Drinks Like a Sand Dune

He drinks like a sand dune.

In the early evening, when we arrive in the restaurant after our surf session he is already at the bar, soaking up glass after glass of booze. By the time we retire to the little thatch huts between the trees for the night, he is still there, leaning heavily on the counter in front of him, eyeing us blearily.

When we get back in the morning following the first surf of the day, we find him in the same place, knocking back tooth-loosening cups of coffee just to get straight before he heads off to bed. Caffeine hardly touches him; he’s done so many hard drugs, his body is indifferent to most stimulants. And it shows in every line on his face. He is about forty-five, but he looks seventy.

He used to be a very good surfer; the best guy in the water on almost any given day, no matter where he surfed. He could have been a real contender on the world tour during the eighties and nineties, but he never quite got there. He did well in some contests, but failed in too many other events on the tour. He said that he was a free-surfer at heart, that the desire to win was not strong enough in him. “Winning isn’t everything.” But lets be honest, he was lazy. He lacked the drive and the work ethic to beat the rest of the field, especially when the waves were poor. So he faded back into obscurity after a few years of notoriety and fame. The pretty girls were no longer that interested and neither were the sponsors. He gradually retreated to the comfort and consolation that booze and drugs offered and from that point on his life unraveled quickly. On a good night, when his head is clear he’ll tell you stories about it all, cautionary tales.

Tonight he is in a pensive mood, thinking back on the years when he stayed under those palm trees along the point, long before the hotel had been built here.

“Those were the days, mate.” He looks out towards the point break where translucent green waves break along a row of black rocks and yellow sand. There is a wistful expression in his eyes and for a second or two they light up with the memories of those years when he was truly alive.

“We used to sleep in hammocks that we strung up between the trees and when it rained we all had to huddle under the tarp that we used as a cooking shelter. There were never more than ten of us here and not everyone surfed. Six guys in the water were considered a crowd.”

Then his countenance changes again and he retreats back into that familiar, negative mindset.

“Now look at it: fifty clueless kooks on a good day. And you wonder why I no longer surf!”

But we both know he can’t surf because his body has packed up. The drugs have shriveled his nerve endings and fried his neurons. His muscles have atrophied, his lungs can no longer expand and his heart only flutters. The hotel has become his home now; the owner puts him up for free. (His bar tab makes up for the missed rent.) Apparently the two of them go way back, to the times when they used to camp under the palms. His friend had built the hotel and things progressed from there. But now they are acquaintances only. The friendship has faded, like all his other relationships. Nobody can put up with the mood swings, the anger and the unpredictability. One ex-girlfriend still sends money, a kind of alimony born out of pity and guilt and he hates her for it.

I try to lighten the conversation by asking him about the surf. Will there be waves tomorrow? But he no longer knows the ocean. He has forgotten the rhythms and the cycles of nature. For him the world is constant and predictable: tomorrow he will wake up in a haze and when he eventually makes it out of his room, he will find his way to the bar, where he will drink and watch as the tourists and the surfers come and go. A good looking girl might attract his attention, but he won’t really be interested, he has no chance of catching her eye and anyway, his body has long ago lost any impetus to respond to the opposite sex. He will drink until dawn and then he will go to bed.

The next day will be the same. He will continue to drink like a sand dune.

Eating out in Sumatra

Aside

It was breakfast time and I was sticking to the principle of trying to experience the local culture as realistically as possible.

Padang is one of Sumatra’s largest cities and it is the jump-off point for most surfers who travel to that magical chain of islands nearby called the Mentawais. I was killing time in the port, waiting to board a ship.

