Drifter

Deep in the jungles of Siberut, an old, wiry man with a leathery face and child’s eyes is rubbing a concoction of wild flowers on my bare skin. The ambrosial scent evokes in me feelings of cleansing, of purity, of godliness. He’s singing in a secret, sacred language, passed from teacher to student, foreign even to locals. Local mantras if you will, that bear uncanny resemblance to the shamanic chants of the Shipibo — a tribe on the other side of the world, in the Amazon. His voice is like an elevator going from the lowest to the highest octave, stopping on a floor for a little tremolo and continuing its musical way up or down.

Trusting his loving presence, I let myself receive the healing. We need to remove my kisei, after all. That’s a Mentawai word for “bad spirit” or gloom. A couple of hours earlier, he had read through a sacrificed chicken’s intestines. And declared “1 or 2 weeks ago, you were in a frustrating situation that caused anger and overthinking”. You’re quite right, Mr. Flower Man.

His name is Toycott. He is the family shaman (doesn’t every family need one?) of the tribal household I’m spending a few days with. “Sikerei” they call them here. To the rest of the world, they are known as “Flower Men” since adorn themselves with flowers in their hair and ears — often a hibiscus flower strapped to their forehead. Despite his age — I’d guess 70’s, but nobody knows, not even himself — he is wired, situationally aware, super alert. Always on the move. And seeing the way he walks through the jungle, he could probably outrun me on his home turf, wearing nothing but a loincloth. Small, lean and mean — a man reduced to his essence.

So, how did I end up here, living with a primeval tribe deep down the rainforest, far away from any civilisation?

About 4 months ago, at the beginning of January, I decided it was time to go. After exactly a year travelling and 9 months in Indonesia, I had to either settle down or leave. I didn’t want to keep floating around in a limbo, neither tourist nor resident, living off my backpack ad aeternum.

And so when I returned to Bali from an epic scooter adventure through the Eastern islands, it was time for a test. A living experiment. Could I build a fulfilling life on this island?

I moved in with Diana. Spent time with community. Activated local contacts and potential projects. But it didn’t work out. Diana and I had incompatible romantic preferences, I wasn’t feeling home in this community and the projects didn’t pan out. “No such thing as failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes”, right?

So, where to next? I had set my sights on India. My soul longed to go on a pilgrimage, visit masters and who knows, maybe even find my guru. But there was no rush. Now that I knew I would leave, why not go on a last, epic surf trip? Why not let myself drift a little?

“What I find is that you can do almost anything or go almost anywhere, if you’re not in a hurry.”

Paul Theroux, quoting Tony the beachcomber in the Happy Isles of Oceania.

I was not. And so I decided to realise a decade-old dream: go surf the mighty waves of the Mentawai islands, described by many as the best surf on the planet.

In a very short period of time, this wild and remote chain of islands, lying about 90k’s (55mi) off the Sumatran mainland, have become the most sought after destination for surfers looking to ride “the best waves in the world”. This bold claim is rarely disputed, as those who score a solid SW swell will testify and few return from the Mentawais disappointed with the wave quality and quantity. The key to this rapid ascension to the pinnacle of world surfing lies in the sheer concentration of truly world-class breaks and an unmatched flexibility when it comes to handling different swell and wind combination

Stormrider surf guide

Wet Season

Before heading off to the Ments, as they are affectionately known, I return to Lombok for a visa extension. Good excuse to enjoy the sweet wet season waves (Lombok gets perfect offshore winds from November to April) and work on my technique before the big trip.

Besides, this perfect little place I love, Mana Retreat, is offering monthly deals on swanky bungalows. A haven of peace perfect to focus on my work. I am set.

My cocoon

In Lombok, I keep bumping into people I’d met throughout the last year, all across the Indonesian archipelago. Mike and Philip from Medewi, Gabriel from Lakey Peak, Caroline from Labuan Bajo, Nico and Thomas from Sumba. It feels nice, it feels homely, and we surf every day.

The Flood

It’s 9pm, and I’m in bed, rocked gently by the sound of the raindrops on the roof and reading “In the Palace of Flowers”, a gripping novel by my friend Victoria Frances (get it here!). I feel so relaxed and content, after a restful day in complete silence, now enjoying the thick political plots of 19th century imperial Persia.

Then, I hear a noise. “Ploop…ploop…ploop”. Weird. I get back to my book.

Then, a few minutes later, “Ploop…ploop…ploop”. What’s up with this sound? I look down the bed..and lo! Water is running in the bedroom, rushing through the door and the place is flooding fast. Shit!

I open the door and scream at my neighbours’ bungalows. Silent day over. The whole compound is getting flooded by the minute and some people are evacuating with water up to their waist.

I get back to my room and decide to pack my things while the water is rising, now above my knees. It feels like I’m in a scene from Titanic. I’ve never packed in such a hurry. I get all my things, leave the surfboards in (they don’t mind the water), close the door and head out. One of my neighbours grabs me and shows me the way out of the flooded compound, through a narrow cracked wall that leads into a street. We make it there, water now up to the torso, holding our bags above our heads like soldiers crossing a river. The current is pulling us as we walk through the torrent — scary. Eventually, we make it to the end of the street, up on a small elevation. On dry land again. We’re safe! Phew.

We hang out in front of a local shop with a dozen other refugees from the resort. Everyone is a little shaken, figuring out their losses. I was lucky to be spared. Thomas and Nico were sleeping upstairs when their ground floor room flooded, and they woke up in horror to their laptop and valuables floating around.

It’s dark outside. The rain keeps pouring. We’re drenched, sitting with our backpacks on the dirty floor of a local corner shop and half the town is inundated. We learn that the river itself flooded from the diluvian rain and submerged a good part of the town. It’s all very surreal, like we’re living through a catastrophe movie. Nonetheless, there’s a newfound sense of camaraderie too. A twinge of awe and hilarity, as we wonder what the hell just happened. When reality gets shaken like that, the absurdity and beauty of it all hit you in the face. With a small band, we carry our burden through swamped streets — apparently there’s a hotel down the road that will be dry. And safe: rooms high up on the second floor.

Home

The next day, I wake up at the S Hotel. From the window, I can see sodden streets. Thankfully, no casualties. But half of the town’s homes, restaurants and hotels are now waterlogged and mud-spattered.

I head to Mana — my surfboards and scooter are still there. The whole place is a carnage, mud everywhere. They’re closing down, no way around it.

Hobo

I’m homeless now. So long, sweet Mana!

My scooter has been flooded too, and won’t start. So I can’t leave, loaded as I am with my surfboards and gear. I meet Merryn, an German girl in the same predicament. A local offers to taxi us around in his pickup truck. We jump in with our stuff.

We spend half the day looking for a home — many have been flooded, and demand for accommodation now exceeds supply. Finally, we settle for Village Vibes, a small place with a few bungalows. Time for Kärcher on the soiled bags, laundry for my filthy clothes and to get all the water out of my scooter (there was a lot).

Quickly though, I find I’m not feeling home there. I miss Mana. At Village Vibes, I always feel like I’m being a pain in the ass to the unquestionably German owners. At some point, I politely ask one of them whether I can use a pot to cook something. “The kitchen is not included in the price” she answers, smouldering with exasperation. Ouch.

So I move to Hi5, a shared villa with single rooms for rent, where Cristina and Rui are staying. Who are these two, I hear you ask? On the day after the flood, as we were playing hobos on our pickup truck with all our things, Merryn and I stopped by Bush Radio, a local cafe. There I met Cristina and Rui, two lovely Portuguese people and we got lost in some really deep, meaningful conversations. Had I missed those! The travel scene in Indonesia brings you all sorts of personages, yet rarely the greatest conversionalists. Their place looked amazing and apparently they had some free rooms. A no-brainer, I move in. Over the next weeks, we share hilarious surfing, delicious dinners and great (if heated) debates.

Home finally!

Transit

Time has come to prepare for my trip to the Mentawais. I’m getting a sixth extension for my social visa — who according to most, can only be extended five times. But a little extra money has its way around here. I also venture to ask my visa agent, Yunus, to take me to the Friday prayer at the Great Mosque of Matarm, just across the road from the immigration office. It’s 114m high and can welcome hundreds of devours. Before coming into the house of God, we wash our head and our feet.

As we enter, droves of men flock into the building (there’s a different prayer time for women), each with their prayer rug, taqiyah and mask. The prayer room is monumental, all covered with velvet red carpet and golden brocade. The ceiling extends high up, with a huge, modern islamic sculpture hanging from it. Impressive.

I don’t understand much of the Imam’s sermon, except some bits about how people need to stop consuming so much social media (a true epidemic in Indonesia — the average Indonesian spends 9 hours on their phone daily!). When the time for prayer comes, I follow along. I bow, kneel, prostrate and pray whenever they do and manage to keep in line. I definitely stand out as the only foreigner in the crowd (“Are you from Papua?” someone asks me), all the same I get into the groove of the prayer. It’s touching to witness and feel the devotion of so many people gathering together, to be a part of it.

Back in Kuta, I prep for my final trip ahead. I sell my loyal scooter, update my first aid kit, buy a step-up surfboard (a 6”2 DHD, for bigger waves) and give away one of my own. My steadfast Prime surfboard, shaped in Mexico 7 years ago by Bruce Grimes, the first good surfboard I ever owned. It had served me well for nearly a decade, gliding on waves from Mexico to Indonesia through Sri Lanka (and even England!). It was time to pay it forward and give it a second life with some local kids.

Share the stoke

The last bit I need to sort out before going is an excruciating diarrhoea. I’ve had my share of “Bali Bellies” as they’re called and it’s definitely not one of them. So after 3 days of my bowels running loose, I drive to the hospital and get checked. Bacterial infection they say — there was mucus in my stool after all… where did I get that? Following much investigation of the root cause, including reviewing the dirty faucets of our water dispenser with Cristina, it hit me! We’d heard many people throughout town had had stomach issues following the flood, so most likely, when the murky river overran it contaminated the running water supply…and then I brushed my teeth with it.

A few antibiotics later, I board the plane to Padang (capital of West Sumatra) 2,500 kilometres up north of Lombok. From Padang, a fast ferry leaves to Siberut, the big island in the northern Mentawais. Then, it’s only another boat ride to Masokut island, where Driftwood, the surf resort I’ve booked for a full month is located.

Paradise is long way

Padang feels like “deep Indonesia” to say the least. Niqab, whitening cream, plastic and sugar. But the mosque is really nice. And there’s a few cool, quirky cafes. Not a single foreigner in sight and people holler at me in the street “Hey bule!”. Most people don’t speak a word of English (even hotel workers!) so my broken Indonesian comes in handy.

Nice mosque

Now that my immune system is probably weakened from the skitters, I’ve got a cold (at the hospital? in the plane? who knows.) So I opt to postpone my stay at Driftwood by a few days and let the cold run its course. No rush, right? In the meantime, I get a lot of work done, start consulting for Aragon (a super exciting blockchain startup building tools for decentralised governance) and I keep diving deep into Ethereum. I mostly stay in my quarters, living off room service, a poor impersonation of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

A dream come true

A few days later, I’m feeling better. Time to go!

After a 6 hour boat ride from Padang to Siberut in the fast ferry, I am picked up by 2 locals working for Driftwood. Where other surf resorts had prepared a professional welcome (crew with branded tees, boat ready at the harbour), I struggle to find my guides. And when I do, they seem confused and utterly unprepared. Instead of a boat ready to go, they have a shabby scooter on which they try to have me carry my bulky 20kgs boardbag… it doesn’t work and we nearly tip over. A sign of things to come? I’m paying $100/night (treating myself with the surf of my life) so yeah, I do have expectations.

After some effort, we make it to a smaller harbour where we board a wooden narrowboat. We first glide on rivers snaking through the island, then pass through abundant mangroves. I feel the embrace of Mother Nature like I haven’t in a while and relax fully.

When we finally make it to the open sea, my eyes light up. Far away, we can see island after island, more coconut trees than the eye can count, waters of a hundred shades of blue breaking into perfectly shaped rollers. It’s truly a postcard-perfect picture. A dream come true.

Driftwood

We finally land in Masokut, a small island no more than 5 km long from one end to the other. No roads, no shops, no cellular network and probably less than a hundred inhabitants. Padang, the closest city, is now two boat rides and full day’s journey away. I’ve never been anywhere so remote in my life. It feels great. A lost paradise of sorts.

I am greeted by Sylvie, the mother of Ben, one of the two owners. Ben has left for Switzerland and so —unfortunately as you’ll soon find out — he’s left the management of the place to Lisa (a friend of his) and to Elsa (a local Mentawai woman who’s his partner in the business).

While his mother does her best to welcome me, I barely get a “hi” from Lisa, the supposed manager of the place. I then meet Nic and Beth, a friendly, good-natured surfer couple from Bristol (England) now travelling throughout Indonesia. The camp is charming. We’re all sharing a little wooden house, with some driftwood used here and there, adding an organic touch to it. There’s also a platform facing West for some epic sunsets.

Time to surf! The great thing about this northern area of the Mentawai, also known as the “Playgrounds Area” is the sheer amount of waves available to choose from. A total of 25+ waves on 5 different islands, with every possible swell and wind direction. There should always be a perfect wave somewhere. So the key is to stay at a resort that offers daily motorboat trips. And the game becomes forecasting where to go for the best surf.

The Playgrounds

On our first day, we go to Burgerworld. Yes, the actual wave’s name. Because once there is a little too much swell, it turns into a big, fat burger instead of a nicely defined wave. Which is exactly what is waiting for us. Not the best conditions but I’m here, finally surfing in the Mentawais! And what a scenery — we’re surfing literally a few meters from the jungle, as the wave rolls parallel to it.

We then make it to 4 Bobs in the afternoon, a wave that offers an easy take-off and a whackable wall. Fun!

After 2 days off surfing due to a heavy storm, we head south of the area to look for waves but it’s flat everywhere. Driving the boat back to the camp, we stop by Beng Bengs, a fun left-hander that offers a great wall for snaps and carves. Beware the reef though! They say it’s called Beng Bengs, because you can hit the lip twice (beng! beng!), and then you want to exit — else you’ll finish in the shallow inside section, where the reef is waiting to kiss you. Thanks to some great advice from Nic, who’s also a surf coach (i.e. slowing everything down on the take-off with a long exhale), I loosen up and catch some of my best backhand waves yet. My first stoke in the Mentawais!

On the downside, it becomes clear how unprepared the whole operation at Driftwood is. Despite talking all the talk, Lisa, who’s also supposed to be our surf guide, can barely surf! She has no clue where we should head to based on the swell and winds, and we consistently miss good sessions. Nic confides to me that he’s getting increasingly frustrated, and he now just plainly overrides her, picking the spots himself. Undeterred, she keeps blabbering inaccurate forecasts. “She talks a lot…”, Nico and Thomas — from Sumba, then Lombok— had warned when I’d seen them in Padang, after they’d spent a week there.

Damn! I was really counting on having a competent and trustworthy surfguide (as advertised) to take me in more challenging conditions and push my limits. But looks like I was dealt a bad hand. That sucks — the surfguide makes or breaks the whole experience when you’re here to get the surf of your life.

I also have my doubts about the small wooden boat we are using to drive to the spots all around the islands: it’s incredibly rocky and everytime we ride through a wave, the planks make the unsettling noise of timber waiting to break. To boot, it’s fitted with only 1 engine, which besides to being painfully slow, is as I later learned incredibly irresponsible and dangerous when driving around surf spots in this area. What happens when your single engine breaks, let’s say around sunset, and the boat gets caught in some gnarly breakers? As my friend Craig, who’s been running surf camps in the area for many years texted me later, “1 engine on a boat in the Mentawais is a MASSIVE no no.” followed by “How to die 101”.

But instead of just complaining, I act on it and text Ben about the whole situation. Elsa still doesn’t allow us to take the better boat but at least we get 2 engines. And Gunthur, a cool and handsome local Mentawai surfer who’d been our boat driver and photographer so far, becomes our surfguide. The man with a thousand jobs!

Charging

Things get better, and in the next few days we score good sessions. We surf an epic A-Frames, an A-frame wave (no, really?) that breaks off the reef of the most beautiful island in the area, a perfectly round island the size of a football field with a grove of coconut trees in the center, surrounded by white sand and clear blue lagoons all around. The wave is long, racy, and super consistent with sets rolling in one after the other. The water is so crystal clear, we can see the whole reef underneath us. We’re in paradise! I take the GoPro out to immortalise this moment.

We also surf Nipussi into the sunset, a fast peeling right hander that offers big drops and a few good turns.

On our way back from Nipussi, we drive by Bankvaults. Gunthur starts howling. It’s ON! Bankvaults is one of the “Big Five” in the Playgrounds safari, the 5 biggest, heaviest world-class waves in the area, along with Hideaways, Rifles, Ebay and No-Kandui (the name says it all).

So we make a plan to go there in the morning. I don’t sleep well that night, just like before a big game. I’m excited, and also nervous. Seeing them break today, they’re definitely outside of my comfort zone, these colossal boomers that raise from the deep oceanic shelf and crash with such violence.

The next morning, as we paddle out to the lineup and see nearly double overhead waves (i.e. nearly twice my height) breaking, I’m shitting myself. I feel tired after a bad night’s sleep and I’ve had coffee, so I’m also a little jittery. But that’s why I came all this way, right?

Gingerly, I paddle towards the lineup, a few meters at a time. I want to size the wave and most of all, I really, really do not want to be caught inside — for non-surfers, that’s when you are too deep and close to where the wave is breaking, and so you get it on the head. And this spot is precisely known for sneaker sets that shift to the outside and catch you offguard.

After a good 20 minutes, paddling my way around the lineup and waiting for the perfect set, I finally pick a wave…and I go! I paddle with all my life to get into the wave — Bankvaults is notoriously hard to paddle into, which makes it all the more challenging because you really don’t want to take off late on that one.

Thankfully, I’d bought that 6”2 DHD precisely to give me the needed extra-paddle in that kind of situation — I usually surf 5”10-6”0 boards and the extra volume on the 6”2 means added buyoancy and paddle power. It’s the first time I’m ever surfing this board, in these massive conditions — a little crazy for a test drive some would say. I start dropping into the wave and standing up, but alas I angle the board a wee too much and as it’s nearly perpendicular to the wave face, the rail lets go of the wave and I wipe out.


“Relax!” is what I command myself as I’m being tumbled in all directions, pounded by this force of nature and I just pray that I don’t hit the reef. I surrender and a few seconds later, make it back to the surface for a nice long breath in, still in shock. I paddle hurriedly towards the beach and then once I feel safe, make a turn towards the boat anchored in the channel. Nic is there, waiting, and the instinct of self-preservation being what it is, I’m hoping that maybe we’re calling it a day. Actually his leash had broken after he’d wiped out and he was just changing it. Alright, fine. Let’s get back to it. As the Zen proverb says “Fall seven times, stand up eight!”.

So here we go again. Back to the lineup. At least, now I know I’m not going to die if I fall. Reassuring.

Time goes on and then at some point, I lock onto one wave and I go. I paddle hard into it, stand up and this time I make the drop. I’m racing down the line. I’ve never gone this fast on wave before. I’ve never surfed this big of a wave before!

Time stops. I become pure presence. As I’m looking down the line, I can see a heavy, greyish blue wall rise up to my right, way above my head. I come up to the lip and throw a turn, before coming dropping back down in the pocket and nearly pulling into what could have been the biggest barrel of my life. Working the wave until the end and as I come out of it, I look around, stunned by what just happened. Then, I look at the boat and think very hard: “Did you guys just see that?!”. This one deserves a claim. I’m high on life. I’m hooked. I want more!

Emboldened, I go back to the peak to surf some more, charging into a couple other bombs on the way and making them all.

As we drive back to the camp, I’m buzzing with adrenaline and stoked beyond measure, with a big smile on my face and just one thought: “Thank you!”

The inmates are running the asylum

Back at the camp, things look a bit more grim. As guests, our frustration with service and staff grows more intense by the day.

Elsa, Ben’s business partner, a small, chubby local Mentawai lady with a clear drinking problem, gets defensive whenever we make requests, if not downright rude. One of our request was to boat to Burgerworld in the afternoon, after a morning session at Hideaways. She refused on the pretext that we “had already done long boat trip” that day. Even though “unlimited boat trips” were advertised as part of our package. Ben himself had told her the distance of trips wasn’t a problem just a day earlier after we had already complained. Through Lisa (after she had a little too much to drink) we learn that Elsa not only steals beer from the fridge, but also resells the unused fuel to buy herself some more booze. It sort of feels like a “reverse surfcamp”. Guests being sober and responsible, while hosts are getting hammered every night.

The night before Nic and Beth leave back to Lombok, we’re all having dinner around the table. They ask about getting COVID tested before their flight:
Nic: “Do you know where we can get an antigen test?”
Me: “All good, you can do it at the airport, right before your flight.”
Sylvie: “Nic, you know where you can get a test before your flight?”
Elsa: “Oh, you can do it at the airport.”
Sylvie: “Did you know you can do it at the airport?”
Nick and I exchange a long, understanding look with each other.

🤷🏾‍♂️

To add to the insult, drinking water in the dispenser smells foul, tastes funny (algae or bacteria) and even though we’ve told staff they’re not doing anything about it. The food is stale (fried tempeh every day) despite the fact that Ben had insisted on meal rotation. The whole place is a construction site, with packages of stuff lying about everywhere, hammering and sawing loud noises all day long. The internet connection, which was supposed to be “satellite” (in reality just 4G broadcasted from Siberut) keeps dropping in the middle of my audio-only work calls, even though I was assured it could even handle video calls. Guntur goes back to Siberut, leaving me with no proper surfguide although I’m paying the money for it. And the list goes on.

It might not seem like much, but trust me it adds up quickly. When so much of what was advertised isn’t delivered and you have to fight to get it. When it becomes a struggle instead of a holiday. And when you’re completely captive, stuck in a small house on a remote island with your crazy hosts.

The Great Escape

In the days following Nic and Beth’s departure, I turn increasingly despondent and frustrated. It’s clear I won’t be able to handle 3 more weeks in this place, here alone with my nutso hosts. Trapped with the inmates, I’m slowly going mad. The island fever is real.

So one morning, I hike, surreptitiously, to another surfcamp (Mentawai Surf Retreat) on another side of the island. I have a chat with the owner and it feels like I’m cheating on Driftwood. Vere, the South African gent who runs the place, offers me a good price. He also expresses outrage at the whole “1 engine per boat” situation. With compunction, I mull the whole thing on my way back through the jungle. Am I being an entitled little prick? Furthermore, if I leave Driftwood and they refuse to refund me, I might lose 3 weeks of already paid-for accommodation. But anyway, I’d rather lose what I paid than waste a holiday. I decide to rip the bandaid and leave.

Back at the camp, I message Ben to let him know, adding the long list of grievances and comparing my experience there to “a surf camp version of the Fyre Festival (sic)”.

A few minutes later, I hear Sylvie call me: “Antoine, can you come here for a second?!”

What follows is the most emotionally insane check-out experience of my entire life. Sylvie crying (“How could you do this to me?!”) and Lisa screaming and attacking me (“You surf bad anyway!”). There’s a lot of justifying going around as I repeat my laundry list at the top of my lungs. Obviously they take the whole thing very personally.

I’ve had easier breakups.

Things eventually cool down after I go back to my room. Sylvie even comes in for a hug and we forgive each other. I feel relieved. I felt bad for her, a kind woman with a good heart. Bad for causing her distress and making her doubt her self-worth after her son had put her in charge. And to Ben’s credit, he agrees to refund me for the remainder of my stay.

In the evening, Elsa asks me if I want some soup. I reluctantly accept, thinking she wouldn’t be below poisoning my food (yes, it’s that bad). She didn’t, apparently. But still sends me a passive aggressive message in the evening: “thank you, antonio all for coming to drifwood and drifwoid (sic) already giving the best but you are always complaint, for drifwood there is no problem, thank you in advance”.

The next day, a boat from MSR (Mentawai Surf Retreat, my new home) comes pick me up. Not a tearful goodbye for sure.

Reset

Arriving at Mentawai Surf Retreat feels like a breath of fresh air. The resort is well spaced out, a few stilted bungalows dotted on a lush green hill overlooking the ocean and a good wave (Pitstops) breaking just in front.

