TBT: Gerry Lopez Remembers Surfing Before Plastic

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following essay first appeared on our website in 2011.)  

WHAT A MESS

Remembering a World Before Plastic Pollution

By Gerry Lopez

I spent a lot of time surfing a spot in Indonesia called G-Land. Remotely located on the edge of the Alas Purwo National Park, on the southeastern tip of Java, it was, relatively speaking, far from civilization. Actually, as the Indonesian sea eagle flies, it was only about 15 kilometers from the nearest village but with the terrain and local inhabitants in between, it might as well have been a million miles. Residents of that area included the Java tiger, herds of wild boars, the Indonesian wild water buffalo, the Komodo dragon, more deadly snakes than one could shake a stick at… well, I often wondered what I was doing out there with no more protection than a few surfboards.

In the mid to late 1970s, we were permitted to build a temporary camp with some bamboo tree houses and a shack to cook in. The lack of human presence made the beaches —the only area we frequented—absolutely pristine. We brought our drinking water in glass bottles, the only containers available at that time. We dug latrines out in the jungle and burned all of our garbage. When the coming of the monsoons heralded the end of the surf season, we left.

When we returned the next year, it was like no one had ever been there. One time, we discovered a mound of rubber slippers in a little nook of one of the rocky sections along the shore. Except for some broken pieces of wood that could have been part of a boat or some huge teak log with sawn ends, there was nothing else to indicate the hand of man. The wood we salvaged to use for our camp, and the slippers came in handy to walk out on the exposed reef if we got too impatient to wait for the high tide to come in. I remember how, back in Bali, instead of using tape to secure a package, tied coconut leaves or vines served the purpose. The natural functioning and simplicity of the G-Land camping made me endeavor to leave as few tracks and as small a wake as possible, in a figurative way of living.

We enjoyed that simplistic surf-camp lifestyle for about three more seasons. Then one year, the water came in plastic bottles, not the glass ones anymore. In the ferry towns of Banyuwangi and Gilimanuk on the Bali side, we noticed that food sold to those awaiting the ferries, previously wrapped in banana leaf, now came in plastic bags. When we got to the fishing village of Grajagan, we saw the shoreline littered with plastic garbage. A fishing boat dropped us ashore on the far side of the bay and, at first, it looked as though the area around our surf camp was as devoid of humanity as ever. Later on, when we walked further up the beach to paddle out to the break, where the high tide swirled the flotsam and jetsam, we hung our heads in shame.

By nautical definition, flotsam is the floating wreckage or cargo of a ship; jetsam is something jettisoned to lighten a ship’s load. Either would seem to have a place washed ashore on this Robinson Crusoe-like beach but what we found was neither. Instead, it was simply trash, almost entirely of plastic packaging of some sort. Clear or colored, it seemed infinitely more dirty and unwelcome than the rubber slippers from season’s past. When we asked our camp boys to help us gather this rubbish and burn it, they looked at us as if we had completely lost our minds.

The splendid waves of G-Land never seemed to change and we enjoyed surfing them over the next 20 years. It was a surf paradise beyond compare. And it opened my eyes to how quickly an absolutely pristine, totally natural place can become a mess. Plastic is a problem for all of us. It creates toxic pollution during its manufacture, use and disposal. Recycling is not a solution, every bit of plastic made, still exists. 


Photos: Gerry Lopez at Grajagan, Indonesia (above at right with Peter McCabe). Credit: Don King.