Meeting the challenge by Lucy Clark
I let my body go slack as I am dragged into the darkness. I am pulled, I am sucked, I am punched. My eyes and mouth are shut tight. I am a rag doll casually flipped over and over and over, the least favourite toy of a bored child. I try not to breathe. Then there is a lull and I momentarily regain control but there's a sharp tug on my ankle and I'm off again, dragged forwards, arms flailing. I've let go of my board. Somewhere, I faintly hear a man shout, "don't let go of your boooaaarrrd!"
And now I'm struggling to my knees in shallow water. I still can't see because my hair has come loose and is plastered over the front of my face. I'm fighting for air while simultaneously pulling up my bikini bottoms and emptying them of sand. And I'm laughing, but there are tears and snot and sea water pouring down my face, too. It's day three of the surfing holiday and I'm beginning to wonder if this just isn't my sport.
Back in the sky blue jeep, 10 of us sit pressed together, salty knees touching as we bump along the dirt track, discussing our minor triumphs and major setbacks, wondering what breakfast will be. Outside is India: a man in a grubby dhoti stands in front of his corrugated iron kiosk scratching his belly with one hand and brushing his teeth with the other; a family of four on a motorbike overtakes us then narrowly misses a goat, horn sounding loud. A puppy hangs off the teat of its exhausted mother as she ambles towards the shade, four further puppies around her paws. Large, stainless steel bowls are balanced on the heads of women in immaculate saris of pink, gold and pale blue, and Hindi music blares out briefly as we pass a stall selling bootleg CDs. An elderly man wobbles along on a rusted red bicycle, blue plastic bags hanging from the handlebars, while the temple elephant in chains mournfully looks on. And children, children are everywhere, going to school, playing in the ditch by the side of the road, in the arms of their mothers, and they all wave and smile and shout at the sky blue jeep piled high with surfboards and foreigners, and the driver beeps his horn and we all wave and smile back. The smell of dosas frying and vegetable curry hits us and we groan with hunger, longing to fill our bellies with something other than the Andaman Sea.
I keep going back to the water. I go back while others have a day off, a lie in, but I won't because although my body is bruised, scratched and sore, although my shoulders hurt like hell and I'm showing no signs of getting close to standing on my board, the chaos of the water is addictive, it's liberating, it's frightening and it's letting go and living, and beyond the white water, when I get there, is endless blue and peace and silence apart from the occasional plop of a flying fish.
Day seven and the last drive to the beach, where a small community of fishermen live in hip-height huts made from palm trees, their wooden boats tipped upside down on the sand. I glimpse inside one of those huts as I struggle along the beach with my board and see the very barest essentials of life. The waves are gentler today and I manage to paddle out beyond the break without being knocked backwards to the beach, and I sit on the board in the green water and compare bruises with my fellow pupils, chat aimlessly about lives back home, our new curry addiction, the next wave. There's a shout, "the next one's yours!" and I look behind me to see the green curve coming towards me, frothing at the edges, and there is only now and I begin to paddle hard and I'm moving through the water, I'm not fighting it, it's carrying me, I feel the board lift up and somehow I don't topple backwards this time and the board is moving and I manage to bring my feet to the middle and I'm up, it's a crouch and it's off balance but I'm on my feet on my board and I'm moving through the water and my stomach does a flip and I even manage a smile before falling back into the blue.