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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Mentawai Islands

If you’re a princess kind of surfer who must wear delicate designer bikinis and only paddles out to be “seen” by the men,  I highly recommend staying home as this place is not for the faint-hearted. If I could associate one word with Mentawai my first pick would be “wild”. Think jungle meet waterfall, meet crystal clear lagoon and waves that will absolutely blow your mind type perfection. If you’re a surfer, this is the one part of the world you definitely should not leave untouched.

Stay at home princesses

Just getting to the outer islands can become a treacherous and very tedious adventure, depending on your style of travel. For me I opted heading over to work at a surf camp, which turned into an accidental-lets fall in love at first sight with owner of camp- have craziest period of my life to date type of travel.

Totally unplanned. Totally let’s drop everything I thought I knew about life. Totally and utterly unforgettable.

Doing it rough

Over the period of two months in these islands, my mock itineraries included being the 10361064_10152102063020168_2727645846378015545_nonly Westerner sleeping top to tail amidst hundreds of local Indonesians on the floor of a rusted out boat.

The very same port to port journey in which a boat of similar description capsized in rough seas killing seven locals that same evening.

I sat for 12 hours in a tiny fishing village wondering if a boat home was ever going to arrive. I found myself being transported in dug-out canoes built to strictly transport supplies to the camp.

The scariest of all was stepping foot onto the same supply boat racing out through a narrow reef passage into the biggest, roughest stretch of ocean I have ever seen before, drenched to the bone and terrified if I would make it out alive.

vs doing it in luxury

Now, enough of the crazy stories.  The majority of surfers that visit the Mentawais opt for a more comfortable experience for their short period of time in paradise. There’s thirty or so charter boats from budget to luxury that buzz around the chain of islands.

You’ll also find a select number of land camps to choose from- most in which offer a safe and enjoyable ride from the mainland (to avoid the crazy alternatives that I found myself taking). The Mentawaisocean house feature the “no rules, anything goes” type lifestyle where you can truly live with no restrictions that you find back home.

Some surfers take this too far and end up living out there too long and completely losing their minds or going “troppo” as they say.

An amazing experience

Being a chick in the Mentawai rocks. Guys give you massive credit and respect in the lineup as they’re stoked to have a female join them in some heavy waves. Your surfing ability will improve faster than you can imagine, with mechanical barrels galore and long green walls that seem to peel forever.

When you’re not surfing  you can go brave the dense jungle, practice your Indo on locals in the small villages, pick fresh tropical fruit from the trees, explore outer islands and reefs,  snorkel & spearfish, gaze at picture perfect sunsets or pretty much anything your heart desires. But remember- no barbie dolls in these neck of the woods.

exploration

Dreaming or Reality?

Close to three days of tedious, but thrilling solo travel from airport to airport, port to port, island to island. The weather didn’t offer the most comforting arrival, for she decided to let the swells rise and the winds roar across the open ocean, whipping up bucketloads of water to soak everything within the age-old wooden boat I was travelling in. Passing jagged reefs and palm trees bent backwards in the strong winds, I could only imagine the island paradise it would be under blue skies and calm winds.

The Indonesian “captain” of the boat eyed off a narrow passage in the reef and began to steer the long wooden boat towards shore. I could just make out the thatched roof of the surf camp nestled at the foot of a dense jungle, my vision blurred by the constant onslaught of salt water burning my eyes. Six foot tall, muscular, tanned and covered in tats, he stood at the shore eagerly awaiting my arrival. With the engine cutting off just before reaching the broken coral shore, he rushed towards the boat and was waist deep in water, dragging the boat to finally touch the safety of land. “Sorry about the weather”, he said in a thick Argentinian accent with a big grin. “All part of the adventure isn’t it?” I replied letting out a burst of laughter.

Waking delirious from a deep sleep in the middle of the night, I noticed a myriad of light in the atmosphere and loud thunder out to sea. The full moon illuminated the sky, the golden paradiselight glistened off the ocean surface at the foot of my bed. I had been set up in a bamboo hut at the end of a coral bay, with the ocean lapping at the foot of the hut. Bolts of lightning broke unforgivingly into the ocean at the horizon line. I could feel a strong wind pick up and pass through the open window and realised the storm front was rapidly heading towards the island. I got up and literally “battened down the hatches” as there was no window to the hut simply a wooden hatch. The wind grew stronger by the minute and I felt as though the hut could lift right off its base and carry me into the dark jungle behind, never to be seen again.