As soon as I arrive, I am greeted with a delicious breakfast (oh porridge, my porridge, how I missed you!). And good conversations with the other guests: Rebecca, an American doctor on a holiday, travelling through the Mentawai islands; and Zane and Caila, a sweet, young couple taking a break from their work on a yacht.

Vere (pronounced “vee-r”), the owner, is a sturdy, bearded South African gentleman. He looks like he’s in his late 30s although I later, shockingly learn that he’s crossed the 50s mark. Sun, ocean and surf everyday keep you young apparently. Quite an upright character, he doesn’t show much emotion and remains quite distant, at least with me.

He had been tending the place for the last five years as manager, and then bought it just before COVID hit. Bad timing — obviously, the whole area is very reliant on tourism.

But their whole operation is a lot more professional and organised than Driftwood: clean drinking water, tidy place, proper boats with good engines, Vere himself as our surf guide, regular surf calls to assess the best spots to head to. And great food — that makes all the difference — even for vegetarians like myself. Despite being made with a shitty oven whose timer doesn’t work, as Vere liked to point out when he was praising his cook (I always wondered why they didn’t get her a new oven then? Maybe the food would taste even better).

Oh and a wave just in front. Being able to work or eat in the lodge, throwing a glance at the wave every once in a while, and deciding when is the best time to jump in is a huge luxury for any surfer. One day, we get it real good and I spend 4 straight hours surfing it.

The backyard

MSR also organises a walk across our island, Masokut. That’s something that I’d been wanting to do since I got here. Peter, our guide, an affable Mentawai man with a good sense of humour, leads us through the jungle and local villages. Some of the elders I meet have the traditional Mentawai tribal tattoos: long straight lines at various points of their body.

On the way, we see kids draw water out from a well and a coconut farmer carrying the harvest on his back, in a big rattan basket. We learn that coconut farming is the main source of income here, hence the large coconut groves extending in all directions. Local farmers make and sell copra, the dried coconut kernels from which coconut oil is then extracted. I love how the entire copra-making process is powered by the fruit from beginning to end: after harvesting ripe coconuts, they smoke dry them in ovens made from coconut trees, using coconut husks for fueling the fire.

As we walk through these remote villages, tucked deep into the breast of Mother Nature, I realise how much I’d like to spend time with the primeval Mentawai tribes, on the neighbouring island of Siberut, where they apparently still live like they did a few thousand years ago.

So I make a plan: scouting the web, I find Eru, a guide with raving reviews on TripAdvisor. Eru routinely takes curious people to spend a few days and night with tribes in the heart of Siberut. These tribes, so far away from everything, are probably never going to be this close again. I have to go. Besides, it will be a nice break from my surfing routine: I’ll come back to MSR afterwards. We arrange details through WhatsApp later, and I am set to go.

But before I do, we score some epic sessions with the crew. First, at Burgerworld, where I catch some of my longest rides ever (>35 seconds, >10 turns).

Then we catch A-Frames on a good day. Just 3 of us in the water, sets of clean and deceptively heavy waves rolling mechanically, one after the other.

And finally, we get a glimpse of Pistols, a gorgeous little barrel machine. I try my best to get in the water tunnel, nearly making it but then either too far ahead or taking the lip on the head (crouch more!).

All that surfing (over 4 hours per day, for already 3 weeks) takes a toll on the body, despite my dedicated warm-up and stretching time. I’m also not getting any younger. While riding a wave at Burgerworld and pumping hard, I feel something snap in my leg, followed by sharp pain. I keep surfing on it but as we get back to camp it gets worse. Shit. I hope I didn’t sprain a hip flexor, which is exactly what the symptoms feel like: I can hardly do a leg raise anymore. Oh well, I’ll have time to recover when I’m in the jungle!

Flower Man

I meet Eru, my guide, at the harbour of Siberut after a 3-hour-long boat ride from Masokut. I immediately like the guy: humble, sincere and genuinely passionate about preserving the culture of Mentawai tribes as well as sharing it with outsiders like myself. Interestingly, he himself isn’t from Mentawai descent: he comes from an ethnic Malay family in Padang. Notwithstanding, he studied ethnography and history at university, and then worked for a French NGO working to protect the tribal heritage. There he learned the Mentawai language and since, he’s been working with a few tribal families, occasionally bringing them guests like myself.

Indonesia is a big genetic and ethnic melting pot! And I later learned, there is now mounting evidence that Mentawai people descend from settlers coming from Formosa (now Taiwan) who travelled to the Mentawai around 5,000 years ago (haplogroup O-M119), much earlier than most other ethnic groups in Indonesia. Because they stayed relatively isolated for next millennia, they do still look very different to most Indonesians I had met — indeed, their facial features feel closer to Chinese Han people for instance. So much that when one told me his name was “Mihau” (pronounced “mee-hao”), I nearly jokingly replied with a homophonous: “Ni hao?”.

After my pickup, we make way to another harbour, where we board a tiny, wooden narrowboat, not wider than your average chair. As it gently glides on the river, I slouch into the hypnotic purr of the outboard engine, lazing in sun like the baby crocodile we spot on a riverbank.

After an hour or two, we disembark and start trekking in the jungle. The sky disappears and soon we’re surrounded by vegetation, everywhere : up and down, left and right, front and back.

It’s been raining over the last few days and as we walk through knee-deep mud, I’m grateful for Eru’s foresight in getting me a pair of boots. An hour in the trek, we bump into a small, sinewy man, fully naked bar a loincloth, body covered head to toe with tribal tattoos, a machete in the hand and a flower on the forehead. It’s Toycott, the Flower Man. We’re getting closer.

20 minutes later, we arrive at a clearing and next to a small river, I can see an Uma, the traditional Mentawai stilted, wooden longhouse. It’s surprisingly big: they can house three to four families.

The Uma

We are welcomed by our hosts, Aman Jano (husband) and Bai Jano (wife), with big smiles and long handshakes. They are part of the Sakaliou tribe, and like most tribes on the island, they are semi hunter-gatherers.

To the heart of the jungle

Shortly thereafter, Aman Jano asks whether I want to come along to his animal husbandry — time for feeding. Sure. We make our way through the jungle and I ask about the snakes. I’ve heard this rainforest is home to pythons, vipers and best of all, king cobras. In the little animal farm, we find ourselves in the middle of a lively society of pigs, chickens and their cute chicklets, whom he all feeds sagu peels.

Sagu itself is a palm tree, key to the livelihood of Mentawai tribes. Not only does it feed livestock, but also people. Its starch, extracted from the spongy centre of the tree, can be mixed with water, turned into flour, then packed in sagu leaves and baked over an open fire, turning into a tasty bread. Bai Janno teaches me how to do just that and we have a lot of fun in the process! With a texture similar to tapioca, this “tree bread” is a staple of the Sakaliou tribe. Yum!

Bai Jano making Sagu bread

As the sun sets, we return to the Uma, where a delicious meal cooked by Eru and Sarul (his helper) awaits us. It’s a special experience being the only guest here: there’s really nowhere to hide, no other tourist to chit chat with. Full immersion. Although I cannot speak Mentawai, I am able to communicate with Aman Jano, Bai Jano, Toycott and the rest of the family. Eru is translating, but in the most fascinating and touching way, my hosts and I manage to exchange a lot through non-verbal communication: eye contact and touch. Whereas in our “civilised” world we shy more than ever from both these interactions, they simply so normal to my hosts, whether it’s Aman Jano putting his arm around me or Toycott patting me on the leg. It feels completely natural. Have you ever seen monkeys grooming each other? And what are we, but giant monkeys?

After dinner, I feel drowsy and ready to slumber. Incredible how the nervous system cools down deep in the womb of the jungle, far away from any electrical current or phone signal. We lay our mattresses and mosquito nets in the main room of the house and gently drift.

Over the next few days, we hang out and go on a few spontaneous missions.

Like visiting Kookie, Toycott’s older brother and a Flower Man himself, who despite being toothless had one of the most radiant smiles I’d ever seen.

Or hunting fat white beetle worms that live in rotting sagu tree trunks, a delicacy for local tribespeople who like them raw (no, I didn’t eat them, I’m vegetarian 😉).

Making some poison for the hunting arrows by mixing tuba root (Derris elliptica) for toxicity with ginger and chili for inflammation.

Weaving baskets using rattan and incredible dexterity.

Or simply just hanging around, chatting, while they consume a stunning amount of coffee (with 3 spoonful of sugar please) and cigarettes. And lord, can these guys can smoke! Thankfully, these are the only few “white men’s curses” that reached them — they don’t drink, otherwise this would have probably ended up like the Aborigines in Australia.

In the jungle, there’s no such thing as weeks, calendars, schedules, agendas, clocks, meetings, appointments. It’s really all about what feels good, interesting or necessary in the moment. Time is not rationed nor rationalised — because it doesn’t have to: nature provides for all their needs, immediately, without any intermediation. Hungry? Let’s go pit some sagu from a tree or kill a chicken.
Sick? There’s a medicinal plant right there.
Bored? Let’s go hunt or weave a basket!

Their life is strikingly simple compared to our incredibly complex, intermediated societies. And without falling into the myth of the Noble Savage, isn’t simplicity the ultimate sophistication?

“History” and “progress” are also notions foreign to them: no such things as historical events or linear time beyond their immediate lives, no technology and comfort progressing up and to right. Rather cyclical, self-contained lives, born and dead like their parents, and their parent’s parents and their parents’ parents’ parents.

However, it’s important —and fun— to remember the culture shock goes both ways. I loved telling them about the desert (“just dust everywhere, no plants!”) or the North Pole (“ice everywhere, nothing else”) and watch their incredulous faces.

In the end, my Mentawai family felt so different, yet so similar. Over 5,000 years of history, progress and civilisation couldn’t overcome a shared human essence of a few million years and I felt right at home. With mirth, I wondered what life would be like, working from the city during the week as a digital nomad and spending my weekends as a hunter-gatherer.

Round 2

After 3 days in the jungle, it is time to head back to Masokut and resume my surf trip.

As the other guests leave, another arrives. Jason, from California, is the CEO of a private jet company and all-round nice guy. More or less my surfing level, which makes hunting for waves easier. We brace ourselves as a new swell is coming.

Over the next few days, I surf Hideaways for the first time. Known as the “Pipeline of the Mentawai”, it’s barrelling left with the clearest waters I’ve seen thus far in the Mentawai, and a healthy, lively coral reef just below.

We score some more sessions at 4 Bobs, A-Frames, Burgerworld and even Bankvaults, until the swell disappears completely leaving the area flat and waveless as a lake. Right as I am due to depart. Good timing!

After exactly a month in the Northern Mentawai, it’s time to go! My whole body is aching, but I’m stoked.

Before I go, I ask Vere whether he has any rough idea of how much gasoline we used or mileage we covered with the motorboats. I mean, we spent several hours a day on them, driving around with 2 engines, and so I was keen to offset the resulting emissions.

Just figure out with Google Maps” is as much an answer as he cares to give. This one always gets me — surfers who don’t seem to care about their impact on nature, when it gives us so much. They sometimes don’t seem to connect the dots and see how it affects them back in return, especially if their livelihood depends on waves. It’s very simple, really: CO2 emission —> greenhouse effect —> warmer seas —> coral reefs die —> waves disappear —> no more surf resort. Not caring about your emissions is like not caring about the dump you take on your own playground!

Anyway, I sort of figured it out with Google Maps. And estimated at the most that we had collectively used 600 gallons of gas in the last month, with an average of 10kg of CO2 emitted per gallon which totals to 6 tons of CO2 — 3 round trip flights from Paris to New-York!

Being in Indonesia, I decided to offset that by donating to a local project that helps protect peat forests in Borneo. Unknown to the general public, peat forests are some of the major risk factors in the climate crisis: gigatons of CO2 are stored in their soil, which release into the atmosphere when a wildfires strike. Obviously, global warming increasing the risk of wildfires itself, you’ve got a pretty potent climate feedback loop here.

[….] Another significant danger lies beneath the tropical forest lands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Amazonia: peat. For thousands of years, dead vegetation has built up beneath the living forest, in places forming peat layers tens of metres thick. But this peat layer is only kept stable because it is waterlogged: in Indonesia, it was burning peat that contributed most of the 2 billion tonnes of extra carbon which hit the atmosphere during the devastating fire season of 1997-8. Much of it smouldered underground for months, still releasing carbon even once the overland fires had been put out by the returning rains. This is another potentially devastating carbon cycle feedback: if rainfall patterns shift in a globally-warmed future, leaving these flammable mounds of peat tinder-dry over tens of millions of hectares of south-east Asia and Amazonia, then vast amounts of extra carbon will enter the atmosphere, further aggravating global warming.

MARK LYNAS, SIX DEGREES: OUR FUTURE ON A HOTTER PLANET

In a way, Vere’s laconic answer epitomised our relationship. I somehow sensed he was always a little weirded out by me, this strange average surfer who prioritises morning yoga and meditation practice over sunrise surf; is vegetarian; doesn’t drink; prays before each of his meals. Maybe then, in his view as an old school South African farm boy, caring about my emissions was just another one of those hippie, kumbaya things that queer millenials did.

Hollow Tree’s

After a full day’s journey over 2 boat rides, I am back in Padang.

Civilisation again! Roads, restaurants, phone signal and stable internet. After a month living in isolated islands, this urban comfort feels like a blessing. I spend what feel like hours in a steaming, hot shower — my first in a month! And my muscles get the massage they so sorely needed.

Be that as it may, I’m aching for more. And as it stands, it seems I still push back my visa appointment in Lombok by another 3 weeks. Due to COVID, lineups are empty and resorts are hammering out 50% discounts. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to score uncrowded waves at half the price.

What’s the hurry anyway? Let’s keep drifting.

And so, after a couple days of remote work and pampering, I book myself for a few weeks at Hollow Tree’s, another resort on the neighbouring island of Sipura.

Back to the harbour, ready to board the fast ferry. Déjà-vu. This time however, the boat passage (5 hours to Sipura) is dreadful. As we sail through a storm, 5-foot wind waves slam the ferry and rock it around. Boxes and luggage sway and fall from one side to the other. I’m feeling nauseous, on the verge of throwing up. The only way to cope is to keep my attention focused on the TV right in front of me, showing an awful Vin Diesel movie where he plays a nanobot-enhanced super-soldier with a memory problem and blows shit up. It’s Indonesian dubbed, but it doesn’t matter, it’s so crude I don’t need words to understand the plot.

The world outside is only a few shades of grey: bleak, overcast sky; infernal, dark ocean; ironclad, menacing waves. As I watch this Hadean scenery, I can hear the gunfire and feel the violence from the movie. It all feels like hell — a cold, metallic hell.

After what feels an eternity, we arrive at Sipura’s harbour. Given my previous pickup experience with Driftwood a month ago, I have little expectations. But I’m pleasantly surprised as the crew from Hollow Tree’s is here, waiting for me and ready to go in their A-grade, aluminium speedboat.

After another hour-long boat ride, we reach the southern tip of Sipura. The beach is the most picturesque I’ve yet seen in the Mentawai. Long stretches of wide sand, perfect for leisurely walks; coconut trees, peering from their grove out to sea, inviting passers-by under their arches; many-hued blue lagoons, gradating from turquoise to azure through sapphire waters.

We alight the boat, and I am greeted by Teiki and Vincent. In French! La famille! As I enter my beautiful, bohemian, all white and blue bedroom, it’s a clearly different standard than I’ve been used to. A private swimming pool in front of my bungalow; an Italian coffee machine; hot showers (!) and relaxing massages; adorable staff. The internet connection (truly satellite this time), despite the odd drops, is generally good enough to allow consulting calls on my work days. They’ve also built the most scenic yoga deck ever. Like a treehouse, perfectly nested into the tree, it overlooks the surf break. Perfect for my morning practice, in a little cocoon filled with prana. And the food. The food! Best food I’ve ever eaten on a surf trip, hands down, even for a vegetarian like me.

Teiki and Sina, the owners, are a beautiful couple. They’re some of the most genuinely good-natured people I’ve ever met. And worldly too: Sina grew up in Thailand, from Thai and German parents, while Teiki (a name from the Marquesas) grew up on a sailboat, circumnavigating the globe twice in the process. His adventurous mother, Jeanine, is also an owner of the resort and she graces us with her presence during the delicious communal dinners. Sharing stories together, all like a big family.

Now, that felt like a holiday.

Hardcore surfer

The only other guest around when I arrive is a gregarious and brash Italian named Giorgio. The Prince of Dessert, as we fondly call him: his family created an industrial dessert empire and popularised the “Fondant au Chocolat” throughout the world in passing.

We bond over the next few days and await good surf as the storm clears. He’s a little troubled due to a trial he might need to attend back in Italy, cutting his holidays short. He drove a car into a swimming pool while under the influence, as he tells me with an uncertain mixture of shame and pride.

Giorgio loves surfing, really does. More than anything else, and I think I’ve never met such a geek. He can watch a wave from a random surf movie on the TV and can tell you where it is, when it is and who is surfing it. Maybe also what board they’re on. It’s crazy. Surfopedia.

Giorgio affectionately pushes me to surf more and questions my priorities:
Giorgio: “You have to be a hardcore surfer”
Me: “But I don’t want to be a hardcore surfer”
Giorgio: “Also yoga won’t make your surfing better”
I don’t bother explaining that surfing is not the end all be all of my life and that my yoga practice is an end unto itself. He’s a hardcore surfer after all.

The prince and I

After the storm cleans up, we go surf Bintangs, a fast, slabby right hander that turns from ripple to barrel in less than 5 seconds. Jacking up in a split second from nowhere, you have to stay on your toes to be in the right position and catch it. After a few poundings, I start to get the hang of it and make some pretty vertical drops, nearly getting barrelled in the process.

Ooops

We surf The Point, a long, shouldery right. It offers the kind of lengthy turn combos that none of the straight barrel shooting grinders in the area do. It’s nice to carve again!

Surprisingly, there’s also a beach break on the other side of the island’s tip. Aptly named “The Beachbreak”, a proof of just how rare these are in these of heavy reef hitters. Breaking in a wild bay, we surf it alone after driving through the island’s only road and waving at the smiling villagers on the way. “Hello Mister!”

But really, the star of the show, overshadowing any other wave in the area, is Lance’s Right aka Hollow Tree’s. Consistently rated as one of the world’s best waves, its shape is unreal and it produces the most mechanical tubes I’ve ever seen. Our backyard wave, it’s breaking right of front of the resort. Just a short paddle away in the middle of the bay, among pristine azure waters and colourful tropical fish.

This blue!

Its beauty, however, is only matched by its terror: besides the wave being incredibly powerful while stupidly shallow, the reef on which it breaks is impossibly sharp. The end section is famous for lacerating unlucky or reckless surfers, earning it the much-dreaded moniker of “The Surgeon’s Table”. Nobody wants to end on the Surgeon’s Table.

And so every time I surf it, there is an undeniable fear factor, lurking in the back of my mind. I pick my waves carefully and try not to do anything too stupid. Teiki, who also happens to be a pro-level surfer (he competed in the World Qualifying Series) guides me gently through the lineup. Eventually, I build up my confidence and manage to dance with it.

I get “guillotined” (i.e. get the lip of the wave on the head) quite a few times, a little too scared to pull into the barrel fully

Ouch

Despite that, I manage to avoid any serious injuries or lacerations. Sure, small cuts on the back, hands and feet happen in half the sessions, but nothing major.

Ironically, my worst injury happens at The Point, where the reef isn’t as much a menace, while surfing my 5”3 DMS fish. I’d bought this board a few months back in order to ride the sloppy wet season waves in Bali. I keep falling on the takeoff and Teiki asks to ride it so he can check something. After a wobbly bottom-turn even for him, he reckons it’s a terrible board and I should get rid of it.

Next wave I take with it, the board is obviously mad at me for thinking of dumping her and as I fall, she violently hits me on the head with her rail. Swimming back to the surface, I come to my senses and realise my ear is bleeding. The board has ruptured the skin right in front of my tragus and in place I have a gaping, stitchable hole. Fortunately, there is superglue back at the camp and so we fix it the way hardcore surfers do.

Cryptoyogis

A few days later, two newcomers join the party: Ben and Zac, from Ubud, the spiritual center of Bali.

Typical Ubudians, they are raw vegans, into wellness, spirituality, yoga and crypto. Great! On their advice, I even end buying half a grand of Shiba Inu — a shitcoin (ahem, sorry, a “meme coin”) — for the lolz. Which 20x in the next month 🤷🏾‍♂️ Oh, and they’re knee-deep in Qanon conspiracy theories. Ah, right. The strange bedfellows of “conspirituality” only got more intimate in the past year.

This makes for interesting dinner conversations, especially when they clash with 2 freshly arriving newcomers, Zack (we’ll call him Zack 2), a physics teacher from the US and Davin, a doctor from the UK.
As our food, some deep fried tempeh in a thick sweet soy sauce is served:
Ben: “Mmmmh….some MSG, good for our nervous system!”
Zack (2): “There’s no evidence MSG is bad for you.”
Ben: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Davin: “Zac is right, I’ve read the studies myself and clinical trials have found no proof of harm.”
Zack (2): “Yeah, it’s just like these antivax people.”
Big silence — Ben and Zac are obviously anti-vaxxers. I guffaw, from the comic relief of two opposite viewpoints conflicting head on.
Ben looks at Zac (1): “Mmmh, the food’s really good no?”

In the following night, this plays out again as Zack (2) and Davin lament over the bad reception of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the US, blaming it on idiots. Ben and Zac ignore the conversation entirely, being on the other side of the fence themselves. Awkward.

How amusing is it that this major ideological conflict of our time (conspiracy vs mainstream media, blind spirituality vs blind science) is playing out in this remote island, far away from everything.

Santosha

A new swell is coming as my last week begins and I’m excited to maybe, finally, get properly barrelled. That’s the dream of any improving surfer: get into a little tube of water and make it out.

Waves are getting bigger, heavier by the day. So I opt to wear reef boots to avoid any major injury. Good call, as I get slammed onto the reef feet first. I get another good shake as I take off right into a small tube and then…blank. I’m just being tumbled upside down. The rail of my board hits me on the chin, and then, the top of my skull hits the reef. A hard, head sandwich. I paddle to the beach, check my head — no blood, phew. A little shaken, I paddle back to the lineup for some more. And still get Davin to check me for a concussion as I feel groggy in the following days. But seems like my dense, curly locks saved me.

I keep going for it at Lance’s Right, and after taking a few bangers on the head, I fit barely into a couple.

Excuse the poo stance
Yeah!

One morning, paddling to the lineup, it dawns on me: this is it. I’ve done it all. I’ve realised that childhood dream to journey to these far away, paradise islands and surf these perfect waves. It was probably the last item on my bucket list. After all that drifting, there is no more thrill to seek, no thing more to achieve. I’ve had all of the play, all of the fun. In that moment, all desires vanish and I become pure contentment.

And so, yesterday, after 15 months (or 459 days) that started just as a month or two, I left Indonesia.

459 days of adventures, epiphanies and struggles, friends and foes, romance and injuries, plant medicine and yogic training, surfing dream waves and visiting primeval tribes, diving to the bottom of the ocean and climbing to the top of volcanoes, beach bumming and digital nomading, losing myself and finding myself.

Thank you Indonesia for all you’ve given me. Thank you to your ever sweet people. To your bountiful nature. To your powerful spirit. It’s been fun to drift with you. Terimah Kasih!

A Balinese offering

And now, writing the last paragraph of this entry from Istanbul’s airport, in transit and drinking a strong Turkish coffee, I’m off to Portugal, where the next chapter will begin!

Tales from the archipelago

Indonesia is big. Real big.

267,000,000 inhabitants.

Over 17,000 islands.

More than 700 languages spoken.

The world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia confuses our idea of a country, with mind blowing biological, cultural and topographical diversity.

And so, eager to discover more of its treasures, I left Bali early October, after a spiritual apotheosis. Finally ready to hit the road and journey East, to the islands of Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores.

I had initially planned to go to Lombok in March, so I was only 7 months behind schedule. COVID is a good excuse, I guess. Starting in March, most internal travel and tourism had been banned. But in July, local tourism was allowed again (even encouraged) as the government announced the “New Normal”.

The Motorcycle Diaries

To journey across the Eastern islands, I chose what seemed the most interesting, adventurous way — my loyal Honda Vario scooter 125cc, purchased a few months back. It’s also how locals – the poorer ones at least – do it.

