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The Drifter Journals

Chris Del Moro | Finding Home

There are myriad places that draw us in across this vast, wide world.

The call of waves, of temperate climates, of pristine snowfields, captivating cultures and vibrant cities; the reasons for this allure are almost as multifold as the destinations that feed our hunger. They are the catalyst of wanderlust, and the reason we continually gaze to the horizon, no matter how good we have it in our own backyard.

Then there are those locations that ensnare, steal our hearts, blindfold us to alternatives and keep us craving like a lush for the bottle, returning again and again to the places we already know so well.

When visitors first unfurl their legs and step onto the tarmac of Ngurah-Rai airport, they fall under the false assumption that they are simply on holiday. They believe they are escaping the cold, the office, the flat spells or the kids to have a week or two of good waves, warm water and a few too many Bintangs.

But Bali has never just been a holiday destination, and it never will be. Those first few wafts of incense, the first beaming smile of a caramel-skinned local, the first nasi goreng and the first glassy, peeling, hollow-as-hell wave in nothing but boardshorts captivates, bewitches and addicts. Every vacation infuses our minds with fond memories - Bali instils an incessant craving.

When Chris Del Moro first came to Bali, he was already a seasoned traveller… at the tender age of 16. A father entombed in the fashion houses of Italy and a pre-teen parental separation saw the California grom travelling solo while still in his single digits.“My dad - I wish he was a travelling surfer…

“He was a travelling salesman - it's just what he did to survive; he was in the high fashion world in Italy. He worked for Georgio Armani my whole childhood and then various other companies after that. My mother’s from California, my dad's from Florence, Italy. So my mom went there and that's where their whole love story happened. So since I was born, I was going back and forth between the two, mostly in Italy predominantly, until I was four, and then my mom and I moved back to California without my dad. I did the first solo trip of my life when I was about five years old. My mom put me on a plane from LAX to Florence, Italy alone.

“I remember hating it. Like, really hating it. First of all, I had to leave one of my parents every time and then second of all, it was a couple of years before they banned cigarettes on aeroplanes. So I was thinking, ‘oh God, this is a torture-fest’ for 20 hours. That just kind of started my nomadic life.”

Painful and terrifying though it must have been for the kid, it was a baptism of fire, an abrupt catapult into the fray, but one that, like a Michelangelo sculpture in the piazzas of Florence, would carve out the man he stands today. 

In California, Chris would go to bed still damp, shaking sand from his salty hair and dreaming of the waves he would ride the following day. Florence fed another part of Chris’ soul, and he immersed himself not in the waves of California but in the classical art and culture of his second home.

“I was lucky in that Southern California has its ocean culture and then there's Hollywood 45 minutes from where I grew up. There is culture for sure, but a lot of it's pretty synthetic in my opinion, just because you gotta really seek out nature there, otherwise you can get caught up in all the bullshit that I just consider to be a waste of time. I grew up in what was one of the last ocean communities.

“Then I would go to Italy and that was also a country spirit, but also with some of the finest artwork and clothing design and architecture; you name it, it's all there. My dad worked in Florence and my relatives were downtown 5 minutes from the Duomo - like, proper Florence. But my dad raised us in the country so he had a block of land with horses and a vineyard and stone fruit trees… his way of unplugging was to go to the country, get out of the city, work on the farm.”

There was a unity in the contrasts, perhaps flourishing from the kindred souls of his parents, searching out the art, the culture and the nature in their disparate homes and anointing their offspring in it.

Chris’ passion for art was inherent, his love of the ocean and surfing adopted from the explorations of his Californian backyard. The two united in his early travels, each taking its place in the foreground of his imagination, the other lingering in the shadows, quietly inspiring yet unable to truly flourish in its geographical opposite.

And then, at the age of 16, he found Bali.

A promising junior surfer, Chris had begun travelling for waves a couple of years prior, but always to more conventional or closer destinations - around the 50 states, hopping the border to Mexico and so on. It was 1998 when he landed in Denpasar - a wide-eyed grommet in an exotic land, under the most lenient of chaperones for a surf magazine trip.