The last dream I recall before waking that morning was so intensely vivid it felt so real as to transpire. I dreamt I was living in a timber shack on a tropical island, waking and opening the door to see absolutely perfect waves and an equally as dreamy man walking up the beach towards me with a hottropical paradise cup of coffee. It was then that I actually opened my eyes and woke up amazed at the dream I had just had. I was still delirious from travelling and for a moment I forgot where I was. I then realised I was in a timber hut and remembered the storm the night before and how I closed the timber hatch, therefore I was in lying in a darkened room. I rose to open the door to allow light in and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The moon was setting over the ocean, the surf was absolutely pumping, a perfect left-hander peeling off directly in front of the hut and a deep blue sky above. I cast my eyes up the coral bay and there he was walking up the beach with a cup of coffee “good morning beautiful”.

I’ve always been one to experience vivid dreams but I had never experienced a dream so intense as the first night I spent on this island. It was such a powerful merge of dream and reality, I had a hard time distinguishing which was which. In fact this was just the beginning of many twists on reality. I’m not sure what it came down to, but my only guess is that when you take yourself away from “society” and live so free on a remote island, indulging in the finest acts of freedom you begin to experience time at a heightened level. Kind of like being inside the barrel. Scientists still haven’t been able to explain the amazing phenomenon, where multiple surfers over the decades describe time standing still when they are deep in the heart of the barrel. Each day over the two months I spent at this island felt as though I was gifted with two days in one. Time was actually extended. I spent my days painting underneath the palm trees, surfing waves beyond perfection, diving and weaving throughout ribbed coral gardens, exploring dense jungles and racing by motorbike through remote villages.

island life freedomWhile it’s hard for the average person to ever experience this kind of feeling in their lifetime, due to work, financial and family commitments, if at some point you can escape “reality” for a couple of months to dive deep into your passions in a remote country, you will never forget in your lifetime the magic of those moments and how you cheated the ticking clock that so many of us abide by each and every day.

girl diving

Wild Island Escape

They had been tracking the swell off the coast of Africa for two weeks. A slow moving, season defining system making its way across the Indian Ocean- our little island’s home wide open to accept its almighty power. Waking blurry eyed after a restless night sleep, the light was yet to show on the horizon to bring another day. Making my way to the hut barefooted, I gasp as I stub my toe heavily on a large chunk of coral. Limping off in pain I gaze across the green grass, the light from the porch revealing several hundred more chunks of coral far up the bank. I’ve not known the water to ever come up this high before. This wasn’t a good sign.

I pour myself a strong cup of coffee and sit quietly, hearing the roar of the ocean towards the darkened sea, the lull between sets softened by the usually loud sounds from the jungle behind me. “It’s not a good day to go”, the voice of the surf camp owner breaks across the room with concern. I respond “I can’t stay, I’m not putting my life in his hands, I just don’t feel safe here with him”.

I’m alone on a remote island densely covered in jungle. All outside guests of the surf camp had left two days prior, leaving just myself and two owners of paradise bikinis
the camp, one of which is my now estranged boyfriend. In a heartbeat he had dictated my own love for him as non-existent. His delusion and insecurity just wouldn’t cut through the truth of how strong my feelings were for him. I’ve seen too much of his aggression to negotiate any possible terms to stay. My time in this tropical paradise has felt like a dream but so quick it can turn into a living nightmare overnight.

My journey ahead (as I find out) requires navigating one of the biggest swells in years in a dugout canoe with outboard for close to three hours, before anxiously waiting twelve hours in a small fishing village for a public boat. This unforeseen wait only adds more time to my already twelve hour overnight boat ride, sleeping top to tail with hundreds of locals. From the mainland I wait six hours for a connecting flight, travel by car for two hours to the small airport where an hour by plane lands me in an international airport. From here I can catch a three hour flight to Bali where I plan to touch down at around 3am- two days from now. The fact I face this journey solo rules out any chance for emotions to break through as they are quickly overruled by hits of adrenaline.

Standing on the shore with a group of local Indonesian workers, my surfboards are firmly strapped in the wooden canoe and wrapped under a large torn tarp. I bear a flimsy poncho, well and truly not up for the task ahead. We wait for the sets to pass before we can escape out to sea, via the narrow reef passage before us. My eyes nervously scan over the dark eyes of the workers who wait in silence, looking equally as fearful as each other. It’s hard to gauge the size of the waves in the stormy conditions but it’s easily fifteen to twenty feet and building rapidly. The entire front section of the camp is flooded out, with coral strewn across every square inch of land. The darkened skies above threaten downpours. Further up the beach my old bamboo hut is starting to give way, as the tide gushes ferociously under its floor and over the embankment, filling the lagoon that lays behind it. With every set the water races up the beach smashing broken coral against my ankles and I’m constantly rushing behind a palm tree for protection. I push the thoughts out of my head that this was the very location the Boxing Day Tsunami tore through only years before.

