Blood is dripping from David's knee and shin. Rick is lathering iodine on the lacerations on his arm. They smile big, childlike smiles, and I use my shorts to wipe the thin mix of blood and saltwater from my digital camera. It's only Day 5, and paradise has taken ample flesh from all but one of us.
Four months ago, I wouldn't have imagined I'd be floating on the eastern fringe of the Indian Ocean, where bombings and tsunamis and malaria flourish. I also wouldn't have thought that I'd pay out the nose to be here.
It all started last May when, to steal from Pulp Fiction, I had what alcoholics refer to as a "moment of clarity."
I used to surf. Every single day. Then life happened. One especially fatigued morning I realized that I was a mildly chubby, 33-year-old workaholic whose main creative impulse is to Google something.
I needed to unplug, decompress and do something drastically, well--just good. I Googled numerous variations on "best surf trip ever." One place kept popping up: The Mentawai Islands, a chain off the coast of Sumatra littered with perfect, peeling, hollow waves. It's widely referred to as "Disneyland for surfers."
In no way, shape or form was I good enough to go there. Not one for logic, I went.
Yuppies do things right
There are basically two ways to do the Mentawais. The most hardcore is what they call "feral." This means you fly to Sumatra and find a fishing boat to take you across the 70 nautical miles to the Mentawais. Once there, you camp and pray for surf. I've read great, mythical stories of these ferals huddling under tarps from the pouring rain and waking up next to deadly sea snakes. I wanted absolutely no part of that.
Then there are charters--full-service, three-meals-a-day boats that were built to host eight to 10 surfers for a couple of weeks. It's the way yuppies do surf trips. Or, in my case, someone who's willing to spend 20 percent of his annual income on a surf trip--what economists would call an "unsound fiscal decision."
I chose the Bintang, a 110-foot schooner named after the Indonesian beer that tastes like carbonated urine.
Damn, here comes the white man
The Mentawai archipelago was inhabited way before the surfers invaded, of course. Its history is one of ancient cannibal tribes, shamans, fishing for subsistence and logging for big profit. Its surfing boon dates back to 1983, when a New Zealander named Martin Daly came across the perfect reef points while working as a diver. He managed to keep it a relative secret for 10 years, surfing the Mentawais pretty much with only his friends.
In 1992, however, he brought along pro surfers Tom Carroll and Ross Clark-Jones. They scored the Mentawais in absolute dream conditions. A photo of the trip was sold to an Australian magazine four months later. Then a video was released. It set the surf world on fire. Now, during peak season--June through September, which is Indonesia's dry, winter months--there are 35 charter boats in the Mentawais, towing professional surfers and tourists.
The Indonesian government has intervened, officially sanctioning five charter companies to work the islands. Each is allowed six boats in its fleet but must also invest and develop some of the Mentawai land. Most of the charter companies have done this by opening land-based surf camps near various breaks. At least 20 boats are owned by Indonesian natives.
Still, the islands are exploited, and many wonder what, if anything, surfers are contributing to the culture as they blow through chasing dreams.
"Surfing helmet is advisable."
"Bring extra boards--expect to break at least one."
"Pack Betadine for your reef cuts--you will get cut."
"Malaria medicine is mandatory!"
This is the comforting advice you get when preparing for the Mentawais. It's surfing's great irony--the most perfect waves usually break in places most likely to hurt you. Mentawai waves break so perfectly because of the live coral reef a few feet below the surface. When a wave breaks over sand--like at most San Diego beaches, save for Windansea, Swami-s and a few others--it doesn't usually barrel as it does when it breaks over a reef.
I bought a helmet, a new board, reef booties, extra leashes and fins. I got hepatitis A and B shots and malaria medicine, and basically bought out Rite-Aid: Dramamine, sunscreen, bandages, Betadine, Nu-Skin, laxatives, anti-diarrhea pills, you name it.
I over-prepared with paranoid zeal.
