14 July 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part One


This all started when I met a man named, Yoghurt.

I was eating dinner at a restaurant called Hot Chili, shoveling spicy pork in my face and slugging down Bintang when I heard the chair across from me screech. A man wearing a headlamp and a heavy camouflage jacket sat down and patted absently at the bulging pockets of his army issue gear. He didn’t seem aware that I was at the table so I continued inhaling my food. I had seen the guy around and assumed he was an acquaintance of the owner. He always entered on a mission and sat without purpose. As to his deal, I had no guesses. He started chatting me up and since he seemed more likely to talk to imaginary friends than dole out travel advice, I was only half listening. A distant buzz built to a CLANG! CLANG!  His words punched through pork and beer; surf getaway, practically uninhabited island…

Wait… What!?

“This man, Arman, a young guy—twenty-five maybe, he is a surfer and a spear-fisherman. You can stay with him and his wife. They live on Pulau Bawa; this is a very small island. I will draw you a map. Only eighty people live there. You will be the only tourist and it’s cheap, something like 50,000 rupiah a day ($5).


“Okay, but you must understand this is very basic. They eat rice and instant noodles, if you want barbecue fish or something you must pay for this. Also for tuak, the best tuak comes from this island. You can’t finish one bottle you will be too drunk. I go there just to buy tuak. And the toilet…(he chuckles a bit here) when you see it…it is only.

“Don’t care. How does this happen?”

He didn’t want to give me details where others might see, so he suggested that we drive to a shop to buy pen and paper.  I considered that this might be some bizarre dinner theatre/mugging hybrid, but I got on the back of his scooter anyway. Sitting under the harsh yellow of an overhead florescent he drew me a map and told me to contact Arman when I arrived in the port city of Si Bolga. This seemed unnecessarily clandestine, so I asked him to call Arman for me.

“I don’t have a mobile,” he replied with a shrug. “I am a simple man.”

“That’s fine, I’ll pick up a SIM card tomorrow… What’s your name by the way?”

“I am Mr. Yoghurt. I came here twenty-three years ago to sell yoghurt, so now that is my name.”

And with that my surf odyssey began.

Dropping off the grid sounds romantic and all, but it isn’t easy. I left the Forgotten Paradise of Lake Toba aboard the first ferry to Parapat a transit town on the mainland side of the lake. In Parapat I caught a public bus to the far side of Sumatra arriving in Si Bolga seven hours later. The public buses look like something the circus left behind and the seats are so uncomfortable you might as well be sitting on a pile of rebar. I spent the entire ride pressed against the window with the sun baring down, waiting for my right arm to smell of meat. The sun is supposed to continue its procession through the sky, but it didn’t that day, that day it stared through the window angry and belligerent. And then there were the roads. As is the case in much of South East Asia, Sumatra’s roads are not maintained; they are built and left to rot. Monsoon rains wash away swaths and those swaths become accepted obstacles. So for seven hours, my arm slow roasted toward cannibal kebab and every pothole felt like an uppercut to the butthole.

In Si Bolga I took a ferry to the island of Nias, one of the most sought after surf destinations in the world. The ferry traveled overnight, but it was not an overnight ferry. I had the choice between a metal seat in a bright sweltering room or the roof. I chose the roof. I laid out my travel towel and used my backpack as a pillow. I nestled in as best I could—me and three hundred Indonesian strangers snoozing under the stars.

When I woke up, I was filthy. The black smoke belching out above had covered me in a fine layer of carcinogenic dust. Arman had arranged for a bus to pick me up, but it wasn’t due to arrive for a few more hours so I wandered the harbor area explaining to every “Hey Mister!”shouter that I didn’t need a ride. I ate breakfast and bought toiletries. I got my beard shorn for sixty-cents. And eventually I met up with my driver who didn’t speak a lick of English and was clearly mystified that I didn’t speak a lick of Indonesian. Our destination was Si Rumbo a small town on the opposite side of the island—the edge of the grid—a place so remote my driver needed to get an oil change first.

We pulled into a garage and before I knew what was happening or why I felt the back of the minivan being jacked up. I sat there at a 45 degree angle sweating my balls off and reading a book to pass the time. I caught a glimpse of the driver and the mechanic talking heatedly. The mechanic drew the short straw, shuffled over, stuck his head in the window and said, “Service.”

“Oh! Ok. Thank you,” I said all corn syrup sweet. What I meant of course was, “No fuckin shit!”

Jiffy Lubed up and ready to roll we drove about half a mile and parked. The driver took off and random Indonesian dudes stopped by to drop off water, bags of rice, whatever. In the politest way possible everyone wanted to know what the hell I was doing in that part of town. Still sweating balls in the backseat I was beginning to wonder that myself.

