Indonesian Rantau

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  • Chapter 3: The Gilis- "Of Neo-Colonialism and Indonesia's Zone of Exemption"


    By John Michael Gorrindo

    Indonesia Rantau

    Chapter 3: The Gilis- “Of Neo-Colonialism and Indonesia’s Zone of Exemption”

    Alex, a thirty-nine year old Sasak, can be found most any day cruising Gili Trawangans’s central hub, looking for friendly tourist faces- especially if it’s a woman’s.  Dirt poor, and having never attended a day of school in his life, Alex grew up in a remote Sasak village in eastern Lombok, an Indonesian island just to the east of Bali, but worlds away in terms of culture.  When I met him in August 2004, his wife had just left him sevenths previous, and his ethnic crafts shop was failing miserably.  One of countless children, Alex is the black sheep of the family. 

    “They look at me with one eye,” he ruefully confides.

    Using the talents he does possess, Alex has plunged into the bar scene of Gili central.  Bars on this tiny island off of Lombok’s northwest coast are open most of the night, and cater to the growing throngs of jet setting tourists- mainly European- who are drawn to this paradise island whose only local transport are horse drawn carts.  If Alex smells a lively party brewing at “Rudy’s” or “The Blue Marlin,” he grabs his hand-held shakers, small maracas in the size and shape of large chicken eggs, and makes the scene.  He affectionately calls them his “sidekicks.” 

    Upon first meeting him, he will regale you with stories of his prowess as a party-booster, a catalyst who, when bought a few drinks, will inject dance-life into a bar crowd.  Alex readily offers you, his new and fast friend, a display of his dance floor moves with shakers in hand.

    Alex’s idiosyncratic dance is strikingly reminiscent of the extreme angularity and emphasis on head, eye, arm, hand, and finger extensions that comprise the gestural vocabulary found in traditional Javanese dance and puppet choreography.  When encouraged, he takes on the guise of a trance dancer possessed by a monkey spirit, and tourists respond most positively- joining in the dance, snapping his photo, and better yet- buying him another drink.

    Alex, Gili Trawangan’s unofficial party mascot, is a tragically insecure and heart broken man.  Because of his business failures and in ability to sire children, his wife abandoned him, returning to her family home in Jember, East Java.  He learns belatedly that she has recently pulled up roots yet again, and accompanied by her brother, moved to Kalimantan having secured some type of customer service job.  As jobs are scarce in many parts of Java, she has joined the ranks as one of Indonesia’s many millions of migrant workers.

    Alex dabbles in dealing drugs- a trade of highest risk in Indonesia- but not so in Gili Trawangan.  He approaches a tourist with ganja in one hand, but his heart in the other.  If you give him some human warmth, Alex will quickly undress his psyche and reveal his life.  As you sit and share one more splif of low grade Achenese ganja mixed with cloves and tobacco, the overbearing reality of his desperation and sense of personal failure becomes gripping.

    As the details of his despair spill from his gut, Alex begins to see in you, the patient listener, not just another easy client for North Sumatran ganja, but as a potential savior.  “What do you think about my life?” he inquires with eyes tearing.  “If you tell me is OK, I thank you so much to my God.  You be my God, too.”

    But I fall short of saintliness, and can’t recall ever saving anyone.  Alex knows this, but he can still bare his soul, feel a measure of relief that someone listened to his sad story of loss and poverty.  Eventually he will ask for a few rupiah to tide him over and to borrow your torch to help light his way home.

    Some fifty years ago, a handful of enterprising families from Lombok and South Sulawesi settled the yet inhabited Gili Islands, three tiny jewels clustered just off the coast of the much larger mother island, Lombok.  Lombok lies just east of the famous “Wallacea” bio-geographic line, and though only a deep and narrow sea trench separates Bali from Lombok, Lombok and the Gilis are inhabited by different flora and fauna as compared to Bali.  The Wallacea line runs along the sea trench that divides Lombok from Bali. 

