Feast of Waves

"So this is what it's like to be a prisoner of war." Seth McKinney was in a tropical depression, not too happy on his first night in Sumbawa. He lay cocooned in his mosquito net, fully clothed despite a wind-chill factor of 95 degrees. The air was thick with moisture, bugs, and the acrid incense of a half-dozen burning mosquito coils. For three dollars a night, Room 9 came

Partially furnished with a weak light bulb, one cheap rattan chair, and toilet facilities best described by the Australian expression "squat dunny." The mosquito nets were full of holes, and Seth had spent a half an hour trying to patch his with duct tape, then gave up and pupated. "The horror. The horror," he moaned, wrapped in filament.

Next door in Room 8, Darrell Jones sprawled on a thin mattress, every part of his body touching $25,000 worth of camera gear. Darrell wasn't too happy, either. He lobbed a verbal hand grenade into our hut: "If I live through this, remind me to staple a leadership badge to your chest."

Sweat, misery, fear, despair, envy, anger, sloth - and it was all on me. It had been my bright idea to travel to the island of Sumbawa in January during the northwest monsoon. Because of the risk of torrential rains and onshore winds, most surfers consider January the off-season in Indonesia. But that's why I wanted to go then: to avoid crowds. Seth and Darrell figured I knew things they didn't, so they agreed to come along. I had done a great job convincing them to go, and then a horrible job delivering them to Sumbawa in safety and comfort.

The first misstep was heading for the wrong airport. As we left Bali, we watched the earth flash green, blue, green, ocean, rice, ocean, rice as we crossed over both Nusa Lembongan and Lombok and approached Sumbawa. At Sumbawa Besar airport, we realized that we should have flown to Bima, 150 miles farther east. We still faced a six-hour ride across the island.

Mea culpa. Scatterbrained planning.

Wayan, our bemo driver, called his Toyota minivan "Shooting Star." He'd stenciled those words on the windshield, under a decal of a Formula One race car. Fair warning. Seth and Darrell knew what was coming; they gave me the front seat without a fight.

Like most Indonesians, Wayan was unhurried, polite, and courteous, until his hands touched a steering wheel. Despite the drag of seven surfboards on the roof, Wayan averaged close to 60 mph on Sumbawa's two-lane national "highway." Trapped next to this madman, peeking out through my fingers, I caught glimpses of the countryside as Shooting Star blazed through rice paddies, skirted huge bays, scaled tall mountains, and plunged us into new depths of fear.

Wayan brushed past motorcyclists at top speed, honked at old ladies, passed on blind corners, and played chicken with other bemos, buses, horse carts, and chickens. He approached animals at speed, honking furiously, swerving to herd them off the road. He gauged his attack based largely on the animal's size: Water buffalo got the most respect. Near the town of Dompu, Wayan ran over a chicken and looked back like a bandit. Five minutes later a dog panicked and ran under the wheels. Wayan barely flinched.

Finally, without warning, Wayan skidded to a halt in front of a broken surfboard advertising "Surf Camp" that pointed into the jungle. We tumbled out of Shooting Star, hoping against hope we were finally there.

We weren't. The camp gave me the creeps right off the bat. Six bamboo huts gave each other the stink-eye on either side of a weedy path. The first hut on the right had burned to the frame, the blackened skeleton suggesting disease, death, evil.

A portly Chinese we dubbed Lo Fat extended his hand, and I gave him a letter of introduction, written in Indonesian and addressed to the operators of the Periscope Point surf camp. Lo Fat read the letter but waited until Wayan drove away before explaining our mistake. Indonesians aren't inherently crooked, but they will let you screw up if it's in their favor.

Hanif and Jufrin, the young caretakers of periscope, found us early the next morning. They'd heard through the coconut wireless that we'd been hijacked by Lo Fat and were horrified we'd spent a night there.

They came like cavalry, leading three horse-drawn carts into the Chinaman's turf. While Juf harangued Lo Fat about business ethics, Hans loaded our gear and reassured us life would be better. Smiling glumly, Lo Fat and his minions stood together in front of the burned-out hut and watched a trio of live ones get away.

Benhur was the ambitious name for the wooden, two-wheeled carts that transported our gear to the Periscope Camp. Tough little ponies pulled each cart, silver bells on their collars making Santa-sleigh sounds, incongruous in the heat at eight degrees south of the equator.