My super awesome chain smoking driver came back and flashed up three fingers. Three minutes, I stupidly hoped. Nope. 3pm—three hours away. The driver laid down on the seat behind me and took a nap. I sweated more balls and crushed half a king-size box of peanut butter cookies because that is all I could find to eat. At 2:59 a gaggle of Indonesian women ranging in age from 2 to 102 piled into the van with me. And finally we were off.

As always the roads were a hot mess and I fidgeted constantly because at that point my ass had atrophied and was falling off the bone. I still had half a package of peanut butter cookies in my bag so I offered a sample to my fellow passengers. The oldest of the bunch swooped down on them like a buzzard. She didn’t even have teeth. I turned away from the carnage, but I very much doubt anyone got a taste of those peanut butter grandma gummies.

The pain of getting off the grid became a pleasure when we pulled into the harbor. Arman was waiting at the dock with a narrow fishing boat ready to take us out to Pulau Bawa; my home for the next ten days.

Sumatra is a surfers paradise and with good reason. Taxing away from the dock I could see three breaks absolutely ripping. The closest break peeled perfect rights away from the jetty. At a point down the coast I could see curl and drop—spray flying high. And at a reef well off shore monster waves beat down, terrifying and alluring too.

Pulau Bawa is part of an eight island chain.

"Arman, I can see surf breaks there, there, there... Do all of these islands have surfable breaks?"

"Yeah, sure."

The sun was setting as we made our way to the island. Ringed in a band of grey clouds, it looked like a distant planet pulled suddenly near. And when it dropped below the horizon it threw up its last shafts of light—a heavenly hallelujah.

It was dark by the time we reached Bawa. We hitched up to the cement pier and loaded onto Arman’s scooter. Bawa has one road, a sidewalk wide strip of cement that dissects most, but not all of the island. Arman sped down the path and I held on watching the jungle blur, and a ribbon of stars bend and curve.

Arman and his wife U-ti have a nice little place; a wood framed house with a palm frond roof surrounded by jungle. It has a great sitting area, and a hammock strung between porch and palm. The guest bed is comfortable and curtained off for privacy. The bathroom facilities are what made Mr. Yoghurt titter with concern. The toilet is in the jungle, or I should say the jungle is the toilet. And the shower is a pit full of fish and rainwater. The edges of the pit are littered with coral that Arman must have deposited for traction, but it looks like the poor creatures crawled out of the hole and died.

It wasn’t five star, but it was just fine for me. I’ve taken plenty of bucket showers. And peeing on stuff is fun.

Does a traveler shit in the woods? This one does.

There was no surfing my first couple days on the island. Arman said the waves were too big. I didn't believe him of course, so I wandered out to the point to see for myself. "Too big" turned out to be a comically low key description of what I saw. "F--- me!" was all I could say at the sight of... Well, more on that in a minute.

We went spear-fishing instead. And we must have made quite a sight getting out there. I rode on the back of a scooter with flippers in one hand and a spear-gun in the other. The guy driving was so little that I could see right over his head. I held the spear gun so that the tip was jutting out in front of the scooter like a lance. We charged through the jungle, clippity, clippity, clippity—Lancelot ridin bitch.

It was a successful outing. I have proof:

Other than that I did nothing. I swam slow and napped long. I made coral necklaces with a little girl named Sephia. I swung in the hammock watching clouds pass.

Doing nothing is an art that I have to relearn every time I travel for an extended period. I always start with a daily agenda and slowly taper down to chill.

There is no electricity on Bawa, only a few generators and those don’t fire up until after dark. Every night a crowd gathers at the village shop to smoke cigarettes, watch Indo TV and charge dying cellphones (cellphones that only work at the harbor). If anyone has a few extra Rupiah a bottle of tuak may be passed around. Tuak is moonshine distilled from coconuts and served in plastic water bottles. It’s syrupy, sweet and surprisingly strong. I got half the village absolutely slammered for like $15. We talked about a lot of things that night but most of all tourism.

A few of the more ambitious residents want more tourists to come because tourists come with money. I understand that, but there is a dark side to tourism too. So with the fire of tuak raging in my eyes I said, “Your greatest gift is that this place is a secret. You can sell the secret, but you have to keep the secret too. (Naturally I was shhh-ing for emphasis). Go to Sorake where all the surfers are. Recruit them. Sell them on the surfing. Tell them that every morning you’ll strap their boards to the roof of a fishing boat and take them to whichever break is firing. Tell them that in the afternoon you’ll do the same, and there will be a cooler on board packed with ice cold Bintang. This place is a surf video in real life. I don’t know a single surfer that wouldn’t kill to experience this just once. Get them here and the waves will do all the recruiting for you.”

Those of you who know me, know that is in no way embellished. It’s just the way I talk when I’m drunk, or you know, sober. There is this great Mitch Hedberg joke that goes like this:

"This is what my friend said to me, he said, "I think the weather's trippy.' And I said, 'No, man. It's not the weather that's trippy. Perhaps it is the way that we perceive it that is indeed trippy.' Then I thought, 'Man, I should have just said.... 'Yeah'"

I never remember to just say, Yeah.

