A story by Nick Bruechle
Slouching into a hard, uncomfortable aluminium chair, Calem Wright clutched an overpriced Bintang and stared at the people hustling around him. Sun-burned bodies and corn-rowed hair, smiles all round and big packages containing paintings, carvings and other good, honest Bali junk – everyone was going home happy, tired and over-indulged.
Except Calem. The last couple of days had been so miserable, so fraught with stress and burdened by the danger that stalked him, he was desperate to get off the island and back home. Taking a large swallow from the Bintang, he again tried to make sense of it all. Tried to understand what had happened to him. He couldn’t believe the most straight up explanation, but he couldn’t come up with any other. It must have been the magic. Bad magic.
Three days ago, six days into his first ever Bali trip and with three weeks stretching out before him, he’d been having the time of his life. His mate, Indo veteran Ryan, had carped at him for years to save the bucks to do a Bali run, and finally he’d caved – and wondered why he’d waited so long. The surf was everything he’d hoped it would be and more, the people as beautiful and friendly as he’d heard, only more so, and everything was so relaxed, so freewheeling and so bloody cheap it wasn’t funny. It was like he’d just been born into a new and much more magical world than the one he’d left several thousand kilometres behind.
Ryan had taught him how to order two beers (“Dua Bintang sil-uck-un”) and how to say thank you (“It’s terimah kasih, but just say tearin’ my carseat,” Rhino had helpfully suggested), and showed him the sights from Kuta to Seminyak, and beyond to Tanah Lot and Canggu. But most importantly, Rhino had introduced him to the Bukit. The legendary surf playground covering Balangan, Dreamland, Bingin, Impossibles, Padang-Padang and the mighty Uluwatu.
In the first five days they’d surfed them all bar Padang-Padang, in conditions ranging from perfect to clinically insane, scoring pitching barrels, long, winding walls, dredging wedges and heaving drops. Calem couldn’t believe just how sublime it was both in and out of the water; the cheap, tasty beer; the friendly faces of the Balinese everywhere enquiring after his health and apparent need for a massage, driver, singlet, bow and arrow, watch, sunglasses, plaited hair or painted nails; and of course the mind-boggling, utterly addictive waves.
On the sixth day, the ocean had really come to life. Eight foot lines marched in with steely precision across sheet glass water and unloaded on reefs and beaches all along the Balinese coastline, and Ryan and Cal had been transported straight to heaven. Or at least to its earthly outpost, the Bukit. As the dawn had broken with its usual sub-equatorial suddenness, they’d been walking out to the point at Balangan. Stopping on the last patch of soft cunje under the overhang of the headland, they’d waited until a lull in the pounding swell had opened a window, and plunged into the warm, dark blue sea, paddling like crazy to get across the impact zone before the next decent set.
In the first half an hour, the ruler-edged lines of swell pouring into the bay had had a distinctly southern origin, so they’d wrapped perfectly around the jagged headland and zipped along the reef in mindless, mechanical precision. At mach speed. Even the ones the boys didn’t make were exhilarating, offering a screamingly quick take-off, a lightning dance across a steepening wall, and a dash for the hole before the thing closed out. The ones they did make were beyond description, beyond even feeling – they were simply the rush of a lifetime. To literally fly along those long, peeling walls, now being covered up, now pumping like bejesus to gather speed to make it across the next closeout section, was to live a lifelong dream.
But as the tide of surfers paddling out to join them had turned from a trickle to a torrent, the real, lunar tide had pushed across the reef so that almost every set became less makeable than the last, and they were left with the option of competing for suicidal close-outs or heading in. They paddled in and sat in a warung for almost an hour, eating toasties, drinking juice and watching people and boards getting mashed in the growing surf.
“Mate, we’re gonna have to do it,” frothed Ryan. “We’re gonna have to take on the crowd at Padang-Padang, show ‘em what we can do. Coupla goofies like us dropping into triple-overhead barrels, covering ourselves in glory and hard-bodied women – what’s not to love?” he’d said.
He was right of course. One of Cal’s goals in coming to Bali had been to prove himself at the famously chunky left-hander, and here was his chance. He felt fit, the previous days had convinced him that he was surfing like a god, and he was ready. The confidence with which he’d threaded the speedy pits at Balangan that morning told him he could do almost anything at Padang-Padang.
“Skull that smoothie mate, next stop the green room at Padang-Padang,” he’d almost shouted at Rhino.
