The butterfly effect: the journey of a surfer from Mardin to Cape Town
In the novel Chaos by James Gleick, chaos theory is explained using the butterfly effect: “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, the wind it creates can cause a storm in New York a month later.” A butterfly’s wings can change the world, and people, too!
The life of Abdurrahim Korkmaz, nicknamed Apo, changed with a butterfly he saw on his neighbour’s television in Mardin, the city in Turkey’s southeast where he grew up. Despite his family’s objections, Korkmaz’s continuing passion for surfing and the sea took him to Turkey’s western province of Izmir and South Africa and made him one of the most beloved and sought-after windsurfers and trainers.
Korkmaz was born on 1 May 1984, as the youngest of seven siblings. As with many people in that region, his family’s life was not easy. They made their living through farming and livestock, with roads, electricity, and running water reaching their village late. The Korkmaz family’s smallest child realized quite young that hardship and impossibility were feeding his dreams. His greatest fantasy was to fly.
He was so mischievous that when he finished middle school, he’d still not learned to read and write in Turkish. While his friends toiled away at their lessons, Korkmaz would jump onto his favourite horse to race with the kids in nearby villages. When he realized how far he was falling behind in school, he went to his older brother for help teaching himself to read and write. His brother also got Korkmaz into the habit of daily reading. Books opened the doors to a new world, where there were no limits to his dreams.
Around that time, he saw a rainbow-coloured butterfly fluttering over the water on his neighbour’s TV, and he thought to himself how far he lived from any water. For a boy who’d learned to swim in watering holes fed by the rain, he had no explanation for feeling this way.
“In the summer, people watered their animals from those holes and used the water in their homes. I was so curious about swimming that whenever I disappeared from the house, that’s where they’d go looking for me.”
When Korkmaz was 11 years old, amid the violent clashes breaking out in the Southeast, his older sister and her husband moved to the West of Turkey to start a new life. When he went to visit them in Ayvalık, his life also began to change. “
An American guy turned up in a caravan. He took out his surfboard and attached a bunch of accessories to it; then he went out into the water, and he flew! I realised this was called “windsurfing,” and that it can be done in our country, and that it was a sport I could learn,” he says. “As of that that moment, I had an irresistible desire to do it.”
On his way back to Mardin, he read in a magazine that Alaçatı in Izmir was the best place for windsurfing. He set his mind to going to Alaçatı and learning the sport. He remained in Mardin for just a short time before telling his parents he missed his sister and wanted to go visit her again. From his sister’s house, he headed to Alaçatı. Korkmaz recalls sitting on a hill looking out at the surf.
“The moment I arrived, I looked at the sea and saw hundreds of butterflies, so to speak. The sails on the water looked like butterflies and danced like butterflies. I was so spellbound I couldn’t tear my eyes away for an hour. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life.”
He had only a little money his mother had given him, and he had to make it last. He decided to sleep on the seashore at night. During the day, he went to surfing schools to ask for whatever work they could give him but found nothing. He then tried asking in restaurants and cafés, also in vain. Finally, he saw a construction site not far from the surfing schools. They asked him if he could break up rocks, and he was happy for the work.
But his earnings weren’t enough for surfing lessons, and no one would rent him any equipment so he could teach himself. After multiple attempts, Korkmaz finally got what he needed. With his first board and sails, he got into the water and watched the other windsurfers.
“I saw how they did it, how they sailed, and I slowly started trying it myself. I stayed in the water the entire day! I forgot about everything else. After that, I was certain this was what I wanted to do.”
He continued breaking rocks at the construction site for eight more months, sleeping on the seashore and saving all his money for equipment rental. People around began to notice this passionate and childishly enthusiastic boy from Mardin. One day, a surfing school owner called him over to ask who he was and what he was trying to do. Korkmaz told his story, and the owner asked if he’d like a job. Things got easier after that.
Korkmaz joined a Sailing Federation training course to earn his instructor’s license and began to make a real living. He bought a caravan and had a dog and a goat. Yet, he felt something was missing.
“They were holding world sailing championships here, with some of the world’s best windsurfers, but I couldn’t communicate with them; I couldn’t learn anything from them because I didn’t know any foreign languages. I started searching for the best place to learn, and my search took me to Cape Town.” His friends thought he was crazy, but he flew the 12,000 kilometres with his windsurfing equipment and an address for a language school.
Within a few months, he was starting to communicate in English, waking up at 5 a.m. to reach the school in the city centre because he wanted to live where he could surf. He began to find instructor work and eventually landed a good job at a surfing school. In 2012, he got his instructor’s license for South Africa, and he now spends half the year there and half the year in Alaçatı.
He hasn’t forgotten his roots, though, and he really notices the difference between the rich and poor in Cape Town.
“I started going to the poor parts of town to see how they lived. Then I joined an organization, and on Thursdays we go the most destitute place. It’s like a refugee camp. We teach the children, draw pictures, and play games. We plant tomatoes and paint the shacks. It’s a really special day for me,” he explains.
Korkmaz has become such a good windsurfing instructor that some of the kids he’s taught have won championships in Turkey.
As for his own next step, he hopes to join the World Sailing Championships.
Still, after all these years, his family has never understood what he does or why he left. He recently returned for a long visit after 11 years.
“Once you leave the village, you see how little they know about the world. It’s like they’re happy not knowing! But then I look at how my life here prepared me for all of this. When I was six, I used to take the sheep up into the mountains for grazing. I was given a responsibility, and this is what made me ready for my life,” Korkmaz explained.
© Ahval English
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.