Thursday, October 28, 2010


The irony of it all was starting to wear thin: Scores of fat, obnoxious tourists, no doubt on cheap package deals, choosing to holiday among the timeless ways of the Balinese and yet complaining every two minutes if they couldn’t get exactly what they wanted when they wanted. It was my wife Shelley’s first time in Indonesia, and she was abhorred with the way many westerners treated the locals. When a Kuta hawker offered us an elaborately-carved bow and arrow set, Shell suggested that we test it out on a rather abrasive Australian family sitting further along on the beach. (It should be mentioned that we also met many nice Australians, but none of them wore Bintang singlets)

For a few days we surfed, sunbathed and shopped with the hordes in Kuta’s meat market and then Seminyak’s version – the only difference being the layers of make-up – politely declining offers of transport, huge phallic carvings, sarongs, drugs and yet another ‘special’ massage from bevies of toothless senior citizens. Eventually, we imploded and headed inland to walk among the rice paddies and rain forests.
Nearly a decade had passed since my last trip here, and I was surprised with the increase in prices, tourist numbers and infrastructure. A local taxi driver complained that the Indonesian government was taking nearly all of the tourist dollars back to Jakarta, and that the majority of Balinese were as poor as ever. And then there were the growing number of expats, tearing up rice paddies to build their own chunk of exotic paradise. I wondered if they even cared about the Balinese way of life, or were more interested in shaping it around their own idealism. Overall, my impression was that Bali appeared to be struggling to keep its identity through all the demand.

Easing through the ever trendy Ubud, we eventually surfaced in Sanur. Shell had to head back to NZ for work, and I awaited the arrival of a couple of surfing mates. A dawn check at Hyatt Reef showed that the new swell hadn’t yet arrived, so I wandered south along the waterfront to a friend’s recently established yoga studio.

Theo Wallis is a young Kiwi living in Bali, but the contrast between his attitude and many of the other expats I met was obvious. To start with, proceeds from his Power of Now yoga/chi-gung/meditation/holistic centre go to the Jodie O’Shea Orphanage in Denpasar. And while other expats exhibit that million-mile stare where they can’t quite get motivated enough to do anything with their day – because there is nothing for them to do – Theo bubbles with enthusiasm and ideas.
 ‘It’s about living in the now,’ he told me as we slurped tall, cold glasses of mixed juice and relaxed in the sun after another yoga session. ‘I hate it that people spend their days without being fully aware of their surroundings. It’s like they’re on autopilot. Their mind wanders from the present.’
‘Yeah, but that’s life though, isn’t it?’ I replied. ‘Sure, we have various goals, but really we just drift along from one random occurrence to another.’
Theo shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s not healthy. We need to concentrate, to be aware of what we’re doing every moment and of the situation around us.’
Theo referred to this as ‘the need for mindfulness’. He spoke of connecting it to other ‘simple’ ideas like positive thinking, the realisation that everything was impermanent, focussing on kindness, love and compassion as well as practising discipline and humility.

To be honest, I’ve never been big on New Age thinking and philosophy. The idea of extensive meditation just seems a waste of time. But here was a 23-year-old surfer from Dunedin – at an age when most of us focussed on alcohol and carnal pleasure – exhibiting a maturity and intuition way beyond his years. I guess it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – both of Theo’s parent’s are healers. His father works as a meditation teacher, while his mother is a midwife in Dunedin.
I’ve known Theo since 2005, when we worked and surfed together in Otago. A rangy teenager with a big grin, Theo and his mates chased waves and girls. Then wanderlust took hold. Theo spent the summer of 2006 teaching at a surf camp in San Diego, then ski instructed in Whistler and surfed round Vancouver. He returned home for a year, and in 2008 joined a volunteer LEAP (Local Empowerment Assistance Project) programme in Sumatra.

‘We helped build a school, dig wells, and got to surf some pretty good waves too,’ Theo recalled.
The programme was based on the island of Palau Asu, near Nias, and Theo surfed the famous right-hander as often as possible. ‘It’s probably my favourite wave in Indo,’ he said, smiling. ‘Big barrels, the thing goes like clockwork.’
When the LEAP programme ended, Theo headed to Perth, and worked as a bartender on Rottnest Island. ‘I did a lot of training, pushing my body, understanding what it could and couldn’t do.’ It was there that Theo started focussing on yoga. ‘Initially I just picked up basic sequences and used them in my surf warm-up routine,’ he said.
While in Perth, Theo met well-travelled Australian Chris Sampson (Chris is one of the nice Australians, and doesn’t wear Bintang singlets). And, in 2009, they took part in a meditation retreat in Bali – something that Theo described as a watershed: ‘I spent three months in Indo this time, mostly up in North Sumatra. I was training with a yoga teacher, surfing three times a day and doing yoga twice a day.’

Theo then went on the week-long retreat with Chris. Based on a mix of ancient Balinese-Hindu philosophies and Buddhist pre-religion, Theo described it as a week of silence and no food in the evenings. ‘Before that retreat I had been on a path of enjoyment, heading from one pleasure to the next,’ he explained. ‘But it opened up my consciousness. I became aware of what was important in life. Before that I’d been walking round with a blindfold on. Life’s not just about financing fun. It should be focussed on positive development of yourself and the things and people around you.’
Theo and Chris returned to Rottnest and made plans. They worked on Chris’s 60ft ketch, Defiance, before sailing it north to Bali and parking up in Sanur. Theo said that the two of them had previously discussed starting a holistic centre in Rottnest but, upon arriving in Indonesia, decided that Mertasari Beach in Sanur would be ideal. Theo now teaches yoga most days, and organises events for the orphanage.

