When we arrived at the Padang airport in West Sumatra, Indonesia, it was pouring rain. And I mean POURING. I collected my bag from the overhead compartment, thinking about the fact that I probably wouldn’t need any of the four bikinis I packed, for what we thought was going to be a mini beach vacay, a sunny break from the overcast weather we’ve been having in KL. We decided to spend a long weekend in West Sumatra after seeing photos of the tropical secluded beaches, and were fully prepared for a few days in “paradise”.

But like I said, it was pouring rain.

We quickly found our ride, a tiny Indonesian man who ushered us to his Toyota SUV, apologizing that he doesn’t speak any English – a stark contrast to our usual destinations as English is no doubt the language of communication in tourism. The Toyota trekked through Padang’s traffic and flooded streets, which did not seem to deter the Indonesians on their motorbikes. My first impression of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province, is that it was a shoddy and impoverished little city- another stark contrast from island’s tourist-friendly neighbor Bali. Actually, it didn’t seem like a place many tourists visit at all.

After two hours of precariously driving through flooded streets, we turned off onto an ill-maintained dirt road, leaving the city and entering a rural valley inhabited by small villages, where locals live in shanties surrounded by emerald green rice paddies and verdant jungles. The rain suddenly came to a serene stop just as the sun began to peak its rays through the dissipating clouds, and I started to feel thankful that we had come during the rainy season- the landscape was so beautifully lush and green from all the moisture, perfectly juxtaposed with the colorful ramshackle homes of the village. It was pure beauty, not like the well-manicured beauty of Bali, but a raw beauty that almost breaks your heart. I knew immediately that I would love this part of Indonesia.

After about 45 minutes on the dirt road, we finally passed a hand painted sign that read “Nagari Sungai Pinang”. We had arrived.

We were staying at this place called Ricky’s Beach House, situated in the traditional village of Nagari Sungai Pinang. I found the place on Airbnb and was admittedly drawn to its beachfront bungalows and Rastafarian colors, but I had no idea how special this place really was. Ricky’s Beach House is a project that was started 6 years ago by (you guessed it) Ricky, a 30-something-year-old from the village who wanted to empower the local people and initiate change in the small rural community. Guests stay in private bungalows that are a 3-minute boat ride away from the village’s main hub, set on a private beach with incredible views. Ricky employs local 20-something-year-old boys from poor families in the village to run the project, and they all share one room in the main house next to the bungalows. He explained that most of the money from our stay (less than $30 a night which included all meals) go either to the boys and their families, or to pay for them to attend school in Padang, because there is no high school in the village. Ricky’s philosophy behind the project has nothing to do with putting money in his pocket, but supporting the community from which he came, spreading peace and compassion. The boys at Ricky’s quickly taught us the word word santai, which essentially means chill. This was definitely the predominating attitude at Ricky’s Beach House- no stress, no hate, just santai.

Although we did manage to get a little beach time, honestly the best part of the trip was spending time in the village, which I would gladly choose over sunbathing any day. First of all, this village is extremely poor, no doubt the poorest place I have ever witnessed firsthand. The people live in ramshackle houses with no hot water, toilets that flush, or basic comforts. The children wore torn and dirty clothes; the majority of the them did not have shoes. But while the people are poor in money, they are rich in happiness and I was completely overwhelmed by the friendliness of the community. Walking through the village, children would run up to us and enthusiastically shout “hello! hello!” in a sing-song cadence, while adults peaked out their heads out the window to invite us in and share their food. Ricky told us that before he started this project 6 years ago, no one in the village spoke English, and now almost everyone is fluent, which is empowering on so many levels. We even got the chance to teach an English class to the local children which was a really special moment.

Apart from the way the villagers treated us as foreigners (we were only the second Americans to ever visit this village!), it was incredible to see the way they interacted with each other – they have an amazing sense of community that is almost like one giant family. One day in the village, we saw hundreds of locals crowded on the beach. As we approached the chaos, we saw that fishermen were pulling in the day’s catch and the villagers, children especially, were simply taking their share. No need for money, which only begets greed. We also met a 50-year-old man who was almost finished building a magnificent boat that he had crafted from scratch- even harvesting wood from trees he cut down himself in the jungle. When we asked how we would transfer the boat from land to the ocean, we were told that the men in the village would simply all help carry it. Locked doors and police do not exist in the village because there is no crime- the village operates on communal and unconditional support, where everyone has each other’s backs. Meanwhile Michael and I don’t even know the first name of a single person who lives on our floor back in KL.

In addition to empowering the local people, Ricky aims to use this project to raise awareness for various environmental concerns in the village. Trash is a BIG problem in Indonesia, where poor communities lack the knowledge and infrastructure to properly deal with waste, and Nagari Sungai Pinang was no different. Apparently it was not a big issue before the advent of plastic, because people formerly used organic, decomposable materials for everyday purposes, such as banana leaves for plates. Unfortunately now the locals (like everyone else in the world) use plastic and paper products that litter the entire village, not to mention the ocean. So Ricky used part of the funds set up a recycling program, and is educating the local children about the importance of reducing waste- how awesome is that?

Back in March the boys at Ricky’s Beach House also started a sea turtle conservation program which is just awesome!!! They have already released THOUSANDS of baby sea turtles into the wild, and helped rehabilitate several older turtles. They did not have any eggs or hatchings when we were there, just a few tubs containing various turtle species to keep for research, but it was amazing to see these tiny little creatures that will grow to be over 300 pounds and live for over a hundred years!!! The program is just getting started, but they are hoping to raise enough money to have a full-fledged conservation center that will not only help revive the endangered species in Indonesia, but also provide a self-sustaining income for the village. You can learn more about it and donate money here.

Although the village was my favorite part of the trip, I also really enjoyed paddling a traditional canoe across the turquoise bay where we found a completely isolated stretch of pristine sand. We had the beach all to ourselves (and a herd of water buffalo) before another rain storm rolled in. It was perfection while it lasted.

Every night after our communal dinner back at the bungalows, the boys would bust out a myriad of guitars and drums to have epic jam sessions that lasted for hours. These guys were surprisingly really talented, and we had so much fun singing along to Bob Marley and classics from the likes of Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens. Even Michael who doesn’t have a musical bone in his body was banging on some drums like a pro. 🙂 Similar to the village, the boys were like one big family; they were so chill and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with them. While Michael and I were the only guests the first night, the second night a 60-year-old Australian woman traveling by herself joined, and we immediately hit it off with her as well. It’s crazy how easy it can be to relate to someone so different than you, whether it be age, background, upbringing, race, or culture… we’re all just people, after all. I love traveling because it puts you in situations to befriend people you would have otherwise never talked to.

So was this experience the sun-drenched beach vacation we had expected? Definitely not, but that doesn’t make it any less of a paradise.

“I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something. And if you find that moment… It lasts forever.” – The Beach