Surfing has fascinated me since I was 10 years old and my Dad bought my brother, sister and me boogie boards. I remember grappling with the waves, flying happily along on my board for hours. I’d marvel at the upright surfers, elegantly poised as if by magic. I greatly admired them, but never dreamed that I might become one of them. A couple of years ago, however, a friend learned to surf and her wave riding inspired my goal. If she could do it then why couldn’t I?
So I planned a surfing safari and headed to Bali, a Mecca for surfing since the 30s. The escapade began on Medewi beach, which translates as “my goddess” beach. A tiny destination off the-beaten-surfer track, Medewi was composed of a mere four guesthouses, two restaurants, a surfboard repair stall referred to as the ding-repair shop, and an outdoor massage stall. Some 15 surfers from around the world had come with their boards to surf the point. Dressed in my first-ever surf shirt, I stood out with my rented surfboard, starting on smaller, beginner waves down the beach from the pros.
The instructor was my friend, Gum, an experienced surfer from Australia. “First practice catching the wave flat on your belly, then on your knees. When you feel confident stand up,” he advised. With his patient guidance and assistance, I took the first steps of my surfing odyssey. I passed through the first two quickly and began to attempt standing up.
Out paddling, striving to ride the Indian Ocean in whatever fashion I could, I heard the muezzin, the Islamic call to prayer, drifting across the water from a mosque near the shore. The beauty of the haunting, Arabian melody captivated me: Just as it floated across the sea heralding the time of prayer, I myself was being called to unite with the divine through the waves and the glorious, fiery, orange sunset. I didn’t surf even one wave that evening, but knew I was off to a good start.
The next morning I awoke with shock as the muezzin cut through the dawn air. The incantations seemed just outside my window! I hadn’t even seen the mosque so I had no idea where the prayer was coming from and I lay there, stunned, as the call meandered up and down a bewitching scale until I awoke enough to grab earplugs. I fell back to sleep ignoring the religious alarm clock.
Just as I was as non-observant of the dawn call to prayer, I ignored the dawn call to surf and broke surfer protocol by not bothering to rise for the early morning waves. After my 9 o’clock tropical fruit breakfast was early enough for me.
Back in the surf I visualized myself succeeding, but progress was slow. Gum was out in the water with me, in his flippers, guiding me to appropriate waves and pushing to assist my momentum. Some sets were really strong and dumped us both. We did our best to take the dumpings with good humor and come up laughing. But once in a while a wave would throw us into involuntary somersaults, as the strong white-wash launched us towards the shore and we came up gasping.
That dusk, with the muezzin again punctuating the day, my surfing reached a new level. The waves were perfect and with Gum’s helpful pushes I caught and rode nine in a row. I felt euphoric as each wave and I moved together in glorious victory. I thanked Gum profusely.
Getting acquainted with surf culture that week, I learned that surfers were among the early environmentalists. In the late 60s, as the hippie movement was establishing itself, surfers began voicing concern about ocean pollution, over-fishing, the killing of dolphins by fishermen and trash littering the beach. They instigated awareness-raising campaigns bringing the issues into the public’s consciousness and cleaned up beaches with their own hands. I noticed myself automatically collecting rubbish from the beach too. It seemed the least I could do to give back.
The next morning, knowing what to expect, I relaxed into the mystical sounds of muezzin as it again awakened me. Rather than jump for my earplugs, I let the music enter me and let my mind coast through its melodic waves as I had, with my board, through the ocean’s. I savored the blissful musical mediation before drifting back to sleep.
In the water hours later, I marveled at the peaceful coexistence of religions in Bali, at the contrast of Islamic prayer on a beach with a distinctly Hindu name: Medewi, meaning “my goddess.” Balinese Hinduism, as opposed to its Indian counterpart, is more influenced by an indigenous, animistic vision of the world. It reveres nature spirits dwelling in sacred mountains, trees and rivers and thus, in this case, the goddess being referred to was the ocean and the beach itself.
Every day the Hindu villagers placed their offerings on the sand and the rocks. These offerings consisted of small square banana-leaf trays, pinned together with bamboo splinters, filled with an assortment of flowers, a little greenery, some rice, a stick of incense, and some form of sweet treat, were proffered to honor and entertain the gods, goddesses and spirits. When laying the offering down the devotees would sprinkle a few drops of holy water over it and light the incense, ensuring that the appropriate deity would come down immediately and enjoy it. The offerings were then left to be swallowed up by the sea.
And there was I, experiencing the meeting of cultures and a meeting with nature: The hypnotic melody of the Islamic muezzin, the Hindu offerings to the goddess of the beach, and the beautiful ocean that I returned to morning and afternoon and most definitely honored as my goddess.
Surfing was my way of attempting to unite with her, to understand her mysteries, to harness her power, to flow with her capricious nature, to merge with her in an act of bliss. Every day improving, every day more connected with the waves, the ecstasy of the ride stayed with me even out of the water.
Gum headed back to Australia a few days before I completed my safari, and with him went the helpful pushes. My victory thus far had been only partial, as he had been pushing me into nearly every wave. Surfing with no help was a whole new challenge. I struggled and, frustrated, missed wave after wave.
On my last afternoon it came together. A surfer girl taught me to gaze at the beach as I mounted the board, not down at the board or waves as I had been. I looked towards the white sandy shore lined with coconut and palm trees, and began to surf without a push. Elated, I caught wave after wave, breathing in the beauty of this peak experience.
Just as I was getting in the groove, it was time to depart. I surfed up until an hour before I had to take a taxi to the airport. The ocean, the beach, and the goddess spirit coursing through them had filled me and I walked away with new buoyancy to my step. For this adventure this was just the beginning. I’ll be back.