Bali's first surfers find comfort and joy among the waves
By Alex Leonard
KUTA, Bali (JP): Bump into Gde Narmada and he's sure to be surfing, on his way to see how the waves are or taking his young son down to Kuta Beach to teach him a few things about surfing and always with a look of contentment or delight on his face, his enthusiasm obvious and infectious.
Born the son of a poor farmer in Tianyar, East Bali, Gde Narmada moved to Kuta in the early l970s at the age of fourteen. There he made friends with foreign surfers, who let him try to ride their surfboards.
Surfing fascinated Narmada, and he started surfing regularly with his Kuta friend Made Joe. "Joe used to lend me his board," he recalled. "The two of us would go the beach with one board and take it in turns to surf."
He remembered surfers were all good friends back then, and it was easy to get waves because there were so few of them.
They got so many waves we wanted to vomit! All day, from the moment they opened their eyes until it was too dark to see anything.
Thus, along with other young Balinese men like Wayan Budi, Nyoman Suardana, Ketut Jadi, Wayan Sudirka, Nyoman Radiasa, Gus Gina and Agung Adi, Narmada and Darsana became some of Bali's first surfers.
From one point of view those young men's attraction to surfing seems strange, since for Balinese and many other Indonesians the sea was traditionally a dangerous, spiritually-charged and impure place.
But from another point of view it seems natural, since Kuta is a fishing village whose people were always close to the beach and the sea, and local kids knew a form of surfing even before foreigners brought surfboards to Bali in 1970.
"We called it serup (Balinese for 'slip')," recalled Made Joe, adding that another way of saying it is nyosor umbak (ride the edge of a wave).
"We lay on bits of wood and caught already-broken waves to shore. We also used parts from the fishing boats that lined Kuta Beach, then the lengths of bamboo attached to the sides of the boats, the pangantang. So we could understand the new surfing of foreigners."
Bali's first surfers didn't have it easy, since for a long time the Indonesian authorities and many Indonesian people equated foreign surfers with hippies, in their view amoral slackers and drug-users, their presence corrupting of Bali and its people.
As Wayan Suwenda remembered: "The hippies didn't wear shirts and their hair was long, and our parents didn't like us to associate with them. I often angered Bapak (father) and Ibu (mother) by going off with my hippy friends."
In 1980, Suwenda won a surfing competition and was awarded three nights' accommodation for him and his Australian girlfriend at the Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur. There he was accosted by security guards, who thought him a gigolo.
But in reality, the foreign surfers' presence in Bali boosted the island's accommodation, food, transport and other industries, and many of them were very fit sportspeople, dedicated to the pursuit of good, big waves.
Bali's first surfers shared their foreign friends' condition and dedication to surfing, and were in a position to benefit hugely from their dealings with them (even if they never calculated upon finding themselves in a position such as Suwenda's: "That aspect of surfing was never important to me. I never thought about it, because I just enjoyed the life".)
Also, through contact with surfing friends from Australia, the USA, Japan, Brazil, France and Spain, Bali's first surfers became more cosmopolitan than many of their peers, learning about other ways of life in other parts of the world, being exposed to many new ideas and gaining a command of English, Japanese and other languages.
Now, thanks to the activities of Bali's first surfers and some of their foreign friends over the last twenty or so years, surfing's standing in the view of the Indonesian community has advanced enormously and surfing is now the basis of a huge industry here.
Bali's first surfers have become respected members of the community and successful businessmen who are able to attract investment from all over Indonesia and the rest of the world, to employ hundreds of people and to support promising young local surfers.
Many too are involved in the running of the Bali Surfing Association and the Indonesian National Surfing Association, which together have held over 120 surfing-related events since 1979.
The depth and complexity of their relationship with surfing does not escape these Balinese men.
As Wayan Gantiasa points out, "surfing has brought me so much. It has taken me to Japan, Hawaii, Australia. Because of it I have money, a house and car, a shop."
He added he can support his family. "And I am happy surfing. I surf every day. After taking my two children to school in the morning I surf till midday. Then I take my children home, rest, eat and go surfing again in the evening if I feel like it. Surfing is what I do in life."
For Wayan Suwenda, surfing bears an almost religious significance: "As surfers we learn love of nature and get a special sense of what it is to live."
For him, surfing is so special that he says: "I've had waves engraved on the stones of my place of prayer in my house".
And Gde Narmada, now aged forty-five, husband and father of three, has come to regard surfing as something like a physical and spiritual necessity: "Surfing is one of the most important things of all to me. The sea gives me something special. If I go to the sea, see it, swim in it, surf in it, I receive so much! If don't see the sea I don't have a complete day. I can get dizzy and nervous. But if I do, then it doesn't matter what's going on in the world. I think that as long as I'm alive I will remain this way. I think I will always live to surf and surf to live."