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Golden Handcuffs

While a tragic virus sweeps the planet, a Spanish couple finds themselves marooned off the Sumatran coast. There were waves—and a takeaway of humble appreciation.

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Spanish surfer and photographer Iñigo Grasset landed his dream job in 2015, shooting surfing at a Mentawai surf resort for six months a year. 

In March 2020, just like any other year, Iñigo and his wife, Debbie, flew from their home in the Basque Country of Spain to the Mentawais to welcome their first guests of the surf season. But, as we all know, owing to the virus rapidly traversing the planet, 2020 was nothing like any other year. They’d been there only a week when the world shut down.

“We had the first group of the season, then everything started to change,” says Iñigo. “We didn’t know if there were going to be ferries; guests were rushing to leave the island. We didn’t go with savings. We worked for a week and then everything closed.”

But he and Debbie chose not to join the mass exodus, and very soon they couldn’t leave even if they’d wanted to. “In less than a week, the borders closed, the ferries stopped, and the [flights] got cancelled too,” Iñigo remembers. “We had no way to leave the island. It felt like traveling back to the past—living off the land, surrounded by an amazing local culture, and, luckily, pumping waves with no one around.” 

Over the last 30 years, the Mentawais have evolved from a carefully guarded surf secret to a media and pro-team trip favorite. It’s now a booming tourism destination with up to 50 charter boats and dozens of land camps hosting thousands of surfers from around the world each year. The chance to enjoy its pristine waves and tropical island living without crowds seemed like it might never arise again in our lifetime. Iñigo was smart enough to realize this was an opportunity not to be passed up. 

Six months in the archipelago offered the shooter a variety of looks and a larger gratitude for the Mentawais and its people. The upshot? The chance to experience a deep dive well beyond the standard ten-day package tour.

“We thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to go back to Europe. Let’s see what happens.’ Then they locked the borders, and we couldn’t even go from the Mentawais to the mainland.”

With no guests, the resort they were working at closed its doors, and Iñigo and Debbie were essentially homeless. They based themselves at E-Bay, also known as Nyang Nyang, on Pulau Masokut Island, where a local friend named Iber runs a small homestay. “E-Bay is a village with a bunch of resorts and homestays,” says Iñigo. “Iber’s hidden a little bit in the back. He likes a simple life. He’s happy to have a couple of guests every couple of weeks.”

The couple was embraced by the local community and soon fit into village life: fishing, harvesting coconuts, collecting fruit, and foraging for other edible leaves and plants. Despite knowing only a smattering of Indonesian and a few words of Mentawai, but with a few locals who spoke basic English, they managed to get along just fine with their hosts. Because of the lockdown, many locals who had moved to the mainland for work returned to the village. What struck Iñigo about life in the Mentawais outside the resorts and charters was that everyone shares whatever they have. “They’re always sharing,” he says. “The houses are open, and your neighbor comes over and just eats with you if they have no food.”

Iber had a generator, but he had only enough diesel to run it for a couple of hours each night for lighting, meaning they had no refrigeration. “We spent a lot of time spear fishing. If you catch a lot of fish, you’d better eat it,” advises Iñigo, “because it won’t keep until tomorrow.” He recalls spearing a giant trevally and sharing it with the entire village. “Returning to the village with such a great catch is a rewarding experience. The fish feeds all of the local families, and I am intensely proud to have provided for the community that had been hosting and embracing us.”

Apart from the locals, there were about 20 foreign surfers stranded in the Mentawais, and a strong camaraderie developed between them. “We never really felt trapped, because we were surrounded by good people and we created a little community,” Iñigo says. “Everyone was helping each other.” 

And, of course, there was the surf. 

“We surfed pretty much every single day,” he says. “We didn’t have a boat and we didn’t have much money, so we mainly surfed E-Bay and we had some really cool sessions. Being out there with no one in the water, every time you saw someone in the lineup you were happy about it. It was beautiful in every way.”

With dozens of islands and myriad surf breaks spread across the 200-mile archipelago, and with public ferries being shut down, the only transport available was by local longboats. But with fuel in short supply, opportunities to travel between islands were limited. Iñigo managed to get to the Kandui Resort for a major swell and scored empty Kandui Left, along with the area’s primo right, Rifles, with only a handful of others. “I cannot recall the amount of perfect empty lineups I witnessed,” he says. “It was mind-blowing to see these incredible waves coming through with no one around.”

Iñigo and Debbie became so enchanted with life in the Mentawais, they have since invested in a surf retreat, Botik Resort, and will be going back in early 2022 to prepare for the return of guests. “We don’t want to just be a surf resort; we want to share the Mentawai experience we have lived,” he says.  

The lessons learned during the couple’s six months of isolation while being absorbed into the local community have stayed with them. “In the Mentawais, humans can be human. It’s a community surrounded by lush nature,” Iñigo says. “We had the privilege to learn from a wonderful culture that giving is better than having. They reminded us that life is not about what you have, but rather who you share it with and how much you appreciate it.”

[Feature Image: Costa Rican Anthony Fillingim’s squeeze play at Rifles. If you’re familiar with this Indo-bahn of a reef, you know he’ll be parked for a spell.]