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  • Writer's pictureEarl Sullivan

Surfvival Mode turns into Survival Mode

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Through dark times, keeping our eyes fixed on the almond shaped light.

Bawa is a phenomenon, there is always a wave to be had at Bawa

Oh, what a crazy game it has been. It seems like just the other day we were surfing Bawa with Barry, Tony, Chuck, and Richard, our first and last guests of 2020…

At first, the word was that it was a closure for just a couple weeks, then a month, then 2, then 3 months. Then we were told Indo would open again in July, then September, then maybe next year. We were getting dragged down Frustration River without a paddle, a rudder, or even any idea of where the proverbial waterfall was going to be downstream. Things did open up, just a crack in August, when $1200USD 'loophole' business investor visas became available, but that certainly wasn't going to help our business keep going.

January 1, 2021, the Indonesian government decides to shut down immigration entirely. The only way to enter is with a work or permanent resident visa. All hopes for salvaging a season in 2021 went down the drain and surfvival mode turned into survival mode. We had to find an income because the future went from blurry to white out.

That’s when I started teaching English online to the good people of China. A good gig for me. I like to teach, I like to talk, I like new cultures and find people interesting. It was a natural and easy progression for me. The money was peanuts, but lucky for us, we can live on peanuts in Indo.

The A-Team (L to R): Folo, Eri, Jhoni, Deli, Nofa, Lili, Lina, Ardo, Ina Miser, and Samantha

Rewind to April, 2020. It was just us out on Asu, the A-Team. Me, Samantha, and Noah, Folo, Ina Miser, and their kids Miser, Olivia, Klefer, and Ardo, as well as our trusty crew members Jhoni, Lili, and Lina. All of us family, all of us in it to win it. We notified our crew that with no income we would have no way to pay wages, all we could do is hunker down, feed them, and hope for the future. Eri had just had his baby and hadn’t even started back on the team in 2020. Deli and Nofa split when they heard that we wouldn’t be able to pay wages, they went to Nias to look for work. Deli has mouths to feed and Nofa wants to get married, so it’s cash that counts.

Folo came out to Asu in the late 90’s. When he was just 14 he dropped out of school and moved out to Asu Island from Sirombu to work the coconut farms and send money back to his family so his brothers could go to school. In our 10 years of working together (2010-2020) we managed to help Folo purchase 6 large pieces of land on Asu Island. Now he works his own land, as well as some others that he has leased the rights to. This is his lifeline, he can always work the coconut, or the ‘Kopra’ as they call it, once the coconut meat has been husked, harvested, smoked dry, and sacked. It has a value, around about the same as peanuts, but lucky for us, we can live on peanuts in Indonesia.

On a trip to the Nias airport to pick up Samantha and Noah, they had just flown up from Bali, we bought some fishing supplies. This would become the new hobby for Folo, Jhoni, Klefer, Noah and Ardo. Folo has a good hand for fishing and he would often stay out all night, moored up offshore in the speedboat, listening to music and pulling fish from the sea.

Days were spent organizing his family to work the coconut gardens, sending Papa Tiani up the trees to drop the coconuts, Jhoni, Lili and the kids collecting the fallen coconuts and cleaning up the fallen fronds. The coconuts get placed in a big pile next to the smoking rack and when it comes time to husk and harvest, everyone gathers and works from the early hours of the morning into the late evening, and everyone comes home smelling like Kopra.

Click here for more images on the Kopra process from our Asu Camp Instagram.

Samantha and I spent most of our time searching for signs of hope online, talking with family and friends, enjoying the tide pools, snorkeling with the kids, taking the kids to Sirombu to surf the beach breaks once a week on shopping day, and of course surfviving in the lonely lineups of Asu. We didn’t have the money to run around in the speedboat, though we did make a couple of exceptions to get over to some of our secret gems when we knew that they would be working, such as this day at the Secret Right.

Special moments for me and Samantha. A love founded in the waters of Indonesia, tried and tested in the challenges of building a business and raising a child, now forged in the scorching flames of uncertainty. It definitely wasn’t as easy for us as we would have liked it to be, the magic of being stranded out on a deserted island was balanced on the scales with the uncertainty of ‘are we doing the right thing?’ and ‘is our business going to make it to the other side of this thing?’. A heavy time in a magical place is still a heavy time.

The 2020 season was amazing for many reasons, but most endearing was how we got closer than ever before with Folo and his family. We surfed Asu alone more times than we can count and we surfvived. Come September, after 6 months of isolation, no guests, and rainy season on the horizon, we pulled the plug and made the move to Bali where Noah would be able to finish his last year in pre-school.

