MEDEWI: Life by the side of the skeleton road

It is late afternoon. That time of day on any west coast where the color of the sea and the land contract into vivid hues and shadows begin to crawl east like living things and a golden path rises from the sea and leads to the sun. You are at the surf break of Medewi Point on the island of Bali, far from the tourist madness to the south and you can see alpha local Muklis Anwar and his covey of wet, shiny, local kids crabbing their way toward shore over the slippery boulders on the inside of the surf break. A misstep here and any one of them will receive a spray of urchin spines deep into the front pads of their feet and nothing more than a sewing machine needle to dig them out with. Muklis has been teaching the village kids how to surf and the kids hold under their arms all manner of relic surfboards. Chunked, split and repaired, cast away like dolls without heads by the western visitors of this place over the decades. Yet these boards are gold to the humble, to be smelted and re-cast. Every part of the buffalo is used here in Medewi.

A sexy tourist surf mom is herding her three blond kids toward hotel towels on the back seat of a rental car as her handsome, bearded husband straps sandy softop surfboards to its roof, their surf session complete. Then an old white lady surfer with untamed, waist length, slate gray hair pulls up on a beat up scooter. She has a maroon twin fin surfboard design with beautiful wooden fins in the scooter’s surfboard rack. She is tanned to leather and, like a witch casting a spell, she sets her eyes out over the blown afternoon surf. Her aura reaching everyone that is hanging out on the picnic table that serves as a throne to the elite surf locals gathered around it. It is theirs, this table, that overlooks the break of the longest breaking wave in Bali. But superstitions and visages of witches and wraiths still wander the midnight paths here in Medewi and the old white lady, fitting certain descriptions, is given ground.

The old surfer lady obviously lives around these parts somewhere back up the hill, sure to be in one of those cool, green places that lifer expats manage to build against all odds. Having chosen her final days, her surf curated life now long determined by the tides and the torrid sun and the perilous rocks and the waiting urchins of Medewi. It is enough for her kind in their autumn years. Far behind you, from the tiled minaret of the unfinished mosque above the narrow highway which is swollen with careening, bleating, overloaded trucks, the Adzan brays over a fuzzy megaphone. The strident five minute public call to the Islamic faithful that kicks off five times a day here at Medewi, the first at 4:15am. That early Medewi hour where only the non-drinking tourist surfers are scraping their boards with wax in anticipation of the first hour of light before the devil wind arrives from the south. The cry of the Adzan describing such a foreign sound in Bali and a reminder that you are at the singular surfing Muslim enclave on this Hindu island. The afternoon wanes into the first gilded sunset hour.

A Russian surf school van skids up behind the picnic table and all eyes turn. A gaggle of excited 30-something beginners, their noses and shoulders and thighs newly sunburned, tumble out of their seat belts and onto the sandy dirt at the end of this Medewi village road. Two of the local kids jump up off the picnic table with their neatly folded stacks of welcome-to-Medewi tee shirts and begin a brisk business. The bloodshot, exhausted surf instructor steps down out of the passenger side of the van. He glances at the surf and then looks down at his feet and sighs deeply, knowing his task ahead. Two wizened Indonesian woman and their granddaughters, all bound in black Jilbab veils, ghost in from one of the smaller warungs on the point and begin to pour strong, black coffee from a battered thermos and to sell sweetmeats and crackers and boiled peanuts to the locals holding court on the picnic table. It is that time of day when despite the surf and the conversations and the excitement of the surf school, you can still hear the heavy coins clinking as the granddaughters collect them from the afternoon gathering.

