The Four Princes of Serendip

By Michael H. Kew

All photos: Kew.

THE FIRST DAY:

THOUGHTS ON BUFFET FOOD, SELF-IMMOLATION, AND KYLE ALBERS’ 9’11” TWIN-FIN

TRUE STORY: A skinny 6’6” Kyle Albers is kneebound, puking water into the seaside bungalow’s clogged, unflushing toilet on the opposite side of Earth.

“Hey, Kyle,” someone says. “We’re going for lunch. Should we get you some fish curry? Beef?”

Yesterday Albers’ gastrointestinal tract was assaulted by the all-you-can-eat buffet on the ground floor of a Kuala Lumpur hotel. He had heaped his plate with assorted Asian fare. Some hot, some cold. Fish curry, rice, noodles, chutney, naan, mango, lychee.

Outside across the dusty dirt lane is a flyblown tin shed echoing with utterances of fishermen who all night were at sea, 15 kilometers out in small fiberglass boats, using torchlights to prep bait atop the black Bay of Bengal. It’s a primitive and dangerous occupation. Two months ago, not far from here, 51 fishermen were swamped and slain by a midnight storm.

This morning the boats returned to the steep white-sand beach with skipjack, trevally, yellowfin, and mackerel, most to be sold to restaurants and hawked in the nearby Muslim town. Tonight some of the fish will be cooked and made into curry, a national dish. It’s tasty.

Not for Albers.

Bleaaaarehhhh…(cough-cough)… clurrgh….

Echoing Albers’ bilious gutturalism are the caws from a raucous gang of black crows near the bathroom’s small window. The bathroom’s pink tile walls amplify the loud birds.

Caa-caa-caaa!

Outside, directly above Albers, one juvenile and three adult tufted-gray langurs lounge on the moldy red-tile roof flecked white with crow guano. The leaf-eating monkeys are surrounded by blowsy acacias and fronds of coconut trees below a big blue sky typical of late summer. The palm fronds and acacia leaves are lightly puffed by an offshore wind which carries the universal tropic scent of burning trash directly into the small square bathroom window above Albers’ longhaired head. The casual observer will notice his hair pulled back tight in a ponytail to avoid bile splash exposure.

Fish curry? No.

Beef?

Which, I learn whilst reading a two-month-old issue of The Island outside the room next to Albers’, does not jive with the 70 Buddhist percentile of Serendip’s 20 million humans—no killing of animals, which are sentient beings and human souls reborn from past misdeeds.

Cows too are sacred. So sacred that the newspaper’s editorial that day discussed Bowatte Indarathana, a 29-year-old Buddhist monk who in May 2013 soaked his robe in gasoline and set himself on fire at a Buddhist festival in the nearby town of Kandy. This was to protest Serendip’s slaughter of cattle for human consumption despite the fact that monks eat much meat. Indarathana belonged to a hardline Buddhist group that was campaigning against the Muslim halal method of killing animals (swift, deep incision with a sharp knife to the throat, cutting the jugular veins and carotid arteries of both sides but leaving the spinal cord intact). He had also been calling for an end to proselytizing by Muslims and Christians and followers of other faiths.

Hater? Perhaps.

Ninety percent of his body scorched, Indarathana died the next day. Suicide success. This led The Island’s editorialist to start his column with: “The biggest problem at this moment is not the Western encirclement (of Serendip) nor is it the holding of the northern provincial council election, but the phenomenon of out-of-control Buddhist monks on the streets…We did not come through 30 years of war to end up with anarchy and mob rule.”

Albers cares not. He has food poisoning and the swell is up and he is unable to wax his current whip, a self-shaped 9’11” tri-hued keel twinnie he calls Megafish, which is exactly what it is—a fish identical to the keeled self-shaped (his 100th!) 5’3” he’s also hauled to Serendip, but stretched 56 inches.

Near my old newspaper sits a copy of Kelsang Gyatso’s Introduction to Buddhism: An Explanation of the Buddhist Way of Life. Simon Murdoch brought it. He’s enrolled in religious studies at Santa Barbara City College. Skimming through the book I learn about sangha and karma and dharma and soon I am enlightened by the Four Noble Truths. So enlightened that I stand, walk into Albers’s bathroom, and tell him that he is experiencing the first Truth stemming from the principle of dukkha, a concept central to Buddhist thought which deals with physical and mental suffering, that all sentient beings must endure some suffering and pain throughout their lives.

“Hey, Kyle. This might be you.” Holding the book so he can see it, I tap page 29. “Do you have bad karma?”

Pale and irritated, he raises a slow glance up to me, away from the porcelain.

“Dude. Get out of here.”