Across the street was a little eatery filled with old Indonesian men. This was a no-frills establishment catering for the locals and there was no English on the menus. The recently opened McDonalds and KFC joints were popular with many visiting surfers, but I avoided them. Why even bother to leave home if you’re only going to eat American fast food, sleep in rooms decorated with Western posters and never mix with the locals? So I walked into the warung with my phrasebook handy and greeted the owner / waiter in Bahasa Indonesia. Although greeting people in their own language (or, in this case, a language that is at least local to Indonesia) is great for breaking the ice and creating goodwill, the trouble is, of course, that people then assume that you can actually speak the language. The owner returned my greeting enthusiastically and then carried on talking, no doubt enquiring about my stay in Padang, my health, my family and so forth. All I could do was to look back at him blankly and shrug my shoulders apologetically. I sat down at a plastic table, grabbed a menu and stared at it for a while. And then I stared at it some more. It was impossible to make any sense of it at all. At one stage I wondered whether I was holding the thing the right way up! There were some basic Indonesian phrases that I knew and I could ask for the prices of items in a shop, but deciphering a local menu not meant for tourists was not one of my strengths. How I wished for one of those Chinese menus with pictures of the dishes! All the patrons at the warung watched me with great interest, but it was clear that none of them spoke a word of English. The owner waited expectantly. To buy time, I tried another Indonesian phrase that by that time I knew well and used often – “I don’t speak Indonesian very well”. My audience found this most amusing and had a good laugh. With a sheepish grin, I hid behind my menu and tried to think of something to order.

I decided that a boiled egg would be a fairly safe and easy option to explain. I proceeded to act out putting a pot of water on a stove and boiling it, with an egg inside. My audience loved the part where I imitated the chicken laying an egg and they asked for an encore. After much waving of arms and many puzzled facial expressions from the warung owner and all the curious customers, we came to an understanding. I also ordered a cup of tea because that was something I can do with confidence. While I was waiting for my food, I kept myself busy by paging through my phrasebook. As is often the case, some of the other customers came to sit with me and started reading the phrases in the book. They found it hilarious! Soon everyone was taking a turn to read a sentence out loud, to uproarious laughter and applause. I still don’t know whether it was the novelty of reading a foreigner’s book or the actual meaning of the phrases that was so funny. It did make me wonder about what I was really saying to people when I used the book!

Quite soon, my food arrived. I waited to see what the kitchen had produced with some trepidation and the result was rather interesting. With a flourish my host put down a cup of tea with a raw egg floating inside it. I was a little taken aback, to say the least. But still, it could have been curry balls, or worse, and I didn’t want to disappoint my host. So I stirred my egg into the tea and had a taste. It wasn’t bad at all. Although I have never thought of making this kind of breakfast for myself since then, it is actually quite a practical, nutritious and time saving meal. Later on I noticed that it was quite common in Sumatra to have a raw egg in coffee instead of adding milk.

I finished my tea and left the warung, to the disappointment of the regulars. That evening they would have a story to tell the wife!

