It’s a feeling. I experienced it first in ’02, a sweaty cocktail in hand, as I stood in a friend’s apartment on Maiden Lane overlooking the pit where the World Trade Center once stood. I felt it again in Kuta in ’03, stumbling drunk near dawn past the fence that hid the charred remains of the Sari Club. I sensed it in Nias too in ’05, walking across the vast shelf of uplifted, bleached-dry coral toward the wrecked foundations of buildings I once knew. It’s a mix of displaced feelings, I suppose. Equal parts nostalgia, helplessness, world-weariness, futility, and dread–an impotent shame tempered by a hunch that the best we can do for the dead is to remember them as we move on with the job of living.
I felt a shadow of this feeling again as my wife and I stepped off the boat and walked toward the postcard paradise that is Kandui Resort. The Northern Mentawais, including Kandui Resort, had been spared again, but a day’s sail south whole viilages had been erased by a tsunami in November. We were a stone’s throw from the first place I’d touched my feet to sand in Indonesia, almost 15 years past, before these surf spots even had agreed-upon names. That first day, I’d swam in from our commandeered Indonesian fishing boat, already yearning for dry land. The island was uninhabited then, save a floating fishing shack that rested in the bay. Some children paddled over in a dugout; I sat with them on the beach and tried to explain where I was from. Judging by their blank stares, the words America, USA, and California meant nothing to them. I drew a globe on the sand and tried to diagram the distance between us.
In the following years calamity accompanied me to Indonesia on an annual basis. When I first began making the pilgrimage to this volatile archipelago in my late teens, I’d been hypochondriacally anxious about the disasters that might befall me. But after a dozen odd trips, I’d come to the conclusion that while calamity struck Indonesia itself quite consistently, my role had been limited to that of witness. Each year it was something new–economic collapse, political unrest, terrorist bombings, viral outbreaks, earthquake, tsunami. These islands rest in the deep end of the pool–the dark water in which “real” life is lived. In the States, we cling to the illusion of control. In Indonesia, we are forced to make peace with the truth–our days tick by at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves.
I’d been back again in ’05, living with the local Mentawaian construction workers as they built Kandui Resort with the guidance of its owners, a small group of Hawaiians and Californians. We’d spent a month swatting mosquitoes and sweating around their rough-hewn table next to the outdoor campkitchen. In the charcoal darkness we’d talked of the founders’ dreams for Kandui: a modern Tavarua, a place surfers could bring their wives, a solution to the skewed economics of boat charters. For years the money had sailed right past the locals, all the cash going to western charter operators with crewmen from the Mainland. While other resorts imported Javanese labor, Kandui took the more expensive and time-consuming route, teaching local people to build. While other resorts hired Javanese graduates from tourism schools to interact with guests, Kandui taught the Mentawaian workers how to speak English, drive boats, and tend bar.
Five years on and most of these dreams had been improbably realized. Kandui Resort was booked to capacity throughout their season. A small, dedicated year-round surf community had sprung up on this once-deserted island, comprised of working ex-pats and local employees. During the season, these regulars shared lineups with an ever-rotating phalanx of visiting surfers. But we’d arrived in the off-season. The resort was devoid of guests, and charter boats were scarce in the wake of recession and tsunamis. As my wife and I enjoyed the empty lineups and settled into the social dynamic of the island, we began to feel like the two newest cast members on some surfing version of Lost.
The de-facto leader of this rag-tag group of castaways was Ray Wilcoxen, a hardcore Long Beach surfer who sold his house and threw his life savings into Kandui after falling in love with the Mentawais. Priorto moving to Indonesia, by far the longest lasting relationship in Ray’s life had been with surfing. His second longest lasting relationship had been with dogs. Women had placed a distant third. Ray was a self-admitted “stereotypical bachelor … dogs on the bed, trash everywhere in the house.” He’d never had a live-in girlfriend, and no romance had lasted even a year. Meanwhile, he’d spent decades saving up money working as a refrigeration repair man, punctuated by yearly trips to Tavarua and Puerto Escondido. Ray lived on the North Shore in 1978, but he hadn’t lived and breathed surfing again until he pulled the plug on the rat race and bought a chunk of Kandui.
Ownership has its perks, but I found Ray right where I had left him five years ago: hunched in the sand, sunburned, sweating, trying to sort out wiring issues. We chatted as he diagnosed an electrical short in the outdoor lighting. As Kandui’s primary surf guide, Ray had spent the resort’s first years literally sleeping in the restaurant–last to bed after the late-night drunks, first to rise with the dawn patrollers. Then he met Jenny, in Padang. After finally dedicating his life to surfing and surfing alone, he ironically married for the first time in his 50s. A son, Dylan, soon followed. The family built a house up the point, toward Ray’s beloved Rifles. He now commutes to work on a jet ski–the whole family, including two dogs, hopping aboard for the trek across the lagoon.
Somewhat incongruously, a desert island proved to be the easiest place I’d visited yet to borrow boards. Directly next to the restaurant stood a board shack, racks bulging with 50-plus sleds. Many of them had been left by visiting surfers. The concept of borrowing boards took very little explaining, as most of the local employees don’t “own” boards per se–they simply borrow boards from a collective, guest-donated quiver labeled “staff.” I’d left some boards there myself, years ago. Before arriving, I’d idly wondered if I’d be able to find and borrow one of my own old boards, but they were gone.
A few of the locals I met five years ago still worked at the resort. Among them was Soja Lase, who grew up in a family of fishermen a few islands north of Kandui. Unable to compete with factory-style long-lining boats, they’d begun practicing some not-so-environmentally-friendly fishing techniques out of desperation. The resort’s owners had provided Soja with a new means of supporting his family. In addition, they’d introduced him to surfing. Soja was barely able to stand when I’d last surfed with him. In the years since he’d matured into a stylish, explosive regularfoot.
Soja was happy to share some of his favorite staff boards with me, including a 6’0″ JC, a 5’10” carbon fiber fish left by Dave Rastovich, and a 5’5″ Mayhem round-nose fish that technically belonged to Chrissy Garcia, one of the resort’s expat employees. Chrissy’s diminutive boards were lusted after by the slight staff (and myself). After three months of borrowing oversized boards from oafish Europeans, I was overjoyed to get my hands on equipment nearly identical to what I rode at home.