Aloud I read a passage: a mental intention that is a determination to perform an action is a mental action or mental karma. thus, bodily karma is bodily activity initiated by a mental action.

“See? Your mind told you—a mental action—to eat that fish curry, and now you have bodily karma from eating the curry, because maybe you weren’t supposed to eat that fish. Puking is a bodily activity. An action. Karma means ‘action.’ It’s Sanskrit.”

Albers looks at me again before lying flat on the cold concrete floor and shutting his eyes. “Maybe the fish was just rotten,” he says feebly, resting his pale right forearm on his sweaty forehead. “Maybe the fish had bad karma.”

“Possibly. Maybe the fish was a bad human in its previous life.”

“Can you please close the door? I need to sleep.”

Albers is below the toilet which was installed by a man who works here, a man who is part of Serendip’s Theravāda branch of the Buddhist majority. This man built the walls too. Set the concrete floor. That little square window with the cackling crows. The shower and its hair-clogged drain. The thin wooden door and the cheap plastic towel rack. The too-small sink with its too-small faucet.

It is unlikely this Theravāda Buddhist man will set himself aflame to protest cow-killing (beef is served in his restaurant). But he feels safe and warmly at home on his small Indian Ocean island, with the sight of each Buddha temple and bodhisattva shrine along the road, deep in the rainforest or atop stony mountains or along gentle rivers or in the bustling center of town, decorated with candles, flowers, water bowls, and incense, venerating his moral code nearly 2,400 kilometers from where Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha, slid from the womb and inhaled Himalayan air circa 5th century BC.

This Theravāda Buddhist man makes a world-class fish curry. Would taste fine regurgitated.

Kyle?

Kyle Albers.

THE SECOND WEEKEND:

THOUGHTS ON NATIONALISM, DEATH BY HACKING, AND JARED MELL’S 6’6” FINLESS

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Mundane machete murder. Chopped was a 69-year-old Hindu priest. Crime scene was a kovil (temple) in Kilinochchi, 350 kilometers north from us in Serendip’s wooded tip. Likely Buddhist, no suspect was found, his motive likely religious re: the then-looming elections.

That was three days ago. Post-breakfast we will pierce the jungle and emerge onto a steep beige-sand beach fronting a handsome sand point. Civil unrest will not be present. No politicking or murderous freaks.

Today, four years from the doomed fall of the Tamil Tigers—four years of Serendip’s longest peacetime in 30 years, four years after the isle’s bloody, bitter civil war was spawned by ethnic tensions ‘twixt the minority Tamil (Hindus) and the majority Sinhalese (Buddhists)—the island’s heavily militarized north province held its first democratic elections for a semi-autonomous council. Winning with 78 percent of the vote was the Tamil National Alliance, once a political front for the Tigers who’d fought for their own state. Now, of Serendip’s nine zones, the north is the sole pan-Tamil, freed from the island’s Sinhalese ruling class.

“We want a settlement for the Tamils,” an elderly woman told the BBC in an article I found online. “That’s why we came to vote this time. We’ve been waiting so many years—now we want peace.”

Hopefully it works. In our serene and mostly Muslim town, there was no election except the elect to depart. On this sunny Saturday morn, Newport Beach’s Jared Mell leaves Serendip for one Indian Ocean island that is 85 percent Hindu among 17,508 islands in a country that is 88 percent Muslim.

“Time for some real waves, man,” he says. He’s neither Hindu nor Muslim. He was up late, drinking everything. No sleep till sunrise.

The charts tout a big non-denominational swell beelining for Bali, coinciding with Mell’s first hungover step back onto the hot black tarmac of Ngurah Rai International Airport. A few days later, another 2,000 kilometers north, the rest of us here will reap the same swell, woefully stripped of size. Longitudinally screwed.

We’ll call it the Tamil Tease.

Because, since colonially clipped from England in 1948, Serendip’s south Sinhalese government birthed all sorts of things that greased them at the expense of the Tamils, widening the ethnic rift. These things weren’t fair nor logical. For starters, the Indian Tamil tea plantation grunts, previously imported by the Brits, were barred citizenship. With help from an authoritarian government (which is still in place) of Sinhalese nationalism, a ‘Sinhala-only’ language law was passed. Tamils got mad. Tension and riots ensued. More than 100 were killed in widespread violence. Reverse anti-Tamil riots left hundreds dead and more than 25,000 Tamil refugees moved north.

In 1970 came the banning of Tamil media and literature importation followed by a new law that favored Sinhalese enrollees in universities, cutting the number of Tamil admissions. Later, Buddhism was deemed the country’s religion, further oppressing and irking the Tamils. While assuring freedom of religion to all citizens, the 1978 Constitution offered “foremost place” to Buddhism and required “the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddhist Sasana (broad teachings of the Buddha).” This led many young Tamils to push for a separate Tamil state called Eelam and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam group was born.

In June 1981 things really soured when a mob of Sinhalese police and government paramilitias launched two days of Tamil annihilation, destroying the Jaffna Public Library, one of Asia’s biggest and most significant, housing nearly 98,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, scrolls, and books. The chaos was sparked by the killings of Sinhalese policemen at a Tamil-sponsored Jaffna rally.

Two years later came Black July, an anti-Tamil pogrom and riots as a response to a Tamil Tigers ambush that slew 13 Serendip Army soldiers. For a week, gangs of Sinhalese attacked Tamil targets—killing, looting, burning. Three thousand died, 150,000 became homeless. Throngs of Tamils fled the island. Of the youths who stayed, many joined militant clans and hence began the major civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Serendip’s government that would not cease for 26 years.

When the dust settled, more than 100,000 people were dead from attacks that included massacres, bombings, robberies, military battles, and assassinations of civilian and military targets. The government and the Tigers were accused of human rights abuses throughout the war, with much focus on its final stages, when thousands of civilians were trapped in a thin strip of land in the north of Serendip.

The whole thing went against the grain. Religion is a silly reason to fight. It’s contrary to natural inclination. Like a fish with no fins.

But, wait—what’s that supposed to mean?

But, wait. Ellis Ericson, what’s up with this board you made, the one Mell is stuffing into his tattered boardbag before he leaves us for Bukit bliss?

Technically it’s not Mell’s board. Technically inspired by Derek Hynd’s finless theories, technically it belongs to Ericson, its creator who technically told me this in an email several weeks later: “It was a one-off, just an attempt at some of the friction-free boards I’d seen Derek riding. It kind of worked, but I’m still learning, so I’m sure his work better. I’m not making them for anyone—just myself. I want to be clear on that as Derek is making the best friction-free boards out there. So much R&D has gone into them and I have a lot of respect for his board-modification and building techniques.”

Jared Mell in a Bali dispatch, also some weeks later, before he visited Rome and Istanbul: “Ellis’s finless worked great. I had the best time going straight, sideways, backwards, diagonal, upside-down. Whatever which way I could think of. The board is similar to one of Derek’s but it’s more of an all-around version that can go right or left. Derek’s boards seem to be focused on the one wave he is going to surf, which is great if you can get them made all the time.”

The one wave we are going to surf today is waist-high and perfect, smashing onto the outermost promontory granite boulders before cleanly spooling along the point over a soft sand bottom, ending as a shorebreak closeout 300 yards north. It operates in close proximity to an Africanesque wildlife sanctuary which my guidebook says is “the Jungle Book brought to glorious life,” home to 46 species of reptiles (including saltwater crocs), 44 species of mammals (including elephants and the world’s highest concentration of leopards), and a lot of other things. At the beach, all we see are birds.

Jared Mell.

THE THIRD BEER:

THOUGHTS ON FLAGS, ETHNIC CLEANSING, AND CONNOR LYON’S 5’5” FINLESS

THE LION STARES. Eyes wide, he seems rapt to roar. Like he’s about to walk, lion to Lyon.

His lifted right paw rests on a brown knuckle of stone. His orange mane is big, his whiplike tail swayed right. Washing his body is a low gold light from a sunrise or sunset. Above his head is 1881 and below his paws are the words lion lager, odd since lions have never lived in Serendip. leopard lager would be more apt. Or little egret lager. Or lesser bandicoot rat lager. Or whatever. At least the old Brits brought beer to the Indian Ocean.

Ceylon Brewery was Serendip’s first, built in 1881 to install a boozy piece of home for the Brits while they gazed over their tea plantations in the hilly burg of Nuwara Eliya, 115 kilometers west of where Santa Barbara’s lionish Connor Lyon had side-slipped on his self-modified, finless Spence displacement hull across his 26th wave of the afternoon session that had led to a chromatic dusk.

With its subtropical highland climate and spring water, Nuwara Eilya was a sweet spot for a brewery. Nicknamed “Little England,” the town was an ark for the British civil servants and tea planters, an insular sanctuary where they could improvise Union Jack leisure like hunting, polo, golf, and cricket.