Jhoni dialing in his local and progressing his style

Jhoni moved to Sirombu to look for work and surf. I gifted him a fishy shortboard that would be good for the offseason and our good friend Billy gave him an old standard short board that he had left out at Asu. Jhoni was so stoked and ready to focus on surfing Sirombu. Lina headed home to be with her family and news would come soon that she was getting married to a well-off, lucky young man in her home village. Lili went to the Big Smoke, she got a job in Medan and went to sell purses in a shop and live the city life. Folo and family stayed back on Asu, living their island life that they love and taking care of the camp.

Bali was a breath of fresh air, with friends, food, and motorbikes. We moved into our 2 bedroom villa in Ungasan on the Bukit and it was life-as-normal on Bali, with less traffic, and some mask restrictions. Noah was the most stoked to be back in school with his friends, playdates in the afternoons, swimming pools, and neighborhood shenanigans in our great little neighborhood in Bali. Samantha was back at the gym if the surf was flat and if the surf was up, which it was quite often this last ‘off’-season, we were chasing waves by motorbike.

I was doing a lot of marketing online, trying to promote the camp for 2021, and plotting how we were going to make it through to the next season. The swell of the ‘off’-season came on New Year’s Eve and it pumped. Predicted to come in at 2.5’ at 20 seconds and growing from a very southwest direction, I went out at Nusa Dua hoping for some 400m reeling rights from Elevators around the corner and down into Chickens. I got more than I bargained for. Out there on my 5’10 and it was about 8-10’ and stacked up on the sets that came about every 15 minutes. Most guys were out on 7’6s, big guns. I snuck into the mix and picked off 2 great waves, big walls, but not really going around the corner, so we surfed up high at the Elevators peak. On my third wave, the wall was just too long and I had to kick out, behind my wave it was stacked to the horizon. I got ready to eat some white water and was particularly worried about my board, so I made a good effort to sink and release the board before the white water pounded us so that chaos theory would protect my board, but I forgot about myself. When the whitewater crashed down on me it hammered me so hard that my right arm got pushed back and tore something in my shoulder. I heard the pop. That internal pop that resonates like an echo in your body; the release of adrenaline signifying that even though it doesn’t feel that bad now, it’s worse than it seems. I took one more on the head and then climbed onto my board and pointed it toward the shore. Lucky for me it was medium high tide and I was able to ride the whitewater over the reef and into the lagoon, then the normally 15 minute paddle in that took who knows how long, paddling mostly one handed, trying not to do any more damage.

I got to my motorbike and determined that it was only a minor tear of some part of my shoulder cuff that would require rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE), which we have plenty of in Indonesia. Time out of the water, time to reassess priorities, time to think.

The very next day on January 1, 2021 the Indonesian Immigration announced that the border was closing, for everyone except Indonesians, permanent residents, work permit holders, and humanitarians. A massive blow to my plans for operating in 2021. Things were not looking good and it was time to come up with a plan B. After sifting through various ideas, I settled on teaching English to the Chinese, got my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificate and got online to start applying for a position as a ‘consultant’ to the English language. I got signed on with a company remarkably quickly and was making an income by mid-February.

Come April, Indonesia opened back up, but only for special visa holders, same as it had been before the New Year, but now not only the $500 loophole visa and a negative COVID test could get you in, there was a new requirement, a 5-night quarantine was instated. This was not going to help us out. Very few people were going to come. It was going to be yet another year of the same, empty COVID lineups, up and down Sumatra.

I got onto my list of contacts and sent out messages to everyone I was close to that surfs. If you have the time, the time is now. Get down here and score these waves as empty as they’ve been in 20 years. I got in touch with my friend Moose who has a beautiful charter boat called the Crystal Clear sitting in Padang. Most of his clients come from New Zealand and Australia, so he told me that he could sell me some trips for dirt cheap, just get some people onboard, let’s get this ship sailing into smooth waters and empty lineups. A few people bit and we had a trip put together for April 27-May 10 in the Mentawais. The whole family came with me and I worked the charter as the photographer. We scored Ebay, Bank Vaults, Nipusi, Rifles, 4 Bobs, Icelands, Telescopes, Scarecrows, Lance’s Left, HTs, and Macaronis. It was a great trip.

We got dropped off at HTs on the 10th of May with the plan to spend 5 days there. HTs is a special place for Samantha and I. It’s where we developed our relationship in 2008 after originally meeting at a party in Padang on our way out to the Ments. I was staying in the village and Samantha was staying in Pak Hussein’s house in front of the wave. There was a lot of South wind that year, so when Samantha would come walking by my house in the village on her way to the left, somehow my stuff was all ready and I would jump in to join her for the walk over, surf session, and lazy walks back. Coming back to the village of Katiet was a stark reminder of how things change, next to nothing was the same as it was 12 years ago. My family’s house in the village had been torn down, along with all the other houses along the beach, and moved back from the beach about 100m inland, a move by the government to ‘improve’ the beachfront and bring in resort and tourist accommodations and provide work for all the locals. The tourism office that the government had planned to manage the project stood half built and abandoned and the project hadn’t gone anywhere since its inception and slow decline.

