This article is a reprint from 2003. I had more time on my hands then. Time enough to spend a few months a year in Indo, time enough to write long, sprawling, vaguely earnest articles about things I cared about. I had more time than money - especially since no one wanted to pay me for articles like this. In life, as a rule of thumb, I've learned that the more you care about what you do, the less likely you are to be well-compensated for it. Aid work? Art? Expect to live month to month. A unexplainable position in finance making faceless old white men rich? Expect to get rich yourself and forget what you even care about by the time you get there.
6 years ago, after writing "Shards Still Falling" I had coffee with Matt Warshaw and asked for advice concerning becoming a successful surf journalist. Matt had just finished the Encyclopedia of Surfing, and I considered him to be at the top of the game. "Is there anything else you can do to make money?" Warshaw asked me. I told him there was - I had walked away from a career in usability consulting to travel and surf. "Do that then. Do anything but this. Writing about surfing is no way to make a living. If you want to write about surfing, do it because you enjoy it."
I more or less took Matt's advice to heart. 2009, and it's time for me to head to the 19th floor of an office building in my nice pants, to bill hours and invest time into something I don't care about. I consider myself lucky to still be employed. And this site? It's something I do to entertain myself. I do it the way most people watch TV. An hour a day or so, a distraction from real life. Lately I haven't even had that much time to spare. Hence this flashback.
The Aftermath of the Bali Bombings
I met Blaine Pecaut late in September of 2003, when he walked into a clearing in the dense foliage of the Plengkung Jungle in the Banyuwangi province of Eastern Java. Blaine has wide child eyes, simple, honest eyes, and although there were hints of gray in the stubble on his face, there was something very young and new about him. We both were there for the same reason, as were the other hundred or so travelers who slept there by the Indian Ocean. A congregation of international travelers, all there to surf. The name of the place was Grajagan, the name of the surf spot G-land - a shallow mile long stretch of reef that is widely regarded as one of the best waves in the world. I had already been there for two weeks when Blaine walked into the Jungle Camp, fresh off a speed boat, the final leg in an eight hour trek from Bali's Kuta Beach. Blaine showed all the signs of a G-land rookie. He was a bit nervous, hesitant, seemingly unfamiliar with the camp set-up. I introduced myself, and offered to walk down to the beach with him; explain a bit about the surf spot. It was my eighth trip to Indonesia, my sixth trip to G-land. We went through the usual introductions; Blaine told me he was from San Clemente, California. One of only a handful of "yanks" that I had come across in Indonesia that season. Blaine is an electrician, and a dedicated, skilled surfer. He has a quiet voice and mellow, spacey demeanor. We sat on a bamboo bench facing the surf. The waves were good that day, as they often are at Grajagan. Blaine and I discussed the surf - where to paddle out, which waves to avoid, how to read the barrel sections. During our conversation, I got the impression that this was Blaine's first trip to Indonesia. He didn't say directly whether he had been to Indonesia or not - yet something about Blaine's voice, the Southern California surfer patois, something about his openness, trepidation... I just got the feeling that Blaine was seeing it all through new eyes. I told him that I thought it was pretty cool, that he had decided to come to Bali, alone, with the negative press and all. The travel advisories. The newspaper articles. The aftermath of the Bali Bombing, which destroyed two prominent Kuta clubs on October 12, 2002. Blaine told me that he was "a little scared to travel to Bali, but that it was important to face his fears." I nodded, and we walked back towards the camp, ready to go surfing.
It would be another week before I discovered that Blaine had been to Indonesia before, after all - five times in all. In fact, he had been there last fall. Blaine Pecaut had spent the night of October 12 pulling injured survivors and burnt bodies out of the wreckage of the Sari Club, searching for the friends that he was supposed to meet there that night.
It hadn't started this way, of course. Bali had been a friendly and non-violent tourist destination for over 30 years, an island unto itself amongst a nation of islands. Although it is a part of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation on earth, Bali is predominantly Hindu. It has also remained free from the religious strife and regional conflicts that have plagued the rest of Indonesia. Bali has risen to a level of affluence unheard of in many other parts of Indonesia. This is almost entirely due to tourism; and much of the tourism stems from surfing. The end result has been the westernization of Bali, and the creation of an island at odds with the Muslim beliefs the rest of Indonesia holds dear. Both surf travel and Bali have grown at a frantic, sometimes painful rate, their fates intertwined. Neither resemble their former selves. In the wake of the October 12, 2002 bombings, many surfers felt that this terrorist attack was directly aimed at their lifestyle in a way that September 11 was not. Kuta is a surfer's town; built from the patronage of surfers. The actual target, the Sari Club, was a place achingly familiar to the international surfing community. Regular traveling surfers couldn't help but examine their ideals. Was it worth returning to Bali? Was Indonesia becoming too dangerous to be considered a vacation destination? Did we, as surfers, have a responsibility to return? Did we owe some debt to the Balinese for the changes we had wrought?
