I am in the Indian Ocean, paddling around with naked Bangladeshi children on my surfboard. Groups of kids shout from the beach, “Surfing, surfing!” and ask me for rides. Jafar Alam, my guide and the 29-year-old founder of the Bangladesh Surf Club, takes an especially eager boy from the line, lifts him onto a longboard and pushes him into a green wave. “Everywhere we go the kids are crazy for surfing,” Alam says. “Even though most of them have never seen it before.”
This is a typical day for Alam, out on the water with his club, made up of boys in their teens and early 20s who teach the sport to other kids. For today’s “surfing safari,” they have brought their boards to a rural area on Cox’s Bazar Beach, an 80-mile stretch of unbroken sand along the Bay of Bengal. We are about 30 minutes south of their hometown, the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar. Soon, all the club members are in the water riding six-foot waves. Three Norwegian women who have signed up for surf lessons from Alam wade out, too, and curious onlookers gather on the beach, as they usually do whenever the surf club hits the waves. Within minutes, the Norwegian novices are up on their boards, the kids start showing off, and Alam hoots for his students. This is the future he has imagined.
I have spent a good portion of my life traveling to different surf destinations, but I have never seen surfers so excited about the sport, a pastime that did not exist in Bangladesh until 15 years ago. “Every day the club is more and more famous,” Alam tells me as we bob in waves that remind me of California’s Huntington Beach. “We have everything here: warm water, the longest beach in the world, waves all year round. It’s made for surfing.”
Alam first discovered the sport in 1995 when he met an Australian guy walking down the beach at Cox’s Bazar with a surfboard. He offered to buy it. “Two hundred bucks,” the surfer said. Alam, who had no money, talked him down to $20, which he then borrowed from his mother, telling her it was for school fees. And with that, Bangladesh had its first surfer.
Learning was not easy. After that encounter, Alam didn’t see another surfer for years. He didn’t even know that he was supposed to stand, so at first he only rode on his belly. The police insisted he pay them bribes so that he could ride his curious “boat.” Alam couldn’t afford to pay, so he snuck out to remote areas of the beach to practice. He kept at it, and the next surfer he met—six years later—changed everything.
Tom Bauer, the founder and director of a Hawaii-based nonprofit called Surfing the Nations, was on a visit to Bangladesh looking for waves and potential surfers. The organization provides surfing gear and lessons—along with supplies such as medicine and toothbrushes—to people in developing countries all over the world. When Bauer saw Alam, he sprinted after him in disbelief. Bauer thought no one in Bangladesh even knew what surfing was. The two became fast friends and eventually worked out a deal. Surfing the Nations would provide equipment for a surf club and host an annual competition for young surfers, and Alam would teach street kids to surf and maintain a clubhouse for the group.
Alam had his work cut out for him. Cox’s Bazar is a popular tourist destination for wealthy Bangladeshi honeymooners, but for most of its residents, survival takes priority over beachgoing. Eighty percent of Bangladesh’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and around half the city’s children are stunted from malnutrition. Men rarely go in the water unless they are fishermen, and in this mostly Muslim country, many parents do not allow their daughters to swim after the age of 12.
Despite all that, the Bangladesh Surf Club has about 70 committed members. In the club’s crowded headquarters—Alam’s bedroom—beat-up boards lean against the walls, which are covered with photos ripped from surfing magazines. It could be some teenager’s room in Ventura County, California, but just outside, dirt roads teem with bicycle rickshaws, men rub prayer beads, and the scent of fried pakora fills the air. Like obsessive surfers anywhere, the club members are up on professional surfer Kelly Slater’s contest stats and the best new board shapers, and they can recognize photos from famous wave spots around the world: Pipeline in Hawaii, Teahupoo in French Polynesia. Most of them speak decent English, thanks in large part to watching surf videos.
Abdul Aziz, the long-haired ladies man of the crew, who helped Alam start the club, works at the fish market and is solidly middle class. Shahadat Hosen, the vice president, plays soccer for Bangladesh’s national team. But the majority of the members are poor, living in one-room houses with their families. Several members are street children, still forced to beg most days for their food. But even the street kids look healthier than most of the slum children I have seen. Other members give them shelter and food when they can. “The Surf Club is a family,” Shahadat tells me in Alam’s room.
Just a year ago, more girls than boys belonged to the club. But as surfing gained popularity and Alam became a local celebrity (he can hardly walk down the street without people screaming “Surfing Bangladesh!”), authorities took notice and deemed surfing inappropriate for girls. Since then, almost every female surf club member either has dropped out or rarely shows up. “Nassima is the only one left,” says Alam.
Nassima Akter, an athletic 15-year-old, tries to ignore the people who call her a whore for going in the water. When she was just 7, her destitute parents kicked her out of the house because she would not prostitute herself to make money. It was around this time, wandering the beach alone, that she spotted Alam surfing. “I was so sad, and I saw Jafar and felt happy,” she says.
After one try on the board, Nassima wanted to go every day. And she got good—fast. Last year, as a 14-year-old, she was allowed to compete in both the girls’ and boys’ beginner divisions of the Surfing the Nations contest. She handily won both.
On a sunny day after the “surfing safari,” Alam and I paddle out with Nassima and some of the other surfers in the club. The waves are small, and most of the boys just fool around and dance like Bollywood stars on their surfboards. Nassima, however, is focused and catches wave after wave with style. She could be competitive on the amateur girls surf circuit if she lived somewhere like Hawaii, Australia, or California. As we wait for the next set of waves, I ask Nassima why she likes surfing so much. Her English is limited, but she manages to squeak out the general idea: “Soooo fun. Only surfing. Every day surfing.” When I ask her about winning the contest, she spreads her arms wide and says, “Number one day in my life.”
At the moment, Nassima is staying in Alam’s home, helping his mother and sister with cooking and cleaning. But the quarters are tight, and Alam knows he will not be able to keep her there much longer. In the meantime, he is scheming. Alam thinks if a girls’ surf company such as Roxy discovered Nassima’s talent and told her story on film, the exposure could give Nassima a chance to compete internationally and get an education. He hopes she might become Bangladesh’s first international surf star and maybe change the country’s taboos about girls and sports.
Alam, a moderate Muslim, says Islam and surfing can coexist. The girls surf fully clothed, according to custom, so there is no direct conflict with religious values. The problem, he thinks, is cultural. Most Bangladeshis— Hindus, Christians, and Muslims alike—do not understand surfing and think girls should be working with their mothers at home. “Some people think it’s a waste of time,” Alam says, “but they haven’t seen what I have.” Surfing the Nations has taken him on surf trips to Hawaii, California, Sri Lanka, and Bali, where he has seen how surfing can affect culture and the local economy. He believes if Bangladeshis could see that surfing is a real sport with an international following, they would change their tune.
For now, Alam slowly builds the club, renting surfing equipment and offering lessons to wealthy locals and foreign tourists. With the money the club takes in, he can teach more kids to surf. And as the kids get better, they can help give lessons in exchange for school fees, food, and shelter.
How far it can go remains to be seen, but Alam is confident. Near the end of my stay, he shares his dream with me. Soon, he says, he will move into a larger building for the club, open a surf shop, and make and sell surfboards. “If people knew this is the perfect place to learn to surf,” says Alam, “that it’s safe, that the people are friendly, that the food is good, they would come.” He stops, grins, and corrects himself. “No. They will come. I know they will.”