With unblinking eyes, Dimmy and Elizabeth Kotronakis smile and gaze out over the very brand of colonial irresponsibility that got them blown to rags in the first place.
It was at this very spot here in Bali that the first terrorist act in history perpetrated directly against Surfers took place at exactly 11:05pm on the 12th of October, 2002. It was here, in the center of Kuta Beach, Bali, at two beer soaked nightclubs that catered directly to surfers, resplendent with wall mounted surf videos and signed surfboards from all our heroes, that two massive suicide bombs were detonated within fifteen seconds of each other.
In that last screaming instant, 202 souls surrendered to history.
Of them, 172 were surfers.
And the worst part of it?
We brought it on ourselves.
And upon innocents like the Kotronakis sisters.
Surfing’s avarice has always got the best of us. Once a wave is discovered, we pounce on it like a virus; kill the host and then move on to the next. Consider this: A sleepy Hindu fishing village in Indonesia first catches our eye in the 1972 release of Alby Falzon’s film “Morning of the earth”. Curious, most of us Americans held off. But the Australians were pouring in. That is until Surfer Magazine nailed it to our American foreheads by publishing the first article on Bali, “Uluwatu: Evil waters” in 1975. The article claimed that it was in the south Pacific, but we knew better by then. And in that one exotic image of Gerry Lopez surfing a new kind of Pipeline, combined with all the coverage of the international surf magazines, Bali became the adventure of a lifetime for every surfer on earth.
The floodgates opened.
The great exodus began.
The discovery of Garajagan spiked the whole migration and Erik Aeder’s mind boggling 1979 Surfer Magazine double page photo of Nias galvanized the globe’s resolve. With blinding rapacity, fueled by the lust for perfectly shaped waves, Kuta Beach’s colonization was lead by the world’s surfers as not only the ultimate surf destination on the planet but as the gateway to even greater adventures than we’d ever imagined.
And that’s where things started to go deadly wrong.
Did surfers bring their better angels to Bali? Did they take anything that even approached a responsible, symbiotic relationship with the local culture and environment? In our headlong rush for glory, did we once stop and think about just what the hell we were doing?
By that night of scorched flesh and blood in October of 2002, our interest had become an invasion. A tidal wave of fanatic passion that had dragged in its wake rampant capitalism, graft, environmental disaster, prostitution, drugs and rivers of booze that quite literally ran from hundreds of unsanitary urinals down the naked streets and directly into the very sea we surfed. By 11:05 pm on that October night, downtown Kuta had reached an apogee of decadence. Sodom and Gomorrah by the sea. Packed with sweaty western revelers feeding off the freedom of the place with a spirit not of joy, but of seedy exploitation. A turgid, sex driven brothel. The Amsterdam of the equator. Dodge city with palm trees.
Not only a perfect example of the worst we bring as visiting surfers but a magnificent target for anyone who hated the west.
So the extremist bastards blew it up.
Why wouldn’t they?
And Kuta Beach reeled in shock.
And International Tourism dropped 90%
But the addiction was in place and not long after, like fish scattered by a pebble, surfers began filtering back into formation. And the rise began again.
So, in 2005, the sons of bitches blew it up again.
And Kuta Beach became a ghost town.
Quite literally, to those who have ever bothered to know anything about the Hindu religion.
I first made the pilgrimage in 1984. The last year you actually had to walk into Uluwatu. Today her cliffs are crumbling into the ocean under the weight of the rampant development, golf courses, condos, timeshares, greed and corruption. I have visited Bali many times since 1984. Loved her deeply. But I’m no angel either. Hell, I brought the madness of a Hollywood film production to the island in 1996. In God’s Hands. Doesn’t get much more exploitative than that. And here I now sit in 2010 at the Bali memorial with the Kotronakis sisters, pulling on a large Bintang beer just like everyone else I can see, watching the Phoenix that has risen yet again from the ashes of the Sari Club and Paddy’s Pub and from what the Balinese call “That night of flesh and blood”.
Kuta is back. Just like it ever was.
Might as well have tried to stop the tide.
And don’t think for one second the enemies of Kuta Beach haven’t noticed.
