The Mentawais are a chain of islands off Sumatra, Indonesia, the lower southwest coast of which has the highest concentration of world-class surf breaks on the planet. There are about thirty known breaks along a 160km stretch, all of which saturated magazines and videos when they were discovered in the mid 1990s, then, as the chain became more famous, filled travelling surfers’ social media feeds. I first visited in 1996 with the late, great Bill Leak and his two surfing sons, which placed us among the first 200-300 surfers to sample the area’s almost unbelievably perfect surf and tropical beauty. My third trip last year revealed how crowded it has since become with surfers seeking the solace we were lucky to experience. The total number of surfing visitors might now have exceeded 50,000, and the ensuing economic growth has put the Mentawais on the verge of a tourism bonanza.
A Singaporean company is planning to build an upmarket resort and international airport here, and it’s a common topic of conversation in the water. Surfers love to talk about such projects with pretentious disdain, as if commercialism and prosperity would spoil the authenticity of their annual holiday to the Third World. The locals think otherwise. The Mentawai people are still relatively poor but are visibly more prosperous than my first visit 22 years ago. They seem happier too, which is a pleasant contrast to what the affluent West has become lately.
But first, an anecdote from the 1996 trip that Bill Leak often dined out on. Our trip was on a charter boat, and included a couple of other surfers who had flown in from Bali to make up the numbers. Correctly anticipating the odd morning or afternoon waiting for the swell to rise or wind to change, Bill packed with him a stack of books to help while away the hours.
On one such day, he laid his towel on the deck next to one of the other surfers and, to avoid rudeness, made a quick bit of conversation. ‘So mate, do you read?’ Bill asked. ‘What,’ the surfer replied, ‘books?’. Bill pissed himself whenever he retold this yarn, not with derision, but with a kind of grudging respect for a bloke who had found happiness in virtual illiteracy. As we all now know, Bill’s insatiable appetite for intellectual stimulation was both a wonder and a curse.
If I recall correctly, one of the books both Bill and I packed on that trip was the execrably pretentious Australian novel The Glade Within the Grove, and we both wound up recasting it as the unfinished Novel Within the Coral. I made a similar mistake on this last trip, packing a couple of books I’d been meaning to read, but found the tropical atmosphere made me too languid to bother, even during those long periods waiting for waves. It occurred to me that but for a few exceptions, all great writers and artists come from colder climates. The closer you get to the equator, the less worrisome life seems, even when existence is of a subsistence nature.
Indonesians around here have an adorable custom upon meeting new people. They shake your hand, then pat their heart with their right palm, as if to emphasise the emotional contact. It’s informal and, for want of a better word, endearingly heartfelt. I lost count of how many times this happened. I got it from the worker who swept the leaves between the palm trees outside the house where we were staying, a subsistence fisherman who leapt from his outrigger canoe to help me drag my outboard dinghy – the best form of transport round here – above the high-tide mark, and the owner of a cafe where we hung out for 3G wi-fi and cold drinks. The best occasion was in Padang, Sumatra, the port city that is the departure point for the Mentawais, where my mates and I spent a day waiting for the ferry to the islands. Late that afternoon we were walking past what looked like a high school, but was in fact a military college, when three young soldiers, standing forlornly on a volleyball court, invited us over for a game. We accepted, and spent an hour or so smashing the ball over the net. It ended when they answered the evening call to Islamic prayer, but not before a group selfie and the customary handshake.
The call to prayer is now a daily occurrence in the Mentawais, which until recently were predominantly Christian. Thankfully there was no sign of tension between the two religions. In the small village of Tuarpejat, the chain’s capital, I walked past one of the two prominent churches as the congregation emerged wearing their Sunday best and dispersing in family groups. Their religious duty of the week performed, they appeared to be happily returning to their shops and small businesses, which line the main street. It could have been a scene painted by Bruegel in 16th century Brussels.
On another occasion I was waiting to use the town’s only ATM while a sermon was being delivered at the main mosque across the road, one of four in town. The loud external PA system broadcast it to anybody within a hundred metres. The non-Muslim man standing next to me, knowing I couldn’t understand a word of the sermon but could detect the imam’s furious tone, said with a wry smile, ‘He so angry!’. The look on his face seemed almost apologetic. He didn’t need to be. Whatever had got under the imam’s skin, it couldn’t have been less trivial than half the crap that boils the blood of supposedly more educated and liberated westerners these days. Thanks mostly to Antifa, conflicts in the supposedly enlightened First World, often degenerate into violence. The people in the Ments are dealing with far more fundamental challenges of religion and survival, but they don’t seem worried by it. Why should they be? For most of my life I’ve often thought that if the whole world surfed, we probably wouldn’t be so prone to anger. But now I realise we don’t need to surf, we just need to move to the tropics.