“But how did you cross over the many straits and seas?” I can hear you ask already. Being such a vast archipelago, Indonesia has developed a well-oiled network of ferries, carrying both goods and people from one island to the next. Like arteries carrying blood through the many vital organs of the body, the ferry network is essential to the functioning of the archipelago’s economy.

Here is a snapshot of my journey across the 4 islands, over 1,700 kms there and back:

The New World

All ready and packed for this epic trip, my scooter overloaded with a rucksack, two surfboards, the usual surfing paraphernalia (wax, extra leash, booties, GoPro, etc), a guitar, a hammock amongst other things, I leave Canggu (and my beloved Diana) to the harbour of Padang Bai in the evening.

After a night in an empty hostel (reopened for yours truly), I meet my buddy Craig at the harbour.

To paraphrase his Aussie vernacular, Craig is a true “legend”. A good “mate” of mine, I met him at Mojo Surfcamp during my aborted Surf Instructor Training Course (COVID applies). Craig was the GM there. But now they’ve closed their Indonesian operation, so he was game to come surf Lombok, where he’d also lived a few years. He had also agreed to coach me — better my money goes to a friend than a surfcamp.

The ferry ride is a breeze, sailing over one of the deepest straits in the world (down to 1,400 meters)…what lures deep down?

It’s my first contact — not my last — with ferry life. On the deck, a few mamas are hard selling food while some guys set up their fishing rods to trawlfish. Still haven’t seen a single catch over many ferry rides but guess it helps them pass time. Otherwise, people are mostly piled up inside the ferry cabin, everyone indiscriminately sitting or lying onto each other and the leather mats on the floor. Sort of a giant face-masked slumber party.

We choose fresh air, sitting on the deck’s floor instead. And become the onboard entertainment for bored busybodies. Who either want videos with us for their Youtube channels (they’re “influencers”), to practice their English or maybe even start a business together. We’re the only bules on board so that’s to be expected. What’s a bule? Well a bule (pronounced “boo-lay”) is a “white person” — same as “gringo”. Well at least originally, now it’s taken to mean any foreigner. Even when darker than them, which is often the case with me. Confusing racial distinctions, heh?

As we exit the ferry, we drive straight to the south of Lombok, where most of the waves are. Only 18kms away from Bali at its closest point, yet Lombok feels so different: vaster, wilder, rougher.

The deep strait separating these islands link the Indian and Pacific oceans and is part of the “Wallace Line” an established physical division between Asia and Australia. Bali is green, with lush, tropical vegetation while Lombok is drier, more rugged.

The STORMRIDER SURF GUIDE, INDONESIA AND THE INIDIAN OCEAN

Bali is always a she, whenever people anthropomorphise the island — which is most of the time. She is delicate and feminine, with its lush green jungle, exotic and fragile flowers, ornate temples, sweet fragrances of pandan, busy streets bursting with the chatter of scooters and devotional ceremonies. Lombok in contrast feels “brut” and masculine: wide empty space, dry land, dusty roads, army and mosques, square mono-crop fields, silence.

We stay near Kuta, in a swanky, Arizona-style hotel called “Origin” which Craig helped open a few years ago. It’s right next to the huge road that is being built for the Mandalika development project – a $3 billion project over 1,200 hectares for hotels, villas and high-end resorts, including a Club Med, a Marriott, a Formula One circuit, a theme park and more. Unsurprisingly, opinions on this are split.

I’m looking forward to the surf but unfortunately, I’ve got one more thing to sort. I had recently transferred to a Social Visa (a type of tourist visa) which allows longer stays. So I drive to Mataram, Lombok’s administrative capital and head to the Immigration Office in order to do my first extension. That type of visa can be extended anywhere from 4 to 6 times, depending on occult laws which mere mortals cannot divine, and depending on your visa agent: a person whose job exists mostly because of corruption. One can surely do all necessary paperwork themselves, but it be will faster and much smoother with an agent. The system is glitchy, but glitches create jobs so no one has any incentive to fix it. Broken window fallacy.

Before I left Bali, my visa agent had assured me I could extend it on other islands, no problem. So here I go to the counter:

Me: “Hello, excuse me, I’d like to extend my visa. Here are my documents.”
Agent looks at me, checks the documents.
Agent: “Where is your sponsor?”
Me: “Why, they’re on Bali.”
Agent: “Well, cannot extend then. Need to be with sponsor for first extension”.
Me: “Uuuh…you mean… are you sure?… they said…Damn!”

Oh Indonesian visa drama! I’m already resigned and thinking of driving back to Bali, having just arrived in Lombok. Out of nowhere, an affable gentleman appears, asking if I need a sponsor… A few minutes and a phone call to my Balinese agent later, Muhammad Yunus is now officially my sponsor to stay in the great country of Indonesia. Notwithstanding a hefty premium to do so. Money has a way here.

My right to remain secured, I can now enjoy the island and all the surf it has to offer.

First spot we hit is Insides Gerupuk, located next to a fishing village in a majestic bay east of Kuta. The bay itself has 3 main spots depending on swell and tide: Insides, Outsides and Don-Don. The former, Insides, will be my classroom for the next month of surf coaching.

Pretty much every morning, at the crack of dawn around 5:00am, we drive our scooters on dusty roads to Gerupuk and board a fishing boat to the surf break. The bay is filled with golden light, from the reflection of the rising sun on the surrounding amber, chalky cliffs. Tommy, our local boat captain, cracks a clover cigarette while the fishing village disappears in the distance. All we hear is the rumbling of the outboard engine and the claps of the wooden hull on the water. Far in the distance, we can see whitewater — telltale sign of a wave breaking. This is adventure!

Surf Academy

Surfing is tough. On a good 2h session, if I catch, say, 15 waves for an average 10 seconds ride, that’s just over 2 minutes of total ride time. Not easy to improve the technique then, especially when you can’t see yourself riding the wave. No drills or mirrors here.

That’s why I’m a firm believer in video analysis to improve one’s surfing. At least that’s what’s allowed me to make my biggest leaps. And coach Craig, being a great surfer himself, can pinpoint where my weaknesses are so I can focus on them. Thanks to his coaching and video analysis, I’m able to radically improve my bottom turn, begin to top turn, throw some spray, and link the two. I’m not going to bore you here with the technical details, but essentially these are the key steps to start surfing more vertically, going up and down the face of a wave, instead of just following it across. It’s the difference between “surfing not to fall” as Craig calls it, and actually surfing a wave.

Insides Gerupuk (and Don-Don when it’s working) is also the perfect wave to practice. Easy take-off, long peeling wave with plenty of time for manoeuvers and improving turn combos make it an intermediate’s dream. Add to that video analysis, and it can take anyone’s surfing places.

Unfortunately, our training days are punctuated by a series of injuries. First I cut a flap of skin off my foot with my own surf fin — it’s pretty deep so I stay out of the water for a week. Then, my first session back in the water, some guy runs over me with his board and punctures the top of my left ear. God bless superglue (not kidding!). Finally, a few days later, I cut the top of my index finger with the dangerously sharp lid of a tin can — Aduh! (“Ouch” in Indonesian). Thankfully, the hospital has one stick of dermabond (medical grade superglue, I’m a fan) so it closes and heals super quick.

A string of unlucky setbacks, that force me to learn patience and remain steadfast while I’m on the bench. And endure Craig’s teasing of my uncompromising wound care, as he nicknames me “Bubble Boy”.

“When life gives you lemons, you make frozen margaritas” so I use this time to churn out more work. I’m finally living the 4-hour-workweek dream — Tim Ferris would be proud of me. Now that I am time-rich, I deepen my yogic practice and knowledge. Finish the Qu’ran. Continue that photography course. Learn some more Bahasa Indonesia.

And every time I’m back in the water and even hungrier for the waves! Even on the 10ft swell that comes on October 30th — no one else surfing at Insides Gerupuk but us and perfect waves twice my size!

Desa Life

Gerupuk, the fishing village in the bay, was then the poorest place I’d yet seen in Indonesia, relying mostly on subsistence fishing to live. Never have I been to a place that so deserves to be called a “fishing village” — many habitations are not much more than a meter away from the water, fishing boats being pretty much an extension of their house and the bay itself an extension of their fridges. For the first time in Indonesia, I see people catching plenty: octopus, sardines, oysters — the ocean is bountiful there. Naked kids and chickens are running in the unpaved, dusty streets. Women are tending to their shops and to their families. Men are fishing, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes. And squatting, of course…

Indonesia in one picture

So what a shock when Craig brings his friend Jane, a city girl from Java, with us to the desa (“village” in Indonesian). All heads turn: here’s this tantalising Indonesian city girl, skirt and high heels, coming to the destitute Muslim village. “Desa Queen” as Craig calls her with mirth.

A tale of two Indonesias. Her taking selfies for her Instagram story, while our hirsute boat captain behind her mans the rudder of his rickety wooden vessel.

In addition to Gerupuk, we also go surfing to Ekas, an empty A-frame wave in the middle of nowhere. It’s a good 20 mins boat ride from the closest village and a paradise lost with no soul in sight. Gentle, rolling and fun, we spend all morning there.

The other memorable surf break we explore is Are Guling (also spelled “Air Guling” which means “rolling water”, a suitable name for a surf break). An addictive righthander, it’s located in another stunning bay. Where Craig has bought land and plans to spend his later days.

Craig’s kingdom come

After a steep drop, the wave may start barrelling and will always offer a beautiful wall to carve onto — turquoise water so crystal clear that I can see the colourful reef through the wave face as I ride it. Dream.

On the beach there is a little warung where we spend hours every time we go, joking around with the family. Chasing chickens, watching the buffalos walk by or talking about life. Once, the grandma even offers me some betelnut (a strong, natural stimulant) from her personal stash. Not bad, a taste of anise and a good kick, but I don’t dig the red lips and teeth that come with it!

The beach in Are Guling, in stark contrast to the ocean, is a total dump: heaps of plastic bottles, straws and cups everywhere you look. Plastic pollution is a problem also in Bali, but I’ve never seen anything this bad. Doing a little something is better than doing nothing. So with a mama from the little warung on the beach, we start cleaning up the beach.

Keep your playground clean!

I also take part in a community beach cleanup a few weeks later, organised by Kenza, a hip and tasty restaurant in Kuta, which is also bent on organising community service.

In just a couple of hours, we pick up over 500 kilos of trash…

Again, at Kenza, I give my first official yoga class , after service is over, to 8 complete strangers. After all, I’m a yoga teacher now!

Romance on the road

It’s already been 3 weeks since I left Bali, and I miss Diana. She’s also never been to Lombok, even though she’s been living in Bali for several years. Apparently she was waiting for a man to take her on romantic trip there — I volunteer.

We spend our first night near Selong Belanak, at a gorgeous eco-luxe resort with bungalows on the beach after watching a most epic sunset. It’s good to be with her again.

The next day, we drive through a scenic road to the west coast and then board a boat to Gili Nanggu. The fishermen are trusting enough to let me man the rudder, which I hadn’t done since my sailing trip in Thailand back in February.

Hundreds of multicoloured fish fly in our faces as we snorkel through the island’s vibrant reef. Fishing is forbidden here (a first in Indonesia) so it seems fish aren’t scared of humans. We even get time to circumnavigate the island on foot (it’s pretty small) as we wait for our boat and its crew who’ve disappeared (probably fishing somewhere else).

Back on land, we ride all the way up north to Sengigi, where we spend the night in a mega honeymooners resort. Not my usual pick, I’ll confess, but COVID discounts made it a steal. Great sunset and a good dinner with obsequious waiters.

The next day, we head to Sedang Gile waterfalls. We drive through meandering coastal roads, zigzagging from one magnificent bay to the next.

After reaching the village, we climb down, then hike up to the cascades, hidden deep within the primeval jungle. There, standing under the weaker streams, we look up to the cubic tons of water crashing down every second from the main jet, in awe of nature’s raw power!

Pure prana

The Surf Ghetto

We’ve been in Lombok for over a month now. It feels like it’s time to move on.

Craig heads back to Bali to focus on BISA (Bali International Surf Academy), a surf school he’s setting up there.

On my end, I decide to keep journeying east. Next stop, Lakey Peak, a famed surf spot on the neighbouring island of Sumbawa.

Road from Kuta (Lombok) to Lakey Peak (Sumbawa)

On the day I leave to Sumbawa, my meditation is unusually lengthy, emotional yet blissful. A few hours later, I learn of the passing of my paternal grandmother, Mamie Seynabou Gueye. On the drive to the harbour, honouring her memory, I reminisce about our moments together, and the love she gave me despite us not being able to communicate in the same language (she didn’t speak French, I didn’t speak Wolof). And I feel deep regret for not having made the time to visit her in Senegal and see her one last time. A painful lesson on the value of time.

I finally make it to the harbour, after a slow (and dangerous) drive on narrow two-way lanes. Plenty of trucks and hazardous overtaking.

On the ferry to Sumbawa, an Indonesian gentleman strikes up a conversation.

Him: “Where are you from?”
Me: “France”
Him: “Ah! Your President, Macron, we don’t like him. Not good what he does”
Me: “…”
Him: “You know what I’m talking about?”

In the previous month, France had suffered terrorist attacks related to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Macron had taken a strong stand, vowing to protect freedom of speech against all. Although I agreed with his sentiment, as a French person in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, the situation felt a little uncomfortable.

After a night drive to Sumbawa Besar, time to hit the road again, crossing most of Sumbawa in one go.

It starts with hours of driving through the barren desert under a scorching sun.

No Man’s Land

Things get more interesting as I make it to the coast, desolate as it is. Then the landscape abruptly transitions into picturesque jungly hills over the ocean, the road snaking through its slopes

Few hours later, I finally make it to Lakey Peak.

A true surf ghetto, Lakey Peak is a little enclave that exists solely because of surfing and the tourism it brings. Nothing else to do here. But surf, surf… and surf some more. I’ll bet there are more surfboards than humans here.

Because it is so remote, none of the comforts of Bali or even Lombok here. A/C and WiFi are worth much more than gold.

After a long scout, I find what seems to be a decent guest house, Rockpool, with a nice view of the bay, despite the cantankerous owner, a chain-smoking despotic madame who all-day orders her army of children around. I seem to rub up her the wrong way anytime I make the slightest request and every day I tell myself I’ll move somewhere else — but I’m too lazy to do so.

On the way to Lakey Peak, both my surfboards have been badly dinged. So I head to a repair shack, where I meet “Joey Barrel” a local surfing legend. He also sells me a small bottle of fresh papaya leaf juice — a great, natural antimalarial and antiparasitic. But god is it bitter!

Over the next few days, I surf Nunggas, the break just in front of my guesthouse, also favoured by kite surfers when the wind is up. A long paddle out to the reef, it’s a left hander that can peel for a few hundred meters. As I paddle into a wave, I can feel just how powerful this thing is, so much water being sucked from the reef just below into a steep, hefty blue wall… And that’s one of the easier waves in the area – it’s a different ball game here.

I surf the eponymous Peak, a world-class wave prized by pro surfers the world over. It definitely feels like a wave of consequence, especially with its heavy barrels and thick lip at low tide. As I dodge 6+ feet sets, my heart is pounding fast — I’m definitely not as confident as I was just a few days ago in the idiot-proof waves of Lombok. I still catch some fun ones and I’m happy I live to tell the tale. At mid to high tide, The Peak shows a gentler face and I end up scoring some of my best waves ever out there. So stoked.

I surf Periscopes, a sucky, powerful slab on little water that throws barrel after barrel, seriously good surfers putting on a show. It had been a while I didn’t feel like the worst surfer in the lineup. And Cobblestones, probably the gentlest wave around, a nice little righthander perfect for carving.

Although my first few days are spent mostly alone, I run into Kili, a lovely German kid I’d met in Medewi a few months ago during the lockdown. I love how, on the road, other people’s journeys weave with mine, crossing, separating, crossing again. Like a tapestry of life stories.

He’s staying in a solid-looking wooden house (more mountain chalet than beach hut) overlooking Cobblestones, with a group of friends, Ahmet (a retired American Pro skier) and Meme (Indonesian lady from Sulawesi). It’s a lovely surfers’ commune and the local kids also hang around.

Definitely more surfboards than humans here

The star of which is indubitably Anjan, the coolest, wildest and smartest 10 year-old I’ve ever met. A good surfer, a fierce spearfisherman, who speaks fluent English, and loves playing pranks on everyone, he’s always hanging out with the crew. And beating Ahmet at Backgammon.

He’s sort of a modern-day, Indonesian, beach Mowgli. And a beautiful example of what happens when kids get the freedom to roam.

The silent world

After a good week of being a beach bum, it’s time to leave Lakey Peak and head to Flores.

Road from Lakey Peak (Sumbawa) to Labuan Bajo (Flores)

Next island east from Sumbawa, Flores is a different province altogether. While Lombok and Sumbawa are part of NTB (West Nusa Tenggara), with Flores begins NTT (East Nusa Tenggara), leading to Timor and Papua.

As such, I need a new rapid test to enter NTT. I find a clinic about half an hour from Lakey Peak whose staff seems to wake up from a slumber as I arrive. I’m the only patient around, and no shortage of entertainment for these Sumbawans who rarely see a bule. Not speaking English, we converse in Bahasa Indonesian (“Indonesian language” in Indonesian). Although over 700 dialects are spoken throughout the archipelago, Bahasa Indonesia is the lingua franca and the one official language of the nation.

I’m negative. All good. So I drive to Sape, Sumbawa’s easternmost harbour and spend the night in a transit hotel.

The ferry ride the next morning feels like forever. Not only because it’s my longest ferry ride yet (8 hours). But also because of the horribly loud music and smoking is allowed inside so the whole passenger car turns into a giant puffing chamber. The only alternative is the deck, where the red-hot sun is inescapable. I choose the smog, crying babies and shit-soiled toilets.

I arrive in Labuan Bajo, Flores’ westernmost harbour, late afternoon. And go straight to Blue Marlin, the PADI-certified diving school whom I have a booked an Open Water Course with. Back to school, once again!

I’ve always been curious about scuba diving. But my only experience so far had been a discovery dive 20 years ago in Mauritius when I was still a little brat — and the instructor had not really said anything about equalising, to my internal ears’ great detriment. And I’d heard that the Komodo National Park, just out of Labuan Bajo, was host to some of the most spectacular dive sites on the planet.

I’m warmly greeted by Martin and Chris, the two dive school operators. Both are characters. Martin, a lovely Essex lad, pierced and tattooed all over, real diving addict who has drifted about South East Asia for a good couple of decades. And Chris, a well-spoken and rambunctious Swedish bodybuilder with a love for the marine underworld and pumping iron.

As soon as I finish checking-in their dorm, I dive right in (no pun intended) the theory course, which we trawl through. I like the science and technicality of it, it somehow reminds me of sailing. Pool practice the next day is easy-breezy. I’m a natural with underwater breathing and buoyancy control. Apparently, yogis tend to be good at scuba diving, it being so much about breath control and quiescence of mind.

The incomparable Labuan Bajo sunsets

Next day is my first open water dive! We sail to the north of Komodo National Park, where many dive spots are located.

First dive to 12m at Crystal Bay. We spot a grouper fish, play with a puffer fish and see some eagle mantas fly away. I feel so comfortable and calm, down here on the bottom of the ocean.

Second dive at Crystal Rock, a deep vertical wall covered with kaleidoscopic coral and teeming with life. It’s crazy to think so much life, so diverse, was always hiding in plain sight, under the waterline.

Third dive at the Cauldron, 18m, where we begin to play with the underwater currents. Unbeknownst to me, diving can be a high-adrenaline sport, especially in strong currents which can sweep you away with startling speed. But with currents also comes the bigger game: sharks, manta rays, barracudas, etc…So experienced divers tend to look for the currents, not avoid them. And it so happens that Komodo National Park is home to some very strong underwater currents…yay!

During this dive, we have to swim close to the rising ocean floor, then grab onto reef once at the top to hold ourselves against the current and watch the sea life play under us. However, I swim a little too high and the current starts sweeping me away from the group, faster and faster! I inflate my BCD, return to the surface (no safety stop, but we were way above decompression limit) and call to the boat. Pretty scary experience on my first day out!

Despite the thrilling end to my last dive, I’m loving it all. Martin is pleased with my progress and offers to start the Advanced Open Water course the next day.

So we do, and the next day, we sail to the South. On my first dive, in Siabar Besar, I hang out with huge, friendly turtles.

Next dive, we drift in the currents watching the sea life go by and then —this time, successfully — hang on to some rocks to behold…giant manta rays, less than a meter away from us, being scrubbed by the smaller fish at a “cleaning station”. They are majestic, graceful creatures — I get why divers are fascinated with them (Martin, like many dive heads, has one tattooed on him).

Our last dive of the day is the world-class yet scary Batu Bolong, an underwater pinnacle located right in the middle of some of the strongest current in the area, including downcurrents. As we approach, we can see the currents rushing on the surface and forming into ominous whirlpools.

So the plan is to dive the lee side (protected from currents) and zigzag our way up. As we descend carefully on the lee side of the pinnacle, however, side currents start to push us around and we have to hold on to the sharp coral with our bare hands not be swept away. At about 6m down, my hands burning from grabbing on the coral and my mind terrified, I call the dive off. To be fair, Martin is a great instructor and they know what they are doing, but as they say, don’t push it if you’re not comfortable. I also hear it was a pretty ambitious dive for my second day out!

Next day, is the last day of my Advanced Open Water Course.

We start with the Cauldron, and this time I manage to hold on to the ledge against the current which is blowing hard on my face. Priceless reward: watching 2 sharks, a couple of meters away playing and swimming around.

Then we dive at Crystal Rock, where I do my 30 meter dive and see more sharks, gigantic schools of fish and a massive grouper. As we ascend, it feels like we’re going up Fish City — aquatic avenues lined up with roccoco coral buildings where fish denizens of all species are going on about their day, eating a piece of reef here, looking after their progeny there, hunting or just hanging out. Unlike snorkelling, when scuba diving fish totally forget about me and so I get a privileged glimpse into the life of this underwater, silent world. Which feels like another planet altogether.

Last dive at Castle Rock, seeing more sharks than I ever have, hanging tight against the current. And it’s a wrap!

Chasing Homo Floriensis

It’s now late November, I’ve been on the road for nearly two months and I’m thinking of heading back to Bali, where comfort, friendship and love await.

But before I do, I want to explore the heartland of Flores. Especially, I’d like to visit archeological sites where a few decades ago were unearthed remnants of Homo Floresiensis.

On another Indonesian island – the small island of Flores – archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing. Humans first reached Flores when the sea level was exceptionally low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland.

When the seas rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in resources. Big people, who need a lot of food, died first. Smaller fellows survived much better. Over the generations, the people of Flores became dwarves. This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only one metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. They were nevertheless able to produce stone tools, and even managed occasionally to hunt down some of the island’s elephants – though, to be fair, the elephants were a dwarf species as well.

YUVAL NOAH HARIRI, SAPIENS

Curious to meet these hobbits, with my valiant scooter still standing, I drove to Ruteng.

What a drive! The most scenic so far. Bendy roads swinging through the verdant rainforest, before opening into dramatic valleys and wide plains on the higher plateau. There, forgetting about the terraced landscapes of rice agriculture for a second, you could mistake it for the Alps.

Switzerland or Indonesia?

People in Flores are quite different from Lombok and Sumbawa. Darker, with curlier hair, smaller. Christians too, unlike most of Indonesia. And friendlier, more welcoming.

As I drive through the island, I see people throwing parties here and there, with loud sound systems.

Late afternoon, after asking my way around towards Ruteng, I get invited to a local Democratic Party’s party. I’m the only bule in town after all!

“Bules vote Democratic Party”… what’s with that finger?!

In the morning, I head to Liang Bua, where the cave of Homo Floresiensis is located. Driving through isolated villages, I never get tired of the look on people’s faces when they see mine. The ever-entertaining look of confusion evolving into a mix of wariness and curiosity.

As I arrive at the Liang Bua cave, lo! The archeological excavations are nowhere to be seen. And the gate is closed. Oh well, I came all this way, I might still get a close look at this cave so I jump over the fence and hunker my way into the cave. There, baroque stalactites hang from the roof, a Gothic cathedral sculpted by Mother Nature over million of years with nothing but water drops as chisels.

No Hobbit, but a treasure still.

Back to Bali

It’s 1:00am, I’m driving my overloaded scooter in the middle of nowhere, through winding dark roads filled with potholes, covered with landslide mud all while a torrential monsoon rain is pouring and the occasional incoming traffic is blinding me with their headlights.

