Surf's Up (Bucket List #3)

Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia  March 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

Sitting at a solitary table on the raised decking of a quasi-Mexican Restaurant on Kuta Main Street, I glanced out along the road and scowled at the carnage unfolding before my eyes. I’ve mentioned before as to why I regard Bali’s most popular resort as one of the biggest shitholes I’ve ever had the displeasure of visiting, and the view from my dinner table that evening encapsulated this in a perfect nutshell. Middle-aged, sunburnt, Australian couples stumbled along the pavement pissed out of their faces; the relentless honking of taxi driver horns directed towards people of ‘my kind’ competed for attention with the techno music pounding from every neon-signed watering hole along the tacky strip; and I choked on the intoxicating dust kicked up by the hundreds of daredevil scooter riders whizzing past, as sweat poured down my forehead. Deafened, and feeling like I’d just chain-smoked a packet of Marlboro Gold before stepping fully clothed into a leaky shower, I attempted to enjoy the chicken fajitas placed before me.

My flight from New Zealand to Indonesia had been delayed on its layover in Sydney, and it was near 11 pm when I’d eventually managed to haggle a lift from the airport, check into my basic hotel accommodation, and wander out into the hot and sultry Friday night in search of a bite to eat that wouldn’t leave my ass planted firmly on the toilet the following morning. It was St. Patrick’s Day, but the chance of getting a cold pint of Guinness in Kuta with some traditional folk music was seemingly as slim as being offered a threesome by identical twin sisters. As I pushed the food around my plate, two young Indonesia girls were accosted by a creepy old German dude on the pavement below. “You want to go dancing?” he asked them, shaking his hips in a manner that caused them recoil in disgust. “You want to fuck off?” I muttered inaudibly under my breath.

I’d been warned by everyone from my best friends back in Scotland to the Kiwi guy I passed my delay in Kingsford-Smith Airport with that Kuta was a disgusting place, but in order to cross off bucket list item number three I was going to have to stomach the seaside resort, and its food, for a couple of nights. Bali is internationally renowned amongst the surfing community for its waves, but for a beginner like myself looking to just stand up on a board the swell around Kuta was recommended as the only safe place to dip my toes in the water. The breaks around the rest of the island would be too powerful for a novice to handle. I headed back to my accommodation praying that, come daylight, the nocturnal demons would be safely out of harm’s way.

I met another Scottish guy at the surf school reception the next morning, still dripping wet from the sunrise lesson that he’d received. Giving me a tired thumbs up when I asked him whether or not the price was worth the tuition, I booked lesson for that afternoon. A few hours later I was pulling on a wetsuit top, lubricating my knees so as to avoid friction burns, shaking the hand of my instructor, and shuffling down to the beach with a longboard under my right arm. Alex was twenty-five, the same age as me, and had been teaching people to surf since his teenage years. He had that sparkle in his eyes which is seemingly ever-present in those who have managed to turn their passion into a career. Either that, or it was because he had begun telling me about the cute Japanese girl he’d managed to pick up the previous evening. If there’s anything that can connect straight males around the world, regardless of their background and beliefs, then it’s girls; girls; girls.

After drilling me on the basics and then letting me practice getting up on the board a few times on dry land, Alex led me into the ocean. He wore a snapback and didn’t take it off even when dipping his head underwater. It was as seemingly as much a part of him as the hair on his head, superglued in place. Perhaps it was a surfer style thing, or perhaps he had started balding at an early age. It felt rude to ask. Writing this bucket list post, I’ve now been in Asia for a number of months, and have been exposed to a disproportionately large number of hair-loss treatment ads on buses, trains, and in airports. It seems that it may be a real problem among Asians. Not the largest problem affecting this area of the word, mind you, but a problem nonetheless.

Now, you’ve probably heard that the beaches of Bali are among the most beautiful in the world, or have seen photos of golden sands and tranquil deep-blue seas that make you want to quit your job, book a one-way flight, and live out the rest of your existence on this island paradise. Well, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but this is a mirage; an Instagram-filtered fairy tale. If you want paradise, go to Fiji; go to the Philippines; go to the Maldives. As I pushed by the board over the whitewash hitting the Balinese shore, plastic carrier bags and sewage tickled my ankles; the ocean bed and my feet hidden from view by the murkiness of the water. Were it not for the excitement that courses through my body when crossing off another bucket list item, I would have been repulsed. Such is the importance of that 150-line list which I created back in 2008 to my continual development as a person, however, that even the yard-sale of a crash I experienced on my first attempt to stand-up couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

It took another few attempts after this initial fail, Alex correcting my stance and tweaking my positioning on the board each time, but I was soon up. I was standing. I was conquering the ocean. I was tasting the freedom of riding a wave for the first time. I was hooked. Some find unhealthy addiction in drug use; in gambling; in drink; or in sex. I’m fortunate enough to find its healthy cousin in adrenaline. It’s what I live for, and as I rode into the shore time and time again over the next hour-and-a-half, my muscles aching, I felt more and more alive.

I so was present to the moment in fact, that it took me a while to realise that Alex had entirely stopped giving me any of the tuition that I’d paid him for and was instead staring and drooling over the gorgeous Singaporean girl stood on the shoreline, posing there in a tiny white bikini. I felt sorry for him that he’d probably never get to experience the surf off the coasts of Hawaii or the South African cape, the wages in Indonesia making it impossible for most of the world’s fourth most inhabited country to afford any form of trip abroad. He had genuine happiness, however, and what more do any of us chase after than love and happiness? Those trapped in the Western consumer cultures that sell us the great lie of materialistic happiness could learn a lot from people like Alex.

“Table for one, please,” I said to the waiter of the Indonesian restaurant that I’d selected to eat my dinner at that evening. It’s a common phrase you find yourself saying when travelling solo. The first few times it’s uttered you feel like a loser; a bit of a loner; that the other diners might be judging and mocking you. But that soon dissipates. You start to embrace your surroundings; to notice things that you otherwise might not - like the fact that most people in the world have a base emotion of boredom. My joint’s still ached from the afternoon spent on the board, but I was still riding the high of the waves. I sat watching badminton on the small wall-mounted television whilst my food was being cooked. It’s not a sport that I particularly enjoy, but I do have one fun fact to share with you. Everyone is well aware that the New Zealand rugby team is called the All Blacks, but did you know that the country’s international badminton team is collectively referred to as the Black Cocks, taken after the shuttlecock used to play the game? I’m not making that up. Google it.

My attention span wavering, I took a glance at the couple to my right. They had been eating in silence since I’d sat down, and the tension between them appeared to be harder to cut than the overcooked beef on the girl’s plate. She was smoking hot, with slicked-back blonde hair that made her unmistakeably of Scandinavian descent. The man opposite her was batting way out of his league, being overweight with an unkempt demeanour, a scowling face, and a receding hairline that made him look like he’d spent the last ten years in a wind tunnel. I thought of mentioning to him the large market of hair loss treatments available in Asia, but thought this stepping over the line of what could be classified as a social faux pas. I left them to stew in their invigorating silence, hoping that I never had a relationship that reached that monotonous stage. I’d take a table for one any day of the week over that.