Surfing

Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

No waves, no glory

Around the world, and around the clock, surfers are riding the waves.  For some it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to connect with nature and disconnect from technology.  For others it’s a drug so addictive they devote their lives to hunting the perfect wave, the perfect high.  Big waves, small waves, fat waves, messy waves, reef breaks, beach breaks, lefts, rights, barrels and tubes; the winds and tides work mysteriously together to create an aquatic playground for the world’s adrenalin junkies.

Until now, and despite the Australian component of my upbringing, learning to surf has remained an elusive dream, with timing and circumstance never quite working in my favour.  Consequently, I’m two years behind Ben who already has some impressive moves (he’ll deny this in typical modesty, but I’ve witnessed it).  In Indonesia the surf is world-class.  In other words: bloody terrifying.  The epic waves are for big-timers, and if you’re inexperienced you’ll be out of your depth, metaphorically and literally.  Broken boards and broken limbs are commonplace.  Given this, you might consider it an insane place to learn, but challenge and opportunity lured me in with their sweet vice grip.

Our search for a learner’s wave was frustrating, with lacerating coral and dangerous currents often standing in the way.  A West Lombok beach eventually delivered the mellow waves we sought and with tremendous patience Ben coaxed the surfer out of his English-Aussie girl.  Exhilaration shot through my veins, and being taught by someone so close made it all the more special.

I soon learnt that dedicated board riders spend hours, days – even weeks – patiently waiting for the right conditions.  When the water goes flat it comes down to this: watching the ocean, eating banana pancakes, checking swell forecasts, moaning about money wasted on board hire and, in my case, whimpering about the physically punishing effects of such a hobby.  I also learnt that surfers are generally only capable of conversing about one subject – you guessed it.  It’s a common joke that there’s nothing more boring than an accountant talking shop (no offence meant to any accountants reading; many of us mathematically challenged idiots would be lost without you) but I beg to differ, because talking about surfing to the exclusion of all other topics can be equally dull.

Our quest for surf perfection next lead us to South Lombok, a magical and empty land untouched by commercial development.  Impossibly green rolling hills stretch across a vast and remote landscape, densely covered in trees and thick grass, dotted with cattle.  The landscape is visually reminiscent of England or Scotland, except these hills and knolls tumble down into tropical bays of palm-fringed white sand, vivid turquoise waters and – crucially for us – flawless waves.  Whether you’re a pro or novice, happy days await you in those waters.  Learners are promised first-day-success from bored locals who offer lessons and it’s common to hear foreigners exclaiming in thick accents “Yesterday I had never seen a surf board in my life and today I can ride one!”

In a bid to join them in their elation, I signed up.  A gruff man with poor manners took me 45 minutes west on his bike to a dazzling cove where the beach was peppered with cows, children and the colourful buzz of daily life.  A few shacks lined the sand serving street food from make-shift kitchens while old men sat around spitting.  Whilst I could happily have indulged in a morning of cultural observation, I was there to surf – but evidently my teacher had missed that memo.  It’s no exaggeration to say that he spent the majority of my lesson eating, smoking and waving knives at screaming children.  When he wasn’t being a total disappointment he dutifully pushed me onto waves, but he taught me zilch; no praise, no criticism and no tips on technique    Time after time I emerged from the white foam, hastily re-arranged my bikini under the watchful eyes of school boys gawping from the shallows, and turned around expecting encouragement.  But he wasn’t watching; he simply didn’t care.  Feeling financially cheated, after three hours I pulled the plug.

Finding an alternative teacher was labour intensive.  Every contender seemed unlikeable or untrustworthy, and I’d all but given up when along came Yo-Yo, a skinny 19 year old with a charming grasp of the English language.  Physically he resembled a whippet, so slender and light, and in comparison I felt like the water buffalo that roamed the surrounding hills.  But through Yo-Yo I discovered the buzz that all surfers speak of.  The drill was this: negotiate a price to secure his time, hire a boat in the village to access the ocean breaks, surf for three hours then collapse into the wooden longboat, burnt, dehydrated, exhausted, but on top of the world.

Surfers are famously territorial, but out on the water with Yo-Yo at my side I was part of the club.  It goes without saying my paddling technique was appalling and I spent most of my time floundering in the fury of the white water, but I also improved.  Sometimes the waves towered overhead and I felt inadequate in comparison to the big boys, but Yo-Yo gave me guidance and I felt safe.  His friends would joke with me and whoop with delight at each wave I caught.  Ben and I developed a routine: mornings were for surfing, afternoons for recovering.  A week passed very quickly in this way.  We began to recognise faces and learn names.  It felt like a community.

