“ And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” –The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho.
“ What do you want to be when you grow up?” The recurring high school question that made me want to puke. Inspiring scrapbooks aside, my answers never fit with the preset categories that would ultimately define whom I would ‘be’. I was quite disillusioned with the higher education’s goal-setting system that seemed to cater to wannabe teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and computer programmers but not so much to the roving travel scribe. I would frustrate my careers counselor to the point she’d just inform me to circle the label best suited to my undefined plans. But, I could never find the one that said ‘dreamer’.
Enhanced by our constant closeness with nature, surfer travellers are a dreamy bunch. Even for those who could circle a more defined career path, I bet you find yourself drifting away to turquoise waters and dropping into four-feet glass bowls over your morning coffee. And even when the responsibilities of our chosen life, often filled with responsibilities, stacks up, surfers have a sound ability to transform dreams to reality and spend a decent chunk of our lives escaping the daily grind.
Admittedly, I knew I wanted to surf around the world, but I never dreamed I would ever get paid to document the travels that went with chasing the surf. This is precisely what found myself and my two kids under two on a ten-hour overnight drive, two airplanes, three sleepless nights from Lennox Head, Australia to the Garam-stained sultry air aboard an overnight ferry in Padang, Indonesia.
At the time (this trip is now but a fading five-year-old memory), our journey was joined by Patagonia Ambassador Belinda Baggs also with newborn baby in tow, Japanese professional free surfer Hayato Maki, and other travelling friends from Bali and Germany. I remember settling into a Bintang can on the floor of the Captain’s quarters that we had been assigned for the night of floating travels, relaxing after hours of chaos at the port prior to departure. The soul of the world must have heard my sighs of relief, for at that exact moment somewhere in the distance a beast of a storm had been released.
I slept hard under the Captain’s maroon soccer ball print sheets, oblivious to a night of horrendous weather that knocked the locals off the deck and into the smoke filled common area below already pulsing with sweaty bodies. We docked at Sipora Island and were flung into mayhem. Persistent rain hindered any chance of a smooth transition onto our next vessel, a wobbly aqua scout boat piled to the brim with boards, bags, food supplies, and us, babies and all.
As we embarked on the final 45minute water journey to Pitojat Island, approximately 80 kilometers off the west coast of mainland Sumatra, I remembered cuddling my baby Hunter tightly in my arms, giving my toddler Ryder a reassuring glance, eliminating any chance that he would pick up on my fear.
The floating pile of wood projected skyward then retreated to sea with a thud as we battle horrid onshore winds in the massive swell. I don’t recall having ever scripted a death-defying storm in my high school Mentawaiian dream, but not one to let my fears invade an adventure, I closed my eyes and trusted in our Captain Lidi and his two crewmen battling the ferocious ocean. Two days later I learned none of the crew could swim…
John E Ocean sketched in school, for not much else took his fancy. It was the same sketch, over and over, a little tweaking here and there, but mostly an unchanged fantasy on paper. In this Californian’s head sat an island out to sea with a hut, coconut trees, a left-handed wave out the front, and complimenting right-hander to the opposite side, throwing in a token sailboat. The boy grew into a man with countless tales to tell, sharing with us stories from the days when he worked in Waikiki chopping houses in half to relocate them to the hill behind the notorious Banzai Pipeline. Multiple life experiences and a surfing family deepened John's profound love with the ocean and by 2003 he and and wife Ainsley found themselves in the Mentawai islands, with a tent, power tools and wild imaginations.
John’s building skills set free, in just three years grand Kandui Resort opened. A huge success, surfers worldwide came to frolic in the succulent waves peeling from every direction. Surviving the 2006 earthquake and tsunami, John and Ainsley funneled their energy and building knowledge into assisting the local Mentawaiian communities and Kandui didn’t skip a beat.
