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 combinationStormrider surf guide
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!