Roaming Indonesia in a time COVID.
The wet season really arrived in Bali this year. The storms turned up in December, and it feels like it has been raining every day since. You might as well be rolling a dice if you need to head out on your scooter. Chances are you will be desperately pulling on a raincoat, or hiding miserably under a villa cornice, as towering grey banks of cloud gust ominously overhead. When the rain falls, it usually comes down in a thick tropical deluge; flooding the streets and narrow laneways; washing away grit and grime from tourist seasons long past.
The new year’s tourist season is still firmly on hold, but that doesn’t mean the waves have been uncrowded. A committed group of foreign surfers has been residing on the island full time. The local surfers have much less work to do, and there are ways of entering Indonesia for those that remain motivated. In comparison to a pre-Covid season, there are fewer numbers in the water, but the standard of surfing is definitely higher. The age old trick of sitting down the line, and waiting for someone to fall off, isn’t working like it once did.
I experienced some fairly mixed feelings when my girlfriend proposed a surf trip to Kuta, Lombok. Chasing waves in quiet corners of Indonesia is one of the obvious benefits of being based here. Unfortunately, we would probably be surfing softer options. Sharing the lineup with longboarders and hordes of beginners didn’t really fill me with enthusiasm. But our relationship was still in its infancy, and I had been trying to come across as a largely decent person. So, I smiled and nodded in agreement, while quietly assuring myself that I would try to hold the charade together. That I wouldn’t succumb to the selfish surfer syndrome that had damaged so many relationships in the past.
Everything appeared to be going well when we motored into town. We had both tested negative to Covid-19 prior to boarding the ferry, and we had mostly avoided the intermittent downpours along the way. My girlfriend decided to pre-book some accommodation before we left. I had to admit, it was much nicer than the places I usually stayed. The toilets weren’t bucket flush, and the bedding smelt like it had been washed recently.
We sat down to dinner at a restaurant perched high on a hill behind Kuta. Below us stretched the beach, then a series of picturesque green headlands. It began to rain just as our meal was served. I didn’t really give it a second thought; the storms usually came and went fairly quickly. Much later it was still bucketing down, and the staff was starting to close up the restaurant. I cast doubtful glances out into the wet, but it didn’t seem like we had much choice. I gave my girlfriend the phones and the only raincoat we had. As I slowly steered our scooter out onto the road, I was already drenched.
We were about halfway down the hill when the situation started to get serious. The streams running down off the hill began to look like a small river. As we made a sharp turn, a torrent of dirty brown water was converging on the road, and washing large rocks down into the darkness. Warning bells started clanging in my mind. The scene reminded me of the footage you sometimes saw on the news. Where some unlucky person is left standing on top of a partially submerged car. There was no way I was taking the chance with both of us on the bike. So I turned around and made a slow wet ascent back up the hill.
Back at the restaurant, the staff looked at me with wide eyes as I tried to explain the situation. One of the security guards pointed into the carpark and exclaimed… “No problem, we have truck”. I was still worried about getting washed away, but at least we would be warm inside the cab. Our driver carefully drove down the hill and into the water gushing across the road. As we descended further, we discovered that parts of the bitumen had caved in and fallen away. Our driver kept his foot on the brake and steered gingerly around whole sections of the road that were missing.
It was chaos down in the town. Local people dressed in their underwear were scurrying about trying to save what they could. The road into our resort resembled a chocolate-coloured lake. Nearby, other travellers stood soaked to the bone, looking on in resignation. There was no chance we would be doing the evening yoga class; it would be at least knee deep in the Shala. A small group of us managed to find a hotel built on higher ground, and we spent the night there instead.
The sun was out the next morning, and the floodwaters were receding, but the muddy mess left behind stretched as far as the eye could see. We waded into our accommodation hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the muddy mess had found its way there too. Our quaint little hardwood cabin was a complete write-off. Leaving our laptops up on a table had proved to be a stroke of genius, but that’s the last time I will store any of my stuff under the bed. Most of my clothes were lying in a dirty sodden heap in the corner.
A short time later I was hauling out our belongings in some large plastic bags. I was now covered in much of the muddy mess too, but I didn’t have long to feel sorry for myself. Along the road outside, the local people were undertaking a much larger cleanup. An old lady, wrinkled and toothless, smiled up at me as she swept the last of the floodwaters out of her house. Bedding and clothing was already draped over some nearby bushes, drying in the morning sun. The Indonesian people remain remarkably resilient in the face of adversity, no one could ever claim otherwise.
We managed to organise transport to Grupuk, then spent a few days cleaning our gear and surfing the relaxed reef breaks inside the bay. The crowd was an eclectic mix of European’s and local shredders. Various girlfriends and learners spectated from the shoulder. These sessions were mostly busy and frustrating, except when a big, wide set rolled through. Trying to avoid the unfolding chaos kept everyone on their toes. The pack would begin a desperate paddle for the horizon before boards were bailed and the carnage began in earnest.
At the end of the session, we would climb into our boat, and cruise back across the bay. I often found myself casting wistful glances at the surf breaking on the outside headlands. I’d scored good waves out there in the past, but there were a few more difficult memories involving violent hold-downs and getting washed back under the cliffs. I decided that taking my girlfriend out there wouldn’t do anything positive for the relationship.
Word reached us that much of Kuta had re-opened. We headed back there as the swell dropped, and started surfing some of the breaks closer to town. A beautiful bay nearby had a left and a right on either side of a deep channel. The right was usually fairly crowded, but there were rarely any takers on the left, mostly due to a heavy rip. We decided to try out the less crowded option. My girlfriend battled through a few sessions before the constant paddling and clean-up sets began to take their toll. Watching on as she got solid waves on the head, then was dragged in over the reef stirred some strange emotions within. I was full of worry and concern during the beatings but was then beaming in admiration when she paddled straight back out for more.
She eventually conceded defeat and we decided to surf the right along with everyone else. The crowd was again fairly mixed, but there was also a small group of surly ex-pats sitting out on the main peak. I probably need to declare some strongly held opinions at this point. In my mind, the only people with preferential rights to the waves in Indonesia, are the Indonesians. The fact that they are generally easy to get along with and absolutely rip, only strengthens their claim. For everyone else - take your ticket, and wait in line. It’s the 2020s for fucks sake. Attempting to lock down lineups through bully tactics and bad behaviour is pathetic. Especially if you need a 6’10 to surf head high waves and still regularly blow take-offs… Of course, it’s possible I may feel differently about things when I’m sixty and have settled on surfing a particular break. I guess there’s a chance I could change my opinion then. Such are the vagaries of human nature.
Anyway, the drama started in the usual fashion. I thought I had waited my turn. Someone else obviously disagreed. There was a blatant drop-in, and some fairly heated words were exchanged. I paddled in a little while later struggling with a case of the post-surf argument blues. I usually find it kicks in once the anger and resentment have run their course and you are left to contemplate the stupidity of what has just taken place. A disagreement over the wave of the day at Desert Point might be understandable, but arguing over average waves is a complete waste of time. The only thing it’s ever certain to achieve is ruining your session.
My girlfriend was waiting for me on the beach. I was just about to apologise for making a scene when she blurted out… “Did you see me talking to that girl out there?”.
She continued… “She’s the daughter of that guy you were arguing with”.
Feeling a touch guilty, I responded… “I hope you didn’t feel awkward”.
She smiled and shook her head… “No, we were too busy laughing at you guys”.
If you enjoyed the writing above, you might also like a book I recently published…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers