I set out Saturday afternoon in a caravan of three vans to experience the Bono waves (or Seven Ghost Waves), a local phenomenon in the Riau region of Sumatra. A small group of teachers from our school was asked to participate in an outreach program in Teluk Meranti, a river village where the waves occur. While there we helped with a coloring contest at a school, played games with the children and gave them packages of school supplies and snacks. The community is very small and quite poor. Dengue Fever is common due to contaminated water resources and they have very few commodities.
Located on the Kampar River, the Bono waves are actually a tidal bore, or series of tidal waves. The waves occur approximately two times a year, from September-November and again around May. Now, thanks to modern technologies, scientists are able to predict when they will occur, resulting in local tourists and surfers from around the world having the opportunity to see these mystical waves (according to local beliefs, the waves have supernatural powers).
The drive to Teluk Meranti was an adventure on its own. For the first hour we traveled on paved, winding, roads but after that it got much more extreme. First the pavement gave way to rocky, rutted roads cut out of mountains of clay. The air was thick with dust and conversation was worthless due to the loud chattering of the vehicles on the uneven ground. Eventually the rocks gave way to muddy, ruddy pathways filled with mucky holes and washed out edges. Our driver swerved all over the road attempting to keep our vehicle from getting stuck. And toward the end of the drive, it was a matter of clenching your teeth and praying that the wheels kept turning and propelling us forward through the small lakes of water, not to mention over rickety, wooden two-track bridges.
The waves develop in groups and travel distances of over 30 kilometers. There are accounts of surfers riding these waves for the entirety of these distances! Many surfers refer to them as the chocolate waves due to the brown coloring of the water. The water is quite dirty due to the fact that the river communities use it for everything from washing dishes and their bodies to brushing their teeth (yuck!) and going to the bathroom, however, the earth in the area is all peat jungle and clay, which also adds to the coloring of the water.
We arrived in tiny a neighboring village of Teluk Meranti on Saturday night and stayed with a local family in their home. Pak Rasheed and his wife kindly invited myself and 11 other female teachers, staff members and company workers into their home for the night. They shared stories, prepared meals for us and lent us space on their floors to sleep. Their home was quite “posh” for the area with its running water, generator-run electricity and the presence of a television. Most homes in the area have no running water, no electricity and are often flooded by the surging waters.
The Bono waves are feared by the locals for their ability to sink ships and cause deaths due to flooding. While we were in Teluk Meranti we experienced the far reaching effects of the tidal bore, seeing the area where we were standing quickly be swallowed up by the river. When we first glimpsed the wave, about a kilometer in the distance, we were standing at the edge of the river, about 3 meters above river level. About five minutes later the areas where we were standing were being flooded by the rushing incoming tidewater. Within minutes I was standing about 20 meters from where we started and I was still standing in over a meter of water. It is said that the Bono waves can reach as far as 130km inland.
I felt honored being invited into Pak Rasheed’s home and experiencing what life is like in a small Indonesian community. The households wake up early for prayers at 5:30 a.m., because it is a Muslim community. And on Sunday morning, along with two other teachers, I went on a short walk through the community before we headed to Teluk Meranti to help with the school program. We walked along the crumbling cement and mud road that comprised the only way of passage through the town. The air smelled fresh and there was a feeling of serenity all around. Along the river people could be seen washing dishes, scrubbing clothes and taking baths or brushing their teeth. Most wore traditional batik cloth wrapped around their bodies with t-shirts and sandals.
The company that runs my school is currently trying to purchase land in Teluk Meranti. This has been a sensitive subject that has resulted in backlash from the local communities, as the purchase would change the cultural and natural landscape forever. I can only assume it is for this reason that programs, like the one I helped with over the weekend, exist. And while I am sad at the thought of all the peat land being taken over by a large corporation, I have seen the poverty and the lack of resources for living a healthy life along the Kampar River and have read that the company is offering to provide for these needs. As noted in this blog story for Reuters, In Dengue Infested Indonesian Village, Clinic or Trees, it’s a difficult issue to consider when you start weighing the importance of access to healthcare and education against saving local peat forests and native traditions.
The school in Teluk Meranti had classrooms with wooden slat walls with spaces wide enough to see perfectly into the next room and broken chairs. The schoolyard consisted of a dirt patch the center for playing. The rooms were dark, lacking electricity or sufficient natural light, and a layer of dust covered everything. The schoolchildren were overjoyed to the receive crayons, notebooks and snacks provided by the community outreach program. They also were excited to receive t-shirts with the name and logo of the corporation printed prominently across the back.
As a current employee of the company, I often find myself in moral dilemma when it comes to the state of the jungles in Sumatra and the state of my paycheck. As the saying goes, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, but the jungles in the Riau region have paid the price. They were deforested 20 years ago, destroying habitats that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. It’s a true manmade tragedy. At the same time, the children I teach deserve an education and their parents need their mill jobs to feed their families. And in Teluk Meranti the community deserves access to school supplies, basic medical care and drinking water. So while the problems are easy to identify, unfortunately, it seems, there are no easy answers because while one hand is doing the feeding, the other is destroying habitats that can never be replaced.