An Unnatural History


John Michael Gorrindo


A tropical island is no paradise without fresh water.  Short of harboring precious metals, gems, or oil, a small island would be most likely considered uninhabitable- no matter its natural beauty- if the life-giving substance was not available.  The right natural history is what most naturally draws men to a  piece of land.

This would seem especially true in the world’s greatest archipelago, where more than 17,000 islands are strewn across some five thousand kilometers of oceans and seas.  With so many islands available for habitation, why chose one where even the most basic of human needs can’t be met?  The proof is in the numbers.  Only 1,100 of Indonesia’s islands are inhabited, due almost strictly to the factor of fresh water availability.

But man’s unquenchable thirst for new frontiers and securing unclaimed lands often defies what might be considered reasonable logic- especially so if such an island, or group of islands, lies close to a much larger, mother island.  It would cross a man’s mind that fresh water could be imported by boat.  It then becomes a matter of calculating the affordability.

Fifty years ago, Hadji farmed a poor, increasingly infertile plot of land in South Sulawesi.  As his youth passed and his parents died, he assumed manhood having inherited an aging house set on a small plantation of coconut palms that grew less productive with the passing seasons.  Hadji watched as his neighbors continued to live hand-to-mouth with no relief in sight.  Not a man willing to accept such a lot in life, he traveled to Tanah Beru in search of work, leaving his parents’ land to the care of his younger brothers.

When Hadji arrived in Tanah Beru, it was still the archipelago’s premier port of traditional ship building.  The pinisi schooners built there were the sturdiest, sleekest, most sea-worthy prahu to be found anywhere within thousands of kilometers in any direction.  Hadji’s hopes were to become an apprentice builder, but that would take time and luck.  He was a coconut farmer from the kampung, and knew nothing of the sea.  And building pinisi was the stock and trade of the local Bugis.  A proud, exclusive, and sometimes violent people, the Bugis were jealous of the manifold secrets which surrounded every detail of building the hardwood schooners, from the proper selection of wood to the correct manner in which the ritual slaughter of a goat in the hull of a new ship was performed before the ship’s maiden voyage.

Hadji was not of Bugis’ blood.  Gaining entrance into the Bugis’ ship building brotherhood would be a difficult task for an outsider like himself. His initial task became one of earning their trust.  He arrived in Tanah Beru penniless after walking for five days from his small desa, knowing not a soul, nor the Bugis’ language.  But Hadji knew coconuts, and it provided him a finger hold in the rough and tumble ship building port.

Making copra is a labor intensive process, and Hadji wandered throughout Tanah Beru’s surrounding farm lands in hopes of finding a local coconut farmer who could use a man of his experience.  Hadji initially asked for only room and board, and had no problems securing work as he could husk coconuts with speedy prowess, and was an expert at drying large batches of them in the copra ovens.  Skill, endurance, and industriousness allowed him to survive those early days as a newcomer to the Bugis stronghold.

Within a few months Hadji found work cutting specially selected trees from out of the low montane rainforests of southern Sulawesi and hauling them down to Tanah Beru’s shipyards.  This put him in contact with most of the ship builders.  Hadji was astounded to learn how the pinisi were built.  The shipwright’s designs were always a slight variation on a theme, and were never drafted on paper.  They were carried as a vision in the shipwright’s mental eye and their details communicated verbally to the builders.  The builders demonstrated uncanny resourcefulness.  Utilizing only four tools- a hand drill, wood chisel, saw, and hammer- they managed to assemble sailing ships that could withstand the elements for voyages of a year or more at sea.  Every single piece of material used to build the ships- from the nails to the sails- was made of wood or natural fibers.  The ships carried the scent of the rainforest with them out to sea.

The pinisi were primarily used to haul cargo long distances for trade.  The rest were used for fishing and sometimes for piracy.  A large pinisi at sea was an ominous sight- its distinctive shape and black sails put fear in the heart of ship captains and their crews sailing their own cargo across the waters of the archipelago.  Piracy was a Bugis’ “pastime”- and it was not uncommon for a crew of Bugis pirates to turn on their own kind if a cargo of substantial worth was to be had.
After two years of hard work, Hadji saw no particular future for himself in Tanah Beru.  Rather, it was the stories he had heard about far away places that peaked his curiosity and fueled his hopes.  Tales from distant islands came back with returning Bugis sailors.  Descriptions of fertile lands that supported agriculture of all sorts were of particular attraction. Hadji saw his future laying more with the land, and less with the sea.

