Monday, July 21, 2008

Part 2: Nyung Nyung Island

After trekking through the jungle for 7 days, I must say that I was really looking forward to some beach time. The thought of being on the beach with access to crystal clear turquoise water, vibrantly colored coral and endless coconut trees sounded just about right. This, however, wasn't your typical island getaway. There were no pina coladas with decorative little umbrellas, no restaurants boasting fresh seafood, there wasn't even a beach chair in sight...again, exactly what I expected.

When we asked our trekking guide whom we left behind for this leg of the trip what life would be like on Nyang Nyang island, he had some simple advice for us, "Don't expect there to be anything there. If there's something you want or need, you have to bring it with you". Fair enough. We came prepared. In fact, we decided to bring something more than food, water, medical kit and washing supplies with us to the island. We brought a local 20 year-old named Gejeng.

Gejeng was with us on the trek, and we stayed at his clan's house for a night. His uncle was the man with the golden teeth, the Shaman who showed us how to make arrow poison. Gejeng actually ended up doing almost all of the work (to our disappointment, our guide turned out to be more of a finger-pointer than a finger-lifter) on the trek. Throughout the entirety of the trek, Gejeng served as chef, cleaner, porter, and even interpreter. We felt much closer to him than or guide in fact. Unfortunately, Gejang did not get a cut of the money that we paid to our guide (as we found out later). Our guide had taken advantage of this poor local's services. Once we learned what was going on, we knew we had to do something about it, so we invited Gejeng to join us on our trip to Nyang Nyang which he desperately wanted to visit. You see, for him and many other aspiring guides a bit of money or a foreign friend with a bit of money is needed to help them come even close to starting up a business. Even though Gejeng and his family live just one island over from Nyang Nyang, without the help of a foreigner, he would probably never visit the small surfing island, which holds a lot of potential business for him. We knew that paying his way to get him over there, and allowing him to hang with us would be more beneficial than just offering him money, and besides, we really enjoyed his company. We decided that we'd ask him to help us cook, and we would in turn feed him, entertain him, and even pay him a bit. He graciously agreed, and hopped in the "speedboat" with us on our way to Nyang Nyang. What a great call that was!

The boat ride from the main island of Sieberut to the tiny island of Nyang Nyang is a bit sketchy if you don't have a big boat or if you are on a budget. For us all of the above were true. We ended up as 5 people including the "captain" and the "skipper" in a dug out canoe with 15hp on the back crossing the open sea for 3 hours. In addition to the fact that we were in a boat that I would have deemed completely unsea-worthy before my visits to Asia, we also were getting started a bit late. The tide was still high, but the winds had picked up quite a bit with the afternoon sun. Within 5 seconds of boating, we were all completely soaked in salt water. With every (frequent) wave, we must have taken a half a gallon of sea water on board. Gejeng nervously bailed the entire 3 hours. I think it was his second time on the ocean, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the situation. When finally made it to land, we decided we weren't quite wet enough, and the three of us jumped fully clothed into the warm bath temperature water.

We pulled the boat onto shore, and carried our backpacks and numerous boxes of food across the immaculate white sand to the bungalow in front of the patch of sand we pulled up on. This was "Bidet's Place". It actually lacks a proper name, but any surfer who has ever come to Nyang Nyang island certainly knows of Bidet's Place because it is the one and only option for budget accommodation. Unfortunately, today it was full! Bidet's wife Sinti lead us down a sandy path past numerous unfinished bungalows, to a tiny little shack with two doors and a nearly toothless smiling woman sitting on the the front porch. This was Mumma's house, (Bidet's auntie) and she was more than happy to move her bed and belongings from her room on the right to the closet on the left to make room for us. We ended up staying in Mumma's room (which was actually the size of a normal western closet...just big enough for a bed) for 5 nights until something else freed up. The room consisted of a mosquito net, a few shelves, and a lampu (or lantern) and that was it. No electricity, no running water, no lock, no nothing. What the accommodation lacked in amenities however, it made up for in character.

