Elvis Saves

Meet Marshello Aryafara, Bali’s rockabilly lifeguard.

Words: Tucker McGrath
Photography: Jason Childs

If the fairytale novelists of the Ubud Writer’s Festival sat down to brainstorm the perfect man for a Southeast Asian love story, he wouldn’t be half as gorgeous as Marshello Aryafara.

The frontman of Indo rockabilly band The Hydrant and Bali lifeguard captain, Marshello, is the most devilishly handsome bastard you’ve ever seen. Dripping with beatnik style and always grinning, he earned the ‘Black Elvis’ moniker for his rock and roll jams and the way girls go ballistic when he walks onstage. A Balinese-Dutch mix, his tanned skin, and striking features are cut from stone, hardened by an athletic lifestyle and energetic performances. Throw in a greaser haircut and some denim debonair, and this genetic lottery is 50s Americana heartthrob meets Indo beach boy.

Watching him perform, with girls all but undressing on the dance floor, it’s hard to imagine this Bali Brando elbow deep in the dish pit at a local restaurant, or covered in sawdust at a furniture shop, but that’s exactly how Marshello supported himself in the beginning. Way before The Hydrant, he discovered lifesaving was his passion.

“I remember walking past the lifeguard tower when I was young,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that people hung out there and watched the surf.”

He was an active kid drawn to the outdoors from a young age. Surfing came naturally. It was fun, and fun things always seemed to fit with Marshello’s positive energy. He wanted the beach to be his lifestyle, and then one day during a surf he witnessed a lifeguard make a rescue, and it all started to come together.

“When I first started surfing I paddled out and saw somebody on a bodyboard needed help- some old Chinese guy- I didn’t know how to rescue so I go out there to comfort him.

Then suddenly I see this guy with a yellow board, long hair, Speedos. He paddles out I was like- ‘Whoa, look at him!’ I asked how do I join and he said come to the surf club. So I go there and right away I feel connected. After primary school I didn’t go to university I told my parents no, I want to volunteer here.”

Marshello became a volunteer lifeguard in 1998 with no rescue or first aid training and no monthly salary. He made ends meet scrubbing pots and pans, sanding furniture, and teaching surf lessons on the beach. He trained until he earned a Bronze Medallion from the Royal Life Saving Society in Australia, and landed a paid position with the beach patrol. By 2006 he was an instructor, earning the rank of captain and leading his own squad.

Today he’s vying for a spot in the World Lifesaving Championships in Australia, but competition is tough. Still, any local athlete stepping up to represent Bali on the world stage is a big deal.

For the most part, their equipment is largely Australian hand-me-downs. A great deal of education, training, and support comes from down under. Although the local tourism department funds the beach patrol, they aren’t as devoted to lifesaving as they could be, especially considering how many tourists come to Bali to enjoy the beaches.

“We compare to international standards but not that well,” Marshello said. “We’re supposed to get full support from the tourism department. They have the budget for jet-ski, for surf clubs, uniforms, but compare with the world standard we are way too far.”

With the money the tourism department pulls in, beach safety shouldn’t be a problem. But Marshello’s not complaining. He’s happy with the growth he’s seen in the past decade and expects it to continue.

“When I started there were 30 lifeguards, now there are 180. I’m tight with my squad, and everywhere I go they welcome me. All around the Badung region is one organization. It’s a brotherhood.”

Still, there are no incentives for local guards to improve beyond the Bronze certification required for a paid position, and Kuta Beach is a challenge for even the most proven lifeguards. Large surf hits the coast all year, powerful littoral currents pull along the beach and flash rips can spawn anywhere. The sandbanks change day by day, keeping the guards on their toes. All these dangers exist and have always existed and it’s a natural cycle that never causes problems; the problems only arise when you introduce people. Thousands of potential problems stream onto the beach each year, ignorant of the hazards of the shoreline.