The beach in front of the wave at HTs is now fully developed with one main upscale resort, foreigner invested and locally owned surf camps are now shoulder to shoulder from up the point down to the newly reorganized government land where the village used to be. The times had certainly changed but the beach and the wave remain one of the most idyllic places on Earth. The most amazingly perfect and challenging right hander still runs into a perfect channel and the white sandy beach with overreaching palms is just as I remember it, in a word, stunning.

We ended up staying 10 nights as the unpredictable nature of COVID reared up again and the government instated a ‘no travel’ order for the final weeklong celebration of Ramadan. There would be no moving on, not until May 19 anyway. So, we stuck around and it payed off as we scored an amazing day of 6’ west swell HTs with some incredible waves on offer for the brave of heart. It is, just as I remember it, a wave of consequence, much harder to surf than it looks, heavy, fast, and with an unforgiving reef waiting just inside.

On the 19th of May, we made it back to Padang and got a flight up to Nias. Lagundry Bay would be a fine place to spend Noah’s last 2 months of ‘summer’ before starting 1st Grade at elementary school in Bali in late July. And a fine place it was indeed. We found the normally dog-eat-dog lineup of Lagundry Bay surprisingly welcoming, with mostly laid-back foreigners and remarkably easy going locals. The vibe was good and the waves were great, the swells were moderate and the COVID was non-existent… until July.

July started out great. We even got a group of 3 guests that wanted to come out to Asu for 11 nights, so we grabbed a few friends from Nias and went up to ready the house for the new group of guests. The timing was perfect. Folo’s kids were on school holiday and everyone got to be out at Asu together. We ran on a skeleton crew and made it happen. And we scored!! We got 4 days at Asu, 2 great days at Tiger’s Claw, some fun days at Bawa and Mini Bawa, and one memorable and unruly day at Bawa with some Bawalanches coming through the lineup on a 3’ @ 15s south swell that brought more than we had bargained for. And not another surfer around for miles. We had a great time and then headed back to Lagundry to sort out the future.

Middle of July of 2021 and Indo got its second wave of COVID thanks to the Delta variant. The whole island of Java, especially Jakarta, and Bali got hit the hardest. We finally started to hear stories about people getting COVID and getting really sick, even dying. It was a major dose of COVID reality, and it was delivered just as we were working out our plans to go back to Bali.

Required vaccination, PCR tests, and the restriction of travel for kids under 12 all inspired us to stay put, Lagundry Bay all the way, close to Asu, school for Noah, internet for me, perfect right handers for all of us.

In August we started to see the effects of COVID here on Nias. A few people caught it and tested positive, more than a few caught it and didn’t test at all. I spoke on the phone with Folo and asked him how things were going in Sirombu, informed him that we were seeing cases down south and that he should encourage any of his elders to take the vaccine and stay safe. He told me that there was no COVID up there and we continued the conversation until a few minutes later he says that a bunch of people got sick last week and lost their sense of smell, but no one had COVID… So, COVID made its way through Nias, but had a less than overwhelming effect on the community. Apparently, many people up in Gunung Sitoli died and tested positive, but we only heard about 1 death down here in Teluk Dalam. And then by September we stopped hearing about it.

Noah had made a couple of really good local friends at our losmen, Adon and Jordan, and was speaking more Bahasa Indonesia than English most days. Come August we enrolled him in 1st Grade at Botohili elementary school and he got a real crash course in Bahasa Indonesia and old school authoritarian teacher rules, including smacks on the hand with the ruler. It seems to have done him good, I think there’s merit in some good old-fashioned authority.

Noah hooking in on the inside at Lagundry

November 2021: the offseason is officially here, the point at Lagundry hasn't broken in weeks, it's just small runners along the inside and one day begins to blur into the next as we settle into our routine of waking up early to teach English, dropping Noah at school, teaching again, working out, surfing, eating, trips to the waterfall, trips to 'town', reading books, making art, and sleeping. The good news of late is that the quarantine requirements have dropped from 8 nights, to 5 nights, to 3 nights in just the last month. The world is getting vaccinated and approaching some level of 'herd immunity' as people start bursting at the seams to get out of their homes and countries and take on what we used to consider 'normal' operations. We have a lot of hope for the 2022 season, but we’re not holding our breath. If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that the present is all we can count on and being close to family is the best present of all.

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