“I just remember feeling this sensation of exoticness like nothing I'd ever experienced before,” Chris recalls of his first venture to our island.“We stayed somewhere like Canggu or Kuta, I can't remember. One thing I do really remember was the artist culture here. At 16 I was already an artist and just in awe of everything. The whole experience just blew me away. I just remember the carvings and the scent. I really remember the incense and the smell of Bali. It’s smells, for some reason, that I really recall - that and the chanting.

“And then, of course, the surfing. The very first day we got Nusa Dua at eight foot - big, big Nusa Dua - and I got worked but also got some crazy waves. We came up to Uluwatu and we couldn't believe this was real. It was still pretty country-vibe. I'm so grateful I got to experience that. We surfed Nyang Nyang and all these different spots, Green Bowls and a bunch of different waves.”

Indonesia even 20 or so years ago was far, far from the convenient experience known to travelling surfers today. Outer-island surf resorts and charters were scarce and transportation from one destination to another was a multi-day mission of numerous craft:

“We took a trip by land to G-Land,” Chris remembers. “Now you can take a speedboat, but at that time it took us a whole day to get there, taking a car, ferry, car, boat… We’d sleep in parking lots waiting for the National Park to open. All these different things took forever. It took a long time to get to G-Land, but when we did finally arrive it was unforgettable.

"I made some really great friends on that trip; one of my best friends luckily got to come with me - Teddy Travers - and to this day he and I are still really close. I also met Aamion Goodwin on that trip. He's a couple years older than us and he blew our minds, mentoring us younger kids on how to be a real Waterman."

And so passed more than a decade, ebbing away like the tail end of a swell, leaving little but the whispering echoes of Bali’s thunderous waves.

“After I came when I was 16,” Chris comments of the undulating and meandering course of his life, “my path took me far and wide, and I didn’t return here until I met my wife 12 years later.

“She’s a jewellery designer; she came to Bali before she met me and then was blessed with an amazing production manager who to this day we still work with. She was head over heels in love with Bali and it sparked an old flame in my own heart. She said ‘we need to go to Bali’ and smartly, wisely, I said ‘okay, let’s do it.’”

20 years prior, in her adolescent days of travel, Madgi, Chris’ wife, had befriended and shared accommodation with a young expat named Seewah. The pair struck a long and enduring friendship, reconnecting on each of Madgi’s returns to Bali. Years later, the old friends would introduce their new husbands - Chris, of course, and Drifter co-founder Tim Russo.

Still a passionate artist, Chris collaborated with Tim on his new project, creating a range of designs for apparel, stickers and accessories that remain some of Drifter’s most endearing designs to this day, most notably the iconic ship motif.

But this wasn’t the same island that Chris had visited as a wide-eyed, stoke-fuelled grommet. The change wasn’t in the consistent waves or endlessly-hospitable people, it wasn’t even in the proliferation of infrastructure that had risen like weeds across Bali’s coastal perimeter. The change came in the evolution of perspective.

The interim years had been filled with surf travel - competitions, movies, sponsor trips and so much more had opened windows upon the world, and Chris had immersed in cultures, landscapes and myriad surf breaks. Marriage, too, has a profound way of instigating reflection, and this was reinforced by Chris’ transcontinental heritage and film projects.

In 2013, Chris traced his roots back to Italy, finding his pre-teen connections, but also bringing with him a lifetime’s passion for surfing. Aligning with filmmaker Jason Baffa, Chris co-created Bella Vita - ‘the good life’.

“I was deeply connected to that project. I helped with the story, the production, the whole deal. Bella Vita takes a look at the Italian surf culture, and I'm the narrator who takes you through the journey.

“It was a special one because I'd been involved in lots of amazing films up until that point, but that was the writing on the wall [for me]. I wanted to start a family and have kids. And I also felt as though that chapter of my life [as a professional surfer] was becoming disenchanting and was losing its appeal to me. I did that, and then I pulled out. Yeah, it was like my farewell.

