There was only one wetsuit remaining for my first surfing lesson, and it was child-sized and Pepto-Bismol pink. Refusing to be deterred, I squeezed into the tiny top, picked up my surfboard and wandered down to Kuta Beach - a palm-fringed, five-kilometre stretch of sparkly black sand on the southwestern coast of Bali - to meet my instructor.
Hawaii may be the birthplace of surfing but mention the Indonesian island of Bali to anyone with a suntan and a longboard and you can be sure to elicit a fond smile. Looking at the blue-green horizon, I could make out the silhouettes of dozens of surfers, bobbing on their boards, patiently waiting to catch the next rideable wave. All along the coast were women in straw hats offering massages to rows of glistening, bikini-clad tourists, while old men in sarongs sold soup and satay at makeshift stalls nearby. Behind me on the gridlocked road, dubbed the Beach Walk, construction cranes were busy building seaside developments. Every inch of Kuta, Bali's main tourist area, was teeming with life. And almost everyone, tourists and residents alike, was smiling.
A former Dutch colony, Bali began branding itself as an exotic holiday-island paradise in the early 1970s when hippies and surfers first began flocking to its shores, lured in by the promise of coconut drinks and consistent waves. In 2001, the mainly Hindu island in the Muslim-majority archipelago welcomed about 1.3 million foreign visitors. Ten years later — and despite the deadly terror bombings in 2002 and 2005 targeting western tourists — the island expects almost twice that number.
When a friend suggested a trip to the island to eat, sun and surf, I booked my flight without giving it a second thought. Never mind that up until then the closest I had come to riding a wave was watching Keanu Reeves manoeuvre one in Point Break. What better place to learn than on the "island of the gods"?
As a complete beginner, I had booked myself in for a one-day private lesson with Odysseys Surf School. My surfing instructor, Ketut, told me how his cousins and older brothers had perfected a form of surfing long before foreigners began bringing their longboards to the island. Ketut explained how the local children would collect broken bits of wood from the colourful fishing boats that used to line Kuta and use them to ride the waves. These days, reef breaks from Nyang Nyang and Greenball to infamous Uluwatu, barrelling Padang Padang, Impossibles, Bingin, Dreamland and Balangan, draw expert riders from around the globe. Meanwhile, Legian and Kuta Beach, on the island's southwestern fringe, offer gentle, rolling waves that are perfect for novice surfers. Although the tropical climate means that you can surf all year round here, the dry season, which runs from May to September, is generally considered to be the best time.
Ketut seemed pleased to hear that that I had taken up yoga a few years ago, as many of the moves and muscle groups used in yoga are similar to surfing. "Don't worry," he said, patting me on the back. "Surfing is easy peasy." After establishing that I was a "natural-footed" surfer, meaning that I was most comfortable standing with my left foot forward (right-footed surfers are "goofy-footed"), and practising a few "pop-ups" - where I used my hands to push my chest off from the paddling position to an upright stance - on the beach, I was ready for the water. Slathering on a thick layer of sunscreen, I paddled out to catch my first wave. It was to be a short-lived endeavour. "Popping-up" on a surfboard while trying to balance on moving water, I soon discovered, requires significantly more skill and strength than most yoga poses, and I fell face first into the water on my first attempt. Kelly Slater I was not.
"Good job!" I heard my instructor yell as I coughed up a mouthful of murky brown water. As I retrieved my board from the beach and paddled back out to where Ketut was sitting straddled across his board, I wondered if he ever tired of watching beginners bite the dust. Before I had a chance to ask him, Ketut had spotted an encroaching set of waves. "Now, my turn and you watch," he said with a wink. In a flash he was lying belly-down on his board and paddling, slowly at first and then faster, as the wave approached him from behind. In one swift, smooth motion he had pushed himself off the board and landed on his feet. Crouching low, he expertly steered the board first right, then left, then right again, all the way to shore. "You see?" he said, as he paddled back out to meet me. "Easy peasy."
And so the morning progressed with Ketut teaching me how to position my board correctly, how to get the timing of the wave right, how to improve my paddling technique, how to stand and how to stay on. But after each misfire, I grew increasingly more discouraged and exhausted. I had bruises all over my body and the little Balinese children who had been sitting on the beach giggling at my awkwardness for the last hour and a half weren't helping much either. "We rest, yes?" said Ketut. "I see you after lunch for round two." I nodded my head. Dragging my surfboard back up to the beach, I wasn't sure if there was going to be a round two.
Later that afternoon, I met Ketut back down at the beach. A power nap and a few ice-cold drinks later and the day's surfing conditions seemed to have taken a turn for the better: the waves were calmer, the crowds had thinned, and the Balinese children had all but disappeared. Launching my board out to sea, I spotted a set of perfectly curled waves headed my way. Using my feet to swivel my board around, I began to paddle back towards the beach, using fast and long strokes. Like a baby first learning to walk, I wobbled as I stood up, but quickly managed to regain my balance by by twisting my body and putting more weight on my back foot. As I felt myself being swept forward by a rush of water, it occurred to me that I was still standing. I cannot say for certain how long the moment lasted before I wiped out. It may have been a minute, it may have been far less, but for those few exhilarating seconds there was no doubt in my mind that I was surfing.
With every passing wave, I grew more confident and by the end of the lesson not only did I have better control of the board but I had also managed to ride my first mini swell all the way to the beach. Of course, I realised that my surfing abilities were limited to the size and strength of the waves. And as we bade farewell, Ketut warned me against trying to surf any swells that were taller than me. In the days that followed I went surfing at Legian beach and again at Kuta, both times without an instructor. After just one lesson I felt that I had the hang of it but I was under no illusions that surfing would take years to master. Learning to surf requires an extreme amount of practice and patience. You will fall down a lot. And at the end of the day you will be sore, bruised and possibly even sunburned. But for me, at least, that incredible feeling of weightlessness that comes with riding your first wave made the experience well worth it.