Confusing, overwhelming, beautiful, friendly, scandalous, wild, free, poor, destroyed, developed, incongruous, dangerous, delicious, annoying, relaxing, inexpensive and Australian. Those are the adjectives that come to mind when I think of Indonesia.
Upon your arrival in Bali you will be confused and overwhelmed. Taxi drivers surround you, offering rides. It’s hot and you’re sweaty. The board bag is heavy. My first time there I paid too much for a taxi into Kuta – the driver offered to take me for 200,000 rupiah ($20 US) and I bartered him down to $12 because I heard you should pay somewhere around $10 and I just wanted to get to the hostel after over 30 hours of travel from the US. After flying in and out of Bali three times now I know to grab a free cart for my bags and to tell the taxi driver, with confidence, “I usually pay $8”.
As you leave the airport you begin to feel a new level of crowdedness. Just walking to the car with a board bag is an exercise in delicate balance and cart control, avoiding small children, slow walkers and the awkwardly placed structural column. The cars A/C works, sort of, and scooters zip past your taxi with reckless abandon. Everyone is sort of cutting in traffic and letting others cut in front of them, concentrating on what is just ahead, with no attention to spare on anything behind them. They drive on the left side which always takes a few minutes to get used to, as they take left turns and your heart drops into your stomach “you’re going the wrong way” you scream inside your head then you take another breath and convince yourself that the driver knows what he’s doing and your instincts are wrong.
Local people speak English with an Indo-Australian accent, which kind of surprises me and gives me a brief twinge of jealousy. Like maybe the American influence is not as prevalent as I thought it was. But after a few days surrounded by overweight middle aged Australian couples and loud, drunk, rude Australian youth I realize that Kuta is to Australia what Cancun is to the US and I relent – they can have it.
I have a few days to kill before I meet up with my friends and head to the Mentawais so I try to get a few surf sessions in. I realize it’s hard to surf in Bali. Not only because there is no swell for the few days I’m there, but because Kuta and the surrounding area is confusing to navigate. Most of the good surf spots are 30 minutes by scooter, if you know where you’re going. Streets are not well marked and addresses are given like “off sunset blvd, behind Sushi Tei Restaurant, 30 meters before Harris hotel, on the right”. Many streets are unnamed and buildings don’t have numbers. I surf Kuta beach break with some people from the hostel and Canggu by taxi one day but I don’t really catch Bali surf at its finest.
There are no laws against drunk driving here and almost everyone I met that had been coming to Bali for some time had either been hurt in a scooter accident or knew someone who had their trip cut short by one. Kuta is affectionately nicknamed ’’the Vortex‘’ for its ability to pick you up off your feet, spin you around, make you dizzy and slam you into a stationary object before you can escape. It’s a central hub for Indonesian travel – most people surfing in Indo will at one point or another transfer through Kuta on their way West or East. Because of the stories I heard I was initially very apprehensive of getting on the back of a scooter or of driving one myself. I didn’t want an accident to happen before I got to the waves. If I got hurt on a wave that would be ok, but if I got hurt on a scooter before I could surf, that would be the ultimate failure. But trying to avoid riding a scooter in Kuta is like trying to avoid drinking keg beer at a frat party, people look at you funny and there is constant pressure to just do it. Your friends are doing it and if you’re walking around the place without a scooter the locals are offering to get a scooter for you. Eventually, I ended up as both a passenger and a driver on multiple scooter trips.
After a few days in Bali I caught up with the friends that had invited me on the surf trip to the Mentawais, which was a relief as I had lost my only debit card during my 24 hour layover in Bangkok and I was desperately in need of cash. I’ll describe that here as I think I learned a few lessons from it.
On the flight to Indonesia I had to disembark at Tokyo after 12 hours on the plane for Singapore Air to refuel, clean the plane and swap crews. It was cool to see the double decker A380 “Airbus” from the outside. The nose is a bulbous protrusion and the cockpit windows look tiny situated just above it. It’s unbelievable that the thing can leave the ground – it’s more like a flying cruise liner than an airplane. The four jet engines are each the size of a school bus. It’s comically large.
After that one hour layover in Tokyo and one sleeping pill I managed to fall asleep. After 7 hours of airplane sleep we landed in Singapore where I had a four-hour layover before connecting to Bangkok. Considering my final destination is Bali, this trip North to Bangkok doesn’t make sense geographically, but I had to do it as it was the only option I had when booking using US Airways miles on the Star Alliance network.
So I’ve got 24 hours in Bangkok. I locked my surf bag and roller bag at the airport and took the tram into the heart of the old city, where I got myself a private room for $20 for the night. I took a shower, changed, and left the hotel to grab a bite and go see some Bangkok touristy temple stuff. I feel like the ultimate gringo here- in for a day I haven’t even learned how to say hello or thank you in Thai. I’m mostly just a jet lagged, pad Thai eating, sweaty, lazy gringo mess. The first tuk tuk driver that approached me offered to take me to three temples, one of which I was planning on walking to, for 40 baht, which is less than $1.50. I accepted his offer immediately, and after I ate my pad thai in his tuk tuk and he took me to a couple of temples he asked if I would go into a “fashion shop” for him and look at the suits for 10 minutes. If I stay in there 10 minutes he’ll get a gas voucher from the shop as they are running a promotion right now. He emphasizes that I have to stay 10 minutes, 5 minutes is too short. I agree because I’m not really doing anything, it’s hot out, and they probably have AC. So I go in and the four guys are kind of trying to sell me the suits, showing me catalogues and different materials. I look at my watch, it’s been like 4 minutes and I’m ready to go, but I told the dude I’d do him a solid so I awkwardly ask a few suit and fabric related questions and finally 10 minutes are up and I leave. Mr Tuk then asks me to go to the next shop that’s running the same promotion and do it all over again, this time for only 5 minutes and if I do this thing then the whole trip is free. I tell him I don’t want to do that again, the 40 baht is a fine price to pay for his service, but he’s very insistent and I think the fuel is worth way more to him so I agree, one more time. The sales guy at the next shop is a lot more convincing. All of the sudden I’m considering paying $150 for a custom made cashmere wool suit. Sounds nice, it’d definitely be impossible to find this same deal in the US. They can ship it back for me as well? Dang. But then I realize I’m thinking about spending this money to buy something that I never intended to get just because the opportunity has presented itself. I say goodbye to the second shop and have Mr Tuk drop me off at my original destination, the Grand Thai Palace. The place is spectacular, intricately detailed, ornately designed. But it’s hot out. At one point we have to take our shoes off to enter part of the temple but there’s no shade in the area so all these tourists are doing the high-knee hot-ground dance as they make their way too and from their shoes. I explore a bit but the combo of the heat and jet lag are beginning to wear on me and I’m dreaming of the AC in my private room. So I get out of the palace, skipping the museum of textiles completely even though it’s included in my ticket price and head over to the tuk tuk stand. The first guy I talk to wants 100 baht, or $3 US dollars to take me back to the hostel. This sounds ludicrous to me as the last guy was only going to charge me 40 baht for an hour of his time, taking me to three different sites. I counter with 20 baht and he agrees so long as I go with him to a “Fashion Store”. I decide to walk.
When I arrive near my hotel, I really want a cool drink so I enter a Circle-K type convenience store. Its refreshingly air conditioned and I grab a water and a juice and a bag of Thai snacks and try to pay with my credit card. They accept cash only, so I go right outside to use my debit card and pull out about $10. I don’t want any more because I’m leaving in the morning and I don’t need to carry a bunch of Baht into the next country and lose money on the exchange rate. I go back in, pay, and head back to my room to watch a documentary on my laptop, cool off, and get some sleep. Its not until the morning that I realize I left my debit card in the machine and that I’ve only got $50 cash left. It’s at this point I realize that I had become too complacent with my travels – I should have at least had $200 US cash as backup reserve with me at all times. I also realize that it would be to my benefit to have a second debit card in my possession, either tied to the same checking account or to a separate account entirely. I consider whether or not I should leave Thailand or stick around, miss my flight, and try to contact the ATM Company where I lost my card. I decide my best bet is to leave Thailand, contact my bank to get a replacement card sent to Indo, and meet up with my friends in a few days who I know will front me the money while I wait for my card. Amazingly, things work out. I share a taxi with some Swedish girls who offer to cover the cost (I save like $5 cash). I am able to pay for my Indonesian Visa using my credit card (saves $25 cash). The hostel lets me stay a few nights until I get the cash to pay. There is a small cart in front of the hostel serving delicious fried rice for $1. I meet up with a friend of a friend who loans me $150, which I pay back via paypal. My debit card never makes it into my hands but my friend’s front me the cash, which I pay back via a wire transfer. The road provides.
Finally things are lining up. We make it to the airport to take a domestic flight to Padang on the island of Sumatra where we’ll be picked up for transfer to our boat, the Indo2. Our guide, Ben, is a blonde haired Australian who’s been coming to the Mentawais to surf for 12 years. He’s covered in half-healed reef scrapes and drives the van more aggressively than most Indonesians so I like him right away. It helps that he’s super friendly and helpful and has a cooler full of beers for the van ride to the boat. We go to the office to meet Charlie, the Indonesian owner of the boat, and to pay the remainder of our bills. After everything is ironed out we get our first look at the boat and everyone is pleasantly surprised. It’s an 80 foot cruiser, with a kitchen, indoor and outdoor lounge, 10 bed air conditioned sleeping quarters, and surf racks.
The crew loads everything up for us, we get a safety briefing (Don’t fall overboard!) and we’re off. The week before another surfer on a similar trip in Indonesia fell overboard and treaded water for 27 hours before being found. He was lucky, most people don’t get found, and most people are not strong enough swimmers to last that long. He said the seagulls were pecking at his face and he tried to kill himself but couldn’t do it. I note that some of the rails on our boat are lower than knee high and I add that to the list of things to be cautious of.
I should mention at this point that I am very apprehensive about this entire trip. Truly, I’m scared. I’m excited to be doing this but I’m also very aware that it’s one of the most dangerous trips I’ve ever been on. Besides the risk of falling overboard we are heading into some of the largest surf I’ve ever paddled around in. When we leave land the swell prediction is 3-4 meters within a couple of days, which will produce 15-18 ft wave faces on the larger sets. All of the waves in the Mentawais break over razor sharp corral reef and the closest hospital is over 24 hours by boat. And it’s not really a hospital you want to have to go to. The currents around the islands can be dangerous if you get caught in the wrong spot. There is no Internet or cell service. The islands are a high malaria risk area. The surfers I’m with are big wave chargers from the West Coast of Australia who live part time in Indonesia and the girls are Japanese pro body boarders which means everyone on the boat wants the biggest, best waves possible. We won’t be surfing the inside reefs. I know they will push me to improve but I let them know I don’t consider myself on their level and that I’m a pretty timid surfer.
The next morning we arrive to our first surf location and its absolutely stunning. We wake up before sunrise, have some coffee and toast, prep the boards and put on sunblock. In the pre-dawn darkness we can see tiny phosphorescent blue animals floating in the water just below the boat. With the first light of dawn the flare from the offshore wind on the breaking wave of Nipussi can be seen from our moored position. Ben explains we have two waves in this area – Nipussi and Bank Vaults. Nipussi is an intermediate right-hander, not a barreling wave, and Bank Vaults is an advanced right-hander, a barreling wave with a shifting peak over a shallow reef. I opt to surf Nipussi as a warm up, and me and one other person score the wave alone for 2 hours before being joined by the rest of our crew. It’s not for another hour and a half that anyone else shows up and by then we are tired and ready for some food so we wave our boards in the air and the dingy cruises over to pick us up and take us back to the boat.
They serve us seafood burgers for lunch, like hamburgers but instead of beef they use a prawn or crab based meat patty. By the end of the trip we all get excited to see what the next meal will be, the food is that good.
Ben explains our options for where to surf that afternoon and we decide to steam over to the playgrounds area to check the surf there. Ben is spot on with his predictions every time. His years in the Mentawais has taught him more than most humans about swell direction and wind patterns and when we arrive at A-frames it looks really good.
I begin to see and appreciate the uniqueness of each surf spot. This one, true to it’s name, is an A-frame breaking left and right over the reef surrounding a small nearby island. The lefts wrap, bend and wall up on the inside as they get more shallow over the reef. I’ve never seen a wave do this. Imagine drag racing in a straight line your entire life and then being placed on an Indy Cart circuit and seeing that the road can actually bend around in different directions. It seemed surreal. The rights dump you straight into the middle of a horseshoe shaped wall of whitewater that creates a 20 minute paddle back out, so most people opt for the left. There is an older guy out with leathery tan skin, blond hair and yellow surf sunglasses. He looks “rad”, like something out of an early 90’s snowboarding movie, and shares some helpful tips on how best to catch the wave.
I won’t go into too much detail about the other spots we surfed but we hit all the big name Mentawai spots and some lesser-known locations as well. Injuries were kept to a minimum – mostly reef scrapes that were treated with lime juice and Chinese medicine, a combination the locals swear by. I secretly scrubbed mine with soap and water and sprayed with Bacteine every day so as not to offend. At one point, during the peak of that week’s swell, an oversized cleanup set of fives waves rolled through. There were over 20 people out and no one made it over the back of those waves – everyone was washed over the reef to the inside channel. None of our crew was in the water at the time so we watched the wreckage from the boat. People came up with reef scrapes, broken boards and some snapped leashes but no trip-ending injuries were noted. Slightly battered egos were seen waving their boards in the air, signaling for the dingy to come pick them up.
After the boat tour we were dropped off at land camp for a few nights of rustic accommodations, lesser quality food and walking to surf breaks. The rest of my time in Indonesia was spent in similar fashion – at a much slower pace of life, with a low information diet and plenty of surfing. At the end of my time in Indonesia I finally felt that I had my fill of travel, for now. I know that it will never leave my system, but I was ready to come home, ready to work and ready to retire from traveling for some time. I had an amazing go at it and I’m truly thankful to have had the opportunity to travel like this for so long. I’m going to keep this blog going, because I enjoy sharing my ideas and hearing your feedback, so feel free to reach out anytime!