Excerpt from Jaimal Yogis' new book on ancient wisdom, modern physics and surfing
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 28 June, 2017 - In Jaimal Yogis’ new memoir, All Our Waves Are Water, he meets an older surfer, Jimmy, who was in a cerebral malaria coma for months and has since had to relearn how to talk and walk all over again, becoming - as he was before the coma - a deft tube rider. Below is an excerpt from Jaimal’s first time at Padang with Jimmy.
We began paddling in the channel where we had a perfect side view into Padang’s trajectory. Each surge collided into the reef abruptly, splaying itself outward. Often the lip of the wave projected wider than the wave’s height, and with backlight on the wave’s spine, the spiral looked briefly like a teal prism—graceful, gossamer along the fringes. But then the lip connected with the at sea in a dreadful explosion. The tube formed, and the surfer, if lucky, stayed completely dry in its center before being pushed out by the spit.
“Wow,” Jimmy said as we watched a massive wave that nobody dared catch explode. “Swell’s building. Almost looks like this wave I used to surf decades ago. Near where I got bitten.”
I shot Jimmy a surprised glance. I was pretty sure he was talking about the mosquito that had given him cerebral malaria, something I’d only heard him mention one other time.
“Do you remember anything?” I asked, hoping for a story to help me escape my own nerves. “You know, from all those months unconscious?”
It felt a little taboo to pry into someone’s near-death experience. But I’d never encountered a conversation topic Jimmy couldn’t roll with and then some.
“Two dreams,” he said without hesitation. “In one, I was a Native American and I was tying my wrist together with another man with leather straps, the blood brothers ceremony. In the next, I was in a pyramid-like building, and I was looking down on this horseshoe bay, watching my dad and me walking on the beach when I was a kid. I was in the tip of the pyramid looking through a circular scope, like a long periscope. And then I was lifted up. I saw a conical shape, a being of light, and I was taken into her. I was held by that—whatever it was—and it was bliss. More bliss than I ever believed possible, beyond any idea of what we imagine is possible about happiness or love because, I don’t know, it was beyond all that—beyond ideas. I woke up from the coma in the middle of that second dream. I was gripping the nurse’s hand. The first words out of my mouth were ‘San Sebastián, San Sebastián. I saw an angel. I saw an angel.’”
“Who’s San Sebastián?” I asked.
“That’s exactly what I wondered,” Jimmy said. “You know, my family’s religious, but the whole conservative deal in Southern California always weirded me out. I rebelled. But after I recovered from the coma and did all my therapy and that, I went to look him up. Turns out San Sebastián was a soldier in the Roman army. Had to keep his faith secret. When the emperor found out he was a Christian, he had Sebastián shot with dozens of arrows. Everyone thought he was dead—like they thought I was dead—but Irene of Rome, this healer, discovered him and brought him back. Sebastián then went and criticized the emperor in public and he got clubbed to death.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Heavy.”
“Yeah. And that’s not the weirdest part,” Jimmy said. “San Sebastián is also a famous bay in Basque country. I’d never been there when I dreamt of it. But get this—it looks exactly like the bay where I saw my dad and I walking in the dream. I’ve been there now. Yeah. Really good waves.”
By now, we were drifting into the takeoff zone. Six other surfers sat waiting, eyes locked on the horizon. We both recognized that carrying on a conversation about saints and angels here would be a bit strange. We let the conversation fall away. But all the talk of miracles had me looking at Padang through another lens – a lens that I suppose you could call faith. The lens was a little dusty from lack of polish. But it was just enough to recall that there was a piece of me that was not the least bit scared of crashing or not crashing, failure or success, death or life.
This part of me felt just fine surfing or not surfing Padang. But I was here after all.
I asked Jimmy, “Any words of wisdom?”
Jimmy flashed a grin.
“Believe,” he said.
It was bright and sunny, but I felt chilly as we bobbed between sets. I repeated Jimmy’s advice silently: Believe, be- lieve, believe. Believe, believe, believe . . .
The ocean was calm, and we floated there for a good ten minutes, waiting for a pulse. When the next set came, it seemed the sea had been storing power. The swells were mountainous as they rose under the sky. My instinct was to paddle for the horizon so none of these behemoths broke on top of me, which was exactly what the other six surfers did. But Jimmy ticked his head toward the beach, urging me to hold ground. Apparently, we were already in the zone.
The first swell began show boils, tracking the indentations of the reef. The other surfers in the pack began to thrash for it, but they were too far out.
“Go, go!” Jimmy nodded, shouting a whisper.
My brain didn’t want to go. But my body seemed to move anyway. Paddling as hard as I ever had, the water sucked me up, up, up to the crest. I stood. But it was too late. The wave was already going concave. And like that, I was airborne.
In that blink of weightlessness, I smashed my back foot down on the board’s tail, an attempt to feel the face of the wave, to keep from nose-diving. I knew this was unlikely to stop me. I almost surrendered to a horrid fall. But it worked. My fins touched vertical blue liquid. I landed with my feet positioned on the wax. And I began zooming down the mountain.