A mob of fat, angry raindrops are stabbing me, made all the more violent by the scooter’s velocity, while I barely see more than a meter ahead. Despair starts to creep in and I wonder if I’ll make it to Sumbawa Besar (“Big Sumbawa”), the main town on the north of the island where I had planned to spend the night.

This is hell. But Churchill once wisely said, “when you’re in hell, keep going!”. So I do. I accept it all and become the witness of this uncomfortable situation, turning the ordeal into practice. I need to finish this leg of my long journey back to Bali which I started 17 hours earlier, leaving Labuhan Bajo with the 8:00am ferry. Arriving at the harbour in Sape around 4:00pm began the long drive through Sumbawa. I like scooters, but damn, 300kms at night on a scooter is a long drive.

Eventually, I make it to Sumbawa Besar by 3:00am, drained and drenched. I haven’t felt this wrecked since climbing Mt Agung. The next morning, I set out to Lombok and arrive in Kuta in the evening.

Ah, comfort and civilisation, how I missed you! Before heading back to Bali, I spend a few days of R&R (Rest & Recreation) at Mana Retreat, a charming yoga retreat in Kuta. And score some wet season sessions at Are Guling and Serangan, where I get to surf big, exhilarating sets (5-8ft).

Time for my last ferry of the year!

In Bali, I stay with Diana. It’s good to be back and eat something else than rice and tempe (the road is not easy on vegans!).

I take her to Sidemen for her birthday and we visit Besakih Temple, the holiest temple on the island. I stop by a roadside shop to buy some offerings and we end buying “The King of Offerings”, Jepati.

With this enormous offering in our hands (and sarongs and sash and headpiece), we are allowed into the Mother Temple, a rare privilege for foreigners. There, we participate in a local ceremony and prayer, the priest purifying us with holy water.

Back on the island of Gods, days pass by in the honey-sweet joys of domestic life and intimacy.

But my exploration of the Eastern islands isn’t done yet. There is one other island in Nusa Tenggara Timur I still need to explore: Sumba!

Feliz Navidad

Truth is, surfers are always planning the next surf trip, even if they’re currently on one. And so, while I was in Lombok, a group of yogis from my yoga teacher training and myself conspired to organise a surf trip for Christmas. Initially, we were thinking Mentawais: remote paradisiac islands off the coast of Sumatra, with easily the best surf on the planet. But we instead settled on Sumba, much cheaper and easier of access.

We leave on December 21st, this time forsaking days of scooter + ferry, but instead opting for a short hour-long plane ride. Too easy.

It’s my first flight in the COVID world, in the New Normal. Masks, face shields, temperature guns, checkpoints — it feels like I’m in some sort of somber sci-fi movie. After perfunctory checks of our rapid antibody tests, we board our flight.

Sumba Surfcamp, our place of choice for the week, is a sweet guesthouse on the southwestern coast of the island.

Started by a Frenchman a few years ago, it’s one of the only affordable option in the area, the others being eco-luxury resorts charging anywhere from $300 to $3000 per night. And comfortable, despite the blood-thirsty hordes of mosquitoes which swarm us at night, not caring for natural citronella repellent and assaulting our mosquito nets like zombies would a barricade.

Being right above the beach, we can see the waves breaking from our bed — true luxury. Kerewe, the surf break just in front of the camp, is a impossibly long righthander, that can run for over 500 meters on a good day. And is uncrowded. A true Christmas present, we share this wave just of the 5 of us for a week. There I score the longest rides in my life. And the longest paddle back out too!

We settle in our little bubble, enjoying the simple life of surf, eat, sleep, repeat. Did I mention “eat”? The food prepared for us by the lovely crew of local ladies is simply out of this world and before we know it we get angsty when mid-afternoon snack (warm homemade banana bread, mmmh) is not promptly served.

We also find the time to make a Christmas greeting video.

WILD LIFE

Fighting against the currents and the waves, members of our group struggle to free sea turtles from ghost fishing nets. As I only recently learned, they are an endangered species.

And although Indonesia is world’s #3 most biodiverse country, much of its wildlife is threatened:

It is estimated that there are more than 300,000 wildlife species or 17% of the world wildlife live in Indonesia, even though Indonesia’s land is only 1.3% of the world’s land.

Despite rich in biodiversity, Indonesia is also notorious as a country which has long list of the threatened wildlife. According to IUCN, 2011; the threatened wildlife in Indonesia include 184 mammals, 119 birds, 32 reptiles, 32 amphibians, and 140 fish. There are 68 species which are critically endangered and 69 endangered species, and 517 vulnerable species. These wildlife will be eventually extinct if there is no action to save them from extinction.

https://www.profauna.net/en/facts-about-indonesian-animals#.X_v7gIHEm-o

Curious to survey the island, learn more about the culture and explore other surf spots, we get a car for a day. A long drive later, we make it to the traditional village of Ratenggaro. One noteworthy thing about Sumba is the traditional architecture: houses with witch hats that extend up high into the sky, up to 15-20 meters above ground.

And the locals are unlike any I’ve met in Indonesia. A lot wilder, not as westernised.

No one stuck on their smartphone watching Youtube, playing casual games or scrolling Facebook — a true epidemic elsewhere in Indonesia. No, days here seemed to be spent herding buffalos, playing football, chewing on betelnut and walking around with their customary swords, stylised machetes that pretty much every grown man sports on their waist.

If you’re ginger and ever go there, cover your hair. We heard from the manager of our place: “So apparently, there was this couple visiting the island. The man was very ginger, and when he came to visit a traditional village, people stopped, turned to him and starting chasing him. Once they got a hold of him, they cut his tongue. He died. They think ginger people are some kind of evil ghoul or something.”Ironically enough, most boys we saw on the island had bold hair colorations, spanning from pink to golden. At first, I thought they were into punk rock, but we heard it’s a thing they do for Christmas.

Instead of observing us from a watchful distance like the timid village locals I’d seen on other islands, the Sumbanese would come right into our faces and and crowd around us. Social distancing not a thing here. A lot of them also don’t speak Indonesian it seems, but their own dialect (more than 50 are spoken on Sumba alone!). We take a look inside the houses, bamboo-built intergenerational homes, I take a ride on a buffalo (which throws me off spectacularly) and we get offered some betelnut by a grandma (impolitely, we refuse).

ISLAND OF GRAVES

Sumba is as different as it gets. Another world of its own. But clearly if there’s one thing that stands out, it’s the graves. As soon as we land, on the way to our guest house, we drive by villages that all have these massive, megalithic tombs. Slabs of stones put together into a burial chamber.

Marapu, an ancestral religion native to Sumba and still practiced by many, teaches that the heavenly ancestors of the Sumbanese descended from the sky and procreated on the island. When they die, people must be buried in one of these tombs, in order to return to Marapu, their promise land in the clouds above. Climbing a ladder made of buffalo horns. Because they are so big, these sepulchres are costly and apparently families sometimes get into debts for generation to finance them. Death is a big deal here. And so it’s not uncommon to pass by a village and right next to it (or even in its center) see another one, but this time a village for the dead. Spooky.

Sadly, Marapu has been slowly pushed out by the Indonesian government over the last few decades. A fate that also befell all other native religions of Indonesia, as the government only recognises 5 official religions (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism).

Since Marapu, like Kaharingan of the Dayaks, is not an official religion of Indonesia, and all Indonesian citizens are required to identify as a member of one of the religions sanctioned by law, members have chosen either Christianity or Islam to self identify.

While the influence of evangelical churches is growing in Sumba and reflected in mass conversion ceremonies, many islanders retain their beliefs practiced in secret. These conversions can be traumatic for elderly Sumbans who believe by converting they sever the relationship with their forbearers.

Others, particularly young people, convert for more pragmatic reasons: Indonesia formally recognizes five state religions, and sought-after positions in the civil service, police and military are closed to Merapu practitioners.Particularly young people, convert for more pragmatic reasons: Indonesia formally recognizes five state religions, and sought-after positions in the civil service, police and military are closed to Marapu practitioners.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marapu

And so Indonesia, generation after generation, is slowly losing its diverse cultural heritage. As Sang Tu,the cofounder of Bali Silent Retreat and a farmer bent on ecological as well as cultural diversity, tells me:

“Marapu is also related to Bali, Sumbawa and Lombok. We used to have similar ancestral religions here too. That was Indonesia — more 800 tribes across the archipelago. But since Indonesia’s independence in 1945 and the five official religions, these traditions are disappearing… now people all over Indonesia are starting to be the same. Lombok and Sumbawa, same same.”
Me: “So it’s turning into a monoculture?”
Sang Tu: “Ha, yes, exactly, a monoculture!”

The Journey Within

As I drive my scooter through Bali, singing the Maha Mritunjaya mantra to the top of my lungs, it feels like nothing can hurt me. Small things that would have caused frustration and division in the past, like getting cut in traffic or being yelled at, simply go through me as if I were a sheet of transparent glass. It comes, I notice it, it goes. No holding on, grasping or clenching.

I realise I’m in heaven, as I cruise in the sunshine through the picturesque scenery, roads bordered by well-tended grass, fragrant frangipani trees, ornate temples. And delicate penjor erect against the blue summer sky, skilfully built by Balinese families in front of their houses as an offering to gods and ancestors. These elaborate, ceremonial bamboo poles (read more about it here), so representative Bali’s unique blend of spiritual devotion and artistic sense, mark the celebration of Galungan, the Balinese new year remembering the victory of dharma (the cosmic order) over adharma (evil).

And so just like that, I realise it’s been a year I’m in Bali. I arrived on the island just before the previous Galungan, back in February. More accurately, it’s been a Balinese year – 210 days.

While much of that year was spent exploring the island, the last 2 months, in stark contrast, have been about exploring myself. Internal journey over external one.

Back to school

It started with a life-changing, 200 hour yoga teacher training at The Practice in Canggu. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Universe conspired to have me join this training.

However, it was happening…in Canggu. As I previously wrote, I’d had a fairly poor experience of Canggu throughout my time on the island. So I was really not looking forward to be back.

But life has a great sense of humour it seems. My third stint in “The ‘Goo” as they call it ended up being very different to the previous ones. I even started growing fond of the place. Granted, the vibe had transformed. No more Instagram influencer catwalk. Or drunk teenagers scavenging the streets. All because — or thanks to — the pandemic. And it just happened that the people I met who are left, the expats or travellers who hung on, are all gems.

I found a small guest house for the month of August. No need for anything fancy as I was going to be in class at my yoga teacher training (abbreviated as YTT for the rest of the post) from early mornings to late afternoons. Back to school! I just can’t stress how grounding it was to return to a daily routine. Who thought I’d miss that?!

And then, the YTT started.

On the first day, I arrive at The Practice for the opening ceremony. 10 minutes late, of course 💁‍♂️ A Balinese priest blesses us with sacred water and prayers. We are given the traditional, white-red-black protection band representing the holy Hindu trinity (Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva). Later, we have our first yoga practice followed by a sharing circle, where my fellow mates open up so vulnerably to then-strangers. We’re an eclectic group of seekers. Some in their early 20s, others in their mid-40s. Small business owners, freelancers, students, vagabonds. Some living on the island for nearly a decade, others “stuck” here since the pandemic hit. But the one trait everyone seems to have in common is sincere spiritual aspiration. As we take turns to share, emotions flow freely and already it’s clear the month ahead is going to be transformative.

We then dive right in, our teachers taking us through the map of Samkhya philosophy. It’s the backbone of the course, describing the whole descent of consciousness into matter, from Source to separate self and back from our separate self to Source through the practice of Yoga.

The System: Samkhya philosophy map

What Yoga?

It’s very important to emphasise that what we’re talking about here is not the modern, posture-focused and physically-oriented practice that unfortunately equates to yoga in most people’s mind. No, here we’re talking about traditional, Tantric Hatha Yoga, from the Sri Vidya Tantra lineage. So, what is Tantric Hatha Yoga? My definition: an integrated system of philosophy and practices that aim to quiet the mind (Chitta) and stimulate our life-force (Prāna) in order to reclaim and reunite with our divine nature (Purusha).

In this system, postures (Asana) are only one of many practices that build on top of each other — followed by Prānāyāma (breath), Kriya meditation (active meditation) and Mantra (sacred, numinous utterances). This comprehensive, holistic approach to Yoga is directly in line with the seminal yogic treatise written over two millenia ago, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in which the Eight Limbs of Yoga, a very precise methodology to attain union, are laid out.

How lucky are we to be studying with teachers steeped in a strong lineage, transmitting undiluted Tradition to us!

As Octavio, the co-founder of the Practice, Principal Yoga Teacher and our spiritual commander-in-chief puts it so eloquently:

Tradition provides an avenue for transmission to take place. It provides a way for us to plug into the energy field of the ancients who birthed this knowledge into being. This mysterious force of energetic transference is called Kavi or ‘whispered wisdom’ which gifts modern yogis access to meditative experiences that would otherwise be in accessible in this day and age.

As science now affirms, the nature of reality is vibratory. Life is a play of energy posing as matter and as energy never dies, the field of Yoga, through the connective wire of Tradition can be harnessed. Having this kind of support backing our personal and spiritual endeavours is a gift that cannot be expressed in words, not only because English does not provide a sufficient word for it, but also because the magnitude of the gift is profound beyond the scope of everyday gratitude. Only tears can express it, seconded by an indestructible commitment to personal practice.

Octavio salvado

And what teachers. Truly world-class, all very well-versed in the philosophy and practices of yoga, yet each with their own specialty. T-shaped superheroes, if you will. Like the Avengers.

Octavio, the revolutionary sage, leading deep, exciting lectures. Kelly, the fakir, drilling correct postures with us. Ellen, the musician, teaching us Sanskrit and leading kirtan (devotional singing of mantra). Emma, the mother, educating us on Ayurveda and pre-natal yoga. And Adam, the meditator, delighting us with blissful Yoga Nidra (“enlightened sleep” – a meditation technique bringing consciousness at the edge of waking and sleeping states).

Moon, Sun, Fire

The training is structured around Moon, Sun and Fire – each representing an aspect of the yogic practice. First week, we start with Moon practices (forward folds and twists, long exhales) to calm and stabilise the mind. Then we move on to build, contain and sensitize ourselves to Prāna (life-energy also known as qi or chi) with Sun practices (backbends, laterals, bandhas and khumbaka). Finally, we bring the Moon and the Sun together in the navel center to awaken our dormant spiritual power, Kundalini Shakti (extensions, inversions, mudra, mantra).

I don’t think I’ve ever learned and experienced as much in my whole life, which makes it impossible to recount what we went through. What I can do is recommend you experience it for yourself when borders reopen! In the meantime, wherever you are in the world, you can still enroll in their comprehensive, 50 hour online training that packs a lot of their teachings and will allow you to upgrade your personal practice.

Eka Dasi

A key practice of the YTT is Eka Dasi. Which in Sanskrit means “11 days” — for how many consecutive days we spread the practice on. A powerful Prānāyāma which penetrates deeply into the layers of the subconscious mind to clear out energy blockages, it becomes progressively more intense as days go by. And here I am crying out of nowhere on my scooter, driving into town, some past trauma being worked out – which one, God knows. Breath is so powerful!

Once the 11 days are over, we close this practice by chanting 108 rounds of the Gayatri mantra, a supreme mantra praying for release from our lower tendencies. We then complete the process by visiting Tirta Empul, the most sacred water temple in Bali. There, we purify ourselves with holy waters, said to have sprung after Indra, the king of gods, threw a thunderbolt to help his troops hydrate during the war.

I am born again. And that won’t be the last time…

Learning to teach

Eventually, the time comes for our practicums, our final exams in the form of practical teaching tests. Because as much as we learned, that was still a yoga teacher training. Truth be told, I didn’t come to the training with the intention to ever teach yoga – as I shared in the opening circle, I mostly came to deepen my practice, fill the gaps in my knowledge and renew my spiritual fervour. After 7 years of daily meditation and nearly 3 years of a committed yoga practice, I felt like I was plateauing and needing to evolve to the next stage.

Of course, I also wanted to learn to serve others through teaching, but that wasn’t front of mind. Nevertheless, I play the game, and to my amazement, I really enjoy the teaching side of things. A lot of the credit goes to The Practice’s method too. Instead of waiting until the last week to start “teaching teaching”, we had our first teaching class on the first day! That goes a long way in building the skills and confidence to deliver a 30-minute class to 10 students 4 weeks later.

My practicum is a blast — I even surprise myself, discovering a teacher persona I’d never been aware of. He becomes known as “Mr Moon” for the moon-style class (calming, grounding) that he delivers from a very deep, very still place. Always interesting to see which persona pops up when each of us brings out their inner teacher!

All good things have an end, and so, faster than we’d ever thought, the YTT comes to a close. The closing ceremony will remain in my heart as one of my most emotional days ever. A sharing circle peppered with kirtan, devotionally singing mantra with all our hearts. The energy in the shala is electric, people spontaneously bursting into tears of gratitude and love, including myself. One by one, we graduate and receive our diplomas. Looks like I’m a yoga teacher now!

Throw the hats !

Satsang

Looking back, this teacher training exceeded all my expectations by a large margin. What I didn’t expect, however, was to find a tribe, a family, a satsang. After a year (a Balinese year) in Bali, many highs and many lows, I finally felt home.

And so even after the training is over, it isn’t over. It probably never will. Most of us stick to Canggu and keep attending classes, meeting for brunch or going on adventures.

A fellow yogini I met on the YTT, Diana and I entertain a impassioned, amorous relationship. Sweet as a frangipani, yet deep as the ocean, she’s a true philosopher in the form of the goddess. I’m drunk on love, and it feels great. We escape to Uluwatu for the weekend, in a bamboo house. I decide to stay for longer, enjoying the proximity to nature and the sheer beauty of the Bukit.

I’ve also started my Sādhanā (in this context, meaning my committed, 40-day long daily practice of yoga), that involves Asana (mostly forward-folds, focusing on the grounding force of Apana Vayu), Prānāyāma, Kriya meditation and Mantra Japa (reciting the same mantra internally for 108 rounds or multiple thereof, using a mala, a string of prayer beads).

The Yoga of Spreadsheets

Although it usually takes anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes, making time for practice is a breeze as I feel so much better for it. I am made for the yogic path – deep inside, I always knew it, but now that conviction is unshakable.

Additionally, I decide to share that gift, giving weekly classes on Zoom to Cristian (my brother from another mother) and Aurore (his divine partner), two of the closest friends I have, now living in Lisbon. There’s really nothing like serving the people you love with your gift. From Bali to French Guiana where he recently moved, I end up teaching 3-part yogic breath and Savittri Prānāyāma to my dad — teaching how to breathe to the man how taught me how to walk.

Besides, I realise I’m also driven to bring yoga to the people who need it most — marginalised communities and destitute individuals. Because when it comes to access to these vital spiritual teachings, truth is, there is privilege. Unfortunately, the yoga world is no shining example of diversity (whether of age, gender, skin colour, or body ability) and if our goal is to help as many people awaken, we can’t just ignore this and look the other way. We must acknowledge this reality and work harder to bring yoga to the people who might not naturally come to it, because they are feeling “othered” or simply can’t afford it.

In the seeker’s paradise that is Bali, it feels like the spiritual community sometimes gets lost in its own La La Land, forgetting that we’re here to wake each other up. It’s not about you, it’s not about me — it’s about us. So I make it my sankalpa (my firm resolve and vow) to give free community yoga classes in the months to come.

“If you’re not making the world materially better, if you’re not serving harder done by folks than you then instagram photos of your hashtag #blessedlife you know you can just fuck off with them because that’s never been the point”

Jamie Wheal

Being in the Bukit, I also venture out for a few surf sessions, scoring some of my best rides in Dreamland. I surf the barrel-machine wave of Bingin, but being too greedy to paddle in before low-tide, I end up leaving some skin (and a little flesh) on the reef. Classic.

Plant medicine

To be honest, my mind is not so much on the surf. In addition to my committed yoga practice, I’m also due to attend a 2-day Ayahuasca ceremony. The internal journey to Self must go on!

For those reading this not familiar with the topic, Ayahuasca is a plant medicine used by Amazonian peoples for over a thousand years. Containing DMT (dimethyltryptamine) also known as the “Spirit molecule” (check out this amazing documentary) Ayahuasca has been traditionally used to heal the psyche and open the door to the underlying spiritual reality.

It is my first and I feel ready. People say Ayahuasca finds you when you’re ready and that’s just what it did. After my last class at the Practice, a mate casually tells me: “I was supposed to attend this ceremony, but I can’t go anymore. Wanna take the free spot?”. Just when it had also come into my field from people mentioning it in various conversations over the previous days. If there’s something I learned this year, is that life is always speaking to us if we can listen to its subtle messages.

And the signs were right. The journey over the next 2 nights is blissful beyond measure. Desiring to protect the identity of participants and guides, I will not disclose all.

But this ceremony is truly special and I doubt it could have happened anywhere else than in Bali. Our guides are, once again, superheroes in their own right, each of them larger than life — what is it with this island?

Great care is given to honouring the island, through Balinese offerings and blessing rituals. Moreover, in addition to the powerful icaros sung by the Shipibo lineage holders, we are blessed with Vedic mantra chanted by a local Balinese priest (most of which I’d learned during the yoga teacher training!).

It’s the perfect marriage of Heaven and Hell, of the shamanic and the spiritual, of Matter and Consciousness, of Prakriti and Purusha. This polarity enables me to spiritualise the experience and reach states of consciousness I’d never dreamed of. I understand that from the depth of the Amazonian jungle to the high peaks of the Himalayas, explorers of human consciousness since times immemorial have found different doors to the same underlying reality – ॐ.

After the first cup has settled, I feel I need more. I cautiously approach our guide and ask whether it’s appropriate, not wanting to overdo it on the first night.

“It’s good for you” he says with a knowing grin, as he hands me another cup.

Waking up

I completely lose my sense of separate self, my ego trying to reassemble itself but there’s nowhere to grasp, nothing to hold onto. My consciousness is rising and falling with the breath of the group around me. I am everything and everything is me. Words can’t grasp what I felt – the feeling escapes as soon as the mind tries to conceptualise it, like a slick fish slipping through the hands of its catcher.

I believed we were all One – now I know it. I believed we were creators of our own reality — now I know it. I believed in the intelligence of life – Prāna – now I surrender to it. I believed everything was waves and vibrations – now I feel it.

All that happens is waves rising and falling, neither inauspicious nor meaningful.

Adi Shankara

By God’s grace, I don’t purge even once — Ayahuasca is famous for the emotionally cleansing mega-hurls it can induce. Maybe due to the strict adherence to the dieta (involving eating nothing but bland oatmeal for a few days) as well as my rigorous yogic practices. As one of our guides later confides: “Plant spirits really appreciate discipline. And devotion. As discipline without devotion is control.”

Instead, my body dances to the music, contorting itself into advanced mudra which I’d never learned. I am channeling something, someone.

After the ceremony closes, I’m still there gleeing and giggling like a newborn, in foetal position. Being fed watermelon by one of our guides who plays with me like I’m a toddler. Light rushes all over me as my companions shower me with love. I am reborn once again and I feel held by life.

As people leave, I decide to remain in the maloka. It’s just me and one of our guides, bonding, conversing and singing mantra until sunrise. More specifically, singing the Maha Mritunjaya mantra for hours. Story goes that it was bestowed by Shiva upon humanity to help conquer our fear of death. So we can truly start living. As I keep chanting it, I feel overwhelmed with devotion and I dissolve further into union. Man, Bhakti makes Samadhi so much sweeter.

What a journey.

Spiritual rubber

As I integrate over the next few days, I feel different. Life feels different. The sense of separation between myself and the world around me has been irreversibly dented. There is a release of my instinctive need to grasp, clench, contract and control. Replaced by a soft surrender, a sweet ease and a loving trust in the flow of life. It’s like everything is glowing around me – but nothing has changed, apart from my vision. Funnily enough, even part my drive has disappeared — plans I’d made earlier don’t seem that interesting anymore. My practice only becomes sweeter in the aftermath of the ceremony. It helps me drop back into and stabilize glimpses of non-dual awareness.

I could stay there for months, years even, but eventually I feel it’s time for me to leave my cocoon.

One of the dangers of awakening— is that one can start to divorce oneself from the grittiness of life and the grittiness of relationship. In relationship, you have to have a willingness to not stay hidden away in a transcendent state. You have to come out of it, as it were, and deal with people and situations.

