Travelling through Muslim countries as a solo female

In Bali it’s not uncommon to see Western girls freely strutting around with bronzed arse cheeks hanging out of the bottom of ripped denim shorts. However, there’s a strong likelihood they’re there for the vortex of clubs, beaming with hot surfers tanked up on $1 shots of Arak, looking for a good time. But I know that’s not your mission. Seeking waves in less than chartered territory as a female, means paying a bit more respect to local culture. Indonesia contains some of the best waves in the world, but the transit to those waves equals less than desirable destinations. You’re going to have to pay attention to what’s going on around you, if you want to reach many of those palm-tree lined, white sandy beaches with the perfect peeling left hander you spotted in your favourite edition of Tracks magazine.

So what exactly does it mean to travel alone as a female, especially in Muslim territory? Generally, it means you’ll gain a lot of attention from the opposite sex, even if unintentional. You’re exotic to anyone you pass by. But if adventure is alive in your heart, these culture shocks are the eye-opening experiences are exactly what you’re chasing.  The ones that make you appreciate the laidback lifestyle you likely left behind photo 1in your home country.

I’ll never forget my first adventure to Mentawais travelling solo. Through the last minute nature of organizing my time out there, I have to say I didn’t have much time to plan and research. I had read that a rather conservative culture existed on the mainland of Sumatra, and I already knew that the transit through Malaysia was the same.

I was appropriately covered head to toe in light cotton pants, the type you see tacky tourists wearing in Thailand. Yes, they may have even had elephants printed all over them.  It was pretty obvious to cover my torso and arms in a light cotton shirt. I also did my best to cover up my beach blonde hair under a Roxy cap. Before departure, I had actually trialled a head scarf, but while looking at my reflection in the mirror, concluded it was a bit OTT.

But even through this effort, I couldn’t help but notice all the looks from local men. I also surfing girlhad twenty local kids spot my blonde hair sticking out of my hat, while waiting for a boat to depart. I watched them clamber across planks of timber around the outskirts of their fishing village to be in my company for a long two hours. When they realised I was reading an Indonesian language book, I apparently became the centre point for all their jokes. Anyway, turns out I had made a few mistakes along the way and take these lessons to my next Indonesian destination.

Deflecting attention in Muslim culture

In Muslim culture, women who travel solo are generally seen as frisky and adventurous, perhaps even looking for trouble. If like me (at my time of travel to Mentawai) you haven’t yet found your knight in shining armour, head to your local jewellery shop and pick up a cheap sterling silver, cupic zirconia fake wedding ring. This will at least divert some attention. And yes, feel free to use every possible opportunity to fend off looks by running your left fingers along your chin in order to show your gem off.

When transiting through public places such as my boat crossing to Mentawai, you may or may not notice that men will sit together, with women generally staying in their bunk rooms or gathering in completely separate area. My first boat crossing I actually thought it was predominately men on board. The heat was absolutely blanketing that night, so I chose to sit out the back on the deck for much of the sleepless 12-hour night crossing.

I did think it was strange to not see many women sitting out the back of the boat, but muslim cultureagain didn’t put too much thought into it. If you can, avoid sitting in areas where there are mostly men frequenting the area.  If you’re on your own, try to sit with groups of women. If you’re travelling by bus or plane, take the window seat. In a taxi? Definitely take the back seat and make minimal conversation with the driver. Instead put your music in and be anti-social. Don’t share any of your travel details with any locals. You also want to share meal time with women rather than men.

Customs officers of the male variety will likely pull you over to ask you further questions. I found this to be a common trick of those using the power of the uniform to probe into the life of a Western girl. At one small airport I had to endure thirty minutes of questions mostly unrelated to travel. I had the customs guy turning over the contents of my bag, not even looking at the items, instead carefully watching me as he fired questions. Where’s your boyfriend? You travel alone? Where you come from? Why you surf triphere? Where you going? Surfing? Surfing? Expect these questions but give short, polite answers. Then make up an excuse that you need to be someone because your boyfriend is picking you up outside. Keep your cool and never say you’re alone. Corruption is alive and well in smaller regions of Indonesia.