The wave was fast and smooth. It shimmered, and I enjoyed the raw speed. But as I transitioned to at sea, the bass of the wave seemed to hiccup. It dropped below surface level, slurping against the reef, and I realized that I had never seen a wave look anything like this. It didn’t even look much like a wave. It looked more like a blue-green subway tunnel that had been chopped in half and was falling from space.
The blue circuit warped and bent into a tunnel so long it seemed that I would have to be going the speed of a subway to have any hope of making it to the end. Looking down, I could see the coral seeming to rise. Water, of course, can form optical illusions, but there looked to be only a foot or two of water down there.
There was no going back though. I heard a whistle in my ear as the wind rushed past. I leaned onto my heels, trying to veer left, the direction the wave was peeling. But as the water encased me, it didn’t matter which way I wanted to go. The wave was in control. Just as Jimmy had said, time was different in here. In here, there was just the echo of water on stone. This and this and this. Somehow my board seemed to continue with me continuing to stand on it. Blue, blue, blue. The roar, the roar, the roar. The light at the end of it.
I kept floating through until a burst of foam hit me from behind and I was—could it be possible?—going to . . .
Make it . . . Out . . . Please . . . YES!
In that final meter before the light, a surge of water smacked my head. In an instant, I was flipping cartwheels. Now it was dark. I tucked into a fetal ball, covering my head. Then it happened so fast it was over. My body collided with a hard surface. Like a rubber ball from a vending machine, I bounced back to the surface.
How did a body bounce off coral like that? It seemed impossible. But there I was, gasping and floating in the channel, looking up at Jimmy. He was at the crest of the next wave, making the whole process I’d just been through look dance-like and simple.
Where I had panicked at seeing the wave warp, he leaned forward. He stayed centered. He tucked under the ceiling, dragging his fingers against the blue. His facial expression didn’t change standing still at the heart of the wave. Then he blasted out with the spume, hockey-stopping his board just in front of me.
“Wow, that was a good one, Jaimal,” he said. “Committed.”
The wind still knocked out of me, I wheezed and pointed to my back.
“You OK?” he said.
I managed to turn and lift my rash guard.
“Ouch,” Jimmy said. “Reef tattoo. But you’re moving well. You’ll be OK.”
My breath slowly returned. I felt lucky. The wave had smashed me directly down onto the reef, rather than along it, and my neoprene rash guard had protected me from any deep cuts.
“Think I’m done for the day,” I coughed, trying to smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jimmy said. “Let’s go in.”
After what seemed like an hour-long paddle back to Made’s, I checked the mirror, and my back looked as if it had been carved up by a sushi chef. But like Jimmy had said, the gashes were superficial. Made even laughed when she saw them. (She’d seen much, much worse living in front of Padang.) Then she helped me clean the wounds with lime and iodine, a process that turned out to be far more painful than the fall.
“Ya, scar good Bali souvenir,” Made laughed. “And free!”
Jimmy sat and drank papaya juice with me while the wounds dried, distracting me from the sting with stories about his own reef scars, about kayaking the rivers of Borneo and befriending tribal people.
“You know, I could live out there,” he said of a jungle in East Java. “Just plant some mango trees. Eat a little fish, and you’re done. You don’t really need much, know what I mean?”
“Why don’t you write these stories down,” I asked Jimmy, knowing he loved to journal. “It would be the best travel book.”
“I try, I try,” Jimmy said. “I mean, I have journals full, but I don’t know, it’s like the stories are everywhere. They never seem to find an order. They’re sort of out there in the ether. And that’s fine. That’s where they want to be, I guess. They’re for me, you know.”
When Jimmy said that, I watched his intelligent blue eyes, and something I’d long sensed about him became tangible. It wasn’t just his stories that were out there in ether. Part of Jimmy was still out there with San Sebastián. This was why he could drift from place to place, unattached, seeming to skim over the earth.
Jimmy was a kind of Ariel sprite, helping lost souls. Maybe it was the searing sting of iodine on my back making me not want to follow Jimmy, but I saw that I was not him. I often felt as if I was floating above the world, unmoored. But right now, for whatever reason, I had to keep close to the sharp earth and human chaos. This wasn’t the happy path or the sad path, the perfect path or the imperfect path, the caged path or the free path. It was just my path.
I still didn’t know if I would be a journalist forever, with Siri forever, or living in San Francisco forever. But that night I had a dream that kept me from grasping at certainty.
In the dream I was dying and a group of doctors were slowly taking my body apart like a car in a chop shop.
First the hair, then the skin, then the eyes. Each time they removed a layer, the world I relied on was melting away. All those memories I stood on like crutches: first kiss, first horror film, first loss, first win. They were each torn away along with the layers of biology. But as the doctors dug deeper, cutting out the intestines, the stomach, the liver, I wasn’t afraid. I felt another body beneath this body. It was a body that was woven of mind or wind or water or dreams and couldn’t be cut or sliced or killed. I knew this with confidence. Excited about the news, I sat up on the operating table to tell the doctors. But as I did, my excitement woke me. I was sweating—the wounds on my back still stinging