Despite feeling ready to move on from Japan, arriving in “real” Asia was a shock to the system. The cool, calm efficiency of Japan was replaced by the humid, frenzy of humanity of Kuala Lumpur where we spent a night, before arriving in the 5th most populous country on the planet, Indonesia. Indonesia is our final host country, and we were bound for the remote province of Aceh in Northern Sumatra. Quite how we ended up here was a bit of a chance, and largely down to the presence of Tom, the amazing volunteer who works with owners Jane and Luke on the sustainable development program linked with Mahi Mahi resort.
When we left the UK in July 2018 we intentionally left the last 3 months of the trip open and devoid of our characteristic obsessive planning. Charlotte and I feel exceptionally lucky that we have been able to have this year away with the girls. We are also acutely aware that our girls are growing up in a world of North London privilege that far exceeded that of our own upbringings, and this travel was hoped to expose them to the real world. As the trip went on we realised that in the way we were travelling we were pretty sheltered from real life, so we investigated volunteering as a family as a way to get closer to the sharp edge of life. Of course we think our kids are AMAZING, it turns out that most volunteer organisations beg to differ, and that it is surprisingly hard to find somewhere where you can volunteer with under 16s. To this end, we were excited and happy to find the development work at Mahi Mahi, which is balanced between volunteering and eco-tourism that really works for a family.
Mahi Mahi is a surf resort cum sustainable development outpost on the sunset facing coast of the island of Simeulue (pronounced Sim-eh-loo, rather surprisingly). The island’s 80,000 residents, are settled entirely on the coast; with a family/village/tribal legacy that has created 5 different languages on this island alone. Mahi mahi is the primary funder of a turtle conservation project on a nearby uninhabited island that uses rangers to protect the nests from the pre-existing 100% poaching/predation. It is also an outpost of education about nature, and a pioneer of establishing sustainable business in a country whose population has doubled to 260m in the last 30 years, thereby pressuring its valuable rainforest and marine resources.
As volunteers we bunk in basic accommodation made up of reused huts donated after the 2004 tsunami. These are remarkably workable, though fiendishly hot at night, so the four of us get a bit of a sweat on as we bunk down together. Fortunately for Rob, he is spared the pleasure of being our roomie, and has his own room a few huts down. As thunderstorms abound at this time of year it makes planning volunteering work rigidly particularly hard, so we are forcing ourselves to chill out, take things as they come and embrace the pace of island life.
A curve ball for family Monico is that Sumatra is conservatively Islamic, with a topping of Sharia Law. This is a struggle for the girls, as the requirement is to cover up to below the knee and the elbow to go out of the perimeter of the resort. This would be fine to do in England, but here it has been 32°C in the day with a heavy mist of humidity hanging over the sea. Me, being a man, am struggling anyway, and have taken up sweating for England as my chosen pastime. Charlotte in particular, as well as me and the girls have feminist issues as the men don’t have to cover up to nearly the same extent. This all said, clearly conservative Islam is a hugely successful framework for the social fabric, and the populate continues to expand calmly here, with more new places of worship under construction (mosques are popping up like they are going out of fashion) than anywhere we know of.
This place is also our first encounter with that particularly chilled species of human: the surfer. There are amateurs and pros, the main difference seems to be that pros spend a lot more time on their hair (we’re talking bulk discount on blonde highlights), and a lot more time on their phones … the fans won’t wait. There is a lot to like about surfers really. For those who have the bug it is tantamount to a religion, with riding the peak here while connecting with nature a moment of nirvana. For the rest of us mere mortals we are just happy that they love great coffee and healthy food, to which Jean and Luke who run Mahi Mahi have tended to amazingly despite the resort being located at the edge of the known world.
So we say a hearty “Halo” to Indonesia, our home for the last 3 months of the trip, and roll up our sleeves (but not to far girls) to get involved.