When we awaken, we are no longer fueling the trance of separation; we are no longer pumping energy into it. But even if you never put your foot back on the accelerator, the car still has momentum — karmic momentum. It doesn’t immediately come to a stop in most cases. It has a diminishing momentum that slows down over time. That said, we can also add energy to the existing momentum. We have to watch and discover when it is that we hop back in and put our foot back on the accelerator. Every time we reidentify with conditioning or karma, every time we believe a thought, we are putting energy back into the dream state, putting our foot back on that accelerator.

So the process after awakening involves learning how to keep your foot off the gas and recognizing what puts your foot back on. Even though it’s not personal—even though reidentification is totally spontaneous and it’s not happening to anybody and it’s not anybody’s fault—we still need to investigate how it happens. In this, life itself is your greatest ally. As I’ve said, life is where the spiritual rubber hits the road. Life will show us where we are not clear. Being in relationship with life and others shows us clearly where we can still get hung up. If we have true sincerity, we are not going to try to hide in the memory of an awakened state; we are not going to hide in the realization of the absolute. We are going to come out of hiding. We are not going to grab on to anything.

Adyashanti

And so, it’s time for the spiritual rubber to hit the road. And adventure East – to the islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, to infinity and beyond!

Packing essentials only

Before I go though, I need to kiss Bali goodbye. And so Diana and I venture to Sebatu water temple, deep in the heart of Bali, for a last blessing. The temple is tucked in a ridge, over 30 meters below the road, surrounded by lush jungle and giant bamboos. After climbing down the mossy steps, we realise it’s only us here. We deposit meticulously crafted offerings in front of the temple and cleanse ourselves in the holy springs. Elusive sun rays are making the spray of waterfalls sparkle around us. I feel the motherly embrace of the island.

Bali, you broke me down, ripped off who I thought I was and built me up again into a better man. Matur suksma Mama Bali, Mama Kali. I’ll be back soon, I promise.

Not all those who wander are lost

It’s 4:00 am. We are climbing up a narrow, gravelly path. The alpine scenery of lush forest replete with pines and ferns has now fully transitioned into a barren, rocky trail up the volcano. We are like a fellowship of Hobbits making their way through Mordor. The pale light from the full moon bathes our path as we scramble on all fours through 45° inclines, fighting our way to the top. Every hour or so, we stop to rest, stretch and fuel up with energy bars.

The perfect silence from 2500 meters up is staggering. So is the view of the moonlit island, as far as the southern Bukit peninsula, from the spiritual center of Bali.

That night, Laurent and I are making the ascent of the frighteningly vertical face of Mount Agung, Bali’s highest peak and most active volcano. Agung is revered as the island’s holiest mountain, a replica of the mythical Mount Meru and the dwelling of Mahadewa, the supreme manifestation of Lord Shiva. On the way up, our guide Gede stops to pray at the few Hindu shrines that dot the way to the summit – we’ll need it.

I feel a potent mixture of excitement and fear, from the risk of hiking up an active, Alert Level 3 volcano, which last erupted only a year ago. The government says we’re not not supposed to be there. But Gede has been running hikes up the summit again for the last month. Daily seismographic data checks and constant connection to a local alerting center make it a calculated risk.

Although we know we shouldn’t, we can’t stop ourselves and ask Gede, our guide:

– “How much longer to the top?”

– “45 minutes”

30 minutes later…

– “How much longer to the top?”

– “45 minutes”

– “Didn’t you just say 45 minutes 30 minutes earlier?”

We reach the summit shortly before sunrise. We’re exhausted – a 2000 meters elevation gain in 6 hours, on nearly no sleep, is no joke. The wind is chilling and my makeshift mountaineering attire (I layered two t-shirts, a surf lycra and a wafer-thin sailing Patagonia jacket) don’t help much. I hadn’t planned to be anywhere near frosty this year.

But we made it. We’re standing on top of the sleeping dragon. We feel it breathe, as smoke comes out of the crater. A deep sense of awe fills me as I realise – the Earth is alive! And I am small as a pimple.

The Hobbit

The sun rises on the horizon, clouds beneath us, revealing a 360° panorama of Bali and the neighbouring islands, as far as Lombok. We are on top of the world.

Time to come down, literally and figuratively . Going up wasn’t even half the battle, as I was to painfully learn. On the steep way down, my hips get stiffer and my knees wobblier by the minute, cushioning the impact from sliding on rubble or gravel.

I fall a few times. My legs turn into jelly and I fear they will collapse any time – or worse, I’ll trip up and tear something. Is that what old age feels like?

After only one hour, I am shattered, and despair takes over as I realise how much further we have to go. So I force myself to only think about the next step. One more step.

Eventually, it takes us a full 8 hours to go down. We reach the departure point 15 hours after we left and I fall to the ground, dead beat. And fulfilled.

Gotta keep on movin’

2 weeks earlier, I had left Medewi, after spending a whole 3 months there. It was still possible to surf in this area when most of the island’s beaches were closed because of COVID-19 lockdown, so I had made my nest there.

I met incredible humans in this village, made a Balinese family, had the surf of my life and lived my beach bum dream in my little wooden cabin overlooking the ocean.

But while I enjoyed it for a while, the nest was getting stale. Our little international lockdown beach community turned sour — too much mindless partying, same superficial conversations, spiteful gossip, people falling out, etc. My lower self was thriving though and “The Toine” went to town a few times: intoxicated, reckless, loud, obnoxious. Feeling like I was losing boundaries (one of my self-defeating patterns when living in community), I started retreating within and avoiding people I had been hanging out with just a few weeks earlier. Besides, things were opening up throughout the island as lockdown was slowly ending.

Time to move on and explore.

So I buy a scooter from my friend (and local family) Papa Ugis for a mere 8.5 million IDR (~£500). After 4 months on the island, I had already spent half that money on renting one. Got the papers and all. It’s the first vehicle I’ve ever owned – a true millenial.

My scooter loaded like a mule, I drive to Uluwatu, in the Bukit peninsula, to meet my friend Laurent who had rented a villa with friends for the weekend.

The Bukit

Although I’d been in Bali for over 4 months, due to the lockdown that was now just ending, I hadn’t spent any time in the Bukit yet. A shame as it’s by far the most picturesque area of the island.

Ebony white, chalky cliffs (covered with verdurous, green meadows) dropping dramatically into golden sand and cerulean waters. A medley of scenery. It’s as if the Seven Sisters had decided to relocate to the tropics.

With Laurent, we make plans for an epic road trip throughout the island. With the advent of “The New Normal” — not an indie rock band, but an attempt by the government and travel operators to resume tourism with heightened COVID health and safety measures — it was the perfect time to see it all without the crowds.

Before leaving the Bukit peninsula, however, I have to surf. Not only is it the most stunning region of Bali, it’s also home to its best waves. The world-famous breaks of Uluwatu, Padang Padang and Bingin are all on a small stretch of the peninsula, at the tip of the island. The southern hemisphere’s winter (your summer, probably) groundswells, coming all the way from Australia, wrap just perfectly around this headland, transforming it in a true wave machine.

Oh and the breaks are rather deserted too. Conversation starters in the lineup often include how lucky are we to surf these waves with only 5-20 surfers, not your usual 100+ zoo. Apparently, it’s not been that way for at least 20 years and probably won’t be that way ever again. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Surfers are selfish animals — we want to keep the fun all to ourselves so we really don’t like it when it’s crowded.

I surf Balangan, a secluded little beach that’s avoided the massive hotel developments mushrooming around the peninsula, keeping its laid-back, “hang at the warung” vibe. My first day there was scary, with some double overhead sets. For half an hour, I observe and nearly turn away. Glad I didn’t, as I catch a few of these impossibly fast peeling left-handers, in between paddling out some monster sets. That’s Balangan for you: speedy waves, sometimes barrelling, often closing out, where keeping a highline is a must. It can really be frustrating too, where hours can go on without catching anything good. But if you make it, you’re in for a ride.

I surf Dreamland, one of the only right-handers in the Bukit. Quenching my thirst for frontside (I’m regular footed), wave after wave, I carve hard against its walls at sunset. Standing in the folding enveloppe of green-turning-pink water at dusk, I was a part of nature’s glorious painting.

Best of all, I surf the legendary Uluwatu. I mostly go there with Dan, a lovely American fellow and all-around good egg I had met in Medewi. As I write this, we’re on a surf trip together, along with Anais and Virginie, two fabulous French ladies we’d also met there. Lucky to call this bunch my friends.

Beyond the wave, surfing Uluwatu is an unforgettable experience. Walking 50 meters of stairs down the cliff into a spectacular cave, ducking through holes to make it to a secret beach, paddling out in crystal-clear water, surfing just beneath the bluff… fills you with wonder. And then of course, the wave, this perfect-left hander spitting machine, barrelling on cue. Although I initially find it challenging — this fast, hollow wave on my backside — after coming back time and time again, I start flowing with it and it graces me with some of the best rides in my life.

After all this stoke, it was time go explore the island.

The road trip. 400 kms on my loyal scooter.

Sidemen

I drive east to Sidemen, a bucolic backcountry village tucked in valleys layered with rice terraces. It’s so quiet you can hear rice stalks being cut by farmers over 50m away.

A time to relax and do nothing (quite the achievement for me) in a beautiful little hotel with a view. My 3 days there are spent reading, taking walks, playing kites with some village kids.

And having long lunches and engrossing conversations with Bob and Aleja, a couple that is staying there too.

Bob is The Most Interesting Man in the World. An intrepid adventurer, he has sailed from California to Indonesia on his own sailboat for 3 years through Polynesia and circumnavigated the whole of South America in a camper van — twice. His stories remind me of some of the travel writing greats like Paul Theroux: curious, observant and witty.

“The number one rule of sailing is to always ground your tackle”, he imparts after I share some of our anchoring disasters in Thailand with Rob, our vessel nearly lost to sea. I try to suck in all the knowledge from this wise one. And I realise I hadn’t met such traveller on my journey yet. I wonder if, in the age of Instagram and digital nomads, this brand of explorers might just go extinct.

Amed

Well rested and fed, I leave for Amed, a quaint fishing village in the north east.

No waves there, but plenty of divers. French people too – I even spotted baguettes being sold in your usual convenience store, very telling.

Bali is a weird place that way. Tribes and subcultures cluster in the same cities with staggering intensity. Just like the Factions in the Divergent series, you’ve got:

  • Spiritual in Ubud
  • Hipster in Canggu
  • Surfer in Uluwatu
  • Diver in Amed

Geographical echo chambers, with their own culture and set of values, these tribes don’t tend to mix much. You’ll know when you see a Canggu person in Ubud – a friend once pointed at one.
But what if you belong to several of these subcultures at the same time? What if you have a layered identity, a multidimensional personality? What if you are Divergent? Well, that’s how I feel in Bali. Not identifying with a single cookie-cutter community, but wanting to mix ‘em all.

In the spirit of the Factions, I had come to Amed for…surprise, a diving course! More specifically a freediving course at Apneista.

I am in for a treat. I get one-on-one, VIP treatment, being the only student on the course and learn so much about breath, human anatomy, mindfulness, the physics of gases… The biggest learning though is that the urge to gasp for air when breath holding is actually…well, not to gasp for air. It’s to release excess CO2. My body does not lack oxygen, as they prove to me by strapping a blood oxymeter on my finger, displaying I still have north of 95% oxygen left in my blood when I can’t hold it anymore. Mind-boggling. A lot of the freediving training, then, is not about absorbing more oxygen, it’s about building a higher CO2 tolerance through various mind and body techniques I won’t go into here. Fascinating stuff.

The dive itself is a truly meditative practice, climbing down a rope, deep in the big blue. No sound, no light, it’s all about keeping the mind still to go deeper. The meditative balance of the descent is easily lost though, from improper equalisation or fears popping up. Eventually, I dive down to 15 meters.

The Big Blue

From the depth of the sea, I then go to climb the summit of the island — where this story started.

Needless to say, Laurent and I are broken for several days after this hike. We head back to Sidemen for 2 days of TLC, nursing our sore legs, hardly able to make it down any flight of stairs.

Lovina

Feeling a little better, we head to Lovina, a sleepy beach town up north. The drive there, 100kms on our scooter, is mesmerising as we drive through all sceneries and climates: misty jungles to icy pouring mountains until the sunny seaside. There’s really not much to do in Lovina, especially since tourism has virtually disappeared with the pandemic. The desolate restaurants and bars of the tourist strips, their staff waiting for Godot, makes the whole thing eerie, if not depressing. Nature, however, doesn’t care and so we go snorkel and dance with schools fish in the reef, catch a few with our fishing rods and watch dolphins backflip at sunrise.

West Bali

Finally we journey to the last destination of our road trip, the Wild Wild West – Bali West National Park. There, Jennifer, Laurent’s adorable friend, joins us and we become a trio.

We land in the most lavish villa I’ve ever stayed in, Corona prices making it a no-brainer. From its open living room, we revel in the majestic views of the jungle, of the ocean, and across the straight, of the Javanese volcanoes in which the sun sets without fault every single day. We dance to the sunset, each in front of their own window, social distancing of course.

We make the most of this palace, lounging, eating, philosophising, empathising and ideating. I am fulfilled by the deep, meaningful connection I have with those two. We even start a t-shirt business from my iPad (“the laziest business ever”), taking the piss out of the spiritual crowd

With the New Normal, we thought the National Park would be open. But it isn’t.

No big deal though, as we find ways to make the most of the untouched, pristine nature of the region by snorkelling in Menjangan, the best dive in Bali. Our captain, Konang — a Balinese version of Jimmy Chow with a past predilection for crystal meth we learn — takes us on a fishermen’s boat across choppy seas to reach the empty shores of the island. There we swim through the lively reef and its vivacious society of fluo citizens, so vivid they seem to come straight out of a flashy 80s commercial. The outline of a shark, a few meters below the vertical reef, scares the shit out of some of us and I am hypnotised watching a moray waiting for prey, hiding most of its body in rock and waving with the current.

Time to wrap our trip. We head back to Ubud.

Stray dog

On the way, I have an accident. Not paying attention to the car that’s braking in front of me, I brake late and hard on the wet, slippery road. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground, stunned — and scared. Luckily, my friends take good care of me and I make it out with only road rash. “Bali tattoo” they call it. I know now why locals wear trousers and jackets when driving long-distance.

Sadly, this is just the latest in a string of injuries over the past 2 months (which counted a sprained ankle, a foot infection and many, many scraps). Like a zealous landscaper, I’ve been tending carefully to this garden of wounds. Antiseptic rub, antibacterial ointment, gauze, straps and Chinese tinctures have become part of my daily toolbox. A crash course in first aid.

But at a deeper level, I see those physical traumas as a manifestation of my spiritual imbalance. I had been neglecting my practices, relaxing too much and losing my connection with Spirit, my connection with myself. With my Self. I had strayed far from the path.

The message was only getting louder and clearer — if I keep going, I’ll seriously harm myself or worse. Mama Bali, as they call her, likes to make herself heard. And will bitchslap you if you don’t listen.

So I listened. I reconnected with my practice, with my values, with myself. With my Self. Things have shifted dramatically since. I’m also much clearer on the balance I want to strike between relaxing into my environment and keeping strong boundaries while I travel, a tension I’d previously described here.

As I write this post, I’m relaxing in the laid-back neighbouring island of Lembongan.

And taking a break from Bali (holidayception) before starting a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training that has been calling me in all the ways it could. I’d been considering it deeply, wanting to take my practice to the next level, but then my mind found a thousand reasons not to go. Still, the calling was there, brewing in the background. Until, on the day I had that accident, the day before applications for the training closed, we stopped at a roadside cafe lost in the middle of the island and I bumped into someone I knew. Less than a minute in the conversation, she said she was going to do a yoga teacher training and I knew immediately which one it was. “Fine” I thought “Surrender to the flow of life and just do it”.

Sometimes, you have to forget a little to remember who you are.

All that is gold does not glitter; Not all who wander are lost. The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

J.R.R Tolkien

Ignoramus

2020 is the worst year for a travelling sabbatical. 2020 is the best year for a travelling sabbatical. Which of the above propositions is true?

Both.

My plans to travel far and wide across the Pacific have been thwarted. My journey surely won’t make it “round-the-world”. Uncertainty is my constant companion – let’s not even mention visas.

Yet, while my friends and relatives around the world are confined in tiny flats trying not to go insane, I’m blessed in Bali. Where even now I can roam freely. Confined on my island, barred from globetrotting due to coronavirus, I can still travel locally. Overstaying my initial plans by several months, I have been trading breadth of experience for depth instead.

Grey areas

It’s been interesting observing the local response to the virus. Indonesia, a spread-out archipelago comprising a myriad cultures, is a deeply decentralised polity. While the central Indonesian government has been issuing policies and edicts to contain the spread of COVID-19, many rules and most of their enforcement in Bali come from the banjar, the smallest form of local government, a largely independent village council system. So rules vary widely from a village to the next – as do their logical consistency. Many times, the local pecalang (the banjar’s police) at the entrance of a village would spray my scooter wheels using a karcher full of some dubious disinfectant. As if it would somehow prevent me from spreading the virus.

And grey areas are plenty… the beachbreak I was previously surfing in Sumbul got reopened for its residents. While neighbouring Medewi Point wasn’t. At least, not for bules (foreigners) — Indonesians could still surf. Go figure. Apparently, just now, the banjar of Medewi, against the advice of the government, has decided to reopen its surf spot, applying social distancing rules (no hanging out on the beach, surf in, surf out) and taking full responsibility for any incidents. Making the most of these local loopholes, while still staying in Medewi, I was able to sneak in Sumbul for some more surf.

Everywhere in Bali, I never got tired of seeing locals put on their masks whenever they’d see a foreigner. Or asking me “Where are you from?” and their scared look whenever I’d answer “France”. All that said, there have been surprisingly few cases reported in Bali (407 at the time of writing) and so the general attitude is pretty lax, compared to other countries, or even other islands in Indonesia (>10,000 cases in neighbouring Java).

No, where Bali is being hit hard is economically. Tourism accounts for 60%-80% of GDP and so many families have lost their entire means of subsistence. Which is why a friend has set up a fundraiser to help Medewi’s community and buy basic supplies (rice, soap, oil, etc). Every little helps and even $10 feeds a family for a month, so any donation you make would go a long way! Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/pls-help-medewi-community-during-covid19-crisis

About a month ago, Ramadan kicked off. A month of fasting for Muslims around the world, to purify and feel closer to God. A dry fast, from sunrise to sunset, most locals weren’t surfing anymore (no water in the ears, nose or mouths), which meant plenty of waves for us tourists. A fortunate consequence. A less fortunate consequence, for my sleep at least, was the amping up of mosque prayers, blasting chants anytime in the night. I begged for earplugs. I also took on reading the Quran, because when else in my life would I?

Hungry for some better surf, I sneaked into a neighbouring break another morning. Pulukan, a scenic beach lined up with palm trees and nested near a typical fishermen village, replete with outrigger canoes.

Paddling out, I could see locals eyeing me out, wondering who I was and what I was doing here. “Shit, they’ll kick me out of the water when they figure out my brown skin isn’t from here” I thought. Luckily, one of the boys, Krishna, had been my surf guide back in Canggu! As soon as we talked, the others relaxed, and the only other foreigner, an older Australian expat literally asked me: “How much did you pay him?”. I hadn’t thought of bribing locals to surf, but thanks for the suggestion. In this typical, entitled manner of Bali foreigners who act even more protectively than actual locals towards their surfing spot, he even made me promise not to bring my friends over. “Fine” I said “I don’t really have friends here anyway.”. Which was true, as I was very much a loner back then.

I had a free pass to surf in Pulukan – or so I thought. When I came back the next morning, I got politely called out of the water by guys patrolling the beach. With Ramadan in full swing, the local boys wouldn’t be surfing here for a while and so I wouldn’t either.

Paradise bored

I wasn’t complaining. I could still surf Sumbul, learn massage from Papa Ugis (or Haji Ugis for the faithful, since he’s done the pilgrimage to the Mecca), forage coconuts in my backyard and engross myself in books.

Yet, even paradise gets boring. Tim Ferris puts it well:

Let’s suppose you decide to dip your toe in dreams like relocating to the Caribbean for island-hopping or taking a safari in the Serengeti. It will be wonderful and unforgettable, and you should do it. There will come a time, however—be it three weeks or three months later—when you won’t be able to drink another piña colada or photograph another red-assed baboon. That day will come. Self-criticism and existential panic attacks usually start around this time. But this is what I always wanted! How can I be bored? Oh my god, what am I gonna do with myself? Don’t freak out and fuel the fire. This is normal among all high-performers who downshift after working hard for a long time. The smarter and more goal-oriented you are, the tougher these growing pains will be. Don’t be afraid of the existential or social challenges.

Freedom is like a new sport. In the beginning, the sheer newness of it is exciting enough to keep things interesting at all times. Once you have learned the basics, though, it becomes clear that having less work is easy. It’s filling the void with more life that is hard. Finding excitement, as it turns out, takes more thought than simple workaholism. But don’t fret. That’s where all the rewards are.

Tim Ferris

Though I’d been loving my time in Medewi, after a month of relative isolation, I felt like exploring again. I was also missing deep connection and friendship. I was grounded, centred, happy – just in a happy rut.

[…] he had been in a state of heightened awareness, but there is a sense in which awareness can be as stagnating as sloth. His stay at the lamasery had become a rut, a tranquil, nourishing, educational rut that had done him little harm and much good, but a rut, nonetheless.

Jitterbug Perfume

Time to mix it up!

So I decided to drive back to Ubud and stay with my friend Laurent for some quality time. On my scooter, with my rucksack between my legs, my surfboard on the rack and my daypack on my back, here I was, free again, self-sufficient, carrying my home wherever I went.

Driving through half of Bali, I painted a vivid picture of the island, its various landscapes from sprouting rice field terraces, to towering mountains, dense jungles and dusty towns. I knew it more and more, this island. It was becoming home.

Ubud was a ghost town, far from the bustling touristic hub it usually is. Most shops and cafés were closed, traffic was non-existent and the silence, eerie. Signs everywhere requiring people to wear masks. Pecalang spraying my scooter.

Arriving at Laurent’s, I immediately felt home again. Still buzzing from my roadside coffee, we dived straight into discussing his new venture and the business plan he was putting together. As I mentioned in a previous post, Laurent has created one of most popular sound-healing experiences in Ubud, Beyond Sound at the Pyramids of Chi, where tens of thousands visitors getting their mind (and spirit) blown every year. He’s currently productizing it to bring this legal, safe and accessible psychedelic experience to people all over the world. I loved getting my startup juices flowing again, especially to help a friend.

Coincidentally, in the past couple of months, consulting gigs or advisory roles have been coming to me. I initially believed I’d be better off without thinking about product or startups at all during this sabbatical of mine. But I’ve come to realise I’m actually enjoying flexing those muscles a little and helping solve people’s problems. And so I’ve taken on a few projects, from advising product teams at Polymath Ventures to coaching 29K’s product leader to helping a stealth startup hire their Chief Product Officer. It’s fun and I’m going to do more of this. And who knows, maybe rock the “digital nomad” life for a little while.

Although I had my Balinese family back in Medewi, we couldn’t relate in the same way I would a decade-old friend. Discussing business, love, God, I felt closer to him than I ever had and we both learned a ton from each other. Deep friendship – no, brotherhood- really is nourishing.

Although most of Ubud’s touristic activities were closed, its expat community was going strong. People hung out at each other’s exquisite villas and a few landmark spots of the town’s iconic café culture were open, with restrictions. So we got to brunch and hang out at all the usual spots (Zest, Sayuri, Bella), conversing with friends over the best plant-based food in the world. One topic that kept coming up, unsurprisingly, was coronavirus. What was surprising however, was the stance that even smart, educated people took on it . Conspiracy, Bill Gates, vaccines, 5G, lalala-dida. Should have seen it coming — Ubud is known for being a New-Agey town, spiritual hub of the world where everyone is a coach, a healer, a yoga teacher or all those things at once. And it so happens that spirituality and conspiracy theory make fantastic bedfellows (see this fantastic JP Sears’ treatment of the topic).

I personally do feel the existence of a spirit that transcends our materialistic reductionist worldview, yet believing in conspiracy theories just because they are plausible (what isn’t?) is beyond me. Those conversations were frustrating – it is impossible to debate a conspiracy theory because by definition the very facts you debate will be labeled as “fabricated“. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Even so conspiracists often become as entrenched in their belief in a single truth as the authoritative institutions they denounce. ”Ignoramus” is my motto – “We do not know”.