Where possible avoid eye contact with men. Your non-verbal communication is important. While in Western cultures eye-contact during conversation is praised, in Muslim culture it is the opposite. Especially with the elderly, avoid making eye contact in conversation so as to offer your respect (if you so happen to stumble upon an English speaking person). Become an expert at people watching and pick up hints along the way. You may notice that Muslim women actually gaze downward in conversations with other men. Never shake a Muslim man’s hand.

As you can see, it’s simply not worth the risk of showing any kind of sexuality in a foreign Muslim country. Yes, I’ve been, and still am, the vain girl caring too much about makeup and looking good in a nice (skimpy) outfit. But here, it’s simply not worth it. Nine times out of ten you can wear a bikini at your surfing destination, but save showing any skin until that point. While in Sumbawa, a Western girl decided to take her yoga mat to the far end of the main surfing beach, in front of a village to practice yoga in just her bikinis. This was considered suggestive to a 13-year-old boy, who little to her knowledge wielded a machete behind his back upon approach. When she showed that she was not interested, she got attacked. So drop the Instagram illusions of perfect island paradises and keep your head on your shoulders.

 

 

 

 

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Thinking about surfing French Polynesia? Think again.

Being in a tumultuous relationship is not one way I would recommend spending time in paradise. Especially a two month trip. I would have loved to have done this adventure solo however, without my involvement in a particular surf project, my dreams to travel to this part of the world, would continue to remain unfulfilled.map_ga-tahiti

Traveling for a surf project

I quit my job rather suddenly (and not the 1st time) to pack up and head to the islands for what was a surf project I worked very tirelessly on.

To cut a long story short, I had applied for a role working with a ‘company’ teaching local surfers in remote islands how to shape timber surfboards in their own back yard.

Given lack of money, access to fibreglass boards and ding repair, it seemed like a perfect scenario and one that was relatively unchartered by Westerners at the time. The discovery of surfing by troubled youths living in remote islands would be a life-changer.

Somewhere along the way, I fell for the guy behind the movement. Things quickly progressed into a relationship. By quickly I mean by rocket-ship type proportions. 

We discussed project launches in PNG where he originated from. Solomon Islands was also a heavy polynesiacontender. But in the end, my ultimate dream destination won hands down.

There were many red flags along the way, but I was committed to the project and to French Polynesia come hell or high water.

This would be my first planned trip away with another man, rather than flying solo.

Little did I know, I would be leaving him on a remote island somewhere in the archipelago.  

The beautyFrench Polynesia

The trip was nearly two years ago, yet I still find it quite hard to put into words just how spectacular French Polynesia is.

Ribs of jagged coral reef in rainbow spectrums meet turquoise blue waters, contrasted by deep channels of dark purple waters. Unexplored lush green islands appear sporadically with unmissable volcanic mountaintops rising from the ocean.

Tahiti Nui

Flying into the capital Papeete is an experience rich in culture, big smiles, seafood, cruise ships and lively markets. Not to mention spectacular island backdrops. I only had one thing in mind, and that was to touch down at Teahupoʻo, a dream I’ve wanted to fulfilltahiti since I first learnt to surf.

My ex however had other ideas, with zero interest in helping me reach that very spot by rental car. Instead he erupted into an endless tangent about how commercialism is killing the soul of surfing. Red flag number 248.

The village of Teahupoʻo was a lot further from the capital than I expected, around an hour’s drive to the south-west coast. Oh, yes I had won the uphill battle to make it there. The drive is littered with fruit stalls, care-free kids, lush mountains, valleys and creeks and no shortage of black sand beach breaks.

The swell was small but I was so stoked to arrive at the dead-end street and stand at the foot of the infamous Teahupoʻo sign, that I’d seen in some of the best surf movies  growing up. The energy of the village is pretty special. It’s just raw.

I could only imagine what it would be like when the swell is 20ft with guys towing in. I’d still love to return to sit in a boat in the channel, watching fearless locals drop down the faces of monsters.

Island hopping

While I’d love to tell you where we next flew to for the two months that followed, I simply can’t. But I can fill you in on what one might experience if they choose to visit.

My ex had explored this particular island for a couple of tahitimonths prior, which allowed him to get to know the locals, the waves and ideas of where our shack could be based for the project.

And of course to skip out on some expensive nightly rates. I’m sure our experience would have been vastly different had he not worked to carve the path ahead.