The Hungry Reef

We were sailing through the Mentawais on the Island Explorer, an ironwood ketch on it’s maiden voyage through that magical Indonesian archipelago that hangs from the equator.
On board was a bunch of surfers in search of adventure, exhilaration and of course, waves. Hardly any of us had any experience of navigation, hoisting sails or of steering a ship, but we were young, full of energy and we were (over) confident. We had already made it through a storm or two, those concentrated little cyclones known amongst the old hands as Sumatran Black Eyes and we thought that we knew what we were doing. After two weeks on the Selat Mentawai we had fallen into an easy rhythm of surfing, snorkelling and island hopping, using the ship as our mobile home. We ate what we could catch or spear in the sea, complemented by what vegetables we could buy from the local people and sometimes some coconuts and bananas that we picked on some of the islets.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at one of the most beautiful bays a surfer could imagine: The Playgrounds. With half a dozen breaks to choose from and the most incredible white sandy beaches you can imagine, we were in heaven. It was April 2000 and there were no land camps or resorts around. And no other yachts and no local settlements that we were aware of. The charter season had yet to start and we had the whole place to ourselves. Everything seemed so ideal. This was easy.
After downing some lukewarm Bintangs that evening, I went to sleep serenely, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow there would be waves.
That night at Playgrounds we had another tropical downpour. From my bunk I listened to the rain pounding on the deck and I drifted in and out of sleep until at some stage I became aware of a different sound overhead. Together with the rain, there was the sound of running feet, then shouting. I got up to see what was happening and when I came on deck, it was chaos. Amidst the pouring rain and the wind, everyone was running around, pulling on ropes, hauling the anchor and in the wheelhouse Gavin was starting up the engine. The little motorboat that was used to ferry passengers and equipment to and from the ship, called the tender, was submerged alongside the Explorer. It had been moored next to the ship right where the run-off water from the deck went into the sea and so it had quickly been filled with rainwater and had sunk. At the same time the wind had swung around, blowing us in the direction of a shallow reef. By the time the guy on watch had realised what was going on, we were very close to the reef, approaching it fast. To make matters worse, the submerged tender was acting as a sea anchor, preventing us from manoeuvring effectively. At the helm, Gavin was trying to put some distance between the ship and the shallows, but to no avail. He kept dead quiet, his features rigid, his face drained of all colour, wet with rain and perspiration. The alarm on the depth sounder was beeping away, the decreasing depth flashing on the screen: 8m, 6m, 4m … I peered through the rain into the darkness in the direction that we were drifting, but there was nothing to see, the danger was lying under the water. In my mind I saw the jagged edges of the reef reaching out for the hull of our ship – the huge jaws of an eagerly waiting sea monster. The beeping of the depth sounder now turned into a continuous screech, like a heart monitor on a dying patient. At that moment Gavin revved the engine as high as it would go and with an almighty roar the Island Explorer surged away from the reef, pulling the tender out of the water like a water skier behind a ski-boat. You could probably have heard us cheering all the way to Padang as the ship steered for deeper water. Gerhard stepped back from the side wide-eyed. Everybody stood around dumbfounded; the whole episode had lasted only a few minutes. Slowly we sat down in the rain, talking in low voices, marvelling at our narrow escape. This had been close, far too close. Gavin didn’t stop the engine. He just kept going way out to sea, away from danger, away from any reefs!
The next morning we woke up to clear skies and calm, clear water in a different bay. The previous night’s happenings felt distant, like a bad dream, until we looked into Gerhard and Gavin’s faces and saw the dark rings under their eyes.

Elephant Bus

The Elephant Bus

“You take elephant bus.”
“What, an elephant bus?”
I’m desperately trying to leave this godforsaken little hamlet in the middle of the Indonesian rain forest and now he’s carrying on about elephants! Two long weeks of futile waiting for surf in a soggy marsh nearby have drained my reserves and set my teeth on edge. My nerves are ragged, my guts have long since turned to liquid and my eyes roll around in their sockets when I shake my head. I need to get out fast.
“No mate, I hate going on those phony elephant tours where they make the poor dumb animals do tricks and carry poles around and what-not. It’s degrading for the elephants as well as the tourists.”
“No, no! Elephant bus! Bus go elephant.”
“I just told you, I don’t want any elephant rides. I want to get to Sukup. Just give me a plain bus ticket as soon as possible. Any bus.”
“Yes, but next bus is elephant.”
“What? A real elephant? Have the roads washed away? What about the regular bus service?”
“Is very good bus. Brand new. At elephant.”
“I didn’t even know that there were elephants here at all! Does the bus leave from an elephant park?”
“No, sir. Very good bus. New bus. From here. Go to Sukup. At elephant.”
My nerves are jangling like loose guitar strings. I have a juddering headache and the sun is too bright after endless days in the jungle. A fortnight of rough sleeping in the undergrowth all by myself has not done me any favours. A fortnight of getting up every morning to complete flatness in the bay, while huge close-outs smashed themselves to a foaming froth on the other side of the headland. And me praying fruitlessly every evening for the swell to just bend a little to the south, just a few degrees so that it could wrap into the bay to create that perfect right I had been dreaming of for so long. A fortnight of Neptune sneering and laughing at me while I sat eating my instant noodles and dried fish flakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A fortnight of flatness while dozens tropical reefs broke flawlessly all over the rest of the archipelago on the swell of the year. I could have been surfing perfect Desert Point, or the Bukit, or those semi-secret spots in the Lombok Channel, but no, I had to check this setup in the middle of nowhere.
I can’t think. I need coffee, I need a drink.
“Listen friend, is there nobody else here who can help me? I do not want to go to an elephant park, or to one of those sad rehabilitation centers, or to a circus, or anything that has animals in it. I just want to get to Sukup. Please give me a ticket. Please.”
I want to lie down in a hammock with a cold drink. I need to scrape the fungus from my shirt, clean the festering tick bites and dry the dampness out of my bones. No more checking my boots for scorpions before I ease my blistered feet inside them. No more leeches and infernal whining mosquitoes! Anything to get me out of here now. If I make it out in one piece, I swear I’ll only go on sensible trips booked six months in advance to established tourist attractions with paved roads and clean bed sheets. No more setting off to unexplored places on the spur of the moment, just to see what the swell does to a potential setup. From now on it is up-market hotel accommodation with a reliable wave out front for me. Who cares whether it’s boring or not? I want safe and easy. Predictable. Secure.
“Why do you keep pointing at your watch? Don’t you rush me! I’m the client you know, I’m entitled to as much time as I need to get a ride! Oh bugger it, give me any ticket, with or without the elephant tour. I’ll wait in the bus while the others ogle the elephants!”
“Elephant o’clock, sir! Elephant o’clock!”
“What? Elephant o’clock, have you gone completely mad? Oh, eleven o’clock! The eleven o’clock bus? Err, sorry! Yes, that would be lovely. One ticket please.”