Less than thirty minutes later they stood on the grey concrete bridge overlooking the PP circus. The beach was alive with colour – bikinis, boardies, towels, umbrellas, hawkers, walkers, photographers and gawkers. Wiley Balinese sellers wandered this way and that across the small stretch of beach, tempting sunbathers with their wares. But the real action was out in the water. Flawless barrels, six foot and bigger, followed one after another across the reef, spitting and throwing like great green demons being chased and occasionally ridden by innumerable little black dots, the surfers. Although from their vantage point on the bridge they couldn’t properly see the peak or the main barrel section, just seeing the crowd, the swirling white water in the channel and the boiling peak at the head of Impossibles reef was enough to tell them it was smoking. They were off their bikes, down the stairs, through that damnably narrow crevice in the rocks and onto the beach as fast as their legs could carry them.
Cal felt as if almost his entire surfing career had been leading to this moment. He thought of his performances over the last few days. Fun, crouching Bingin pits. Wide open faces that ran neatly from Temples most of the way to the Main Peak at Uluwatu on the high tide, begging to be shredded while he’d gratefully complied. Punting high and freely in the Dreamland beachies as the drumbeat of ‘progress’ – the building of a new resort – had thundered on. And that morning’s solid hollowness at Balangan. This was going to be a piece of cake – with extra icing.
Although the small peak was fairly crowded, the vibe in the water was unbelievably mellow. As usual there was a crew of ridiculously talented locals out there, not just scoring the biggest sets and deepest barrels, but keeping the air out there clear and warm and friendly. Cal and Ryan slotted in easily. They were strong boys, good surfers in great shape, and they were eating this up. Sure it took them a while to learn to read the waves, to pick the sections and make them work, but from the get-go they were stoked.
Calem watched, beaming, from the channel as his mate dropped into a shrieking steamroller and disappeared over the ledge. The hoots from the clifftop told him Rhino had gone deep and come out clean, and he ached to do the same thing again himself. He had almost made it all the way out the back again when he spied a silken lump racing towards the pack. It looked a little wider than the last, so he sprint-paddled out and to the right, slightly ahead of the mob paddling across from the inside.
At the last possible moment he stopped and turned to paddle into the silently swelling beast. A split second before the peak grabbed him, he caught a flash of movement on the very edge of his periphery, and heard a soft but clear whistle. Someone was inside him!
“He’s too deep, I’m going,” he thought as he pushed one more handful of water behind him and felt the surge. The green wall stood up sharply under him and he gripped the rails of his board, his last chance to commit or give the bloke on the inside the benefit of a doubt. As he stood, he heard a faint “Ya!” against the deep bass boom as the wave exploded, and ignored it. This wave was just too good not to take. As he dropped almost vertically down the glistening mountain, he knew he was going to cut straight across the other surfer’s path, but it was far too late to change course. Calem was committed to his line and the other bloke would have no choice but to fade into the white water. To straighten out right in front of the cliff and accept a brutal beating, probably laced with a fair amount of coral contact.
He turned his eyes to the wall in front and lost himself in the art and science of making the tube. He fixed his vision on a point just ahead of where he wanted to be, allowed the silver curtain of water falling to his right to enclose him, pumping his board in short, rapid beats to outrun the thickening wall on his left. In just a few tingling, tangled seconds he was being shoved out onto the fat mid-section, where he laid back and threw a swooping cutback to set up for the inside barrel. He was listening for the hoots from the hill as he ducked into the second, smaller and tighter barrel, but they didn’t come. He didn’t care, of course. This was the day, this was the wave he’d been waiting for his whole life. And he knew he needed more. He paddled back to the line up quickly, feeling golden, and scanned the horizon for his next victim.
As he sat quietly flexing his pecs and feeling like superman on a 6’6”, a Balinese surfer paddled over to him. Flecks of blood on the shoulder told him this was the man he’d dropped in on, but he was still smiling gently.
“Hey Teman (friend),” said the Balo. “Nice waves today, ya?”
“Ya,” said Calem. “Bagus ay.”
“You should, you know, maybe open your eyes and ears when you surf out here, Teman,” said the Balinese. “We say ‘hati-hati’. It mean be careful. Because the magic here, it can turn dark, you know. If another orang is on the wave, jangan drop in, very dangerous.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Calem. He wished this guy would leave him alone and go back to selling watches or whatever he did.
“We have to share our beautiful Bali with many people,” said the Balinese surfer. “But we have our rules too. Please do not drop in again, Teman.” Calem turned a cool eye on the Balinese. There was no anger in the local’s voice or eyes. He simply looked as if he was patiently explaining, yet again, to yet another newcomer, that even here in paradise the universal rules of surfing applied.
“Yeah, whatever,” repeated Calem. “Go fuck yourself.”
The Indonesian looked at him in surprise but said nothing; he lay down on his board and paddled away, muttering quietly to himself. As he paddled away, he kicked and the splash showered Calem, who, far from being intimidated, felt infinitely superior to the islander.
