A few years ago, my wife and I backpacked through Indonesia just over a month. When I wrote this, we had two weeks left, and it was the low season for travelers.
The Indian Ocean is fairly docile; our days are interrupted with gusty rainstorms, and the purpose of our trip is far from taking a surf pilgrimage…but it’s Indonesia for crying out loud, and so of course I have made time to get some waves.
We spent about a week on the south coast of Lombok, living an existence that was so satisfying it was almost fictional. Ten dollars a night got us a bungalow and meals usually cost around two dollars a person. Picturesque beaches. Pristine, empty, violently blue waves. Lefts and rights. Hollow waves and mushy waves. Fast, gut-checking sprints down the line. Playful, generous walls for carving. Everything and anything. Take all your wildest surf fantasies, package them up with a little ribbon, and that’s the gift I found in Lombok.
On my first boat ride out into the lineup, as the sun punched through the hazy clouds to cast its first morning light, I felt almost deliriously happy. I had been reading about surfing in Indonesia since childhood, and here I was, on a quaint fishing boat made of bamboo, a new friend in tow, on our way out to enjoy a morning of perfect surf.
And then I spotted the trash in the water.
Trash is a ubiquitous problem in Indonesia. I’ve been through quite a few rural villages, and they all noticeably lacked a system for trash removal. Inhabitants either burn their garbage in front of their houses, or simply cast it aside. Riverbanks are plagued with massive pile-ups of plastic bottles and candy wrappers and empty bags of chips. For us surfers, the homey villages we visit to find waves are exactly that type of village: small, quiet, poor, and lacking a methodical way to deal with trash. Predictably, the beaches are often scattered with garbage, as are the seas, and even the line-ups.
I paddled through a few plastic bags after being dumped out of the boat in the channel, and my boyhood fantasy felt disappointingly ruined. I couldn’t believe it. Trash in the lineup. And not any lineup. A lineup right out of my imagination – the perfect lineup…spoiled by trash.
It got worse.
We had hopped aboard a boat with a fisherman recently began ferrying surfers to the reefs that are too far away for paddling. He smoked cigarettes the whole way out to the break and continued smoking throughout my session. I noticed that the other boat captains were smoking as they waited to bring their surfers back to shore. Smoking is even more ubiquitous in Indonesia than trash is, and I’m talking about vicious, addictive, chain-smoking. The boatmen voraciously sucked down cigarette after cigarette all morning long. As for their cigarette butts? Mindlessly flicked into the turquoise sea. I had a hard time stomaching such blatant disregard for the ocean.
My feelings, while modern in the details, are no different than the condescending curiosity of travelers throughout the ages. Travelers bring with them biases and opinions of how things should be done, all the while conveniently ignoring the problems from their homeland. They have done this throughout time and place. Europeans overwhelmingly condemned the Incas and Mayans for practicing human sacrifice. Never mind the torture-filled Spanish Inquisition that was happening back home.
Likewise, my condemnation has its appropriate place. My own country dumps trash. We just do it more privately, where we can’t see it as easily. My own surf break gets closed down with polluted water when heavy rains flood our sewage system. Indonesia’s trash problem is probably no worse than America’s; it’s just more in your face here.
But then, the worst of all.
I noticed that some of the traveling surfers were taking a break from their session by paddling over to their boat, and lighting up a cigarette of their own while bobbing in the water. Again, the butts were flipped into the ocean. I even saw a local longboarder smoking while out on his board, his cigarette perched between his smiling lips as he took off on a perfectly peeling wave. The absurdity of the situation.
Dropping a single cigarette butt into the ocean is a fairly minor act, but it is ripe with meaningful symbolism. I have long credited surfers with what might be an undeserving sophistication as stewards of the ocean. Smoking and throwing garbage into the waves by these “stewards” felt like they were spitting in the face of my ideals. It wasn’t actually painful. It was just really, really disheartening.
When surfers travel, we often head to remote destinations in developing countries with countless problems, like clean water access, disease, lack of education, and yes, trash. I don’t expect that every traveling surfer, over a weeklong surf trip, to ambitiously tackle one of these pressing global issues. That’s absurd. But surfers throwing cigarette butts into the lineup? That one is a bit hard to swallow. It’s equally absurd to adopt obviously wrong practices when you visit a place. I’ll gladly embrace the Balinese smile, but I’m not going to start burning my trash just because it’s the local way.
Surf globally, but remember our responsibility as the ocean’s ambassadors and protectors as you do so. When in Rome, do as the Romans do…except for when it comes to trash.