    These early settlers lived a subsistence lifestyle dependent upon harvesting coconuts and fishing.  Like many islands in the archipelago, the Gili Islands lacked in its availability of fresh water, but coconut trees could still thrive on seasonal rains and water for drinking and cooking could be brought in by boat from nearby Lombok. Gili Trawangan, the largest of the three Gilis, was the focus of agricultural development in the 1950’s.  Its interior was larger and flatter than the neighboring Gili Air and Gili Menos, and the coconut palms were imported by boat to begin the makings of an agrarian life.  Agricultural development of the interior transformed the landscape.  Much of the indigenous shrub and woodland were cleared and coconut palms planted in neat rows and columns.  Large tracts of land were also devoted to pasture, with grazing cows and goats imported as well.

    The surrounding seas were especially bountiful, and the Gili’s shared in Indonesia’s bountiful biodiversity of marine life.  Larger pelagic such as tuna, shark, and marlin could be marketed for export, and the coral reefs supplied traditional dive fisherman with subsistent catches.  These early families reaped the initial harvests of land and sea, and successfully founded a new life on Gili Trawangan.

    But the agrarian-based economy was short lived, and tourism moved in quite soon and with astonishing results.  I was not the agrarian Gili Trawangan that drew the likes of Alex to its shores, but a tourist haven complete with Irish pubs, Italian luxury hotels, and open air cafes presenting current Hollywood films on outdoor screens by means of DVD projection.
    European, Australian, and American low budget backpackers constituted the first wave of tourists invade Gili Trawangan’s pristine shores in the early 1980’s.  Accommodations did not exist, and these mainly young foreigners simply slept on the island’s beaches of coral sand.  Electricity was still nonexistent, and one had to carry in food and water.  Gili Trawangan’s west coast was unprotected from the turbulent waters of the Lombok Strait, but its east coast was protected by the presence of neighboring Gili Menos, which sits one kilometer to the east. 

    It was along this eastern coastal strip that a paradise island could be enjoyed, with a rich reef of tropical fish, clam waters for diving and snorkeling, morning views of the sun rising over the 3,600 meter volcano Gunung Rinjani to the northeast on Lombok, and complementary sunsets over Bali’s Gunung Agung to the northwest at nightfall.

    Word of this newly discovered tropical paradise spread like quickly throughout the west.  Tourism became a rapidly growing industry on all three Gilis, but especially on the larger Gili Trawangan.  With the influx came the development of Gili Trawangan’s eastern beaches, and within twenty-five years time, restaurants, bars, concessions, tour boat operators, dive centers, and some six dozen bungalows and hotels sprung up along the coral beaches.

    Gili Trawangan didn’t abandon its agrarian life in entirety.  Take one hundred steps away from the beachfront towards the interior, and one is thrown back into that original habitation of coconut trees, pasture lands, grazing cows, and scattered farm families.  Like most tourist destinations in Indonesia, Gili Trawangan offers a thin veneer of tourist accommodation which overburdens a beautiful coastal strip, cloaking a hidden, dusty interior where subsistent farming controls the rhythm and shape of daily life.  The farmer and their coconut groves are largely hidden from view by a simple wooded boundary between coast and island interior.  As such, these last, few farmers of Trawangan are largely overlooked by those whose activities are concentrated in and around the sea.

    A young Sasak mother clutches a toddler slung across her left hip while leaning her right shoulder up against the Coral Beach Bungalow’s outdoor pizza oven.  With unwavering intent, her eyes study the resort’s proprietor Hassis wash his rental shop’s snorkeling equipment while squatting down before a large black plastic tub of soapy brine.

    A light breeze blows from the south, bringing welcome relief from an August morning’s equatorial sun.  Another day slowly unfolds on Trawangan Island.  Directly in front of Hassis’ Coral Beach Bungalows and restaurant traverses a sandy pathway by which pedestrians and cidomos, the local horse drawn carts, pass.  Only the breeze and jingle of bells attached to the small horses blinders can be heard as motorized vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the island.  The well-trodden island pathway circumnavigates Gili Trawangan’s coastal perimeter, more or less following the coral laden shoreline that gleams white and bright in the tropical light.

    From the restaurant tables of Hassis’ restaurant, one looks out beyond the sandy path out onto dark blue waters and then to neighboring Gili Menos.  Small boats- some filled with tourists out for a day’s adventure diving- dot the calm strait between the two sister islands.