At that moment, he felt strong enough to deal with anybody in the line up who might take issue with his attitude, and he was pretty focused on getting another one of those wonderfully throaty pits. So he didn’t give the incident another thought, and turned his eyes and his thoughts to the horizon.
But the energy seemed to have changed somehow. For the rest of the session he was just a man in the wrong spot at the wrong time. He’d try to paddle in and the wave would just fade underneath him, or he’d go too deep and too late and have to jump ship and end up getting annihilated by the roiling white water.
Ryan was still pulling into anything and everything and making them all, but for forty odd minutes Calem could get nothing. He finally managed to take off on a wave, not a set wave but a solid lump of Indian Ocean none the less, and felt the adrenalin kick in as the wall steepened. Pushing into a late, near-horizontal bottom turn, he caught the faintest edge of inside rail, bogged and was thrown off the front of the board. At first, he just skimmed and bounced across the swiftly flowing water. But then the lip drove into him like a giant wedge and slammed him down into the waiting coral. In the dark seconds that followed, he rolled and rag-dolled across the reef, feeling clumps of flesh being torn from his shoulders, arms and back, waiting for the blow to his head he was sure would come.
At last he surfaced, gulping great gobfuls of air, only to see the first of a set of four eight footers bearing down on the peak. He tried desperately to get to his board but it was still tombstoning in the white water, and he wore the first wave of the set fair on the head. Every wave of the set flogged him, and when at least he got back on his board, he paddled limply back to shore, beaten. Look at the bright side, he told himself: his board was still in one piece, even if it did have a couple of new pressure dings on it.
The cuts and grazes weren’t too bad either – they wouldn’t keep him out of the water. But that didn’t stop him screaming like a banshee later, when Rhino scrubbed them all and bathed them in Die Da Yao Jing. And although he was a little uncomfortable on the hard mattress in their room at the losmen, Cal slept well and woke up ready for a new day’s surf. At seven, he and Ryan mounted their hire bikes and headed down the road to the Bukit. Given the still-solid swell hitting Kuta Beach, they figured they’d assault the Racetrack at Uluwatu on the low tide before maybe heading back to Padang-Padang.
Sitting at the traffic lights at the intersection at the end of the airport runway, waiting for the green, Calem looked at the statue of the gun-toting ‘hero’ in front of him. He struggled to see how the smiling, peace-loving, friendly people of Bali could venerate a war man. But he guessed that it was the government of Indonesia that had decided to put it there; he couldn’t imagine the Balinese having a dark side.
The light changed to green, and he moved to go. As he did so, a woman on a scooter stacked with children, crates and even a chicken cut across in front of him. He jammed on the front brake just as the front wheel entered a puddle left by the overnight rain, the wheel locked up and he went down on the road. He huddled into a tight, frightened ball as the rest of the bikes, cars and buses swirled around and past him, oblivious to his plight. But his fall had attracted the attention of the policeman permanently stationed at the intersection, and the cop came over, helped him push his bike to the side of the road and demanded to see his international licence. Cal showed him the document, and the cop scowled at it for a moment before pronouncing that Cal had caused a traffic disturbance and would be required to pay an immediate fine of 200,000 rupiah. That was his entire budget for the day – enough to cover a couple of smoothies and a jaffle or two at Uluwatu, and maybe a Bintang at the end of the day – but he paid up. He was sure the cop would be quite happy to drag him off to a cell somewhere if he was foolish enough to refuse.
Just down the road he found Ryan waiting for him. His mate had been unwilling to go back and maybe risk getting fined himself. They had a brief yak on the side of the road and agreed that it was probably not such a bad outcome, and there was no reason to stop now, so they kept on to Uluwatu. When they got there it was just what they’d hoped – pumping six foot, gaping barrels howling down the Racetrack reef and less than a dozen surfers, most of whom appeared to be witless kooks.
The boys dragged their boards out of their boardcovers, and Calem found that his dinky little fall had knocked out two fins as well as the plugs holding them in. He sat in a warung on the limestone cliff face, watching Ryan score shack after booming shack and waiting while a bloke called Doggy repaired his board.
An hour and a half later, the board was fixed, Calem was another 400,000 rupiah lighter, and the tide had come in enough to wreck the barrels on the Racetrack. To top it off, the trade wind had clocked around a few degrees so that it was sideshore on the main peak, and getting more and more crumbly by the minute. Determined to surf, though, he paddled out to join the swelling crew of about seventy maniacal blow-ins.
