Blocking for money only happens on Bali. It’s an upset of hierarchies that sickens some and makes a life for many, with roots in the Balinese need to protect their island and their waves. In an area that has been occupied in one way or another since the 17th century it’s the ultimate neo-colonial white boy problem, and in the happiest country in the world it usually only leaves a lingering angry after-taste with people not born there. It is fair? Is it right? Is it a perversion or a transaction between consenting adults? Isn’t surfing for everyone and does blocking actually make surfing more equal for some who suffer the status quo as it stands now? Is it destroying the very salt of surfing? Would you enjoy it?
The Balinese have religion remember, so they don’t need surfing as a stand-in. Surfing is a love, a passion and a ticket to see the world and come back home. Surfing is also one of the biggest businesses on the island and blocking is good business.
“I tell my guests, I will give you a sign so watch me. Ok, if the wave is right-hander, somehow I go to the left, but the guests take off. Or the second wave we take from the inside like snaking, block the other guy and give your guest the wave. Sometimes I’m at the peak and I give my priority. Sometimes two guides work together, even if we have two different groups. If I’m too far from the take off point he can block, or he’s too far, I can. Or I just paddle in front of someone like, so they cannot go.”
Anggara Putra, known as Angga, was born in Sanur. He runs his own business now, Surf Melali, after working for foreign-owned surf camps and hotels his entire life. He and his apprentice, Dian Ari Mustofa from Mendewi on the north-west coast of the island, met while surf guiding for a camp that catered mostly to Germans. When Angga was encouraged and even cajoled by his elders such as Made Switra to start his own business, Ari took a risk and followed him. With the extra freedom of having his own business, Angga can guide Bali-style; he is the boss and he’s local. Ari hopes to one day run his own business as well.
Ari is sweet spoken and sponsored by Volcom, with long hair down his slender back and an incredibly smooth style. Angga is solid and has typically masculine features. When he pantomimes holding someone struggling under the water and laughing while we’re surfing at Halfway Kuta, I get a weird feeling.
He explains why he blocks, “Blocking happens at many places, but often in Sanur and Kuta. It comes from, in Sanur Reef we try to protect our spot. In one year the wave might break properly three times. We get the best waves, so many people know the spot. Normally the wave looks like a point break, wrapping, really nice. Really long. People have figured out how it works I guess, through Stormrider, whatever. That’s how we started to be tough and angry. Tourists try to drop us. One, ok. Second time, no. So locals don’t have a space to work sometimes. And that’s how we grow up with Wild Surf Community. That’s the name of the boys in Sanur.”
Blocking originated out of the unwritten and rich history of co-operation between the Japanese and Balinese. The Japanese surf community was well established in the early 90s and when they came to Bali they floated the local community by hiring guides, sponsoring contests in Uluwatu with the JPSA (Japan Pro Surfing Tour) and generally being lively with the yen. The Balinese wanted to make sure their friends and guests got waves. Their friends and guests wanted to make sure they were getting waves in an increasingly busy and anarchic line-up where might was right. Blocking as a part of surf guiding was born.
But now it’s not just the Japanese. Angga teaches, guides and blocks for mostly Europeans and Australians, as well as some Hawaiians a while back. We’re out at Halfway Kuta, and the swell is rising today. Bob is from Canada and works in human resources for an oil company in Dubai. He is here on vacation with his two kids who go to school in Canada. Bob might have 99 problems, but today getting waves is not one of them.
When we first paddle out, we gravitate to the less crowded right. A couple of men were already on it, one with a Kiwi jade stone hanging around his neck and other broad with a seemingly Polynesian deep handsomeness. We start doing our thing and Angga hustle them to the inside as Bob takes off on a bigger one. Soon the second guy stares in disbelief and starts reprimanding Angga in perfect fluttering Balinese, lifting his arm out of the water and waving it around in frustration. He takes the next wave in.
“He was so stressed!” Angga says when I ask. Ari smiles sweetly.
I drift up to the friend.
“There’s miles and miles of beaches between here and Canggu! I don’t see why you guys had to pick the spot me and my friend were just enjoying by ourselves. He’s half Balinese, he’s lived here all his life, you know?”
I look up the coast as the sand curves sensually towards Java and the volcanoes rest heavy on the earth beyond the haze. More or less heads dot the entire scene as outside sets hit reef up the coast.
I ask him more. “You know, once five years ago I was out at Nusa Lembongan and a guide with a bunch of Japanese tourists was blocking and pulled out a fucking knife. At Playgrounds.” He takes a wave and goes in as well.
Angga works with whoever is floating out the back, encouraging or pushing them into waves, while Ari tends to the others on the inside and plays around in the water himself. Ari lets Angga do the heavy lifting of blocking and helps the kids on the inside, gently giving them little tips. Ari and Angga both naturally know how to make sure their clients are having fun. Blocking isn’t difficult to learn, and they’ve had plenty of practice now together over the years.
As Angga gets waves for me, I’m not sure it’s the end of days and I’m not sure it feels natural, something tugs at my insides, but I’m too busy laughing with Angga and Ari and getting waves to say no. After being blocked and snaked and dropped regularly forever as a girl, part of me definitely enjoys it.
I ask Ari what’s he has learned from Angga and he says, “You know, with Angga we learn from each other, it doesn’t go just one way. Mostly we just share our experiences. That’s what’s most important to me about my job, sharing experience, waves and having fun.” Angga and Ari both say they only really block people who are already getting waves in the line-up, to accommodate their guests equally within the etiquette ecosystem. Ari says, “I actually feel less bad about blocking, a lot of greedy people want to take all the waves and blocking is a way I can help my customer get waves. I only use it when it’s difficult to get waves, to discriminate I get the wave and let my customer take it.”
“It’s annoying as fuck,” says one resident who has lived in Bali since pre-k.
One Indonesian who has worked in the surf industry for years shared, “It’s all about money. Like with the Japanese, of course they’re going to lose with someone from another country when going for a wave… For Balinese though, yeah if you don’t know the guide, there could be a clash. If the client drops in on a Balinese, he’s going to be angry. The surf guide might say sorry or tell the client not to do it again. This happens a lot at crowded spots. If you’re friends, you understand each other and it’s no problem.”
Angga and Ari often work together with other surf schools in the water. Angga says, “Also with the locals we meet in the water, private guiding or private coaching, we respect each other. We’ll talk about how many people we each have, and try to be fair and help each other. Make sure our clients get waves.”
For all the different types of blocking going on, for people who should be able to get their own waves and those who can still learn, somewhere on the island perfect waves are going unridden; Bali is an island bubbling over with hush-hushes for those who want to look. But for now I’m watching Angga and Ari work, both with that island smile and echoes of something else.
article appeared in Surfer's Journal Vol 25.3