Fight, fly or let the good times roll?
The plight of the travelling surfer in a post-disaster zone.
The past few months in Indonesia have offered up beauty and terror in equal measure. From the eruption of Mount Agung in June, followed by the magnificent swells of July, to the Lombok earthquakes – it has been a season of highs and lows. At the time of writing, the 6.9 magnitude earthquake has left 350 000 people displaced on Lombok, and over 430 dead. The majority of the damage occurred in the rural communities to the north, closest to the epicentre of the quake, but the damage has been felt across the tourist island. Many surfers were worried for their safety during the quake itself, and later, as tsunami warnings sounded. Most at Desert Point jumped on motorbikes and made their way to higher ground, spending the night in a state of hyper-vigilance, watching and listening for Mother Nature’s warning signs. The role of the tourist in a post-disaster area is a paradoxical one. Disaster can make people of different backgrounds, cultures and classes band together. It can also highlight their differences. This might be the case for many traveling surfers, who find themselves in the disaster zone for a purpose completely hedonistic by nature. That’s when the mixed feelings of uselessness and guilt take hold. Not only can you offer little assistance, often lacking a proficient understanding of the local language, but you are in fact a hindrance – an extra body to feed and water. Once access to an airport becomes available, you can also opt out, leaving the devastation behind. Surf photographer Fran Miller, who was in northern Bali at the time of the earthquake, says surfers have reacted in two ways – “there are those that are now living for the moment, planning trips across every square inch of Indo as a result of feeling their own mortality, then there are those who took the first flight home.” Here in Australia we embark on an overseas trip with the security of first-world money and the assured aid of a first-world Government behind us. It could be argued that, even in the disaster zone, capitalism reigns supreme – and those with the funds are likely to find a place on the rescue boat first. After the 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal, some commentators wrote about a two-class rescue, which prioritised climbers and sherpas in the Mt Everest region. At the time Prof. Susanne Becken (The Conversation) wrote “a debate is necessary over whether it is in the interests of the country to save foreign tourists – for the sole reason that tourism is the backbone of the economy and perceptions of safety are critical to future tourist arrivals – or whether a life is a life.” This comment goes straight to the heart of the paradox – that tourism fuels many developing economies and their populations rely on the industry for their livelihoods. On this, Prof. Yeganeh Morakabati (The Conversation) writes, “The concept of leisure tourism might be seen as fractious when many people are suffering due to the natural disasters… but staying away and watching the scene on TV will not help… to rebuild lives in affected areas. The tourist economy, however, might.” Certainly, this is true for Lombok. Fran Miller also acknowledges the value of holidaymaking in suffering regions. “It’s peak travel season and people have deserted Lombok en masse,” she says, “going to the island and putting tourism dollars into the economy will help Lombok locals support themselves… Of course, the area worst hit by the quake was not a tourist hotspot.” The poorly built infrastructure that crushed and killed people in these areas was a product of poor economic and social factors, Fran tells me. The issue then, becomes more complex. In the act of rebuilding the poorest part of Lombok, we might simply be reconstructing the systems that have allowed this poverty to exist. “Many of the places surfers enjoy visiting exist in a state of poverty,” says Fran, “and a natural disaster only brings this plight to our attention. The greater question is how surfers can be part of bringing higher standards of living to the world’s poor who live in the wave rich areas that we frequent.” But what of those of us watching the devastation from afar? Is it right to suggest that anyone who has ever taken pleasure from their travels through Indo, anyone who has blissfully threaded a barrel at Deserts, owes the people of Lombok at least a small monetary donation? As they say, what goes around comes around. We surfers so often find ourselves yahooing as a direct reaction of another community’s misery (like when Cyclone Winston hit Fiji and the east coast lit up), and therefore shouldn’t we all aim to pass the baton of beneficence along wherever possible?
The town near this enticing wave on Lombok was torn apart in the recent earthquake.