While many of us are losing our minds at the footage of empty perfection pouring in from Indonesia, things aren’t as idyllic in the country as it might appear. Much of the local economy is based on surf tourism, and with no visiting surfers, the local people throughout the archipelago are struggling to make ends meet. This includes many people who run businesses on the island of Nias, catering to tourists who come to surf the legendary waves of Lagundri Bay.
The Buulolos are one such family who have seen business screech to a halt during the COVID-19 shutdown. And as if a lack of tourists weren’t enough, they are also dealing with a sick family member. Alex Buulolo is well-loved by the community and the visitors who flock to Nias every year, and is one of the island’s best surfers.
He won the Quiksilver King of the Groms contest in 2007, and also won the Nias Open local contest in 2017 (an event that he got to surf with his two brothers and his brother’s wife). Sadly, Alex has been dealing with kidney failure for the past year. He has to travel numerous hours every three days to get dialysis, and ultimately will need a kidney transplant. But without income from surf tourism, it is getting increasingly difficult for him to afford the treatment. Alex is only 29 and has a young family with two sons under the age of three, so his sickness has been a huge blow to his family and community.
Alex’s brother Justin recently started a GoGetFunding page to help cover the medical bills and pay for a future kidney transplant, and donations are starting to trickle in from friends around Indonesia and the world—but the family still needs more help. We spoke with Justin this week to get a feel for the situation on Nias, and to better understand his brother’s illness and needs.
This has obviously been a tough time for everyone on Nias, with COVID-19 shutting down tourism. Can you give us specifics about how the crisis has affected the locals there
Most businesses in Sorake Beach, Nias, revolve around tourism. There have been hardly any tourists here this year, so it's been very hard for most local families.
Most families save money in the peak season and that gets them through the offseason (when there is no tourism), but this year the peak season never came, so everyone has been struggling to get by, and many families are running very low on savings. Domestic travel within Indonesia is open, so tourists who are already in Indonesia can come, but it looks like it will be a while before International tourism is fully open again.
Obviously the situation for Alex and your family is further exacerbated by his health issues. Give us an idea of the nature of his illness, the treatment he has been receiving, the treatment he needs, and what that sort of care costs a local family in Indonesia.
My brother Alex started getting sick in September of last year, but we had no idea how serious it was at first. He was feeling very tired, and his legs and ankles started getting swollen. He traveled to Medan, a flight away, with my other brother to go to a good hospital and check what was wrong. He was diagnosed with kidney failure at the beginning of December, and went on dialysis to filter his blood every three days. Dialysis does the job that the kidneys should be doing, but it does not cure anything—it just keeps his body functioning.
The treatment has made Alex very tired and weak. He has to be very careful of infection, and he can't surf anymore, which is very hard for him. He has to drive three hours each way to get dialysis every three days, and the dialysis takes five hours, so that is exhausting too.
We do not have a specific doctor in Jakarta yet, but we think the cost of a transplant would be around 500million rupiah (about US $36,000), plus he will need to take medications for the rest of his life
The dialysis costs 1.5 million rupiah each time (about US $105). Luckily, BPJS, the Indonesian health insurance, covers that, but he still has to pay for gas and a driver and multiple medicines.
He has traveled to Medan three times to visit a good hospital with a kidney specialist, and also one trip to Penang Malaysia. He has spoken to different doctors about getting a transplant, and he will eventually have to go to Jakarta to do so. We do not have a specific doctor in Jakarta yet, but we think the cost of a transplant would be around 500million rupiah (about US $36,000), plus he will need to take medications for the rest of his life.
How has the local community banded together to support Alex?
The local community lost another young man this year, way too early. Alinea was a friend to all the tourists and a very talented young surfer. He was only 17, and he had so many hopes and dreams for his future.
It is still unclear what his cause of death was, but ultimately he died due to a lack of health care and medical facilities on the island. Everyone was very upset to lose Alinea, and they want to help however they can to avoid losing another local.
Sadly, Sorake has lost a few locals in the past few years. Bahiga was well known to all the surfers who came to Nias. He passed away earlier this year as a result of kidney failure, and was only 44 years old. Daniel was another local who died way too young. He died of liver failure, also around 44 years old, and left behind young children. Hopefully we are early enough to get Alex the medical help he needs.
What about people who have visited Nias over the years? A lot of people know and love Alex—especially those who visit the island regularly. Have you seen any support from foreigners since you started the GoGetFunding campaign?
There has been an overwhelming response from family and friends all over the world on our GoGetFunding page! It really is so special to see how many people are donating money to help my brother, even people who have never met him or visited Nias before.
Alex and his wife are so grateful. Everyone is pretty shocked to hear about his sickness. Alex was always charging the best waves, and his laugh could make anyone smile. Everyone wants to see him get back to his strong, happy self.
We definitely want to see Alex healthy as soon as possible, and encourage everyone with ties to Nias—or even those who have only dreamt of visiting there—to visit the family’s GoGetFunding page and help in any way they can, whether through a donation or passing the link along to others. Here’s wishing Alex the best, and hoping that we will soon be able to visit the island of Nias and it’s wonderful people and amazing waves once again.