The Drifter Journals
Merdeka House | Independence in Adaptation
Adaptation. It’s what surfers do.
We adapt to colder destinations, we adapt our location according to the mutterings of swells and winds, and we adapt our bodyweight and positioning to suit the parabolic curves of the breaking wave.
In fact, we’ll adapt to pretty much any challenge, hardship or set of circumstances in order to score. And it’s not just about locking into gleaming, six-foot peaks with no one out but your best mate; we’ll adapt to crowds, climates and really, really shitty conditions to milk the very best from what we have been served.
For some, it goes so far as to adapt your entire life to feed the passion.
Merdeka House’s Georgia and Joey never had designs of becoming surf retreat owners; to that, they adapted. Joey first began exploring the Indo archipelago from his family home in Sydney, Australia of his own volition, his parents and siblings rarely venturing far from home.
“I don’t even think my parents had passports when us kids were growing up,” he admits. “The furthest we travelled for a holiday was down the coast to visit my grandparents three hours away. In fact, the idea of travelling, let alone living somewhere so different wasn’t even on the radar when I was in school.
“I started coming to Indo after I left high school and fell in love with it straight away. I started doing seasons and began travelling across Indo, but Sumbawa (where he and Georgia would later establish Merdeka House) was always my favourite - I always found myself coming back here.”
Sumbawa served up the perfect balance for Joey. Having explored Bali, Java and numerous other regions, West Nusa Tenggara and the Sumbawa coastline held the perfect balance; remote enough to be away from the more beaten tourist tracks, yet populous enough to have access to the necessities of life and never feel too disconnected from the real world.
Georgia grew up surfing with her father on the southern coast of Australia, along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Unlike Joey, her parents both owned passports, and Georgia’s bedtime stories, or at least, the line-up banter shared with her dad, revolved around his own journeys to the Indonesian islands, its warm water and impeccable surf. For Georgia, the step across the Timor Sea to Indo was a rite of passage and a foregone conclusion.
With several trips to the islands already marked like victory notches carved into her legrope, Georgia found herself on Sumbawa.
Though she was herself on another sporadic trip, her path led her to Joey by happy coincidence, but he was of a very different travel mindset:
“You reach the point [in endlessly travelling] where you start to become anxious about not having any grounding,” Joey reflects. “When I met George I’d just made the decision to try to find somewhere to ground, but I didn’t really know how to go about it.
”Fortunately, she was also ready to relinquish her nomadic days in favour of roots, all be they somewhat tenuous and infused with their very own, static sense of adventure.“Having her on the same page made the decision a lot easier”, “and made our plans sound possible,” Georgia interjects.
The pair decided that Sumbawa felt like home, and they set about creating a property that could comfortably accommodate them and offer lodgings for the occasional visiting friend or family member. But the notion of establishing a business and letting rooms to wandering surfers never crossed their minds. That was something they would need to adapt to.
“Merdeka was never going to be a hotel or guest house,” Georgia recalls, “it was just going to be a private house. But then Joey drew up plans on paper that looked small, but just kept getting bigger and bigger!
“We always had loads of family and friends coming over, so it was always a shared house from the very beginning. It just kind of evolved like that. We couldn’t kick people out - there was always someone here!”
“Before the house was finished, it was full of friends,” adds Joey. “It developed into an idea. Everyone was really stoked on the house and suggested that we develop it as a business. Up until then, the plan was simply to do a season here in Sumbawa, go back home to work and make money, then return for the next season.
“We definitely didn’t have a business model or anything - we just fell into it.”
This organic evolution was the unintentional perfect business strategy. It is rare to find a surfer desiring absolute first-class accommodations, staff seen but not heard, gilt taps gleaming in a marble-lined en suite… and the price tag to pay for it all. In one sense, if you have the money, why not? But that’s not how surfers are wired. Surfers want the grit and the grime, they want their feet in the sand, the locals to be friends and that sense of connection and belonging in their destinations, and that is precisely what Merdeka House offered, and continues to offer to this day.
“A lot of our guests comment on how authentic our setup is,” relates Joey. “It’s not perfect, but we don’t suggest that it is either. Indo is an imperfect place.”
This level of authenticity is in no small part due to Joey and Georgia’s staff and connection to the local community. This relationship was instilled from the beginning, the pair always acutely aware of being in someone else’s country and the respect and acknowledgement of that that should always be served.
From their very first days as locals, Georgia and Joey were adamant that they would assimilate. They refused to become the epitome of western arrogance, rolling into town with more money than manners and abusing the abundant hospitality of the locals. Instead, they employed staff directly from the community and even trained them when necessary, they brought local builders and supplies to the site to build Merdeka and adhered to local traditions and protocol, requesting permission from elders and conferring with staff on any significant decisions to be made.
“By the time we got around to building, we’d already been here a pretty long time, so we sort of knew who we should speak to and I was on good terms with all the big dogs.”
“When we first met, before we built the main house, Joey had this little shack at the bottom of the property,” says Georgia. “We were asleep one night and woke to all this weird drumming and noises. We had no idea what was going on! We spoke to [best friend, local and staff member] Rudi the next day and one of the local elders was worried about us because he’d seen an old female ghost on the land, so he was doing a special ritual around the boundary to protect us.”