The problem with South Sulawesi had to do with its relative infertile soil.  The bedrock was limestone.  No rivers ran through it- only under it.  The rains were simply absorbed by the porous bedrock and leached into crevasse, collecting in underground pools and tables.  The top soil turned dry and dusty during the dry season.  Crop yields weren’t good, nor were the variety of crops that could be grown.  And Hadji discovered he was still a farmer at heart.  What his heart yearned for was a fertile piece of land.

Eventually, Hadji arranged for passage on a Bugis’ pinisi bound for one of those fertile islands whose tales he had heard about in Tanah Beru.  It was a glorious day when the ship set sail.  It would not be long before he could set foot on a real volcanic island whose soil was as rich as could be imagined.

The ship was bound for Lombok, located next to Bali across a deep and narrow strait of water.  Lombok was the home of Mount Rinjani- one of the word’s most massive volcanoes.  The foothills surrounding Rinjani was enriched with soil as fertile as anywhere on earth.  Rinjanis’ towering heights offered a most unusual advantage as well.  Moisture-laden air warmed by the sun rushed up Rinjanis’ flanks as thermals and in the cool, higher altitudes condensed as water droplets onto every square centimeter of thick rainforest vegetation that clad the five summits of the volcanic complex.  The water droplets collected into the deep humus that padded the forest floors and ran down hill, eventually conjoining as rivulets, then streams, and finally as gushing rivers that fed the foothills at the volcano’s base.  Drought was a near impossibility here- it was not a land dependent on rain- only tropical air.  The mountain did the rest of the work.

But when Hadji arrived on Lombok, he traveled up to these wondrous foothills and discovered what little land was available was too expensive for his meager means.  He was disheartened but learned of other opportunities nearby.  As cost was the limiting factor, his options narrowed to more undesirable land; land more inaccessible, remote, and undeveloped.  A cluster of three small, uninhabited islands came to his attention.  They lie a short distance off the northwest coast of Lombok, nestled together like sisters.  It was here on the Gili Islands that Hadji settled; first on Gili Air, and eventually moving to Gili Trawangan, the largest and flattest of the Gili group.

On Gili Trawangan, Hadji arrived as one of the earliest inhabitants, and claimed title to a large, flat tract of scrub land in the small island’s interior.  After clearing the land, he imported young coconut trees brought in by boat, and divided up his parcel into part coconut palm plantation and part pasture land for cows and goats.  The surrounding sea was teaming with fish, and Hadji took advantage of that as well.

Hadji managed to acquire the land as it cost him next to nothing.  That was due to the
water- that is, the lack of it. 

So it was this hard-up coconut farmer who took a chance and tried his hand at planting coconut palms on an uninhabited island whose only source of fresh water was seasonal rains.  It was the cheap land that beckoned, and fortunately, coconut palms aren’t temperamental.  They are a hearty tree that has no particular aversion to salt water, the presence of which made the ground waters of Gili Trawangan brackish at every tree root.

Hadji succeeded in surviving the first few difficult years. He took what he learned from the Bugis boat builders and built his own small boats which he used for fishing and to transport all needed supplies- including fresh water- from Lombok’s nearby ports.  Other settlers slowly trickled into Gili Trawangan, but Hadji remained the largest and earliest land owner.  The oldest daughter of one settling family became his wife, and over a period of fifteen years, she bore him ten children.  The family became the island’s most prominent.

By the time Hadji’s oldest children were of school age, the Indonesian government was building schools at an unprecedented rate across the young republic.  School construction was taking place on small, remote islands as well.  Compulsory education as instituted by national law now required all children complete schooling through grade six.  Hadji had never gone to school, but he had lived to see the day when his children could.  A small school house was built on Gili Trawangan not far from Hadji’s family home.
The presence of a school house was the only factor putting any distance between Hadji’s family and a completely traditional way of life.  But it was now the last quarter of the twentieth century.  The tentacles of western civilization were extending everywhere across the archipelago.