The Power of Now centre flier states that ‘the most noble thing you can do is to help others.’ Theo is fond of quotes, and frequently uses them to illustrate his views: ‘If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true meaning of life. The key point is to have a genuine sense of universal responsibility. That’s from His Holiness the Dalai Lama,’ Theo explained. ‘Makes sense, doesn’t it?’
I nodded.

‘Yet we forget to do it,’ he continued. ‘We get tied up in our egos, our own negative thoughts.’
I asked Theo whether yoga and meditation helped with his surfing.
‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘There’s the physical side to it. I have more flexibility and strength. But it’s the awareness of my surroundings that has had more impact. I feel connected to the ocean. I feel the energy of it through my hands when I’m paddling. Sure, I still have bad surfs from time to time. Maybe my ego is too strong on those days. But other days my surfing feels fully switched on.’

Theo’s love for the ocean has seen him progress to other water activities. ‘I need to go in the water every day,’ he said. ‘Whether kite surfing, tow surfing, stand up or whatever, I’m looking for that connection.’
Theo still thinks of New Zealand as home, and looks forward to one day returning to the Otago coastline to chase the chilly waves there. But for now, he and Chris have plans to extend the centre, and maybe start another so they can broaden their positive influence on others.
‘Wealth is the ability to be generous,’ Theo said.
‘The Dalai Lama, again?’ I asked.
‘No, it’s a mixture of mine and this spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.’

Find out more about what Theo does at

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Article in Dominion Post 'Weekend' section

A Day Spent Searching For Groundswell With Paul Hersey

By Kester Brown

I can’t decide whether being addicted to surfing is a blessing or a curse. It’s hard to describe the sensation of riding a moving wall of water, one that has risen up out of the ocean, plucked you from its surface and propelled you along at breakneck speed. It’s a simple pleasure—the sweet rush of being picked up by the swell, the feeling of your board beneath your feet carving along the glassy blue surface of the ocean. When everything comes together, the feeling is incomparable. But it doesn’t come easy. You have to contend with ill-fitting tight rubber suits, freezing cold water, dangerous rips, the fear of sharks, near-drownings and worst of all, getting out of bed at an ungodly hour in the morning (the best waves are always at dawn, is this a ploy from the surfing gods to punish surfers for their indulgent hedonism?). All that for a cheap thrill … or is it?

One person who has spent a lot of time pondering the merits of surfing is Paul Hersey, author of the recently released book Searching For Groundswell. Paul spent a year on the road researching his book, surfing many of the breaks around New Zealand, meeting the locals and employing a fair amount of critique to what he thinks it means to be a surfer today.
Searching For Groundswell offers a perspective on where New Zealand surf culture is heading, how the sport has evolved into the mainstream and what that means for issues surrounding surfing such as localism and environmental concerns.

Paul lives in South Brighton, Christchurch, just across the road from a beach that, while it does occasionally produce waves, is claimed by many surfers to be the worst break in New Zealand. So when he called me on a calm, sunny afternoon to say that it was one of those rare days when the surf was pumping, I grabbed my board and headed over.

When I arrived at Paul’s house, he was already in the water, and his wife Shelley was suited up and on her way out the door, ready to run across the road and join him.
As Shelley and I paddled out to sea, duck diving under the whitewater of the shorebreak, we saw Paul take off and pull his board under the curling lip of a nice head high wave. When the surf is good, like it was that day, the excitement is almost unbearable. Grown men and women turn into giggling messes. Paul has a naturally large grin, and he likes to show it off regularly. When I paddled over to him and sat up on my board for a breather, his grin was out in full force, attempting to nudge the ears off the back of his head.

‘What took you so long?’ he asked, ‘This is what it’s all about! Blue skies, nice waves and … aaeeeowww!! Here comes another set!’
Paul has been surfing most of his life, and is obviously comfortable in the ocean. But me, I’m still learning how to read the currents, still trying to tune in to the finer elements of the art of surf board riding.
‘Paddle paddle paddle! Go right … RIIIIGHT!!’ Paul had left the best wave of the set for me. His enthusiasm for surfing is infectious enough, but he wanted to make sure everyone was in on the good time he was having.

I took his advice, paddling as hard as I could, I angled my board to the right so that if I made the take-off, I could outrun the breaking lip as it peeled along the wave. I was too slow though and the surge of the swell lifted me so that I was on top of the wave. It was not where I wanted to be, I should have been further down the face where it was less steep and the water was smoother, but I was committed, it was either make the drop or go ‘over the falls’ into the fury of the whitewater. I leaned back, planted my feet on the board and free-fell down the face. Miraculously, I judged the timing of the drop just right and my weight came evenly onto my board as I leaned into a bottom turn, carving through the water and setting myself up for the ride. When you’ve made it onto the clean face of a wave and you’re looking down the line ahead, with a wall of water at your back, you can really feel the energy of what’s driving you along. You feel very much alive.
The best moments in surfing require no thought, your mind and body function purely on intuition. For most surfers, I suspect, it’s those moments that define their motivation to chase waves.

When I asked Paul where his idea to write a book about surfing came from, he talked about the intimate relationship that he has developed with the landscape of surfing, both in terms of the physical environment and as a cultural identity. Paul pointed out that as a body of people surfers have, potentially, a very powerful voice, and it’s up to them to protect what they see as valuable. During his year long surf trip, Paul gained interesting insights into both the influence that corporate surf culture is having on the sport, and how grassroots organisations, such as local boardriders clubs, have the power to direct the energies of surfings strongest resource—its people.

But the lasting impression I have from reading Searching For Groundswell is the same as the one I was left with after spending a day in the waves with Paul—surfing is just about the most fun thing you can do, and as he points out in the opening quote in his book, ‘The best surfer on any given day is the one having the most fun’.