At sunrise on Valentine’s Day we rose at 5am and joined this community for one last session.  The water was like a sheet of glass as our boat motored through the bay.  Wisps of cloud caught the rising sun, and the fins of our surfboards silhouetted against a backdrop of pink and orange.  The air was completely still and for a long time we surfed alone, in peace, until the sun climbed higher and others came for their share of the fun.  After my final ride I retreated to the boat.  My kidneys ached from the previous day when a rogue wave had driven the point of Ben’s board hard into my lower back, and I was physically broken from head-to-toe, but I felt so alive.

With the cruel clock of our 60 day visas ticking by, it was time to move on.  As the boat took us back to the village I surveyed the seascape around me and felt a huge sense of achievement.  Surfing is a testing sport, demanding and often brutal, and I had faced everything the Indonesian surf churned up, not only surviving the experience, but delighting in it too.

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Finding My Barefoot Bliss

Bali: once a far-off, exotic land we dreamed of from the gloom of the English winter, and then suddenly a real place, twinkling before our eyes in the dark, humid night.  As the ferry makes the short crossing, local men teach us Balinese phrases to revive our road-weary minds and help us shift cultural gears from Muslim Java to Hindu Bali.  Sighting that long-awaited land from the top deck makes every minute of the 15 hour bus journey worthwhile, and we’re full of anticipation for what is to come…

Our dream for Bali was to find a quiet coastal spot where we could settle and let the cogs of daily life slow down to a virtual halt.  In reality it seems we’re about two decades late.  Natural beauty has been swallowed up by resorts over spilling with sunburnt, singlet-wearing Aussies.  The worst offender is the infamous Kuta Beach – the island’s dreadfully tacky tourist hub.  Aside from being the birthplace of the Asian surf scene, it thrives on under-age hedonistic debauchery and all-night parties.  It is the complete antithesis of our Balinese fantasy: filthy, noisy, crowded, tacky, over-priced and unrelenting.  Sketchy looking characters hiss offers of drugs from dark doorways, and surly hawkers bully you to buy mass-produced, wooden penis key rings with such aggressive insistence it takes steel willpower to stand your ground.  You can of course haggle over knock-off DVDs, but you’ll later find they don’t work, and the overall experience is an exhausting test of tolerance.  Perhaps all inquisitive explorers should dip their toes in cess pits like Kuta, if only to then wash their feet and walk on to greener (and cleaner) pastures.  For us, however, it provides no answers in our quest for seventh-heaven.

Cut to two days and one fast-boat later: We’ve swapped the overcrowded mainland for a tiny patch of paradise on a quiet offshore island.  My bare, happy feet point west, back towards Bali as I sit perched on an elevated terrace overlooking insanely turquoise reef.  Brightly painted local fishing boats bob gently on the surface.  It’s late afternoon, the sun still strong, but a generous breeze keeps me comfortable – the same breeze which is guiding the rolling surf towards the reef edge, where it breaks neatly in a long, foaming line.  Ben is out there somewhere and as I squint to make out his silhouette amongst the other board riders, I’m aware of voices and laughter beneath the terrace.  Peering over the ledge I see women and children collecting seaweed from the shallows.  In all shades of green and brown, it is in abundance on this island, brought ashore by regular storms and strong tides.  It will be laid out to dry along the narrow, rocky footpath which lines this small bay.  Eventually it may turn up on my plate, a cheap and nutritious alternative to leafy greens used in many local dishes.

Behind me is a lush, well maintained garden, dotted with Hindu statues, intricately carved wooden archways, sweet smelling frangipani trees and colourful religious offerings to the gods, lovingly placed on stone shrines each morning.  It’s a tranquil place where the wind and waves make more noise than the softly speaking locals.  It is simply divine.

Cooling off in the swirling currents of this shallow, turquoise lagoon is about as refreshing and delightful as life gets, but it’s not my only option; behind me, centred in the gardens, lies the enticing infinity pool – a veritable luxury to a backpacker.  In a moment of disbelief I check my wallet.  Surely they haven’t really charged me £9 to stay here?

Maybe tomorrow I’ll explore the underwater world, or take a class at the yoga shack.  Perhaps I’ll accept a local woman’s offer to observe a ceremony at her temple.  I could venture to the organic eco cafe on the rugged, untamed back road that weaves through the village, or take the lazy option and indulge in cheap, spicy snacks overlooking the sea.

But one thing I know for sure is this: if I stay in this spot long enough with my bare, happy feet still pointing west towards Bali, Ben will return from the boisterous surf (potentially very sunburnt and physically ruined from the experience), a cold beer will be placed in my hands, the sun will sink in a magnificent display of orange and pink, bright stars will shine and one fine day in paradise will roll peacefully into another.

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