Rote’s Second Wave

Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia Magazine – April 2010

Diego Arrarte hangs up his cell and accelerates his moderately dented late-model Toyota pick-up past hip-high stone fencing, and thatched lontar-palm shacks as we speed down the white earth roads of Nembrala Town – the tourist epicenter of little-known Rote island. Seems his guest, a hilarious, middle-aged Argentinean surfer, misjudged the road to Bo’a beach. We see the van straight away, its wheels swallowed in white powder. The guests are harder to spot, having abandoned the beast and ventured out onto one of the most beautiful beaches on earth.

Framed by a black granite bluff on one side, Bo’a’s two-fingers of sand curves south, hugging the coastline for miles, looping like a rubber band around a series of six limestone and granite headlands, alternating between pink and white sand. The bay is glassy and striped turquoise in the shallows fading into oceanic azure deeper out where narrow fishing boats flying blue sails, carve the channel, and ride the currents. Yeah, it’s good to get stuck sometimes.

I first experienced the rugged poetry of Rote six months ago. What I found was an island on the edge of global perception, with a pot-holed highway, parched but hopeful orchards, spontaneous stone pile fencing, whitewashed A-framed churches and a foaming blast of blue sea crashing on Nembrala’s shores. That was when I first heard the whispers about longtime Bali expats who were slowly but surely buying up the beachfront. Among them, author Dick Lewis and famed green designer Linda Garland. Over exquisite dinners of fresh seafood – Diego’s partner Maria Pinero happens to be a trained chef – figures were tossed about and I was astonished to hear that beachfront land could be secured for just US$15,000.

In 1614 Rote’s four kings traveled to Batavia (Java) to study religion and politics at the hands of Dutch colonists. They returned with a new Protestant fervor, began building churches and eventually conspired with the Dutch to conquer nearby West Timor. The Rotenese were always gifted horsemen and warriors, which is why it should have come as no surprise when they eventually expelled the Dutch before WWII.

Afterwards, Rote remained almost completely isolated from the rest of Indonesia, let alone the west, until a former world surf champion, Felipe Pomar, 67, landed on Nembrala beach 23 years ago. The only surfer in the water he’d regularly paddle out to 20-foot faces alone. Pomar has returned to Nembrala every year since. In 2002, he met Diego who was working as a builder in Kauai and asked him to help build and manage the Malole Surf House, a surf lodge they now co-own.

“It took us three years to get it done,” says Diego. “Back in 2002 there was no phone coverage on the island, only a dodgy ferry from Kupang followed by a five-hour bus ride down a horrible road just to get here.” Which meant that building logistics and supply sourcing was extremely difficult.

“We had to pay our dues, but what kept me going was the surf. Anytime I got frustrated, I would just get in the water.”

Surf remains the island’s chief draw, and in the dry season international surfers descend in packs, but there is a new trend developing, as well. Diego calls it “the second wave.”

Non-surfers like me, are starting to explore Rote and considering investing in a wild slice of paradise. To that end Diego links me up with Elias. It is Elias who has helped Diego, Felipe, and even Linda Garland purchase and lease tracts of land south of Nembrala. He leads me on an adventurous, off-road motorbike ride north of town. We traverse a dry river bed, navigate low-lying coastal dunes, dodge roaming goat herds, and old men with coconuts slung over their shoulders before arriving on a plot of land backed by a coconut grove, where seaweed is laid out, drying in the sun.

“This land is for sale,” says Elias. “There is no electric, but you can dig beneath the sand and build a foundation.” I take a good look at the wide beach right out my imaginary front door and consider what it would be like to live here in sweet desolation. I stroll down to the water’s edge; a fine white coat of sand dusts my feet, the dainty etchings of tiny seabird toes visible in the wet sand.

The dream is still burning in my brain, when Elias leads me to a second plot. This one is slightly smaller, across the road from the beach, and surrounded by a cluster of lontar palms – the tree that has sustained the Rotenese for generations. Rotenese use the leaves and wood to build homes and weave hats and sandals, but it’s the milky, protein-rich nirah (sap) tapped from the crown of the lontar that nourishes the islanders. As luck would have it, the landowner is tending a palm basket sloshing with nirah, dangling from a tree. I take a gulp and realize that it’s not nirah at all, but fermented laru or wine. The three of us sip wine and talk business. The landowner wants just $10,000 for his property. Could paradise really come this cheap?

Later that night, over yet another of Maria’s amazing dinners – this one featuring fresh mackerel sashimi, fried calamari, roma tomatoes stuffed with white fish, boiled and buttered potatoes, and a green salad – Diego explains hidden costs, like title searches, lawyer fees to set up an Indonesian corporation so I could truly own my land, and solar power. Then there’s construction. “You have to be patient and be prepared to follow up, but when it’s all done you could probably have a home on the beach for something like US$40,000,” he says.

After dinner I walk along Nembrala beach, stare skyward and see millions of stars, clouds of galaxies, clusters of astrologies. Waves pound in the distance. Colorful dugouts bob on inky midnight tides. “Living and building something in paradise isn’t always easy,” warns Diego, “but if you decide to do it you’ll get to live in a beautiful place that’s in the middle of the end of the world.”