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Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera


The Inertia

In 2008, professional surfers Travis Potter, Jenny Useldinger, Andrew Mooney, Josh Fuller, and Jimmy Rotherham took off on a mission to find world-class waves in one of the most remote places on the planet. I wanted to make a film that would document how far feral surfers were willing to go to find a new world-class wave. The densest rainforest in the world, possible cannibals, underwater land mines, and no documentation of waves in the area… West Papua was the perfect place for an adventure. Possibly the final frontier in surf exploration.

Surviving off the jungle, staying with amazing tribes — including one that stopped eating people as recently as 1992 — traveling by any means necessary, we entered the great unknown in search for that epic wave you only dream about. Early on in our trip, our adventure took a left turn while staying in one particular village where we taught the kids to surf. At first, we didn’t want to stay in this particular village because of how many people were there. It was larger than the previous village that we had to flee after the military tracked us down demanding our information and our whereabouts. While Travis Potter and I planned our next move out of the village, Andrew Mooney, Josh Fuller, and Jimmy Rotherham pulled their boards out to catch a quick surf on a small little point break at the end of the village. When they started surfing, a crowd of villagers formed on the beach watching in awe. A couple kids grabbed planks of wood and jumped in the water and started body boarding on the planks.

Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

Andrew, Josh and Jimmy then hopped off their boards and handed them to the kids and started pushing them into waves teaching them how to stand up.  More and more kids jumped into the water as well as, adults and eventually the whole tribe was out in water trying to surf.  It was this single moment that changed everything for us. Not only did we decide to stay, but stayed for weeks surfing their little rip-able waves and forming an incredible bond with the tribe.

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Fluent in Indonesian, Travis was the only one that could speak with the people, until a woman introduced herself in English. Being the only English speaker in the tribe, she began to speak for her tribe and began to tell us of the horrors that her people faced every day. Three weeks before our arrival, her bother had been killed by the Indonesian military and his dead body was delivered to the village as a message. What this message was is still unknown. Was he in alliance with the Free Papua Movement rebels, a movement trying to gain independence from Indonesia due to the human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military on the Papuan people? Or did he know too much about the conflict and was a threat? It was not clear but for us, we quickly learned that the Papuans in this village feared for their lives every day.

Through the weeks we stayed with the village they took us in like family. They fed us their traditional meals like sagu, which is a starch extract from palm trees that looks like gooey sap and has the texture of a giant booger  While we struggled to get the sagu down, they laughed at how helpless we were carrying flashlights on our heads at night trekking through the jungle wearing snake boots.  We showed them island bowling using a coconut and bottles we had brought and they shared with us beetle nut, a nut with a husk that you chew with a stem and some lime powder that overflows blood red juices in your mouth while giving you a euphoric feeling like floating on air.   We talked story, sang Papuan ballads, and drank rotted coconut milk (a.k.a “coconut wine”) till the nights end becoming completely immersed in their culture.

A sagu lunch. Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

A sagu lunch. Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

After one night of beetle nut chewing, with blood-red drool running down our faces, Jenny Useldinger (the only girl on our trip), Josh, and Andrew decided to go for a night surf while Spencer Frame and I filmed it. It was a perfect night with a full moon, small but rip-able waves and the gentle glow of torches from the shoreline. Well, it was absolutely perfect until Jenny came up after a wipeout holding her hand with sharp pain shooting up her arm. Getting her back to the hut, we realized this could be really serious. With no medical aid for hundreds of miles, we had to rely on the locals to figure out what it was that stung her. Members of the village explained that she had been stung by a nail-fish.

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If she wasn’t allergic to the venom, she would be fine; if she was allergic, then she wouldn’t make it through the night.

That night was heavy as we all comforted Jenny until she finally passed out. Later that evening, I noticed outside my tent a few glowing torches hovering over water off our beach. The next morning, one of the villagers presented us with a nail fish. That’s what the torch glow from the night before was. Hours after we had crashed, a bunch of guys from the village took to the shore to hunt down a nail fish to simply show us what it was that wrecked our perfect evening. It was moments like this that truly exemplify the generocity and caring the Papuan people extended to us.

We knew our mission was not yet complete — we had to leave our perfect paradise and newfound family to continue our search for world-class waves. At the time, we didn’t realize that the impact they had on us would change our lives forever.  Everywhere we traveled from then on, more and more Papuans cried for our help in bringing more awareness to their struggle with the Indonesian military.  No matter where we travelled in West Papua, we quickly learned that the people feared for their lives everyday from the tortures and numerous murders by the Indonesian military and little had been done from the international world to stop the violence.

Our mission began to shift from scoring the perfect waves, to gaining more knowledge about the genocide that was taking place in West Papua. Travis and I met with Papuan political figures to get a better understanding of just how bad the situation was in West Papua.  Escorted by guards we were led to a secret location where the men felt safe to talk about their struggle.  What would be a simple chat to you and I about our displeasure with our politics is considered an act of treason in Indonesia that could cost them 15 years imprisonment or possibly their life.   We learned that in the densest rainforest in the world, it was unknown just how many Papuan lives have been lost, but it was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.  The people fear that in the next 10 years, due to the process of assimilation, which is when one culture wipes out another culture until its lost, the Papuan culture will be completely lost. Their native dress and traditional practices will no longer exist.

The old guard. Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

The old guard. Photo: Courtesy of Justin Lepera

Refusing to forget our friends in West Papua, we have now created the Isolated Ambassador for Peace Campaign. This is a world wide viral video petition where anyone who wants to see an end to the genocide in West Papua simply uploads a video to www.isolated.tv stating their name and that they are an Isolated Ambassador for Peace. Through our viral petition, we aim to bring the world together with the aim of forcing our governments and the U.N. to aid in stopping the violence in West Papua. For United States citizens, you can also sign a petition on our website that demands the US congress to revisit a resolution drafted by Patrick Kennedy to stop the human rights abuses in West Papua. Taking a couple minutes out of your day could help save the lives of thousands.

By the way, we did find that epic wave you only dream about and encountered incredible adventures along the way.  I’ve given enough away already, you’ll have to see the film Isolated to see what I’m talking about!

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For more information on the film as well as the initiative, visit Isolated.tv. The movie is available to watch on iTunes now.

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