Board Games

The gruff, boastful art of claiming Indonesia’s surf as your own

Hajak, my “captain,” was a Sasak. He was stoic, serious, and maybe 11 years old. Dressed like a California surf kid in baggy Quiksilver shorts, he sat in front of his Evinrude, navigating an outrigger canoe through the water, between weathered wooden frames floating on the surface and marked with ragged flags.

“What are those?” I asked, in a mix of poor Indonesian and sign language.

Rumput laut,” he answered.

Seaweed. Deep columns of it were cultivated under the frames. These were the industries in Grupuk, on the Indonesian island of Lombok: fishing, farming seaweed, and ferrying Westerners to a distant surf spot.

Grupuk Bay is one of those tropical inlets that look like paradise from a distance, with palm-carpeted hills rising from an expanse of blue water. Hajak let us glide to a halt near a clean blue break just off a sandy beach, then dropped anchor next to another pair of canoes. A group of us travelers spent the lazy, sweltering morning paddling around the bay.

It wasn’t the surf of a lifetime; it wasn’t the reason I’d disappeared (from my family’s and friends’ perspective) to a remote Indonesian island. But then surfing can be like fishing. For the big stuff you just have to wait.

Lombok is a poor Muslim island next to Bali, and the village of Kuta, on the southern shore, is a weird assemblage of thatched huts, surf bungalows, and luxury hotels. It’s a slumbering cousin to Bali’s electric-lit surf metropolis, also called Kuta, dozens of ocean miles to the west. Lombok’s Kuta has no sports bars or flagship stores for surf brands, but it faces south, and its beaches receive the same Indian Ocean swells.

In Kuta village I had found a $4-a-day surf bungalow near the beach, an orange-painted rattan hut with a stinking pit toilet and a jaundiced lightbulb so weak it had trouble penetrating my mosquito net, so I spent the evening on the breakfast terrace, where Indonesians served beer and surfers played cards under the fluorescent light.

By our choice of breaks, and the way we tackled our food, we announced our prowess as surfers. Later we would compete for waves according to skill, but the jostling for position started over fried rice and pancakes. Most of us had dreamed for months of crowd-free surf on a remote equatorial island. No one wanted to hang with a kook, and no one wanted to tag along. This winnowing and sifting had to occur without an impolite word. It was a poker game: civil, thoughtful, boastful, and gruff.

After breakfast we split up. I hired another Sasak, Amat, to buzz me on his motorbike to Selong Blanak. We climbed along winding roads through faded green hills of palm trees and half-dried grass. But along the way, we turned off to check Mawi. We followed a muddy goat trail, and the motorbike skidded, startling a meter-long monitor lizard warming itself in the sun—glistening, muscular, almost black. It slithered heavily into the brush.

The goat trail was a private road maintained by farmers. Their sons showed up at the beach to enforce a kind of toll. If you paid, nothing got stolen. The price was fair; the arrangement satisfied everyone.

A stout, sectioning wave broke from a rocky volcanic outcropping on the left and moved evenly across the bay. Soon Dave and his two friends showed up. Then the Canadian arrived on his motorbike. Finally everyone from breakfast had convened on Mawi Bay, and the coincidence caused embarrassment.

“Bit sloppy now, mate.”

“Swell might give it some shape.”

“If the wind turns offshore, it’ll be bloody nice.”

Slowly, we all made our way into the water, where the real hierarchy established itself. Instead of poker-faced bravado, you started to hear excuses. I’m a bit sick today. My board has a new ding. This rental piece of shit isn’t long enough for this swell. But a mist hung over the green hills, and the landscape itself seemed to absorb the complaints. The biggest waves shattered on the rocky outcropping; white water streamed between sharp crags. There was a sense of danger as well as a deep sense of peace.

Dave and his older Australian friends went out on “skis”—kayaks with bulbous tails designed for larger surf. They raced ahead with double-bladed paddles and trimmed the waves. The swell increased while the rest of us crawled along; deep-blue water mounded into a wave that pitched up in angry steps. You had to slide to your belly and paddle. The wave met you halfway, and went on rising. There was a sound like rain from the feathering peak as you leaned the tip of your board through and floated in a muted netherworld. On the next wave, bigger now, I stroked up the surface as it rose, then turned and took off. My feet lost contact with the board. For a second I was in a free fall, frighteningly, until I landed again, leaned into a turn, settled into the face, and sailed along. The curtain of water slopped over my head and for a moment I heard the rushing echo of a tube. Then the wave shot me forward along the face, and I ran out ahead and let the wave collapse and push me toward the beach.