I’d never before witnessed the type of waves that we would soon discover. The shack was set up in a small bay, caressed by the most perfect grinding right hander I’d ever seen. On the other side, an equally as perfect left hander. I’d heard that professional guys had died on the right before.

Luckily it wasn’t the season for it and I was quite happy I had missed it. The wave however continued to run relentlessly perfect spitting barrels. It was just too shallow.

The locals

I’d done my research. It wasn’t pretty. But I was confident in the captain that was leading me into the project and didn’t feel I had anything to worry about.

The lineup

The level of respect in the lineup here is next level. The waves are an epitometahiti of perfection, depending of course on your level of surfing.

Whichever way you look at it, the locals make sure to strongly protect their ground.

I noticed there was no such thing as crowds.

Taking your camera

If you think you’re going in with a camera to shoot the waves, from land or from sea, you’ll quickly end up on the wrong side of any local. I heard many stories of cameras being carelessly ripped from visiting surfer’s hands and tossed into the ocean.

Along with violence.

The Red Bull team visited a nearby island on a big swell and it wasn’t a good ending.

Surfing in groups

You’re not going to just paddle out and start taking waves without first approaching and acknowledging each local in the water. There’s barely any lineup in the world left with this level of respect. Enough to leave you speechless. Tattoos. Bisects. Some big humans.

You just do it. But paddle out with more than two of your mates (especially two males) and you’ll be sent in. I know of one local who brags about the amount of blow-ins he’s knocked out in a day.

Each lineup is continually patrolled by locals with binoculars on hillside shacks, ready to call out boats if any trouble is spotted.  Be prepared to paddle. Some breaks sit 1KM offshore and include some brutal currents and bone crushing sections over dry reef to leave you out of breath

Other efforts to fit in

Refuse to take up an offer to drink tequila shots at the bar when it’s one of the guy’s polynesiabirthdays, well you’ll probably lose some respect too.

And they know how to drink.

Try too hard to fit in without invites, you’re likely to be sniffed out pretty quick and asked to leave the island.

Nine out of ten locals you have nothing to worry about, but there certainly are some that will take it to the extremes. 

The level of surfing

Some of the waves had me on the edge of crying with fear. I wrote about one particular session here.

Would I recommend solo travel for a female surfer?

The island is full of 360 degree views of every colour spectrum of flowers and tropical fruit you can imagine. It is a rich ground for deep sea pearls and sacred blue-eyed eels. It truly is something you could imagine out of a dream.

My experience however, was not without being woken from an afternoon nap, with death threats dished out to my ex, simply for making one silly mistake. The relationship turned into a brutal mess and in the end, I decided it was not a place for me to stay and once again departed solo. Narrowly missing out on a wedding proposal but perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Would I recommend another girl to travel here solo? Papeete and Tahiti waves yes. Outer islands I would suggest bringing a guy that has experience with locals of smaller islands, unless you have contacts in the area. Oh, and your surfing needs to be at a pretty high level.

The Status Quo

There’s a common theory that at the age of 28 a big transitional period in most people’s lives take place. You might get a panic or anxiety or that “old” feeling perhaps as you get closer to the big 30. The life structure that just worked throughout your 20’s mightn’t feel so fitting. It can also be a time of great pressure if you haven’t quite found what you’re looking for in terms of career satisfaction or relationship status.

From an astrological and numerological perspective it is said the physical body goes through seven year cycles and 28041_10151118702540168_796332908_nthe emotional and personal body nine years. If you were to research more into this, you will see it is quite a powerful transition that can either be treated with respect and used as an inner compass, or resisted against and be seen as your own enemy.

Ever since I left high school I never had any intent to take on any further education. While I loved school and received good grades I just wanted to get out into the world and learn and study from just ‘living’.

Even though I was stuck in a city for the first six years of my working life, I wasn’t overly fussed with what kind of work I was doing. As long as it meant I was able to set sail on the weekend and embark on a two day action-packed adventure to find the best waves on offer. While I accidentally carved myself a career along the way as a legal secretary in between travel, eight years have now gone by.

With what feels like a passing of extended surf trips overseas (for seasons at a time), I’ve taken this year as more of a year of grounding and quiet. I had only ever heard of the “28 year theory” briefly while I was travelling in Tahiti last year, and have since not paid any attention to it.