“It was when we couldn’t remember the guest’s names anymore we realized that it wasn’t what we wanted” reflected Ainsley. Eager to tweak the dream, the two hopped aboard a houseboat with Lidi, (previously mentioned boat captain), braving ferocious seas for two years in search of the island from Johnny’s fantasy sketches.
Five years on, it was Lidi’s arms that steadied our rudder into calmer waters where Johnny and Ainsley awaited on coral-chipped sand, their gentle smiles welcoming our travelling party to Togat Nusa Retreat; a refined eco-slice-of-paradise born from wild imagination.
“Now when I’m surfing out the front and I look back and see the hut, I finally realize I made it,” laughed the usually quiet Johnny one night about his manifestation. “I’m like ‘Holy Shit! I did it!’ It took a long time though!”
I was there to share in his fable come to life, and score some great waves amongst it all. Below is an excerpt from my journal of the trip:
Wabi-Sabi and Wasabi
The sky is overcast, and Togat Nusa’s trademark home break Scarecrows is junky slosh. Sipping fresh mango smoothies we dump our luggage on the prickly green grass and step up into the island’s elegant wooden restaurant, facing the ocean proudly on stilts. Up close, John’s constructions are profoundly raw; each piece of furniture is hand built, natural, and with a few drops of island spirit. Hundred-year-old shells live on in drift wood bar stools; each piece of useable art livens with each passing day. A pilot whale skeleton hangs from the roof, staring down through a fishing glass buoy eye; the washed up whale had recently feasted the local staff but Johnny was more interested in the lost soul’s structural aesthetics.
The island’s magic snags our attention, and for a moment we are distracted from the bleak skies and lack of surfing options. The local female staff giggle with our kids, sweeping the babies up into their friendly arms and parading them before their male colleagues – none of the staff will return to visit their own families for months.
Hayato unpacks his spear gun, rallying the boys for a dive. He’s spent the past week surfing perfect waves in East Indonesia and is content getting to spend some time under the sea. Johnny’s rig is handmade, and he sets the island’s strict diving policy: nothing more than can be consumed each day shall be speared.
Belinda and I retreat with the kids to our bungalows scattered a short sandy walk from the restaurant. Each is designed in Johnny’s unique style, the walls are hand-milled, and the interior is adorned with simple yet luxurious comforts such a elegantly handcrafted timber double beds. Our outdoor bathroom is fringed by clay walls decorated with clamshells and glass buoys. Togat Nusa’s four bungalows, the restaurant, staff quarters and every hand-built piece of furniture on the island, are all created from scavenged wood, not one tree has been cut down. “A lot of the wood is washed up after being in the ocean for years after falling off logging trucks” The result is absolute ‘Wabi-Sabi’, or as Johnny explains, “ The beauty is in the imperfections.”
The boys return with lunch, Trevally sashimi Hayato style, garnished with soy sauce and wasabi he brought from home in Okinawa, Japan. Other catches are snatched up by Olaf the chef and put aside in a fresh marinade, ready for dinner.
Waiting for tides to change and winds to ease, our feast is followed by sleep catch-ups and a relaxing island exploration into the moist green jungle. Pitojat Island is 20 acres of raw paradise carved into a livable wonderland. Johnny has built rainwater tanks to provide fresh drinking water, outfitted all the huts with eco-resort quality plumbing and electricity powered by generators that do not guzzle fuel. To think that man's hands can create such a natural Utopia, minimizing his impact on the earth by developing with nothing more than the simplest power tools, natural resources, and bare hands, is a reassuring glimpse into the possibilities of a sustainable future.
Day three peaks the storm. I attempt a swim but the brutal current ships me halfway around the island. Hayato thrashes me at chess, naked babies shiver in the cool. There’s no chance of launching the boat. The ocean’s floor is too cloudy to dive. We eat, sleep and ponder our options. There are currently few but to observe the local staff playing ping pong on Johnny’s handmade table, testing out their newly hand-woven net.
