Would You Still Surf If Everyone Was Telling You Not To?
The story of Siska Tasiripoula, the Mentawais first female surfer.
In America and Australia, we tend to be somewhat myopic about our language. Whether by lack of education, effort, or exposure, most of us tend to strictly speak English.
Only about 23% of America and 22% of Australia can speak a second language fluently — compared to around 75% of Europeans.
Bilingualism has been linked to a heightened ability to focus and multitask, while allowing people to immerse themselves in understanding of another culture far deeper than they might’ve otherwise.
As Nelson Mandela famously said, “When you speak English, many people understand you, including Afrikaners, but when you speak Afrikaans, you go straight to their hearts.”
It is for this latter reason that the above story has been brought to us, courtesy of two young women in a wave-laden paradise.
In 2021, after a particularly pleasant bout of surf guiding in the Mentawais, Ruby Southwell decided to move from the East Coast of Australia to a small village in the North Mentawai.
“Originally I was just surf guiding,” Ruby told me, “But the waves were so good and the community was so amazing, I just didn’t leave. It was during Covid times, so I had plenty of time to roam around and meet everyone.”
As she put roots down into the community, she began to teach English words to locals who wanted to learn, trading Bahasa words in exchange.
“Because of Covid, there were only two other westerners on the island at that time,” she recalled. “There was a local guy who wanted to learn English, and I started teaching him and some of the other locals in the community. I would basically just trade words each day with people, and eventually I learned enough words to start to have conversations with people.”
She still lives in that small village where “food is gathered, cooked, shared and eaten together, work is done mostly barefoot and in the jungle, and wise men (sikereis) have an understanding and connection to all living beings – human, nature and the spirit of their ancestors. The sikereis pass on their cultural traditions and knowledge from generation to generation.”
“I met Siska like eight months ago when she moved to the island,” Ruby explained. “It’s funny because I was always trying to teach the local girls how to surf, but none of them were keen. And then, I walked over to Pitstops and saw this local girl taking off on sets. When I was talking to her, I realized she’d never surfed any other waves, so we made the plan to take her around and surf other places in the Ments. She just hasn’t had the opportunity, but she really wants to improve.”
According to Ruby, Siska began surfing at 11 years old on the tiny shore-breaks of her home village — riding a finless, snapped, wax-less and leggy-less surfboard which she received after many months of persistent begging to her older brother Mull.
“No one in her village understood her captivation with surfing, they openly announced their disapproval of her passion by calling her “ugly” and “too black,” Ruby says. “She was constantly told she shouldn’t surf as a girl, but she didn’t care, there was something about surfing that was more important to her than anything else.
“For 6 years she lived in a different village to attend school. She was forced to stop surfing as she could no longer afford to access the waves. Then, last year, she scored a job at Pitstop Hill Surf Resort and quickly packed up a bag and moved in.”
Click above to watch their film, and scroll down to read a brief Q&A which Billabong did with Siska.
Hey Siska, so where did you grow up?
I’m native to Siberut island in north Mentawai, my village is called “Toloulaggo.”
How big is your tribe?
My tribe has about 20 people, we are Suku Tasiripoula.
How did you start surfing?
I started at age 11, just playing around close to the shore. Eventually, after I improved a little, I would either take the canoe or walk through the jungle and over the hills to a nearby reef-break called Ombak Bulaubukgei. This is the only wave I had access to until I was twenty.
Why has it been difficult for Mentawaiians to gain access to the waves?
Money is our biggest obstacle, petrol is very expensive in Mentawai, we are only 10 or 15 minutes away from the waves but it’s still too expensive for us. All the Mentawaians live in small protected villages, no one lives on the famous surfing islands, those are just for coconut farming. My village is a few kilometres into an inlet so the waves only reach us when there’s quite a lot of swell on the islands.
Are there any other girls surfing in north Mentawai?
Yes, there’s another local girl who works at a resort on a different island who also surfs now, her name is Meli. Her little sister is in the film with us, she’s one of the little girls we took surfing for the first time.
In the film, you mention people were not supportive, they’ve said lots of negative things about your appearance, does this make you sad?
No. I didn’t care, I just wanted to go surfing! I don’t care if they think I’m ugly, at least they will know I’m a good surfer.
What was your favourite wave of the trip?
Nipussi and the unnamed right! The big waves I got at Nipussi, I was just looking up to the top of the wave like “Ahhhhhh! Woooow! Its double the size of me… two Siskas haha!” I want to get even bigger waves now. I also like the right because I got to pull into a little barrel.
Why do you love barrels?
Oh, I love barrels because when I get one I feel like a professional surfer haha! Every time I get one I hope that the next is gonna be even bigger.
Are you scared of the reef?
No, I don’t really think about it. When I surfed Bankvaults I got a little cut on my leg but I was happy because if it scars then I can always have a little reminder of Bankvaults.
How do you feel when you surf?
I love surfing, I feel like I’m under a strong wind and its very fast. Surfing makes me mentally strong, and always happy.
What are your goals in surfing?
I want to be able to surf all the waves of my home. I want to keep trying to get bigger and better waves.
Do you and Ruby have any nicknames for each other?
Yes, I call her Big Boss and she calls me Pemberontak — which means rebel.
How did you and Ruby meet?
We met at Pitstops! Before we met I didn’t know there would be another girl surfer living on the island with me, so I was really happy.
What’s your favourite of thing about surfing together?
I love surfing with Ruby. She knows more than me so she is always making sure I get the good ones. When we arrived to spots that were crowded she would say to me “You’re the local, you’re sitting up there” (gestures to the top of line up).
We caught the best waves of my life, if I was paddling for a big one and I heard her say “go sis go sis go sis” then I knew I can take it and I wouldn’t be worried. I learnt some new surfing words from Ruby, like ‘sick’, ‘sketchy’ and ‘lull’.
What language do you speak in Mentawai?
We speak Mentawaian, but like many places in Indonesia each village sort of has its own dialect, so in my village we speak Bahasa Toloulaggo. The songs I sing in our film project are Mentawaian songs. Mentawaian is a beautiful language, foreigners always tell us that it sounds like we are singing when we talk.
What’s a Mentawai word you can teach everyone?
Masura Bagata! Pronunced like: mas-su-da Ba-ga-da, it means Thank You!
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