As our overcrowded fishing canoe rapidly started to sink a few miles from shore I couldn’t help but laugh. On board were seven souls, two Indonesians and five foreign surfers who had been toughing it out in a local village for the chance to surf some of the world’s best waves. The situation was serious enough. Neither of the Indonesians, one the ‘captain’ and the other our ‘photographer’, could swim. Aside from this immediate danger the dream of our newly appointed photographer of buying new pigs to raise and sell with the modest wage we paid him looked to be sinking along with a few thousand dollars worth of camera gear. Add to this the daily politics of life in the village, which had included threats of violence against the ‘captain’ for undercutting his rival by 40 cents on the boat ride, and it was hard not to just try and find humor in the situation. In this part of Indonesia the threat of the unexpected is never far away, be that a dodgy boat or the menace of natural disasters that strike with frightening regularity.
The Mentawai islands sit 24 hours by dodgy local ferries off the Sumatran mainland. The area is one of the most remote and disconnected in the world, yet just happens to be a surfing mecca, home to what are the world’s best and most consistent waves. Without this attraction the islands would surely be off the radar to all but the most intrepid, or those with an interest in catching a new strain of malaria. https://rupiah138.xn--6frz82g/
The majority of surfers heading to the area do so by chartered boats ranging from luxury cruisers complete with helipads to shoddy local boats, most visitors having little or no contact with local villagers. In the past few years many have been using local transport to the islands and staying rough to save on the expense of a charter.
It was the second option that I and two mates had decided to take. All on tight budgets, and with pictures of perfect waves in our minds, we arrived in the Mentawai’s via a ship dubbed ‘Noah’s Ark’. Riding the Arc was a 24 hour voyage of faith shared with various animals, the cabins teeming with cockroaches and packed with passengers on a vessel so dodgy we had our surf boards at the ready should she sink, as many had on the same route before her.
We were lucky on our crossing. The ocean like oil and the moon full, with some valuable space to stretch out and enjoy the peace that our distance from civilization afforded. Sitting on my own on the bow of the old wooden ark as night fell, listening to the constant creaks and moans of ship, the smell of captain’s clove cigarettes filling the air and his slim figure silhouetted against a dim kerosine light in the cabin, rates as one of the greatest moments of freedom I’ve experienced. It’s a rarer and rarer feeling – this one of disconnection and adventure. For a moment I forgot about recent upheavals in my life and just let go. Travel is not an achievement, for me it’s nothing more than the urge to find these moments and savor them when they happen.
Day to day life in the village soon proved to be a challenge. From the outside the beach and ramshackle settlement were nothing short of idyllic, the sort of place you could imagine settling down and living simply, sipping on coconuts while the sun sets on perfect waves. It was a wise ‘they’ who said paradise is somewhere to visit, rather than live. The same could be said of our temporary home.
Of the few established places to stay in the village, the newest, run by a family of Sumatran outsiders, was the best choice. 10 or so surfers and assorted local family members shared the same simple building, with one bucket shower, a well and squat toilet – all in the same outhouse. The dishes were usually washed on the floor next to the toilet and food cooked in a kitchen that doubled as a sauna in the tropical heat. Whatever the bugs were that we all caught certainly found ample refuge around the place, everybody going down at some stage with fevers and muscle aches, something a little scary in an area riddled with malaria.
Politics and something of a local mafia influence soon crept into play as well. The enterprising family who had set up the home stay were the target of resentment from many of the local Mentawaians. The previous year tensions were so high that armed officers from the local police force kept an almost constant watch at the hotel (for a backhanded fee). Into the second year things had calmed down, but our hosts still chose to stay away from the center of the village for fear of reprisals for their modest success, something which cast an unfortunate air of menace about the place. This petty local politics would soon be replaced with much larger problems for the community, hundreds of lives changed in an instant by forces out of their control.
The biggest obstacle to enjoying the reason we had come, to go surfing, was the distance of the waves from the village itself. The beach spread out in a large arc from home, with the waves a solid 30 minutes walk and 20 minutes paddle away. While it doesn’t sound much on paper, the tropical heat and malaria risk at dusk made for a genuine problem. Two of these trips in a day left you at serious risk of heat stroke from the equatorial sun. The other option was to get a local boat, one of a few small leaky fishing canoes, out to the waves.
This was not as easy as it might seem, as on many occasions we couldn’t give money away for people to take us. There were only two outboard motors in the village, and often it was either too hot, or arguments would break out as to who was allowed to take us. One local family called the shots, threatening violence against anybody thinking about taking us out for a lower price, or declaring on certain days a free market system – usually after hours of negotiation on the beach. The relatively small amounts on offer for the boat ride were still more than a week’s fishing wages for 20 minutes work. Some friends had tried to charter a boat to some distant islands, waited a week, bought supplies, finally loaded the boat and were then told the price they had paid in advance was half what was owed, the captain going fishing instead without ever looking back. I guess it’s refreshing to see a place where the bumper sticker mantra ‘a good day’s fishing beats a good day’s work’ is so ardently adhered to. Some short work taking us surfing bought a week chilling out under a tree chain smoking 32mg clove cigarettes. We could only laugh, cry or walk.