The half-hour walk into the camp followed an aqueduct that distributed monsoonal water to a complex of rice paddies. Canals and tributaries branched off the main waterway, flowing under bridges, along bamboo fences, and into the paddies. Small shacks on stilts hid amid coconut palms or stood alone in the middle of a sea of chlorophyll. Relentlessly green in the morning sun, the rice paddies smelled like the mud and manure of Texas, mixed with the tropical flowers and salt air of Hawaii. The effect was that of a Japanese garden on a huge scale.

Children watched us from behind trees or burst into our path screaming, "Hello meestah!" Vertical women flowed past, nodding hello or turning smoothly, bowls and baskets balanced perfectly on their heads. The Sumbawan men were built like their ponies, small and tough: They carried fishing nets, water buffalo yokes, huge pieces of driftwood, or long sticks with clumps of rice on both ends. We greeted them with, "Apa kabar." ("What news?") "Kabar baik," they answered. ("Everything's cool.")

Hans and Juf had both done time in the paddies and explained the economics: 3,000 rupiah a day (about $1.50) for stoop labor and 10,000 a day for standing thigh-deep in mud, cursing at a pair of water buffalo. Compared to that, waiting hand and foot on petulant foreign surfers was a piece of cake.

Hans and Juf earned a monthly salary of $50, plus tips, plus the profits from the camp restaurant. They called us "boss," but their employer was an Australian who began building the camp eight years ago on the site of a village that had been washed away by a tsunami. (Jack, the toothless, 50-year-old camp cook, remembered the waves were "twice as high as the coconut trees.")

For nine dollars a night, the camp provided a decent bed, electricity, running water, flush toilets, Ping-Pong, and perfect mosquito nets. Luxury, surf camp-style.

Nature has blessed indonesia in strange and wonderful ways: rice, orangutans, earthquakes, and world-class surf spots. Uluwatu on Bali, Grajagan on Java, Nias on Sumatra, and Desert Point on Lombok are all legendary waves within the surfing world - long reef-breaks that thunder on spiky, coral barriers a quarter-mile out to sea. Indonesian surfing has inspired hundreds of cautionary tales of tigers in the jungle, stonefish on the reefs, sharks in the channel, boats lost at sea, and surfers impaled on coral-heads. I had heard them all.

From the balcony of our hut, high on coconut poles, we could look east to an empty beach. Looking west, we saw 200 yards of reef exposed and gasping in the sun. In Hawaii that much dry reef means: "Tsunami! Run for your lives!" In Sumbawa it was just low tide.

We took an exploratory walk onto the reef, which surfers call Periscope Point, tracing its outer contour and guessing at the shape of the wave. It was strange to stand barefoot in places we'd be surfing at high tide, like walking a giant slalom course in summer. The waves at Periscope Point broke over a flat reef made of rock, not coral, carpeted with thick moss and sea grass. Some of our apprehensions went out with the tide. This Indonesian reef was remarkably benign. There was more danger of getting slimed than cut.

The ocean was our first reward: 80 degrees, pure and clear, the water felt like a miracle cure. Paddling out to the lineup, we left a trail of sweat and grime in our wake. The wind, blowing off the land, carried the sound of men swearing at water buffalo in the paddies. It also groomed the head-high waves.

Water, water everywhere, and no one around to bum our trip. Except for the surf camp on the beach and a few stray fishing boats offshore, nature dominated. It was a welcome change from the distractions of civilization we were used to in Southern California: no jets flying overhead, no nuclear power plants on the beach, no Jet-Skis smoking through the surf line, no helicopters, no border patrol chases, no lifeguards, no people at all.

Seth and I sat together far out on the point, relaxed, grinning and handing each other waves like gentlemen:

"After you."

"It's yours, old thing."

"I insist."

"I salute you, then."

The surf was powerful, clean, and fast, a 200-yard Shooting Star ride over flashing reef. We carved speedy turns down the line, racing toward the white-sand beach backed by coconut palms backed by jungle-covered mountains. After three hours of surfing, the sweat, indignities, and discomforts of the previous 36 hours seemed like a past life. We were experiencing the first stages of joy.

understand this about a surf trip: if you're getting waves, nothing else matters. If the surf is crummy, everything sucks. We settled in easily at the camp, and our daily routine became a simple equation with four variables: eat, surf, read, sleep. Up at sunrise with the roosters, we'd check the surf first thing as Hans brought us cups of coffee. It was weird, at first, to be waited on hand and foot by two young men. But Hans and Juf were used to it, so we got used to it. After a few days we were shouting out breakfast orders from our beds.