By the light of a neon moon, within a rock's throw, I can see five different mega surf shops, each blasting deep beats on to the street, and ten nightclubs blaring away, inviting all comers into their howling, cavernous confines. I can see thousands of people, hear thousands of voices, feel thousands of western souls blowing off steam, popping pills, ingesting drugs, gobbling mushrooms, drinking to insensibility, buggering, getting blown and laid by any means necessary, holiday makers, hustlers and dreamers alike.
And again, they are mostly Surfers, you bet, scads of them. Ninety out of 100 of them.
And I can see the Balinese people, serving them all.
The waitresses, the bartenders, the street hawkers, the dealers, the crazy and the grim. And a steady stream of traffic threads its way through the sweaty, sunburn shouldered throng, predatory taxis honking horns and Javanese hookers, sleek as blue sharks, cruising with sly inevitability. Out of the Bounty Club, six drunken, shirtless Australians emerge howling from the nude wrestling pit in a cloud of soap suds and whiskey and stumble over to the packed Espresso Club across the street where street magician Terry Sheard is belting out the Doors “roadhouse blues”,
…SAVE OUR CITY! …SAVE OUR CITY!...
I can only tip my bottle to the faded photographs of the Kotronakis sisters that are taped to the memorial next to me and say to them out loud,
-If only it was that easy.
THE NEW MYSTICS
They’re like new mystics to these people, says Maroubra alumni Gary Roscoe. We are both standing in the shade of a single palm watching Rob Machado and Bruce Irons rip one of the newly discovered rights on the Sanur side of the island. Rob looks interested, but Bruce is surfing like he has a God almighty hangover. Which is still ten times better than you can imagine. Little Baxter Woodger, 14, out of Coledale New South Wales, is the only other surfer in the water. He is so stoked to surf with two of the best surfers on the planet that even from shore he looks like he is going to faint. Gary Roscoe, Baxter’s Uncle, towels off next to their motorcycle and goes on.
-Think of it mate, these surfers show up, all they have to do is wander the earth like minstrels looking for waves and once they find them, they surf them like they are part of the ocean itself. It blows the Indonesian people away. I reckon pro surfers are better thought of here than anywhere else in the world, mate. It’s mystical, I’m tellin’ you.
That may be one reason so many of them are moving here, I thought.
Taylor Steele, who I could see out on the point rolling film, lives here permanently. Jason Childs is here, Surfer Staff photographer. He is a sixteen year resident. Earlier, Jason and I visited Taylor Steele at Taylor’s compound out in Canguu, the new ex-pat Promised Land about a half hour out of Kuta. Taylor sat comfortably in his spacious office overlooking the rice paddies and the nearby surf. He was distractedly editing his latest opus, keeping one eye on the ocean.
-This is paradise. Inexpensive. A great people, healthy food, a great place for my wife and kids. Surf is good every day. All I have to do is visit California a few days out of the year and I’m set.
Seems the whole world is starting to get it these days. Feeling things out, Hurley has rented a big compound here next to Taylor. That’s where Rob Machado lives these days. I sat with Rob in the compound’s magic garden.
Rob: Used to be Bali was just a transit stop for the Garajagan contest, He said, I must have been crazy…Bali is definitely going to be a bigger part of my life from now on.
So stoked on Uluwatu is Rob that he then borrowed a car and drove around for two and a half hours trying to find the place. It was the first time he’d ever driven in Bali. His relationship with the wave today is as sublime as Lopez. There is even a hairy section of the inside racetrack named after him these days. Rob’s Bar and Grille.
Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning are rumored to be building, Bruce and Andy are thinking about it. So is Luke Steadman. Jake Patterson has broken ground, Taj Burrow is believed to be planning his own Taj Mahal, Nathan Webster is in, Billabong is in, Quiksilver maybe…the list goes on. What was once the gateway to adventure has become a gateway to retirement. We visited Mikala Jones place too. A compound with his extended family that is straight out of Architectural digest.
-I think this is the way people were meant to live. My whole family is on the property in different houses, we have cooks, gardeners and the Balinese people are the best daycare you can imagine…why live any other way?
I mention this to Jason Childs who is shooting stills of the action nearby.
