Travis Potter began his surfing life like a lot of other young, aspiring Orange County grommets. It starts with a glimmer of talent, soon followed by local sponsorship, obligatory NSSA contests, then it’s a career bound for the World Qualifying Series. At 13 Travis was on the North Shore for his first winter, a ritual he’d maintain for the next 10 years. But at 15, he discovered Indonesia for the first time and was addicted immediately. Today, after spending the last 13 years—and better part of his adult life—searching the Asian archipelago for surf, he speaks fluent Bahasa, married into a traditional Javanese family, and has acquired an acute knack for surviving in the jungle for extended periods of time. When he does return home to Seal Beach, it’s only to say hi to Mom and Dad, check up on his sister’s new baby girl, bang some nails, lay a little tile and save up just enough money to get back as soon as possible. This summer SURFER caught up with Travis in a small roadside caf somewhere between Sumba and Sumatra to find out not only where he’s been, but where he’s going next.
Let’s start with your first trip to Indonesia, how’d you get there?
It was sort of a cultural exchange. It was a big group. I think there were 20 of us. I was 15. We went to Tahiti first, the nicest people I’d ever met, a really beautiful place. Then we went to Bali for a week. I came back the following year and stayed in Bali again, a little bit longer this time—three weeks. The next year I didn’t make it and, my senior year, after I graduated, I went to Nias by myself, then Bali and then to Sumbawa. I returned to Sumbawa for like three years straight, just spending months at Laki Peak. For me, the way Indo works is that when you find a wave and see how much potential it has, you want to get it as good as you can. And then once you conquer it, you want to find something else, move on to the next wave.
Did you just check out after graduation?
Well, I went to Leeward Community College in Pearl City and lasted for two semesters (laughs). I lived on the North Shore and drove to school in Pearl City, taking a bunch of night classes so I could surf. But even my day classes, I’d drive by the surf and go, ‘Whoop, the waves are good.’ And turn around and go back. I did that year at community college, then went to Indo and spent all the money I had saved up for school the following year. I’ve been doing construction work for the past seven years. A few years ago I was living off of my credit card until it maxed out. You don’t need much when you’re over here, 400 bucks a month goes a long way when you’re eating potatoes and noodles and not drinking any beer. This is actually the first year I’ve had enough money to drink a beer on a daily basis (laughs).
Your methods are pretty far removed from the ubiquitous prepackaged boat trip. Why make it so hard on yourself?
I’m doing my own thing. I want to get away from everybody else and go surf with my friends. It’s so much more memorable when you’re the only ones out in the water and the only people to share in that moment. Plus, you’re going to learn more from traveling than this way. When I quit school my mom asked me why, and my response was, “I’d rather study what I learn, than learn what I study.” Because you breadth of knowledge goes far beyond what you can read in a book or what somebody thinks they can teach you in what to them is the right way. You just have to go out an experience life for what it is and make up your own decisions about life and your own viewpoints and become your own person.
As far as camps and charters go, I don’t have a huge problem with it, depending on what they give back to the local people. If they’re taking all of the profit and hiring very few local workers it’s not such a good thing. But either way it’s kind of weird. I come here and look around to get away from everything, but the people that set up a camp and invite other surfers to hang out, it’s such opposite mentality. I can’t really understand it.