When things go wrong for one of the locals, you quickly realise you're just a helpless visitor in the Mentawai Islands.
After a long and tiresome ferry ride, and the ritualistic hiring of a local dugout, we reached HT’s when the shadows were long in the afternoon. We headed to the village and to Hussein, the village elder who had so graciously hosted a few friends and I a few weeks earlier. He welcomed us in with open arms, and showed us the same rooms in his hut on the beach. It was 1996, and the place was still untouched.
It was late in the season now, and there was no swell. Bad planning, but it was still a wild adventure. When a glimmer of swell hope arrived, it would be dashed by the seasonal onshore winds, arriving late morning. It was humid, it rained a lot, and there were no waves.
The village back in 1996 was always deathly quiet. The people would retreat into their little houses if they saw you coming. They seemed nervous and reticent. The young girls would go off in the morning to find copra husks, and they would smile shyly at you as they walked past in their bare feet, with bamboo cages on their backs to store the husks.
After a few days off, we finally had some swell and we all hit it. It was still small and running along the shelf, but there were barrels to be had, as they are every single time HT’s ever breaks. It’s a perfect wave and some of the rides out there are surreal, and you feel you just need to glide, to skim across the water to the channel without so much as a single turn.
After that swell we were considering leaving the island and heading down to Bali for some Poppies II parties and civilization, when our host Hussein came in one day and through my vague understanding of Bahasa Indonesia, told us that there was a girl in the village who had malaria.
“Nyamuk,” was the word for mosquito, and back in the 90’s scores of Mentawaiian people died from their bites. It was for this very reason that Dr Dave Jenkins founded SurfAid http://www.surfaid.org/ in the Mentawais in 1999, three years later.
This girl was young, and she was pregnant, and she was going to die soon. We were appalled, and offered Hussein our entire supply of Larium, to save the girl’s life. To our collective knowledge at the time, you could take three doses at once, and despite some quite radical side-affects, have a chance at eradicating the disease in the system. He thanked us, and consulted with a village group. They decided that she couldn't have it due to the fact that she was pregnant.
We were aghast. The side effects of Larium during pregnancy were at that stage deemed ok, surmountable, but this was a human life, and he firmly said that she could not take the medicine. He seemed sure of himself, but did seem to be staring at us for way too long a time and he had a slight tremble going.
It was at that moment that I, for one, felt the jolting reality of a clash of knowledge over fear, of medicine over tradition, of the fear of meddling. They did not understand malaria medicine in any way. We did not understand Mentawaiian culture in any way.
It was a horrific, intensely frustrating time, knowing what we knew about malaria and medicine, but there was nothing we could do. The house we were staying in became cold, as if an evil spirit had come to visit, and a storm was brewing over the sea.
Slowly, during the night, the longboats started arriving, right outside our hut. Rows of people, with traditional headgear would pile out and head for the house where the dying girl lay, two houses down from us. One of our crew asked permission to go into the house and take photographs. The request was somberly denied. More people arrived, and there were lanterns, there were burning torches, and we could hear the people crunching outside our room as they walked on by.
At about midnight a massive squall hit the village, with banshee winds and heavy rainfall. We could hear things flying around outside, and bashing against the walls of our hut, being carried through the air by the vicious winds. It was as black as hell outside, and we lay on our beds, wide-awake, and staring, waiting for the night to pass.
The next morning was still. The longboats and the visitors had all gone. The girl had passed away during the night, and they had taken her body with them. There was no sign of any damage outside from the squall. It was sunny and still, with small waves on the reef.
The mood had changed however. Suddenly the Mentawais was no longer a little playground for a few carefree surfers to hang out, drink a few beers, and lay around waiting for the next swell to arrive. It was a place where someone had died when she could quite possibly have been saved, and it was a place where everything seemed to have shifted a few levels of weirdness, where the value of life seemed to have lurched away from it’s lofty position above all else.
This island had overnight become a place where shamans with strange hats could arrive at the dead of night and take away the still warm body of a young and pregnant dead girl. If you though too long about it, it became terrifying.
Our host seemed a great man, and he sensed our uneasiness. He understood that we had been unwittingly included in something that was not our place to be involved in, and he felt partially responsible. He had tried his best to make our trip comfortable, but it had gone a huge step away from this direction.
He quickly facilitated a boat. His son accompanied us to the ticket seller in the next village, and we were gone, leaving our western boardies, sunglasses, t-shirts and dollars as our thanks.