It had become second nature to stand at a new threshold, acutely aware of a point of no return. Those black and white moments where you have to put your money where your mouth is. That fork in the road, miles from civilization, that’ll take you back to safety or deeper into the swampy throngs of the jungle and your psyche. I’d come to love them in their own right for they never lost their edge – an edge that cut through the everyday melodramas back home like your entire life had been made of butter. Soft as shit.
You’d commit, succeed (or survive anyway, if that was the benchmark of a good adventure..) and be reaffirmed that things work out in the end… usually. For every brave new world I leapt into, I knew where to find my challenge – my raw, instinctual panic. I knew my big boy pants only ever stretched as far as the sea.
It’s one thing being swallowed up by the claustrophobia of a jungle, vastness of a salt-flat or the burrowing hypoxia of high altitude. It’s something entirely different to be swallowed by the ocean.
So, it was with growling trepidation and a babbling reel of excuses – exercise induced asthma, total lack of stamina, a colourful history of nearly drowning and the swimming skill of a sack of spanners – that I faced the breaking surf on the Bali beaches each and every day. For all my hard won adventures, standing on the beach each morning was the at the crux of my courage.
I was progressing slowly, afraid to get out the back with the big-shots, it seemed so far out… Relentless step-ladder sets rolled in so the majority of your paddle out was being hammered back towards the shore, digging well into the emergency energy reserves. My eight foot foamie wouldn’t duck the waves and it was exhausting to only get two or three paddle strokes in between turtle rolls.
More often than not I made the excuse to hover in chest height water where, in fairness, lots of decent waves were building up. But these broke flat, all at once, and dumped you on the beach. I knew I needed to paddle out to get some real time on green faces. After a couple of days I mustered up the courage and paddled out, committing to catching a decent wave before coming back in. In hindsight the gulp-inducing three meter waves (and counting…) were a strange encouragement for someone so apprehensive. One day I’d finally admit I’m a little too hard on myself. But not today.
I fought, with every sap of energy I could muster, head on into some of the most pulverising breakers I’d been in. The thundering blanket of sound that echoed around beach was pounding inside my chest, in my head, swallowing up everything. An olive branch, a ray of sunshine on a stormy day and what I took to be mere seconds of abating surf, was all I needed to paddle out beyond the breakers, fatigued shoulders thick with complaint.
There was no rest coming, because – as we all know – the ocean is a massive bastard.
Humming across the surface, far further out than any of the waves before it, a goliath began to charge, throwing its arms into a broiling wall of water. My chest tightened as panic panged like someone had dropped a hot coal in my heart. Fuck. Fuck! The whispering doubts told me I couldn’t fight it. This was a time you should justifiably run, or even just dive deep and hide, but for all my fear of the ocean I was more afraid of running away. As the spray whipped around me and the first surfers disappeared vertically up the wave I gritted down and charged directly into it. The point of no return.
It was a monster.
As I passed into the cold shadow – alone in my unluckiness – the crest flicked, like the tongue of a snake, then dragged downwards. In half a heartbeat my hope was dashed. I grabbed the rails and rammed my left shoulder hard into the surface, willing the board on top of me. It was a pinpoint awareness before the whole world turned black.
The board had been ripped clean out of my hands as the knife edge of wave drove me down with the weight of a pallet of bricks. It was entirely disorientating, spinning around in the dark waiting to be spat out, trying to protect my head from the board’s fins. A normal time to be submerged came and went and, through a slit in my eyelids, the world had stayed black. I had absolutely no idea where I was.
Eleven, twelve. The darkness lifted to green and then blue as my board must have been dragging me to the surface by my ankle. I looked past my feet and, picking up the vague surface shimmer, span and lunged with protesting lungs. A few more seconds of struggling through messy, white turbulence had me near the surface. But only my fingertips felt the air before the next wave came breaking down on top of them.
With the count of how long I’d been held under knocked clean out of me, I slowly punched against the water, then the foam and drank in two seconds of froth before pulling myself beneath another breaker. Panic had drained to lethargy, swim strokes turned to scrabbling, but with the last of my energy I pulled myself to the surface with my leash and reunited with my eight foot ‘get out of jail free card’. I was surprised to see it was even still attached.
Bodyboarding the brooding whitewater back to shore I stumbled out of the water on jelly legs, coughing up shots of water which had rifled deep into my lungs only seconds before. I smiled at the board rental guys and slumped onto a lounger for a shaky cigarette. It was enough to make me consider never heading back out again but, never really being one to cut myself any slack, headed back out – if only to kill fear before it took root.
Unfortunately for me, the water in my lungs must have been dirty. A growing knifeblade of pleurisy, stabbing hard between my ribs for every impact with a wave, drew me out less than an hour later – a lively concoction of bacteria and bruising. Thus ended my brief affair with early mornings and sobriety. Bali finally had me in her web.
I’d been crawling up the coast, first Kuta beach, then Seminyak before ending up in Canggu (changu), a surfers paradise. But with no way to play in the waves I waved goodbye to the coast; along with its vegan smoothie bowls, scooter taxis, skatepark bars and a solid group of good human beings that had become friends. It was time to hustle inland.
As I moved away from the coast the lowland rice paddies began to clamber carefully up hillsides in cultivated terraces, a tiered sea of vibrant green, like something out of an 8 bit videogame. I was heading to Ubud, the spiritual heart of Bali, in a clapped out Uber. The driver of which visibly nervous around pick up and drop off as to avoid altercation with each town’s local mafia. Beatings were apparently decanted casually and often for businesses creeping in on their turf. As for Ubud itself, it is cocooned away along a river in a tropical depression teeming with vine lashed trees, jewelry markets and long-tail monkeys. Despite never asking, I came to understand that Ubud has risen to fame as a result of eat, pray, love – a novel cum Rulia Joberts blockbuster where a depressed middle aged woman bravely sets out on a painfully conventional yet life-changing adventure to rebuild her shattered self esteem, avenge her father and weaponise an arc reactor she built to keep shards of debris from entering her heart. She’s a mad one, that Julia Roberts!
India was also part of the equation, specifically the pray stage, although Bali is apparently much preferred by your aspirant soulseekers and Ubud is bursting at the seams with western women picking at the complexity of their own existence through singing bowls and yoga. If this was a place to rebuild a soul, then the insta-fabulous millenials huddled in Ubud drinking vegan lattes that cost ten times the daily living wage had a real reason to be here – if only they’d put their phones down to realise it. But it wasn’t my place to rebuild, not any more anyway. It was a place to chill out for a few days, ambling around the town and surrounding walks with a nice Canadian girl, before leaving for pastures north – the volcanic bowl of Mt. Batur. I packed a day-bag and scooter surfed the swaying concrete capillaries to the southern lip of the colossal caldera, teetered at the edge for a photograph and carved down the sidewall with all the confidence I could have hoped for while out on the waves.
My ribs packed pain into every hairpin on the descent and I thought back to my surfing. Maybe I wasn’t meant to surf the in the ocean, but the tarmac and dirt road ripples that punctuate the calm on desolate and dangerous roads.
I contented myself with being the fastest scooter on the island for the time being, vowed to get back in the ocean when I’d healed and sped towards the grey nipple of Mt Batur, opting to relax the evening away in the hostel hotspring ahead of a truly breathtaking sunrise summit the next morning…