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 in 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 had 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 again 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 here? 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.