To visit Bali today is to understand that progress is inevitable, whether its effects be positive or negative. The concept that surfing and progress are intertwined, and that surfers can be the agents of great change, is a difficult thing for many surfers to grasp. Surfing is an ephemeral thing. The tracks we leave in water dissipate within seconds. It is easy to believe that on land, we have a similarly minimal influence. But this is not the case. Instead, the last quarter-century of surf travel has transformed many third world coastal towns into surf ghettos. Surfers have brought development, debauchery, drug use, and prostitution with them, leaving these gifts for local people to grapple with. In 1971, when the first handfuls of surfers began descending upon Kuta Beach, the main street of Jalan Legian cut through rice paddies, palm trees, and fields of grazing cattle. No lights or concrete lined the street; there were only a handful of homestay losmens or restaurants for surfers to choose from. By October of 2002, everything had changed. Kuta Beach had been transformed into a condensed maze of surf shops, hotels, restaurants, and shopping opportunities. A million chances to part with currency - through the purchase of identical t-shirts, food from any continent, fake watches, fake tattoos, real tattoos, hair braids, pirated DVDs, new imported surfboards, sarongs, wood carvings, internet connections, surfing boat trips, medical care, the company of women, drugs... anything money might buy. All this within sight of a surf shop, almost guaranteed, no matter where you stood in Kuta, as it has arguably the greatest density of surf shops on earth. Surfboards and surf wear pervade the streets, from local second-hand shops to two story corporate mega-shops festooned with the latest matinee-idol surf stars. The connection should be obvious enough, looking at what Kuta has become in the space of 32 years. But most surfers never even realize it; that the foundation of all this commerce, the impetus for all this change, comes from them. Kuta, in all its swirling, greedy, chaotic glory, was built on the dreams of surfers and their lust for waves.
Kuta has become ground zero for surfing in Indonesia. It is a starting point and rest stop for most surfers entering the country. Kuta provides travelers with all the amenities they could want - often a welcome respite from the outlying areas. Meanwhile, in the Javanese jungle, the surf camps at Grajagan have a back-to-nature vibe. Miles from any form of civilization, the three camps have done their best to provide visiting surfers with the basics they need to survive. This includes rudimentary huts, mosquito nets to help in the prevention of malaria, intermittently running well water, outdoor common bathrooms, three meals a day, and a generator, which allows for the refrigeration of Bintang Beer and the viewing of surf films. Each evening, when darkness falls, the camp owners have learned to apply beer and surf films to keep their guests happy. One night towards the end of Blaine Pecaut's stay, we watched a classic seventies surf film that featured many sequences of Bali. Tired from another long day of surfing, Blaine and I lazily watched footage of Uluwatu, the lineup empty of people. We laughed together, seeing how much surfing in Bali had grown. But the real shock came when the camera panned across a simple dirt road surrounded by verdant green. Palm trees lazily swayed in the distance as a single surfer walked down the center of the road. Both of us fell silent as the narrator told us this street was Jalan Legian, in lovely Kuta Beach. Blaine stared intently at the screen. It was the same street he would stand on 28 years later, watching buildings burn and people die. I made some comment about change; took a swig of my beer, and as we talked Blaine told me the story of his last trip to Bali.
On the day of October 12, 2002, Blaine Pecaut went surfing with two friends from San Clemente. Just another day in Bali - good waves, perfect weather, surfing and laughter. That evening, he ate with these friends--Bobby, Little D, and three other travelers they had befriended--Marc, his girlfriend HB, and a girl named Mel. The group made plans to go to the Sari Club that night. Bobby and Little D were tired from surfing and opted out. Blaine went to his room to wash up. While waiting for the others, he put his headphones on and lay on the bed. "I guess all day surfing and the drinks just knocked me out because within seconds I was asleep." Blaine did not wake up when Marc, HB and Mel came and knocked on the door of his hotel room. So the group continued on without him, taking the five minute walk around the block to the Sari Club.
Around 11:15pm, a Javanese man entered Paddies Irish Pub, directly across the street from the Sari Club. He detonated an explosive vest he was wearing, killing himself and others. As wounded and stunned patrons of Paddies rushed to the door to escape the burning club, a van full of explosives detonated directly in front of the Sari Club, instantly killing perhaps a hundred people. Behind the Sari Club, at Cempaka hotel, the roof partially collapsed on a sleeping Blaine Pecaut. "The next thing I remember was a huge boom, the tiles on my ceiling falling around me, and the mirror on my closet breaking, everything on my nightstand all over the floor, and complete darkness. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face." Blaine listened in the darkness as people screamed in the Cempaka hotel courtyard. He could hear his friends Bobby and Little D yelling "Bomb! Bomb! Where's Blaine? I think he's at the Sari." The floor was covered with glass and Blaine couldn't find the key to escape his room. After groping in the darkness, Blaine found the key and his sandals and went outside. The courtyard at Cempaka Hotel was mayhem; people screaming and running. Blaine found Bobby and Little D and let them know he was OK. Then Blaine ran around the corner to the Sari Club to look for Mel, HB, and Marc.
