This was it! I had caught the wave, the rush of water sending me careering towards the beach. But I wasn’t surfing yet. I lifted my torso, hands flat on the board, wrists tight against my ribcage. Gaining speed I pushed down on the board, popping upwards, sliding my legs up the board to take my weight. The wave broke and the board slid gracefully along the line, perfectly balanced as it sliced through the foam, while I choked and spluttered on salty seawater in its wake. This would take a little more practice.
When thinking of surf destinations a few places spring to mind. The glimmering coastline of California and the paradise islands of Hawaii and Bali. Few think of India, which is exactly where this story is set.
Along the East Coast, at Covelong Point Surf School, our intrepid travellers are taking their first shaking steps into the world of surfing. Joe Rea-Dickins, already an accomplished kayaker, and now the image of your typical beach bum, has little trouble catching his first wave and riding it into the beach, his dodgy mustache glimmering under India’s winter sun. This two month expedition along some of India’s seven and a half thousand kilometers of coastline is his brainchild, the product of a pizza delivery boy’s daydream in a small seaside town in Wales.
With him is me, James Johnson. I’ve come to India on my own journey of surf discovery. India has had a powerful pull on me since my first visit at the tender age of twenty. It’s heady ability to surprise, confuse and welcome is addictive, and it’s people are what make it so special.
We spent out first week outside a fishing village not far south of Chennai, me with my surfboard, Lakshmi, and Joe with his kayak, Nelly (the Element). Progress was slow but steady, and after a week under the tutelage of Covelong Point Surf School’s founder Muthy and his boys, both of us were just about able to hold our own on the waves. The decision was made to move on, and word was that the best waves would be found out west. Our destination was Varkala, Kerala, over 700km away, and getting there would not be easy.
Before finally managing to make it to the west coast, we missed not one but two pre-booked trains. The first meant that we spent a couple of very enjoyable nights with a friend from Chennai, ending up at a golf awards event in a 5* hotel with the city’s young elite and a free bar. The second meant that we were very hot and sweaty lugging two bags, a large box, a surfboard and a kayak full of gear around Chennai Central Station. Eventually everything was sorted and we got comfortable on the train for the fifteen-hour ride to Kerala. Experience had told us that the cheapest way to get a good seat at short notice is to buy a ticket for General Class and pay the conductor to find you a seat in the Sleeper Class carriage once you get moving.
General Class itself is said to be a kind of hell, a dark and miserable place. Seats, floors and gangways burst with passengers. There’s no space to stand, let alone sit or sleep. Powerful smells emanate from everywhere and only a couple of ‘toilets’ serve so many people. We didn’t imagine there would be any trouble upgrading to Sleeper, where each passenger gets a fold down bed with a reasonably soft mattress and little or no chance of someone else’s crotch resting by your ear. Unfortunately, after just a few hours we came face to face with the very dapper and equally unsympathetic conductor who shattered our dreams. A religious festival meant that the train had been fully booked for months and no amount of money, of which we don’t have much anyway, would get us a bed. As the train rolled on we made our way towards the rear, and, as it slowed at the next station we jumped off, ran and jumped into General Class.
It could have been much worse.
True, there were about 200 people in a carriage made for 74. True, the smell was pretty bad and true, sitting and sleeping were a long time coming. But our fellow passengers made us welcome, taking our huge bags and finding places for them. Joe managed to lodge himself under some seats and across the gangway and was sleeping after an hour or so while I sat awake and did my best to minimize contact with the very dirty holy man who decided to use my lower back as a pillow, leaving behind a smear of colorful paste from his forehead whenever he moved. The journey lasted around fifteen hours, and we were both glad when it was over, and doubly glad that neither of us had needed to use the toilet. We got off into Varkala’s morning sunshine, discovering soon after that Lakshmi and Nelly hadn’t made the journey with us. They had not been loaded onto the train and we wouldn’t be able to get them until the next day.
Now we’ve been in Varkala for a week. Our surf skills have improved tenfold and we managed to save some money by sleeping on the beach for a couple of nights. The filming is going well and we’ve met some really cool people who have been helping us out along the way. We’re planning on moving north to Mangalore soon, where a small Surf Ashram has been set up and at the end of the month we’re both enrolled on a Vipassana course, involving then days of intense meditation and absolutely no talking.
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