Life Lessons

Ben Panagian is one of Bali’s best paddlers. He gets out of prison this fall.

Life is beautiful. But it can also be unfair. And it can be especially difficult if you were born in certain places in the world. In late 2014, gifted Indonesian paddler Ben Panangian—who helped our own Sam George during his 2013 Bali trip that was featured in SUP magazine—was sentenced to 10 months in Bali prison for possession of eight grams of marijuana. Some theorize that Panangian was treated more harshly because of his alleged romantic connection to the controversial Australian Schappelle Corby, who was convicted of smuggling nine pounds of weed into Indonesia and sentenced to 20 years (she claimed she was the victim of crooked baggage handlers using her bodyboard bag to transfer the illegal cargo without her knowledge). They met in Bali’s Kerobokan Prison, while she was serving that time and while Panangian was in for a previous drug charge. In Indonesia, these cases are severely penalized and the social stigma of conviction can be difficult to overcome. This fall, Panangian will be released for the second time. Here, surf journalist Matt George adds depth to this standup paddler’s case.

Chapter One

Ben Panangian is with us. He’s very calm. He paddles strongly, surely but in a style I’ve not seen before. Legs close together, forward on the board, a shallow yet deceptively powerful stroke. If I had to describe his presence on a standup board in a word it’d be command.

We’re moving our way south in a pack of five, a quarter-mile offshore of the limestone cliffs of the famed Bukit Peninsula, south Bali. Home to some of the greatest surf on the globe and the main reason tourism exists here in its titanic scale.

My brother and I are part of a group being guided down the coast by Ben. We put in at Jimbaran Bay, kilometers behind us, in the dark. The sun’s rays, just over the horizon now, are already hot enough to make you take your shirt off. A portent of the howling tradewinds to come by noon. My brother is here from America to do an article for an American magazine on SUP in Bali. I’m tagging along, shooting photos. I live here in Bali as a retired expat. Have for some time.

This Ben cat is pretty cool. Knows what he’s doing. Not so breathless and harried and scraping as most tour guides around the world. He speaks a quiet, informed sort of English. Not so much a whisper, but you have to pay attention or miss it. And you get the feeling from his voice you don’t want to miss it. I think the biggest difference between he and your typical tourism guide is that he listens. Closely. To everything you say. And he’s interested. It makes this semi-tourist experience of ours feel like an adventure. This guy is good at his job.

When we reach the famed surf of the fearsome Padang Padang, Ben Panangian is the first to swing into one of the smaller waves. Yep, he’s an expert. And I live around experts. And I also used to live in Hawaii, the birthplace of this sport. And I can tell you one thing. Ben, all brown skin, with a body of solid oak, rides as nobly as a Polynesian King.

Chapter Two

Ben and I formed a loose bond. Over the months following our paddle adventures, I’d seen him around a few times. I would head out to Jimbaran Bay from time to time, to the beach center where he worked as a certified instructor/guide for just about any water sport you could imagine.
But SUP was his thing, you could see that. I would take my friends or anyone visiting me out to the place. Ben was always a thoughtful host. A thinking man’s host. The kind you would climb a mountain with.

I’ll never forget a quiet, painful conversation Ben and I had about trying to find him a sponsor for his professional ambitions. He knew who I was, the retired pro surfer, surfing journalist, once a feature surf film maker for Hollywood. Connected. He knew. And yet it took a long time for him to
approach me and ask for help. Could it be possible for me to help him find a way to step up, ramp up and become a World Champion someday? He knew he had it in him. And so did I. I was flattered, so I took a crack at it. Got a résumé put together, photos. Including the ones of him rescuing the passengers of an airline that had careened off the runway earlier that year in Bali and split in two on his home reef. Ben was on the beach at the time. It’s a good three quarters of a kilometer out onto the reef and Ben was first on the scene. And to hear other people tell it, he was calm then, too. He rescued a half-dozen people that day.

There was that command again.

I failed spectacularly in my attempt around town to get anyone interested in Ben Panangian’s ambitions. This is a traditional surfing town. No one was interested in a standup paddler. And I went back to a very hopeful Ben and gave him the news, straight up. I can still see it now. Feel
it. He did not bow his head. He blinked two or three times, looking me straight in the eye, and then he looked out onto the horizon. The slanting rays of the afternoon sun. The white fringing reefs, and he says, “It’s the quiet I like. You can still find the quiet out on the sea here in Bali. Just the sound of the water. And being able to standup on your board is different than sitting on a surfboard. You can see the whole picture. You can hear yourself breathe and think clearly.” To this day, it was the bravest expression of life acceptance I’d ever heard in my life.

Chapter Three

I’m sitting in this bar, the Serendipity, on a bashed up back alley in Kuta. A place you’d call your local while you were visiting. Nice enough. Tall stools against a hardwood bar. Decent lighting. Cold beer. Couple of tables with boiled peanut shells scattered on them. The odd shot of
warm whiskey. So anyway, I’m sitting there and all of a sudden this loudmouth Aussie drunk, sunburned to hell, probably on school holiday goes off next to me. He’s wearing a Newcastle Knights singlet, had the beginnings of what was sure to become a fine beer belly: he’s spouting off all night about his mushroom trips and lurid, profane prostitute experiences and more mushrooms and the drunkenness and the madness that comes with traveling with malice in your heart for the local people and this guy says, “Hey, did’ya hear about that Ben guy? Yeah, yeah mate, that surfer guy, the one that was supposed to be rootin’ Schappelle? He just got busted for weed! Hahaha. Weed. F*cking hell, mate. How stupid is that? F*ckin Balo’s, they really don’t have a clue, hey?”

My right hand tightened around my beer. I stopped listening to the rest of it. I thought about Ben. Not exactly my friend, but someone I’d seen something in. First hand. Something great. And I was saddened. And I thought hard about what Ben Panangian was about and why he might get involved with all this. Because maybe he wanted as much as the people he served, both lewd and fine, who come here to Bali and empty their wallets as easily as tapwater, like this guy next to me, not a care in the world.

Maybe Ben Panangian wanted as much too. Maybe Ben didn’t feel like being a sheep. People eat sheep. Maybe Ben knows the true feeling of being a servant and yet maintains his nobility on a standup board even though it’s pretty goddamned difficult stuff to maintain when all you can think about is earning a living. Maybe Ben knows that you gotta be rich to even think at all.

Maybe Ben Panangian knows that nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice in this world, especially here. If you are a man, you gotta take it. Take your freedom.

So maybe Ben gets involved with some weed on the side. I don’t know. I don’t know anything about it. But maybe he does, just to make ends meet and hopefully a little more.

Just like any of us would if we had to. And just maybe, if he plays his cards right, takes the risks that any man is expected to in this mean-hearted world, then just maybe Ben Panangian would have half a chance to live the life I saw in his eyes. But instead. He sits in jail. A maimed Mozart.

The guy in the Knight’s singlet is still going off. The white guy with all the money and the free time. The good life. The car back home, the opportunity, the prostitutes, the mushrooms and the sunburned Bali vacations. The very same guy that comes here to Bali and creates the demand for the weed in the first place.

So I say to singlet guy, who was still going on about Ben and the Balo’s, “Hey asshole.”

And that shuts him up as he swings his eyes around at me. I could see all the evil intent of every confused, exploitative, rude, unenlightened tourist in the world on his face.

“Guys like Ben Panangian aren’t the problem here,” I say. “You are.”

And we stepped outside and settled it.

This feature originally ran in the Fall 2015 issue.