My Epiphany While Riding the Waves in Bali

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The last time I was on a surfboard was in Costa Rica. That was 10 years ago. I was inspired by my friend, mentor and colleague Dan Mendez to give surfing a shot.

A cameraman by profession, Dan was an avid surfer who would talk enthusiastically about the sport while we traversed the country on documentary shoots. His passion for it was magnetic, the way his eyes lit up as he told me stories about the waves he caught on the ocean and the myriad of lessons attached. I wanted to feel what he felt when he conquered a wave. I wanted to know what the experience might teach me.

So with his applauding, this land-locked Midwestern girl signed up for surf camp in a remote town in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica.

It was there where I learned that surfing … is absolutely not my sport.

Surfing terrified me. I wiped out time and time again. I was scared that the surfboard would clobber me over the head and that I’d drown. The only thing I really liked about it was floating on the board past the break point, bobbing and listening to the waves, delaying the fear that I would need to ride a wave to get back to shore. That moment of realization scared the s#!& out of me each time.

Which is why I’m not exactly sure why I opted to get back on the board in Bali. This decision took me by surprise.

The inspiration

The day after arriving in Bali, I floated down to the Kuta Beach, in a daze of jetlag and adrenaline, and watched the surfers in the ocean for more than an hour. Some darted over the waves effortlessly, twisting and turning with the rhythm of the water; the beginners stuck to the whitewater, a mixed bag of stiff-bodied successes and comical wipe outs.

As I lounged on the beach, munching on fresh pineapple, curiosity stirred inside of me. What would it be like for ME to get back up on that board? Could I do it this time? Perhaps improvement comes with age?

Would I regret NOT surfing while in Bali?

When this last question arises — and lingers — all bets are usually off. I hate the potential of a regret. Anything I can do to avoid it, I do. And this potential “R” lingered the entire time I was at the beach … on the walk back to my hotel … and while I took a shower.

I knew that I needed to get back on that surfboard because I would always wonder, “What if?” I also knew that Dan Mendez, who’s since passed on from this life, would have wanted to me to do it, teasing me with his cajoling smile and infectious laugh.

So I said to myself, “What the hell. Let’s do this.”

The lesson

I asked my hotel concierge for help finding a recommended instructor, as Kuta Beach was littered with independent instructors and nearby “surf shops” that offered group and private instruction. The choice seemed overwhelming — not to mention, a little sketchy. A hotel bellhop/concierge/valet named Denny eventually hooked me up. For 300,000 IDR ($23), his friend Wayan would swing by the hotel and give me a two-hour private surf lesson. This turned out to be a deal, considering other “surf shops” extended the same offer for four times that price.

Wayan picked me up by motorbike, and we zipped through the narrow, crowded streets of Kuta to the beach. He offered me a pink rash guard and a bottle of water. Then we got to business.

With a longboard safely nestled on the sand, he demonstrated how to get up in the surfboard. Based on my time at the surf camp in Costa Rica, I vaguely recalled it being something like the yoga pose Downward-Facing Dog, then quick two steps forward into another yoga pose resembling Warrior II.

But there were nuances to consider. Like where my toes need to be when I’m on my stomach. And where exactly to place my first right foot. And where to put my front left foot. And making sure I’m looking at the beach the entire time. And keeping my toes facing the side of the board, not forward. And bending the knees to lower the center of gravity. And watching the placement of my butt and hips for balance. And doing all of this with confidence, control and speed as a wave surged beneath me.

In short, there was a lot to think about and a short amount of time to get it all accomplished if I wanted to stay on the board while the wave carried me forward.

After a few practice run-throughs on the beach, into the water we went. Sticking to the whitewater, where I felt safest, I still wiped out multiple times. I would start paddling, feel the rush of the baby wave beneath my belly, then try to stand up — keeping all of these technicalities in mind — and almost immediately fall. Then I’d try again. And fall again. Then I’d try again. And fall again. It was frustrating. I could hear Dan laughing at me. That frustrated me more.

I’m used to being “good” at most anything I do. I always succeed. Why the f*^& wasn’t I good at surfing? I knew what I needed to do. I have training in gymnastics and yoga. Surely that should make me a natural at this sport …

Yet, I continued to get tossed into the water. Time and time again.

Sure, there were a few runs where I stayed on the board, mastering the baby wave like I was a pro surfer. (I could hear Dan cheering at those moments!) But it was with a shaky confidence, now laughable in hindsight. Most of the time I would stand up, only to end up in the ocean a few seconds later. It was humbling. Incredibly humbling for this perfectionist.

The epiphany

This is the part in the story where, after a few hours or perseverance, I finally stand up on the surfboard and ride an epic wave straight onto the beach.

If only this vignette were so perfectly scripted as reality. That SO did not happen for me.

The moving water beneath my board created an instability that I just couldn’t get used to, not in the span of two hours anyway. I couldn’t find the rhythm. I would need 10,000 more hours of practice to learn how to become one with these waves. Plug into them. Feel them. Flow with them. I couldn’t unite with the flow.

There are pretty obvious metaphors to life in this sport. The most obvious one for me: feeling the flow, not struggling against it, not thinking too hard about it. All of the technicalities of the surf positioning would rush into my mind as the rush of the wave flowed beneath me — and I stopped feeling and started thinking. Too much thinking.

Gosh, what I a pattern in my life this is. It even creeps up in surfing.

I’m sure if I practice, practice, practice — and lived near an ocean — I could improve and learn to ride these waves without thinking so damn much. It would become second nature. I could become one of those zig-zagging surfer types in time. LOTS of time.

For now, however, I’ll take pride in the fact that I won’t have to live with the “R” of not giving surfing another shot — and knowing that somewhere Dan Mendez is smiling. And probably laughing, too. I definitely felt his presence while I was surfing in Bali, and for me, that’s probably the most amazing part of this memory and why I have so much gratitude that it didn’t become a “What if?”

Instead, it’s inspired a “When next?”

Thank you, Dan. I miss you.  xoxo

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