Eyeball the Blind Spot - Surfer's Path

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Eyeball the Blind Spot

Diggin’ the Archives: from TSP74

Shifting focus from obsession to awareness is the key to a sustainable future.


Words and Images by Marieka Jacobs

“It’s the papilla, you see. The blind spot. Sometimes I just need to put my surfing obsession left of centre, place it in the papilla, so that it’s ever-present, but doesn’t consume my focus.”

A dear friend explained this idea to me, during one of our routine pow-wows on a surfing holiday in Indonesia. I liked the idea of the papilla, of a place or location that is real, but is devoid of a visual presence. A special place where you can tuck thoughts and feelings away with the knowledge that they won’t be staring you in the face everyday demanding attention and invoking obsession. As my friend said “you gotta keep surfing a little bit to the side”.
His idea got me thinking – what about those things residing in the papilla that perhaps shouldn’t be? Things that are erroneously relegated to this peripheral region? Thoughts and issues that we collectively keep to the side because they take too much effort to bring forward to the front of the mind – perhaps because they affront our personal comfort.
Sustainability and the environment, and it’s relevance to the surf community, is too often one such ‘issue’ that hovers in the papilla and on the edges of our consciousness. Moreover, it seems that, for the surf community, there must be some effort involved in turning a blind eye because daily reminders of just how sick our earth is are as abundant as rain in the Indonesian wet season.
Plastic bottles and other non bio-degradable consumer items floating past us in the lineup, and constant bouts of ear and skin infection caused by pollution are disturbingly routine concerns for the travelling surfer, certainly within Indonesia but all over the world as well. Air pollution, the degradation of coral reefs and marine life, sewerage disposal issues, the burning of plastics – all of these are issues that the travelling surfer contributes to, but sadly leaves the locals to deal with.
This is the advantage of living in a developed nation, of possessing a passport and having a disposable income to indulge our ‘passions’ like surfing – we’re afforded the ability to come, have fun, then leave, without having to consider the outcome of our actions too heavily.
In many ways, surfing destinations such as Indonesia are places of ‘positive contradiction’. They are places where hordes of transient travellers implant themselves upon villages that are, for the most part, focused on the same concerns that have dominated their lives for centuries – making a living from primitive practices (relatively speaking), finding adequate shelter, feeding and caring for their families.

These essential undertakings of life are orbited by the happy energy of travelling surfers, tearing through villages with their boards attached precariously to the side of two-stroke scooters, their excited banter relaying tales of swell size and direction, the perfect A-frame, and spitting barrels. It is, of course, worthy chatter for surfer kin, for this obsessed tribe of searchers who probably planned their Indo adventure months, even years, beforehand; a tribe that negotiates time out from family, friends and work to join the search for their own ‘epic’ experience, both in and out of the water.

And this noisy chatter – this intersection between travelling surfers and the local village people is an overwhelmingly positive experience – an experience underpinned by the unspoken understanding that these ‘stoked’ foreigners support the local economy, and that the Indonesian people willingly provide endless hospitality and that ever-reliable, ever-radiant smile.
However, perhaps this widely acknowledged understanding that the surf community does indeed support the local people through the exchange of currency makes it somewhat easier to push those other, bigger issues – such as the plight of the environment – into our collective blind spot.

But the question begs to be asked: How much longer can the surfing community push such crucial issues to the side? And how much longer will we want to? As is always the case with retrospection, things may seem a little different on the other side of fence, when we realise that our past actions (or as the case may be, inactions) have brought upon us a way of living that is inferior, intolerable, and possibly finite. In a way the words on this page, and the accompanying photographs, are an appeal to surfers to start to really acknowledge those elements, people, places that are directly impacted upon by their – by our – quest for the perfect wave. Those things that are “kept to the side”, placed in the papilla, for no other reason than that they are a little too difficult or overwhelming to face right now.
In a recent interview in Surfing World magazine, Australian surfer and world-acclaimed author Tim Winton, offered an acidic, yet accurate description of the surfing community’s reluctance to take on the “big issues” of environmental protection and sustainability: “It’s as if we are hiding behind some kind of youth cult, leaving stuff like conversation to the grown-ups while we just go back outside and play. I think that response is piss-weak and too common”.

Borrowing from the common vernacular, Winton offers a damn good description of the situation with the words “piss weak”. “Piss weak” doesn’t suggest ‘overwhelming challenge’ or ‘insurmountable problem’. It doesn’t make us think that the issue at hand is akin to the Mount Everest of hiking, or the Mavericks of surfing. “Piss weak”, rather, depicts a combination of laziness, ignorance and indifference, all topped off with a rather large dose of NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) syndrome. The thing is that this type of indifference just won’t cut it for much longer, regardless of whether you’re a surfer or Joe Bloggs down the street. Time is running out, and soon we won’t be able to ‘fence out’ environmental problems beyond the parameters of our own backyards.
Moreover, many surfers treat surfing destinations such as Indonesia like their own backyard, returning year after year to visit the breaks, people and locations that they have become so fond of. However, you could argue that to build a meaningful relationship with these beloved surfing destinations is to take on a ‘duty of care’ for the people and environment. This doesn’t mean that you have to uproot your life and devote all your time and energy to improving the situation at a local level. The ‘duty of care’ referred to here is more about realising the interconnectedness of the communities and ecosystems that constitute our fragile Earth. It involves waking up to the fact that the behaviours we engage in, whether in the comfort of our home, at our local break, or at some overseas destination, impact on people and places, both near and far. As we begin to realise our personal responsibility in these global issues, and as we begin to shift topics such as environmentalism and humanitarianism from the papilla to the front of the mind, we too can start generating some of our own conversation amongst the youth cult, the grown-ups and the communities we encounter on our way.

Marieka Jacobs has worked as Partnership Manager for Australian based not-for-profit Climate Positive, as well as event managing the launch of Safe Climate Australia, which featured keynote speaker Al Gore. She is passionate about both the environment and people, and enjoys exploring both areas through the crafts of writing and photojournalism. She is soon to commence a waste management strategy in Lombok, Indonesia.


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