Gili Trawangan, as well as its sister isles Gili Menos and Gili Air- are text book example of tropical paradise islands.  It was just a matter of time that the world of tourism would discover their charms. What may just be a beach of white sand or ground coral to an indigenous farmer could be thought of as an asylum of escape for an overworked urban dweller from Rome.  And to a local fisherman, coral gardens and its marine life make for a livelihood, not an exotic underwater playground that takes on the dimensions of a giant tropical aquarium from behind the glass of a diving mask as worn by a young adventurer from London.

So it was with considerable surprise and some dismay that Hadji reacted upon first seeing the youthful backpackers who came shuttling out to the Gili Islands on fishermen’s boats from the nearby port of Bangsa on Lombok.  The eager eyed young men with their long hair and their girlfriends who wore next to nothing while sunbathing on the beach might have well as been extra-terrestrials as far as Hadji was concerned.  Everything about the looks and behavior of these young drifters and adventurers from America, Europe, and Australia were foreign in every sense of the word to Hadji and the rest of the islanders.

After their customary reporting to the Kepala desa’s house wherein they signed a guest
book and produced their passports, these new age travelers would make straight for the island’s beaches and set up camp, pitching their tents.  They spent their days frolicking in the ocean and coral gardens like sea nymphs.  Initially, they were novelties to the indigenous like Hadji, and not particularly bothersome as they mainly kept to themselves on the deserted beaches where only the fisherman would frequent with any regularity.  The farmers occupied the island’s interior tending their land and livestock and needn’t even have to take notice of them.

But Hadji soon realized the opportunity these foreigners presented.  Many camped for extended periods of time, and soon exhausted what little food and water they brought with them to the island.  The campers were forced to negotiate cash payments with the locals for basic needs.  The islanders were land rich, but cash poor, and the extra income was welcome.  What started as a small trickle of side money became a steady flow, and the once undeveloped coastal strip of Gili Trawangan became dotted with small warungs where food and drinks were served the growing numbers of foreign campers.  For the first time, attention had been drawn to the beaches properties.

Though Hadji disliked the foreign intrusion, he saw the future and seized the day.  He bought several plots of beach front property, and asked two of his oldest sons to erect and operate small restaurants on two of his newly purchased lots.  The money so generated was used to build the island’s first penginapan- or small hotel- which was built next to one of the restaurants.  The eldest son had learned to build boats from Hadji as a youth, and showed both a liking and talent for it.  Hadji employed him to build larger transport vessels that could be chartered for travel between Gili Trawangan and Bangsa.

Nearing the age of sixty, Hadji found himself accumulating capital wealth for the first time in his life.  In those early days of tourist development, he owned the island’s only restaurants, hotel, and the shuttle boat service to Lombok.  Hadji had shown he could change with the times, but it was his three eldest sons- Hamsi, Hassis, and Unruh- who were truly revolutionized.  Their constant contact with tourists changed their lives irrevocably.  They began to learn conversational English, German, French, and Italian.  Concepts such as advertisement, self-promotion, and polite, solicitous behavior became their modus operandi.  Foreign ways became less strange and often attractive.  Hadji stood to one side and watched these developments take place with both wonder and a jaundiced eye.  As a father, he was happy to see his sons making their way in the newly arrived ways and means of the modern world.  He conceded to the process of westernization that much.  And he had been seduced by the attraction of money as well.  But in his heart there was a growing sense of fear, shame, guilt, and some loathing.

Hadji was a devout Muslim.  No matter how far he had come in his life, the values associated with being Muslim and a coconut farmer from South Sulawesi were at the core of his being.  Some of those values were invested in the land itself.  And it was clear that tourism would forever change the nature of the land and how it was used on Gili Trawangan.  Hadji had been responsible for the initial development of the beach front properties, and soon he discovered that much more of the same was to follow.
The trend was irreversible and the speed at which it took place was breathtaking.  Hadji found it more and more difficult to take his daily walk from his plantation in the island’s interior down to the coast to check in with his three sons.  At the beach he saw new bungalows being built as well as restaurants and other concessions.  The scale and speed of the development made him cringe.  The investments were increasingly coming from sources outside of Gili Trawangan, and foreign money was beginning to dominate.  The outside world had discovered Hadji’s island and wanted a piece of the action.  Hadji could hear the death knell for the island’s traditional life.  In this he felt the fear; the shame; the guilt; the loathing.

