They ditched school to catch some waves. Today, Juan and Samai Reboul run a successful surfing school in Puducherry. Shonali Muthalaly dives into their story…
Everyone's shirtless. Flat stomachs, rippling muscles and low-slung board shorts. The typical surfer boy look. Except this isn't California. It's Tandryankupam, a small fishing village, between Puducherry and Auroville. Between the stripy orange and green boats, boys with brightly-coloured surfing boards sprint towards the waves. At the centre of all the activity are Juan and Samai Reboul.
The brothers have been running the popular Kallialay (which literally translates into rock-wave in Tamil) surf school for four years from this beach. But their attachment to India goes back much further. “We came here when we were nine and ten,” says Juan, the older brother. “Our dad is French and our mom Spanish. Well, actually Basque.” Born in a small village off the coast of Spain, the brothers moved to Auroville with their parents in 1995.
“When you are that age you adapt to anything,” says Samai. “We're thankful to our parents for coming here. We now speak four languages: Spanish, French, English. And of course Tamil.” “Yeah, you have to learn the local language,” laughs Juan, “Otherwise people will be talking behind your back and you won't know what they are saying. You have to step it up!”
According to local legend the boys quickly acquired a notorious reputation for their “loud voices, large fin-like noses and habit of ditching school to catch some waves.” Today, their teachers still laugh about how they would chase the boys onto the beach and (usually unsuccessfully) try to drag them off their boards and into class. Juan learnt how to surf with some help from “the pioneers,” people who travelled to India with their boards in the mid-1970s. “We began with boogie boarding soon after we arrived, on Repos beach, in Auroville.” (This involves riding waves on a small board, on your belly.)
While Samai went abroad to work, Juan decided to turn his hobby into a profession. “I was super interested in surfing, but gradually realised that the waves here are not big enough for me to train and become a professional. So that was a bit of a fail. Then I thought, okay, maybe in India this will open up.” He started with two boards he had bought from south-west France. “Our grandmother lives there. It's a big ocean with big tides. The sandbanks shift every six hours. You can get caught in the undercurrents,” says Juan, explaining how they honed their skills by travelling. “I also squatted my friends surfing schools in Europe for two to three summers. Learning from my mates, how to teach, how to get up, body position, security measures...”
In 2006 they moved into Tandryankupam. After the tsunami the Indian Government built two rock jetties to protect the beach. “They create a really big diagonal sandbank. And this creates three kinds of waves — foam, mellow and powerful big ones near the rocks,” says Juan, adding that this makes an ideal practise spot for beginner, intermediate and advanced surfers respectively. “When we describe it to our friends in Europe they are so jealous!”
Samai eventually joined Juan, so they now teach the classes together. “We are India's first surf school,” says Samai, adding with an eye roll, “Everyone claims to be the first of course — we don't care. We're happy with what we have.” They talk of how this is still a disorganised sector with schools springing up all along India coastline. “Eight years ago when we went to Cuddalore, a bunch of kids started following us and tapping the board. Even today random fishermen come to us and say ‘Enna Idhu,'” grins Juan.
Life's a beach
India has about 7,000 kilometers of coastline — most of it unexplored for surfing. “We spend a lot of time on Google maps, looking for new places to surf. We once drove 1,250 kilometres in one day towards Kanyakumari because we saw a spot that had potential,” says Juan. Sometimes, it can be difficult to get permission. “Officials say, ‘What are you going to do?' I carry a surfing magazine and show pictures to explain. One of them shrugged and said ‘Go ahead. If you drown I'm not responsible'.”
Surfers from around the world are slowly discovering India, drawn by the warm water and empty waves. Since the waves are relatively gentle this is the ideal environment for teaching. “After a single lesson most people get addicted. With a ten-day course you will be able to surf independently,” says Samai, adding, “Some manage very well after five lessons. The fitter you are, the faster you pick up. Sporty people have it easier.”
There's just one thing. “You have to know how to swim. There's no way around it.” The brothers talk of how a surprising number of Indians don't swim. “It's not taught. We have had some very bad experiences. Once I had a class of eight who assured me they could swim, went in and then five just started drowning all over the place. We had to hoist them up on boards and bring them in,” says Juan, adding, “So now if they look unsure I say, ‘Let's leave the board and take a swim first'.”
Since surfing is quite complex, they have a fairly well-structured syllabus. “We spend 20 minutes talking about the security. About respecting each other in the water. Respecting the sea,” says Samai. “There have to be rules — just like on the road. The most important thing is safety.”
They've been giving the sea longing looks throughout the interview. As it begins to rain, they grab their boards, yell goodbye and dive into the water. In minutes they're whooping and laughing as they ride the waves while a small crowd of onlookers applaud. Suddenly, that ten-day surfing course seems very tempting.
A single lesson is priced at Rs. 700. Five lessons cost Rs. 3,300. The ten-day course costs Rs. 5,600. Kallialay also rents out surf boards.
Each surfing class lasts one-and-a-half hours. A surfboard and rashvest will be provided. Carry swimsuits, towels and sunscreen.
If you're planning a surfing holiday, ideally call five days in advance to find out about weather conditions.
Juan and Samai are available on 94429 92874/ 97893 06376. (Provided they're not in the water!)