Where did all the Bali beach boys go during Covid-19? Are they ok? What are they doing?
Only a few remaining westerners got to witness the downfall of tourism in Indonesia during the Covid-19. Bali has been affected the most as the culture and local life has been turning and navigating their livelihood accordingly to the increase of western tourism.
For those that have pre-Covid times visited Bali, the areas of Canggu, Seminyak and other western tourism hotspots are most likely remembered as busy, noisy, filled with people. The prices in Bali have increased accordingly, to get a villa for a month for ten million rupiahs (the local currency) was a bargain… most prices start from thirty million and upwards for what might even be a room in a shared villa… Bali has become the tourism hotspot for the last ten years and has been increasing in tourist numbers traveling to Bali each month until Covid-19 outbreak.
In the rise of Bali tourism there has been a rise in surfing… each year there have been more and more eager westerners learning to surf, the hotspot for that has always been Batu Bolong beach. Safe deep waters, mellow waves, and a sandy bottom made this beach the nr.1 learning spot in the world. Along the coast lies a sea of local surf shop with usually up to five or more surf instructors in each shop, otherwise known as the Beach Boys of Bali.
If you’ve been to Bali, you definitely know these boys. You’ll find them on the beach, smiling, playing guitars, joking, and usually trying to get a smile from the visitors. They’ll make sure you have a good time inland and out in the ocean. If you stay at the beach long enough, you’ll befriend a group of them and they will usually find a way into your heart. Maybe it’s the simple smile? Jokes? Down to earth mentality. Or their good-vibes attitude that seems to always mesmerize us, westerners. If you ask around not many of these boys are from Bali. Most of them will be from Java, Lombok, or Sumatra.
In the last eight months, I have been living with a group of local Sumatran Surf Boys that work or worked in Bali as surf-instructors. I was in Bali when the Covid-19 outbreak panic started and followed them back home to Sumatra, Krui. We became friends 2019 January, I have visited and fell in love with Sumatra May last year (you can read my previous blog post about visiting their hometown the first time, here). I now have spent four months in Tanjung Setia witnessing a tipping point in Indonesia’s tourism… and the overall global pandemic from the remote paradise that up to this point has been known more for advanced surfers due to WSL competition in Krui that has, due to Covid-19 outbreak, been canceled this year.
When we left Bali, there was no initial panic. The boys were getting ready to go back home either way for Ramadan, the Muslim fasting celebration. This tradition holds with them each year, they try to visit their hometown and families once a year during this period, which is considered a Christmas-like celebration for the Muslim community. Back in Bali the silent day was extended and the visa questions were being raised. All the boys were only worried about how to get home soon before the possible lockdown happened. My Visa On Arrival was supposed to end in April but many countries around were closing borders, it wasn’t clear what the situation was. There was concern about visas and initial panic about Covid-19 amongst the visitors. People were deciding whether to leave, stay, try to do a visa run, some were trying to reach Indonesia before the lockdown happened. I took a risk, decided to go to Sumatra even though I knew traveling will be hard and expensive for me there and I wasn’t sure if the immigration office knows how to do any sort of extensions for westerners. I kind of just trusted my gut and the guidance of the Universe, an overall feeling of the path ahead of me. I trusted the unknown. Also, the boys I lived with in Bali have become my family, the idea of being stuck alone during the very beginning of Covid-19 outbreak terrified me. It was that or going to a place that was remote but felt safe – Sumatra, the island of Gold.
First of all, I am subjective on this matter and can only tell a story from my own perspective and only about this group of individuals, I know there have been boys less fortunate that haven’t made their way back home before the lockdown or didn’t have the means to do so and that is really important. Home is a safe community. But let’s start from the beginning.
March 26, 2020 we started our journey from Canggu, Bali towards Krui, Sumatra using Rahmad’s, otherwise known as Matt, car. He is one of the most successful surf-guides in Bali from our group, filling each day with at least 4-6 customers. The initial car ride was around thirty hours. Not a quick journey. We packed up and left at night as driving is easier during the night with less traffic involved. I supplied the boys with masks, we had loads of hand sanitizers in the car and in my bag for when we do our pi-stops. We had to drive across Bali, then across the entire Java island, take two farries, and another 6-8 hours drive once we entered Sumatra. It took us two days. We had one public shower on the way. Matt slept maybe eight hours during the whole trip, he was the only driver. The passengers included me, and four other surf teachers in Bali; Sadi, Hardi, and Ari. All neighbors in their hometown in Tanjung Setia, well except Hardi, he stays in Krui, which is a thirty-minute drive from Tanjung Setia, the town we all resided, close to a magnificent wave, for those who can surf, Ujung Bocour. We settled into Ombak Idah, a resort at the peak, most visitors had left during the panic of Covid, usually, this place is packed and is almost impossible to get a reservation, even less for a month, even less for four.