Darrell described the camp food as the "Indonesian interpretation of Australian cuisine," but it tasted good as long as the surf was good. The camp menu was entertaining, however, typed out by an Indonesian with a funny grip on English. For breakfast, none of us had the courage to try "pain pancake" so we had our eggs "scarambeled" and "poashed" or "omelleted."

For lunch we had jaffles - two pieces of bread crusted together in a contraption like a waffle iron. Some people say jaffle is a contraction for "just awful." We liked our jaffles with banana, honey, and peanut butter or with egg, tomato, cheese, and chopped garlic. For dinner we could have attempted "beef straganops" or "spaghetty bolgnaice." Once we let Juf talk us into his "special Sumbawa chicken," but we couldn't wrestle even a single bite out of the tough birds.

Periscope point was best at high tide, but the big tidal change meant only a few hours of surfing a day. That left a lot of time to kill.

One afternoon Darrell, Hans, and I walked west along the reef, all the way to Huu village. Along the way we met two young villagers - they looked about eight or nine - who'd been spearfishing in the deeper tide pools. They carried homemade spear guns in one hand and lunch in the other. The taller kid held a stringer of speckled rockfish and a two-foot eel. The younger one tried to hold onto an octopus as it oozed through his fingers. They didn't have swim fins or snorkels, and their goggles were made of wood, rubber bands, and plastic. Surfers love people who love the ocean. I wanted to give them something - a pair of fins or some good masks - but they were perfectly happy with what they had. What a place to be a kid.

The reef ended after a half-mile, and we stepped off it and walked along Cempi Bay. The sun was straight overhead, and the air was blistering, so we stopped to rest where a small creek drained the rice paddies into the sea. Up the creek a circle of coconut palms and a bamboo fence lined a deep, muddy pool. There were a half-dozen water buffalo submarined in the pool, camouflaged in the mud. We couldn't see them until they opened their eyes or flapped their ears. It all looked exactly like something you'd see at Disneyland or a wildlife park. It was so real it looked constructed, and I peered into the jungle, expecting to see a chain-link fence and a parking lot full of cars beyond the trees.

Huu village was heaven for me, because I like kids. It started at the edge of the village with one kid screaming: "Hello meestah! Photo! Photo!" That attracted other kids, and the whole thing snowballed as we moved through the streets until we had 75 little people fanning out behind us, all of them shouting, "Hello meestah," and fascinated by everything we did. We stopped at a warung, a tiny grocery store, and sat in the shade as children lined the street in front of us, hypnotized by the spectacle of a couple of sweaty white guys drinking bottled water. The kids ranged from infants to teenagers, and I used my entire bag of tricks: peek-a-boo, stealing noses, pulling coins out of ears, flicking bottle caps, juggling, and repeating my one good card trick.

More kids came pouring down the street, through the alleys, and out of the trees. The crowd was getting excited, waiting for something to happen. "Make it happen," I thought, so I went back to the store, bought three big bags of hard candy, came out, and threw handfuls into the street. We managed to slip away in the confusion.

We had our little walking adventures on the reef and in the rice paddies, but most of the time we sat on the balcony of our hut, reading, playing cards, listening to music. We had a wide-screen view of five miles of ocean, and we spent a lot of time staring out to sea, wondering what it would do next. Every few minutes something big would jump and splash, halfway to the horizon. I kicked myself for not bringing binoculars. Closer to shore I saw a barracuda skim the surface for a hundred yards, snapping after a desperate bait fish. There were a lot of big fish and a lot of little fish, but we figured the food chain would leave us out of it.

Twenty feet from where Seth and I were sitting on our boards, two black fins jagged through the water, and we saw the sharks clearly as a swell lifted them up. They were only little blacktip reef sharks - no more than six feet long - and they were herding their lunch into the shallows, sending tremors of bait fish shooting past us. We both knew the drill - feet up on our boards, chins to our knees, paddling backward softly, ready to slam a snout if one got feisty. The surf was really good, and we couldn't believe we had to get out because of a couple of sharks. "They're probably more afraid of us than we are of them," Seth said, stepping onto the reef and walking backward, "but they're making me hungry."