Pimped-out taxis and wigged-out omens
To get to the Mentawais, you take an 18-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore, then a puddle jumper from Singapore to Padang, located on the western edge of Sumatra. During an eight-hour layover in Singapore, I encounter my first omen: a plane surrounded by floodlights and soldiers with AK-47s. It was the first bomb scare at the airport in 20 years. The next morning, our flight is delayed in the Sumatran city of Perak Batu by the second omen: a plane has skid off the runway at Padang.
While waiting, I notice that the only other white person in the airport is wearing reef booties.
"Bintang?" he asks.
I nod. We bond and discuss the validity of omens.
His name is Garrett, a 32-year-old stockbroker from New York who plans to retire and surf globally by age 35. In New York, he gets to surf only about 30 times a year, so heï¿½s hoping the size of the waves doesn't exceed his skills. I echo the sentiment.
When we finally arrive at Padang, porters wrestle away our baggage. I ask our shuttle driver for advice on tipping, but he throws up his hands and shrugs.
"Sorry, my friend," he later says. "I could not speak in front of them because I am afraid. The mafia."
Driving in Padang is comical and nightmarish. Muslim men drive scooters, their women behind them with burkas flapping in the wind. All of the taxis are minivans, and all of them--literally, all of them--are tricked out with spoilers, tinted windows and bright orange and purple paint jobs. The single main road has lanes, but no one pays them any attention. Taxis wildly swing around other taxis, into oncoming traffic, pushing Muslims on scooters to the dirt fringes of the road.
Death seems imminent. Garrett becomes pale, and I'm sure I look the same.
The salty vet is a real bummer
At Padang's biggest hotel, we meet Daryl Robinson, owner of the Bintang. He's in his 50s, a former electrician who made his money wiring corporate headquarters in Australia. He now lives in Padang with his Indonesian wife and their new daughter. Over a beer, he boasts of his schooner, worth more than a million U.S. dollars. He also takes a few jabs at rival boats. Then, he grimaces.
"The winds have been all wrong this season," he says. "And, usually, the water is crystal clear. But this year, an algae has turned it real murky and green."
"Whatever you do, don't give your surfboards to the locals," he warns. "A guy did that once, came back 10 years later, and the local he gave the surfboard to wouldn't share any of the waves."
I recall seeing a film of the Mentawais and the heartwarming moment when pro surfers gave a young local a new board. I had thought about doing the same, but was kidding myself. Pros get boards for free, I spend a paycheck on one.
We also meet our fellow surfers, all Aussies:
"Tubbs," a former pro Aussie-rules football player whoï¿½s all muscle.
Trevor, a construction worker who single-handedly validates Australians' party reputation.
Rick, Trevor's boss, who will turn out to be the best surfer on our boat. He broke his foot surfing the Mentawais last year, and is back to redeem himself.
Then Jerry, a 50-something electrician who's brought along his son, David, and his son's friend, James.
We say goodbye to Daryl, who this season has handed skipper duties to his 26-year-old son, Ashton. After an hour-long ride through the dark hills of Padang, we arrive at the harbor. Young Indonesian boys offer to help with our boards, saying, "White man, give me some money."
We load onto a dingy and slowly motor through the warm, damp night air. I think of mosquitoes. The Bintang is obvious in the distance--a massive, well-lit leisure vessel among shanty fishing boats. It will be our home for the next 11 days.
Ashton greets us on board. He's a svelte, assured kid who's been sailing the islands for eight years. Then thereï¿½s the first mate, "Fleecey," an Australian who's a half-insane cross between an outlaw and a porno actor. There's also the Indonesian crew--a cook and three local boys who taxi us to and from the surf, clean the boat and do whatever else is needed. Aside from Ashton, they all earn $20 a day, plus tips. For the Indos, it's a decent living. For Fleecey, it's a slave-wage he's willing to accept for the lifestyle.
We all sit around the plastic dinner tables set up on the stern of the boat, get acquainted over a plate of meat spaghetti. We adjourn to our cabins and sleep as the Bintang starts its slow, rolling 12-hour ride through the dark.
Me and Chris Columbus are homeys
"Hey, boys! Don't use the bathrooms unless you got to take a shitter!" Fleecey yells. "Just piss off the side of the boat. If you fill it up with piss, the boat will lean to one side and it'll just smell."