Culture can be a large and challenging hurdle to overcome, sometimes even an impenetrable barrier. No matter how hard you work, how compassionate you may be or how much you give back, the stark differences are omnipresent, not least in the colour of skin.
For Georgia and Joey, there was never a conscious decision to assimilate or attempt to win favour. Respect was given as quickly and readily as a smile, when problems arose, they knew the locals would know best and so invested in them and, likewise, they turned their own knowledge, efforts and even their property over to the locals whenever called upon.
“A few years ago we had some heavy earthquakes,” tells Joey. “The tsunami sirens went off in town and, being on top of a hill, a few of our Indonesian friends rang us and said they were coming up. We had a house full of guests, but I still invited everyone up, but they just kept multiplying! The lounge room was full of people, everyone was sleeping everywhere for a couple of days, but the guests all understood. There had never been an earthquake here, everyone was freaking out, and the guests just accepted that. They were having coffee with all the locals - it wasn’t business as usual, but the guests just had to understand that these were my neighbours and there was no way I was just going to leave them. In the end, nothing happened, no tsunami, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
When a nearby road suffered erosion, the community turned to their western neighbours for advice. Farmers who used the road daily were unsure of how to solve the issue, the council were equally as flummoxed, or perhaps simply unwilling to take the responsibility. A visit to Merdeka served coffee, cookies and the resolution in equal measures. Joey ordered the materials, the community gathered - farmers, fishermen, women providing snacks and refreshments - and together, they fixed the road for the benefit of all, unified beyond any sense of difference. In thanks, and remembering Joey had once remarked that he’d never shot a gun in his life, the local policeman brought his pistol up to Merdeka and the pair spent the afternoon in the backyard perforating empty beer cans.
“It’s a sense of community that doesn’t really exist in Australia where you all throw down, you all meet together and get the job done.”
Support, compassion and respect for the locals of Indonesia is nothing new. In fact, it is severely frowned upon if expats and western developers fail to recognise this obligation to the people of Bali, Sumbawa and all of the islands of the archipelago, and most take it on board and far exceed necessity or expectation.
What Georgia and Joey have adapted to reaches far beyond thoughtful consideration of their host nation. Perhaps the locals have an alternative perspective, but the pair have journeyed far out of their way to develop an assimilation of equality. They support the community, the community supports them - they have done all they can to become unified, and the sentiment is readily returned.
“I don’t want to paint a perfect picture,” confesses Joey, “I have been burned a few times. That’s always going to happen wherever you are, but the thing is not to be jaded by that and turn the other cheek. At the end of the day it’s usually not a big deal, and the ones who don’t burn you, they’re the ones who’ve got your back - they become lifelong friends.”
Three quarters of the year, the pair are local, through and through, their friends, social life, and business existing exclusively within their small Sumbawa community. For three months however, they return to Australia or more recently venture to Japan, stepping away from their idyllic island life to make a little more money or gain respite from a life of continual hosting. For the last decade, this change of horizons has served only to increase the love of their life at Merdeka, creating sustainability on an emotional level.
“I don’t want to completely disconnect with my life in Australia,” admits Joey. “I’m a plumber by trade, so if I spend too long away I begin to unlearn my trade, so it’s always good to head back from time to time and top up the bank account, even though it’s not necessary anymore.”
Merdeka thrives on its humility. Born of a need to accommodate their steady stream of visiting family and friends, it was never a surf retreat by design, evolving - adapting if you will - organically. From this unassuming beginning, its very simplicity has become its charm, visiting guests connecting with both Georgia and Joey as well as their staff on a far more personal level than is found in more conventional surf stays, hotels and lodges. In fact, it is the same interconnectedness that underlies Georgia and Joey’s own lives that most appeals to guests, inspiring them to return again and again, a concentric circle of friends old and new that continues to grow, yet always returning to the source.
“Just the other night,” says Georgia, “a guy who I thought was our friend from Aus called up Rudi, our best Indonesian friend who has been with us from the very start. Rudi doesn’t speak much English, but they were on the phone for about an hour, like, ‘I’m stuck in Aus, when are we going to see each other again?’ Where was our call?! It’s so funny - all of our guests really connect with the staff and that sense of being amongst friends, Western or Indo.”
Somewhat ironically, Merdeka translates as ‘independent’, yet independence is Georgia and Joey’s last desire. It is the interdependence of their Sumbawan life that has fed them, supported them, allowed them to grow and given them so much.
When we open ourselves up and submit to our surroundings and circumstances, we will always be able to adapt and thrive. Fighting this, working against what exists around you, will invariably result in animosity, disappointment and failure.
We are all tourists through life, passing from one landscape to the next, seeking fulfillment in every step, but we are also all locals, unified in our wish for contentment and a peaceful life. Find the balance, and you find your own Merdeka.
Your hosts: Joey...
...and Georgia - as quick to share waves with you as offer the warmest Sumbawan hospitality.
The House of Merdeka - Joey's original shack still standing, the building furthest to the right.