Free Bird

Out of a small Third World island nation comes an amazing surfer named Betet.

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On the windowsill of a humble house in the small town of Kuta, Bali perched a brown and tan, baseball-sized bird called a betet. Sitting Indian style, staring at the bird, was a small child named Wayan Merta. The child loved the bird more than anything else in the world. The bird was his friend, much like Michael Jackson was friends with a small rodent in the 1972 film Ben.

The betet and the boy would sit together and hang out. The boy would talk, the bird would look at him nervously nodding, sometimes chirping in agreement. The bird would leave with the setting sun but would always return again at dawn. One day, the bird didn’t return to its daily perch in Wayan’s window. Instead, the bird flew away into the Indonesian wilderness–never to return. Wayan was devastated. His tears brought sadness to the household until the day when his older brother, Sarang, came to his side and offered him comfort. Sarang could not bring the bird back, but he could give his little brother something to keep the bird’s memory in his heart forever. Sarang told his younger brother, “From now on, you will be Betet.” Instantly, his heart filled with joy, and he no longer anguished over the loss of his friend, but reveled in the memory of his feathered companion. From that day forward, Wayan was Betet.

Wayan “Betet” Merta was born September 27, 1980, in Banjar Segara, which is a small neighborhood in Kuta Beach, Bali. He lived in a small house with two sisters, four brothers, two moms, and one dad. In Western culture, when you think of two moms, you think of some kind of strange divorce situation, but in this case it was all love. “My dad married my mom and then married her sister, too. So I grew up having two moms.”

The family made their living supplying lobster to local hotels and restaurants, placing them slightly above the poverty level that many live below in Bali. Betet was the youngest of all the children, so his brothers had a big influence on him. At age ten, Betet’s older brother Sarang would push him into waves at the Kuta beachbreaks.

As kids do, Betet lost interest in surfing and took up the god-awful sport of Rollerblading. Luckily for him, one of the godfathers of Balinese surfing, Made Swirta, gave him a surfboard, and he was back in the water and off the fruit boots for good. Around this same time a tight crew of friends began to form. When he was twelve, Betet starting hanging out at the 69 Surf Shop with Rizal Tanjung, Made Swirta, and Bol. If they weren’t out in the water, they were at the shop. In fact, sometimes they would even sleep there. Around this time, Betet looked nothing like his peers in school did. While they wore strict uniforms, Betet was rocking cowboy boots to school with his pants tucked in. He had long hair and left his shirt unbuttoned. He wanted to be like Axl Rose.

Rizal Tanjung’s influence began to show when Betet was fifteen. Rizal had taught him that surfing could not only be fun but a way to make a living. He began to realize that surfing was his life, and he landed his first sponsor–Hot Buttered. “Rizal has been number one in my life,” says Betet. “When I was young, he helped me out of some bad stuff I was into. He bought me my first board and introduced me to the pro-surfer world.” The bad stuff Betet was referring to included short stints in jail and a brief stage of experimenting with black-tar heroin. This dark phase is far behind him. The only lasting memories exist in a few jailhouse tattoos scattered across his body–a Social Distortion-style spiderweb on his elbow, a few Balinese symbols, and various animals.

As the years went by, Betet’s surfing ability grew. He was blasting airs, going vertical, and perfecting his signature move–a wicked frontside grab-rail snap. In 1999 Rizal introduced him to Bob Hurley after a trip they had taken to G-land. He was immediately added to the Hurley team. Now sponsored by a major Western brand, Betet began to show up in international surf magazines: a shot here and there in Australian magazines, Japanese mags, and even a two-page spread in Surfing. While Betet cites Rizal as his biggest influence, it helps when pros like Benji Weatherly and Jay Larson come to visit your home break for months at a time. Their abilities and friendship have helped Betet take his surfing from strong to downright amazing–some would say he surfs like a mix between Taj Burrow and Benji Weatherly.

Today Betet lives with his brother in a house that his surfing helps pay for. “I know I don’t make as much money as most pro surfers, but Hurley takes very good care of me. I lead a simple life, but Indonesia isn’t as cheap as it used to be.” The effects of the Bali bombing that rocked his hometown this year have been widespread and very harmful to Bali’s precious tourism resources.

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“The night the bomb blew up, me and Jay Larson were staying in a hotel that Rizal owns called Un’s. The hotel is in downtown Kuta very near the bomb site. We’d been surfing all day, and I felt so tired. My girlfriend and Jay wanted to go out, but I was passed out from surfing. The bomb exploded at 11:15, and all my friends usually go out around 12:30. So we sat there all night, terrified, wondering where the next bomb was going to explode.

Betet lost many friends in the blast, but he’s still positive about his country: I really hope everything in Bali gets better soon. Don’t let the terrorists win, don’t be scared to came to Bali.

When asked about his reputation for dropping in on visitors to his home break Changgu, Betet replied, “I miss the tourists, and I want to share my waves. I want to invite everyone to come enjoy Bali and contribute to all the people in Bali who depend on tourism.

While the dark cloud of the Bali bombing still hovers over Kuta Beach, Betet looks toward his own future: “I want to become a better professional surfer than I am today. More traveling and surfing all the famous waves my friends talk about. Dan Malloy invited me to Hawai‘i next year, so hopefully I’ll be over there with him during the winter.”

To become an internationally known surfer from Bali is a feat in itself. Only a few surfers from Indonesia have stepped into the international spotlight, and Betet is surely one who is destined to stay there: “Rizal opened the door for me, now I’m making my own path.”

With the consistency and quality of Bali’s waves, it’s no wonder guys like Betet and Rizal have excelled. One crew of guys that compare to Betet’s tight crew are the Coolangatta kids. Like the Cooly Kids, the Bali crew run their respective spots and are the heroes of their hometown. Guys like Pepen, Bol, and Dede Suryana are coming up quick from this small island country, and it’s not totally out of reason to think that they could one day make an impact on the world of surfing comparable to that of the Cooly kids.

In a way, Betet’s nickname is much more fitting than that of just a childhood memory. Betet is now known for blasting airs as high as anyone. But in a deeper sense, he has flown from his windowsill past the poverty and shady situations that surrounded him–he’s flown off into the wilderness that is the world, and he’s still flying.