The Young Do Surf Travel Differently To The Old
COASTALWATCH | Feature
GODSPEED, MY FRIEND
Surfers love to travel. Whether it’s the desire to physically feel the places that otherwise exist on our screens – the North Shore, the Mentawais, South America – or to lose ourselves on a coast that no-one back home can claim, board bags might be the most common form of oversize luggage at international airports. Is it just bragging rights that drives us to do it? Frequently, we wind up leaving behind better waves at home. Or is something deeper at play? In a recent interview, principal trumpeter for the San Diego Symphony Ed Carroll was asked why he loved touring so much. He answered,“Because you’re moving through different languages, but you’re speaking the same language.”
It’s a subtle idea, but one that translates to any field of human endeavour where people are joined by a vocabulary that’s unspoken and unwritten but mutually understood. Music, art, surgery, coding. Surfing.
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Like most things, the young do surf travel differently to the old. And those who do it for work do it differently to those travelling purely for pleasure. We all accept the risks: there’s a statistical background level of danger that attends any kind of surfing, and any kind of travel: sickness, reef impacts, car travel, air travel, drowning, and sharks (probably in descending order of prominence) are among the risks we take on without much thought.
But there’s another variety of danger that’s barely considered until a tragedy unfolds: the terrible things that human beings are willing to do to each other. Sometimes travellers are breathtakingly negligent: Michael Scott Moore, an American surf journalist, was kidnapped by pirates in Somalia in 2012 and held for 977 days. How did it happen? He’d flown there specifically to find pirates, with a security detail and advance media. The gangs promptly obliged him by snatching him at gunpoint off the street. Mariners have to ply the seas off Somalia to make a living. Moore went there by choice. After his release he gave copious interviews, posed for photos, and will no doubt release a book.
Sometimes travellers are not negligent but poorly informed. Sometimes they’re so immersed in the rhythms of travel that precautionary measures seem to cut against the spirit of the thing.
In November last year a burnt-out Buick campervan was found in isolated farm country in Sinaloa State, the notorious base for Mexico’s drug cartels. It contained two bodies, burned beyond recognition. For the local authorities it was a sadly routine matter: in September last year the region had recorded 68 homicides. But DNA testing revealed the bodies were those of two West Australian surfers, Dean Lucas and Adam Coleman: surfers, doing what surfers do – hiring a van and driving way out into hard-to-reach places, looking for a good time.
They were both 33, and had driven all the way from Canada down the Baja California Peninsula and across the gulf by ferry to Topolobampo. From there, they were headed to Guadalajara to meet up with Adam’s girlfriend; a 900-kilometre drive parallel to the coast. If you look at a map (Coleman and Lucas were last seen buying one in a supermarket) you can imagine their excitement. It’s a southwest-facing coastline made up of an intricate fretwork of sandspits and points.
According to state prosecutors, the van was intercepted by a gang of bandits driving “a car that flashed police-like lights”. The occupants of that vehicle robbed and murdered them. What’s left behind is unimaginable grief for both families. The question that is difficult, but necessary, to ask is: could this tragedy have been avoided?
The U.S. State Department’s website says: "Travel off the toll roads in remote areas of Sinaloa is especially dangerous and should be avoided." Our own government’s “Smarttraveller” notification is more explicit: “Using toll (cuota) roads may reduce the risk of crime when driving, but you should remain vigilant, particularly… in Sonora, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and border regions as tourists have been attacked on highways in these areas. Avoid driving at night outside of major cities, including on major highways. Incidents of violent carjackings have increased significantly, particularly in northern border areas, but also along the Pacific coast. On occasions these attacks have been carried out by heavily armed gangs posing as police officers. Visitors travelling in large camper vans or sports utility vehicles (SUVs), on roads in and out of the United States, have been targeted by organised crime groups.”
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The ABC’s North America correspondent, Michael Vincent, wrote “My simple reaction is – what were they thinking? I have good friends who are Mexicans who have been travelling on a highway in convoy with their families during broad daylight only to be stopped by dozens of armed men.” Hindsight can be an unfair perspective: the warnings have likely been stepped up since Coleman and Lucas’s tragedy. We’ll never know if they would’ve looked for an advisory, or heeded it.
The Mexican gangs operate indiscriminately. Although a year previously an American motorcycle adventurer, Harry Devert, was found murdered further south in Guerrero, the reality is that tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed (26,000 remain missing) after ten years of narco-violence in the region. Violent attacks on foreign tourists are vanishingly uncommon by comparison with the suffering of Mexicans themselves.
American surf tourists pass through the Baja region in huge numbers every year and are occasionally targets for robberies. Stories of such incidents abound online: shocked and angry Californian surfers seething about the violence of Mexico. Long before Coleman and Lucas’s deaths, Surfer magazine published an account in 2010 of three Californian surfers who were carjacked in Tijuana and only narrowly escaped alive (“I’ll Never Go to Baja Again”, 22 July 2010). The comments thread under the story lit up with invective: one side looking forward to Trump’s wall, the other claiming that arrogant American tourists are better off staying at home, and that America’s appetite for drugs is what created the lethal culture south of the border.
Australian travellers have occasionally been ensnared in political violence, rather than drug violence. On any given day in south-east Asia, thousands of Australians are wandering in or near harm’s way. And it’s always been thus.
Ronald Dean, a bartender, and David Scott, a roadie for a rock band, embarked on a sailing adventure in November 1978. Both were seasoned travellers. Yet they stumbled somehow into disputed waters, assuming they were in Thailand. They’d crossed into Cambodia, and were picked up by a patrol boat carrying the murderous henchmen of the Khmer Rouge.
Imprisoned and tortured, they signed false confessions for Pol Pot’s thugs, saying they were CIA operatives. Scott even claimed Muresk Agricultural College in Northam was a CIA training facility that produced "active probationary CIA agents", and that the members of his band, Bakery, were also agents.
The two men were among about a dozen foreigners, including other sailors, held at a place called Tuol Sleng, or “Hill of the Poisoned Trees”, which claimed the lives of about 16,000 Cambodians. Again, western adventurers numbered in a tiny minority, but received recognition in the media by reason of their nationalities.
A later U.N. war crimes tribunal found that they were fed a gruel of "banana stalk soup" or a little rice. Their toilet was an ammunition case, they were washed with a firehose, beaten, and given electric shocks under interrogation. But once they’d signed the confessions, Dean and Scott were no longer politically useful. The Tribunal heard evidence that one of them “may have been killed on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard ... on an unknown date in 1978. A witness indicated that he observed a westerner being taken to this location and incinerated on a pile of automobile tyres … this prisoner was alive when set alight."
A recent Weekend Australian piece about the men argues that the fanciful references in the confessions were an act of defiance, not desperation. Peter Walker, a former guitarist with Bakery, told the newspaper, "Dave was loyal and showed surprising enterprise and ability. His confession sadly demonstrates that behind the laconic farmer boy was a very creative mind." Another friend said, “I have been to Cambodia ... I just felt haunted by David the whole time I was there."
The reign of the Khmer Rouge, and their control of parts of Cambodia, ground brutally onwards for many years after the deaths of Scott and Dean. Sixteen years later, in July 1994, another young adventurer named David Wilson landed at Phnom Penh. Wilson was a 29-year-old youth worker: in media shorthand “a popular footballer from Seaford”.
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Three weeks later, he and fellow travellers Mark Slater and Jean-Michael Braquet boarded a train for Sihanoukville, which was being developed as a resort at the time. Official warnings were in place, but back then were not available digitally. Did Wilson know of them and disregard them? Was he blissfully ignorant? The questions arise in each of these cases.
“At the time that David travelled to Phnom Penh, the Department’s travel advisory notice for Cambodia specifically identified the dangers of travel outside Phnom Penh,” said a former embassy official. “It noted that banditry was widespread outside the main urban areas. It advised travel in daylight in convoys. It urged travellers to seek advice from the embassy.”
Wilson’s train was attacked by a large force of Khmer Rouge soldiers using anti-tank mines, rifles and even rockets. It would have been terrifying to live through: ten civilians on the train were killed, around a hundred kidnapped. Wilson and his two friends were marched to a Khmer Rouge base in the mountains and held as hostages in shocking conditions. It remains unclear whether the kidnapping of foreigners was the aim of the attack, but a wider military agenda was certainly unfolding. Government forces were bombing the Khmer Rouge, provoking warlord General Nuon Paet into escalating acts of violence.
On August 19, Paet propped Wilson in front of a camera. His plea was beamed into living rooms all over Australia: “Unless the bombing stops here by the Cambodian government we have no chance of living. They (the Khmer Rouge) have made that quite clear to us.” The Keating government came under extraordinary pressure to resolve the situation. His story haunted plenty of Australians and it haunted me: it was the year that I, and many of my friends, were overseas taking similar risks. I can’t hear Karma County’s Postcard without thinking of the file photo they used in the newspapers: Wilson, looking strong and at peace, gazing down from a high vantage point over a temple.