The fear was that the world he once knew would disappear forever.  The shame and guilt resulted from the knowledge that he had directly participated and profited from the death of that world.  As for the loathing, it was directed at the tourist’s hedonistic ways.  He could only retreat into the island’s dusty interior where he could find asylum.  Fortunately, the tourists found little interest in the coconut plantations and pasture lands, and rarely did they wander away from the beaches.  Life as the island had always known it had managed to remain intact only in this agricultural interior. But even that might change with time.

The rapid development of the beaches drew the attention of regional government planners.  They approached the island’s village chief and his council with a request that a planning commission be established to oversee the parceling of the island’s lands, establishing proper property lines and making secure and legitimate transfers of land titles.  Gili Trawangan had become a piece of bona fide real estate moving into a boom economy.  Suddenly the large land owners- almost all of whom had been original agricultural settlers- were fully aware of how many arahs they owned and their land’s market worth.  Some of these settlers and their extended families now understood their land could be parceled and sold off in chunks.  Land prices began to increase significantly, and the temptation was to cash in.  Many of these landlords were becoming elderly and had very insecure incomes.  Keeping some their land and selling off the rest could give them a secure future without the fear of dislocation.

Gili Trawangan soon became overrun with speculators, traveling in from distant places such as Bali and Jakarta.  But it was the arrival of foreign capital that provoked the greatest stimulus for growth due to their ties with tour and travel agencies the world over.

Tales of Gili Trawangan’s natural beauty spread throughout Europe, Australia, and America.  Foreign investors through the agency of Indonesian partners descended upon the remaining undeveloped beachfront on the island’s east shore, and offered landowners inflated land process.  The ploy worked, and the locals were often convinced to sell.  Soon after, bars, night clubs, discos, diving concessions, and small luxury resorts catering to a young, jet-set crowd began to spring up.  Developers helped maintain the island’s quaintness by supporting the policy which forbade the use of motorized vehicles on the island.  Only horse drawn carts could be used for island transport.  They also made sure to contract local suppliers of building materials and to hire locals to do the construction.  Employees would in main come from local sources as well.  This was key to fulfilling their business plans.  The benefits had to be shared locally, or resentment would result.

But it was once the tourist infrastructure had been put in place that the most unsettling of events took place.  As mentioned, the foreign owners and operators were keen to make the island as attractive as possible to the young and beautiful.  And where the jet set goes, recreational drugs soon follow.  The question became how to safely make way for importation of illegal drugs.  It was not beyond the foreign investors and their Indonesian partners to take up this concern, however improbable and dangerous.  They were looking for the big pay off down the line when tourist interest grew to the point that demand could justify huge increases in the price of food and accommodations.  Creating a safe retreat where visitors could enjoy consumption of illegal drugs became a modus operandi towards a capitalist end.

By fortune of serendipity, the island’s bar owners discovered the cow dung in the interior’s pasturelands supported the growth of “magic mushrooms.”  Overtime, they colluded as to how best pay off the local officials and the police of Lombok in order to circumvent Indonesia’s draconian drug laws.  The only thing stronger than the republic’s drug laws was its proclivity for corruption.  The island had a security council, but never a constabulary.  Not even one policeman was stationed on the island.  Given this lack of governmental oversight, the loop hole was easily exploited.

Bribes freely flowed, and as the village chief, local council, and distant Lombok police
looked the other way, bar owners participating in the corruption were allowed to sell their patrons the locally grown psychedelic drug, and do so openly.  Wooden placards advertising “killer mushrooms” for sale stood street side in front of Irish Pubs and Disco night clubs.  It was a brazen act given drug dealing is penalized by either life imprisonment or death in Indonesia.

Gili Trawangan could now claim a new status- that of “zone of exemption”- a rogue island now controlled by foreign investors and their corruption monies which had bought them immunity from the law.

Inevitably, this drew unsavory elements into the island, much of it domestic in origin.  The ganja growing center of Aceh in North Sumatra supplied much of the Indonesia market for the illegal herb, and however low in quality, it was the only herb to be had, and sold at a brisk pace on the streets of Gili Trawangan.  To say that it was sold openly is an understatement.  Imagine a long-haired young man wearing dark sunglasses and play bongo drums out in the sun along side the street openly soliciting tourists as they passed by.  This is a primary method for dealing ganja in Gili Trawangan.  For anyone who has traveled in Indonesia, this is an anomaly of the highest order.  Very few men wear their hair long, especially on small, remote islands.  Fewer wear sunglasses.  Even fewer play the bongos.  And to have drugs on their person while pitching strangers for a sale?  It was all unthinkable.  But this was Gili Trawangan- Indonesia’s official zone of exemption.

