The Ups and Downs
I was in Kuta, a small area in Bali, Indonesia, when I decided to try surfing for the first time. Not wanting to spring the $60 for professional lessons for something in which I only had a mild interest, I wandered around until I stumbled on a dingy, locally owned surf shop in a small back-alley. I was assured that the man who would be instructing me spoke very good English. In fact, so many times was I assured this that I started to doubt its veracity.
Regardless, I brought myself to part with a twenty, and off to the beach I trudged, wielding what seemed to me a comically oversized surfboard. By some miracle, I managed not to knock anyone over on the way there.
Once at the beach, I met my instructor: a very tanned, toned Balinese guy with dreadlocks. He oozed chillness and had a “laugh with life” attitude. Nonetheless, he did look a bit hopeless during his instruction when he found out I’d never tried snowboarding, skateboarding, or any other sport that involves balancing on a board. He briefed me (I say “briefed” with my tongue in my cheek, as his command of the English language wouldn’t quite allow one to reputably attribute to him such an official-sounding verb so befitting of a leader, although his “speech” was quite stuttered and brief, brief, brief) on the proper form for lying on the board, and—most importantly—for looking cool when standing on the surfboard. I found myself quite able to master the lying down part, at least. The rest I attribute to his lackluster ability in English.
While my instructor ran off to assist his other student, I was left in the sand, repeating the motions of transitioning from lying down on the board to standing on it, focusing on making sure my feet were in the right positions. I felt quite silly pretending to surf on the sand, knowing that I’d personally get a kick out of watching some solitary grown man cycling through the same three motions over and over, with a puzzled look on his face, making sure his right arm had just the perfect amount of surfer’s dangle. Still, I pressed on, as form is of utmost importance, and I knew I’d greatly benefit from a bit of muscle memory before having to consider the water, the waves, the current, the other surfers, swimmers, paddling, turning, keeping my shorts up, avoiding sharks. Thankfully, after just a few repetitions, my instructor rescued me from further embarrassment, ushering me into the waves.
My first few attempts to stand were good. Nothing to be ashamed of, I reassured myself each time I keeled slowly, almost lazily, over into the waves, like an old cowboy struck by lead. His other student got up right away, but this was her second day of tutelage. Still, seeing her aloft, riding over those waves, standing triumphantly, victorious over the fury of the ocean, like a champion not just of her sex but of her species—it motivated me, sparked a flame in my heart to be known as a surfer, to be referred to in hushed, awestruck whispers as “He Who Surfs.” But the veneer of this fictitious surfer legend status I’d invented for myself was difficult to maintain when my instructor would burst into laughter, somehow both uproarious and sly, every time I’d spill into the waves.
I’ll give myself credit, though: I did get up on that board fairly quickly. It only took me about five or six tries. I was told this was really good for a beginner—especially one who had never attempted any board sports. A curiously glorious pleasure swelled within me. It’s quite strange to feel proud of the ability to stand upright on a floating hunk of plastic, being shoved forward by a ridge of raised salt water. I’m not entirely sure why I liked it, only that I did, and I liked it a lot. A smile washed over my face as I stood, surfing atop that mighty ocean, the crashing waves providing the fanfare. Soon, I was paddling on my own, critiquing my own form, and riding wave after wave.
When my instructor left, I admit, it was difficult to find my groove, to know which wave was the right one, and where it would break, and how to time my paddling. But after half an hour of flailing around inadequately, I was able to find the ocean’s rhythm from time to time, and to do more surfing than failing and flailing.
I surfed big waves. I surfed small waves. I surfed long stretches. I surfed short stretches. I surfed crouching, standing, teetering, slipping, falling, hopping off when I slowed. For hours, I surfed, until my nips were red and raw from rubbing against the rough sandpaper texture of the board.
Surfing was for me. I was sure of it. I was so sure of it that I may even have started to overestimate my ability. I’d see dudes who looked like seasoned pros unable to hit a wave that I would then conquer, and suddenly my fantasy surfer legend status didn’t seem so unattainable. I knew it in that moment: I was a surfing hotshot.
So now I’m thinking I’m some goddamn untouchable surf superstar because I’d overcome some measly 2-foot waves. Suddenly, I’m looking up surf conditions online. A 3-star surfing day? Nah, that’s not enough “surf” for me. I like to treat my-surfing-self. I only go for the best. I only do 5-star days.
Luckily, there was a 5-star surf day coming up, so I bode my time waiting for this pinnacle of surf circumstances. What I didn’t realize, until I got out in the ocean, was that the star rating system wasn’t exactly representative of how good of a day it was to surf. Five stars didn’t mean “great surfing day.” Five stars meant “enormous, mondo waves so gargantuan, in fact, that you’ll spend 30 minutes trying to paddle out to them, getting tossed around like a baby rubber ducky in an abusive relationship with Poseidon himself, choking on sea water, getting jerked away and under by the surf-swept board attached to your foot, having your board shorts ripped asunder by the fury of the ocean, only so that, within seconds, you can be turned upside-down after trying with all of the strength, courage, balance, and prayers you can muster to mount a pathetic attempt at what some of the more compassionate folk might pitiably classify as ‘surfing.” Five stars, I was informed by my Australian friend, is surfer code for “professional,” and there I was, flailing amongst the waves, nothing more than another hazard for the infinitely more capable and seasoned surfers sighing at the idiocy of my good-spirited but, ultimately, baseless confidence.
Surfing, for me, didn’t quite have the same sheen after that mishap. But maybe I’ll give it another go—perhaps when the waves are not much higher than the backsplash from a minnow’s fart. After all, everything worth doing has its ups and downs.