To say this year has been easy would only be one half of the truth. Somehow I have found myself a little lost, even lonely in the post travel realm. Friends have moved away, married up and started families. Confusion mounts and laps at my feet as to the once warm feeling of a true ‘home’.

Over the past year I’ve also considered my position in society as a giver, a contributor and what I truly have to offer in this lifetime. I seem to always have had the opportunity to help clients daily at work, through horrific motor vehicle injuries or encounters with the 10301118_10152556715340168_4391682234274403263_nwrong side of crime, have always put time aside for volunteer work at nursing homes and spent many trips away assisting at orphanages, however lately I’ve labelled myself selfish to pursue the never-ending wave of perfection.

I’ve re-evaluated just how many hours, days, years I’ve spent in the ocean deeply encapsulated in that pursuit. Sadly I’ve been so hard on myself I’ve actually spent less and less time doing what I love but never quite found that substitute for happiness. In that ‘hardness I’ve also re-evaluated my career path, which has always worked in terms of stability and closeness to the ocean and a healthy lifestyle, but that true lack of passion for the work seems to surface more and more often of late.

Over the past few months I’ve also found myself attracting those that pour their everything into their work, where their satisfaction lives, their purpose in this life. What I’ve come to realise is that while that is their story, it doesn’t necessarily have to be mine.

Giving myself some much needed time out from my own hardness, I’ve discovered a message that keeps rising up from inside- with passion comes a deep love and a desire for life itself. When you extract passion, the days seem dull and lacking in colour and you can rather unconsciously begin to give up hope.

To me I’ve always seen surfing as a relationship withhappy days surfer girl the ocean. This has remained my view as I see others have close relationships with their partners, their true loves. I see mine as a close relationship with my lover the ocean. Both are in a way self-fulfilling but makes us (through that love) better, softer, more compassionate humans.

The moral of this story is never give up doing what you love because of the pressures of the outside world.

If you’ve already found your passion in life, there’s no need to find it elsewhere because of the “status quo”. Simply pursue it with all of your heart and live in that happiness and joy.

Surfing’s Unforeseen Assets

I recently had a conversation with someone about assets, you know the house, car, substantial savings in the bank kind of assets. I was asked a rhetorical question of “so what do you have to show for all this travelling?” amidst a reeling conversation. I knew immediately that question was intended to be talking about material assets or assets of “apparent” “worth”. I tend to take a while to think things through, usually in the form of overthinking, and it wasn’t until I was out in the water days later that I solidified all the reasons why I do what I do. I was eventually able to answer in my own mind “what do I have to show for all this travelling”.

I can be reckless and at times irresponsible with money. To be honest I’ve never really been good with it but I’m working on it- everyone has their weaknesses and I can safely say that money is mine. But you know what? I have assets, they’re just not visible to most people’s eyes.

To me health is my number one asset. If I’m out in the water surfing for hours it’s one of the best cardio workouts I can think of and I’m taking in an abundance of vitamin D fromsurf paddle the sun (sometimes a bit too much). The beneficial properties of salt water has been well documented and reported on. Salt water contains many trace elements and vitamins, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, keeping my skin fresh and healthy. In addition to physical health I have mental health dialled in simultaneously. My mind is so focused on the waves, patterns and colours in the sky and watching tidal effects (to name a few) that I’m very rarely thinking about what’s been happening in my life on land. Talk to any surfer and they will all relay the same kind of almost meditative state out there. I guess that’s where Isak Dinesen’s quote comes in “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

To surf for hours I need to fuel my body with the right kind of foods, therefore surfing island girlgoes hand in hand with a healthy diet. That’s why I choose to be vegetarian with the exception of seafood. I know if I follow a raw diet derived predominantly from nature I’m going to have a clean and long-lasting supply of energy, one very unique from the short energy burst that comes from sugar and other refined products.

I see another powerful asset as the sheer experience of surfing perfect waves around the world. How could that not be an asset? It’s a surfer’s dream to be able to paddle lineups they have been drooling over for years (sometimes a lifetime) from their favourite surf movie or magazine. You simply can’t put a price tag on a perfect wave or a solid barrel, it’s something you cannot buy with paper money. When you find yourself in some foreign country, you get to experience cultures entirely different from your own and learn how to travel the right way (and the very wrong way). I can think of many people who would never leave the comfort zone and safety of “home” due to deeply embedded fears about travelling and it takes courage to make the leap. Sometimes travelling can be measured to a level of extreme survival (see my story here) which can be life changing and your perspective of the world will never be what it used to be prior to departure. Ka-ching, another asset in the bank.