At about 11 a.m., we finally spot first land. The green water goes still as we pull between two surreally lush islands. We all gather to watch a series of jellyfish--long and milky, like gargantuan spermatoa--pass below us.
"There it is," our skipper finally says, pointing to a ragged outcropping of brown reef rocks. "That's Scarecrow's--we'll see if there's any surf there."
Everyone crowds to get a look. We quickly fall silent, deflated. The waves are non-existent. I try not to feel like a sucker who fell for a great brochure. Undeterred, Ashton motors around the island to a spot called "Seven Palms Point." Here, we see our first useful surf.
The coral is visible below as we paddle out. One looks like a human brain. One looks like a huge pinecone. Both are pretty and dangerous.
For the first 20 minutes, the waves are only waist-high but extraordinarily powerful. They smash against the reef, creating a crackle that sounds like a live electrical line is loose in the water.
Then, out of nowhere, the sea lifts up. A set of five waves darkens the horizon, about eight feet on the face. I scratch to get over them, not quite ready to paddle into an eight-foot Indian Ocean wave that breaks over sharp crags of earth. Rick takes off on a wave that's a few feet overhead, makes a few nice turns and kicks off safely.
We surf this spot alone until sunset. I don't surf well at all, fighting to get my nerve. After one wave, I very lightly touch my feet to the reef to see what it feels like. As the ball of my foot makes contact, I feel it slice. Less than a half-pound of pressure and I get a two-inch wound that looks and feels like a paper cut. I limp for two days.
That night, the Indos bring out steaming plates of chicken and rice, liter bottles of Coca-Cola and Sprite. Massive, foreign bugs swarm the boat lights. Two of us swallow big, green malaria pills with a swill of Bintang. None of the crew takes malaria medicine, since prolonged use ruins your liver faster than cheap whisky. None of them has gotten the fever. Yet.
After dinner, we retreat to the salon--a large living room below deck filled with couches, books, surf magazines and a 46-inch plasma-screen TV. We sift through hundreds of bootleg DVDs, bought locally for about a $1.50. The film industry estimates it lost more than $3 billion last year due to bootlegging. I estimate thereï¿½s at least $2,000 of that money on board with us.
The next day, a massive charter boat with jet skis pulls up anchor. It's the Indies Trader IV, one of Mentawai legend Martin Daly's fleet. There's etiquette in the Mentawais, and they observe it by sending only two surfers at a time, every 20 minutes or so.
Their charter is part of an expedition called "Wave of Compassion," organized by SurfAid International, a humanitarian nonprofit that brings aid to isolated cultures where surfers hog their waters. Over the last week, they've explored the Northern Sumatran and Mentawai villages--distributing malaria aid, staging a lighthearted surf contest with the locals and filming a documentary.
Daly himself is on board but, like a good celebrity, he stays out of sight. We do see four pro surfers, including Brad Gerlach, an Encinitas native who recently won a big-wave contest by riding a 68-foot wall of water in Mexico.
Gerlach puts on a show, defying gravity with grace. It's a thrill to watch; it also sucks because we didn't come here to be spectators.
Macaroni's claims one foot, one Pedro the Lion
Each day, we monitor the swell reports Daryl sends Ashton via radio from Padang. A big system from the Southwest is due, so we head to a legendary spot called Macaroni's. It's small and wind-blown when we arrive, but we surf it anyway and get more cuts.
The next morning, four charter boats are anchored at Macca's iconic coastline of dead and broken trees. Heavy, 10-foot set waves roll in. A Japanese surf guide from one boat attempts to take one, gets caught in the lip, and freefalls towards the reef. Everyone watches the water to see if he surfaces with his face intact. He does.
Dane Ward, an 18-year-old pro from San Clemente, navigates deep barrels and pulls four-foot aerial maneuvers. Gerlach is surfing so well he's mocking the place.
Most surfers here wear cotton T-shirts--both for sun protection and the cooling of the wet cloth. Before the day is over, my Pedro the Lion concert tee will be torn off, lost in the water. If David Bazan gets huge in Indo, I want an album credit.
