Surfing the Desert States of India
Eric Hansen gets a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of a project to surf in each of India's states, nevermind that 21 (of 28) are landlocked and that the coastline is known for little more than ankle-slappers
In October of 2010, two young, broke Aussie goofballs purchased a clunky old car in New Delhi, painted it a kaleidoscope of colors, and set off to motor conspicuously through pretty much all of that hot, crowded mega-country known as India.
As with so many mates before them, an adventure like this was a great excuse to “escape the rock,” as they say, but the unemployed surfers and aspiring filmmakers also had grander plans. Jonno, then 28 years old, and Stefan, 23 years old, wanted to make a movie. An Endless Summer 3 of sorts.
“But we didn’t have anyone promising to pay for us,” says Jonno. “So we thought we’d have to go to a cheap country.”
The amateur surfers chose India, which they’d always been curious about, and decided the route of their surf safari would be clockwise, at least 4,500 miles. They had three months; girlfriends back home would allow no longer.
The narrative behind the movie would be the same as the earlier no-budget film they’d made in the United States: they’d “surf” in each state. In their first film, Surfing 50 States, they flew to America, got their hands on a broken down ice cream truck, and drove through every state in our fine land, also “surfing” along the way. In Southern Idaho, a farmer invited them to glide down his enormous mound of sugar beets. In Utah, a large Mormon family used their four-wheeler and a water ski rope to tow the boys up an irrigation ditch. In St. Louis, self-styled gangstas “C” and “J” took them surfing on the one thing they could imagine resembling a big wave: a flight of concrete steps. The results were charming, and they won the Aspiring Filmmaker’s Award at the 2007 Telluride MountainFilm Festival.
India would be much the same. Nevermind that 21 of India’s 28 states are landlocked and that the coastline is known for little more than ankle-slappers, they liked how trying to slide on a board threw them into unpredictable situations. They’d skim anything—one early pipe dream included standing atop a surfboard on an Indian train—and help out with some charities along the way for good measure.
In the end, the surf apparel company that helped with their first film stepped forward to provide most of their meager budget for Surfing 28 States: INDIA (working title) and the duo won a small grant. Two others friends quit their jobs to join as cameraman and producer.
I liked their style. And not long after, I arranged to meet the hale and wholesome crew in north-central India, a short flight from where I was in Nepal. I didn’t really care about their specific plans for the weekend of October 28—to “surf” and to give away some bikes at an orphanage. I was mildly intrigued by an added element of celebrity—friend and professional freeskier Lynsey Dyer would be joining them. Mostly, I was curious to have a peek behind the scenes—to see a tiny sample of their epic journey; to see, as it turned out, what would go into the making of a six-minute segment in episode three of the documentary that will air on Outside TV.
I knew that India does not favor longterm travelers with just standard levels of moxie. But this, I would learn, isn’t the half of it.
THE MORNING WE’RE ALL to meet up, a Delhi-born photographer and I survey the city where we’re to meet the crew. From the top of one of Allahabad’s swankier hotels, a $25 a night fleabag named Sun City, we look down through the soot-fogged air to the streets below. Honking gridlock clogs alleyways, skinny beggars swing alms pails, and packs of feral dogs nose smoldering mounds of trash. The million-person mash-up is of a kind with metropoli throughout the subcontinent, but thanks to some liberal laws up here in north-central India, a frightening number of gun shops also line the streets.
“This is the shittiest city I’ve ever seen in India,” says the photographer.
Down on the streets, however, the crew of Surfing 28 States: INDIA is freshly showered and feeling good. And Allahabad doesn’t care. Men aim their tractor-beam stares at Lynsey, with her wavy blond locks, while the rest of us attempt to find a patch of broken concrete that is not considered a traffic lane by one of various ungulates.
“OK!” enthuses Stefan, rallying the troops. We leave to change money to pay for the bikes in a convoy of pedal-powered rickshaws, which might afford some peace, except that now we’ve entered the uncertain flow of retread lorries, where near collisions are de rigueur.
At the bank it’s more of the same. As soon as a little bit of peace is found, beggars approach. They tug at our shirts, place their unshaven faces at our shoulders, and gesture toward their open mouths. The poverty is literally in your face. First the beggars approach one at a time and Jonno and Stefan are able to brush them off. Stefan likes to point to Jonno while saying: “Oh, I don’t have any money, but you should talk to my friend Jonno. He’s very rich.” As soon as the big film camera comes out, an enormous crowd gathers around the two of them, but the crowd is so large that it turns out to be self-sustaining. Jonno and Stefan duck out of the center of the congregation unnoticed and circle round to its outermost periphery, joining the rest of the Indians trying to catch a glimpse of whatever the crowd has gathered for.