Ocean knowledge. Oh those days when it’s big and stormy and you’re very quickly put in your place up against mother nature. You’re an ant in a very big and wild arena. So many times I’ve thought of someone on land, one of those someones who live in a bubble, those someones who lead fake lives- I think of them and would love to place them in a situation against a big wave, shake them out of their shallow pretentious living and see how they would make it out alive- then see their viewpoints and values change entirely.  Again-it’s all perspective.

Basically, any “asset” such as a car, piece of expensive furniture or electronic device is going to de-value over time, sometimes very rapidly. However, all of the above assets are with you for life, or at least into your very old years as long as your memory serves you.

broken head

Life outside the surf scene

Last year I made a very uncharacteristic decision to move to the highlands of Northern Thailand, roughly 1500kms away from the nearest ocean. I had just spent two months in the most stunning part of the world- French Polynesia, where some of the most beautiful waves of perfection still remain unridden. So why did I make the move to dry land? Surfing is undoubtedly, to me, the reason I was put on this earth, the one passion that will always have me leaping out of bed at first light, sending shivers up my spine, butterflies in my thailand surfer girlstomach and an uncontrollable grin after an epic session. The ocean is my happy place, my church, my solace, my calm and most importantly my home. I just realised something was missing, something had been overdone or lost, overlooked, neglected, untouched- I just didn’t know what. See, we as surfers just become so consumed in the sport. It’s a selfish pursuit to spend what spare time we can chasing the most perfect wave, the one better than the last, the barrel bigger than the one before, the glassier session, the longer swell period, just more and more perfection and more and more expectations of what the ocean can offer us. Put millions of fellow surfers together pursuing that same thing and that selfishness multiplies. I had had enough of the crowded lineups, the aggression, the drop-ins, the surf slang, the ego and the masculine, I gradually realised what it was I needed- time out from surfing.

So there I was sitting in the back of a tuk tuk, weaving in and out of the city streets of Chiang Mai with my freshly purchased “suitcase” resting next to me, rather than my well-travelled board bag. I almost didn’t recognise myself, in fact I felt like I had morphed into a completely different person stripped of my very identity. The blinkers that I had been wearing since I discovered surfing at 14 years old had finally been peeled away and my eyes11755841_10153297941530168_7174339769817644684_n opened up to a different culture and part of the world I never thought I would explore. I was able to eagerly watch and learn the peaceful Buddhist ways, their daily rituals and most importantly what it was that they held dear to their hearts. I recognised similarities in the way they returned daily to the beautifully constructed temples of prayer, because in those temples I saw a vast ocean. In a strange way, the influence of another culture around me forced me to reinvent myself from the inside out. For so long I had placed myself in the constricted box that is the surfing scene. I was able to distinguish my valuables from the invaluables, recall the forgettable from the unforgettable and strengthen the bonds with those that mattered most back home.

After two months and many temples, pad thais and songthaews later I found myself in a state of absolute craving for the ocean. I realised just how much I had been taking each surf for granted. The simple act of feeling the sand between my toes as I strolled the water’s edge, preparing to launch into the salty goodness simply had become an unappreciated daily routine. There were so many hundreds of aspects of surfing I just expected to be there without truly being thankful for.

Intentionally living in an inland location has been one of the strongest ways in which I increased my gratitude for surfing and the pure beauty of the ocean. It isn’t just a temporary state of gratitude but rather one that I feel will be there for a lifetime now that I have experienced that chapter of my life. There remains a deep realisation of just how lucky I am to choose the life of a surfer, to surround myself in like-minded individuals and the free-spirited nature that comes hand in hand with pursuing waves of perfection. Nothing changes in the fact that it is a selfish sport, because the rewards, the thrills and the highs are solely for your own being but life without a passion becomes not much of a life at all. It’s a healthy addiction when consumed in balance to all other important aspects in life. As with most things- balance is the key.

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         Photo by Matty McCann