Curt Schwarz will look you right in the eye and, with the untroubled innocence of a choir boy about to sing for Saint Peter, tell you a bald-faced lie.
“We didn’t find anything worth surfing, just swamp and leeches and mosquitoes and I swear I saw a salt-water croc.”
Originally from Rhode Island, an East Coast American state that is mostly famous for being a unit of area measurement (“the private game reserve is half the size of Rhode Island” or “the California wild fires destroyed an area as big as Rhode Island”), Curt’s wandering feet and spirit of adventure took him in the 1980s to Maui, Hawaii. There he met a surfer named Bali John, a G-land regular, who told Curt that he should go to Bali (approximately half again as large as Rhode Island) instead of Costa Rica (13 Rhode Islands), where Curt was thinking of going. He showed Curt photographs of empty blue water lineups with insane waves, and that was that.
Curt first set foot in Bali in 1987, and followed a well-traveled path straight to Lasierawti, a losmen favored by many young surfers traveling light with board and backpack, a few bucks in the wallet and a bar of wax in the pocket. He surfed out his visa, went back to the States with only one thing on his mind. Getting back and somehow staying.
By this time, a generation of surfers had already been to Bali, scouring its breaks. By their standards (and surfers can be a bit snotty that way, “I was here pissing on this wave way before you”), Curt was a Johnny-come-lately. But Curt proceeded to do something that no other foreign expatriate, much less water-logged and sun-crisped surfer, has done then or since. Wanting to learn the Indonesian language, he asked advice of Ibu Kempu and Ketut Nugraha of Lasi’s, who suggested he find a Bahasa course at Udayana University, Bali’s premier institution of higher learning. As it turned out, Curt ended up enrolling as a full-fledged student, who wasn’t just studying Bahasa as a foreign language, but studying Bahasa as Literature for a Bachelor of Arts academic degree. Kind of like the non-surfer bypassing the shallow, soft beach-break kiddy surf school and being tossed into the lineup at full-on, roaring ten-foot Nusa Dua. Curt toughed it out, though, the one lone bulé amongst 14,000 Balinese and Indonesia university students, although he did have to stretch the five year program into nine years, graduating in 1999 with his college degree.
He says, “What was great was that being an enrolled student, I didn’t have to worry about my visa. I was living up in the Bukit and surfing whenever I could, taking trips to outer islands. Also, those years being the only foreigner at the university, hanging out with the other students, taught me something that went way beyond ‘culture’ but how friendships and social relationships worked, which was priceless.”
Your blog correspondent remembers Curt from those years, a practically penniless university student with a banged up Jeep and a few boards. We’d see him racing through Sanur heading somewhere. Even then he was being cadgey. “Yeah, paddled out at Padang Galak, just so-so.” In the meantime, he was actually taking the back roads to Keramas and other completely unknown spots, long before the highway and road maps and street signs, when you had to stop and ask the locals what twisty lanes and paths got you down down to the coast. Thanks in large part to his university experience, Curt had the easy-going knack of talking to the locals, shooting the shit with them while finding out what he needed to know. It’s an attitude and skill he takes with him when he goes off the map of the known world, at least the Indo surf world, looking for new breaks.
He recalls one trip to an outer island during Christmas. The small town that was his jumping off point was shuttered tight, not a single warung open to sell a single pack of dried noodles, the staple of the Indo traveling surfer. The mayor invited starving Curt to his house for a special Christmas dinner, all the local delicacies and fixings. The mayor piled Curt’s plate high with the choicest of the dishes, fried bat and RW…RW being the Indonesian name for dog (if you drive by a warung and see a sign advertising RW, you know that Snoopy is being served up for lunch). But it was the bat, with special veggies, that Curt had trouble with—and this is a guy who’s eaten pretty much anything, sometimes out of necessity.
“It tasted like horse meat cured in manure,” he says. “The skin was the worst part, like rubber. It was so bad I asked my host if they ate the skin, figuring even they pulled it off, and the delighted host said the skin was the best part and piled more on my plate. And the veggies–I can still remember how they tasted, I don’t think they were anything God intended people to eat.”
But did he find good surf to make up for affronted taste buds?
“We got skunked, foodwise and surfwise.”
Well, I believe one half of that.
If you are going to adventure in Indo, you are going to pay your dues, in more ways than just unpalatable foods. Curt’s had malaria several times, barely managing to drag himself to hospital in Surabaya on at least one occasion. He’s come off bikes and gotten infections. His collar bone looks like a Frankenstein reject—when it was badly broken in an accident, he had it operated here in Bali. He says, “The doctors must have rummaged in the tool box and only found these oversized bolts that are actually meant to pin broken hip bones.” Once, paddling out the channel at Green Balls, which churns like a washing machine on a big swell, some unkown marine creature took a chunk out of his calf.
Curt is of the philosophical opinion that there is nothing more fun than a good practical joke, sometimes pulled the spur of the moment as the opportunity presents itself. One boat trip in Sumatra, the boat left harbor without its clearance, and Curt’s surfing buddies fretted about being caught and hauled in. Nothing came of it. A couple weeks later they returned to harbor surfed out, and being the Indo language and culture go-to guy, Curt was given the task of finding a truck to haul their boards and gear to the hotel. A block from the harbor he came across a police riot truck, with a couple cops hanging out. One was from Bali, and Curt shot the shit with him, and then asked if he could rent the truck. Sure, why not, the cops said, so he drove with them in the truck to the wharf. He told his buddies, “We got caught. We’re in big trouble. They’re confiscating our boards and taking us in.” Pale-faced and sweating, the boys sat in the back with Curt, freaking out as they contemplated the joys of third-world jail cells. Curt enjoyed the show until he finally relented. Their enormous relief saved him from instant retribution.
Curt says those early, university years, penniless and footloose and fancy-free, were his best surfing days in Indonesia, going where whim and rumor and promising headlands on nautical charts took him. (This was before the day of the cell phone and the Internet surf forecast—the best we had back then, which only a select few know about, was the Australian Bureau of Meteorology marine fax for the South Indian Ocean.)
With some background in the arts, Curt set up business as a souvenir designer and also acted as buyer and broker for several large companies. This tied him down some but gave him some more financial security, allowing him to buy a house on Kook Hill in Nusa Dua, with an elevated view of the surf. Guys were constantly ringing him up every morning. “Nusa Dua surf check,” he’d answer. If you were a friend, you could be fairly confident of getting an accurate report.
We would sometimes spot Curt around town, squiring a lovely local girl. Around the turn of the century, your blog correspondent (me) happened to be with Curt on the Sanur boardwalk one afternoon when a beautiful Balinese lass and her friend strolled by. I personally witnessed the moment Curt fell in love—actually, that phrase doesn’t do it justice. It was like one of those bungy seats, yanked way down and then let go to rocket up into space. Curt saw her, broke off in midsentence and catapulted out of his chair before she could disappear from view. Never seen a guy move so quick.
A couple years later, we attended their wedding reception.
Now Curt and Ani live in Nusa Dua with their two young children. He still gets off the beaten track twice a year or so, finding new waves, having new adventures. He says, ” A lot of surfing expats in Bali complain how crowded and noisy and polluted it is, how they want to pull the plug and go back home. That’s like somebody going to Rhode Island [the size of Rhode Island] and saying this place sucks, the surf sucks, I’m leaving the States and never coming back. Be adventurous! Get off your butt and get out there, grab life and who knows, you might find a perfect empty wave as icing on the cake.”
But not, one hopes, as skin on the bat.