-Look, mate, pro surfers these days have to be adults. They finally make adult money and that allows them adult options. Marriage, kids, Houses, retirement…it’s a new world, mate. Best time to be a pro surfer in history.
Just then Aussie Neil Hargreaves pulls up on his old motorcycle, 6’4” thruster strapped to his side. Here is a real Bali soldier. Old as time, tanned and lean as jerky. To look into his eyes is to look into the history of this place for the surfer on the other side of the cash. You can see the decades of cheap accommodations, the reef cuts, the scars, the malaria, the dengue, the courage of doing it tough. The thousands of waves and thousands of wipeouts and thousands of beers and thousands of sunsets and thousands of all the small rewards that add up to make it all worth it carved into the wood of his face, his surfer’s eyes still as bright as sapphires. He cuts the engine, lights up a smoke, draws deeply, takes in everything that’s going on. Bruce takes off on the outside, disappears into a cavern, blasts out and swings into a 10 foot air that he almost lands. Rob takes the next one, sculpts an impeccable series of hair raising re-entries and kicks out elegantly.
Neil just raises his eyebrows at the action. We all wait for his reaction.
-Those blokes are pretty good, He drawls with a half smile.
Gary asks him a question.
-Hey Neil, why do you reckon all these pros are taking over the island?
Neil thinks about it for a few seconds, grabs his board and walks down toward the surf for the millionth time.
But this time he stops, kills his smoke, turns to us and says
-Poison snakes bites you…you’re poison too.
You’ll hear Christian Fletcher before you see him.
It’s not like he sneaks up on anybody.
And anytime he shows up, an ordinary day suddenly ends.
This time he’s tear-assing down crowded Poppies Lane, which is only about 8 feet wide and packed with vendors and holiday makers. He’s doing about 40 kliks on his fire orange supercharged café moto racer with its bald back tire and crappy front brakes. Where he found this bike is anybody’s guess. His helmet is a terrifying green full face skull with Hindu symbols of perfection bleeding from the sides. The same symbols Hitler perverted into swastikas. The cops are in pursuit for the second time that day. Pub patrons roar as he blazes by, Balinese shopkeepers cheer. Two Aussie girls flash their breasts. He gears down, grabs an offered beer on the pass, kills it and tosses it over his shoulder. Avoiding a cringing dog, Christian gets a little out of shape and starts to wobble… no back brake, so he throws the bike into a power slide, jumps the small curb and guns it into the darkness of Kuta’s only punk rock bar and Tattoo shop, trailing blue smoke. The black-clad patrons inside help him hustle the bike into the bathroom and Christian is lighting a smoke at the bar by the time the cops race by outside.
-I was named after a mutineer, after all, he offers.
He really is a sight. Sweaty, shirtless, barefoot, death tattoos. He is having his cranium turned into a speedometer above the skull tattoo on the back of his head. And across his throat the new Tat reads PAPA GILA, Indonesian for Crazy Father. Seems Christian’s seventeen year old son Greyson Thunder Fletcher is over for a visit.
I sit across from Christian and marvel at the sight. I look down at his foot. Little toe mangled from his latest escapade. Christian Fletcher is always bleeding from somewhere.
-It’s like an offering, if you aren’t playing hurt, you aren’t playing hard enough!
The night before, Christian and I had a problem.
I was supposed to meet him at The Balcony, Rizal Tanjung’s restaurant. Things got all crossed up and we missed each other. Half pissed; he’s hammering on my hotel door at 4:00am telling me he’s going to kidnap me. I put the pillow over my head and hoped the lock would hold. Then came the text messages, threatening to hit me in the face with his hands and stating that I owed him a one hundred dollar appearance fee.
I handled that one first thing in the morning. Telling him he could fuck off.
He was just coming to. All he could croak was:
-Man, it’s way too early for this kind of shit.
All was forgiven, I am a family friend of the Fletchers after all.
Seems Christian was surfing Balangan all night. Seems these days, he only surfs at night. With checkered tennis shoes on.
I ask him about it this night surfing thing.
-Vampires are cool, right? Think about all the waves they get being able to see at night. I’ve joined ‘em…its working out great! Each night begins a new day!