Young Sasak men from Lombok’s major city, Mataram, filtered onto the island carrying bags of ganja with them.  As described, some solicited foreigners directly on the street.  Others acted as “touts,” or roving middle men who cultivated relationships with tourists and procured drugs for them from one of several island safe houses.

Some of the touts were petty thieves and grifters.  Foreigners were taken in by them and exploited in a number of imaginative ways.  The incurred losses were never very great, and “seeking justice” or retribution on the part of the injured party wasn’t worth the time or bother.  The humiliation suffered was what stung, but many young tourists who dabbled in fast living and street life were quick to laugh it off, treat it as an educational experience, and were too busy enjoying their tropical island vacation to really care.  It was a price they were prepared to pay- and of course, the grifters exploited this fact as well.

Within a short span of maybe ten or fifteen years, Trawangan society had become culturally infected with hard drinking, fast living tourists and the grifting underground of Indonesian pemudah who served their drug and sometimes sex needs.

Hadji’s own family was not immune to these influences.  His youngest son Saleh fell victim.  His is a cautionary tale and increasingly representative of many other young people like him to be found throughout the Indonesian archipelago.  As the twenty-first century unfolds, the reader can sense from Saleh’s story how quickly traditional life and its values can evaporate in the span of a generation.
Hadji cannot be said to have been the most patient and understanding of fathers.  By the time his last child Saleh was born, Hadji was in his forties, and to be honest, was in no particular mood for having one more child in the fold.  He had already sired nine others, and Saleh might be considered in the crasser vernacular of modern day terminology- “a mistake.”

Saleh was born with a club foot, and suffered the usual teasing and taunting that comes with deformity.  As the bungsu, or youngest of the family, he was doted on by his protective mother, but he received more of his father’s temperament than his teaching.  Customarily, oldest sons are given both more responsibility and privilege in the Muslim tradition, and this was no different in Saleh’s family.  Whereas Hamsi, the eldest son, had learned boat building from his father, Saleh received no such instruction.  He was not offered much individual attention by his father, and neither did he show outward signs of interest nor request special instruction himself.  Somehow, the father-son relationship did not materialize.  As these factors contribute, so, too, he felt the stigma of being the unwanted child.

Saleh’s real interest was in the opposite sex.  He had completed school only through grade six.  Soon after leaving school his interest in girls peaked, and he had impregnated a young Trawangan girl by the time he was fourteen.  The forced marriage which followed lasted a few short years, his young wife seeking a divorce.  Saleh’s energies were directed into extra-marital dalliances and eventually his overwrought wife abandoned him, left for Lombok, and took their daughter with her.
Saleh’s older brother Hassis was the one sibling who looked out for and cared about Saleh’s welfare.  By the time Hassis had been given the responsibility of operating the first restaurant and bungalows on Gili Trawangan, Saleh was in his late teens.  Hadji had given all his sons parcels of land- Saleh’s being a small plot in the island’s interior.  It lay fallow for a long while as Saleh was more content to hand around Hassis’ beachside digs and soak up the tourist atmosphere.

After the demise of Saleh’s marriage, the house he had been living in reverted back into the hands of his former in-laws. Many in his family found reason to hold a great deal against him, even though he was still a teen-ager.  Hassis was the only sibling to extend his hand, and offered Saleh a safe haven, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat.

Saleh was undisciplined, lazy, and reckless, but not completely unaware.  How could he not be?  To be rejected by any one member of one’s family let alone several was a most unusual and serious matter for any Indonesian.  His growing isolation was a jolt.  Saleh initially rebounded from the ashes of his boyhood marriage, and commenced building a small cement block house on his plot of land.

