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!”

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  1. Great post! I am very much loving these! Enjoy!

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