I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Mentawais a few times in the past couple of years. My first time was all about trying to keep my jaw off the floor as the island kept surprising me with its beauty. There was one thing I couldn’t help but notice, though. Every spot we surfed had at least a few locals that were absolutely ripping.
It made me wonder what’s going to happen when more and more locals in the Mentawais get even better at surfing? Is this going to be the next Bali? Are we (we as the visiting surfers) going to have to deal with armies of Mentawaian people in the line up trying to score our own perfect wave?
It’s pretty clear that surfing has become more important and part of the “day to day” life of locals in the Mentawais. It’s far from what we see in Australia but the culture clearly is growing among the people living here. It’s impossible to predict the future, but we can dig a little into the past to get a better idea of what that future could look like. So I spoke with some of those locals myself.
Soya is a 34 years old, born and raised here, who works at Mentawai surf camp looking after the bar.
How long ago did you start surfing?
SOYA: about eight years ago. In 2004, I started working in a surf resort and I saw all these people coming from overseas to surf here in the Mentawais and I was like! “Shit, man! That looks like fun!” So I started surfing.
How would you describe the differences between 2004 when you just started surfing and now in terms of surfing for the locals?
Well, in the past, there were not many locals surfing. There was not interest in surfing at all. Right now we actually have almost pro surfers from the Mentawai region. That never happened before. Guys like Dodi, Robot, or Andy — these guys participate in competitions here and there and they do very well. You can see the talent increasing around the Mentawais. Those guys are still young but I think in four or five years we are going to see a very talented generation of surfers from the Mentawais.
So why didn’t you start surfing until 2004 while having the most perfect waves in your backyard?
I think because surfing wasn’t as popular, so I used to spend my days working as fisherman. I didn’t have a surfboard and it was very hard to get one. But even for those who had a surfboard, if you broke it, there was no way to fix it. So I remember a few people surfing with half a surfboard but still having so much fun.
Dodi is a local Mentawaian who has been crowned surf champion of Sumatra 10 times, told me the same story.
DODI: Surfing was hard before. Even though my dad inspired me to start surfing at a very young age things weren’t any easier for me. The lack of sponsors around here doesn’t let the Mentawaians surf to their full potential, I think. It was very hard to get surfboards, leashes, wax, etc. In fact, we used to use candles as a wax.
I ask Andy, another pro of the region, if he would have surfed the monster swell at Kandui in 2016 and his answer was a straight NO!
ANDY: That swell in Kandui was absolutely beautiful. I think it was too big for me. If I had medicine and doctors I would’ve surfed it, but sometimes around here if you have any injury in a big swell like that, then there is not money to pay for doctors. For my guests at the surf camp it’s easy, they have insurance so they can easily go to Padang to the doctor, but I can’t.
ANDY: I think is very difficult to get sponsors here, because it’s so far from everything. If you go to Bali, many kids are sponsored. But I like it more here. The waves are perfect, there aren’t crowds, and there are good times in general.
No sponsors means no money, If there is not money from the surf, less people will be interested in adopting surfing as a job. However, I recon sponsors are going to come eventually. When locals realize that tourism is not the only source of income and they can actually get money from doing what they love, what is going to happen in the mentawais?
According to Diego, the owner of Mentawai surf camp, there is nothing that would affect the surf tourism in the Mentawais.
Do you think, we are going to get to a point were the localism is going to affect the surf tourism?
DIEGO: NO! Mentawaians live from the tourism, especially those interested in surfing. They know the money comes with the surfers from overseas. Also, they don’t have the money to explore different waves. To move a boat from island to island costs money and they definitely don’t surf the big waves because they know if the pros get hurt they have the money to pay doctors. A local here wouldn’t spend 30 dollars in a ferry to go to a hospital. They don’t have that money.
There is one important thing and it is that the local Mentawaians are very welcoming and friendly and anyone who’s been in the Mentawais would tell you that. They are very positive about the crowds and sharing waves with others.
Jovi told me about the legendary Al. According to Jovi, Al is a legend because he was one of the first surfers in the playground area. He’s 38 now and has been surfing for the past 15 years.
What pushed you to start surfing?
I saw people surfing and I loved it straight away.
Were there a lot of Mentawaian people surfing when you started?
No, man. I think just my brother and I and a few kids. Actually, my brother was the first one in this area. I remember a friend from Australia gave the first surfboard to my brother. He and his mate came in a catamaran boat and they had a monkey in the boat. I didn’t have a surfboard before so I used to look after my brother. He used to say “Ok lets go surfing,” but he was a little bit scared so I used to sit on the beach just watching. I remember it was easy because no one was surfing. Awesome waves just for my brother and sometimes a few charter boats.
How did you get your first surf board?
I’ve never had to buy a surfboard in my whole life. The guests had given them to me because we are friendly, you know. My job is to make people happy. Every day I take them to the waves, give them water, or what ever they need, and they are good to me.
Do you feel there is a big difference surfing back 10 years ago in comparison to today?
Oh yeah, because too many surf camps have come with their charter boats. It’s good for me because I used to work in Kandui as a crew member. But now I love my job as a surf guide, I take photos sometimes and it’s better for me having more guests around, so for me, it’s good. But I don’t know for others.
Do you think in future are we going to see more fights between locals and foreigners in the surf?
I feel Mentawaian people don’t like problems. We are friendly. Also Mentawai is different from Bali. In the mentawais, you need boats, you need accommodations, and that is very expensive. In Bali you just get a motorbike and go around surfing. It’s very cheap. Here it’s expensive and that kind of controls the crowds.
What do you predict for the future of surfing in the Mentawais?
DODI: I believe there are going to be more and more people in the upcoming years, but sincerely, I just hope we can share waves peacefully and the Mentawais don’t become the next Bali.