In Bali, everyone is hustling. There are beach chairs to rent and sarongs to sell and most people claim to be a professional masseuse. It’s a place where you’re greeted each day not with, “Good morning,” but, “Taxi-Taxi?” or “Hello. Motorbike?”
Locals make their pitch to every tourist who crosses their path because, occasionally, it works. Sometimes people do, in fact, want a scooter ride across town or to have their hair braided in a completely unbecoming way. Every now and then, someone wants a surf lesson from a man named Tiger Prawn. And sometimes that someone is me.
“OK, let’s do it, Tiger Prawn,” I said, when I realized the cost of an hour-long class was about $15. “Let’s surf!”
“My name is Tiger,” he replied. “Just Tiger.”
Before I could apologize, he attached a ripcord to my ankle and dove face first into the sand.
“Can you do a push up?” he asked.
“A push up?” I asked. “I thought we were surfing!”
“You start with a push up,” Tiger said, demonstrating how to transition from paddling to standing in a way that looked suspiciously like a yoga move.
“I can do one push up,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Without any further warning or instruction, Tiger picked up the board and took off for the water, dragging me by my right leg behind him the whole way. It was the fastest I had seen anyone move since I arrived in Bali – and that includes the man I saw chasing his escaped pet monkey through the streets of Ubud.
I’ve been told that surfing is hard. That it’s sort of like skateboarding or snowboarding, but with the added element of surprise. I’ve been warned that a first-timer should only expect to stay upright for a second or two before belly flopping into two feet of water and skinning both knees. That no one has a good first day and a lot of people quit before the lesson is over. But I’ve also been told that if you’re lucky enough to catch those handful of seconds when you’re riding a wave, they’re exhilarating. They hook you.
That description, by the way, sounds a lot like my first aerial class. Sure, it was a 60-minute trip on the Struggle Bus, but when I managed to do one part of one trick correctly, the sense of accomplishment was beyond amazing. I signed up for a second class before I left the gym.
If I had anything going for me as I began my surf lesson, it was that I’m all too familiar with how hard it is to learn something new – especially as an adult. Progress is slow and it is earned. That goes double for activities that others make look effortless.
The first wave went about as expected. I popped up and immediately fell over, sputtering and flailing in the water as I reeled my board through the waves.
“BACK FOOT!” Tiger yelled. “You have to put the back foot down first.”
I had a hard time believing my problem was as simple as that, but I didn’t argue with him. Quite frankly, it didn’t seem like a good use of my money. So I nodded and paddled back out.
The second wave went about the same as the first, even after planting of my back foot firmly on the board.
“You have to start lower,” Tiger explained. “Come up and stay low.”
“Got it,” I replied.
I fought the urge to roll my eyes as he set me up for another wave. “Get ready,” he said. “And stay low!”
When I felt the water rush behind me, I paddled, pushed up, planted my foot and squatted. Then I heard Tiger yell, “ARMS ARMS ARMS! STRAIGHTEN OUT!”
Somewhere between adjusting my arms and trying to figure out what he wanted me to straighten out, I realized that I could hear him – which meant that I was still above water. Which meant that I was doing it.
I rode the wave all the way into shore before hopping off and jumping up and down in the sand. When I looked back, Tiger was so far away that he might as well have been in the middle of the ocean. But I could still see him give me an air high-five.
When I paddled back out, he said, “You got it! Now do it again!”
And I did. For the next hour, I surfed. I didn’t catch every wave, but I hit more than I missed. I was unnaturally good at it. Tiger even said so.
“I don’t like teaching women,” he said as we walked back up the beach at the end of the hour. “They have trouble. But you, you’re easy!”
“HEY-O!!!” I laughed.
Tiger Prawn didn’t get it. I, on the other hand, couldn’t believe I got it.
When I returned to the beach the next day, I asked Tiger for another lesson.
“You don’t need it,” he said. “Just go.”
Then, before I could argue, he attached the cord to my ankle and handed the board to me.
“I gave you a smaller one,” he said. “Yesterday was too easy for you.”
If you’re thinking this sounds overly ambitious, you would be right. Surfing alone on day two more closely resembled my expectations for the first lesson. I could barely make it out past the break or turn my board around before getting slammed with wave after wave. I wiped out on nearly every try.
“The water is rougher today,” I said when I went back to the surf shop after just 30 minutes. “Maybe later.”
Tiger’s boss disagreed with me, but I had already convinced myself that it was true. I had been smashed and flipped and spun around like a little bikini-clad cyclone. I didn’t know which waves to pick and where to wait. At one point, two opposing currents collided directly on top of me, rolling me underwater like crocodile lunch.
I’m not sure if that’s possible, but before you tell me that it’s not, I want you to consider that it might be. That maybe I identified a new scientific phenomenon and I was on the cutting edge of research.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t good at surfing anymore.
On the third day, I skipped past Tiger’s shop and walked down the beach until I found the group of surfers who looked the least competent. There were 25 of them and they were all wearing matching t-shirts and helmets – this despite there not being a single rock in the water.
“Now this is where you learn,” I thought. Within seconds, a man named Wayan was by my side.
“Can I rent a surfboard?” I asked.
“You need a lesson,” he replied. It was not a question.
His rate was half that of Tiger’s and since I had $20 to burn, I went ahead with two hours. I had to know: Was the first time beginners luck? Were the waves really different the second day? Was I given a shorter board too soon? This was science.
As you may have guessed, the problem was, in fact, that I just needed more instruction. With the help of Wayan, I got the hang of things again. After an hour of the basics, he decided to teach me how to turn.
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked.
“So that you can go places,” he replied.
I actually thought it would be easier to walk, but it didn’t seem like an exercise that I could opt-out of. Once again, the third time was the charm and I wove back and forth all the way to shore. When I paddled back to Wayan, we traded high-fives.
“That was good turning,” he said. “But you have to relax your arms. Be cool. Like this.” I watched as he held his arms in front of him and locked his eyes on the shore. I had to admit that he looked quite cool, despite the fact that he was sporting an unnatural combination of a fisherman’s cap and a full-sleeve tribal tattoo.
“Surfing is part style,” he explained. “It’s art.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “How’s my style?”
“Terrible!” he said, pushing my board headfirst into a wave. “Your style is terrible. But your balance is good!”
And you know what? My balance is good.
My balance is very, very good right now.
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