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"I think you're a little bit of a witch," Luana said with a slight crinkle of her green-grey eyes, her hair pulled back in a ponytail to combat the Mentawai Island's humidity. We all sat around long tables eating dinner. She said this shyly, a little embarrassed at her admission. She said when she felt my hands earlier, she sensed heat emanating from them. "But a good witch," she clarified. I laughed. I had been tending to all the surfers' ailments all week with my little traveling homeopathic kit. It involved a pendulum so I could see why she'd think that. I was still learning about homeopathy and the guys we had met during our family adventure trip to surf in Indonesia, at a surf camp, luxury resort, situated between 15 world-class surfing spots in the North Mentawai Islands, Hidden Bay Resort, gave me plenty of opportunities to practice with their various injuries and head colds.
(See Part 2 at the bottom of the article!)
Where Is Indonesia and the Mentawai Islands?
Real quick, just so we know where we are, known to friends simply as Indonesia, its more formal name is the Republic of Indonesia. Indonesia is a country comprising more than 17,000 islands spread across Southeast Asia and Oceania, between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, and New Guinea are all part of its crew.
Also, technically, the Mentawai Islands are called the Mentawai Islands Regency and are a chain of about 70 islands and islets, approximately 150 kilometers off the western coast of Sumatra. Let me be clear here. None of these islands are easily accessible but Siberut, the largest of the Mentawai Islands, is the easiest to get to.
The people of the Mentawai Islands are thought, by experts who study these things, to have originated around 4000 years ago on the southern islands around Taiwan and the Malay Peninsula because of their shared language, within the Austronesian family, customs and beliefs. Arriving in Siberut, about 2000 years ago, many Mentawai Islanders still live traditional, subsistent lives within the forests though some have moved into the villages on the outskirts of them. When Indonesia became an independent nation in 1945, it required all its inhabitants to only practice one of its recognized religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. Many islanders resisted and chose, instead, to retain their belief in Animism, the conviction that everything, plants, animals, rocks, and objects, were sacred and had spirits within them. In 1954, police started raiding the villages and burning the ritual objects of non-abiding islanders, therefore, destroying their practice for future generations. It wasn't until the 1990s, when Indonesia recognized the appeal of their ancient practice to tourists, that they finally let them practice their own religion.
Getting to the Mentawai Islands
I usually put this part at the end, but I have to say. This is a big part of the story. There is no easy way to get to these islands. A person would have to be super motivated to endure the three flights and 34 hours of travel that it took for us to do it. This trip also involved the commitment of a day in Padang in the beginning and end of our family trip because of the ferry schedule, the only transport that takes people to the islands, in what they call the "fast boat.". Now, "fast" is a generous description. I would probably call it the "scenic boat" and I'll tell you why. The Mentawai Fast Boat is technically a 3-7 hour ferry commuter boat. Islanders, as well as vacationing surfers, use it to go between the Mentawai Islands and the mainland of West Sumatra (as well as other places depending on the day) as it travels back and forth from it's capital city of Padang. It took us about 6 hours to make the trip. There would have to have been a giant tsunami, blowing us across the ocean, for us to have gotten there in half that time. However, once we hit Indonesia, everything was so different, the most mundane thing became interesting. Our ferry journey involved two stops at island ports that felt like we were descending into an article for National Geographic. Even lunch in the port of Sikabaluan, on the largest of the Mentawai Islands, Siberut, became a bright patch in the quilt of our family vacation story.
For his milestone birthday, my surfer husband, Howard, wanted to surf around the Mentawais Islands in Indonesia. His life's dream is for our family of five to ride on one wave at the same time (and for there to be a photographer to capture this moment). This is an ambitious dream, as we are all at varying degrees of competency as surfers. Especially me, who needs a host of perfect conditions to align in order for me to happily participate. Initially, he asked if I thought our eight and ten-year-old sons could handle 33 hours of travel to get there. I laughed and asked if he had met our boys. So, instead, we brought only our 20-year-old son.
Indonesia Surf Resort: Hidden Bay Resort Mentawais
Hidden Bay Resort's long, thin speedboat, nicknamed the "limousine," picked us up at the Sikabaluan port, and sped us for another half hour to the southern side of Siberut, dropping us off on a white sand beach.
A wooden path cut through the powder sand and led us across a bridge, over a lagoon with sleeping, pink lotus flowers, that opened only in the mornings, to the largest of the resort's buildings, a community hub they call the Sikerei. Named after a special class of male shamans, who practice the art of ancient forest healing on the Mentawais Islands, the Sikerei is an open-air palapa with a thatched roof and shiny, dark wooden beams, over 3,000 square feet of three floors used for yoga, eating, napping in the hammocks and socializing.