    European tourists, most often young couples or groups of young couples, stroll past.  Their gate and composure are subdued; their pleasure or self-consciousness expressed by a twitch of the lip; or faint, fixed smile.  Amongst them are Italians, Germans, Swedes, French, Spanish, Czechs, English, and Australians.  Americans are conspicuously absent.
    By Indonesian standards, snorkeling is good enough in the warm seas off this northeastern located beach front Hassis has managed to secure as his own.  If a snorkeler misses high tide, then the receding sea can only be reached after running the gauntlet- that is a fifty meter swath of a bleached-out, exposed coral bed graveyard, and then across a break into deeper reef waters.

    In only one hour of snorkeling, a quick and studious eye will spot three dozen species of tropical fish, some resplendently multi-colored and iridescent.  The larger creatures draw immediate attention’ occasional reef sharks, sea turtles, moray eels, and huge parrot fish swimming along their broad, flat sides can be found with patient search.

    The reef is not completely healthy, nor wholly intact.  Indonesia’s greatest manmade maritime plague- dynamite fishing- has left patches of death and ruin amidst clusters of surviving coral gardens. The healthiest gardens are found in ocean depths of four or more meters.  Most prominent are bulkheads of brown, yellow, and blue gray coral, smooth in texture and resembling giant mushroom caps in shape.

    Some fish swim on their sides, some meander about as lone feeders, and others are seen only in schools that move in a uniformity belying a single, transcendent mind at work.  The “darters” are amongst the few coral denizens who are hypersensitive to a snorkeler’s presence, speeding from one coral nook to another cranny, looking for food and cover.  Such a wondrous pallet of colors and markings are on display that one cannot help but wonder why coral creatures yearn to be noticed while most terrestrial animals have evolved to blend into the environment.  The legendary biodiversity of Indonesian reefs is well-represented off the island’s shores, and the locals have been careful not to over fish the reefs as they are Trawangan’s calling card for eco-tourists.  Not all island populations are so conservation-minded.

    After the lunchtime crowds have filtered away from Hassis’ restaurant leaving it empty for the afternoon, Hassis can be found relaxing on a hammock surrounded by members of his large, extended Trawangan family, lounging in and around the two berukas built on the coast side of the sandy pathway across from the restaurant.  Hassis might be coaxed from his hammock by his brother Saleh who brings along with him two homemade guitars constructed from grayish-white coconut wood.  The two brothers then sit together on the elevated, split bamboo flooring of a beruka, leaning against two corner posts, shaded by a thatched, grass roof. 

    Strumming gently and quietly in silence, minutes pass before a song passes from Hassis’ lips. Maybe a modern Indonesian popular song has moved him to sing; maybe an old folk tune in the local language.  But don’t be surprised- the Eagle’s “Hotel California” is just as likely to take its rightful place in the repertoire.  The two brothers had been grilling me to teach them the lyrics and chord progressions to this rock standard in addition to other popular American fare, as I had revealed my guitar skills and musical repertoire to them the first night of my arrival as a bungalow guest.

    Hassis and Saleh whiled away the afternoon playing guitars together, shaded from the penetrating sun by the beruka’s roof and kept cool by the ventilation flowing up through the elevated flooring of split bamboo.  The beruka’s symmetry and simple pole and beam construction at once lend beauty to and express the forms of the natural surrounding no less satisfactorily than a Frank Lloyd Wright design.

    Hassis and his wife Ana are from Sasak bloodlines.  This ethnic group numbers over three million, and is indigenous to nearby Lombok.  The husband-wife team makes for no-nonsense proprietors, and demonstrates a strong work ethic.  They do their best to keep the cash flow coming with their restaurant and two small bungalows, one of which I let for ten nights.  Made of all natural woods and fibers, the bungalows were designed after the traditional Sasak house design called the “Lumbung.”  At night guests rested comfortably inside on a double bed shrouded in mosquito netting.

    Cash may be hard to come by for the couple during the low tourist season, but Hassis island rich, having been given large tracts of land by his father.  With land value rapidly rising rapidly rising due to the island’s turn to tourism, Hassis and his family were much better off than most islanders.
    Hassis is a strikingly handsome, muscular man in his thirties.  Born on Trawangan he is one of ten brothers and sisters, all of whom live on Gili Trawangan as well.  Ana is kept busy by her two young daughters, works the restaurant as well as offering a laundry service. 