“It’s amazing,” opines Stefan. “Crowds come outta nowhere wherever you are.”
And then there’s the blood-letting bureaucracy. Past the heavily armed guards, inside the bank, a graying manager escorts them into a private office and informs Lynsey that before he can change her currency, she must first handwrite each bill’s 10-digit serial number. She has $3,200 in 100s and twenties. So this takes a while. Just as she finishes, the computer system fails.
Two hours later—two hours later—Lynsey finally emerges onto the street with stacks of rupees as thick as her forearms. She fans the currency at the camera, singing, with manic enthusiasm, “Dolla dolla billz!” Lynsey and the crew immediately realize that a thug’s boast is probably not the right tone for a segment about philanthropy and they re-shoot.
I can’t imagine the effort required to navigate this sprawling mishmash of humanity—the poverty, the commotion, the red tape, the explosive yellow and frothy BMs—but Jonno and Stefan and the crew seem to be doing just fine. Better than fine. Sure, they’re not the most culturally sensitive travelers, perhaps, but they eat whatever truckstop food is placed before them, Delhi Belly be damned, and have somehow so far remained perfectly healthy. They towel off the daily shellackings of diesel exhaust in crummy hotels and look pretty darn swarthy. After three weeks of hard travel through five states, the novelty of backroads India should be wearing thin, but God bless them, it isn’t.
“A DAY CAN START off so rough, nothing working in your favor, enough to make you want to throw in the towel,” explains Stefan. “But then comes the magic, the stars align, and you’re so deep in the gnarliest Indian experience you completely forget how badly the day began.”
Something likes this happens that afternoon. After a fly-swirled lunch of malai kofta with a side order of bacterial dysentery, we make our way to Kapoor Company bike store, on busy Johnston Ganj Road. Much of the work is taking place al fresco, i.e. in the gutter, because at 95 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s just too hot inside. In a sweaty loft in the back, three guys work in a towering mess of cardboard and bubble wrap, assembling brakes, bolting levers to the lever-housings, then clamping the brake cables to the levers, etc. Worryingly, it turns out that only 18 of the 34 bikes for the orphanage are complete. Sixteen more must be built and delivered before early tomorrow morning.
Lynsey pays $3,200 to the Godfather-esque man that appears to be Kapoor and accepts his promise to do his “level best” to deliver the bikes.
Stefan, meanwhile, uses a discarded bike rim to teach the men out front how to hoola hoop. A wheelbuilder with two right thumbs eyes Jonno suspiciously. Jonno goggles back with mock seriousness and a wheel-building competition ensues. Spokes are whipped around like nunchucks. The man with two thumbs builds a wheel in roughly 3.7 seconds, then uses a mallet to beat the wheel into true. Bam! Before Jonno can even attach all his spokes, the local has threaded and bluntly trued an entire wheel.
The man’s red-gummed smile advertises the easy victory and the crowd that has gathered grins too. Jonno cedes gracefully, bowing his head in deference to the two-thumbed mechanic’s superior skill and mallet work. It’s a small moment, but a wonderfully genuine exchange across 1,400 miles of cultural difference.
The next morning, when Jonno finally pulls away from the hotel toward the orphanage, it’s just slapstick.
Five of us are wedged inside the tiny car that they call Lassi. The back seat is lumpy, and full of pokey loose springs. A fan—an actual spinning blade fan—provides the A/C, and frequently entangles strands of Lynsey’s hair, to painful effect. The only thing proper is the cassette stereo, which is blaring a tinny Bollywood soundtrack. The clown car accelerates with the ponderous heft of an arthritic elephant. “I love Lassi,” one of the crew will blog, “except for the whole driving in it part.”
“Jonno’s driving in India!” Stefan shouts, leaning out the window.
And indeed Jonno is. He dodges bikers riding two up, auto rickshaws parking, dogs and pigs basking on the shoulder, donkey wagons straying across the street, holy men walking with staffs, men pushing fruit carts, lumbering large trucks, a pedal rickshaw carrying no less than a dozen kindergartners in uniforms, and a general blue haze of pollution so thick you can barely see. To a normal person like Lynsey—“I’m freaking out!”—this would be, well, a bit of a freakout. But to Jonno and Stefan, it’s just a laugh.
“What happens if we hit a holy cow?” asks Jonno.
“I’ve herd you just drive away,” says Stefan.
“Well, you don’t want to have a beef with the locals.”
“No, you better mooooove out of the way.”
“We probably should’ve taken an udder route,” says Jonno, and everyone finally cracks up.
AN AMAZING QUIET GREETS us at the orphanage that turns out to be not exactly an orphanage, but a temporary home for children rescued from … child labor. The peaceful Bel Vikas Ashram, a walled compound surrounded by acres of green rice paddies, takes in mostly pre-teen boys found during police raids on sweat shops, stone quarries, plastics factories, and other flagrantly inhumane businesses. The nuns offer the kids a couple months of remedial education and vocational training, while social workers try to convince the parents not to send their gradeschoolers back out to earn a couple rupees.
Dozens of these former factory workers, boys ages six to 13, stand mute like a school choir under a porch. They have the stiff bearing of muscular adults and betray no enthusiasm for the totally awesome gifts almost within grasp—two rows of 10-speeds and BMXs in the yard below.
Yes, somehow Kapoor delivered the bikes on time.
“It’s amazing,” says Lynsey.
The unsmiling nuns who run the place lead the kids in two “action songs,” and Jonno and Stefan mimic the hand movements—the rising sun, the giving away—causing a few of them to crack adorable/disobedient smiles. Afterward, they are herded in front of the zany car for the requisite photo op and then, before they can receive their bikes, asked to declare their dream jobs. Doctor is most popular, followed by carpenter. An assistant translates their answers, and of course Jonno and Stefan try to joke, even via translator.
“I don’t feel like humanitarian work is shared in a fun light,” Stefan had told me. “So much of the time, it’s like, ‘There’s poverty here; here’s this kid; you should feel bad; the only way you can feel better is if you give us your credit card details.’ That’s not how we see it.”
Nor do the kids. By the time the second bike is handed out, a short boy is pedaling furiously down the courtyard. He crashes into a brick wall—to much cheering. Trying to outdo him, the fourth boy pedals hard on a bike as tall as him only to lay it down on the straightaway. More cheers. Of course the bikes immediately begin breaking apart, despite that good hammer work at Kapoor Company. Wheels warp. Seats and handlebars twist. Brakes and training wheels and pedals drop onto the cobblestones. But no one seems to expect differently and a couple of the Bel Vikas Ashram gardeners even jump in to help fix the busted steeds. The mayhem continues.
Eventually, 34 kids, many having never straddled a two-wheeler before, are riding bikes in the compound no larger than a basketball court.
Boys jump onto other boys’ racks, swerving along. They showboat with arms and hands in the air. Little kids mount tall bikes and, unable to keep their feet on the pedals at the bottom of the pedal stroke, just press extra hard on the way down and wait for the pedal to come around. They collide often, sometimes into each other, sometimes on top of each other. This madcap free for all is not the appropriate setting in which to learn to ride, I think, and I’m sure only these kids and the inventor of the bike, whoever he was, truly appreciate just how awesome bikes are.
Lynsey tears up.
JONNO AND STEFAN PULL a surfboard from the roof, balance it on a skateboard, and join in the fray. As far as surfing goes, it’s totally lame. But when one of the stern nuns takes a try—Jonno pushing; Stefan waving his hands theatrically; she terrified and smiling like a game-show winner—I too get a little choked up.
I soon bid goodbye to crew, and it turns out that I miss the crack ups by just a couple of days. No one escapes the shittiest city in India unscathed. In Varanasi, a Jonno and Stefan will swim down the Ganges, right past dead fish, the immolating funeral ghats, and the city sewer outflow. Then Jonno will get a cold sore, an infected eye, and be so sick he can’t stay awake to eat. Stefan, already feverish, will vomit and go straight to bed. Lynsey will have a gastro-intestinal blowout and ask herself over and over why she came.
But then Lynsey will get better and spend another month in the country on her own, orchestrating and giving away more bikes at an ashram for girls. And the 28 States crew will go on to surf behind yoked cows; through markets standing atop fruit carts; on steep tea plantations. They’ll sneak into a northeastern state dressed as “river ninjas” while surfing “class .83 rapids.” They’ll surf a grass slope in a state they describe as “Pandora without the Avatars.” They’ll ride on moto rickshaws and outrigger canoes and “billycarts,” whatever those are. But most impressive of all, judging by the rough edits of the Outside TV series I saw, they will maintain their curiosity, compassion, and good cheer throughout.
“We always felt like everything was gonna be OK once we hit the coast, and to totally generalize, it was,” says Jonno.
They’ll make it to all 28 States, and yes, they will also surf actual waves. Near Puri, in the state of Orissa, they will be the only surfers riding clean three footers in warm clear water.