"I wasn't prepared for what I was about to see. People burned all over their bodies, people missing arms and legs, and bodies laying dead on the ground." As the remains of the nightclubs and nearby buildings burned, Blaine and other volunteers attempted to help the wounded as they could. "The first guy I came to I'll never forget. He was alive but looked in really bad shape. With some help from another person I bent down to lift him up and get him away from the fire that was right on top of us. When I put my arms under him to lift him I felt a sort of wet gushy feeling on one of my arms. I pulled my arm back and looked at it. It was covered in blood. I realized I didn't put my arm under him but kind of inside of him. This man had like a three foot gash running from his shoulder all the way down to his butt. I looked at this guy's face. Nothing. Just a blank look. He must have been in shock but he wasn't scared or in any pain. He just looked at me or through me and had expected his fate, live or die." Blaine and other volunteers spent the next few hours doing what they could to help. They picked up bodies and carried them away from the fires, setting them in the back of pick-ups that took them to the hospital. The emergency vehicles hadn't arrived yet, and wouldn't for some time, due to the narrow congested streets. "Going in there, you had to decide who really needed help, who could help themselves, and who was just too far gone. One of the hardest things I think was to just leave someone that was too messed up and go on to the next."
The site would come to be called Ground Zero, like its New York counterpart. Blaine isn't sure how long he stayed there helping. He remembers pulling more bodies from the spreading fires. He remembers leaving, trying to return to his hotel. Blaine is a diabetic, and his blood sugar was low. "I tried to go back to Cempaka Hotel, but I got disorientated... I was trying to find my way back to my friends. With my adrenaline sky high and me running around, my blood sugar was getting dangerously low. Maybe that's why I got disoriented and couldn't find my way back." Finally, towards dawn, Blaine reunited at the hotel with Bobby and Little D. His worried friends gave him some sugar and fixed him up. Blaine washed the dried blood of those he had helped off his arms. All three of the friends who had gone to the Sari Club were unaccounted for. Three hours later, they got a call from the two girls, HB and Mel. HB was unscathed except for a few cuts; Mel had sustained burns to her back. HB's boyfriend Marc was still missing. The girls joined Blaine, Bobby and Little D at the Cempaka hotel the next morning after getting first-aid for Mel and searching for Marc at a Hospital. "Mel was burnt all over her back. Huge blisters on her back looked like big water balloons." Bobby went off with the girls to search for their friend Marc. They returned to Cempaka after hours of searching. Later, Bobby would relate to Blaine the events of that morning. "Bobby told me they went to every hospital looking for him, some (hospitals) a few times. He looked at all the dead bodies in all of them, but he wasn't sure because all the bodies were so burnt and disfigured. But there was this one body he kept looking at and coming back to. He went back and asked HB to describe the unique trim on the shorts and she described them to a T." When they returned to Cempaka, "I looked at HB and then she at me. Then all of a sudden she burst into tears, that's when I knew Marc had died. She ran over to me and gave me a big hug, crying the whole time on my shoulder asking me, 'Why, why?' My only response was 'I don't know.'" Talking about his experiences a year later, Blaine is painfully honest and clearly effected. "That day went on forever." Blaine changed his ticket after another day, and went home early. "The place I used to think of as heaven was now hell and I couldn't wait to get out of there."
Blaine and I got some great waves together at G-land. Beautiful blue waves, dream waves, with very few other surfers in the water, compared to other seasons. Not as many surfers were coming to Indonesia, anymore. Blaine returned to Bali a few days before I did. After he left, I scored a few days at Speedies; drank and surfed and laughed and sometimes fell silent when I thought about Blaine's story. Indonesia is a place of refuge, for me. Each year, no matter how fucked up my life seems, I somehow end up wading through Kuta, and eventually I find myself standing in a wide open barrel. And everything seems OK with the world; despite the political crises and international debacles that always seem to be spinning around me. There in the water, Indonesia always seems to be a dreamland; even a heaven, as Blaine Pecaut had said. But as I surfed those last few days at G-land, I found myself increasingly wondering how this surfer's refuge held up, for those like Blaine, who had seen more than they should have.
(To be continued... I'll put the second and third parts up when I have more busy days.)