On our fifth day in Bali, Alyssa and I took our beautiful De Moksha hotel’s recommendation and booked a surf lesson with their go-to guy, Wayan Sukerta.
Sunday morning at 9:00am we slogged to the front of the hotel, hungover and tired from dancing in party-town Seminyak the night before. We were less enthused as we had been the day before when we had booked the lesson.
We were greeted by a dark Balinese man with shoulder length hair tied in a top knot, wearing a t-shirt and a sarong. He had the muscular gait of a surfer and we knew this was our guy. He introduced himself as Wayan, which means that he is the firstborn.
There are only 4 names that the Balinese give to their children: Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut. These translate directly as First, Second, Third, and Fourth. If someone has five children, which is uncommon, they start over again and name them Wayan. I later met Wayan’s father at his homestay where he said “Hello, I am Wayan.”
We crammed into surfer Wayan’s little car, all the cars are little here since the roads are barely the width of two parking spots, crowned with three surfboards strapped on, and headed to Kedungu beach. We drove beneath gorgeous yellow plumeria trees locally known as “jepun.” Alyssa and I cooed in wonder. Wayan had a few of the fragrant blossoms in his car and gave one flower to each of us.
After a quick stretch on the beach backdropped with black jungle rock laced with vines and palms, we had a quick lesson on our pop-up stance and headed into the beautiful Indian ocean.
“You may give flower as your offering to the ocean,” Wayan said, “if you want.”
The Hindus in Bali leave daily offerings to God everywhere, outside their shop, on the road, outside temples. We had seen the little palm leaf trays full of bits of flowers, food, and tobacco, all with different meaningful symbolism. We’d seen hundreds already and commented how thoughtful a gesture it was. “It’s not so much important what you give, but that you think to give something,” Wayan explained. As we slid into the ocean we removed the flowers from our ears and placed them in the water and I prayed, Here is my offering, please keep us safe, and may we surf well.
And we did. After a try or two I stood up and rode the wave in, thrilled that all my efforts surfing in Santa Barbara five years ago had not gone to waste. In fact, I had never surfed this well even in Santa Barbara. The floatie beginner board was an immense help but the ease with which I stood was still reassuring. Alyssa too did very well and after a few hours we drove back to the hotel, sand-encrusted and cheerful. I told Wayan that I would be staying in Bali after Alyssa returned to the states and that I would like to take another lesson. We said we were going to Ubud the next day, the jungle center of the island, and he said “Let me know when you are in Canggu and maybe we surf.” I agreed and even though we said goodbye I was sure I would see him again.
Less than a week later I messaged Wayan on What’s App that I would be in town and would like a lesson whenever he was free. We took the little car and boards to Canggu beach, only this time it was full of spectators, at least 200 people and dozens of other surfers. Pressure heightened and my stomach twisted anxiously. I’d done great before but that was without an audience and with some friendly support from Alyssa. But we pressed on our boards into the surf anyway.
As Wayan and I paddled out searching for the channel, the part where the wave begins to crest over, we played a game of What is the ocean like?
“The ocean like woman,” he said, “sometimes calm, sometimes wild.”
“The waves like beer. A little is good. Too much and you feel like shit.”
Wayan told me that my goal for the day was to catch the waves by myself without any help from him. After a very narrow miss when a wave blew past, too weak to carry me, I came up with my own simile.
“Wave must be like man. Not too strong, not too weak.”
Wayan laughed, a fast sputter much like a child’s.
The sun was setting and from the water we watched the sky change its colors from day to evening.
Two waves later and I paddled out on my own and rode. I stood up several times that sunset, enough for Wayan to teach me to pump, where you do a sort of pulse squat to accelerate the board and stay ahead of the wave. I was still surfing the best I ever had and I got out of the water feeling warm and accomplished.
Our third lesson was on Monday, 8 days after the first. Wayan said my goal for the day was to catch a wave by myself on the real board, not the ultra- buoyant one for beginners. He handed me a 7-foot-long classic red surfboard plastered with a giant Coca-Cola logo.
“Is this because I’m American?” I asked.
He laughed. “No, Coca-Cola sponsors us,” by us he means his company, Bali Outdoor Adventure. “It also fits you.”
When Wayan struggled to say my name, as with seemingly every single person I’ve met here (Cordney, Whitney, Corny are all new nicknames I’ve unwittingly procured), I told him the little girl I took care of in America liked to call me Coco.
“Coco?” he asked and looked at a nearby palm tree. At the top of the tree there were about 15 young coconuts nestled together in their husks. For comparison, me going by the name Coco is as funny to the locals as someone in the states going by the name of Banana, a tree-born fruit that you can buy anywhere. Wayan burst into laughter. “Ok, Coco!” and has called me that ever since.
Coca-Cola board for Coco, he teased.
We arrived at Old Man’s Surf spot, a gorgeous beach where I stood silently watching aqua green waves cresting and undulating more beautifully than any wave I’d ever seen in California.
“Today you will surf the green wave,” Wayan proclaimed. “The green wave” means that the wave has not broken, the traditional way you envision a surfer sliding down the backbone of a wave. We covered our faces in zinc to protect us from the equatorial sun and paddled out again.