Twenty minutes pass and there’s still no safe break between the relentless sets. We continue to patiently wait before I hear the voice of the camp owner “Ok go, go, go, go, ocean stormShannon get in, satu, dua, tiga, puush, satu dua, tiga puush”. I scamper into the boat, heart racing out of my chest and adrenaline filling every vein in my body. The group of workers use all of their strength to push the boat off the coral sand. Whitewash races over the edge of the boat instantly soaking everything within. The engine splutters as it attempts to start and we slowly begin to head out towards the rough sea. I glance back towards land with a heavy heart, as I see no sign of the man I thought I was in love with. I pull my hat down over my red ravaged eyes, not wanting to look at the site ahead. Each time we reach the peak of the ocean swell, I cling to the edges of the boat as we drop violently onto the flat water with a loud thud, almost shaking me out into the rough waters. Every few seconds it feels as though someone is holding a large bucket of water and releasing it onto the boat. My intense love for the ocean fades in this moment as fear washes over my body.

I’m relieved as we miraculously make it around the back of the lineup. I glance up and am speechless at the sight of open ocean swell. Scenes from the movie “The Perfect Storm” flash in front of me, I feel the boat climb a very steep section of swell for what feels like eternity in this moment, I continue to hide under my hat. “Uh oh”, I hear from the Indo guy, as he switches the engine off. I shut my eyes tightly and crawl below the broken piece of wood I’m sitting on and brace my knees. We decline down the opposite side of the swell and violently hit the flat surface, as gallons of water are thrown onto us once again. The entire boat gives way to the right side, forcing the edge to catch and sink beneath the surface where we come close to capsizing. The price we pay to ride waves of perfection.

Indonesian Boat Crossing

With no sign of any Westerner, she passed cautiously through the rotted wooden boat catching glimpses of dark faces peering through the shanty cabins intrigued by her blonde hair and tan skin. Given the spontaneity of the six-month journey she quickly realised that her basic Indonesian would not serve her in this situation.

There was a task she had been putting off for as long as she could bear but she was now desperately needing to locate some form of a toilet. The rear of the boat was dark and unexplored, a kerosene lamp clattered noisily against the wall, hung by a tattered rope giving just enough light to locate the only door she hadn’t attempted to enter, a door barely hanging upright on its hinges. An Indonesian man sat nearby, cigarette poised between his lips, his dark eyes staring her down, she passed with little care as she was at the point of bursting.

Sea sickness hadn’t bothered her until the sight of the apparent toilet, perhaps it was lucky to not be so well lit as she closed the rusty door, barely managing to fit in the small area, the rock of the sea causing her to slip and slide on the mouldy floor, the stench almost unbearable. She noticed a small coke bottle and plastic pipe letting water pass through the drilled hole in the wooden deck, barely keeping up to its intended task but assuring her she must have been in the right place.

She returned to her sleeping area, stomach now churning, once again finding her spot nestled between dozens of Indonesians on the floor. Chickens noisily contained in woven cages, cockroaches scrambling past avoiding the heavy footprint of restless children. Her iPod became her saviour, relieving the anxiety and reality of how far she had stepped out of her comfort zone, the lyrics of her favourite songs meaning more than ever before, each beat matching the beat of her heavy heart as she eventually drifted to sleep only to be woken by the violent sway of the boat in the treacherous swells. She lay quietly observing the movement of life around her.

She began to cultivate thoughts of the human condition, the basic need for survival and safety, food and water, love and equality. Later she would discover a boat travelling that night on the very same route had capsized in the rough seas killing seven locals. She had risked it all for the prospect of perfect waves.

She was two hours away from her destination, now travelling by a small dugout canoe navigating bays lined in palm trees and mesmerising crystal blue waters. It had taken almost three days of travel. The sight was absolutely spellbinding. A surfer standing tall in a perfectly groomed overhead barrel breaking along a pristine reef. An immense grin crept over her weary face and shivers lit up her spine, her previously held doubts of the journey vanished and she had finally reached the ultimate surfer’s dreamland.   Mentawai