If you ever get into this kind of argument and aren’t touchy about reaching the Godwin point, ask the other person to consider whether the conspiracy itself might be a conspiracy to manipulate them. If anything, history is a good teacher…anyone remember The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used by the National Socialist Party to promote hatred of Jews? This shit can be dangerous.

Here I was an outsider again, questioning the beliefs of the group. Whether in ultra-materialistic Canggu or ultra-spiritual Ubud. In some sense, this is the story of my life, being the one who doesn’t really fit in. It started with my skin colour, not really white, not really black, and it’s followed me all along. I used to see this as a curse, now I see this as a blessing. Not belonging anywhere means I can belong everywhere.

We bonded over this with Jeya, a kind, beautiful soul met on Tinder, of all places. I had a deep need for romance and intimacy, so I hit the App Store and got a match. Dating these days. The flirt turned into friendship and we shared some hilarious times together. Once we drove to Komune, the beach resort just in front to Keramas, a much vaunted surf spot on the east coast.

While Keramas was closed for surfing, I remembered Cucukan was just around the corner. Cucukan was a powerful, snappy wave in sky blue water… where I had cut my foot open over a month ago on the sharp reef bottom (4 stitches). It is secluded in a small fishing village, far from traffic and governmental oversight. “Maybe it’s still open” I thought. We rode there and it was! I jumped out of excitement, especially because I had taken my board with me to Ubud. As I had dreamed a couple months ago, I could get the best of both worlds: live in Ubud and go surf on the east coast.

I surfed there for a few days, this time with reef booties, which definitely saved my feet from further injuries. The surfing level there was insane though, so it was hard to compete for the waves, and the easterly trade winds of the dry season meant it was all blown out after 10am.

Beach bum

Life in Ubud was good, yet I longed for the wet kiss of the ocean. I realised I’d be better back on my beach break at Sumbul if I wanted to surf all day and improve. Also, before I left Medewi, I’d gone to scout a few properties in Sumbul to see if I could stay closer to the break. Yudah, a local, had shown me this stunning wooden cabin in the rice fields, on a small hill overlooking the ocean. I was dreaming about it.

So I did what I do and packed my bags, my surfboard and hopped on my scooter back to Sumbul. Great decision. As soon as I returned to Sumbul and went for a sunset surf, while waiting for waves at the peak, I was greeted by the most magnificent rainbow ever, I could see both its ends, one starting in the mountain, the other ending in the ocean. The sky was burning with orange flames while I was riding on some heavy, hollow waves and coming back to shore with the last lights, I knew I was home.

My cabin is the stuff of dreams. A wooden house inspired by the traditional Balinese rice barns and their hull-shaped roof. It is accessible by a narrow path that winds through dense rice paddies, which have recently turned from a humid green to a toasty yellow. Time for harvest.

Some still do it by hand, others bring a massive machine which they feed the rice stalks to. These fields, besides rice plants, host some local fauna too: lizards, cows, cats… and snakes. I’ve seen a couple on the paths. Walking back at night I always shine my flashlight and pound my feet on the ground while walking (to scare them away with vibrations). But the most terrifying one I’d seen was in my kitchen, while writing in my journal. Raising my head for a second, I saw something slide underneath the table: a meter long black-and-white banded krait, a venomous and potentially deadly snake. I froze for a minute, while it slithered languidly under the house.

I stay in the upper room, where I can see the waves breaking from my bed. No need to check the forecast anymore! High Tide is the name of the place and the owner, Eddie, has built it as a hostel. The lower floor is a dorm with 4 beds, but the private upper floor which I occupy is where he usually stays, with his German girlfriend that he’d built it for. With coronavirus, she’s gone back to Germany and so he’s also renting their place. My space is clean, minimalist, even a little hip with its herbal tea jars, white-painted wood and open air bathroom. I added a hammock on the porch, to chill when I’m done surfing, read and watch the waves.

On the way back from Ubud, I also bought a guitar in a small village I was driving by. It’s written “Yamaha” on it, but given the sound and the price I paid for it (40 bucks), I have my doubts. Still good enough to learn new songs to play and sing. Thereby completing the holy trinity of any aspiring beach bum: surf, hammock and guitar. I’m such a cliché.

Although just a couple kilometers away from my previous homestay, my experience in Sumbul couldn’t have been more different. While my time in Medewi was mostly solitary, spent reading or geeking out when not surfing, Sumbul is all about community. Many people from all over the world and walks of life are also stuck here, bonding over surfing and mischief. A Dutch systems analyst, a Swiss teacher, a Canadian lumberjack, an American marketer, a French engineer, travelling Germans are just some of the people who make the colourful Sumbul crowd.

The former, Ingmar, a great guy, grounded and inclusive, has been organising regular Friday dinners at the local beachside warung which have become a regular fixture, often ending in arak-fuelled beach parties, skinny-dipping included. I was even surprised with a birthday party and gift, when a few days earlier, all I had expected was a solitary evening. I felt loved, warm and fuzzy from that community feeling. When staying in Medewi, I’d been wondering why such community hadn’t formed already while we’re all stuck here. But it had been there all along, I just hadn’t seen it.

Although I hadn’t moved island or country, it felt like a new chapter. Travel can be found anywhere, I learned, if one can see, instead of looking.

People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all that you can handle.

Paul auster

Surf beach communities often feel like high school. You see the same people in class (surfing), during recess (at the beach bar) and parties (parties). Gossip is plenty and people are promiscuous (social distancing rules need not apply). There I met a girl, Rebekah, a wandering Canadian medium and Instagramer (that should have been a red flag). We had a fling, until I realised that while the body and spirit connection was there, the mind one wasn’t. She once told me that she’d also bought the Quran, asking whether it was that “Israelian book (sic)” and that she was looking for a partner to “pay for things and produce the show of which [she] will be the star”.

Living so close to the waves, I focused single-mindedly on surfing. Getting back to my dawn patrol rhythm, waking up at 5am, in the water at 6am, surfing, eating, surfing, sleeping. I surfed my brains out, all day, every day.

We even started the Corona Surf Camp, the first free surf camp in the world, the idea being to help each other progress by shooting videos and giving each other feedback, often the biggest value you get from a surf camp. It didn’t really take on (coordinating beach bums is an ordeal, surprisingly), but that was worth a try.

Starting to feel limited by my surfboard (a 6’2 step-up board), it was time to move on to a high-performance board. So I bought a second-hand 5’11 Pyzel from Ben, a drinker with a surfing problem.

Living in Medewi for a few years, Ben is your typically loud and unruly Kiwi, often drunk before noon, and swearing faster than you can count (cunt!). While I’d initially branded him as a harmless drunk, I realised he could be quite dangerous when he headbutted me at a party after I’d played a prank on him (and punched another guy earlier for the same reason). Apparently he gets violent when he drinks liquor. We haven’t seen him since. His board is great though and I’ve been making terrific progress on it. So, thanks Ben.

Once, at a party, a girl staying at a local surf camp told us she’d been sneaking in for sunrise surf at the Right Hander, next to Medewi. From 6am to 8am, just before the pecalang would come patrol. This beach was supposed to be closed (unlike Sumbul) but many surfers throughout Bali are also sneaking in at first light, as it seems the pecalang like to sleep in. Or you can also pay a fisherman to take you straight to a spot, like we did one morning, after driving 2 hours from Medewi to Seseh at 5am, sailing another hour to Uluwatu, to be dropped into the lineup.

The Right Hander being one of my favourite waves and local rules being as shady as they are, I decided to give it a try. I sneaked in at first light and surfed with locals until 8am, ripping one tight wave face after the next. Then, right on time, the pecalang came and whistled us out. I was expecting a scolding, maybe even my board confiscated, but no! They didn’t even talk to us. Weird, I thought. Maybe there’s some kind of tacit understanding that it’s OK to surf until 8am?

Wanting to test this theory, I came back the following days and the same thing happened. We paddled out at first light, surfed for a couple hours, were waived at, got out of the water. Fascinating. Yesterday, the pecalang didn’t even bother coming so we surfed until we couldn’t paddle anymore. A local later told me it was now open.

Still no one knows for sure — “ignoramus”. In the last couple of months, the rumour mill has been grinding heavily, opaque local decisions and rules making it harder to discern truth from hear-say. This feels like pre-internet days. But it seems beaches are slowly reopening across Bali and soon, maybe, I’ll be able to travel to other islands. Get back on the road, to the pristine (and now empty) breaks of Lombok and Sumbawa. Who knows?

Until then, I’ll keep my eyes wide open.

Deciding to skip the road and go for the beach instead on our way to surf. A new way to see.

Stuck in paradise

Hi again, friend. I’m back. This time though, I’m stationary. Sat as the only guest at a small local warung in Medewi, Rasta Cafe, overlooking rainwater-filled terraces of rice paddies, like giant stairs of sprouting mirrors, back-bent farmers plucking their green hairs. I hear the prayers from neighbouring mosques, haphazardly yet harmoniously blending into a choir of devout chants. Medewi, unlike most of Bali (but like most of Indonesia), is majority Muslim. Unbeknownst to Fox News, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Yet, in Indonesia, major religions (Islam, Hinduism. Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism) seem to co-exist relatively peacefully. A small, rural community sandwiched between mountain and sea, subsisting mainly from agriculture and fishing, Medewi is still relatively untouched. No town square, hipster cafes or convenience stores, only a few small roads leading into the overgrown, exuberant jungle.

It seems most travelling is off the table for weeks, or maybe even months, to come. No one knows. Coronavirus. Extraordinary times, aren’t they? 2020 definitely ain’t the best year for a round-the-world trip.

“Going back” is not an option – I don’t know what that would even mean, now that I’ve left everything for this nomadic life. But going ahead is no option either, as borders are closed. So for now, I’m stuck here. Stuck in paradise.

In some way, the Coronavirus has been my invisible travel companion. Like a scheming villain hiding in the background, it has been building momentum and closing in on me, wherever I would try to escape. My first encounter with the virus was end of January, when most of the world was still oblivious to it. Back then, I was in Chiang Mai, not too far from the Chinese border, and there had been a couple reported cases in the city. People were starting to worry, masks were handed out and hand-sanitizer was out of stock in every pharmacy. Classic.

But far was I to suspect it would blow out into a full-scale pandemic. I was pretty optimistic and relaxed about the whole thing, as my ex-colleague and travel buddy Rob was keen to point out in his own account.

Then, as I travelled through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and finally Bali, the virus travelled westward – to Europe and the Americas. When shit hit the fan in Italy, it felt like the tables were turned – I was now the one worrying for my friends and family back in Europe!

Somehow, South-East Asia felt like a safe haven, given the virus had failed to take a strong hold here. But as you’ll see later, it did catch up in more ways than one.

Last we talked, I was in Ubud, staying with my friend Laurent, recovering from a surfing injury, revelling in all the culture and healing this special town has to offer. From juice cleanses to body work to sound healing, it was a truly nurturing time. A reset. I also got to reunite with my travel buddy, Rob, who’d arrived from Japan after a snowboarding injury, hoping to heal in Ubud too. Together with him and Joel, a gifted musician and sound healer, we adventured on scooter to Lake Batur and the surrounding mountains. What a trip.

Also, I finally got to learn more about the rich, yet impregnable, Balinese culture. Things like temple etiquette, prayers, how to make offerings (at least, canang sari) and properly wear a sarong.

If you ever go to Bali (in the Hindu parts), instead of the usual “Selamat pagi/siang/sore/malam”, greet people with “Om Swastyastu“. Thus wishing safety, happiness and prosperity. They’ll be surprised and appreciative. You might correctly feel the Indian influence (Om, Svasti), Sanskrit remaining the holy language here.

Back to Canggu

Now, with my foot healing, I’d been contemplating my next move. I was on a mission to have the surf of my life, after all. So, in the end, I decided to join a 2-month surf instructor Academy at Mojosurf. Not only would it give me the credentials to teach, most vitally I would learn about the key ocean survival skills I felt I was lacking to tackle bigger, gnarlier waves. The Academy was supposed to start in Red Island, near Java, on very much a deserted beach and break all to ourselves before hitting other islands like Lembongan or Lombok.

But the day before I left, I got a message from one of the surf camp’s employees that now, because of Coronavirus, they were closing all camps across Indonesia and bringing everyone to Canggu until further notice. Fuck. As you might have read in my previous post, I am not the biggest fan of Canggu. Somehow fate would have me go back. Was this a test? To transcend my aversion? Anyway, I’d paid them already and despite the unfortunate change of plans, I was here to surf, Canggu or not.

But it was a very different Canggu I found. A quieter, more peaceful one. COVID-19 had really started ramping up globally and so most tourists left, afraid of being stuck in Bali were the virus to break out here. Ironically, it made the city more liveable. Also, the surf camp had some good family vibe and their manager, Craig, a true legend in his Aussie vernacular, went to great lengths to take care of everyone in these uncertain times. Beaches were still open by then, so we went surfing.

We surfed Kedungu, an easy, mellow reef break ideal for longboards and beginners, but also catering more advanced surfers, with long, peeling rides.

We surfed Balian, a very exposed beach break that receives a lot of swells, a wave machine churning out shifty, sucky peaks driving into long steep walls ripe for ripping. And some surprise monster sets – getting caught in the inside is a given there. It’s facing a rivermouth, whose waters descend from a picturesque, jade-green mountain facing the spot. Also, it’s the only beach in Bali where there’ve been attacks from whale sharks (apparently scouring for garbage from the river and mistaking humans for some…not unfair). Scored some great rides and my shoulders burned.

And of course, we surfed Old Man’s/Batu Bolong, with its hordes of loggers and party waves.

And then it was Nyepi. Amongst the smorgasbord of Hindu celebrations in Bali, Nyepi (also known as “Silent Day”) is the most important one. It’s the equivalent of their New Year, Balinese Hindu having their own calendar. What makes Nyepi special is that for one full day, no one — I repeat, no one — is allowed out of their homes. Pecalang (traditional Balinese security forces) patrol the streets to enforce this, as you can see in the case of this “fucking idiot” as Craig would call him, who went jogging on that day and got properly chained up after arguing with them. During Nyepi, people are abstaining from all kind of entertainment, and for some, speech and food. It’s an island-wide collective physical, mental and spiritual fast, an opportunity to reflect, introspect through prayer, meditation and silence. So yeah, Balinese had already been practicing “lockdown” for hundreds of years – what foresight!

Joke apart, this year’s Nyepi, under the auspices of Coronavirus, was different because all the traditional pre- and post-Nyepi celebrations (which involve many parties such as processions of ogoh-ogoh statues representing evil spirits the day before or a kissing ceremony the day after) were cancelled as they would have resulted in mass gatherings potentially leading into an outbreak. Now, Nyepi is supposed to last for a single day, so what a surprise when I woke up the day after and Craig told me: “They’re extending Nyepi for another day”. Apparently, it had never happened before but this time things were different. Officials figured since people were locked down already, locking them for an extra day could help flatten whatever curve was in Bali.

Escape to Medewi

Whatever I’d do, Coronavirus would keep closing in on me. The next day, they closed down the beaches in Canggu. And Craig told me they were closing down the whole camp, so the Academy was off. Shit. I’d spent north of four grands on this! I couldn’t get a refund as I had already started it, but they gave me an equivalent credit I could use anytime in the next 24 months on any of their product (and for instance, do the whole instructor Academy again). Fair game, especially since the whole travel industry is taking a big hit at the moment, and ought to be careful with their cash reserves. I’ll be back.

However, all that put me in a bit of a funk. I really hit rock bottom over the next two days, not clear what to do next. Questioning my past decisions. Had I been over-optimistic, reckless even, in booking a surfcamp when the pandemic was exploding worldwide? Should I have gone to Lombok instead? Or maybe on a small Mentawai island? What to do next? Escape somewhere else? What if it’s worse? Doubt, confusion and second-guessing reigned supreme and I numbed the pain by binge-reading manga and chain-smoking. A mourning of sorts.

The impact of Coronavirus on my plans and dreams finally hit home. Until then, I had hoped I’d somehow be spared in what I believed to be a refuge island. But then I learned the whole world is shifting ground right now. I learned to avoid committing to plans until the very last minute, especially in this climate of extreme uncertainty. To live by the day, every day. To take time to mourn and feel my pain. And to release attachment to any outcomes.

And then I made a plan. A month earlier, I’d gone to Medewi, on the west coast of Bali, for a surf session. The longest waves I’d ever surfed, Medewi was also way more remote and rural than Canggu. Could it be my next haven? Would Corona find me there? I located a homestay online, texted them and found out surf breaks were still open. Time to get out of my haze and make a move.

I arrived at Pink Barrel, a charming homestay on a side road in Medewi. It’s run by a Balinese couple, Tika and Reza, and a Swedish guy, Mikael. They built the whole place themselves. Overlooking both the mountain and the ocean, broken surfboards hung up the walls, paintings of barrels, a chalkboard tide and swell report, family dinners, impromptu guitar concerts from Reza, you can tell the place’s got soul.

I checked in my room, and then suffered increasing migraines. I touched my forehead and it was hot. A thermometer check later, I had low-grade fever at 37.8. I let the hosts know, and told that I’d be staying in my room until further notice. I’m really grateful for them not kicking me out from fear, but on the opposite, checking in on me regularly to make sure I was fine. It says a lot about the kind of caring, loving people they are. In the night, I woke up with cold sweats and chills. Next day, I went to the hospital for a check. There was some viral infection, but they didn’t have any COVID-19 tests, so they couldn’t say. They thought it could be dengue (incidentally, I had been bitten by a swarm of mosquitoes the night before) but it was too early to tell.

For the next few days, I felt extreme fatigue, migraines and some vertigo. No sore throat, no short breath, no runny nose though. Given I’m not a “person at risk”, I wasn’t as scared for myself as I was for others — I felt guilty for checking in this homestay and potentially infecting others…so I self-quarantined. 3 weeks later, I’m relieved that no one there contracted any symptoms.

After a few sluggish days, I started feeling better. They say the ocean is the best remedy, so I took my surfboard and went to get some of the longest rides of my life again at Medewi’s Point. I really felt my surfing improve, as I did some radical top-turns and threw out some good spray. I also tasted the mistakenly yet poetically named Right Ender (right handers are rare enough in Bali that they can be christened so) and being natural footed, I got to weave on a few incredible overhead breakers, sometimes for over 100 meters, dancing with waves and scoring some of my best manoeuvers. My surfing had never been in a better shape!

Apart from surfing though, I was mostly in my bedroom, respecting my self-imposed quarantine. Being time-rich, I decided to invest some of that time in the effort against COVID-19 and joined in Helpful Engineering. Helpful Engineering is a grassroots, volunteering organization that grew out of the current crisis, gathering engineers, designers and scientists to innovate and fight the virus . Some projects focus on manufacturing 3D-printed masks, others build contact-tracing apps… I joined a project matching hospitals’ needs for equipment supply or repair with providers and supported them with my product expertise. It’s still being built at the moment, but I hope it will contribute a little.

Locally, Coronavirus kept closing in. As surfbreaks from Canggu, Kuta and Bukit closed, local authorities feared expats and tourists there would storm and so they closed Medewi’s Point and the Right Hander. Under such pressure, my hosts decided to close their homestay, so I was now homeless — and waveless — again.

Days lost in time

Fortunately, the parents of my hosts had their own homestay — Medewi Surf Homestay — and were willing to take me in. A special place, that homestay. The first surf homestay in Medewi, opened decades ago, its history blends with the vines of the luxuriant flora. Old surfboards, some with the most unorthodox shapes I’d ever seen, are hung up on trees or houses, inviting guests to dream up their stories. The ground is made up of thousands of little white stones, gently massaging the feet while occasionally gathering into pentagrams and taijitu symbols. Random sculptures and small statues adorn the facades of a place which, not unlike some Berlin nightclubs, seems to have grown organically, fortuitously carved by time with various people and visitors adding their own touch over the years.

The family man, whom I affectionately call Papa Ugis is one of a kind. A bodyworker and healer, he gave me hands-down the best massage I’ve ever received (no pun intended). It was strong, intense, psychedelic even. He wasn’t working my body, he was working my soul. When he was done, I was fluctuating between sobbing and delirious laughter. So much release. As we became closer in following days and warmed up to each other, he told me: “Antoooooiiine! When you arrived, looking so mysterious and worried! Now, all smiling! Europeans always tense, too much worry and thinking in the head. They need good massage!”

Papa Ugis’ story is gripping. Born in Medewi, he was one of the first local surfers. He learned from some Aussies who’d come here in the 70’s, going to the beach after school to sell them soda He became a surfing hotshot while still in high school, but then had a scooter accident, which put him into a coma and nearly took away his leg. His father, refusing amputation, sold much of his land so that surgeons would keep working on his son. He spent over a year at the hospital and countless surgeries, until he could walk again. Slowly but surely, he rebuilt his life and finished high-school. After a couple more years, he went back surfing. But a few years later, after he nearly drowned in big surf, he committed to stop risking his life — and the support he was providing his family and community.

The man himself

Being the bodyworker he is, I figured I could learn a thing or two from him. So I asked him to take me as his student. The impulse also came from realising how much I was missing touch. When in Ubud, I went to visit the famed Monkey Forest, home to hundreds of close cousins aping around old temples and picking on (if not pickpocketing) tourists.

There I became absorbed in watching gangs of simians, time and time again, rub and scrub each other. It was endearing to see the connection they were nurturing through touch – non-sexual, just friendly, affectionate touch. An elemental wisdom we seem to have forgotten in most industrialised societies, where we like to keep some distance. Maybe we could learn from them too?

So there I ended, oiling and massaging a 60 year-old man’s intimate parts for hours. The learning process was everything but what I was used to: instead of delving into theory and scaffolding learning, we dived right in the deep end. Papa Ugis was all about practice. He made it clear when he told me about “those Europeans who study massage in a school for 3 years, come here and give me a massage, and I feel nothing!”. We’d focus every session on a particular body part, say shoulders or legs, and then he’d bombard knowledge, demonstrating dozens and dozens of gestures and pressure points which I’d then try my best to remember and practice on him. It was learning by overwhelm, my brain a small pool which he repeatedly flooded with information, hoping some would remain once it’d all dried up.

This was all the more thought-provoking, as I was then reading The Art of Learning from chess prodigy and Push Hands Tai Chi world champion Josh Waitzkin, in which the author lays an approach that revolves around incremental learning and depth over breadth. In my case, we were just doing all of it. Then, from repetitive practice, I started integrating patterns and principles. It was like learning in reverse.

In its own way, it made a lot of sense, bodywork being bodywork — not mindwork. You have to feel, more than you think — so an excess of theoretical knowledge can be an impediment to truly listening to the other, with the masseur going through mechanical routines (something not uncommon in Asia). I find this tension between thinking and feeling when massaging someone fascinating, especially as a learner: on the one hand, you do need to remember gestures and pressure points and can’t just improvise it all, on the other you have to feel and listen to what they need. Finding that balance, oscillating between the two, is a true meditation. Often, I’d come out of these sessions dazed and drained, so deep a presence I’d had to maintain for hours.

Over the course of my stay, I genuinely bonded with the whole family. This is something I’d really craved for, connecting deeply with locals — but it can be surprisingly hard. Especially in heavily touristic places such as Bali. Of course, being the only guest helped. From chatting with Mama, practicing with Papa Ugis in the afternoon, talking surf with their elder son Rama, or playing with baby Rasia, as Papa Ugis said himself: “You have Balinese family now!”.

And so my days became lost in time, a blissful routine of massage, reading and surfing. For the first time since the beginning of my journey, I was now actually slowing down.

Though the two breaks in Medewi were closed, Sumbul’s beach break, only a couple kilometers away was still open.

Locals rippin’

I religiously made my way there every day, riding everything from fat, easy waves to crushing, hollow barrelling ones. That’s the thing with beach breaks: they’re pleasantly inconsistent and change from one day to the next, sometimes from one hour to the next. Committed to make the most of the last open surf break in Bali, I surfed heavily (2 to 5 hours a day) and my surfing kept getting better, from snapping to regularly hitting the lip at the end of sections and even finishing with a floater or two. And duck-dives. Plenty of them. It’s a beach break after all.