I was in deep water, literally, and I had never seen waves so big.
Having grown up and spent summers at the beach popularized by Endless Summer and the U.S. surf open competition, this felt significant. I knew from looking at them that they were not so much as heavy as they were tall. As we paddled out beyond the wave break I felt the sea lift me like a giant hand that might smite me at any moment. It was like swimming over a moving mountain, allowing me to narrowly pass over it before it tipped forward, smashing whatever was in its wake.
To put it simply, I was terrified.
“Wayan, I have not seen waves this big and I’m from California,” I said, hoping he would see my point.
“It’s ok. If I were you I’d be scared too.”
This did not comfort me. My heart palpitated and my thoughts were frenetic spurts of I’m not having fun. This is scary. I don’t feel like getting crushed out here and looking like an idiot. I want to go back.
But this was what you signed up for, right? another voice asked. Did you forget how powerful the ocean was? I went back and forth from realizing my fear to chastising myself.
Oh, come on. You can’t just come out here and have fun all the time.
It was true. Practicing my scooter driving had not been fun at all times, particularly when I unexpectedly drove over a pothole after dark on my way home. I’d been fine but I was growing tired of putting myself through exhilarating situations. But I’d come to Bali to surf and so surf I would try.
Wayan helped me find the right position, sitting on his board nearby and saying “This is it Coco. This is your wave!” But I lacked his enthusiasm. As soon as it was time to mount the board I hesitated and pulled back. This was stupid because by missing the ride I had now positioned myself for the next wave behind me to break directly overhead and so in my effort to avoid a bad spill I got wrecked even worse.
I’d had worse tumbles, having learned to swim in the ocean at a young age, but I still did not enjoy being tossed around by waves of unfamiliar size, ocean water whirling me at all angles, filling up my sinuses and nearly yanking off my swim bottoms. Although I have to confess after every spill I always reflect on it as sort of existentially awe-inspiring, like “That wasn’t so bad. Kind of cool even.”
When I surfaced and took a deep ragged breath I thought ruefully of all the times I’d been warned about Indonesian water. Whatever you do, do not drink the tap water. Oh, but have you tried the ocean water? It’s delightfully salty. After two vicious waves I managed to mount the Coca-Cola board, which seemed less funny now, and paddled to Wayan.
“You alright?” he asked. He was sitting on his board floating perfectly calm and out of harm’s way. Wayan grew up in a fishing village, the son of a fisherman, and had learned to surf when he was ten. He always knows how the ocean is moving at all times and I wished that I had his knowledge of water, despite being one of its long-time lovers.
“Yeah. Sorry,” I said, feeling like a failing student. “I don’t mean to not do it. I just feel a little out of my league here.”
“This is part of it,” he said and I knew he was right. “I see you. Soon as you hesitate that’s exactly the moment you need to–” here he made a sound that could only be described as a ca-caw! and he splashed both hands in a hard paddle. “That’s what you need to do. You can surf the green wave. I know.”
Though his words were slightly reassuring I mostly thought he was just being nice. I felt like I couldn’t surf at all. You’ve felt this way before, I told myself. Remember? Then you got up and did it anyway. I remembered one long ride I’d had in Dana Point on a beautiful Sunday morning.
Surfing is much like life. Waves come when you least expect them and sometimes more powerful than you were prepared to handle. But that does not mean you cannot wade them. You can swim under them for safe passage. You might get tossed around from time to time, but you can resurface and try again. You just have to find the spirit in yourself to do it.
After a few more failed attempts and thundering waves I said, “Wayan, I’m tired. Let’s go.” I was disappointed but reserved that this had been an unsuccessful day. I had not accomplished my goal.
“Ok, Coco, but you take one more in.”
He helped set me up. “Paddle paddle, look left, find the wave, find the channel. Paddle paddle!” he urged. Moments before the wave came he reminded me, as he had before many waves, “Take a deep breath.” I did, calming my heart, and paddled hard. “That’s it, that’s it! Stand!”
And in one fluid motion, I did just that.
The board slid down the crystal green wave, glassy and reflective, with me atop it. Just like that, everything changed. From atop the board I was in control. I could see everything, every part of the wave and the white water was at my feet. I weaved slightly left and right, surfing away from the channel and when it was safe I turned back over the wave and dipped into the ocean. It was still so deep, we were probably 200 meters out and there was no sign of the ocean floor beneath me. When I resurfaced I saw Wayan sitting and watching, still somehow out of harm’s way, both arms up in victory.
Later, Wayan invited me to join another lesson he was teaching where I could borrow his board and practice while he taught some pretty German girls. Fortunately those baby waves were something I could easily stand on without any fear.
By the time night fell, my arms felt like lead, my knees and ribs bruised from knobbing against the board for hours and even my leg muscles were sore. I thought of how scared I had been that morning and how elated I felt finally surfing the green wave.
As I laid in bed I could feel the gentle sway of the ocean ease my body to sleep. If I reached my hand out I swore I would graze the kelp growing from the reef. It had been a good day.