Apparently Christian has been existing in Bali for months now. Dark rumors sift around about how he is on the lam from Johnny law back in the USA.
Christian writes it off.
-Just a possession charge…no big deal. It’ll straighten itself out.
Next thing I know I am on the back of his bike, on a trip that could last anywhere from ten minutes to eternity. We are making our way to the Ku-de-ta, a five star beachside bar and resort where the ex-pat intelligentsia, artists and celebrities of Bali gather on Thursdays for their sundown gin and bitters.
As usual, we’ve picked up two cops in hot pursuit. I look down at the speedometer and have to squeeze my groin not to piss my pants. 160kph into oncoming southeast Asian traffic. I just close my eyes and hold on tight and hope we get there before Christian starts seeing pink elephants. He’d just downed a six bag magic mushroom milkshake. Enough to drop a fucking rhino.
-I ain’t doing nothing wrong, this shit is legal here!
In what is clearly a miracle, we arrive alive. The cops couldn’t possibly keep up. Hell, a jet couldn’t.
-I’m not crazy, I’m calculating. Speed is the only way to stay safe around here. Everyone respects it and gets out of the way. It’s great! That’s the best thing about Bali, slowing down for cops is optional!
We’ve arrived at Ku-de-ta after dark. Christian’s own private film crew arrives. I find myself relieved that someone is making a movie about all this. It’s all so precious. And considering Christian’s pedigree, it ought to be a doozy of a flick. Strangely, Christian Fletcher is welcomed with open arms by the local staff at what most would consider one of the more contentious gatherings in Bali. Soft candles, impeccable waiters, white table cloths…and then Christian, shirtless, bleeding, body armor Tattoo, barefoot, sweaty and, by now, sporting eyes like a horse in a barn fire.
God only knows what he is seeing at this point.
-Get me a bottle of tequila or I ain’t talking! Is Cameron Diaz here tonight? She was a few nights ago!
The concierge smiles and snaps his fingers at a nearby waiter. That waiter smiles too and Christian moves through the crowd like an arctic icebreaker.
He plops down next to a famous Japanese actress takes a drag on her cigarette and asks her if she wants to go for a surf. She giggles, not understanding a word he is saying. But she says to her entourage that his breath is as strong as a horse. They all titter.
He launches into another story.
-Ten foot barrels, two foot deep over razor sharp coral and there I was… It was black as night…because…well… it was night…
This time she laughs out loud. Christian jumps up, strips down to trunks, one of his boards materializes. Apparently he keeps one here under the stairs. He trots down the beach under the moonlight and launches himself into the shore break. A Balinese waitress trains a giant spotlight on him as if this happens all the time and everyone goes about their business.
The waitress and I watch Christian paddle out.
-Tombstones in his eyes. I say to her.
The waitress replies:
-Yes…When Mister Fletcher dies…it will be with his eyes open.
And with a small smile, she moves away.
Which is exactly the point here in Bali.
Why a man like Christian can exist here. The Balinese respect insanity. It’s part of humanity. A number of their deities reflect it as a cleverness…something almost Holy.
Because they are non-judgmental people. Because they are tolerant.
Because they can understand Christian’s madness and see a sweetness in it. Because there really is a sweetness about this guy.
And because they can understand the madness of the whole world.
And see a sweetness in that too.
And as for Christian? Personally?
I can’t wait for the movie.
Sitting on the veranda of Rizal Tanjung’s villa in the sky is about as close to heaven as one can get on the island of the Gods. It affords a 340 degree view of Bali. Nusa Lembongan to the east, Mt Agung rising rampart in the mist due north, unobstructed sight from Canguu to the airport and halfway up the Bukit to Uluwatu. A small palace. One that his surfing has built. At 34, owner of a few businesses, a restaurant, Hurley Business manager and still fit as a teen, Rizal lords over the local surfing scene here. Still winning contests now that Bali has its own pro tour, Rizal has started a family with his stunning wife and son Verun. With that winning smile, Rizal feels that he is in his prime. And that despite all the “progress and development”, so is Bali.
He explains that the Balinese believe in the balance of good and evil. And with too much of one comes the other.