We watched from our balcony as the sharks chased some fish off the reef and into the bay. Surfers like to believe the presence of dolphins in the water means there aren't any sharks around - a myth based more on Flipper than on good science. So when a pod of dolphins moved into the bay, we all stood to watch the dolphins drive the sharks off. "Fight! Fight!" I yelled. But dolphin and shark fed together for two hours.

The show moved from left to right as the weather began to change. To the northwest, clouds spilled over the mountains on the far side of the bay. A maverick cloud shaped like a thousand-foot jellyfish floated out to sea, dripping tentacles of rain. The sun on the horizon turned the clouds edible shades of red, pink, orange, and gold. It was a beautiful sunset - all that was missing were the french horns - followed by a spectacular lightning storm. That evening killed another myth: red sky at night, surfers' delight.

The next day, a surfboard, my surfboard, blew off the surf racks beneath our hut. That was the call to take the weather seriously. Seth and Darrell had both recently skirted killer hurricanes - Iniki in the Hawaiian islands and Andrew in Miami - so abrupt changes in wind speed made them nervous.

We dropped our jaffles and battened down the hatches. Seth and I cached all the boards in the cinder-block bathroom, while Darrell and Juf carried armloads of camera gear to higher ground in the kitchen. We were being alarmists, possibly, but we couldn't flick to the weather channel or pull yesterday's satellite map out of the recycling bin.

At 3:00 p.m. the wind held at 20 knots, and Seth and I had an out-of-control Ping-Pong match. At 5:00 p.m. a huge boil of clouds and rain blotted out the mountains and the reef. "Here comes Mr. Monsoon," I said. And then we were wet.

Surfers call a stormy, blown-out ocean "victory at Sea," from the storm-at-sea opening scene of the 1950s television series about World War II. After sleeping through a gale, we woke up to find Periscope Point a mess of swell, wind, and current. We couldn't go surfing.

That morning we had a visitor, a bored Australian who wandered down from the other surf camp. "No surf up at Lakey Peak, mate," he said, referring to the spot in front of Lo Fat's. "But this weather's not the monsoon. There's a cyclone down off Timor. Heaps of swell, but the wind's a shame."

The cyclone was a mixed blessing. It generated strong waves, but the outer edge of the cyclone was reaching all the way to Sumbawa, and the 30-knot winds strafing across the reef made it unridable.

After two days the wind dropped enough to tempt us back into the lineup. Periscope Point had suffered a severe mood swing. Jumping off the reef at the usual place, I was swept a hundred yards down the beach before I could paddle out of the current. Fighting my way back up the point, I watched Seth drop into a big wave. He made the drop, looked ahead over his shoulder, tried to straighten out, and took a thousand pounds of white water on his head. He surfaced, shaking water out of his ears, just about the time the next wave hit. He dived, got tumbled, came up, took a breath, dived under again. Rinse and repeat. Five times in a row. Seth's ordeal wasn't much by Hawaiian standards, but again, I felt responsible.

"It's not the monsoon," I said.

Seth blew a gallon of water out of his nose, "Whatever it is, it sucks."

The wind impressed us with its relentless refusal to give us a break. Perhaps it was the avenging spirit of that chicken or dog. After three days of heavy winds and junky surf, our misery had company. A pack of a dozen English surfers filtered down from other camps and massed on the beach. Seth and I enjoyed our last few moments of solitude at Periscope Point: "They're probably more afraid of us than we are of them," Seth said. We didn't stick around to find out.

Older, wiser, we'd changed our ticket to fly back to Bali out of Bima. Hans and Juf came with us on the easy, two-hour ride to the airport, refusing to abandon us from their care until we were safely on the plane.

The cyclone had one surprise left. Flying back to Bali at midday, we took the seaward side of the plane and did a low altitude surf check. Waves lit up every reef, point, sand bar, and beach break, from Periscope Point to Bali. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of perfect surf scrolled under our noses. Looking down on the wave feast, taking mental notes, I knew just what those two sharks felt back at Periscope, chowing through a thousand bait fish.