“If I want to get silver or gold certification I have to go to Australia, but it doesn’t matter here. For me it matters, I know I’ll be more prepared, but I wouldn’t get paid more or anything.”

Statistics point at 12 drowning victims per year on the Bali coastline, but water rescues and CPR cases make up a small percentage of what lifeguards deal with on a daily basis. There are first aid scenarios involving physical trauma, allergic reactions, and heatstroke. Children are separated from their families, large crowds of surfers and swimmers need constant eyes watching from the beach and the water. The job consists of more than fish-outs and the occasional thump-and-blow, it’s beach management. Sometimes Marshello doubles as an ambulance driver, blasting his whistle and weaving through the traffic on the way to the hospital.

“People think oh you want to look like David Hasselhoff, you just want to sit there like a king. No, you have to serve the public. A lifeguard is a public servant.”

The popular Australian TV show Bondi Rescue aired a Bali series back in 2006. Marshello hopes the public perception surrounding lifesaving will change and the job will become more appealing, but these trends take time.

Surfing culture, while not inherently Indonesian, took off in Bali, and lifesaving is close behind. Good surfers make good lifeguards.

“Rookies are forced to learn how to surf when they become lifeguards. I have new members, they don’t surf, they’re good swimmers in the swimming pool but they have to learn the rescue board also. Get on a longboard, I tell them, ride a longboard. In the beginning, I learn by doing. I never had a proper instructor.”

The Hydrant is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, and they boast a huge fan base around the archipelago. With their commercial success, Marshello has risen to fame, touring Indonesia and Eastern Europe, playing alongside bands like Superman is Dead and Shaggydog. Despite the lead singer’s celebrity status, model good looks, and reach into other business ventures (his wife’s pastry shop in Canggu), he’s wholly reluctant to leave his post at the beach, much to the puzzlement of everyone around him.

“[laughs] Even my wife, she still asks me ‘man, why are you sticking to lifesaving?’ It’s a really mysterious question. If I quit lifesaving I’m gonna be missing something. I’m gonna feel empty. For me, I feel grateful. I’ve become who I am because of lifeguarding. I learned awareness in my life. I learned discipline. That’s my dream too, that this lifeguard thing can spread to all the youth, the new generation.”

Lots of people go to the beach, but few are knowledgeable about the risks. The best way to rescue swimmers in distress is to prevent dangerous scenarios altogether, but flags and whistles only go so far. Education is necessary to improve overall beach safety in the community.

“We rescue a lot of Indonesians, sometimes they’re wearing the hijab and are fully clothed [in the water]. They don’t know any better. They live in a city and don’t know how to protect themselves here.”

It’s a systemic problem. Being active and enjoying the outdoors is a new concept for a lot of Indonesians and it’s going to take time to develop awareness.

“I just feel sorry for people who avoid the sun. The sun is a gift. Old Indonesian culture used to be fishermen, farmers, they all in the sun. If you look at the photos from the ‘40s and ‘50s Bali looks exotic. They wear no bra, they work in the sun. Modern Indonesia- the TV and products- killed the organic nature of the people.”

Marshello hopes Indonesians will rekindle their close relationship to nature and embrace the ocean. He certainly has, swimming at Kuta Beach every morning, cruising on the rescue boards and cross-stepping his longboard between swimmers. His friends have offered him work managing successful bars and restaurants in Bali, but he’d rather keep his toes in the sand.

“I have to keep moving you know? Jalan-jalan.”

Marshello pulls his band into a quick huddle for what appears to be an a cappella rehearsal. It’s all the practice they need, and moments later they uncase their instruments and take over the stage. Their music breathes life into the night. People climb out of the seats and up onto the tables. At the center of it all, that contagious, winning smile belts out the lyrics into the mic.

Young blond long-haired lady,
Hangin around in the bar,
Waiting for the guy to pick her up,
She don’t want to be in the car.

Fly the wind,
Break the dark night,
Scared the devil ha..ha..ha..
Kick some ass…
With the whiskey on the rock!