragedy of tourism. The beach is unimpressive and littered with hawkers; hawkers renting surfboards, hawkers selling beer, hawkers selling bracelets. Go ahead and lay down on your towel little bunny, I’m sure they won’t notice. The rest of Kuta is cleverly designed as a labyrinth of stupid shit for sale. You can buy a t-shirt that says, “Sex burns as many calories as jogging. But, who the fuck jogs for 30 seconds!?” Or if that isn’t to your liking there are many art galleries selling gorgeous portraits of Biggie Smalls, Jordan and Scarface. If you work up an appetite you can always grab lunch at Subway, McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, etc. And if your feet get tired, don’t worry, the unleashed beehive of motorbike taxis will take care of you. I’m not kidding about this tourism splooge being a labyrinth. There are no straight lines in Kuta, everything is a weave. I kept expecting David Bowie to pop out and fuck with me.

Now imagine how this place would look, smell, feel with a stomach full of hot tar. I was afraid that anything I ate would slide straight out, but I needed sustenance so I shuffled out looking for fresh fruit. I stopped at a corner stall selling rubbery pizza to ask for directions.

"Fruit? Far from here. Maybe forty minutes by walking."

"Forty minutes!? There must be something closer."

"Mmmm. No. You can take a taxi."

At this point a guy on a motorbike appeared out of nowhere. I looked at him like he was a wet fart.


"No, man. I'm just trying to buy some fruit."

"Come on. I take you. Too far."

"No. This is... There has to be..."

"Where you from? America? Barrack Obama!"

I waved them off with a hand that clenched into a fist and retreated. I bought some yogurt and laid in bed sweating out the evil. As soon as I was sure I wouldn't soil the minivan, I got the hell out of there. Ubud was supposed to be better; rumor told me so, Facebook comments told me so.

I didn't like Ubud either. It has its virtues. The guesthouses are gorgeous and the surrounding countryside is beautiful, but it's still a hot mess of tourism. It is basically Kuta Beach designed by someone with a lot more aesthetic flare.

I gave it a go, I really did. My Bali Belly had died down to molten heartburn, so I hit the streets and did touristy stuff. I looked in shops I had no intention of buying anything from. I went to the Monkey Forest and almost got attacked for videotaping a momma and her baby. I took a bike tour through the countryside. I went to bars and started conversations with random strangers from several continents. I tried. But, I couldn't get over the crowds, the cost, and the sell, sell, sell.

I realize now that I had reverse culture shock. In Sumatra I was the only tourist. All of my interaction with the locals was genuine and interesting; they wanted to know me, they taught me about their culture and introduced me to their families because although we were strangers we were also friends. They never tried to sell me a forty minute taxi ride to a pineapple.

I got out of Ubud as quickly as I got out of Kuta. I am well aware that I didn't give Bali a proper chance and I'm sure you Bali-ites could send me an itinerary that would change my mind. I don't care. As far as I'm concerned the Bali box has been checked. I will forever remember the Island of the Gods as a wonderful place...

04 August 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part Three

Through the Keyhole

Nylon sacks crammed with coconuts—a mountain of fabric and husk. The mountain needs to move and we aren’t going anywhere until it does. Small framed men heft the sacks over their shoulders in no particular hurry. I briefly consider jumping out and putting the damn things on board myself but I’m all jammed up, it’s wall-to-wall strangers and everyone thinks I’m strange.

The little girl to my right won’t stop staring. Staring and giggling. She is wearing a pink head-wrap and Velcro shoes. She probably wants to say hi, she probably wants me to go first. I don’t care. I’m in no mood to entertain. The dude in front of me is staring too. He's a seriously weather baked individual—mostly toothless—bone skinny. He’s got a mouth full of betel nut and he’s letting the blood red juice drip unchecked from the corners of his mouth.

Every direction seems worse and I’m out of directions so I put on my sunglasses and close my eyes. I hide in plain sight. Bye bye Bawa. 
Admittedly I was a little pissy that morning. I had tossed and turned, dwelling on unknowable surf dilemmas and woke up in need of a nap. I wasn’t worried about surfing well, I knew that was a long way off. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to surf at all.

Sumatra is for big boy surfers, daydreamers. Me, I'm just a fan boy who got in over his head. I knew that if I couldn't find manageable waves, my surf fantasy would end in tragedy. I don't like tragedies, I like happy endings, and I wanted the chance to will one into existence.

I began to loosen up when we reached Si Rumbo. Bawa was behind me and the conclusion to The Surf Chronicles, good or bad, was a motobike ride away. To Sorake!

But first an oil change.