Not a big beer drinker, Lyon does like a good pint, generally of California craft beers. But those are on the other side of the world. Tonight in Serendip he’s drank two large Lion Lagers before the one he’s now holding, all three bought from the empty Rasta-themed bar down the lane, just past the empty beach and the empty tin fish shack. The carbonated yellow liquid in his brown glass bottle behind the big male lion label is lukewarm. Lyon thinks Lion is better than Bintang, the other Asian beer he’s tried. At best, lukewarm Lion is “mildly refreshing,” he says. At worst, I counter, it’s another limp beer on another hot island. But that’s a topic for another tale.

Seven p.m.—dark. Crickets with mosquitoes and other pests that bite our feet. Lyon is lounging on a white plastic chair in front of the room where Kyle Albers was once vomiting. Drinking the beer and thumbing through a copy of Slide magazine, Lyon’s manelike hair remains damp from the late surf session. The hair covers his ears, clogged with saltwater, but he can hear the male muezzin reciting Salat al-‘Isha, the Islamic early-night prayer, his Arabic words drifting from the speakers on the minaret atop the nearby mosque. We can’t see the mosque; it’s somewhere over the hill, south, in the dark.

The muezzin’s voice is hypnotic, spooky. Soothing in a weird way. It’s the fifth and final of the daily ritual Muslim prayers, starting with the first chapter of the Qur’ān, the core religious text of Islam, translated to:

In The Name Of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise Be To Allah, Lord Of The Worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Master Of The Day Of Judgment. Thee (Alone) We Worship And Thee (Alone) We Ask For Help. Show Us The Straight Path. The Path Of Those Whom Thou Hast Favored; Not The (Path) Of Those Who Earn Thine Anger Nor Of Those Who Go Astray.

Allah is Arabic for “God” who in Islam is the prophet Muhammad (full name: Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim) from the Arabian hamlet of Mecca. He launched Islam 4,794 kilometers and 1,391 years from where Connor Lyon sits with his warm beer and wild hair and magazine and bugs and the small mosque summoning him through the darkness of twilight.

But like 91 percent of Serendipians, Lyon is not Muslim.

“I ain’t religious, dog.”

Serendip mosques seem a bit quaint, though Islam has existed here since the 8th century and is represented on the national flag, the one Lyon admired three hours ago as it flapped in the offshore breeze in front of a small roadside restaurant. (Its fish curry was superb.)

Called the Lion Flag (more lions!), the Sinhalese ethnicity is repped by a yellow lion clutching a sword over a red rectangular background with a fig leaf in each corner. Around the background is a yellow border and to its left are two vertical stripes—one orange, one green. The orange represents Tamils and the green represents Muslims, the majority ethnicity around the beaches we’re surfing. To us, they’re nice, friendly folks—fishermen, farmers, merchants, taxi drivers—but not everyone agrees.

Back in the late ‘80s, because Muslims were believed to back the Sinhalese government, the Tamil Tigers began attacking Muslim towns, forcing thousands from their homes, torching buildings and killing residents. In August 1990, during this very same Salat al-‘Isha prayer that Lyon hears, the Tigers murdered 147 prostrating Muslims in attacks on four mosques in Kattankudi, 93 kilometers upcoast from where Lyon has just now sank his third Lion Lager of the evening. In October 1990 the Tigers expelled 95,000 Muslims from Serendip’s north, calling it an “ethnic cleansing” to help reach the Tigers’ goal of creating Eelam, their monoethnic state.

Perhaps they should’ve built a brewery up there and made Liberation Lager or Attack Ale. Something like that.

Me: “Should we go get more warm beer?”

Lyon: “Hell no. Shit tasted wack. Like, double wack.”

Recently Sinhalese nationalists flipped their ire from Tamils to Muslims and, led by Buddhist monks, they’re attacking mosques and Muslim-owned businesses plus churches and clergy.

Allah Ale? Islamic IPA?

No.

Buddha Beer? Sinhala Stout?

Connor Lyon would sink those. But he’s not. He’s going to bed with a lion-sized headache.

Connor Lyon.

THE FOURTH SAND POINT:

THOUGHTS ON TENTS, GOTHIC WHIGS, AND SIMON MURDOCH’S 5’3” QUAD

SMASHED UNCONSCIOUS AT CHURCH. Why not? It’s what they do.

Throughout 2013, in a gambit to “protect” Serendip’s Sinhalese and their Buddhist beliefs, two Buddhist-extremist groups terrorized Catholic Christians with arson, church demolitions, mob attacks, and physical assaults. The Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”) and the Sinhala Ravaya (“Sinhalese Echo”) led nearly 50 anti-Christian incidents, mostly on churches, though individual folks were also marked.

