The Other First World

The concept of the “Third World” is a concept created by economists. It refers to those countries that lack riches, or at least the ability to make riches. They’re poor, and they’re often thought of as having little, if anything at all, to offer the world. Their soil is dry and starved of nutrients. Their factories are ill-equipped to manufacture the latest stratobombers and French-speaking smart toasters. Their populations are often uneducated and in need of the basic necessities of life–medicine, money, food, information. The First World condescends to these countries, offering little and asking much in return. “Here’s a fleet of two-decade-old army surplus vehicles. Now, let us detonate a two-megaton fission warhead underneath one of your atolls.” They’re the victims of tyranny, famine, war, and disease because they don’t have anything the First World can’t live without.

So say economists. But to surfers, the values of nations is calibrated far differently. In the surf world Fiji is a superpower, Hawai‘i is the greatest state in the Union, and Costa Rica offers the promise of a better tomorrow. Surfing’s First World is the Third World, and no where is that more apparent than in surfing’s Mecca–Indonesia. Forget that only five Indonesians out of 1,000 own a telephone, that Indonesia ranks a sorry 134th in the world in life expectancy, that a dismal 1.02-percent of their population is currently enrolled in school, and that the government maintains tight control over all media outlets. Indo is Eden. Stretching thousands of miles from east to west, this chain of 13,677 islands is home to some of surfing’s most fantasized about locations–Bali, Sumatra, Java, Timor, Sumba, Nias, and an uncountable number of places yet to be found by the surf trawlers that scour the area nonstop.

Ask someone who’s surfed perfect six-foot barrels for five hours with a small group of his closest friends if Indonesia is a place with nothing to offer the world. Beginning on page 66 is a photo essay about the country that economists pity and surfers gladly pay top-dollar for.–Joel