KOCHI: Sitting on the terrace of a building, in Kovalam, the Belgian Jelle Rigole looks relaxed on a Tuesday afternoon in March. A pleasant breeze is blowing. The roar of the waves can be heard in the distance. Sitting around him are members of the Kovalam Surf School.
Asked how he got the idea to start a surf school, Jelle says, “When I began to work in the slums, I noticed that a lot of children had to deal with physical abuse. Many of their fathers were alcoholics. There was so much of misery in their lives. There was nobody around to tell them about the importance of going to school.”
During this time, to get away from the stress of his work, Jelle would go surfing in the early mornings. Soon, he noticed that a few boys on the beach were looking at him with interest. That was when he came up with the idea, ‘No school, no surfing’.
“The children have to be in school from Monday to Friday and be on their best behavior,” says Jelle. “Thereafter, they were allowed to do surfing on Saturday and Sunday.”
Sitting next to Jelle are muscular young men who have been surfing for several years. They include Ramesh HR, Akash MG and Varghese Antony. They smile widely when Jelle says, “All of them were members of the school. Now they are mentors to the youngsters.”
Asked what he likes about surfing, Varghese says, “There is a nice feeling when you ride the waves. And I enjoy the sea breeze.”
Of course, surfing is not an easy thing to do. When you stand on a board, you have to realise that it is a moving platform. So maintaining one’s balance is not easy. But there are health benefits. The breathing becomes stronger, since you have to hold your breath while going through the waves. It is also good for the muscles and the joints. “Overall, it is a good exercise,” says Jelle. “If you surf for one-and-a-half hours, you will sleep like a baby at night.”
So far, over the years, around 500 children have been part of the school. “Some have come for one year, some for two,” says Jelle. “Many have got jobs and are leading good lives.”
Clearly, surfing has had a good impact on the children. “In the water, they meet many foreigners,” says Jelle. “They learn how to say hello and talk to them. Slowly, they are able to improve their English. Their behaviour also changes, for the good.”
And they also save lives. “Many times, tourists, who don’t know swimming, get caught up in the rip currents and are swept out to sea,” says Jelle. “Thankfully, since the boys are surfing nearby, they are able to rescue them.”
Jelle came to Kovalam, in November, 2005, to do a three-month internship in social work for the Sebastian Indian Social Project, which is run by fellow Belgian Paul Van Gelder. The goal of the project is to improve the living standards of people in Vizhinjam village and surrounding areas. “I stayed on and carried on doing similar work,” says Jelle.
On an average, Jelle spends four months a year, from December till April, in Kovalam. Thereafter, he returns to Bruges, (93 kms from Antwerp) where he runs a small hotel. The school is then run by manager Mani Sreekumar.
Asked what he likes about Kovalam, Jelle says, “I like the waves, but there is more waste now than waves. As for the people, they are nice, although there is a lot of gossip and jealousy. Nevertheless, it has been one of the most enriching experiences in my life.”