I never met Papi Flow.
But I’d heard dozens of stories about a waterman who’d left his mark in one way or another all over the world: Open Water Rescues, Bodysurf, Big Wave Surf and SUP stories. Apparently Papi Flow paddles, swims, fishes, foils and kite surfs.
The first time I heard of Papi Flow was on the Sinai Peninsula in Sharm-el Sheik before the turn of the century.
Think Red Sea Pirates, undeveloped Saudi coastline and the most beautifully colored dying coral you’ll ever see.
I was living in Cairo and I’d gone to Sinai for the end of the world of it all. I’d read stories about the mountain in the only book I’ve never finished. So I brown bagged bundles of local currency like bricks of cocaine, slipped a Benny in my passport ($100 bill) and gathered a meager roadie collection of drugs and alcohol: Johnny Walker Black, brown hash and Valium.
It was all that could be had.
I hung with Sinai Bedouins, and we spoke, but not like a tour. I met one of the Sheiks’ 23 sons, who months later came to Cairo and brought me a beautiful birthday cake. Surely the swankiest store bought birthday cake I ever ate. It was very sweet (the gesture). We talked about the human condition, ate cake and drank coffee.
But in Sharm El Sheik, we drank tea by the sea in the sand on carpets and in the shade. To the Sheik’s son I lost honorably at backgammon amid flashes of brilliance that were just shy of an ass kicking.
(Winning isn’t the point. Winning doesn’t get you honor or respect. It will only strip a local of his. For the rest of his life somebody is gonna bring up the time that American whipped his ass in backgammon. His son’s sons will hear about it. I’d only be gaining an enemy. And the Beddies are like Hell’s Angel’s, if one don’t like you, they all don’t like you.)
We smoked strawberry tobacco from glass blown hookahs for three solid days. I barely moved.
This was before the internet made everything easy. No YouTube or Surfline or SwellWatch.
And only one radio. One cassette. Bob Marley Legend. All day. Everyday. It was the only sound other than the dice. Then the waves picked up. A sign of swell.
Mohamed heard a wave slap in on itself and he said, “Babi Flow.”
And then they all started saying it, and the backgammon stopped and the sun set and the moon rose and when the sun came out again to warm the cool dessert morning they’d finally finished their history of Papi Flow.
None of them can read. It’s not as important as you may think. It’s completely unimportant in fact. Except for the numbers, the leaders can read numbers.
And the rich read in English.
The Beddies keep an oral history. They tell stories, just like you and me.
I’d kicked the snowball down the sand dune when I had asked in Arabic, “Aladi who-a Papi Flow?”
And then I’d asked it twice again. Who is Papi Flow? Who is Papi Flow?
The magic number. A cultural key with mystical meanings for the Bedouins, (it expresses earnestness and shows earthly powers likest God’s).
And if you’re earnest, and if the Beddies decide to share, you have to stay until the story’s told. If you leave before it’s done they won’t speak another word to you or even acknowledge your existence ever again. Sure, they might sell you a coke or rent you a camel but they’ll never speak with you again. It’s different.
And with all that tea you also have to time your bladder breaks.
If the conversation suddenly weaves to a person’s family it’s an insult to go take a whizz. So between the broken English, wild arm gestures and my weak Arabic, I sat tight until somebody else moved.
From what I gathered Papi Flow is a legend, a myth, or perhaps a series of myths. And this is all a metaphor, nothing means anything except what you imagine and less than nothing means more than what you might think.
Reality is relative when speaking with Bedouins.
The guys gathered that his mother was a Parisian from a House of Textiles. They said his eyes were brown or green depending on the light and that he spoke English, French and “kitchen” Arabic.
What I know is this: Papi Flow went to a pile of camel’s knees and after fondling them for some time, he picked one that fit his hand.
The owner of the pile, as was his morning custom, sat on a low stool, hiked up his galabea and made “Tasha Kebab” with his testes to the sun. When Papi Flow tried to pay, the man put his hand flat on his heart and then raised his arm to the sky: It’s free.
(At this point, had I not seen a pile of camel’s knees in Egypt I wouldn’t believe this story. But I did, a whole pile, three times higher than a little league pitcher’s mound. I wished I’d had me a pair of them camel’s knees when I carpeted my basement.)
Papi Flow took that camel’s knee and cut a hole towards the top the size of his three middle fingers. And then he body surfed.
In the afternoon he went back and bought the rest of the pile for a song.
And the Bedouins carved their first hand planes from discarded camels’ knees under a waning sun. The only sound was the sharpening of their blades on stone. Swish, swish, swish.
Because before you cut, you first must sharpen. Until the knives sing: SsssssT. SsssssT. SsssssT.
With the three middle fingers tucked under,
The Bedouins learned The Shaka.
For the Bedouin people, it was original and he didn’t die, so they loved it.
Originality is revered in extreme environments only when the person doesn’t die. Beds stick to the plan and are not so concerned about innovation or logic.
Like, “Why are we going that way?” The answer is always, always, “Because that’s the way we go,” like Abbott and Costello. Or like two contemporary comedians trying to sound like the original skit.
In extreme environments, if you change you die.
There are no new ideas in the desert.
Desert survival is immutable.
Until Papi Flow,
Who under a mad overdose of Bob Marley, taught the Bedouins to bodysurf. And The Shaka.
You gotta Papi Flow Story? Seen his mark? You’re welcomed to tell it.
Like I said, I never met Papi Flow.
Who is Papi Flow?
(Follow the Papi Flow Series on Stand Up Journal. Next Sighting: SUP Istanbul.)
Written by: John P. Murphy
For additional musings by the legend of John P. Murphy, check out:
Fernando Stalla: What a Surfer Sounds Like
Aloha John! We salute you.