Bali: Surfing Through a Curated Slice of Paradise
The sheer white drapes pulled back to reveal a perfect panoramic view. On one side, rice paddies were bathed in the light of the setting sun that filtered unobstructed into the enclosure for the outdoor shower. On the other, the thatch-roofed huts of the surf camp stood out amidst the dense shrubs and palms that ringed carefully cut grass and pools. Bali was a lot of things but chief among them was a visual paradise.
To contrast the more transient journeys of the prior couple months, I designed my time in Bali for a more chilled-out vibe. I joined the Wave House surf camp in Canggu on the southwestern side of the island for a week of easy living and daily surf lessons and I wasn't disappointed.
The camp was a shelter from the hectic traffic outside the gates. Every morning, we woke up before the dawn, piled into small vans stacked high with surf boards and ventured through the already-crowded streets in search of the best breaks. We spent hours on the water with the instructors learning how to catch waves and being browbeaten into taking the kinds of risks you need to embrace in order to level up. Then we returned in time to catch a late breakfast, review film of the morning session, and relax through the afternoon.
This sheltered environment created an admittedly skewed impression of what Bali has to offer. We crossed the gap between life within its comfortable bounds and the traffic jam of local chaos outside every day as we emerged to chase the waves.
There was something unbelievably nice about having my needs catered to for once rather than constantly packing up and moving on to figure out how to find food and shelter in a new place.
Excursions outside were mostly dominated by the infrastructural disaster of the single road that wound along the southwestern spine of the island. A trip which should take 20 minutes would end up taking 2 hours. Even the motorbikes and scooters didn't fare much better -- it was so narrow and winding that there wasn't any chance to pass around the cars. This all proved a powerful disincentive to travel far beyond the local town.
Though the sidewalks were dangerously absent in most places, it was still possible to walk the side roads to explore in between surf sessions. It was immediately clear how the island's development had followed the track of tourism. Square plots of traditional rice paddies jutted against the tall walls of modern hotels. Half the shops had English signage and services catering to travelers and nomads dominated anything that could have feasibly targeted locals.
Despite the hot chaos of walking down the street, once you found your way inside a compound or restaurant it was clear that meticulous care had been taken to craft a peaceful experience. From high above the paddies, it was easy to get lost in the romance of the view without appreciating the tension it created among the displaced locals.
Views aside, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to focus holistically on developing a single skill, something I hadn't had a chance to do since school sports. The combination of dry theory sessions and film review led to remarkable improvements in a short period of time.
I still remember the very first time I surfed, on Montauk Long Island, when I caught the first wave I tried for and glided towards the shore on that crest of pure energy. I couldn't tell you if it was cold or if I caught any other waves that day but I distinctly remember falling asleep to the feeling of waves in my bed and dreaming of that particular glide I'd caught on that first one.
Every night in Bali, I went to bed with similar feelings. The early wake-ups were challenging but I found the anticipation the most difficult impediment to getting a good night's sleep. I would lie awake feeling the slight disorientation of my body's compass still compensating for the swell earlier in the day, imagining what I needed to work on to do better the following morning.
I'd surfed a number of times before Bali but never had any formal training and always did it in an ad-hoc fashion. At the camp, I spent hours in the pool working on standing drills and paddling technique. The focus I could bring to bear led me to improve rapidly, pushing from the basic whitewater cruiser group all the way to the more advanced green wave surfers who worked on cutting and turning. The waves weren't always perfect and the beaches weren't always clean, but there was always something to catch and, sore though I became, I had a few really great rides that surprised even me.
After several days of focusing on the craft, a few Russian and Bulgarian fellows and I took off inland to explore the area around the famous artist's town of Ubud. Braving the traffic with our local driver, we crawled through the dense jungle into the mountains and visited the Arma Museum of Art.
Stepping out of the car, it seemed impossible that such a lush and determinatedly alive place could exist. The fierce stone statues of monkey creatures were caked in moss and seemed to have risen forth from the earth itself to stand sentinel over the grounds.
The art inside covered a wide range of media and subjects, primarily focusing on local origins and local artists.
Outside, artists worked quietly on sculptures and paintings, happy to chat about their craft in the hopes of a sale.
The grounds bordered between the works of man and a reclamation by the explosion of vibrant life that the tropical climate birthed in spades.
The resort portion of the complex was no less impressive. Statues of gods were wreathed in flowers and gifted incenses that curled smoke lazily into the humid air.
Stone bridges crossed slow-moving waters dotted with lily pads and celebrated by a chorus of birdsong.
Careful not to get pulled into an endless cycle of awe, we broke free and left to explore the local market. The fare was mostly the usual mass-produced detritus but some of the artists had clear talent.
As always, the food was spectacular and it was nice to share it with such an energetic group.
On the way home, we decided to skip the heavily touristed monkey forest and instead stopped off at the Tegallalang Rice Terrace, the "must-see" landmark of the area. On the way, the road was lined on both sides with miles of artists' stalls and workshops the likes of which I've never seen. Many of them were production houses for the same junk that had occupied the market but there were plenty of original artists producing some really interesting stuff. If I went back, it would be to spend a day just wandering through the shops and chatting with the makers.
Tegallalang was a case study in beauty-meets-tourism. On one hand, the lush green terraces which stair-stepped up the sides of the hill were undeniably beautiful, an image of pastorally idyllic Bali prior to the disruptive influences industrialization and tourism. On the other, it was exactly the product of these things.
For example, we were charged for "tickets" to walk the trail through the paddies at 3 separate places. Having already bought a "ticket" earlier which was supposed to cover any costs in the park, we treated these scams with a degree of contempt but it's not hard to empathize with the farmers who can make far more in a day of fleecing tourists than a week of picking rice.
Similarly, the beauty of the terraces was broken up at several points by the discordant juxtaposition of muddy paddies and modern gelato stands where you could buy name-brand ice cream and drinks. Even more bizarre, some of the paddies had been turned into mini tourist traps of their own, like the "titanic", an utterly ridiculous bamboo ship where you could pay to have your picture taken aboard while listening to My Heart Will Go On.
That's not to say there weren't moments of peace, only that the expected exploration of quiet history turned into a different sort which traversed the much stranger intersection of farming and tourism.
Even the art had a strange twist to it but was nonetheless a treat to behold.
Returning home, we had one last day to surf before it was time to move on. That last morning session wasn't the best I've had but it's hard to complain after a full week of relaxation, exploration and great activity.
The last sunset we experienced as a group on the beach. Again, some of the juxtapositions were fascinating. I think of the following as the unofficial image of Bali, titled "Russian girl taking selfies against beautiful sunset without looking at it":
On the other, there's no denying the natural beauty that covers every inch of this densely tropical island and extends to the glorious sunsets which grace its western shore every day.
I went into Bali with only the expectation of getting some real "vacation" time to learn a new skill and I certainly accomplished as much. Unexpected was the mixed impression I developed of the island along the way. On the one hand, its natural beauty is beyond anything I'd seen before and its natural spirit is both peaceful and joyful. On the other, the crowding of too many people atop too fragile an infrastructure and the undeniable cultural destruction caused by the growth in tourism have left it with a discordance which is difficult to long endure.
I left grateful for the peace I'd found and, further, thrilled to carry forward some new skills to the worldwide mecca of surfing: Australia.