Graves's supporters (who include Quiksilver's McKnight) point out that by limiting crowds and growth at Nihiwatu, he's protecting the island from the uncontrolled development that has spoiled so many surf breaks around the world. He has also made good by establishing the nonprofit Sumba Foundation, which is working to rid western Sumba of malaria and bringing new schools and drinking water to many of the villages. “Some people think they have a right to go surf anywhere they want, regardless of the effects on the local culture, because nobody owns the ocean,” Graves says. “I think that's pure f---ing arrogance.”
Graves's approach does seem to benefit the Sumbanese, and it certainly benefits Nihiwatu's guests, who get an exceptionally close look at an ancient culture that's still intact. When I take out my laptop one afternoon to write some notes at the restaurant, the waiters and bartenders—all from nearby villages—gather around to marvel at it. “Small computer good, so you can take it into the forest!” one says. The talk turns to the prevalence of black magic on Sumba, and Marcos mentions a village chief named Detaraya who has 13 wives, and 72 children that he can't tell apart. His secret is a powder made from herbs. “When he goes into a new village,” Marcos says, “if he sees pretty girl walking, he puts powder on a rock, and in five minutes the girl is looking for him to follow him home.” Graves tells a more sinister tale of a local shaman who showed up one day in an apparent attempt to kill him. “He was holding a bone ring in his hand, covered with a lace handkerchief,” Graves says. “When I lifted the handkerchief, I was knocked back six feet and landed on my back. Afterward I was sick for three days. There are definitely powers here.”
Before we leave Nihiwatu, staffer Dato Daku offers to take us for a visit to his village. As we approach, a gleeful group of kids scampers toward us with shouts of “Photo! Photo!” (They don't have mirrors, Graves explains, so they want to see what they look like on the screens of our digital cameras.) From a clearing at the center of the thatched huts, we can hear the wails of a family mourning a woman who died a few hours ago. Four days from now she'll be buried underneath one of the gigantic stone tombs, whose lids require up to 100 people to lift. A few of the pigs, chickens and dogs who wander freely in the clearing will be sacrificed, then eaten. Dato invites us into the one-room bamboo hut where he was born, its ceiling black with soot from the open stove in the center of the floor. Before we leave, it's understood that we will buy a few traditional ikat cloths, woven by the women of the village. The kids run after us, laughing, as we return to the car and drive back to the resort in silence.