Mumma insisted on doing the cooking (on an open fire stove with pots propped up on two level rocks), and as a result, we shared each and every meal with Mumma. She must have loved eating banana pancakes and coffee with sugar for breakfast! The first two nights, she killed 2 of her 7 chickens to feed us her beautiful chicken curry made with fresh coconut milk that she had grated and squeezed with her bare hands. The next 3 days and nights, she traded her babysitting services for fish enough to feed the 4 of us (me, Mick, Gejeng and herself). We also pitched in by catching our own fish and trading potatoes for fish with locals for most of our meals. Mumma was truly happy to have some company, even if it meant sleeping in the closet for a few nights! Gejeng even told me that I made her miss her daughter! How cute is that?

We were sad (and a bit worried) to tell Mumma that we were moving after spending 5 nights with her. You should have seen her little face when we broke the news, but we needed a bit more space and an escape from the flies that plagued Mumma's porch. She wasn't so good about disposing of the fish and chicken bones, which led to a pretty chronic fly problem. We laughed every day at the "clean up crew" of baby chicks, cats and dogs that came through to fight over the scraps from whatever we cooked. We moved, just 2 bungalows down, and still saw Mumma all the's a small island. She came by every day for a cup of tea with lots of sugar to make sure we were alright, just as all good Mummas do!

Gejeng realized shortly after we arrived on Nyang Nyang that 5 or 6 of his friends that he hadn't seen in a few years had jobs on the island. He immediately began making connections as soon as we set foot on the island. One of his best friends Andy had been working there for a few years, and the two were so happy to see each other, they had back to back sleepover parties!

When I asked Gejeng how old he was, he didn't know his age or even when his birthday was. This is just the way it is in the jungle. Parents don't keep record of when their children are born. The Mentawaians usually just determine how old they are by the number of full moon cycles that have passed. I discovered this fact just in time for the Fourth of July, so I deemed it his birthday! I thought the idea of this jungle-dwelling Mentawaian's birthday being on the 4th of July was hilarious. I spent the afternoon making a Happy Birthday banner for him, and spreading the word about the party that evening. We had Bidet pick up some Tuak and Bintang beer during his boat run to the market and invited all of our new friends over to the main house that night. The turnout was great! There must have been 25 of us all gathered around. We played guitar and sang the night away, complete with Happy Birthday song and all! Gejeng was so happy, he praised me over and over for throwing him a birthday party, he was really appreciative. It was his first, and probably only birthday party.

The rest of our time there was spent surfing, fishing, and sunning. It was beautiful. Oh yeah, we did have a pretty scary earthquake one night. I awoke at 1am to the floor shaking beneath my sleeping body. I of course couldn't help but think that a tsunami might follow it, and had a hard time falling back asleep. No tsunami though, but if there was one, I had a perfect coconut tree picked out to climb!

As I sat on the beach recovering from the birthday party the next day, I began thinking about how I could help Gejeng get his business started. I didn't want to just give money, I wanted to give him some initiative and a competitive edge as a business man at the same time. I sat down with him and drew up a program for him to take tourists trekking and surfing. We figured out prices and logistics for a couple of days, and I am currently in the process of typing it up and adding some photos. When I finish, I will laminate it and send it along with some copies to the post office on the island. We also gave him enough money to buy a cell phone so that he can have a contact number. It sounds a bit ridiculous, I know, but everyone who is a local guide there has one and Gejeng couldn't afford it without our help. He'll have to walk a couple of hours ever few days to check his messages, but it's a start. It feels really good to give someone as kind and generous as Gejeng a chance to make a living for himself. Something as simple as a cell phone could completely change his life (that's an ironic statement, isn't it?) and he deserves a chance.

I probably should have written about the surf, the beach, and the weather (which were all absolutely amazing), and all the other stuff that surfers talk about when they go to stay on Nyang Nyang, but to me, our experiences with Mumma and Gejeng were the highlight of our adventure. They will be the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Nyang Nyang. I am just so amazed that people with so little can give so much.