In the brief history of modern surfing, one of our more unimpeachable archetypes is that of the hunkered expat. Those poverty-vowed hardest-of-core. Those focused ascetics. Rob Service’s “the breed that don’t fit in.”
Meet Pablo Miller, called the “most barreled man on earth” at one of the earth’s most barreling waves, Desert Point. You’ll find this interview a master class if you read between the lines. But the subject doesn’t seem to care if you read it at all. True to type, he’d prefer to keep his cards to his chest. Our author had his work cut out for him: “You don’t wanna interview me, man,” said the subject. “I’m pretty boring…” —Scott Hulet
I’m hiking to the top of a hill overlooking the longest tube in Indo. I’m hoping to find my Buddha, the Most Barreled Man On Earth. A monastic tube seeker who spent the past quarter century camped out on this barren coast for months at a time. Forgoing all worldly pleasures in order to surf every blessed swell that greets this miracle stretch of reef. Untold hours meditating deep within the spinning blue womb of this wave, perfectly balanced between Nirvana and destruction.
My Buddha’s name is Pablo. Actually, his real name is Paul Miller—the “Pablo” thing just stuck after so many years surfing down in Mexico. The only son of Southern Baptist missionaries who migrated to South America to spread the Lord’s word, Pablo grew up in Brazil before finding his way to Indonesia in the early 80s in search of perfect waves. Then he stumbled upon this place. Back when there was no one here.
I was told to look for Pablo in a little wood hut at the top of the hill during high tide, when the assembly-line barrels vanish beneath the blanket of the Indian Ocean. When I reach the lookout, I find Pablo and a fellow seeker, Darren, reclining against the posts of the hut, lazily watching the afternoon tide make its retreat. Pablo is wearing a pair of ancient O’Neill boardies that look like they were hand stitched by Jack O’Neill himself. Discolored reef scars crisscross his leathery back. His baldhead and grey beard are framed by a pair of broken sunglasses that still serve their purpose. He is the most peaceful being I have ever laid eyes upon.
Surely my Buddha has much to teach me now that I’ve reached the top of the mountain. My questions for him are boundless: What has he discovered on his path to enlightenment? What has he sacrificed for a lifetime of barrels? There’s just one problem: my Buddha doesn’t want to talk to me.
LEO MAXAM: I just have a few questions.
PABLO MILLER: You don’t wanna interview me, man. I’m pretty boring.
LM: What about the time you got stabbed out here?
PM: Nobody wants to read about that.
LM: What do I do if a bunch of Lombok pirates come out here tonight with machetes and rob us while we’re sleeping?
PM: In general, if you give them your money you’re good. That’s the difference between here and somewhere like Mexico.
LM: Yeah, Mexico is kinda gnarly.
PM: That’s the key to the whole getting robbed thing—just give ’em your stuff. Like when I got stabbed, I had a hut right down on the beach and I was sleeping. And I wake up and there’s a guy going out of my hut. So I get up out of bed and I look out, and it’s pretty bright from the moon, and I can see the one guy’s sitting there with some of my stuff. It was just one guy and I thought, Shit, I can handle one guy. So I take off after him—like a dumb ass. Never do that. You get robbed, you give ’em your shit. Whatever you have, whatever it is—laptop, camera, whatever—it ain’t worth getting killed over. But I was young—well, at least I was younger than I am now. So I run after the guy and reach out and grab the back of his shirt and something just slams my shoulder. And I look down and there’s all these flashlights in my face and I’m covered in blood. I look up and there’s ten guys there. And I’m like, “Oh shit!” So I run back and wake up my buddy Nick who was staying in the hut next to me, and he lays me down and we get a look at this big puncture wound in my shoulder from the guy’s knife. Then the dudes come back—ten guys all with knives—and they’re screaming, “Money! Money!” So Nick’s freaking out trying to dig up our money, because we used to bury all our money and passports in the sand. They’re going through all our shit. And I’m lying there bleeding.
PM: In the end, they were actually kinda cool. They started joking around and then they asked Nick, “How’s your buddy?” And then one guy came over and looked at my cut and he’s all, “I help you, I help you.” He got some kinda tobacco leaves or something and he started doing this chant thing on me. And he puts the leaves on my wound and then he spits on it like three times. He’s spitting on me, and I’m like, “Oh, thanks” [laughing]. In the end, they left all stoked and happy cause they got some shit and everything was all good.
LM: And you all took a group photo together.
PM: Yeah [laughing]. We got robbed a few times out here in the early days. One time a friend of ours got hacked up really bad by these guys with machetes who were trying to rob us. It was the middle of the night and he was bleeding really bad. We had to put him on this little bamboo table and swim him around the point at high tide during a big swell in the dark. He almost lost his arm. It was hanging by a thread. He could have died really easily. But he made it.
LM: I heard this year there’s been more robberies at Deserts.
PM: Yeah, kinda the same scenario, except this year they had guns. I wasn’t here because I don’t sleep on the beach anymore. I sleep back at my place over the hill.
LM: When did you first come out here?
PM: Umm, that was…shit…[thinking]. I came here on a boat with some friends in like ’87 or ’88. ’Cause back then overland was really hard. So we got together on some shitty little boat and came over here. And then once I figured out where it was, I came back like two years after that by land.
LM: It took you two years to come back to the best wave in the world when there was no one here?
PM: Well, when I came on the boat that first time it was kinda shitty. If it had been going off, yeah, that would have been it right there. But a good friend of mine used to surf it by boat, this guy Bill Hike from Northern Cal. He’s probably like the first guy who really surfed here. He used to have an old Indo fishing boat and go to G-Land and come over here. He had it dialed. He was really the pioneer here. There might have been guys before him that surfed it, but he was really the first guy who really was on it, who was consistently surfing here all the time.
LM: Does he ever surf here anymore?
PM: Man, he came a few years ago. He’s got a kid that surfs. But it’s kinda sad, you know. He gets here and it’s crowded and everybody’s dropping in on him and they don’t give a shit, you know.
LM: Back when you first found out about this place, was it like a tightly guarded secret? Like you meet some guy in a bar and he’s a little drunk and has loose lips and he draws you a map on a bar napkin.
PM: Back then there was actually some…you know, back then everybody wasn’t like, “Dude, look at my video, look where I’ve been!” Back then everybody was a bit more like, “Oh, I got a place, I’m not telling.” Someone would ask you, “How was it?” And you’d say, “Nah, it was shitty, it was no good.” That doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s like, [rabid voice] “Duuude, it was going off! Look at my video!” So back then it was all kinda hush hush and nobody was really advertising.
LM: How do you find out about a wave like this back then?
PM: You’d tell your friends and shit, but it’s not like it is today where you’re telling the whole world. You know, you’d hear whispers here and there. I think I actually first heard about this place from a guy I used to travel with down in Mex. So I came and checked it out. And back then it was a good call because there was no one here. I said, “Man, I’m gonna hang here and milk it ’til it’s done.” And it’s about done [laughing].
LM: That’s what I always think about, if only I could have been around during that era in surfing. Like, I was born in 1984, three years after you first came to Indonesia [Pablo laughs]. Why couldn’t I have been born 20 years earlier!
PM: Yeah, that was a good era. But then again, it wasn’t easy, man. I’ll tell you what, if everybody had to do what we did back then to get here, there wouldn’t be two thirds of the people surfing out here now. I’m telling you, 95 percent of the people wouldn’t do that these days. It took hours to hike out here. It took forever just to get from the ferry down to where you hiked out. The road was just a mess of potholes. And then you had to carry your boards, your backpack, your tent, your food, your water. I mean it was hard work. There were times where I would have to bury all my shit in the sand!
LM: Bury your shit?
PM: Yeah, because I wanted to leave but I wasn’t gonna carry all my shit out. Like if I needed to leave for a visa run and there was no one here to leave my shit with. We’d look after each other’s stuff. There were these two Kiwi guys, Nick and Chris, they were some of the original guys who were around here forever. But sometimes there was no one around to watch your stuff. There weren’t any Indos living here at the time, and fishermen would come in and out occasionally, so I actually buried my boards and my food in a big ole hole in the sand so I wouldn’t have to lug it all out.
LM: That’s hardcore.
PM: And back then there was no Internet, so you would come out here and it could be flat for weeks. I’ve sat here plenty of weeks with nothing! People now, they go one day here with no waves and say, “Oh fuck it’s flat, ahhh! Back to Bali!” It’s like, dude, are you serious?
LM: Do you ever surf any other waves in Indo?
PM: Not really. I cruised around. I went up to One Palm and camped out there on the beach for a while, like in ’93 or something. But it’s so isolated there and a pretty dangerous wave to be camping on. If you get hurt out there you could really get in trouble. I was never one to really run around and chase swells. I’d rather just hang here and wait for a window here and there.
LM: What would you guys eat out here back then?
PM: You’d bring out your basics, like rice and noodles. You didn’t have a real good diet, but you don’t need too much to survive. I spearfish, so every day I could always eat fish, pretty much. But it was funny because there would be other guys showing up sometimes—it wasn’t like nobody else was showing up—and be like, “Yeah, we’re gonna stay here for two weeks.” And we’d be looking at ’em like, yeah right. After two days of it being flat they’d be like, “Dude, we’re out of here, you want this stuff?” So you basically had guys bringing in food for you [laughing]. We used to get all kinds of stuff from those guys.
LM: How did you get your water?
PM: We had a well out the back here. So that was a daily ritual, you’d go to the well and boil your water for the day. The water was ok, it was drinkable. But you definitely had to boil it. Every night you would boil your big thing of water so you had water for the next day. There was all kinds of shit to do. It wasn’t like you were sitting around twiddling your thumbs.
LM: Have you ever been up to the Mentawai?
PM: Never been up there. I have some friends who have boats and shit up there, but I’ve never been. Maybe one day [laughs]. This friend of mine was trying to get me on a boat trip. He said, “I’ll pay the 800-dollar deposit and all you have to do is come up with two grand.” [Laughing]. Like I got two grand to spend for ten days on a boat. I don’t think so [more laughter]. So I didn’t go. Maybe one day I’ll go up there, but…nah, when I’m done I’ll just pack it and leave.
LM: How do you know when you’re done?
PM: It’ll be the crowds. It won’t be because I want to go or I’m over it or anything. It’s more because of the whole atmosphere of being in the water. Guys talking shit and getting dropped in on and shit like that. I don’t need to deal with that. I don’t need to be stressing about getting waves.
LM: Other than the crowds, what has been the biggest change you’ve noticed here?
PM: Oh, this place was beautiful out here, man. All over these hills it was trees. Years ago I’d never been up here. You literally couldn’t walk up this hill, the forest was that thick. That road that you drive in on now was just a little footpath that was actually made by the Japanese. The Japanese had a post out by the lighthouse there where they had cannons pointing out to the straits [dating back to the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II]. The cannons are still there, way out past that far lighthouse.
LM: So why does this place look like a dust bowl now?
PM: When the local people came in that first year—I never understood how they allowed the people to come in [Deserts is located in what is ostensibly a national park]—it looked like complete Armageddon. They chopped down everything, every living tree that was here. All these coconut and banana trees are new. Everything you see growing here now wasn’t there before. There used to be big beautiful trees and they just hacked it and sold the wood and burned it. It looked like a battlefield. It was sad. Now they farm peanuts, tobacco, beans, and stuff.
LM: Are you married?
PM: Nope, just me.
LM: Ever been married?
PM: No [laughing]. Ain’t nobody gonna put up with me. I got my family. Somehow they all ended up in Austin, Texas, so I’ll go down there and visit them for a few months every year and then head down to Mex. It’s pretty trippy going to Texas after being here for six months. I would rather not, but you gotta do your family obligations. I’d rather be by the beach, but it’s alright. I used to do more time in Mexico because I used to fix dings down there to make money. So I used to go straight from here down to Mex and go fix dings there. But I taught a couple of the local kids how to fix dings, so now I don’t have a job there anymore [laughing]. Same like here. But that’s okay, I can work other ways, no problem.
LM: How else do you make money?
PM: I have a thing with my sister. We make jewelry and stuff. I take some stuff back from here and sell it there [Texas].
LM: Are you on Facebook?
PM: Mmm, sorry [chuckling].
LM: Social media has become really popular in the surfing world.
PM: Yeah, like I said, I’d rather just catch my waves and not worry about that stuff. It’s just a different mindset, I guess. I’m not getting a wave and posting anywhere and showing everybody. I’m from a different school. Back in the day my friends used to joke that they’d always ask me how the surf’s been over here, and I’d tell them, “Oh, it’s been shitty.” And they’d say, “Dude, the surf is always shitty, huh!” So I’m more that school where I’m not too much on advertising. It’s the complete opposite now. And it’s kinda strange to me because the guys are complaining that it’s crowded. You can’t have it both ways, posting all your shit and showing everybody and then you wonder why there’s 100 guys in the lineup (laughing).
LM: Have you ever worked a nine-to-five job?
PM: Man, I did teach school for a while in Brazil. It didn’t last too long, probably a year and a half. I pretty much haven’t been back to Brazil since I’ve been coming here. Basically, my work the first ten to 12 years I was here was fixing boards. And I made a good living off it. There was guys coming in and if you broke your board, you had no option, I was the only repair guy around. No Indonesians anywhere. I never got rich, but it was plenty. I always left Indonesia with more money than I got here with.
LM: I wish I could say that. Bali is expensive now.
PM: I mean, what can you spend out here, you know? There’s no rent. You’re buying some veggies and rice. And then I went to Mexico and fixed boards down there too. So in that way I was avoiding a real job. Fixing dings is kind of a pain in the ass, but it paid the bills for a lot of years and it was a good thing. But there comes a time when the Indo kids are out here, and I’m not gonna sit here competing with the Indo kids.
LM: How much money do you need a year to get by?
PM: I’m pretty well known for getting by on not much [laughing]. I can do a year on probably like…(thinking) four grand, five grand tops.
LM: Shut up.
PM: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t really party. And I basically hang here. So where are you gonna waste money here? I don’t go to Bali much. I did for a while. I had a few girlfriends in Bali, where I’m running back and forth, but that kinda never works out. And before you know it they want you getting a job and staying over there more, and that’s not gonna happen.
LM: Was there ever a girl where you thought, Oh man, I might end up marrying this one?
PM: A little bit. Yeah, I had a Mexican girlfriend and she was pretty special. But that meant that I was basically gonna stay in Mexico and I wasn’t gonna do that.
LM: What does your family think of your lifestyle?
PM: You wonder, because they’re pretty conservative. They’re Southern Baptist missionaries, but they’re really good people. My mom for a while, you know, she wanted grandkids, she wanted me to get married. And then all my friends, they all got married and had kids, and then before you know it they’re all getting divorced. So in the end she was like, maybe you did know what you were doing. They never really gave me too much grief. They’ve been pretty supportive of my choices. We’re a pretty close family. I just got two sisters. They don’t surf. I think in the end they’re pretty good with it. And I always come home with some pretty good stories so it keeps things entertaining.
LM: Do you have any regrets?
PM: Me? Nah, I had a great time [laughing]. I’d do it all over for a joke. It was a good call. The shame about surfing now is that what we had here, what I experienced, it doesn’t exist anymore. It might kind of exist somewhere, there are still some undiscovered spots or whatever. But for a wave of this quality, to be able to surf it with just your friends for months on end, for years on end…it doesn’t exist. I’m not sure exactly how productive I’ve been, contributing to the world or whatever [laughing], but I had lots of fun.
LM: When you get a really good barrel now, is it still just as fun?
PM: Obviously, you get jaded. You get used to such a high level of a wave. When I go to Mexico I gotta remember that. And here too. Sometimes you get kinda bummed because you see a guy just get kind of a shitty little one and the guy is stoked and he’s yelling and he’s screaming. Sometimes you’re like, What a kook. But then you think, Man, I wish I could be like that. If I could get stoked on a wave like that it would be great. But, obviously, after getting so many waves here you do get jaded.
LM: Is there one barrel that stands out in your memory?
PM: Man, there actually is one, yeah. There’s a whole bunch of ‘em that are pretty good, but there’s one that stands out that I don’t think I’ll get a much better one than that [laughing]. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
LM: What do you think this place will look like in another 20 years?
PM: That’s anybody’s guess. Lombok right now is pretty much just blowing up. Bali is so crowded and so overdeveloped and Lombok is just starting. They just opened the new airport last year in Kuta Lombok. And there’s a beach right down here called Makaki where they’ve already kicked everybody out for a development. Because a lot of the land around here is government land.
LM: This is actually a national park, right?
PM: It’s supposed to be. These people came in probably like ten or 11 years ago. And there’s been rumors over the years that the government was going to kick the people out and they were going to build a big development here. It’s sad to say for these people. They’re farmers, they’re poor people. They don’t have anything. They came out here farming the land and then they realized they could make money by renting little rooms and making food for the surfers.
LM: Think there will be a Blue Point Hotel here some day? Or another Dreamland?
PM: Who knows what’s going to happen, but if I had to guess I’d say the local people here aren’t going to win over the big money. Some big hotel or something will come in and kick them out. They’ll get compensated, I would imagine. But they’re fighting. They’re trying to get their titles to the land. They’re convinced they’re gonna get titles, and hey, maybe they will. But there’s a lot of big projects going up around here. This one around the corner is supposed to have a golf course, and there’s another one up at Sekotong that’s supposed to be huge. So the government’s got big plans for Lombok. Who knows what will happen and when it will happen. I mean, this [the warung/losmen village] could go on for another five years.
LM: I’m surprised someone hasn’t tried to build a luxury surf camp here already.
PM: They’ll probably build a huge resort here. Probably with an infinity pool. I can see it happening. Hopefully they let me stick around and be the janitor or something [laughing], groundskeeper. Hopefully someone will put in a good word for me.