And I imagined that I had them on the hook...

So! With my arm raised and my index finger extended, I stirred that soupy sky like a mad conductor at play.

“BUT! Tell your guests to be careful about who they tell. Tell them that you’re looking for guests who will respect the islands as a surf getaway. If you sell out and turn this place into Bali light the magic will be gone.”

We did a tuak cheers to punctuate my rant and they jabbered stuff in Indonesian. I'm guessing that, that stuff went like this:

"Did you catch any of that?"


"Dude, can talk, huh? Hey, pass the tuak! Feelin parched over here."

Tourism on Bawa is almost exclusively local; fisherman doing overnights when the water gets rough. Once a year or so a Westerner wanders through. We got to talking about the recent Westies and I noticed that something was missing.

“Am I the first American?”

“First person from America? Yes.”

That got me f----in pumped obviously, so I overturned the table, smashed a bottle and sang, “America! Fuck yeah!”

There is a wonderful sense of community on Bawa. It feels like a big extended family, everyone helping each other live as best they can. I went to a town hall meeting, the purpose of which was to raise money to build a dock on Lake Bawa. We all sat on the floor and listened to The Chief explain the need. The Chief isn’t a cop per say, but he is the first person the cops would call if anything were to go wrong, thus the nickname. I didn’t understand a word he said, but if body language translated correctly he was very convincing. A collection went around and people donated what they could, anything from 5000 rupiah (50 cents) to 80,000 rupiah ($8). By the time it got back to The Chief the community had the $100 they needed to build their dock.

This togetherness is one of the reasons I want Arman and his friends to temper how much tourism they invite. Too many tourists will create competition. Guesthouses and restaurants will be followed by motobike rentals and cash exchange places. Coconut farmers will abandon their trade to sell "I Heart Bawa" t-shirts next to a bar playing American hip-hop. Their children will have more money but they will never understand the simple traditions and pleasures Bawa once had. And every night the village shop will be empty. 

On a Sunday morning just before church we played volleyball on hard-packed earth with a ball black as lava rock. Afterwards while the others went to change into their Sunday finery I walked out to the point to check the waves. I stepped carefully along the jagged shoreline and found a place beneath the palms. I watched in wonder.

It is a treacherous break. The waves crash in deep water but a coral shelf comes up fast and sharp. Pulling at all that deep water the waves curl into heavy, mean looking things. It would be impossible to paddle straight out, you would have to circle around to the back, and even then surfing there would take a high degree of skill and ocean know how. The waves aren't always big, but when they are... The first time I went out to the point they were 8-10ft and right on top of each other. And on that particular Sunday, while the island's only church was filling up, stormy 15-footers reared up and hammered down. Paddling out in that would be stupid in the extreme, but man is it pretty.

A man named Johnnie lives on the point. He can watch the waves from his front porch and since there is no internet and barely any phone service he is the island’s surf report. He is also one of three people on the island who speak English so I stopped by to say hello.

“Michael! Surfing?”

“Not today, Johnnie. Too big for me.”

“Did you see the big ship?”

I turned and saw nothing but dark blue seas and light blue sky. Noting my confusion Johnnie handed me a sea encrusted antique.

“The ship is underwater. I got this from there. It has been down there a long time.”

My eyes glazed over. So there is a shipwreck right next to the epic surf break? Just stop it, Bawa!

Turning the antique over in my hands, I realized that it was a candle holder, the wall mounted kind, and I wondered just how old it was. I have done some research since and haven't been able to find anything, but Arman says the wreck has been down there for 100 years or so.

The next day we geared up to check it out. Arman and his friends scampered shoeless across treacherous coral, while I stumbled and bobbed around in the breakwater trying to get my stupid flippers on. The water above the shipwreck was relatively calm, but off to my right the waves were breaking something beautiful. It was the first time I'd seen really good surf at the break; clean, 8ft-10ft, glassy and barreling over.

It was also the first time I saw anyone surf them. Two brave dudes had paddled out from a fancy sailing yacht anchored offshore. I watched them drop into raging barrels and pop out like pebbles from a slingshot. The speed those waves generate... Gnarly.

I could have watched that display all day, but I had a shipwreck to see:

Maybe it was because he saw me taking pictures of surf boards and pigs. Maybe it was because my passive surf questions began to repeat. In any case, Arman came up with a solution, unprompted, the way a great tour guide does. “The waves are too big on the small islands, but I know a place near Si Rumbo. We can surf there tomorrow.”

I exhaled happily. I wasn’t good enough for the surf video, but that didn't matter, there were waves not far away, somewhere to the east of Bawa paradise. 

To be continued…

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