"MADAM, THIS IS BOAT, yes?" chirps a skinny man with a toothless grin, patting my surfboard with his hand.
"Yes, it is boat," I smile, amused at yet another local puzzling over how we would sail a frail piece of plastic along the Ganges. Throwing the board under my arm, I readjusted my rucksack and took one last look around. "Ready?" my husband Kuni asks me. "Yep, let's go," I reply, and we jump into a rickshaw, strapping the board to the roof with flimsy rope and promising the Mother Ganges we would be back. For now were done with the city and ready to do what we came for: to find epic waves in India.
After many years researching and surfing the same old international locations (my husband is a professional surfing photographer), we were ready for a wave in a place that had a covert local scene and a certain element of fear. With more than 7500km of primarily untouched coastline and surfing in its infant stages, India proposed endless possibilities.
Our adventure had begun with the negotiation of the dark streets of Delhi and the back alleys of Varanasi, however a quick Google search of "surfing India" takes you straight to www.surfingindia.net, a website put together by members of the Mantra Surf Club, a small surfing ashrama (a place for spiritual enlightenment) based in Mulki, a coastal town about 30 km north of Mangalore in the south Indian state of Karanataka. This is where we headed to track down India's surf.
The Hare Krishna ashram is headed by former Florida surfer Jack Hebner (better known by his disciples as "Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha"). Known as the "Surfing Swamis", the ashram is home to Krishna followers with a love of the ocean and a passion for surfing.
Getting in the water daily, they make up the bulk of the surfing population in India and run a retreat-style accommodation and surf-tour business out of the ashram for travellers. After a week of intense travelling in the north, we were warmly greeted at Mangalore airport by Daruka and Kunja from the ashram, sporting big smiles, board shorts and crewcuts with skinny ponytails at the back of their heads.
Stepping out into the sticky tropical air, it hit me we were now close to the coast, and soon we were all communicating in universal "surf talk", establishing that there were waves out front of the ashram and we'd be out there first thing in the morning. We were stoked.
Surfing India: Mulki, Karanataka
Waking at sunrise in the ashram is an easy feat, thanks to a cheerful rooster on 24-hour mornings and the devotees singing their morning mantras in their dedicated temple room. It doesn't take long for them to start waxing their boards and, before long, a Zodiac boat is launching us into the river and over to the local break.
Mornings on the river are calm without a breath of wind, the trees reflecting off the glassy water's surface like a mirror's reflection. The beach side is totally deserted - inhabited only by starfish, coconut trees and the occasional washed-up sandal scattered along the golden sands. Successful crossing of the river rewarded us with clear, warm waters and a smorgasbord of left and right beach breaks.
Without proper transportation, local knowledge and a decent map, accessing the waves in India is really difficult. The Surfing Swamis had planned a daytrip for us to hopefully catch a new swell that was heading up north. With a rented driver and a four-wheel-drive all sorted, we strapped our boards on to the roof setting off before dusk. Our lead-foot driver with an addiction to insistent horn honking and high-speed death defying overtaking in blind spots crushed any ideas of a car nap.
Arriving pale and swearing off vehicles forever, we were greeted by shoulder-high point break lefthanders against a backdrop of a giant statue of the god Shiva and one of the tallest gopurams (monumental towers) in the world. This particular spot turned out to be a man-made peninsula, funded by an Indian businessman with a lot of spare change, and was, without a doubt, the most bizarre place I have ever surfed.
Waxing up in the car park, our group was immediately swamped by a pack of ragged-looking Indian kids trying to sell us photoshopped postcards of Shiva with happy tourists in the foreground.
The kids started asking us what on Earth those plastic things we were rubbing white stuff onto were. "Boats," I told them, upon which one smart bugger piped up and said to his mates, "told you so". On the beach we attracted a following of close to a hundred onlookers cheering us on as if we were Kelly Slater, hugging the waters' edge as we played in surf under the blistering sun.
Surfing India: Kovalam, Kerala
Typical Indian beach culture isn't much more than frolicking in the shallows due to fear of the ocean, clothing limitations and many Indians being unable to swim. Etymology suggests that the word "surf" was derived from the Indic word "suffe", which tracks back to 1599 and was a word used to describe the coastline of India. This suggests that the roots of surfing in the literal sense were founded in India, a country with almost a zero surfing population and where drownings occur daily.
Moving out of the ashram enlightened by our discovery of surf, we hauled our luggage on a 12-hour overnight train journey down south, enduring sweltering heat while constantly peeling our sweaty skin off stinky vinyl beds.
Kovalam, in the state of Kerala, opened its arms to us with crystal-clear waters, clean beaches and a relaxed touristy vibe enhanced by numerous beachside eateries offering fresh catches of the day. Cleaner, and less populated than the north, Kovalam is for the comfort traveller. Waves here are touch and go, but a full moon and south swell saw us get lucky.
One failed attempt at finding unchartered waves saw us wobbling through the dusty streets of a nearby fishing village on a rented scooter where we ended up surrounded by a gang of toothless beggars trying to take our money and water. Making it back, for the rest of the week we were content surfing the double overhead beach break in front of our hotel.
Kovalam is also home to the Kovalam Surf Club, made up of local street kids and headed by 26-year-old Jelle Rigole, a professional Belgian windsurfer from Sebastian Indian Social Projects (SISP); a volunteer-run school for local kids that includes a great surfing program. Many of our surfs in Kovalam were shared with Jelle and a dozen or so of his surfing proteges as young as six and old as 16, all revelling in the thrill of surfing.
The aura of pure enjoyment that surfing was giving to these kids was addictive, and we vowed we would be back one day to surf with them again.
Our final days in India saw the surf rise to about 1.5 m, with one lucky Aussie getting slotted into a stand-up barrel on the last day of his trip. By the end of our own month-long adventure, we were dying to get home to a scrubbing brush, soap and a hot bath.
But India has us hooked, and the map is already out as we plot our next journey east.