Story for Tonnta issue 5

A story I wrote for the latest issue of Tonnta, out now!

Walk Two Moons in Someone Elses Moccasins

The air travel industry is responsible for a heck of a lot of global CO2 emissions. I’m waiting for the environmental police to come knocking on my door demanding an explanation for my global travel and the enviromental degradation it entails. What defence could I have against melting ice caps, rising sea levels and ozone depletion? I can understand how my travel may be viewed as a criminal act, draining dwindling resources that should be conserved for future generations. But what if I said that travel is vital for humanity, now more than ever? I believe that in the end (not just since watching the movie 2012) that the earth is quite capable of shaking us off her back if we harass her enough and surviving very happily without us. My concern is for the wellbeing of humanity. I believe travelling abroad can have profound long-term benefits for both society and the environment. Travel, meeting people, sharing ideas and experiences breaks down barriers of ignorance and distrust. If we travel with an open mind then we can have this mind expanding, life enhancing experience pretty much anywhere we go if we are willing to go a little deeper below the surface, engage with the realities of the local people, learn from them, awaken to a new way of seeing the world by talking the time to walk in someone elses shoes and give a little of ourselves. Having seen the world I have a much greater appreciaton, understanding and respect for our common heritage. And as the world continues to change, populations continue to rise and borders shift or disappear altogether due to rising seas and expanding deserts we will need to engage with other people much more. The challenges (economic and enviromental) we now face are going to require a major paradigm shift, a totally different perspective and unprecedented collective action.

This is one of the reasons I ended up in Chennai for an international workshop aimed at finding solutions to conflicts between ecosystem health, poverty alleviation and wellbeing improvements in coastal areas. The workshop led to the creation of a network of people from different backgrounds, culture and nations – fishery organisations, policy makers, scientists, academics, students, even surfers! – who all share a common vision for the shared wellbeing of humanity and the earth’s ecosystems. Yet each person has something different to offer. It’s not about all having the same ideals and values as such but about embracing the diversity and complexity of views and learning from each other. The world is a complex and diverse place and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

I arrived at the start of the monsoon season but the rains hadn’t fully let loose, yet. This also meant that there might be some monsoon generated swells hitting the coast. I hadn’t brought my board or even planned on surfing – Tamil Nadu is not your typical surfing destination but where there’s a sea there may be a wave…and me being me I had to get in the water, surfboard or not. I had a chance to escape the crazy, colourful, congested crowds of Chennai’s streets and head south along the coast for a couple of days to Mahabalipuram, a place famous for it’s ancient temples and stone carvings.
As soon as I’d settled in I headed for the beach. There was an ancient shore temple (400AD from the Pallava dynasty) at one end with a post-tsunami boulder rock wall built around it for protection. The rock armour has created a kind of artificial point with a surprisingly good sand bank and right hand wedge breaking off it. An onshore breeze picks up after early morning and the sea quickly becomes an angry mess. I walked along the beach past all the colourful fishing boats and fishermen playing cards in the sand waiting for the conditions to calm down, until I came to the last building on the seafront and stopped in surprise looking at a big painted mural on it’s blue walls; ‘Temple Adventures’ with a silhouette of two surfers walking towards the shore temple. Surfng really has gone global – it seems to have infiltrated vitually every part of the world regardless of class, culture or climate. I had found a surf and dive centre offering courses and inctruction. I stuck my head in the door, there were two guys lying in front of a telly more interested in the video game they were playing than my appearance, which I found a bit odd as I imagine they don’t get many travelling surfers passing through. The collection of dogs, one cute puppy with ‘PADI’ painted on his forehead – obviously the brand ambassador – seemed more excited by my enthusiasm to surf than the two Aussie expats. Maybe they just thought I was yet another hippie surf wannabe on the desperately-seeking-spiritual-nirvana path and they didn’t trust lending their precious shortboards to me in a place with zero surf supplies or board repair facilities.

No matter, I hadn’t given up. Later that evening I met a retired fisherman who owns a little stone carving shop by the beach. He said he used to surf but doesn’t have much time for it anymore. He still keeps a board though to rent out. He gave me his 7’2 NSP epoxy to borrow for a couple hundred rupees (a couple of euros!). It had seen better days. It was an absolute brick of a board, with next to no wax and an ancient frayed leash that looked like it was from the Pallava dynasty too. Well it was probably a miracle there was any leash at all. I got up at sunrise – I knew I only had a small window of glass before the wind kicked in. I had melted some candle wax onto the board and ran a comb through it, hoping it would stick. The beach was quiet, the air still, like it was holding it’s breath to see how I survived on my surf-tank. The surf was bigger and more powerful than I thought. I paddled out alongside the temple. Overhead sets sucking up at the end of the point. The board was so hard to paddle, impossible to duckdive and very slippery. The first set smashed into me, I slipped right off the board and the leash strap had practically disintegrated. The board got washed in and was bouncing towards the boulders. I managed to grab it just before it hit the rocks and eventually made it out the back using a death grip. It felt a little eery. The sky was overcast with a light drizzle, the water a little murky from all the rains. There was no one in the water and the swell was heaving on the horizon. The thought of sharks flitted into my mind but then I remembered one of the fishermen saying he was looking for a bigger, faster boat so he could take people on shark dives. The sharks had all been fished out on the coast and could only be found 30 miles offshore now.

Despite having to cling on by gripping the deck with my toenails and trying to steer a brick the waves were really good. 4ft, Fast, hollow and punchy, not unlike a sand bottom point in Australia. I even saw one wave spit! Oh what I would have given for my short board. The Temple must really go off on it’s good days. After a few more rides and a couple of swims after my runaway tank the wind came up and I went in. I met a guy watching the waves on the beach. Dark skinned, long hair and boardshorts. He was one of the few local surfers and worked at the surf and dive centre. He had only been surfing two years but was already surfing pretty good on a 6’1. He had slept in and missed the early morning glass but was going out front to catch some onshore waves in the rippy beachbreak. We drank some chai and he gave me a 5’11 shortboard to try out. We paddled out and met the two Aussies on longboards. I got a funny look from one of them, apparently the board I had been given was his and he didn’t look too impressed but after I caught a few waves his mood seemed to lighten up when he saw his board was in good hands and by the end of the session we were both hooting. Padi stood on the beach wagging his tail.

For me surfing is a vehicle that takes me out into the world, a lens through which I experience the colourful diversity of people and places, new tastes, sights and sounds. Only by walking two moons in some one elses moccasins can we have any hope of understanding them and realising a shared vision. And we as surfers, constantly traveling and exploring, may have the biggest responsibility of all. Each journey made is another thread woven into the tapestry making us realise our interconnectedness. ‘The alternative – remaining divided and isolated – will lead to ruination’ (Manchan, 2009).