Disillusioned by American politics and Donald Trump’s presidency, Ryan Clayton decided in April to take a break and travel through Southeast Asia for several months.
While swimming at Gili Trawangan beach, near Bali, he got lost at sea for 12 hours. He thought he was going to die. But a fisherman came to his rescue and took him back to shore. Before long, it would become Clayton’s mission to return the favour.
After Lombok was hit by a series of earthquakes in August, killing hundreds of people and destroying thousands of homes, Clayton felt compelled to do something for the village that took him in. He raised about US$15,000 through a crowdsourcing website and in recent weeks has helped Nipah’s residents rebuild their lives.
“I owe them a lot,” the 37-year-old former political consultant says.
Clayton’s life intersected with those of the Nipah villagers by chance – or, some would argue, by fate. In July, he was at a popular beach near the northwestern coast of Lombok island, swimming at sunset. With its palm trees running neatly along the sand and thousands of coral reefs just offshore, the area is a magnet for backpackers and tourists. It seemed nothing could go wrong.
The beach faded from view as Clayton was dragged further and further out.
“I thought I would die, but I never really panicked,” he recalls of his 12 hours at sea. “I was talking to the stars, screaming at the shore … I experienced the full range of human emotions.”
The intense near-death experience helped Clayton put his life in perspective. Back in the US, he had been involved in several protests and initiatives against Trump. In February last year, for instance, Clayton and some other members of Americans Take Action, a group opposed to the US president, distributed nearly 1,000 Russian flags with Trumps’ name on them to attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Clayton wanted to draw attention to the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. But out at sea, those days of political activism seemed long gone.
“I was struck with this sense of gratitude,” he says. “I thought of my family and friends. I used to spend like 16 or 17 hours a day working on political campaigns … Yet I only thought about politics for about five seconds: ‘Come on man, you faced the US president, you can do this too’.”
While Clayton was fighting for his life at the mercy of the waves, a fisherman at Nipah village named Pur dreamt he must go out to sea.
“That night the waves were rough. I had a dream. It said: go out to sea and pick up something special. So I prepared my boat,” Pur recalls, in a video shot to raise money for his village. “While out at sea, I hear: ‘Help, help!’ I picked him [Clayton] out of the water. He had no energy. He hugged me and he cried.”
Clayton recalls the “glorified canoe” that appeared out of nowhere: “I was in shock. He pulled me out of the water, gave me water and his shirt.”
About 200 people were waiting for them at Nipah village. Clayton recalls the feeling of returning to dry land, of his hands touching the sand: “I thought I would not be able to do that ever again.”
He was looked after by Pur’s family for three days and remembers their generosity.
“This village is a step away from Eden,” he says. “When I woke up the first night, I asked myself: ‘Am I in heaven? Everyone is so warm.’”
It was only a matter of time before Clayton had the chance to return the favour to Pur, the fisherman who saved him. He had left Indonesia for a hike in Nepal when Lombok was hit by a series of earthquakes that left a trail of destruction.
“I tried to reach out to people by WhatsApp and I was like ‘Did everyone die?’ But after a few hours I heard from them,” he says. “Everyone was fine but their houses were destroyed.”
A magnitude-7.0 quake struck Lombok on August 5, killing about 460 people and displacing thousands. Nipah, where more than 1,000 families live, was badly affected. Aftershocks lasted about a month, making it even more difficult to rebuild. Clayton returned to Indonesia for a couple of weeks in August. The colourful homes had been reduced to rubble. He shot a video that he then used to launch an online campaign to raise money for the village. He was able to collect US$15,000 and went back to Nipah in December. The money is being used to buy materials, such as wood and metal, for 63 homes.
“I came here with the intention of using a hammer to erect homes,” he says. “But my primary contribution has been getting the materials and the trucks here. The village does not have roads but paths, so it’s necessary to carry in a lot of stuff by hand where vehicles don’t have access.”
Another project called Just One Village has also shared materials with Nipah. Despite the efforts of Clayton and that group, the residents of the village are still waiting for support from their own government.
“I can only say thank you to Ryan because he came and is helping the village,” says Ramdan, Pur’s nephew. “But I am also waiting for my government, although it seems they will take a long time.”
Clayton has been told this was the reason he got lost at the sea – so he could return to help the village. “If that is the reason, I am very happy that it happened, so I could meet the beautiful people of Nipah,” he says. “When you are in the water for 12 hours, it is very clarifying … All the time I have now is extra.”
Clayton plans to spend the next year writing about his life-changing experience. Beyond that, he is unsure of what the future holds – but Nipah will remain a crucial part of it.
“There are so many things to appreciate here,” he says. “They live in perfect harmony with nature. They eat food from the ocean and from the trees. They work a bit, but they spend a lot of time hanging out with their family. They are in general much more sensitive people. I will come here my entire life. I want to bring my family, my [future] children. I want them to meet the man who allowed my existence.”