One of the bigger set of waves moves in through the afternoon blowout and time stops and everyone on the point watches. Everyone. Three surfers go over the falls on the first wave, two others collide on longboards on the second wave and clearing the wreckage, a skilled female white surfer on a mid-length surfboard survives and begins her run down the point. She finishes with a flourish and the picnic table crowd goes back to their words and boiled peanuts. The sun has burned the acropolis clouds off the horizon revealing smoky silhouette of Java across the great channel, reminding you of where you are on earth. You are hours north of Kuta Beach and the Bukit Peninsula, those promised lands where the trade winds of legend groom waves to sculpted perfection. Unlike here at Medewi where the dry season trade winds, relentlessly onshore in these waters, punish the sea from 8am to dusk, maiming the waves and making them hiss and spit like fighting cats.

Still, Medewi remains a perfect wave for the honeymooners of the world. A far humbler, more spacious and much longer wave to surf with a lover in Bali. There are no expectations or judgments in the water here. It is a place for the mild. A soccer ball comes whistling overhead and another group of local kids, dressed in holed pajama bottoms and cast off, extra large t-shirts from every surf shop on earth, slither through the assembled crowd like mercury. They chase the half inflated ball into the shorebreak and scrum with it up the point. The male field workers, muscular as bundles of rope, sit on low, worn and cracked stools under the Holy tree next to the picnic table.

Lighting up with a shared box of wooden matches, they smoke their pungent clove cigarettes and, their day’s work done, play with a deck of bent and frayed cards. Gambling being haram here in Medewi, they play for clothes pins, the loser having to snap them onto their ears. One man has four of them pinned to his right ear and the others roar with laughter as the man loses another hand and must clip another pin to his left ear. The others elbow him and grin the grins of the luckier as the cards are reshuffled. Two middle aged Australian surfers walk out of the lobby of the nearby expensive hotel on the point with brand new surfboards and beer thickened bodies. Sunscreen expertly applied, they move through the gathering on the point with hellos and easy jokes and make their way down onto the furnace hot black sand that protects this place from the teeming beach tourism of Kuta. Much like the pervading Muslim faith that demands an observance of innumerable decorum’s,and so unlike the Sodom and Gomorrah of the white sand beaches to the south. Black sand tourism is an entirely different kettle of fish, requiring a visitor that has no interest in sunbathing or beach umbrellas or summer novels.

Here at Medewi the sole purpose of the beach is to provide waves to surf. A lone American expat, an old hand, his surf cares sated for the day, ambles down the street and takes his place at the picnic table with a green bottle of beer held between two fingers and the thumb of his right hand. He swigs and nods and smiles at Muklis, who has since made his way up to the picnic table with all the kids. And Muklis smiles back, still wet haired and panting from his surf with the children of Medewi. And Muklis strips off his shirt and wipes his dripping face with it and then holds it at his chin with both hands and looks out over his domain. You can see it. Behind Muklis’s eyes. All is well he seems to deem. Though he remains forever wary of the white visitors, hoping the madness and the unfiltered greed of the southern beaches of Bali never arrive here at his place in the world. Despite the noise and the fury and the building of the new superhighway that is blowing through Medewi town, forever replacing the deadly “skeleton road” that has served as the main highway for so long. And despite the giant, international F1 track that has just broken ground within sight of Medewi point. And despite the gouging, tree cracking destruction of the jungle not six kilometers away that will become the site of South East Asia’s largest amusement park, wave pool and hotel complex. Despite this, Muklis hopes the better angels will arrive with these barbarous changes, and so dampen the evils of progress.

Muklis Anwar looks out at the surf, tasting the salt on his lips. And then he looks at the local children that surround him. And Muklis takes a great breath and holds it and closes his eyes and listens to the surf and to the Adzan of his faith. And softly moving his lips he exhales and prays his afternoon prayer to Allah, imploring him to protect this place and to bring good fortune with these inevitable changes happening all around him. Hoping at the very least for opportunity and education and a new hospital for the people of Medewi. And hoping most of all that these children will adapt and hang on to their truth and not fall victim to this progress. To maintain strength enough to eschew bitter servitude and instead become a dignified work force within the altered future that has finally found this quiet place.

By Matt George


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