He waited to marry again until the age of twenty-four, and soon had a baby daughter.  Having managed to complete his house, he and his young family sketched out a meager life there.  But Saleh still had no job prospects and found himself lapsing into lethargic apathy, self-loathing, and growing dependency on his brother Hassis and his wife, Ana.  Misrah, Saleh’s very young wife, helped Ana with chores at the restaurant and childcare, as Ana had two toddlers of her own.  Saleh avoided his wife and daughter as much as possible- sleeping in late before ambling down to Hassis’ from his bleak little cement home- where he would sit on the shaded porch of the restaurant, whiling away the day strumming on a homemade guitar Hassis had built from coconut wood.  His only other pastime was conversing with the restaurant and bungalow guests.  Verbally astute, Saleh picked up a considerable amount of English and Italian.  He learned what music he could from guests who played guitar and took the time to teach him new songs.  The only learning curves he had going were invested in these casual, transient contacts with foreigners.

Saleh’s ego was insufferable, and he was loose of tongue, bragging of his sexual exploits and assuring his new foreign friends as to his stud credentials.  “I have a Japanese girl friend that’s in Bali right now.  She’ll be coming to see me soon,” he would tell them.  A scant ten meters behind sat his wife, Misrah, holding their toddler and looking as miserable and neglected as any human being could.  

Household items such as the family’s one luxury item- a television- were repossessed as they fell further into debt.  Misrah could sense no future as she helplessly felt the world closing in on her, watching as her husband recoiled from his family in self-destructive paralysis.

Hadji would come down to the beachside restaurant every late afternoon, dressed in a plaid sarong, a white Muslim tunic, a pair of sandals, and wearing a white kopia, signifying he had made his pilgrimage to Mecca- perhaps the most difficult of Islam’s five pillars of faith to fulfill for any Indonesian due to its exorbitant cost.  He always took a seat in the same place- upon the elevated flooring of a beruka with his back against a corner post made of coconut wood, shaded by the thatched roof and staring unblinkingly at the sea.  His lips and cheeks were sunken as he had lost most of his teeth.

His sons Hassis and Saleh were there nearby, and though they often came down to the beach to pay some respect and acknowledge their father’s presence, Hadji rarely acknowledged them with more than brief eye contact.  To the outsider, one would not have guessed the two sons and the father were related at all.  Hadji struck a grim and glum profile, only occasionally looking over at anyone in proximity, and if he did, it was usually to stare in repulsive loathing and intolerant indignation. 

Hadji’s days were numbered it seemed, and he would die knowing a few things, and believing in a few others.  But his visions of what was important and valuable no longer greeted his eyes when he looked out at the island he had originally inhabited.  A farmer belongs to the land as much as the land belongs to the farmer.  Now the island was no more to him than a lady of the night- violated by the likes of thousands of transient feet who passed through all year round- bringing in their wake the likes of alcohol, drugs, lascivious partying, and the low-life Indonesian scum that peddled drugs in the street.  The local authorities- his neighbors- had been seduced by easy money and corruption.  The island now belonged to the international tourist industry- a modern form of colonialism that wrested land away from those who had worked it for a livelihood in accordance to the laws of nature- and without ever firing a shot.

Hadji’s self-admitted responsibility for what had transpired would be a suffering he would take with him to his death bed.  His devotion to Islam had not been carried down to all his sons- meaning Saleh- and for this he was bitter and confused.  The stark realization that ignorance in league with land speculation could desecrate his faith, steal away an entire island home, and destroy a way of life had left Hadji as paralyzed, loathsome, and ashamed as was his own son.

In this span of one generation, a way of life rooted in the distant past had been usurped as if in the dead of night, and a group of farmers awoke the next morning faced with the daunting task of catching up to the stealth of twenty-first century colonialism.  Those who had once been servants to the land were now servants to those it hosted. 

As for Saleh, the life of leisure and dreaming had become the beholding vision of life.  The greatest sadness what that the illusion had produced a profound addiction to self-hatred that devalued all other things, including the needs of his own child.

Hadji’s neglect and rejection of his youngest son might not have been so devastating had there been a way of life for Saleh to fall back on.  Maybe the land could have saved him.  Admittedly, this is a desperate form of speculation- but so was his Hadji’s gamble in settling on a tropical island with no fresh water.
It is a leap of reasonable logic to say that adherence to a system- whether it be nature’s, God’s, or speculative economics’- has natural consequences, though each unto their own naturally diverge according to circumstance.  But to blindly participate in the destruction of one’s own way of life seems most unnatural.  For Hadji, he had to suffer his own unnatural history. And what afflicts the father often visits the son.