The first month, was semi-normal. We were told by the town chief to do two weeks of self-quarantine. There was the initial panic of Corona happening. People were scared of foreigners, kids used to cover their mouths if they saw me (or show me the middle finger), which was unusual but reasonably understandable as no one knew what the hell was going on. I was told off by the local police for leaving Tanjung Setia and going to Mandiri even after the quarantine was over. The boys came to our surf camp and we would chat, as usual, everyone was questioning how long it will take but weren’t too concerned as there were loads to do before Ramadan started, and they have missed their families, it was a good feeling of being home, yet an awareness that it’s not “business as usual”. During this time, Bali went under lockdown and so did the surf after all the main beaches were closed. Here, we still had the joy of being in the ocean, walking down the beach. We felt fortunate and grateful. At least I did.
Honestly, and this will sound absolutely horrendous, I felt as if the people that stayed here have won a lottery, even the local boys were hyped. World-class empty waves… Usually, there are forty people in the lineup fighting for each wave and here we were, sometimes only three people in the lineup. Walking down the beach you can see the usual village life, all the westerners who stayed here, knew each other within a week. I felt lucky to witness this place – empty and peaceful.
Last year I spent a while of my time in Amsterdam with a strategist and a dear friend Alex and producer and a close friend Akvile talking about the impact of tourism on Bali and the developing tourism problems around Indonesia, and here I was a year later – in the empty beach of the same places we were talking about. With new buildings of cafes and restaurants that haven’t opened because of Covid-19, empty villas and properties purchased but never harvested. Surfers – gone. As the panic of Covid receded, everyone started getting impatient “what next?”.. The “New Normal” started being considered in Indonesia after many travel-bans domestic and international. Indonesia not like other countries had to start moving their country forward as many people here depend on daily wages. Unlike the western countries “staying at home” is not an option. Yet, in my eyes, the government has dealt with this crisis quite well. Doing what they can to respond with efficiency, yet try and work out a new plan moving forward.
Meanwhile, the surf boys who came back here after three months of staying at home and exhausting whatever saved money they had are also concerned. Going back to Bali doesn’t seem like an option until International tourism is back to full “Normal”, considering that a lot of tourists are Australian that might not be the case for a fair while. The government have announced an opening of Bali tourism in September but that did not happen. In Europe there is talk of a second wave starting.The Covid numbers in Indonesia have been increasing regularly during this whole period. Mostly local transmissions. There is a very unclear situation about the actual numbers as some regions have no testing. Personally, there have been quite a few funerals in town… the cause… old age? But is it really? There have been few young people dying as well, yet claims of Covid are denied. They die fo some other diseases, which could be truth as death is not a stranger here.
Soon, I and Sadi will be heading back to Bali to sort my visa, re-unite with my dog and I guess wait for what happens. Matt is already back in Bali and said that work is short. There is no one to teach. There are some local Westerners that, have signed up their kids for regular classes or take instructors out to support the economy of surf but honestly money for the Beach Boys is hard to earn these days which is a big contrast compared to pre-Covid times.
Back to Bali
The trip from Tanjung Setia during Covid was long and tiring. We left before sunrise with a car, drove all the way to Bandar Lampung to do a rapid test, then flew to Jakarta. It was three of us traveling. Harun, me, and Sadi. Harun was traveling back to his hometown Medan but will join us till Jakarta from where he got a plane back home. We had a layover overnight at Jakarta airport. Being stranded overnight when absolutely NOTHING in the airport is open due to covid is really strange, especially when you get hungry. It was lucky one out of two water fountains was working. Fortunately, I met one of the boys from Go-Jek that helped order the food, it was a two-hour mission to get food into the airport. But we succeeded.
In the morning we took the plane to Bali, there were 20 people on the whole plane. I’ve never seen so little people fly to Bali. There was a noticeable difference when we arrived. The Denpasar airport was absolutely empty, I’ve never seen the remaining few taxi drivers so desperate and sad. All the cafes and shops were closed. As we drove to Canggu the traffic wasn’t as bad as usual. Very quickly I noticed that Mini Marts were all closed. As we got closer and closer to Canggu more and more shops were closed. Obviously, we just came back from the middle of nowhere so to me it still seemed really busy.
The next day we went to the beach. That’s where you could see the real damage. Most of the surf shops were closed. Not many of the Beach Boys were left. But life continues. There are a fair bit of people who have stayed in Bali and have started living regular lives. The surf-spots surf foods and beverages for visiting local tourists at sunset time. Some of my friends have gone back to farming, fishing, or even have started their own small businesses (like ding-repair) back in their home-towns. Life is not easy but the one thing I’ve learned from reading local writer Eka Kurniawan books and other Indonesian stories is that Indonesian people are resilient. You can really see that here. They still smile, they still try and make what little money they can to make ends meet, but most importantly – they help each other, feed each other, take care one and other.
How has the pandemic affected the Bali Beach Boys?
Rhamatt, also known as Matt was the first one to go back to Bali after it opened its border. During the pandemic, he was in Sumatra helping his family on the farm, taking care of his cattle. Matt has been living in Bali for a few years now, working as a surf instructor and surf guide. Luckily, he has developed some strong relationships with a few western families living in Bali long term, and upon his arrival back, he has had a stable flow of clients. Not as much as compared to before the pandemic, but he has how to provide a meal on the table. Matt has sent me this recording four months into the pandemic:
Recently I asked Matt again, how was his situation and this is a new recording he shared with me: