Medewi is home to some the longest waves in Bali and its most congenial surfing community. Set three hour's drive from the original surfing mecca of Kuta on the island little-visited west coast, the tiny village offers glimpses of the Bali of yesteryear: emerald-green rice fields, local children swimming in creeks, bamboo shacks where you can get a meal or a massage for a few dollars and long empty volcanic beaches littered with coconut husks and palm fronds.
Then there are the waves: curved mirrors of water ranging from two to 10 feet, including the longest left-hand point break on the Island of the Gods. "When conditions are right, you can ride waves for up to one-and-a-half minutes here," says Mike Holzrichter, the Austrian manager of Medewi Surf Homestay.
But things have changed in Medewi since Holzrichter chanced upon this surfer's paradise nearly a decade ago. "Back then, there would be maybe 20 people on the point – mostly locals and a couple of blow-ins from Kuta. But today there can be up to 100 surfers on any given day. And they're all hungry for waves. They forget the rules. It makes it hard to chill in the line-up."
Muklis, a professional surfer who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, is also nostalgic about Medewi's good old days. "Back when I was a kid, it was super mellow, good fun vibes, with everyone in the line-up talking to one another and sharing waves. The tourists respected the locals and that is how it should be. But nowadays tourists are so much more aggressive. They all want to get waves and forget what surfing is all about."
Projectiles and drop-ins
Holzrichter and Muklis are not waxing lyrical, as I discover when I paddle out to Medewi's left-hand at high-tide during the August peak season. The waves are fun but not challenging in a real way, breaking slowly and consistently, which makes them perfect for beginners.
And therein lies the problem: many of the tourists who come to Medewi know nothing about or care little for surfing etiquette. Not two minutes after I get into the water, I see a beginner make a concerted but flawed effort to stand up on her board that sees her quickly wiped out. But instead of pulling in her leg rope she lets it go, turning her surfboard into a dangerous overwater projectile. Then I hear a scream followed by a fiery round of expletives as said surfboard scores a direct hit on a local's face. Because she's a girl and because she apologises with haste, the local, who isn't injured, lets it go. But in many other surfing spots around the world, the incident could easily have escalated into fisticuffs.
"Down in Uluwatu," Muklis says of the world-famous surf break set under the soaring limestone cliffs of Bali's southernmost peninsula, fights between tourists and locals happen every day. But in Medewi they happen only once a year. We are village people so you really have to push us to make us mad. The last time it happened was a few months ago when a tourist dropped in on me three times in a row. It didn't end well for him."
'Dropping in' refers to a surfer in the line-up who catches or tries to catch a wave another person is already surfing. It's considered a crime in the surf world and the first things any surfing instructor worth their salt teaches their students not to do.
The Canggu conundrum
Canggu, pronounced 'Chan-goo', lies one hour's drive north of Kuta Beach. Ten years ago it didn't look too different to Medewi, a coastal village crisscrossed with rice fields where surfers looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Kuta went to chill out and ride empty waves.
But as Bali rode the tourism wave that now sees a whopping 5 million holidaymakers descend upon the island every year, mass tourism hit Canggu and the village began to change. Today there are more luxury villas and cocktail bars than there are rice fields in Canggu, while the beachfront is lined with dozens upon dozens of surfboard hire shops and surf schools. A number of these businesses offer day trips to Medewi, stuffing up to eight beginners and only one instructor and into a van.
"I don't mind if surfers come and stay in a local guesthouse for a few days. It's good for us and gives us money to send our children to school," Muklis says. "But those who come up just for the day with surf camps from Canggu, they don't contribute anything to the local economy. This is the kind of crowd we don't want in Medewi. On some days we get not just one van but four or five of vans full of Canggu people crowding up our waves. And because the instructor-to-student ratio is so low, we get all these beginners dropping in on us and letting go of their boards."
Give back to the community
Muklis and other members of the Medewi Boardriders Club – a group that holds weekly clean-ups on the beach and teaches local kids how to surf – have tried speaking to some of the instructors from Canggu about the problem. "But they're just employees, they have no say in what they do and if they complain to their bosses they could lose their jobs," Muklis says. "Their bosses never come up here. They hide in Canggu."
The solution, Mike opines, lies in affirmative action by the tourists themselves. "There are plenty of surf camps in Medewi," he says. "They can rent a car or motorbike in Canggu or just catch a taxi – it's not too expensive. That way, their money helps the local community."
Muklis concurs: "For sure that is the best way. And here the instructors care more and teach them the rules. That way we'll get respect: respect for locals and respect for our waves."
Have you experienced a similar paradise suffer the tirade of tourism? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.