Unlike my super awesome chain smoking bus driver, Arman was nice enough to warn me, thus I avoided sweating balls on the back of a jacked up motobike during "service" time. While that was happening, Arman and I got coffee at a place that seemed to specialize in little kid backpacks and deflated soccer balls. The things locals know...

The road to Sorake was in ruins but beautiful too; dense jungle that occasionally fell away revealing expansive ocean views. We pulled into town just ahead of the setting sun and snagged a room at place called Johnnie's owned by a man named Eddy.

"Eddy, I need to rent a board. A big one."

"Something like this. Not something like that," Eddy replied with one hand over his head and the other waist high.


"I'll call my friend Anton. Don't worry."

Chatty Eddy had all sorts of questions and an odd sense of costumer service.

"You want pushy-pushy?"

"Pushy-push... Boom boom? Um...no. I'm good."

Unsure if I was grasping his offer Eddy gave the air a good humping. "For sex. My neighbor. A nice girl from Nias."

"Yeah yeah, I get it. No thank you. I don't want to pay for pushy-pushy, ya know?

"Something like this. Not something like that."


My room at Eddy's overlooked Keyhole, Sorake's dream wave. The break was "discovered" in 1975 when three adventurous Aussies came machete whacking through the jungle with surf boards in hand. They found surf heaven, nirvana, shangri-la, etc and so on. They sucked at keeping secrets. Keyhole is famous now, a wave forever fixed on the surf destinations leader board.

In true kook fashion I looked at the waves cranking right and said, "It doesn't look that big."

Arman smirked and gave me a condescending pat on the back. "Wait until someone catches one," he replied.

So I did, and when I saw the first speck paddle in, I realized how off my sense of perspective had been. "Oh..OOOH...oh shiiit."

"This is okay for me," Arman said. "For you, I think the beach break is better."

This description from Action Guide: Surfing Indonesia sums up Keyhole nicely:

The next morning, Eddy's friend Anton brought over a board that was 7'3, thin and light. I figured it was big enough and paid him for three days. He gave me a ride to a wide sandy beach where I saw not a ripple. He introduced me to the brothers Antonio and Irman, local surf guides and all around good dudes.

After I had waited around doing nothing for twenty minutes, Antonio said, "Michael. Are you going to surf?"


"There," he replied pointing to some pansy looking shore break. I gave him a dubious look, but both Arman and Irman were looking at me like, "Yeah rook, that's where you belong."

I paddled where they had pointed oozing a slick trail of irrational ego behind me. I missed a couple and awkwardly caught a couple more. Mostly I trolled around pretending I was too good for the babies.

Arman left that afternoon. I said goodbye in the simple way you say goodbye to a friend. I doubt he knows how appreciative I am, but I hope that I can make up for that by passing Mr. Yoghurt's map on to the worthy.

The next morning, all alone and susceptible to my own delusions, I once again looked out at Keyhole and underestimated its brawn. I saw a group of surfers huddled together and figured I would paddle out, take a closer look, and turn back if it was too big.

Getting out wasn't easy. I had to stumble over sharp coral until I reached a deep water channel and then paddle for a good distance to reach the daydreamers circle. That's what it was--a bunch people who obviously knew what they were doing; slim dudes with dreads, shredded Aussie meats, blond girls with thick sunscreen smeared across their pretty faces and Indonesian kids who were probably birthed right there--momma floating on a longboard.

I immediately felt like an impostor. I let myself drift inside, away from the crowd, and watched them pluck off waves in awe of their ease. I knew I needed to retreat, but I decided to try one wave, just one.

A set rolled in and I took the first wave. It picked me up and threw me down the face. I came up sputtering and saw the second wave coming in fast; twice as high and starting to crest. I paddled hard and barely made it over the top. The next wave, the next set, dive dive dive.

I was scared. When I had gotten caught in the sets in Si Rumbo it was frustrating, but I never felt any real sense of danger. This was different. My Spidey sense was spazzing the f--- out. These were big, dangerous waves and the entire coastline was a coral shelf. If the waves threw me across that I'd end up in the hospital looking like Hamburger Helper.

The coral shelf has a sharp 90 degree turn. My exit point was through the waves and around the bend. Imagine being around the corner from your house but stuck in hurricane force winds. Every time you take a step the winds push you back three. You're exhausted and you want to give up, but you continue to fight and fight hard because your inching closer to a hedge with thorns the size of daggers.

There was no way I was going to make it through the waves, and I needed to get as far from the coral shelf as possible. I should have paddled right, past the point where the waves die out and looped around. Instead I turned and let the whitewash push me to safety, assuming the shelf would end and I would be able to reach the shore.

I probed and probed but the shelf went on ceaselessly. Way off in the distance I saw blue specks in the center of a wide bay, longboards leaning against Antonio and Irman's surf shack. I paddled toward the baby waves with no slick of ego to leave behind.