Before flying to Serendip I read an online news story containing a quote from a prominent Buddhist lawyer: “Such attacks show there is a political agenda that aims to unite the Buddhists. Everyone should have the freedom to change religion in this country. We Buddhists are the first to be harmed in our culture and religion from these petty actions. Whoever is behind (these incidents) should not be supported. As a Buddhist I feel embarrassed because real Buddhism is not about attacking and killing.”

Awaiting my daily pre-dawn curry breakfast from the sweet Buddhist ladies in the guesthouse kitchen, I read a story in a new issue of The Island, my preferred Serendip newspaper. Out west last week, a Bodu Bala Sena monk and his four thugs stormed into a Catholic church and used a guitar to knock out the pastor who, along with his mother, required hospitalization. The Buddhists then trashed the sacred grounds and freaked everyone out. It was the year’s 45th anti-Christian incident up to this quiet late-September morning which finds Simon Murdoch slowly stirring cane sugar into his ginger tea at the breakfast table while antisocially reading Gyatso’s Introduction to Buddhism: An Explanation of the Buddhist Way of Life.

A fly lands in Murdoch’s tea. Serendipity?

Serendipity, as manifested by the fly: death from drowning in delicious tea. Serendip is famous for its tea.

Serendipity, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.”

Serendipity, as invented by England’s effeminate Gothic fictionalist and Whig Party (liberal/anti-Catholic) politician Horace Walpole, the fourth and last Earl of Orford, the youngest son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole: in his letter to a friend on January 28, 1754, little Horace mentioned “The Three Princes of Serendip,” a Persian fairytale in which the princes, he wrote, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of…this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” The fairytale’s location was indeed Serendip, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka.

A chimney-sweeper by day, by night the friendly and mustachioed Murdoch, a Mormon, sleeps at his self-made Tent Palace on his parents’ leafy property in Santa Barbara’s Hidden Valley sect. The Palace is an impromptu and functional example of youth groove. It is cozy and colorful and festooned with sarongs and tapestries and floored with rugs, soon with one Murdoch purchased yesterday from a smiling roadside vendor who probably would have liked what Murdoch has got going on back at home.

His 12-person nylon tent is five kilometers from his beloved Sandspit, 73 kilometers from Supertubes and 14,902 kilometers from the hazardous wave he finds on our second-to-last day. It’s a foul mix of those two California spots, though it breaks more often and with far fewer surfers in much warmer water and the residents nearby are Muslims with no cars or cash.

Serendipity, as shared by Murdoch: engaging the long view from a northern headland and, in the hazy south, seeing tubes spit. It is to be the fourth point we surf in the last two days, though geologically this place is a collection of brown boulders that ease shoreward into a sand-bottomed cove. The paddle-outs are simple but the wave, which French-kisses rock and pounds bare sand, is freakish. Each wave requires careful skill and cavalier risk.

This morning, Murdoch endangers a leashless 5’3” round-tail quad that 816 days prior was shaped for me by Ryan Lovelace. It is maroon with a splattered bluey-yellow-purple-red bottom, birthed in Gregg Tally’s garage of White Owl Surfboards fame. The board was later ping-ponged between a few friends and countries, much like the way it ping-pongs through the boulders when Murdoch blows a take-off or gets pinched in a sand-sucking tube.

After one session the board is wrecked. Tomorrow, after a second session (this time with a leash), Murdoch will gift it to a stocky dark Serendip surfer of ding-fixing repute, prompting this letter from Lovelace in California: “In the past year, Simon had definitely breathed some new life into that board, drawing his own lines and putting a fresh spin on a board I’d seen surfed a zillion times. Watching Simon surf it at home was a joy, and I was a bit heartbroken that it got left in Serendip, although why it was left and who with couldn’t be any happier of a continuation for that board’s life.”

On the bottom of that board, in the center of Lovelace’s yellow resin-dot logo, is a debossed half-inch-wide om symbol. Lovelace used a wooden stamp to do this—it is his last movement on each shaped blank. Om is a mystic syllable, considered the most sacred of Buddhist mantras, uttered at the start and end of most Sanskrit texts, prayers, and recitations. Lovelace does not say om before and after he shapes a board, and it is unlikely Buddhist and Hindu terrorists say om when they attack non-believers, like when insane Islamic terrorists yell the Takbīr, the Arabic term for the phrase Allāhu Akbar (“God is greatest”).

Serendipity, after Simon Murdoch hoots through his 12th tube of the hour: ecstatic, he slides off the green shoulder and into the deep channel. He yells to the non-drunk Lyon and the non-food-poisoned Albers, both paddling frantically, each about to get kegged on the set’s next two waves.

“Dudes! Why weren’t we surfing here during the whole trip?”

Somewhere in Bali, the fourth prince smiles.

Simon Murdoch.