Having no surf instructors to rely on, I took my upon my own coaching, dissecting my sessions and mistakes made so I could improve steadily. I started watching surfing tutorials on YouTube and can recommend to surfers reading to check the excellent How to Rip channel. There’s some real gold in there that will take your surfing to new heights. After a few days though, the intense physical exertion asked for payback. Excruciating muscular pain, especially in my shoulders and ribs. All that paddling. Lucky I stayed with such a talented masseur! I also began stretching more regularly, and again, for all the surfers reading, learned amazing stretches from another Youtube channel (Surf Strength Coach) to release rotator cuffs (shoulder) and lats (ribs) which tend to suffer from vigorous paddling.

But anyway, that cunning Coronavirus closed in and so did the beach at Sumbul a couple of days ago. Game over, no more surfing. I’m still in Medewi, taking it easy and waiting for it all to pass. Because this too, shall pass. Until then, I’m stuck in paradise.

Surf’s up in Bali

From a boat? From a train? Nope, this time, I’m writing from a plane. 10,000 feet above the azure hues of the Indian Ocean, flying from Singapore to Bali. But here’s the kicker — I am returning to Bali as I write this. Almost a month earlier to the day, I had first landed in Bali after travelling through Malaysia by train and then to Singapore by bus. But now, I needed to extend (ahem, reset) my tourist visa and so I planned a quick 24-hour round trip, athletically known as a “visa run”, between the neighbouring islands. 1, 2, 3 – go! Visa runs are common practice among expats living in Bali (and many parts of South-East Asia) where obtaining a long-term visa is apparently a daunting endeavour, involving hordes of middlepeople and bureaucracy — especially pointless if you’re a digital nomad working from your laptop and thus not needing any kind of work permit. Plus, you can help a local friend get much-needed hardware and stock up essentials, like 85% Lindt chocolate, from the air-conditioned malls of Singapore. Writing this, I realise a visa run is a privilege. I’m French, so I have a pretty good passport, one of the best in the world, if only measured by the number of countries I can enter visa-free — according to the Henley Index, it ranks 4th, with only 29 countries requiring a formal visa demand. Citizens of most nations of the world can’t say so. Experiencing borders so fully now makes me nostalgic for the grand vision of the European project (i.e. freedom of movement and freedom of establishment), at a time when its past momentum has all but reversed. And makes me long for the day when we finally erase down these dank lines from our maps. 

When we last left off, I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur, or KL as the locals affectionately call it. I like the former name better — if you pay attention, you can hear the murmur of the jungle and smell the sweet scent of spices when it rolls on your tongue. I only spent an evening there but strolling down the night markets and looking up the Petronas Towers, I got a sense of the city. Most capitals I had visited in South-East Asia have all such different personalities. Chaotic Phnom Penh. Sleepy Vientiane. Glitzy Kuala Lumpur. Slick Singapore.

Which is where I was headed the next day. Arriving by bus from Malaysia, it became clear I was in a different country. A different world even. Architectural symphonies, trees and gardens everywhere you look, streets so clean you could eat on them. Peacefulness. Quietude. Like the city in the sky, where the chosen ones escaped to preserve human civilisation after some cataclysmic event happened, far away from any harm of the radioactive badlands and their mutant inhabitants below. Ironically, while I initially found this sci-fi trope helpful to describe my first impression of Singapore, it only got more real after I visited the forest and flower greenhouses at the Marina Sands Bay gardens: the largest ones of their kind in the world, they are host to a stupendous amount of species and so could well become tomorrow’s biodiversity havens, our very own Noah’s Ark if/when the Sixth Extinction happens. Who’s sci-fi now?

Singapore does feel in many ways like the city of the future. More than any I’ve ever visited or lived in, Tokyo included. For one, nature, city and technology live symbiotically, with the city’s many vertical gardens hugging their lovers of steel and glass. Or the Super Trees glistening at dusk. A garden city, Singapore is an urban designer’s wet dream and I sometimes felt like I was walking in one of those miniature maquettes you sometimes see in museum exhibitions, spelling out ambitious dreams of urban future.

It also is city of the future, in other, darker ways: CCTVs are everywhere, denunciation is commonplace and nudging constant. The perfect 21st-century surveillance state. But it seems like it works for them.

More than visions of the future though, I also enjoyed many recollections of the past in Singapore. On my first evening, I visited Margot, an ex-lover of mine now living there with her daughter and boyfriend. After not having seen each other for over 7 years, I was touched by how warmly she welcomed me into her home, offering friendship, wine, food and cigarettes, when I was worn out and unkempt from a week of journeying down from Thailand. We even got to strum a few Bob Marley chords and sing like in the good ol’ days.

I also went for lunch with my long-time friend and SciencesPo classmate Zhiheng. Z, as we call him, had kindly offered to receive my surfboard which I sent from the UK so I could avoid carrying it on my adventurous trail from Cambodia to Singapore – which would have been impossible to say the least. I met him at his Morgan Stanley office, where my surfboard had been learning all about investment banking and M&A for the previous 2 months, and we then went for a traditional Padang-style meal and Singaporean coffee. Even after all these years, we reconnected instantly and got deep into startup talk.

So grateful for these decade-old friendships. They are the true stuff of life.

New friendships are great too. I shared the traditional Singaporean breakfast (Butter toast, kaya, boiled eggs) with Esther, a fellow Sandboxer, who then took me on a tour of the old Katong neighbourhood with its colonial houses. Singapore’s history is fascinating and I was surprised how much multiculturalism was its DNA . I was staying in Little India myself, stuffing myself with naan and biryani, and it was always heartwarming to see Singaporeans of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Caucasian descent hang out. 

But now, the ocean was calling. It told me the waves were longing for me. “Feeling’s mutual” I whispered. So I boarded a plane to Bali, ready to commence THE surf trip.

And what a looker, this island, this verdant rock in the middle of the ocean, dotted with thousands of fine, intricate Hindu temples and honoured daily with offerings of saffron flowers, sweet fruit and balmy incense. Ritual in the Island of Gods is alive and well. More than simply a religious duty, it is the social glue that binds locals together – there always seems to be a big ceremony (whether it be Galungan, Kuningan, Nyepi in my time here) alongside weddings, local rites and gatherings. I was told Balinese people spend most of their income on ritual and I believe it.

I started in Canggu, on the south-western shore of the island. I had booked a surf camp a few days later, but first I wanted to reclaim my surf level, rusty from nearly a year away from waves. I sure got back to my dedicated surfer routine pretty quickly: wake up just before sunrise, surf for a couple of hours, drive through rice paddies to breakfast — elated from the session and blasting reggae, a big smile on my face — chill in the afternoon, surf at sunset for another couple of hours, dinner, sleep. Repeat. Following the sweet astral beat, synced with nature’s slow tempo, I got into myself into a rhythm.

And I started learning Bahasa Indonesia (i.e. Indonesian…in Indonesian), the simplest and most logical language I’ve ever come across. Latin script, dead-easy pronunciation, simple subject-verb-object syntax, no verb conjugation, no gender, no plural…so no excuse! Being who I am, I opted to learn with a language learning app, and Babbel had the best course, so also ended up doing competitive analysis for my old colleagues at Busuu.

Those were lonely days, too. Not that I don’t like it – an ambivert, I enjoy swinging into long spans of solitude from highly social environments and back. But in Canggu, I did everything except connect deeply with other humans. “How do you connect with an illusion?” I came to ask myself after a couple of days. Because Canggu was an illusion. A real-life Instagram, where tourists and expats alike are all cooler, hipper than the next. A town where breakfast felt less like a culinary experience and more like a fashion show, shutter clicks and envious looks included. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough and stayed stuck at the surface level – but man, I tried. 

I stayed there longer than I wanted, mainly because I had already booked a surfcamp, Kima, which happened to be there. As an intermediate + surfer, I’m generally dubious of surfcamps, as many of them are geared towards total beginners, if not plain party hostels in disguise with little to no surfing value. On the other hand, as I have ahead of me a few solid months of surfing that will push my limits, I wanted coaching so I could fix my bad habits and level up quickly. I got lucky as the only intermediate + surfer (level 4 they call it) in the camp, so I had surf guiding sessions all by myself, with Balinese guides who took me to local spots.

We surfed Medewi, the longest left-hander in Bali (up to 500m!) where I cut through the mellow, buttery faces of endless waves, putting in turn after turn, incredulous.

We surfed Watu Klotok, a tight-faced, speedy right hander, where I generated flow like never before, dancing with the water below. I got it. And, hubris maybe, later got completely crushed by a heavy, surprise set of 3m+ waves, stuck in the inside, caught behind the ferocious blue curtain. 

We surfed Tanah Lot, a “secret” spot with a stunning panorama, right next to a sea temple, tucked between two cliffs and accessible only by an impossibly vertical staircase that drops dramatically into the breaking waves. Swift left-handers, up to overhead, but not as heavy as it seemed.

We surfed Cucukan, a fast, hollow right hander that sections into a barrel, right in front of a laid back local fishing beach, with its warung and perahu. Made a few, wiped out loads (hollower waves being the wall I need to break through).

We surfed Black Stone, an A-frame off the shore of a massive concrete resort, catching unpredictable peaks wherever I could.

Last, we surfed Serangan, the most special of all, on my last day. It’s an outer reef break, which means you have to take a perahu (fishing boat) for a couple kilometres offshore before reaching the line up. Right there, a wave breaks, right below the school of anchored boats bringing surfers there on a daily basis. And that sky-blue water – nothing like the greenish waves back on the shore. Fast, clean lines with a relatively easy take-off that then turn into tight-faced racetracks and sometimes end up barrelling. I raced down their walls and even got shampooed as I was crouching in the chamber of the blue curl.

Overall, the camp delivered the goods. Still, I didn’t connect any further with Canggu nor its crowd, disillusioned with its cliches and archetypes of Instagram hipsters, vegan-yogi-models and Balinese surf gangstas getting fucked up on whisky-coke at the local Minimart. I’m aware my own judgements probably prevented me from going deeper and seeing the beauty in the dirt. They say judgements are a great tool to understand one’s needs – so I suppose mine are really about authenticity, diversity and depth.

What a relief when I arrived in Ubud, where I had planned to visit and spend time with another old friend, Laurent. We’d met 10 years ago in Paris, during early hours at a Concrete after-party and somehow built a deep friendship over the years and across countries, from France to Germany through the UK to Bali. I’ve always felt a deep connection and looked up to him as a senpai, the wise person he is being a bit further on this journey of life than I am. 

My intro to Ubud couldn’t have been more Ubud. Less than an hour after my taxi dropped me off, I was spinning at an ecstatic dance party that Laurent was organising, connecting non-verbally, yet more deeply than I had over the past 10 days in Canggu. 

Right away, I felt home. In a sense, I was home. The community of expats living in the mountains of Ubud was much closer to my London community than it was to the Canggu beach crowd. Yoga, meditation, healings of all sorts, poly, breathwork, cacao ceremonies, vegan/raw/organic restaurants, holistic health and nutrition, conscious dance parties… my peoples. Don’t get me wrong though: I’ve lived long enough to know that everything has its shadow. There is still a scene here, although a more conscious one, and the void left by Canggu’s blunt materialism was sometimes replaced by a flavour of spiritual consumerism (I’m looking at you, spiritual pickup artist!).

Laurent himself is a healer, blending technology (amplified vibrational water beds, electronic soundscapes, stroboscopic light machines) with tradition (didgeridoos, gongs) to induce deep meditative and altered states of consciousness. A one-of-kind experience which I highly recommend you try LSV if you’re ever around.

The vibration had shifted, and in a few days, I got from smoking half a pack a day, downing Bintangs and swiping through shallow connections to caring for my body, my mind and my heart. I’m pretty much a sponge, hence I absorb and adapt to whatever my environment is — especially on this journey, I want to let the world mould me.

While I had initially planned on spending just a few days, I figured why leave so soon if I felt home, and my healthiest self? Laurent kindly offered a mattress in his home. But I craved the ocean and the surf! What to do? So I made a plan to get the best of both of Bali’s worlds: get a scooter with a surf rack to hit the south-eastern coast in the morning for a surf, come back and chill in Ubud in the afternoon. Surely, I could get my cake, and eat it too.

Or so I thought until I went surfing Cucukan’s snappy waves again. I increased my risk profile that time, going more in the inside, being less picky and paddling for more waves. After what seemed an ordinary wipeout, I felt a sting on the arch of my foot but couldn’t really see what was going on below the waterline. As I pulled my foot above the water and touched the painful spot with my finger…there was a hole a few centimetres deep. I had split my foot open on reef. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK! To add to my woes, the sea water that day was the filthiest I’d seen, because of heavy wet season rainstorms of the previous day (and Bali’s lacking waste water management system).

“Shit, must not get this infected”.

I ended up at the hospital an hour later, with 4 stitches in my foot. And no more ocean until the wound is closed.

“How long until then?” — I asked

“Hmmm…seven to ten days” — they said.

“OK, then R&R in Ubud”

And so the following week ended up very chilled: lazing in bed in the mornings. Taking time for slow, deliberate practice. Healing. Reading — currently alternating between the exalted Bhagavad Gita and the irreverent Jitterbug Perfume…sprinkled with some guilty Boruto chapters. Watching the wet season skies pour down on the rice paddies (“wetflix and chill”). Dancing when Laurent was DJing (maybe I shouldn’t with this foot?). Watching Legong, a traditional Balinese dance, all about eyes and hand movements. Sampling the finest foods. Taking long, leisurely strolls through viridescent hill paths and neighbouring rice paddies, weeded and cleaned from pest by wild ducks, all the while sowed by farmers, rainwater to their knees.

In some sense, this is what I needed: slowing down. Grounding. And since I couldn’t seem to get myself to do so, speeding as I was on the travel highway, the universe gently pulled me over. And grounded me good.

My new-found physical invalidity equally became a door into the knots of my own psyche. I was undergoing painful, restricted movement and had to suffer maddening interactions with Indonesian bureaucracy at the hospital which I had to return to every couple days to make sure my wound wasn’t getting infected. Behind all the stoke from the sun, surf and sand, I realised how tense and impatient I could be, short, condescending even, when things weren’t efficient or turn out the way I wanted them to be. And as you might know, the “developing world” will teach you patience and acceptance. I’m still learning.

And still healing. More than ever, I have developed a healthy fear of the sharp reef below. I know I will take its proper measure from now on.

The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure. And yet you were expected, even as a kid, to take its measure every day. You were required—this was essential, a matter of survival —to know your limits, both physical and emotional. But how could you know your limits unless you tested them? And if you failed the test? You were also required to stay calm if things went wrong. Panic was the first step, everybody said, to drowning. As a kid, too, your abilities were assumed to be growing. What was unthinkable one year became thinkable, possibly, the next.

– William Finnegan in Barbarian Days

As my karate sensei liked to point out, it takes a full-blown hit in the head for someone to effectively face guard. Yes, trauma can be the best teacher.

Full sails in Thailand

Hello friend. I’m back, once again writing from a vehicle in motion – but this time, rails have replaced the Mekong and I’ve traded a slow-boat for a high-speed train. I sure do have a thing for writing in movement.

The train is heading to Kuala Lumpur. This morning I woke up in Langkawi, a lush Malaysian island close to the Thai border. I packed my things, drove 20 kms to the jetty on my rental scooter, returned the scooter, boarded a 90-minute long ferry to Kuala Kedah, came off the boat, jumped in a taxi to Alor Sentar 10kms away and finally got myself onto this train. I find multimodal, overland transportation a much more interesting way to get from A to B than say, flying. I have all the time in the world, so why not? I get to actually see what the country looks like. And the impact on our planet is much gentler too. Since the start of my journey in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (3,800 kms earlier) I’ve travelled this way, all the way down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The journey so far.

Or almost. We did take a cheeky, domestic flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket, as Rob and I had a hard deadline – the start of our week-long sailing trip. It sucked but I did the least I could do and I offset the thing. Which I have been doing for all flights so far I have been and commit to keep doing throughout this trip, using MyClimate.org.

After I last wrote, we crossed the Laos-Thailand border on foot, when the slow-boat dropped us in Huay Xai. From all the border crossings so far, it was the most comical: on the Laotian side, we had to pay an “overtime fee” for crossing since it was past 6pm and then had to wait for a bus to take us to the Thai side — we weren’t allowed to walk across the Friendship Bridge (but sure enough we had to pay for the bus).

Arriving in Thailand, I felt giddy, experiencing again the comfort of a more industrialised country, especially after so many days adventuring in the outback of Laos with bare necessities. Paved roads! 7-Eleven! Cafés! Funny how those staples of modern consumer society become luxury once you start acclimatising to a rougher environment. The hedonic treadmill doesn’t just go forward — it goes backwards too. In a way, it’s a good thing: this means a little austerity can go a long way to making us more grateful for what we normally take for granted, as Epicurians found out long ago.

I had heard that Northern Thailand was culturally rich and it did not disappoint. We spent the night in Chiang Rai and first thing in the morning, we headed out to see the famed White Temple. It was superb — and crazy. The best way to describe it is…if Hieronymus Bosch, Banksy and Walt Disney had had a threesome (time-travel, you know) and their kid (that’s not how it works?) was born a Thai artist who devoted his life to building a Buddhist temple.

Hieronymus Bosch, for his visions of heavens and hells. The mind-boggling level of minutiae of frescoes and sculptures. I spent over 30 minutes examining the infinite detail of a 6-meter long hellscape at the entrance of the temple.

Banksy, for the blurry line between real and unreal, authentic and fake: what a sight to behold Thai visitors kneel and pray with all their heart before an altar to Buddha, their back directly facing paintings of George W. Bush and Osama Bin-Laden (symbolising the evil we must battle) part of a giant pop-art fresco featuring other icons such as Iron Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Pikachu. No pictures allowed, though.

Finally, Walt Disney for the architectural grandeur and business savvy. The temple, both a place of worship and an art piece, is a living building, under constant construction. Just like a theme park, over 2 million visitors enter the White Temple every year generating huge profits which are reinvested in expanding it. The mastermind behind it all, Chalermchai Kositpipat (rightfully) sees it as his life’s work, reviving traditional Thai art, while also becoming immortal.

After this satisfying visit, we headed to Chiang Mai, capital of the ancient Lan Na Kingdom. After a few days travelling, mostly sat on boats and buses, my body felt a strong urge to exercise so I went and found a Muay Thai gym to let a few kicks out. On the way, I stopped by a Buddhist temple (this one less rococo than the White Temple) where 2 young monks, Sutham and Bas, pulled me over to practice their English. I got to learn about their daily schedule, including Sai Bat (morning alms) and attending Buddhist school, which includes not only religious but also lay subjects such as history, math or natural sciences. Becoming a novice first, a monk then, is undoubtedly a great way to get an education in most of South-East Asia, especially for those born in less fortunate environments. I even got to teach them a new word: Lay people as they were always referring to us as “normal people” to which I’d retort: “But you’re normal too! Or rather, no one is!”.

Muay Thai was much fun — and sweat. I hadn’t hit a bag since my last karate trainings in London, so it felt cathartic, plus I learned a few new techniques, especially elbow and knee strikes. They’re incredibly powerful and not something we use in much karate, but it’s really big in Muay Thai. And rightfully so: elbows and knees are the hardest, strongest ends of our body. Then I realised, from all peoples I know, Thais are the one who leverage their knees and elbows most — not only in fighting, but also in massage.

Which I got to experience full well in Chiang Mai, as I had my first satisfying — and painful, they often go together for me — massage since the start of my journey. Right after my Muay Thai class, I needed to loosen up a bit and found this place, Association Massage Chiang Mai of Blind, the massage equivalent of Dans Le Noir, where all bodyworkers are blind. During my second visit there, I got paired with a really strong one who was able to properly dig into my IT band, stretch my hips and most important, listen. While I initially expected to get the best massages of my life in the region, surprisingly I hadn’t been wow’ed until then, as I found most masseuses’ approach to be too…formulaic, not intuitive enough: they would invariably go through a rigid, pre-defined sequence instead of listening to what I needed. But this guy listened and man, he had strong hands!

The next day, we got back on scooters and drove all the way up the mountain towards Doi Suthep, a huge temple at the top where a relic of Buddha is kept under a massive golden stupa.

The way up was pure joy, leaning into bend after bend. We also visited a Hmong (hill tribe) village, which featured giant bamboos and flower gardens. In the distance, you could see the valley and then, hills after hills, standing like waves in the ocean. Myanmar too. After visiting the hill tribe museum, one of the gardeners actually showed us where he grew weed and opium — and asked if we wanted some. “Well, we’re driving”, we replied, as responsible adults.

So we drove, back to Chiang Mai where I spent the evening getting lost in the night market and seeing the largest amount of food I’ve ever seen in my whole life, spread out between hundreds of food stalls.

Next morning came the time to leave and journey to Phuket, where our yacht was waiting for our week-long sailing adventure. Arriving at the airport, we put on our masks. Coronavirus, they said.


Phuket was to be the finish line of our month-long adventure with Rob in South-East Asia, starting with Nettra and Luc’s wedding in Siem Reap, Cambodia and ending with our sailing trip in Southern Thailand. How much we had experienced in this month! And we knew the last chapter would be equally exciting, as we were to sail our own yacht in crystal-clear waters and live our pirate fantasy to the fullest.

Landing in Phuket, I couldn’t wait to get to the beach and reunite with the sea. But Rob and I immediately felt a bad vibe from the locals, whether it was our taxi from the airport or our host from the first night, both trying to rip us off and being generally rude. This was ominous of my time in Southern Thailand – more on that later.

Next day was the big day, the one we’d been waiting for, when we’d sail off. We went to Elite Charters, our yacht rental company, for a thorough briefing on the area. I then left on a mission to stock up on groceries. Little Eva, our ship, was way more than sole transportation — she was our home, where we’d live, eat, shit, wash, sleep and more for a whole week. We needed it fully stocked.

The mission to get to groceries became more…interesting, as one of the tires on my scooter got punctured on the way to the supermarket and I then spent the next 3 hours driving around with a flat tire, trying to find a scooter mechanic by communicating with locals through Google Translate. In somewhat such a touristy place as Phuket, seemed like no one actually spoke much English. I did eventually find a mechanic, who replaced both the chamber and tire, in his modest garage, a shack lost in the bush which also happened to be his house where he lived with his son, wife and baby. Family business.

Groceries mission complete, we finally set off from the marina on Little Eva, with Rob. And Ali — the skipper we had hired for the first 2 days. Reasonably enough, we wanted to get comfortable with the ship and the area before we, newly minted skippers, threw ourselves in the deep-end, left to our own devices. Sure, we did pass a skipper exam in May and skippered a yacht independently for a full day, but this was the real test – could we then, for the following 5 days, work as a team of 2 and figure it all out, without breaking the ship nor ourselves?

And what an adrenaline-filled week it was. I can’t remember the last time I had lived this fully, this intensely. Marc Andreessen is famous for saying that building startups you only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. That’s how I feel about yachting too.

On day 1, after leaving the marina, we journeyed towards Koh Nukha Yai. Little Eva was a solid yacht, 12-meter long, with a 4-5m high mainsail, a smaller genoa and the classic setup below deck: 2 bedrooms, a kitchenette opening into a living room, manual-pump toilets (err, sorry…”heads”) and shower. We did hoist the sails and played with the wind on the way there, which was blowing hard – up to 20 knots! I always get a mixture of excitement and fear when close-hauling against strong winds: excitement from the feeling of speed, sensing the bite on the wheel and seeing the vessel angle to the side as it catches the wind; fear from recognising how powerful the forces and heavy the weights we are playing with are… forces that could eventually capsize the ship in an instant. That night we anchored on a small beach on Koh Nukha Yai, now desert as the daytrip boats had all left, leaving it all to ourselves to enjoy, with a beautiful sunset and a well deserved Singha.

On day 2, we set off around 7am, to Koh Panak. This will remain one of the highlights of this trip, if not of my life. Koh Panak is your brochure-perfect, typical limestone-cliff-dropping-into-the-sea-island. After anchoring there, we boarded our dinghy and paddled into a small cave (it was too shallow to motor). As soon as we entered the stalactites-filled cave, it became pitch-black and…silent. All we could hear was the echo of water drops falling afar. We kept paddling in the dark, pointing our flashlight at the remarkable sculptures the sea had carved over thousands of years, the tide its mighty chisel. Until we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Literally. So, we paddled towards the light. As we reached the opening, we crouched under the teeth of the cave’s mouth, which then proceeded to throw us out, back in the open and the daylight, yet this time we were surrounded by the island! Here we were, on our dinghy, in the middle, in the eye of the island, encircled by a 360° cliff on which a thriving forest was growing near-vertically. And again, so very silent, with not another human in sight. All we could sometimes hear was the echo of a bird shrieking, reverberating all around us. None of us were saying a word – to break this silence would take away the sacredness of this eternal moment. We had landed in Sir Conan Doyle’s Lost World (I was bracing myself to see a pterodactyl circle above us at any time). This place had been the same for thousands of years and will probably be the same for thousands to come. I was speechless, in pure awe at the unspoilt natural beauty. Satori.