Nature’s brutality is a harsh reminder of humans’ minority within the universe. The simplicity of life on the island and realization of how quickly one could lose your life that out here is powerful. The storm is, above all, impressive. But this, too, shall pass.
I awake to the same soundtrack: relentless wind and rain pelting hard onto the Atap ( a traditional roof of the Mentawai made from the leaves of the Sago palm and supposedly sturdy enough to last up to 10 years). Olaf the Chef serves our now rather edgy group another sensational custom breakfast: pancakes, omelettes, fried eggs, fresh island fruit, smoothies and muesli.
The staff are saying yesterday was the strongest storm in 10 years…the mooring moved for the first time in 4 years since it was first put in place.
Bursts of sunshine expose glimmers of the magical 'garden' reef that fronts Togat Nusa, but more rain cuts short any hope of a surf exploration.
Bindy and I entrust our kids with the local staff and unravel our minds in a Yoga session with island the island’s instructor. Our bodies recovering from the strain of pregnancy, childbirth and recovery to surf again, we can't help but laugh as aches restrict our flexibility. As another burst of sun breaks the rain cycle, we sneak off for a snorkel in the 'garden'; a quick visit under the bumpy sea delivers a stunning array of colourful fish and coral a world away from the storms overhead.
By day five our perseverance has impressed the weather Gods, and this morning the sun settles the wind chopped ocean. We throw an eclectic collection into the boat; twin-fins, four-fins, tri-fins and hand-planes. Excited faces anticipate glassy perfection. Johnny guides us to a break called Telescopes and our timing is spot on: 3-4ft swells, not perfect by all means, but empty, glassy, and begging to be surfed.
Bindy’s pig tails flap as she bottom turns then elegantly smacks the lip, proving she is one of the world’s most versatile water women. Hayato waits out the back for the big sets, while the sun powerfully exposes the deep turquoise colours we’ve been waiting to see.
Dolphins chase yellow and blue reef fish in the rapidly dropping tide, and Jake and AK sneak head dips in the small, barreling waves. Bindy racks up a stellar wave count and Hayato has come in to test the ‘monkey’ bowl tube section. Style master Johnny slices his orange 5” 4 twin-fin through humble pie, gently carving out extensive arcs then tucking in for some tubular shade. Even I sneak a few wide ones, being careful not to hit the sharp reef below.
The swell drops over the next two days but prevailing weather provides more local sessions at Telescopes, and a few nearby breaks. Between surfs there’s plenty to keep us occupied with more spear fishing dives, bodysurfing on the hand plane, bending in yoga class, lazing in the hammocks, planting organic seeds (the legal kind!) and keeping the monkey off the baby’s backs.
When the rain relents we temporarily lose Johnny but the sound of power tools carving into wood lead us to the half-finished final hut where he's cutting out a template for a finless wooden surfboard.
One final session out at Togat Nusa’s home-break Scarecrows is on offer for the boys just hours before we leave; overhead tubes snuck by those in position. It’s the best session out the front for sure, and gives us all a taste of Pitojat's wave potential.
Our goodbyes are solemn, the good times over too soon. Plunged into rising swells and afternoon on-shores, the first 45minutes of the 4-day departure journey is as tough as the arrival.
From Padang we all go our separate ways; a group of dreamers ready to reflect on another epic tale.
When I’m surfing perfect waves at our home break a week later, I think about our trip and find it ironic, the dream for exotic waves in paradise, and how these unexpected twists of nature’s fate can instill an otherwise overlooked love for home. But for the conscious dreamer who balances a life of presence, but loves to let her imagination run wild, the next journey is always a dot not too far on the horizon.
I carefully unfold my scrubby, pocket-sized world map from my travel bag, and circle in red the Mentawai Islands, checking off this latest adventure. If only those high-school careers lessons were as simple as that red pen and a world map, who only knows what kind of global dreamers my school could’ve produced.
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