Young man, you are wasting your life!

I have a friend from medical school. As students we sometimes went to the beach together. We both loved to surf, but when it came to riding waves, he was ahead of me; I was a late comer to the sport. Over the years though, I started to inch ahead of him. I put in more water time, I got up earlier in the mornings and I was hungrier for waves.

He decided to concentrate on his career and he worked really hard at medicine. He settled where he could find the best training posts. I took jobs near the sea. Then he went to the UK and worked at some of the most respected centres for vascular surgery. I went to Indo. Repeatedly.

While I was learning about late take-offs and trying to make it out of barrels, he spent hours in theatre, becoming adept at operating, learning the intricacies and techniques of transplants, grafts and intensive care.

He lost contact with the sea. His paddling muscles are small now and he has put on weight, though he is still fit. He runs marathons occasionally. But he can’t really surf anymore: he can’t make it to backline.

On all those perfectly glassy mornings when I paddle out for an hour of bliss, he puts on a formal shirt, pulls the SUV out of the garage and commutes to work. While I’m sneaking in a session after work, he is still busy sorting out the admin at his practice, losing more hair and enlarging his stomach ulcer.

He is a successful vascular surgeon now. He can save your leg after you mashed it to a pulp while burning rubber on your bike. He can do wonderful things that took years to learn. And me? I am happy enough as a general practitioner, I like a bit of everything. But I never acquired a skill that took years to learn. Except surfing. I’m still not a great surfer, but I can do things on a board now that I found entirely impossible, inconceivable even, two decades ago when I started.

We both acquired abilities that took years to master. Which was the better option? Which one was more worth while? He can cut away a cancer to save your life, but he can’t do a cutback anymore. And I? For all the endless hours I have spent in the water, I have nothing to show. I often ask myself, could I not have done something more productive with my spare time?

Who took the right path? Of course there’s no right or wrong here. We need people like my friend. They make the world a better place.

But when we talk about surfing, he gets a wistful expression in his eyes and he says he wishes he could catch a few waves again. He admits freely that there is nothing in this world like sliding down a clean face. He longs to have that feeling back.

Then I know that what I have done hasn’t been a complete waste of time like all those bitter old people told us when we were young. I’ve collected pockets of happiness, parcels of joy. I’ll open them one day when I need them.