Paet demanded a ransom of $US50,000 for each man, and a farcical round of haggling ensued. Shady figures and corrupt generals offered to intervene. On policy grounds, the Australian, British and French governments refused to pay. As one Australian ambassador said: “Any such payment would be likely to have the effect of encouraging further such kidnappings in Cambodia, thereby endangering the position of other Australians...”
The crisis ground on for two months. The men were tortured and used as slave labour. In another desperate message, the hostages said: “If the government won’t pay for our release please do the moral thing and give our families the opportunity to arrange our release. Please, please, please get us out of here.”
It was to no avail. On September 28, on the orders of General Paet, the three foreigners were marched into the nearby jungle and killed. Paet was later found guilty of the murders.
I spent a night in Peru, years ago, which even now remains as close as I’ve ever gone to being killed. A group of us had taken a rickety bus deep into the Amazon, trying to find a novel way from north to south. We were loudly, obviously gringoes and we’d made a spectacularly dumb choice. The bus dropped us in a village deep in the jungle at about two a.m. We were supposed to wait for another bus, in a wide dirt carpark between the trees and a straggle of small buildings. Music and lights drifted out of the jungle towards us – a party or a nightclub or something in the distance. The music stopped and a flood of young people spilled out into the night. Finding the nervous travellers bunched together in the carpark, they mobbed us; drunk, friendly, and curious. We chatted with them for a while and then they disappeared. All of them, simultaneously it seemed. But not quite.
Only one person was left, a small kid of maybe 16 or so, staggering and eyes glazed, holding a sawn-off shotgun. He had a smile on his face, as friendly as anyone else, and his finger on the trigger. He waved the gun at us as casually as if he was ordering beers, and proceeded to ask the same questions as the others. What country were we from? Did we like his town? He motioned with the barrel that we should sit down with him and we did. The surreal conversation continued as he fiddled with the gun and we silently tried to communicate over his shoulders. Should we run? Negotiate? Did he even want anything? He’d nod off slightly, then his head would jerk upright again and he’d swing the barrel across our chests, his mood souring then recovering. I could see the brass ends of the cartridges in the breech. More questions. Someone gently tried to get up and he motioned with the gun for them to sit again. He was getting irritated by our clumsy Spanish. Our packs were ridiculously heavy and I was carrying a board. Running for it seemed a poor option. But someone managed to get the message across with silent gestures behind his back – on the count of three, we’d all run in different directions. So that’s what we did. I remember the feeling of staggering forwards across the carpark, loaded down with crap and waiting for the bang that never came. I ran flat out until someone stuck their head out a doorway and motioned for me to come inside. I was sheltered and fed but they wouldn’t let me out until dawn. The kid had a history. When we finally regrouped the next day, it emerged that everyone had been taken in and looked after by other families.
The moral of the story is obvious. Young people will take risks on surf trips that in hindsight look suicidal. Young westerners in particular, have a blind spot about developing countries: everything’s cheap, people are smiling, and there’s no kind of trouble you can’t buy your way out of – until one day you absolutely cannot.
We need to be careful about leaping to judgments – of the tourist, and of the locals.
A Florida surfer named Daryl Fornatora disappeared in the Dominican Republic in January this year. His wallet turned up much later, partially burnt and still filled with cash. The case was baffling (in the limited sense of “which local did this and why?”), until his American companion Matt Rigby’s story began to unravel. What’s significant about that is how easily attention to turns to the host country and our assumptions run rampant. Poor people, desperate people, maybe a motive connected to envy or drugs. But someone handed in that wallet full of cash, remember. After agreeing to a police interview, Rigby cancelled it and promptly hired an attorney. He’s not commented since.
What’s overlooked in media reporting of the tragedies – what struck me about the Peru incident – is that it’s the locals who so often have to pick up the pieces. For every thug and bandit, there’s a tired shopkeeper, a farmer, an old lady who rescues us from the consequences of our miscalculations. Do we think enough about that? How insulting must it be to have come to a tourist’s aid, only to be tarred with the same brush as the miscreants?
These tales are cautionary but not intended to raise paranoia. You’d never want to see – and free spirits would never abide – fear confining us to our homes. One of the fundamental pleasures of surf travel (and I’m not talking here about flying to a resort and back) is the headlong rush of the unknown. But please tick off a few of the basics: go to Smarttraveller.gov.au, buy some insurance, and think twice about your choices. After that, whatever’s around the corner, down the road, good or bad is going to be yours and yours alone.
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