Surf's Up on a Geologic Time Bomb

The string of islands off the western coast of Sumatra is a surfing mecca with crystal blue water, clean swells and coral reefs created by volcanic activity.

The Indonesian islands also happen to be sitting on a geologic time bomb.

The Mentawai Islands have been in a state of emergency since the end of last month.

Earthquakes measuring up to 7.2 on the Richter scale have rattled the region, five months after consecutive temblors registering at 8.4 and 7.9 collapsed homes and destroyed entire villages.

Local tsunami alerts have led terrified villagers to flee to higher ground.

Estimates now show that 10 percent of evacuees still live in the hills.

The village of Berimanua is a ghost town due to major damage from the earlier quakes. Houses are empty and what used to be the local school is abandoned.

A few villagers, wild pigs, and a cat blind in one eye remain.

"Trauma, trauma," Hendrik says in the coastal village in which he grew up. He points toward a neighboring town, Pukarayat, explaining that's where everyone moved. "Where there is an evacuation site," he says.

Hendrik asks for cash to pay for rice and nails to help rebuild.

While many have fled to higher ground, there is one group not afraid to be here.

"I came to Mentawai to surf some crazy waves," says tourist Jason, one of several surfers who only gave their first names.

"I think I've caught approximately 48.2 waves," says Mark, another tourist.

They list local surf spots including world-class Hollow Trees and Lance's Left, as well as Maccaronies, Telescopes and Scarecrows — and a few other secret waves they wouldn't reveal.

The surfers are here to catch the ride of their life, but many are also here to help.

"That's what struck us, the needlessness of the suffering, the ridiculousness of the suffering," says physician Dave Jenkins, founder of the relief group SurfAid International.

The death rate for children in the worst affected areas is up to 25%, mostly due to preventable disease, according to SurfAid. Most of the Mentawai people are affected by malaria.

"They don't know etiology [the origin of disease]; they don't know the cause of disease," Jenkins says. "They don't know the value of nutrition. They just think that food is to satisfy hunger."

The idea for the aid group first sparked after a hedonistic morning of perfect exotic surfing when the New Zealander was on holiday and found the lifestyle of the villagers a stark contrast.

Paul Riehle, a lawyer and president of the United States SurfAid board, said the "villages, some of them, are almost pre-historic in nature."

At "one of the villages we went to on the island of Siberut, we saw a shaman dance and on the walls of the hut were the skulls of the monkeys and pigs that had been killed and eaten," he says on his third trip here.

SurfAid treks into remote villages, where even hand-washing is a new concept, offering site-specific programs aimed at improving health.

They provide cooking classes about nutrition, give away insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria, develop emergency preparedness plans, and teach skills to construct earthquake-proof houses.

"Our objective is to make SurfAid redundant as soon as possible," says Harry Hodge, co-founder of Quiksilver Europe and a SurfAid board member.

"As years have gone by, the Mentawai people have just accepted their fate," he says. "We've had to change that pattern of thinking to say you can control your destiny when you live in this region."

The work isn't easy. Just getting to the more than 200 villages is a challenge.

"We do around 1,000 nautical miles a week, ferrying our staff all over the place," Jenkins says of the marine environment famous for storms.

Padang, the closest big city, is a 10-hour ferry or 40-minute small plane ride away.

"Then you get to the village and that's another risk again," Jenkins says. "Your nutrition falls off; your hygiene levels fall off. It is really hot and humid and you have no communication system unless you have a satellite phone."

Not to mention the risks of venomous snakes, dengue fever, malaria and typhoid.

"At the end of the day, you either do this or you don't," Jenkins says matter-of-factly.

As relief efforts in the villages continue, charter surf boats arrive from around the world.

"There are places here where the waves are just flawless," As you watch them they just peel down the line in perfect position and sometimes you just drop in a wave, and you're in the barrel, and off you go," Riehle, US SurfAid board president, says.

While surfers continue their daily search for the perfect wave, there is an undercurrent of fear here in paradise, because no one can say for sure when the next big earthquake will hit.

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