When I didn't join the surfers on their morning and afternoon surf sessions, I spent my time in the Sikerei, reading, writing and gazing at the unobstructed view of the baby blue water and swaying tropical trees. I went into the ocean to snorkel and used the standup paddleboard to cruise around the crystal ocean.
I loved my private walks around the island, as far as its land formations would allow me to go. When the surfers returned, they napped, ate and nursed wounds inflicted by the shallow reef, laughing and sharing victory stories.
A Brazilian family are the proprietors of Mentawai Islands' Hidden Bay Resort. Tall, long-limbed Luana Panek, with piercing blue eyes and honey-blonde hair, her husband, Alexandre "Alex" Ribas, also a surfer, and their adorable daughter, Gaia, who had just turned two when we visited. Alex and Luana made everyone visiting for a surf holiday feel like they were coming to see long lost family. Luana chased Gaia around, held her at her hip or relaxed as the little girl wandered between guests, stealing hearts with her deep dimples. Today, I hear, Gaia is joined by little sister, Ayla.
Alex looked like a man who had come to the other side of something. His big, white smile opened his whole, tanned face. His warm, brown eyes shone with the delight he felt at having us share his favorite place on earth. "I had been working in the movies doing lighting. Six days a week, morning until night, sometimes even on Sundays. I never saw my wife or baby. I decided it was enough." So he built Hidden Bay Resort from the ground up with the help of investors. He said when he first arrived to where he would eventually build the resort, it was as dirty and strewn with plastic as we had observed the trash littering the port of Sikabaluan, where they had picked us up, and also in the city of Padang. Alex said he hired locals to collect the trash and paid them by the pound. Even cigarette butts earned 1000 Rupees, which was about a penny. It worked. The island we visited was pristine. Not a sign of trash anywhere to blight the emerald and turquoise hues of nature. Gold sand beaches with jagged coastline, trees in repose, roots hanging out obscenely, crabs in various sized seashells scampered across rocks.
When we first arrived, it was just our family of three and I couldn't have loved the quiet solitude more. Alex likes to hire locals as there aren't many options for them to earn money on the island. Most subsist on the coconuts and fruit they gather and the fish they catch. Alex hired them to cook, bartend and maintain the resort. They brought platters of food to the top floor of the Sikerei when we all ate. When they served us, we said "Trey makasi!" which means thank you. They replied "Sama-sama" which means you're welcome. Little electric lights twinkled overhead like the real stars, only the real ones numbered in the millions.
Then the Brazilian surfers arrived. When we heard they were coming, I immediately pictured the swaggering, loud ones from my teenage years and expected the placid nature of the island to become raucous and rowdy. This didn't happen. The men couldn't have been more friendly and inviting. Their love for their sport brought them annually to the Mentawais Islands from Portugal, Spain, Australia and Brazil to ride what they considered one of the most perfect waves in the world.
Guests have their own private bungalow, or "uma," within the 1.5 km of beachfront land, constructed by builders using indigenous wood and materials that also followed traditional Mentawais Island design. The bungalows are set far apart within the rich, beach landscape of banana leaves, butterflies and crabs hoisting their shell homes around the sand paths, lined by stones, that connected the bungalows to the Sikerei.
Mentawai Islands: The Surf Spots
The resort is located in what is called the Playgrounds area, 15 surf spots within a 15-minute speedboat ride from Hidden Bay Resort, the closest called Hideaway and only a 3-minute speedboat ride away.
Alex told us.
The guides determine where the optimal conditions are to take guests every morning and evening, making sure not to visit areas that are already too crowded.
Their website says there is always a protected wave with an offshore wind somewhere.
I accompanied the boys and the visiting yoga teacher, Ina Stridde, on a few of the surf trips. Yes, I wanted to cheer for my son and husband but I also wanted to ride in the boat around the islands. Green exploded from the banks of the smaller islands as we passed them. Although many of the beaches had trees and plants pushing against each other into the ocean, some were better behaved, standing tall with dignity and even allowing a bit of room for sand to spill into the blue water.
When we arrived at the preselected spot, I watched the surfers ride their dream waves, former into perfect quarter cups. I jumped in the warm water to explore the world beneath. Other boats floated nearby and sometimes their surfers would swim up to our boat to exchange impressions of the day's surf. One surfer, a digital nomad from Bali, explained because his job was remote, he was able to visit often and live anywhere.
I took pictures beside Ciex "Artie" Ardiles, the professional photographer the resort had hired to take videos and photos of each surfer for an optional package they could buy. We bought this package. The drone footage, and many of the videos and photos that appear within the edited video of this article, was taken by Artie and Alex. Alex got into the waves to take to catch those stellar surf shots and underwater footage. In the evenings, after dinner, the surfers gathered in the TV room to review the day's footage. At first, I thought they came together to high five each other's badassness but it turned out, Alex and the other surf coaches dissected the performances of the surfers and gave them tips for the next day to improve on their techniques. Though, there was definitely an appreciation of a well-ridden wave there too.
