The arrivals lounge at Padang airport is not really a lounge. It is more like a non-air conditioned shed which could never fit a planeload of people in. But this is Indonesia and it is remarkable how many people can fit into a confined space in this country. There are a couple of immigration officials furiously stamping visas and passports. There are also numerous families, porters, and taxi drivers eagerly waiting for those coming off the plane. In short, Padang airport is organised chaos, Indo style.
Now is a good time to introduce the idea of HALUS, The English translation for this word is refinement, sensitive or dignified. In Indonesia, Halus is more than a word, it is a concept, or to put it another way, a style of behaving. Not often do you see Indonesians raise their voice, act aggressively, or throw a tantrum. It is just not the right thing to do in Indonesia.
Every regular traveller to Indonesia has seen a westerner “lose his halus” and it can be extremely amusing. I just didn’t expect to see it so early on my trip. Boarding the Padang plane in Singapore, I noticed a grumpy middle-aged yank (I’ll call him Hank) on his way to the Mentawais for a trip of a lifetime. He had forked out some pretty big bucks for a hassle free trip on a luxury charter boat. Hank had just experienced a long uncomfortable flight across the Pacific, followed by an extended transit in Singapore, and then a bumpy flight across the Equator to Padang. In short, he was tired, hungry, needed a shower, and was totally out of his comfort zone. He just wanted to get picked up at the airport and whisked away by the charter company to a nice hotel to freshen up. By the time he got through the steamy customs hall with enough baggage for 10 surf trips he was just about to lose it.
A couple of friendly porters tried to help him with his five boards and six bags but Hank told them to bugger off and not to touch his stuff. The friendly porters tried again, but Hank then made the critical mistake, thinking if he yells louder at people who don’t speak english, they will suddenly understand everything he says.
When a westerner starts to raise his voice and lose his halus, the typical Indo just looks at the westerner and laughs at him. This of course sends the Westerner into a bigger rage, which of course brings on even more laughter. Ah it is a vicious circle.
The surf guide from the charter company can see what is happening and comes to Hank’s rescue by quickly ushering him into the pick up van, while unfortunately leaving one of his six bags behind. The friendly porter then delivers the final bag expecting to get a little something for his honesty. He probably didn’t expect a faceful of abuse and accusations.
By now the whole airport is caught up in the madness and the laughter is almost deafening. Ah the vicious circle again. The last thing I saw of Hank was him screaming his lungs out as he was leaving the airport. Afterwards I slip the porter 10,000 rphs telling him “situasi itu, sangat lucu.” (that situation was extremely funny). He gives me a big smile, arranges a taxi and I’m on my way.
Unlike Hank, I’m surfing the Mentawais on the cheap. Most people who surf the Mentawais go by charter boat and pay up to $US450 a day. At this price you get what you expect; a western chef, unlimited beer, your own air-conditioned cabin, 5 star service, a media room, and someone to point the digital video camera at you during your trip for your very own surfing film. There are cheaper boats, and at $200-a-day, you still get well looked after. Good food, a sound engine, knowledgeable guide and 3 Bintangs a day. You still get to suck back a cold one while watching amazing sunsets, comfortable in the knowledge that your cook will prepare a nice breakfast to fuel you up for another six hours in the water tomorrow.
The next option is a Western run land camps. For $120-150 per day you will be looked after you very nicely in a comfortable but basic beach house. His speciality is home-made cakes and a fast runabout that can access 15 world class waves in under half an hour. The other great thing about staying with Christie is you get to see the best surfer in the Mentawais ripping all day. On a previous trip I watched Christie pull in at Rifles on a genuine eight footer and flick out 15 seconds later 300 meters down the line. To show everyone it was no fluke he did it again and again and again on his next three waves. If the land camps are too expensive then there are the converted fishing boats at about $20-50 per day. These are run by operators without web sites, offices, telephones, lifejackets, freshwater, medical kits, and beer. But they do throw in the boat holes, unlimited rice, and broken motors for free.
Being a poor uni student, I took the option of the overland trip, staying with the locals, and packing in all your own food and fresh water. The boat captains call us “Ferals”. Sure we cook our own food over an open fire and we don’t even get warm beer, but at the end of the day, we surf the same waves and have just as much fun.
Rule number 1 for the Ferals of the Mentawais; Don’t expect too much in the way of creature comforts or you are going to be disappointed. There are no restaurants, running water, electricity, mattresses, and toilets in the villages near the waves. If you want a beer at the end of the day, it will have to be warm, and you are going to have to bring it over from Padang.
Rule number 2,If you can’t speak Indonesian, book yourself a spot on a charter boat. Getting from Padang to the waves in the Mentawais, buying all your own food, and arranging a place to stay is virtually impossible without working knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia. If you can’t ask a local “what day does the boat return to Padang” and understand their answer, you are in for a frustrating trip.
Rule number 3 for ferals is enjoy the other ferals company. You may need to rely on your fellow ferals, and they may need to rely on you. The nearest decent hospital can be a week away, so take a good medial kit and learn how to use it. This trip, I stayed in a village with about 6 other surfers and we had a choice of five waves within 30 minutes walk. One thing that I noticed was that Ferals tend to be interesting people who were willing to help each other out. Coffee, wax, sunscreen, cigs, food, mossie repellent, and water were shared with everyone in the village. There is no room for stinginess.
The Mentawais are not the place to be if you run out of sunscreen after you have knocked back another surfers request for wax. The locals are doing it tough, but are more than happy to give you their room for $3 a night. Cooking extra food for your hosts and giving them a packet of cigs will make your trip much more pleasant. If you have a good day fishing, invited everyone to dinner because the next day you may not catch anything.
Ferals should chose their travel partners wisely. Going feral with a cook, motor mechanic, doctor and someone fluent in Bahasa Indonesia is a much better option than travelling with an accountant, geologist, or painter.
If you are going to go feral in the Mentawais, go for a month. The big expense is getting there. A round trip to and from Padang is a four day affair and a ten day trip may coincide with a no-swell period. If this happens all the hassles are not rewarded. Hey at least you don’t blow two grand on a waveless boat charter. Staying for a month guarantees waves. Taking a tent is a good option, but don’t forget to pay the locals camp fees. After all you are staying on their land. Tents are great for keeping the dreaded mossies away and offer a little more privacy for Ferals. Also there is the added bonus of knowing you haven’t kicked a family out of their room. The other main advantage with a tent is that you can move it to catch the breeze. Village huts can be stinking hot this close to the equator.
As for waves, when you are staying 100 meters from one of the heaviest lefts in the Mentawais and the swell has been up for three weeks, the fact that you have been sleeping on your board bag for a month becomes irrelevant. My final advice for those who are considering going Feral in the Mentawais is, if you are like Hank and get upset at non-air conditioned customs halls, don’t bother going feral, it will only end in tears.
Iain Lygo is a journalism/Indonesian student at Monash Uni. He has just released an independent film titled Welcome to the Mentawais with all money raised going to Surf Aid International. www.surfaidinternational.org