Allow me to clarify just how out of my depth I was.

The guy Anton who I rented the board from is a local legend. Anton could have gone pro. Anton should have gone pro. But, Anton fell in love and so Anton stayed. Now he is the fixer anytime the pros come to town.

A few days before I arrived Anton was surfing Keyhole with Mick Fanning.

Around the same time Shane Dorian was tow in surfing at an even bigger break nearby.

And once upon a time Antonio and Irman saw the king himself, Kelly Slater. He flew in on a helicopter, straight up abused Keyhole and flew away like royalty should.

Paddle paddle ya big dummy.

This was not the first time I'd been left floating because of my ego.

I learned how to water ski when I was 11-12 years old. You are supposed to start with double skis and progress up to a single ski when you're ready. I didn't want anything to do with those lame-ass double skis. I had seen my dad and his buddies ripping across the wake on a single. I had watched ski competitions on ESPN. I was going to start good and get great.

That summer we spent two weeks camping at New Hogan Reservoir in California. For ten days I tried and failed to master the single ski. I was a young buck. I had the stamina of a twenty-two year old Mick Jagger partying in Vegas with a feedbag of cocaine strapped to his face. My dad was supernaturally patient. He kept telling me to try the doubles and kept letting me learn the hard way.

Finally on the eleventh day he'd had enough. When the boat came by I handed him my single ski. He snatched it and pulled away.

"Dad! Stop messin around," I whined.

"You're not getting back in the boat until you try doubles."

"I don't want to learn doubles! I want to single ski. I can do it!"

He circled me in silence like a shark with an inboard-outboard motor. I think the boat actually had a dolphin sticker on it, but whatever, like a shark! My teeth were chattering, the life vest was digging into my arm pits, but I could see that Pops wasn't gonna budge.

"Fine! Give me the stupid doubles."

I strapped on the stupid doubles and waited for the rope to pull taut. I wanted to fail so badly. I wanted to be the last kid picked on his worst day so I could show my dad how wrong he was. With a pouty little wimp face that imagined to be hard I yelled, "Hit it!"

Before I new what happened, or how it happened I was humming across the surface of the water. I forgot all about flipping my dad a told ya so and aimed for the outside of the wake with crooked teeth flashing and crazy eyes shining.

As I paddled toward the baby waves, I realized that I couldn't let myself back in the boat. It was time to double ski.

There is about 1.5 kilometers between Keyhole and the baby waves. It took me a long time to reach Antonio and Irman's surf shack, and I knew that they had probably gotten a good laugh out of my dumb and dogged approach, but I didn't care. I was amused by my own ridiculous. And I had a plan.

Two steps out of the water with the leash still fastened around my ankle I said, "You guys rent rooms here, right?"


"How about big boards? I'm talkin humongous."

I walked barefoot along the side the road until I reached Eddy's place, crammed all my stuff into my backpack, checked out, and walked right back to the baby waves. I rented a board the size of Manhattan and started peppering everyone with how to questions. That afternoon I paddled out, and wouldn't you god damn double ski know it, I stood up and rode five out of the seven waves I tried for. Good rides. Clean rides. Surfing.

The brother's, party prepping
I learned to double-ski surf the day before America's birthday. I asked the brothers if there was anywhere to buy a bottle of booze, because I wanted to party on our nations b-day no matter where I was. The brothers loved the idea of a party and wanted to join. In fact they offered to host.

So on the 4th of July in faraway Indonesia, America's birthday was celebrated with cheer. Antonio and Irman brought their wives and children as well as an American couple who had been surfing the break earlier that week. They grilled fresh caught tuna right there on the beach, served with rice and dipping sauces. And they mixed up a wicked bucket full of fresh fruit and tuak--moonshine Sangria.

I stayed on the beach with the baby waves for nearly a week. Every morning I had fried bananas and coffee at a roadside stand. Every evening I ate dinner at a restaurant with a blue metal roof. And every day I surfed.

I paddled out when the sun was shining. I paddled out when rain was pinging and rippling all around. I watched Irman's seven year old son shredding waves on a surfboard the size of a skateboard looking for clues. I listened to the teenage kid who yelled, "Ooh la la" anytime he saw a wave I should chase.

I wish I could tell you that I got better. I wish this story could end with me dropping into a wave at Keyhole and riding it through. But, the truth is I struggled. I loved it and I wanted to quit. I felt pride and I felt loathing. It wasn't easy, but it was real.

And that is how The Surf Chronicles end; with me on the board but not on the shore, with me looking back at a golden bay in faraway Sumatra, slow riding baby waves, daydreaming about daydreaming.

Me and Manhattan