I get a small backside barrel, which makes my day worth it. Seconds later, a surfer from France takes a nasty spill, and the scream breaks the surface of the water before he does. He's broken his foot, and his entire boat will have to return to Padang tonight to get him medical attention.
Two days later at a spot called Thunders, the ocean is flat. Fleecey estimates these are the smallest waves he's seen all season, possibly ever. Although Garrett and I had hoped against huge surf, this isn't good.
In California, large surf means danger. In the Mentawais, it's the opposite. Large waves break in deeper water, meaning there's more liquid between you and the reef. When the're small, the reef is nearly flush with the surface. I learn this lesson in the form of a black and yellow bruise that covers exactly half of my entire ass.
"This is the last time I'll do the Mentawais," grumbles Tubbs, who's on his fifth trip.
"G-Land was much better," says David, who had surfed the famous East Java point break a week before coming here.
This is the great paradox of surf tourism. The Eiffel Tower will always be there, but surf may not.
In the down time, we read books, stare at surf magazines, watch a dozen bootlegged DVDs. We try not to think about the amount of money we're paying to stare at magazines and watch bootlegged DVDs. We occasionally go on deck and gaze at the insanely beautiful islandsï¿½but even paradise becomes commonplace when you stare too long. Luckily, the fish are biting--skipjacks and tuna, mostly. We catch 10 within a single hour. One actually leaps into the boat on its own.
We know better than to second-guess a boat captain who knows the islands better than anyone. But we're desperate.
"What about going to Lance's Right?"
"Maybe Macaroni's again?"
Finally, Fleecey snaps at us: "There's no fucking swell! What part of that don't you guys fucking understand?!"
We shut up and drink heavily.
Pied pipers and "special women"
With no surf, we head to a seaside village called Sikakap to fill up on gas and see the local culture. Children are everywhere. There seems to be 10 7-year-olds for every adult we see. Most of them wear surf T-shirts and board shorts left behind by other tourists. They walk with us as if we're all a big gang. They beg us.
"Mister, Fanta," says one boy, pointing to the orange soft drink sold by a side-street vendor.
"Mister, money," another one says.
"Mister, books," a little girl says.
The main street is one shanty store after another, selling quirky, brightly colored T-shirts, backpacks, flip-flops and foodstuff. A man with a megaphone chants prayers from a temple. It has a misshapen, metallic roof that almost seems built of tin foil.
"My name is Rosa--are you married?" asks a pretty, 17-year-old girl who runs a store attached to a restaurant that looks like a small barn.
"No," I say.
"Do you have special girl?" she asks again, batting her eyes.
Through broken English, Rosa explains she is from Padang, and was brought to Sikakap "by a businessman." I have heard stories about young, pretty girls like Rosa. I've also heard stories about those businessmen.
She starts to cook, and at least 20 children gather around me. They poke, prod, give high-fives, try to conjure any English that will convince me to give them something good. One of them brings me outside and shows me his pet monkey, kept in a cage on stilts over the water. He smiles, knowing white people get a kick out of monkeys.
For a few seconds, I lose track of my wallet. I wonder if a 10-year-old pick-pocketed me. When I find it next to me on the table, I feel like an asshole.
I order four bowls of noodles with my last Indonesian money. The kids break into four separate tables and share. I say goodbye to Rosa and walk out to a chorus of "Goodbye!" from the kids. I wonder if Rosa will find her "special man."
Here I lie naked before you
We have two days and one morning left to surf, but there are still no waves. Tubbs wants to go back to Padang early and says we should "fuck this place and go surf Bali for the weekend." Easily said by a man who made a million dollars in real estate. He once owned a racehorse. The rest of us are working stiffs who paid what we had to be exactly where we are.
The captain, feeling our pain but lacking Poseidon's powers to ease it, decides we may as well finally hit up Lance's Right, one of the most famous waves in the world. "At least you guys can check it out, buy some wood carvings from the locals," he shrugs.