No words

We had the idea to keep following the water stream as it probably led back through another cave to the other side of the island but as we kept paddling it became muddy, and so, clear that we couldn’t go much further. We headed back. The rest of the day paled in comparison: we sailed to “James Bond Island” so-called because it was featured in 1974’s Man With the Golden Gun, which ended up being an absolute tourist trap. And then anchored in Ko Yao Noi for the night.

On Day 3, in the early hours, we parted with Ali. No more adult supervision – now the real adventure could begin. We made a first stop in Koh Nok, a small island with a steep hike to the top, with ropes to help you scramble up. At the top, we were greeted with picture-perfect, panoramic views of the islands — some far, far away.

Time to head to Koh Hong. “Hong” means “chamber” in Thai and hongs are therefore “chambers within islands”, similar to what we’d experienced the day before. However, this time wasn’t as satisfying: daytrip boats all over the place, no cave to paddle through and also, the engine of our dinghy suddenly stopped working. After spending a couple of hours choking it, then flooding it, then letting it rest, we were able to start it again and finally make it into the hong. We then sailed off to Railay beach, in Krabi where we intended to spend the night. Our misfortunes continued there, as we anchored in the bay, which on that day was receiving quite a lot of swell. Shortly after dropping the anchor, it became clear it was not a good idea as there was a non-zero risk that anchor would not hold and our ship would drift away during the night. So we tried to pull the anchor back… but couldn’t, as the boat was spinning on itself from the combined effect of the swell and the wind blowing hard on it. Half an hour and a dive later, we finally managed to pull the anchor back. Phew. No time to rest though, we needed to find a sheltered bay – fast, as the sun was setting and none of us had experience sailing at night. Fortunately, our almanac pointed to a nearby bay, where we found shelter. As we anchored — properly, this time — we kicked back and laughed. Situations can change in a second and things can get stressful quickly on a boat! We jumped on our dinghy, decided to go town – literally and figuratively- and let some steam out after this stressful landing. We did what pirates do and got properly inebriated, downing drinks and singing karaoke at one of the islands’ many reggae bars on the main touristy strip. Oh and of course, swimming naked with fluorescent plankton under the jagged cliffs.

Day 4. Head hurts. A hangover to nurse. So Rob had a Tinder date on the boat (gotta use it) and I went swimming. After restocking with groceries, we set off to the beautiful island of Koh Pu- “Old School Thailand” as Melissa from the charter company described it. Quiet, sandy beach, with a few tiki bars dotted here and there, it was a stark contrast to the frenetic, built-up Main Street of Railay. We got to watch the most beautiful sunset (I nearly clapped) and eat the best Tom Kha at one of the only 2 restaurants on the island.

Our faithful Little Eva, patiently waiting for us in the bay

On day 5, fully rested, our plan was to sail to the Phi Phi islands, famous for “The Beach” (that cult movie with Leo was filmed there). It was January 31st and we’d had this idea for a while to put on a Brexit party — on the boat. Find a few people, get some salt & vinegar crisps, blast “God Save the Queen”. On the way to Phi Phi (pronounced “pee-pee”, it never gets old), we stopped by Bamboo Island for some top-notch snorkelling. While waters until then had been more of an emerald-green, they were now turning turquoise — my favourite kind. I was lucky enough to swim with fish so colourful they made rainbow jealous.

Arriving in Phi Phi, it felt very different to Koh Puh. Massively built up, a huge tourist Main Street replete with a Burger King and McDonald’s, right there in the middle of paradise. And lots of millennials straight out of a spring break movie. We did go big that night though, mourning the UK’s departure from the EU and making new friends along the way. The fatal decision, the moment of hubris, was to buy some of the cocktail buckets we’d seen other tourists drinking from. I’d originally had nothing but disdain towards them but then realised they made a lot of sense, economically speaking – they were huge and inconceivably strong (though as I learned later from a friend, because they’re filled with moonshine…). It all ended with rounds of dancing, limbo, rope skipping and a stolen bag… my daypack, with my wallet and phone, was taken away that night (drunk tourists do make an easy prey). Not only that, a few days later, as I had been hoping a good samaritan would, someone got in touch with me on Facebook claiming they had found my iPhone! But after a day chatting with them, it felt funny and I realised they were the thief, now trying to phish me through a very well-made lookalike Find My iPhone website, prompting me to log in so they could get my credentials and unlock my phone! Vicious. I nearly got had and wonder how many have in the past. Anyway, lesson learned.

On day 6, our new friends met the night before came onboard Little Eva for a quick sail. They loved it and it was great to share the gift of sailing with others. Vincent, a French guy who needed to head back to Phuket and a sailor himself, joined us for the rest of the trip, as our first mate. We then headed off to Kao Yao Noi for our final night. Arriving there, the wind started blowing again so we put in some nice tacks around the bay.

As the sun was setting, it was time to anchor. But anchoring is a bitch. Just after we’d boarded the dinghy and were on our way to the beach for dinner, Rob very astutely observed that…well, the ship was drifting away. We were not anchored. Mic drop. So we got back on the ship, tried to pull the anchor back and get closer to the bay, but the anchor would not bulge. It seemed like it was jammed, maybe caught under. Shit. So we called all the emergency phone numbers the charter company had given us (none answered), so then we went looking for help, from other yachts first and then on the beach. No one seemed able to help so we headed back to the boat, which somehow looked like it had stopped drifting. But it was hard to say – we were far offshore, in over 20m depth, the wind was blowing the boat away, which then spun and circled around. Was it actually drifting or not? Not knowing what to do, we tried playing a bit more with the windlass (the contraption that pulls up the anchor chain) and then Vincent figured out the use of a tool to tighten it. We got it working again, were able to pull the anchor up and finally, after 3 stressful hours, anchored properly in 6m depth much closer to the bay. Rob, still concerned by the whole thing, kept waking up through the night to check we weren’t drifting. I have to give it to him, Rob is a fantastic skipper, much better than I am and I would not have felt as comfortable and confident throughout this whole trip without him. I was able to relax because I knew that when shit would hit the fan, I’d be able to fully trust him and his command. Yachting does teach you this kind of humility: when things get rough, you got leave your ego at the door and there can only be one captain because any disagreement (and the decision slowdown that comes with it) might cause a disaster. So thanks Rob for being that guy.

Day 7 we headed back to the Marina and said goodbye to Little Eva. Still unbelievable we made it in one piece and didn’t break anything (significant). After that, I dropped off Rob at the airport and he flew away to Japan to start his snowboarding adventure. So grateful for all the vagabonding experiences we shared over this last month and excited for the ones to come. For me, it was time for R&R. After a week at sea, I was battered. Sun-drenched, sea-drenched, tired, malnourished. I needed a detox, I needed a retreat. So I looked up what places in Phuket weren’t too touristy or party-party and ended up staying a few days in Bang Tao, where I could enjoy loneliness and sobriety. I went for massages, did heaps of yoga. Even splurged on a vitamin IV and a B12 shot — that stuff does work. I also engaged life recovery mode which consisted of getting replacements for the things that were in the daypack that got stolen. Including documents like driving licence or credit card but also travel necessities like a good daypack, a water container, a wallet, etc…For the first time in years, I had to forsake Amazon Prime and instead go spend hours in air-conditioned malls looking for the things I needed. Crazy.

Melody, a friend from my Tokyo days, was coming to town and we wanted to catchup after all those years. We always meet in the craziest places, from Taiwan to Paris. She was staying in Patong and I figured I could move there too, especially if we were to have a night out together (no drunk driving 30 kms). It was great to hang out and reminisce about the sheer exuberance of those years studying/modelling in Japan, all the while sampling epic street food and getting foot massages.

We did go big one night (it was the pre-party of a major trance festival) and I ended up doing reckless things even I am too ashamed of to write about on this blog (my dad is reading, after all).

In the end, I feel like I ended up staying in Phuket longer than I should have. Patong, especially, was soul-crushing for me. It’s the best-worst example of tourism gone wrong. Everywhere you look is entertainment: bars, nightclubs, restaurants, tour operators, massages, malls…And they’re all excessively tacky, beige even. It’s the same kind of vibe you might find in Magaluf, Mallorca, with the two dominant colours being mutant green and lollipop pink. The whole economy revolves around tourists consuming stuff and therefore, I as a one, am nothing but raw material in the eyes of locals. Local vendors there are the rudest and try to rip you off whenever they can. But I can understand: the tourist bros coming there in flock to tan and get fucked up aren’t any better, so logically locals get jaded and start giving us the treatment we deserve. There is no love in the air, only exploitation.

So why the hell did I spend a whole week there? Partly out of necessity, partly out of laziness. With the need to recover my things and also because of how tired I was of being constantly on the move for the last month, I needed a base at least for a little bit. Circumstances just happened to elect Phuket and so it was. Phukin Phuket. My tourist trap, where I got stuck. All that said, I also see it as a valuable a part of my adventure: the sourness I tasted there only makes the sweetness of other places more salient. If anything, it was a valuable experience.

“Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences. They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.”

Bertrand Russell

Also, there is this interesting thing about travelling without a return date, about vagabonding, where the point (at least for me) is to drift and see where life takes you. Then, there is an interesting tension between going with the flow or being intentional. Do you relax and let the place mould you for a bit? Or do you maintain strong boundaries? And when do you choose to choose?

Once the frustration of staying any longer in Phuket finally outweigh the laziness to leave, I made an escape plan. I took a bus to Satun, further south, next to the border with Malaysia and spent a night there before heading out to Langkawi. In Satun, my heart felt it was in the right place again and my soul started growing back. I felt much more at peace, wandering the quiet streets of the town and sampling local street food at the night market. There was a citizens’ parade for Chinese New Year and I stood there watching while eating a vegetable pancake. That, I thought, is what I needed. Humble, quiet, authentic village life.

Next morning, I took a ferry to Langkawi, Malaysia. I loved it from the moment I set foot. They call it “The Gem of Kedah” and for a reason – it reminds me of Kauai, Hawaii. Jade-green mountains, crystal-clear waters, laid back locals. There they don’t really need tourists as much as they do in Southern Thailand, so it felt nice to be let off the hook for a bit. Got myself a scooter and drove through the island, looking for a remote hostel where I could enjoy some alone time and finally slow down. In truth, that’s the one intention I hadn’t yet been acting upon at all over this last month. If anything, I had only sped up! Besides, the inner introvert was crying out for alone time. So I ended spending two magical, solitary days with very limited social interaction, lots of reading and probably the best food I’ve had on this trip. Including but not limited to: Mee Rebus, Char Kuey Teow, all the Nasi (lemak, goreng, etc), Checur, Cendol and so on. I love Malaysian street food and I’ve found a good heuristic to spot the best joints: it’s on the roadside, it’s got plastic chairs and a bunch of locals are digging in.

Selamat Malam!

Mekong Cruising — a month in Indochina

Hey, friend. So here it is, my first entry on this blog. Being written as I sip a Beer Lao, sitting on a bench aboard an old, wooden slow-boat travelling up the mighty Mekong River from Laos into Northern Thailand. From my seat, I see hills teeming with lush green jungle, invariably diving together into the Mekong.

I’ve never seen a river like this. It feels part lifeline, part highway, part mother. It provides water, food, transportation and livelihood to the people of the region, as far north as China and as far south as Cambodia.

And I’ve been following it for close to a month. Magically, my relationship with the river has been the one constant since I landed in Phnom Penh on December 30th, the first day of a ‘who-knows-long’ trip around the Pacific, to explore the world, reflect, recharge — and surf!

On the first morning of my trip (and penultimate day of 2019), I landed in scorching Phnom Penh, jetlagged, exhausted from 20 hours of flight, feeling sweaty and yucky. I couldn’t even get a change of clothes as my rucksack somehow didn’t make the transfer in Taipei (#treasureyourtraveltroubles) and so, half delirious, I went to buy a change of clothes at a local market. I was feeling ungrounded, restless and utterly confused.

That was until I got my ass on a boat cruising the Mekong River at sunset. Alone, in silence, far from the buzz of the city, I found refuge in the tranquil haven of the river, its gentle breeze and rolling waves. It revived me, nourished me.

And so that’s how our relationship started. And now nearly a month later, I’m back on a boat, being gently rocked by the mother again.

My initial plan was to begin my trip in Cambodia to attend the wedding of two of my favourite humans (Luc and Nettra), meet with Rob (a friend and ex-colleague previously CTO at Busuu, also on a break) there, together head to Northern Thailand and then journey to Southern Thailand, chartering a yacht and putting to practice our newly-minted skipper licences.

But first, I spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh, soaking in the youthful (over 50% of the population is less than 30 year-old) and enterprising energy of this city. There I met with Vivaddhana, an old friend from my SciencesPo class now leading the national Brazilian Jiu Jitsu federation and involved in a variety of business ventures, as many bright young Cambodians are. It was touching to see that after 7 years apart, the rivers of our lives had joined again on many aspects (martial arts, entrepreneurship, spirituality) and we now probably felt closer than we ever had. I love when that happens. New Year’s Eve was also celebrated in Phnom Penh and we were kindly hosted by Nettra’s mom, in her Pinterest-perfect house overlooking the Mekong.

Next stop was Siem Reap (or “Destroy Thailand” in Khmer…), where the wedding was happening, a place famous around the world for the grandiose Angkor temples, king amongst them Angkor Wat. I was supposed to join the wedding party on their private bus, but after an indulgent NYE and much jet lag, I overslept (oops) in my hostel container bedroom (pitch black helps) and made my way there on my own.

And what a wedding this was! A day-long Khmer affair, it started at 6 a.m. with several of the groom’s friends (myself included) carrying baskets of offerings to the bride. This was followed by a succession of highly symbolic rituals (bride and groom feeding each other, tying knots, receiving blessings from elders), some delicious lunch, a cocktail back at the Méridien, a Western-style wedding ceremony with vows and speeches, a dinner and a party…phew! It was inspiring to witness tradition expressed in such a meaningful way, and made me long for more ritual in my life. It was also touching to hear the vows from the bride and groom, and made me connect more than ever to the possibility of obtaining freedom through unwavering commitment to another.

Also, I was personally honoured and privileged to be entrusted with MCing the evening ceremony and leading vows from their friends, gathered there to witness and support this union ever after.

Dear Luc, dear Nettra,

Before I give the floor to your parents, I would like to say something on behalf of your friends, who have travelled Cambodia and the world to be with you today.

Too often, successes and failures of couples are placed only on them, but we recognize it’s a community endeavor. And so we too, would like to take some vows with you today.

So everyone, please join in and repeat after me.

As your friends we promise,

To walk by your side,

In your journey of growth and exploration

To hold space when you need,

And listen with compassion

To always support you,

In your loving vows and kind intentions.

Not only was the wedding day unforgettable, Luc and Nettra had kindly put together a whole program of pre- and post-wedding activities. It somehow felt like a Sandbox retreat, getting stuck in deep meaningful conversations while living enriching experiences with so many interesting people from all over the world. Together, we visited the ancient temples of Angkor, toured silk farms (and worms!), watched a modern Khmer circus performance, explored night markets and sampled the finest foods.

I’d also taken a chance on renting a scooter my first day in Siem Reap. While the voice of safety within screamed “you’ll lose a limb if you scoot around in South East Asia”, the voice of freedom shut it up — and I’m happy it did. Zooming around the city and temples with a scooter was the ultimate feeling of freedom, and the risk was calculated. I was too safe back home anyway and one of the deeper purpose of my trip was to tilt the balance back to more freedom and trade it for a bit less safety. Back in the summer, I had realised that most of the choices we make about our life (work, love, passions) can be plotted on a Freedom vs Safety spectrum.

This realisation had me come to the conclusion that I was over-indexing on safety, sacrificing too much freedom and in turn affecting my happiness, flow and creativity. 5 years ago, it was the opposite: before I joined Busuu and arrived in London, I was over-indexing on freedom, but with little to no financial safety and so I had to sort my life out. Quitting my job and embarking on this trip was a way to tilt the balance once again.

Back to the scooter: in the near-absence of traffic signage in Cambodia, you find that there is a strange, subtle harmony within all the apparent chaos. I had noticed that on Day One, fresh from the plane, in the tuk-tuk to my hostel: while there don’t seem to be any road rules with everyone carving their way through, the whole thing is smooth and most interestingly — especially compared to the Western gridlocks of Marseille or Lisbon — absolutely silent. No honks, no shouts. Not even music blasting. Everyone is super aware of what everyone else is doing and it all works out like a big ballet. I like to think that traffic in Cambodia (and future will tell whether this applies to other countries in the region) is like one big organism, similar to a school of fish, where drivers instinctively understand what they can and cannot do. So Rob and I learned the rules pretty fast and soon enough, we were slicing through traffic like locals.

Even after the wedding was over and most people had left, a few stuck around for another round of Cambodia, including sunrise at Angkor, adventurous foods (including snake, tarantula, lizard and scorpio). and day-long scooter trips in the outback to find some ancient temples. Indiana Jones and Lara Croft had nothing on us.

I made some lifelong friends during those days and especially bonded with Shirah, the worldliest person and kindest adventurer I know. Thank you for our time together and good luck for your doctoral defence!

But, there comes a point though when you have to go. I felt it was time when I realised I knew the city well and could navigate it without a map.

So Rob and I proceeded to research the journey to our next stop, Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. As mentioned previously, the original plan was to head there before travelling down south to Phuket, where our charter yacht was waiting for us to sail it.

But plans change, and while the start and end points have remained, we took a little detour, as you do on such trip. Inviting chance is actually one of my guiding principles for this trip. Oh, I haven’t told you about them yet, have I? Probably one of the best moves I did to prepare this trip was to read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. I’d had the book on my reading list for years already, since I’d heard author (and all-round life experimenter) Tim Ferris rave about it consistently. Below is my visual summary of the book.

Vagabonding helped me articulate how I wanted to live my own vagabonding journey and I came out with 5 principles:

– Slow Down

– Invite Chance

– Treasure Troubles

– Prevent > Repair

– Mix It Up

Inviting chance, we decided, rather than going straight to Cambodia, to head to the 4000 islands of South Laos after reading online that it “would be a crime to miss out on them”. We also had this romantic idea to buy a motorised, long tail fishing boat and navigate the up the Mekong with it (which turned out to be impractical, if not impossible given the current historically low Mekong water levels).

So, off to Laos.


After a day travelling through Cambodia and a memorable border crossing involving walking through a no-man’s land between the Cambodian side and the Laotian side, we made it to Don Det, “capital” of the 4000 islands.

Surrounded by the Mekong, this small island is only a few kilometers around. In a typical island style, the one word that comes to mind when thinking about Don Det is chill. Laid back locals, hammocks, no cars, waterfalls, reggae, happy shakes, bicycles, magic mushroom shakes and sandy beaches, it’s a backpacker’s paradise. A stark contrast from the bustling, hectic and tourist-packed streets of Siem Reap.

There’s also something about Lao people — only magnified by the island vibes. While their Khmer neighbours are often confident, proud hustlers, Lao people seem more quiet and laid back. You feel this with mainland Lao people, even in bigger cities like Pakse, Vientiane or Luang Prabang.

What were supposed to only be a couple of days in Don Det turned into 5. Why not? We’re not in a hurry and we’re loving the place!

In Don Det, watching a classic Meking sunset with Rob at a riverside bar, I met Elsa, a French entrepreneur travelling around Asia. Destiny’s hand was impossible to ignore in us meeting: as it turned out, we knew each other, even though we didn’t remember how. By an impossible coincidence, she was the one who had inherited my spot in the Babababarrio camp at Nowhere (a Spanish, regional Burn event) when I decided not to go last year! We also shared many dear friends in Paris, and funniest of all, were Facebook friends — though we’d never exchanged messages. How we initially met eludes us to this day. Oh yeah, and she’d also matched with Rob on Tinder the day before. Small world!

We hit it off pretty hard and a steamy romance ensued over the next few days, amidst cycling trips through the island, swimming in the Mekong and river cruises to see dolphins and late night karaokes with a bunch of crazy drunk local teenagers. We even got to play a game of pétanque against a crew of local aficionados, lost without a chance.

The time to move on came again. Elsa had told us about a motorcycle route north of the islands, the famous Pakse Loop which runs through the Bolaven plateau, highlands known for their coffee plantations and picturesque waterfalls. Elsa joined our crew and we were now a trio zooming through the loop on our scooters.

We saw some gigantic waterfalls at Tad Yuan and Tad Lo, and even went swimming under them, setting a trend with other tourists bravely following soon after.

Riding further, we took a chance and turned at Captain Hook’s coffee plantation. The plantation is farmed by a small Kuta community (hill tribe of Lao) in a recluse village where most locals have never ventured past the next town. Inspired by the authentic nature of the village which felt like a time capsule to agrarian times, replete with its roosters, pigs and cows freely roaming around, we elected to spend the night there and taste local hospitality. It did not disappoint as we were invited to share a meal in Captain Hook’s house, where 26 people over 5 generations live! I put aside my vegetarianism and joined in a delicious chicken hotpot (after internally thanking the animals for their meat, of course).

Next morning, Captain Cook took us through his plantation and explained the whole coffee growing and refining process, often sidetracking to give a well-woven world history of coffee (and colonialism). He also showed us a host of traditional plant medicines growing in the wild, and I felt immense respect for the community’s closeness to the earth and their land. We also learned about the many beliefs and traditions of the Kuta tribes (mostly Animistic), some of which definitely struck an uneasy chord of value judgements in our fellow tourists. Don’t know which one won the cultural shock prize though, between children starting to smoke tobacco around 3 year-old or the yearly, village-wide “kicking a puppy to death” ceremony to bring good luck. A valuable and fascinating insight into cultural divide. Others have written about this cultural experience here, so I won’t dwell on it too much.

Back on the road. We had initially planned to rent scooters in Pakse, drive through the Loop and bring them back. But in the spirit of adventure and inviting chance, we decided instead to negotiate return them up north in Thakhek so we could avoid going back and rather, ride across the country. The price to pay for the rental company’s trust was Rob’s passport — at least one of them — which was duly returned in Thakhek.

We drove miles and miles, through pretty good roads, and sometimes pretty bad, dirt ones.

After a full-on day motorbiking over 300 kms in the outback with zero comfort and lots of dust, where locals never see a farang, we made it to Thakhek, back to our tourist bubble and boarded a bus to Luang Prabang in the North.

Luang Prabang really reminds me of Kyoto. A millennial town, previously the seat of an empire, rich in temples, craft and gastronomy. Also, slow, clean, comfortable. After 5 days of intense travelling in the Laotian outback, this was exactly what we needed and so we treated ourselves to gourmet food, spa treatments and temple visits. We even had Galette des Rois (the French influence is felt here).

A very welcome stop before embarking on the next leg of our journey — Luang Prabang to Thailand via slowboat on the Mekong. We also parted ways with Elsa, who stayed there before going East, while we are going West. I know it’s just a goodbye though – we’ll meet again on our respective adventures I’m sure.

The journey is 2 days to Huay Xai, after which we’ll take a bus to Chiang Mai. We’re sharing the boat with both Laotians and tourist, and it feels like a mini-cruise. The boat is big and sturdy, and we get the best views of the river and mountains around it. It is gently rolling on the Mekong — especially compared to the local speedboats, those crazy fast long tail boats which look like a surfboard with an engine strapped at the back and whose captains wear helmets (passengers none). It would have been a fun ride, but I sure couldn’t have been writing all this!

Wow! You’ve made it to the end of this entry 👏🏾

I’ll try not to procrastinate too much to keep this journal updated, but in the meantime you can follow a more visual and up-to-date account of my adventure on insta (@diary_of_a_vagabond).

Tschüss for now!

Hello World!

After 5 life changing years living in London and working at Busuu, I’m taking some time off to recharge, reflect and roam the world.

You can find me surfing around the Pacific. Or follow my adventures right here, starting in the new year…stay tuned!