“I'm really proud of Bella Vita. It's an amazing project, it's stunning. It's a pretty unique take on the professional surfer’s perspective of what culture means, you know, what personal culture means, and I guess it's just that intrinsic nature of certain things; it can bind people across nationalities and across language barriers and everything else. Yeah, that trip was so rich on so many levels. It was deep, you know, family roots and history of all these different people and then also just the magic of surfing.”

Chris’ passion for the ocean hadn’t waivered one iota. From his earliest days of dodging family pressure to go to ice hockey or gymnastics training and instead grabbing his sponge to go bodyboarding, his love of the ocean far superseded his career path. Bali brought the scattered puzzle pieces of his life together to form an iridescent image bathed in perfect, warm waves.

From his first return to the island, he found a second home, one that had been there, patiently waiting for almost two decades. Bali opened her arms and embraced both he and Madgi. Tim and Seewah would open their home to their kindred guests, providing accommodation and exploring the opportunities Bali has to offer, and these would allow Chris to open eyes, heart and mind to an entirely new perspective.

“Right away we were hanging out with them and that was the beginning of our friendship as two couples that basically became family. Tim was so generous and let us stay with him and then we started coming every year for extended periods of time. We’d work on our jewellery, Tim and I would surf, dive and adventure; the girls would go have their fun and workout and then we'd all go on little outer island trips, and we’ve just been doing that ever since.”

It is the nature of perspectives to change, to ebb and flow in continual flux, influenced by as little as a single moment, or as much as a pivotal life shift.

Already, Bali was an entirely separate destination from the place he had visited in his teens. Chris had noticed many aspects - the language, the culture, the art - but his young self had been in awe of the waves, his companions and the mischief unbridled young travel can inspire.

Returning as an adult, it were as if the percentages found equilibrium; everything remained as it had all those years ago, but they were now in balance, Chris as enamoured of the people and crafts as he was of the waves and the sense of adventure.

Chris’ life had always been bipolar. California versus Italy, mother for half the year, father the next, surfing hermit or big-screen celebrity. And there was spontaneity, such as when a random call from legendary filmmaker Taylor Steele found Chris waking on a boat in Alaska just 24 hours later.

From his ranch in California, Chris now migrates not to Italy, but to Bali for half of the year, reaffirming his bond with Drifter as its new creative director. And, in one of life’s greatest alterations of perspective, he is now a father, reinterpretting his own childhood in the lives of his progeny:

“To raise my children here is out of this world,” he enthuses. “For them to have their vision of the world expanded this brightly at this age is incredible. Obviously, I had fears as a parent, wondering if we were doing the right thing. But now that we've been here six months, I see that this has been such a blessing on so many levels for them. They're now getting what I got as a child.”

A vision of the world, expanded so brightly. Perhaps that is what we’re all pursuing, and it is something that Bali provides so willingly and readily. It remains, in technical terms, a third-world country, it is a land of an endless summer, its smells and sights contrast our worlds so significantly, and its population’s devotion to the power of the gods and the fascinating, intricate ways that devotion plays out in daily life have no parallel in western culture.

And yet all of this is so easily accessible. For Australians, it can be cheaper, faster and easier to visit Bali than the other side of their own country, and international tourism has enveloped it in its collection of principal destinations.

Like the Hindu God Brahma, Bali too has many faces: a luxurious tropical escape where every whim is catered to with a warm smile; perfect waves that caress bare skin, not the insulating layers of neoprene; colour, artwork, chaos, a liberation from formality, structure and conformity… maybe it isn’t the beauty of Bali that keeps visitors returning and the lucky few emigrating, perhaps it is simply its difference, its exquisite ability to expand our vision of the world so very brightly.

“Where’s home?” You can ask of Chris, but his answer you could not predict. Is it the secluded California ranch he lovingly established and evolved through the tempest of COVID; is it Florence, where his love of art flourished and so many school vacations were spent exploring; is it now Bali, where his family and his heart continue to grow and evolve?

Or is home - for Chris and for any of us - simply where inspiration, passion and love exist? Like crystals of ice slowly creeping across a winter’s lake, the more our vision of the world expands, the more expansive our home becomes… and in Bali, that expansion comes in waves.

All Photos: @gerhardimages

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