-Before the bomb Kuta Beach the spirits were out of balance, too much greed, too much forgetfulness, so these terrible things started to happen.
But look at the results, we all looked at ourselves and slowed way down. Many turned back to deeper beliefs; a few local surfers even became priests.
He explains the rebirth of the Banjar system, of how Kuta Beach is now divided into 13 micro districts with grass roots watchdog groups. He describes a more aware youth, a more balanced youth that is being raised with more caution toward western influence, more in touch with not only the ocean but with the spirits within as well. Top Balinese surfers like Made “Garut” Widiarta, Wayan “Betet” Merta, Marlon Gerber, Lee Wilson, Penen Hendrik and Roditya Rondi who today surf in harmony with Dede Suryana, winner of the Quiksilver Open, a Javanese Muslim. And they are all looking forward to surfing against the bigs at the rumored Rip Curl WCT event at Uluwatu.
Even though security concerns hang over the proposed event like a thundercloud.
As a restaurant owner in Kuta Beach, Rizal admits that nerves are still frayed. All it takes is a plate to crash to the floor to make everyone jump out of their seats. There are cops outside every major establishment, getting into major hotels is like the green zone, backpacks are objects of suspicion and searched, especially at night.
And may Allah himself help anyone who steps into a night club in traditional Muslim garb.
Rizal, Jason and I talk of the rumblings to the north at Medewi, the only Islamic enclave on the island that happens to be home to a good left point break. You have to go through three checkpoints each way these days to surf it. And then there is the anger over on Lombok, the neighbor island, home of the holy immaculate Desert Point. An Islamic isle, there has been talk of Al-Qaeda training camps over there. Travel has changed dramatically for what used to be a milk run across the channel. Surfers far more aware of their surroundings these days.
And their exit routes.
A quiet falls over our conversation. Little Verun comes trotting out of the kitchen with a bowl of cereal and M&M’s for his Dad. We all laugh at the sight, slightly relieved to be off the dark subject.
Rizal lifts his boy up onto his hip and steps over to the edge of the Balcony. In the distance, the tourist industry grinds away in Kuta, 747’s silently float down onto the tarmac at Denpasar International one after the other. And off the tip off the runway, a big set moves over the airport reef leaving a perfect triangle of white in its wake. There is a peppering of boats. There would be sure to be at least thirty guys on that.
-Let them come, Rizal says quietly as he watches the Jumbo jets land, let them come, the waves and the Balinese people have never just survived…they have always thrived. The waves will be always be here…and people will always come to ride them.
And whether or not they leave this island a mortal or a spirit…that is up to the Gods.
THE GHOSTS: part 2
There is a lot of talk of ghosts these days.
They have been very active. People see them all the time. Especially around here at the Memorial with the Kotronakis sisters. I’d heard two giant Aussie footballers discussing their supernatural visitors just last night. Thunder Christian had to shoo one out of his bedroom that was keeping him awake, it kept turning the light on and slamming the door. The local witches here are booked solid with spirit deterrents and exorcisms.
The spirit world is unquestioned here by Balinese and westerners alike.
As much as we like to think we happen to Bali, the truth is that she has happens to us. Just like these ghosts. And it is impossible to come to any conclusions about Bali without coming to conclusions about ourselves. Though we have stamped our feet hard upon the earth here, her beauty, even here in Kuta at the memorial amidst the tawdriness; her beauty is as undeniable as it has ever been. There is a whole lot of Bali beyond Kuta Beach. One need only to look up into the evening sky, to hear the creaking of the bamboo forest, to watch the gentle ceremony of the morning offerings, to see the view from deep inside a spinning wave to see her unaltered beauty.
It will always just be a matter of what we bring to it.
Hopefully, and Godammit, hope is all we have at this point, the balance of good and evil here in Bali will tip in neither direction. And the horizon will stay true and the ship will not capsize and break apart on the rocks ever again.
Hopefully we can all re-discover the beauty of Bali and help the spirits keep her balanced with our better angels this time. Forever.
Oh, it’s possible. Don’t laugh yet.
Just ask the Kotronakis sisters.
Beauty may never be enhanced by the discovery of it.
But it should be.
-Matt George, Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia, 5MAY10, 1613hrs-