As we pass the neighboring coastline, we think we see waves, but we've become keen to that mirage. "That's bigger than I thought it'd be," Fleecey agrees, and we momentarily perk up. "But don't get your hopes up, boys."
Minutes later, we're anchored before it. It's flawless--five- to eight-foot waves smooth as sheet glass and tubing down the length of the reef, the sort of waves you put in brochures. We're stunned, immobile for minutes. It's like the girl of our dreams just got naked, popped in a porno, and we're waiting for the rub.
I stare toward the shore. Fifty meters from where Lance's perfect barrel makes dreams come true is where the Mentawais' most famous reef divvies out nightmares. It's a lethal patch of exposed reef, appropriately named "The Surgeon's Table."
"You don't want to take the first wave and get caught inside there," Fleecey chuckles. "Guaranteed to lose some flesh."
The Surgeon's Table inspires me to wear my helmet for the first time. I am the only one, and look genuinely retarded.
"What the hell are you waiting for, you cunts?! It doesn't get much better than this!" Fleecey yells as he leaps 12 feet off the bow into the water. Rick follows.
Fleecey grabs the first wave, gets perfectly barreled. Rick takes the next one, gets perfectly barreled.
I jump in, paddle into a head-high wave and get barreled. The sound inside the tube is mesmerizing--a giant sucking sound of fluid earth. I shoot out the side, chicken-skinned in 95-degree heat.
With my lame headgear, I have a newfound confidence. I charge bigger waves, drop in deeper than I have all trip. Then it happens. I take a six-footer, bottom turn and try to sneak into the barrel. The lip of the wave hits me square in the side of the helmet, blowing me off my board.
I surface, only to see that I've wiped out on the first wave of the biggest set of the day. Mound after mound of whitewash pushes me closer to the Surgeon's Table. I grab the edges of my board, try to push under a wave, and my knuckles scrape against the reef.
Shit, I'm on it. I laugh a paranoid laugh, thinking, Nurse, hand me the scalpel.
Just feet behind me, two big rocks drip with water as though salivating. Another mound of whitewash hits me and I feel the bottom of my board scrape against rock. I try not to panic as a slab of reef rips a three-inch gash down my right leg.
The waves finally stop, and I stand up on the reef. My heart's racing. Our skipper is on the beach taking photos. I hold up my bloody knuckles and walk toward him. He smiles, snaps a shot.
"Bruce Lee" fires up the dingy and picks me up down the beach. He starts heading for the boat, thinking I'll probably sit a few out. But I yell to him and point to the break.
"Take me back there, man! Man, that's killer!"
The afterglow of redemption
Later in the day, inevitably, another boat shows up. Then another.
We barter with the canoe merchants for decorative, hand-carved wood and polished seashells. Tubbs trades a beach towel for a wooden oar with dragons for handles. I trade board shorts, a T-shirt, a bottle of Coca Cola, some beef jerky and about $5 for two of them.
A motorized canoe carrying an entire Mentawai family approaches. A man lies halfway under a blanket and squirms in pain. Someone explains they need gas to make it to the hospital on the other side of the island. Our captain readily shares his petrol, and they wave thanks and motor off. It's another reminder that real, hard lives are lived where we splash around. Enduring flat surf doesn't seem so bad.
During our final morning in the waves, Lance's is barely fun at all and I don't really care. After all the frustration, all the waiting, all the discussions about the cost of paradise, that one perfect day saved us. Nature made good on its part of the transaction.
I grab the last of my possessions--three T-shirts, shorts and four packs of gummy bears--and hand them out to the local kids.
We start the long crossing back to Padang, and our impending real lives make everyone pensive. Garrett will start a job at a new firm. Rick's wife will give birth in months. I'll write this story.
In the shuttle to the airport, discussion returns to money. More than a few feel this bit of paradise wasn't worth the cost. I keep quiet. Save for divine economic intervention, I wouldn't spend such a big lump sum to come back here. But I feel every penny was worth it.
I have memories of fear and floating in the Indian Ocean. I haven't thought about Googling anything in 14 days. I'm a bit more human.