Surfers say Mentawai Islands' waves, in Indonesia, are the best in the world. Guides at luxury surf resort, Hidden Bay Resort, find them.
The Best Waves
I asked some of the surfers which surf spots were their favorites and why.
Howard told me he loved Nipussy "because of how beautiful the backdrop of the island right in front of it looked."
Daniel Tejo Ferreira, 23 years old, a student and carpenter, the dark-haired Brazilian who now lives in Australia, who you see flashing the first shaka sign as the camera pops out of the water, said his favorite waves were in "Hideaways because of the tubular left and Burger World because of the long right for maneuvers."
Eduardo Azambuja, 30 years old and a Muay Thai gym owner, said, "that would be Rifles, it was the best wave there."
Diego Prates, 34 years old, a surf coach and bricklayer, now living in Australia, the one with the bloody head in the video, said: "Hideaways, it's a powerful wave, it's a left hand not far from the resort, but for me what's makes me love that wave the most is the barrel that you can get there and also the reef there is very sharp and alive."
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What did I do, as a non-surfer, when the guys got off the boat and I was done taking pictures? I put on fins and a mask and jumped from the top of the boat into the warm water. I kicked away from the waves, which agitated the sandy ocean floor and mussied the view of colorful ocean life. Once away, the quiet beneath the water filled my ears and the technicolored fish filled my eyes.
Other Things To Do At Hidden Bay Resort
If you aren't a surfer, there isn't much to do at the resort and that is perfect for someone who often does too much. The day could start with light yoga, facing the ocean with salutations to greet the rising sun. After the communal breakfast of yogurt, cereal, fruit and juices, plus the best coffee we'd ever tasted, the surfers would load the thin, long boats with gear and whizz off into the horizon. The resort would suddenly lose its sound. Only birds calling from palm trees and the crowing of roosters, walking around the garden beneath the Sikerei, could be heard with the backdrop of the crashing waves.
Because I am an active traveler, I often bring books on trips I never read, instead, opting to adventure. During the 10 days we spent at the Hidden Bay Resort, I sat on an Indonesian couch, facing the sapphire ocean, and read more than one. I filled notebooks with thoughts and ideas I suddenly had time to think. When I took breaks, I'd walk along the edge of the water around the island. The sand covered sinuous lines of shells, shaped like the protruding bones of the island.
Hundreds of crabs click-clacked their way across these piles of seashells. I never made it all the way around because a large river eventually blocked my passage but I did walk by abandoned and occupied huts with natives outside living their lives. They seemed surprised and pleased to see me, one stopped from the work of shaping the bottom of a canoe to wave and smile, another with coconuts strung to his back smiled a toothless grin, bobbing his head up and down in greeting.
Guests could take fins and a mask to kick around the water. We could take a stand-up paddleboard and cruise from spot to spot exploring the unspoiled ocean and the sea life within. Once, we all took a ride behind the "limousine" with a board attached to the back that allowed us to cruise underwater, controlling our descent and ascent through another world.
Luana also offered very affordable massages which were a joy to the boys after their two daily surf sessions and a joy to me just because. Ina led yoga in the mornings for everyone to stretch their muscles before using them against the currents. She led some private pilates classes for me in the afternoons when she returned from riding waves.
One day, Ina returned with giant gashes on her shoulder and foot from the wicked sharp reef and one of the other surfers, Diego, had a bleeding hole in his head from another surfer's board. The resort had a first-aid kit to deal with minor abrasions but they took the boat to a nearby island to see a doctor just in case. They came back dazed and stitched up. Of course, I tried to aid them all with doses of Arnica Montana from my kit. My method of healing was unfamiliar to most of them. But through the week, they had witnessed me relieving congestion and chills and trusted this remedy would work too, especially since they didn't have to worry about any side-effects due to the nature of homeopathy. Luckily, this all happened toward the end of everyone's trip. I thought the next and last full day, they'd stay with me, recuperating at the lovely island but no. They took their wounds back into the ocean so not to miss that last opportunity to ride those perfect waves.
On our last night, Alex and his crew prepared a romantic, surprise dinner for me and Howard in our uma. Candlelight lit up dishes prepared with the local ingredients we had enjoyed during our entire visit but these dishes were special and unique and the first time we had gotten to savor a meal alone.
After eating, we walked along the water, gently lapping, reflecting diamonds from the moon above. We had never spent so much time away from our little guys. We missed them but we also appreciated the time we had to ourselves. We looked forward to bringing them back, introducing them to our new Mentawai family and trying to get that picture Howard had always wanted. Maybe, for his next milestone birthday.