It was a dismal session that reminded him of shonky afternoons at home, and eventually he paddled in, disgusted. He found Rhino sitting happily in a warung, scoffing jaffles and juices, chatting to an assortment of nice looking Nordic looking women barely wearing their bikinis. As soon as he sat down, the bevy found that they had an appointment somewhere to keep, and deserted the warung, his mate waving them a cheery goodbye. Rhino offered to buy him a jaffle, so they sat there watching the conditions and the swell deteriorate, and ate before heading back to Kuta.
The plan was to have a little istirahat (rest) in the losmen, then to go play on the lively sandbanks at Padma Street in Legian. Instead, Calem spent the afternoon alternately shitting and retching over the brown-encrusted toilet. Obviously something in his jaffle had gone down sideways and was trying to get back out any way it could.
Ryan, while full of sympathy for his mate, wasn’t about to change his plans. He left Cal shivering in the losmen and walked down to the beach. An hour and a half later he came back glowing with satisfaction. “The rip was turning on a bit here and there but the banks are fuckin’ perfect!” he bellowed. “It was just fuckin’ awesome!”
Rhino sipped a Bintang while Calem struggled to keep down a mouthful of water, and they talked. “I dunno mate, this is all a bit fucked up,” said Calem. “Yesterday I was having the time of my life, and suddenly it’s all gone to shit and I’m having a really fucked up time and I don’t know why.”
“Mate, I told you before we came here, you gotta be careful. This is Bali and the stories about magic aren’t all bullshit. There’s dark magic here as well as light, and if you cross the line with any of the locals, you’re pretty much fucked. So what happened?”
Calem told his mate about the incident at Padang Padang and the other shook his head while he listened.
“And you told him to go fuck himself? Holy shit mate, no wonder the bad spirits are all over you. It was bad enough dropping in, but to then follow it up by being arrogant and aggro, you’re begging for a bit of karma. You should’ve apologised to that bloke.”
“Yeah well I’m a decent bloke,” wailed Calem. “How can I lift this curse, or hoodoo voodoo or whatever it is?”
“For a start, take it seriously mate,” said Ryan. “For seconds, find the bloke and settle it.”
The next morning’s surf check revealed pristine lines of powerful swell stacked to the horizon and rolling in sweet, unbroken rhythm towards the island. They made haste to Padang Padang where they sat and watched. Serial sets of over eight foot were blasting the Padang Padang coral, and the line up was a crazy mix of carnage, heroism and blindly optimistic stupidity. They both wanted terribly to go out there, but Calem knew at best it would be stupid, at worst it would be suicidal, so they sat and watched and waited.
At last they saw the Balinese guy that Cal had dropped in on emerge grinning from the water and walk up the beach. Cal walked down to meet him and stopped him on the sand. “Hey mate,” he said.
The Balinese looked at him with curiosity, and offered a happy “Hey Teman, apa kabar?”
“I’m the bloke who dropped in on you the other day,” said Calem. “We had a few words in the line up afterwards and I think I was a bit stupid eh. And since then things have been going pretty bad for me, you know, so I wanted to say I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again, and I swear I’ll show respect. But can you please lift this curse or whatever it is?”
A soft laugh escaped the Balinese man’s brown, round lips and he showed his white teeth. “Ah, you have bad spirit magic. Too bad Teman,” he said. Then he laughed softly again. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
“Mate, you’ve gotta help me,” said Calem. “I’ve got another three weeks here and I can’t live like this. I been sick, I been fined, I been outta the water, and when I get in I don’t get any waves. So can’t I just say sorry and we’ll leave it at that?”
“No Teman, you cannot. You have bad spirit now, you are in the hands of the gods. You can say sorry to me but it means nothing. You must say sorry to the gods. And give them an offering.”
“Will things get better if I do?” asked Calem.
The Balinese shook his head and smiled. “No,” he said. “Only, if you make a sacrifice and wear the black and white checks you see on our statues to keep the evil spirits away, maybe things will not get worse. But better? No.”
“So what can I do?”
“Pulang. Go home. When you come back, maybe the bad spirits will not recognise you any more, and if you bring respect for Bali people and Bali waves, maybe you will have good times. But for now, the spirits know you have no real heart for Bali, and they will do bad things,” he shrugged happily.
That night, Calem burned his board on the Balangan headland, offering the smoke to the gods and pleading for their protection. He went straight back to his losmen, stopping only to buy a black and white checked sarong, which he kept about him the whole night. In the morning he called the airline and changed his ticket to the first available flight home. Over two weeks early.
The call for his flight came across the PA system, and Calem stood up, tightened the sarong around his shoulders, and walked into the departure lounge. He’ll go back to Bali, hopefully a much wiser man. But who knows what the gods – good or bad – will have in store for him then?
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