Jafar Alam never dreamed of becoming a professional surfer because it was not the sort of thing little boys dreamed about here, although he had the Bay of Bengal as his backyard. The only people who surfed here were the occasional, intrepid foreign tourists.
Now for Jafar, there is no such thing as the beach weather— almost every day of the week he can be found catching waves on the beaches at Cox's Bazar or St Martin. “You start to feel at one with the rhythm of the sea.” says Jafar Alam, 31, who speaks in a slow, spaced manner. “When you're in that state and you catch a wave, it becomes an effortless dance, a flow. I feel free. Surfing clears my mind.”
How he got into it is magical. While hanging out on the Laboni beach on a sunny day in 1995, Jafar, then a student of class V saw a foreigner walking with his surf board. He had not seen anything like it before. “But I guessed it must have been some kind of sports equipment,” recalls Alam. After he had explained what it was, the curious little boy offered to buy it. “Two thousand dollars,” the Australian surfer said. “I told him all I could come up with was Tk 2,000 (about 25 dollars). I don't know what came to him, he sold it to me. It was a short board—5 ft 8 inches long. I didn't know how to stand up on the board, and it was difficult because I didn't have wax or a leash," he says.
A leash is the string that attaches the board to the surfer's ankle and prevents it from being dragged away by the waves and wax makes the surf board non-slippery.
Jafar took it to the sea everyday and used it like a boat to float on it. “In 1998, for the first time I saw my first surf video. Wow, I was impressed, because it wasn't anything like I was doing. Thus I started learning the new tricks by practicing. By 2000, I could surf properly.”
Then Tom Bauer discovered him and life would never be the same for Jafar, the son of a tea stall owner.
In 2001, Tom Bauer, an American surfer came from Hawaii to Cox's Bazar with a five-member surfing team. “One day with his long zoom camera he saw me surfing alone in the sea. He came forward to meet me and said, 'You are Bangladesh's first surfer.'
That was the beginning of a career that would take him to countries like the US and Australia to take part in surfing competitions. “Seeing that I was surfing without wax or a leash, Tom gave me both. He also gave me his business card.”
In 2003, Jafar sent Tom an email saying, “Hey Tom, I need gum for my boat.” What Jafar meant was he needed wax for his surfboard.
Who knew this would prompt US filmmaker Russell Brownley to make a film on his life and how surfing in Bangladesh is like. The 33-minute film called “Gum for My Boat” is available on YouTube. “In 2003, Tom Bauer sponsored me to go to Bali where thousands of surfers from around the globe go for surfing. I felt inspired to organise something like this at Cox's Bazar.”
So in 2005, Jafar started the Bangladesh Surf School and Club. “I have 30 students including 7 girls. For them, surfing involves much more than catching waves—it is a source of fun, escape and even a chance for a way to make a living. ”
To supplement his income, he also rents out surfboards “I was a life guard from 1998-2003 and saved the lives of 70 people,” he says matter-of-factly.
Before that, in 2007, on Tom Bauer's invitation, he went to Hawaii, US to participate in the Freedom Surf Contest. He stayed there for 3 months and has visited Hawaii three more times since then.
In 2009, the BBC published an article on him titled “Bangladesh's pioneering surfer” which made it easy for him to link up with other surfers around the world.
Last month he went to Gold Coast, Australia on his own expense to promote Cox's Bazar as a top surfing destination. “Since 2003, on my invitation about 5000 foreign tourists have come to Cox's Bazar to surf. It is earning foreign exchange and promoting tourism.”
It is not an easy feat considering the image problem the country suffers from when it comes to attracting foreign tourists. Some say the waves at Cox's Bazar are too small for surfing. “It's not true. Cox's Bazar is perfect for surfing. It has the longest sand beach in the world. The waves of Gold Coast, Australia are a lot smaller but thousands of surfers go there to surf. Cox's Bazar has huge potential.”
Few including the media, government officials and private sponsors have taken notice. The scarcity of wax, new boards or simple online surf lessons has made surfing in this country a complicated endeavour. Still, surfers in Cox's Bazar, with their courage and conviction make progress in the sport on a separate path from the rest of the world. “We need a modern Surf Academy. That would make us sustainable. We need more surf boards. We need help from the media, the private sector as well as the government.”
In the past he says he had approached officials at the divisional level as well as a minister for help. “Everyone said, “We'll see'.” The private sector may find it in their interest to invest in it, suggests the die-hard surfer.
“I'm going to keep on trying until I die,” Alam says, with a laid-back mood that could not completely mask his determination peeking through. After all, he has embarked upon a mission that is daunting, but may be well within reach: To make Cox's Bazar a prime surfing location in the region and the world.
Jafar Alam may be contacted at email@example.com