I’m a disgraceful Australian.
Despite growing up on the edge of a coastal Australian city, I’ve never learnt to surf. It was always something that I assumed I would one day get around to. But, the summers have rolled past and I was still no closer to being a board rider. I had a day to kill in between dives this week and decided that this had gone on for long enough. I signed up for a lesson with a French beachfront surfing outfit that assured me that it’s never too late to learn. Further, they explained that the instructors consider it a mark of pride to get all of their ‘students’ standing on their coffin lid within the hour. Those that fail in this have to fend off a week’s worth of disparaging comments from their peers about their ability to teach, and worse still, to surf. My instructor was a muscly little Javan called Dewa. He looked strong enough to crush a coconut in each hand and had a bright white smile that would light up a dark room. I presented myself at 8.30am in my best boardshorts and he looked me up- then up some more – and down suspiciously and asked my why I’m so big and spotty. Was I born this way? I to explain that my ancestors are from Ireland. He wanted to know which island? The UK island. You ok, sir? The geography was getting awkward, so I explained the island of Australia. This delighted him. Where in Australia, sir? Perth. Dewa’s face split as he smiled from ear to ear. He spoke through his teeth, his lips too far from the words. All Perth Aussie good surfing, sir, no problem. Obviously a precedent exists. Certainly this would be an easy morning’s work, and bragging rights to carry him over for a while. And what your name, sir? Brett. Huh? Brett. Bread? Brett. Bert? Brett. Hmm? He picked out a long sleeve rashie so that both of us could ignore my freckle-tan, and got on with the business of learning the ropes.
My group already had three women in it. All of them Australian. Dewa was grinning like a toothpaste commercial, every muscle flexed. Our first lesson was to practice to paddle and stand on the board, on the sand. Nailed it. Dewa admired my form approvingly. Very nice paddle, sir. Thanks, I’m a swimmer. I allowed myself a short, self confident rest to strut around on the sand checking out the break and waiting for my set while the ‘sisters’ practiced their stroke. Lisa had dodgy knees and took several minutes to get to her feet even with a Javan heaving at each elbow. She obviously thought that surfing was going to be a more passive exercise and decided to stay behind for orthopaedic reasons. Dewa was unperturbed – evidently, if they don’t get in the boat they don’t count as a fail so he was happy to have culled this one early. The dry-dock lesson completed, he threw our boards in the boat and we headed out to the house reef. Dewa lighting the way from the front, eyes closed, head back, smiling into the breeze.
At the reef, Dewa hurled all of the boards into the water, and the three of us in after them. Nicole went in, went under, came up and got out. Despite being 28 deg, the Lembongan water was too cold for Nicole. Dewa was still upbeat and continued to smile, even underwater, as through straining plankton. Evidently, if they don’t make it to the break they don’t count. Two down, but no problem sir. Two from two still 100 perfect. Jasmine, unfortunately was not a swimmer. And with a Celtic complexion similar to mine, refused to leave the boat without her straw hat. This was no problem at all in the flat water and paddling around. But Jasmine and her hat parted company at the first wave she encountered. Five minutes of furious dog paddling reunited the pair, only to be separated more or less immediately by the next wave.. This cycle continued for about half an hour, by which time Jasmine was finished. She had to be hauled back onto the boat, hat first, and propped against a railing to recover. Three down. Dewa was starting to look concerned. His chips were heavily invested in the stocks of Bert, the Aussie swimmer from Perth. I prayed a silent prayer that his stocks would float.
For the next two hours Dewa wore me like a glove. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so closely coached in any activity in my life. As we sat on our boards waiting for waves he would gabble away excitedly about technique, wave selection, balance, etiquette. I took it all in, and in return I tried my be to make him proud. When a wave presented he would bounce up and down excitedly, chattering and waving his hands, makiing me ready. I would paddle like a veteran to his shouted encouragement, feel the wave take me, it was all so natural. But, the moment I would try to get my feet under me, it would all come unstuck. For two hours I put on a theatre on ways to fall down. Nosedives, broadside, gently seat first, violently to the edges, peglegs, bombies, cartwheels, faceplants, striding. The full repertoire was on display. At the end of each disgrace, I would paddle beautifully back to the line up, only to catch the the wave and fall again with all the charm of an epileptic praying mantis. The one time I managed to stand for more than a few beats I found myself somehow facing backwards, over the wave, right at Dewa. Dewa was holding his head in his hands, the smile gone, a grim flat line in its place, his stocks clearly liquidated.
The boat ride back to the beach was a quieter affair. Nicole hugged knees, shivering. Jasmine hugged her hat, burning. I sat by myself ashamed, in need of a hug. Dewa sat slumped in the back of the boat talking quietly with the other instructor, Planet. I don’t know the Bahasa for Australian gimp, but I think it may have been in there. Back at the shore I shook Dewa’s hand and thanked him for his efforts. He looked up at me disappointedly. For a moment I considered trying to explain I’d tried my best. That I’m 100kg suspended high up on legs like unfolded paper clips. My centre of gravity is over your head, man. But before I could start he let go of my hand and turned away. Bye, Bert.
Some things are just too hard to translate.