    In an attempt to attract tourists whose pallet yearns for western cuisine.  Hassis opportunistically learned how to make a most excellent pizza some years back from a visiting Italian chef.  In a stroke of genius, he somehow came up with the idea of building a wood fired pizza oven constructed with sand, cement, and of all things, red sugar.  “Gula merah” is an Indonesian specialty made from the arens fruit.  The most delicious sugar I have ever tasted, its inclusion into the cement mix lent a special taste to any pizza fired in the oven. 

    Hassis’ skill at making pizza dough in the tropics was no less admirable, and he spared no expense in obtaining all the ingredients as well, including the expensive and hard-to-come-by mozzarella and Romano cheeses.  Promotion is not an Indonesian forte.  Hassis and his expertise as a pizza maker remained more pronounced than recognized on the island, and after gobbling up one of his crusty pies, I couldn’t fathom how it was his restaurant wasn’t overflowing hours everyday.

    Hassis may have learned passable English and Italian as a proprietor of tourist concessions along with pizza making skills, but he was a true island mannish boy.  Accompanying him into the reef waters my second day as bungalow guest, Hassis put on a virtuoso display of his abilities as free diving reef fisherman.  Purely as an observer, I had the fortune to be able watch him at work.  Hassis carried into the water a crude, homemade spear gun and much smaller, handheld metal fishing hook. 

    Hassis hand over to me the spear gun for safe keeping as he’s first set on using the smaller fish hook to impale small black fish as they hide in the crag and divots amongst the coral.  He free dives to the ocean floor, grabbing hold of a coral outcropping with his left hand, and repeatedly penetrating a pocket in the coral with the hook in his right hand, gouging and scooping intently until the fish hiding within was speared.  Wearing only a pair of homemade swimming goggles made from glass sealed with putty into eye pieces made of coconut wood, he would then shoot to the surface.  After replenishing his breath, Hassis would feed the new catch onto leader line, one end of which was attached to his swimming trunks, and the other to an empty plastic water bottle that served as a float.  He pulled the trailing float line along with him as he swam.

    Time and again Hassis dove from the surface straight down to the coral gardens that covered the sea floor, spearing this same species of fish out of hidden hollow in select pieces of coral until after an hour or so he had twenty of them strung along the float line.  I was terribly slow to realize that he knew where the fish were hiding as he watched to see them enter into cover.  It all appeared magical to me, as if he had divined their location.
    Satisfied with his bounty, he took back the spear gun and began his pursuit of a sleek and beautiful fish, the Rainbow Runner.  A shiny patina sparkled in the rainbow coloration of their long scaly flanks. He deftly spears three large runners over the next half hour, and surfacing for one last time, Hassis hoot and bellow in victorious celebration, pumped on the success of the hunt.  He signals over to me that it has been a job well done.  Pure pride flushed with victory possessed him.

    It was late afternoon by the time we made our way back to shore, and as I painfully stumbled barefoot across the coral field at low tide, Hassis laughed in glee at my plight all the while holding on to my arm to prevent my falling.  The soles of his feet were as tough as elephant hide as he rarely wore even sandals. 
    Later that evening, Hassis and Ana extend their fishing bounty to many of their extended family as well as me and other guests.  We all gathered about dining tables next to the beach as all twenty-three fish were grilled over a wood fire, and served to the hungry throng, served along with nasi putih (white rice), a vegetable soup, stewed greens, and two hot chili sauces.  Bungalow guests were invited as well, and though the meal was offered freely, a donation was rather expected as well as appreciated.

    I return to my bungalow after the meal, which is located behind the restaurant.  As a single, I paid 65,000 rupiah per night- equivalent to $7.50.  The bungalows provided an attached “kamar mandi,” or bathroom with shower.  The toilet was western-style.  Toilet paper is available for purchase, but leaning oneself by hand (make sure it’s the left) has already become my habit after only two weeks in Indonesia, and seems a more satisfactory method once the initial squeamishness at such toilet hygiene is overcome.  Showering water is brackish.  A 1000 liter, international orange plastic holding tank elevated and placed atop a wooden tower feeds the shower and toilet plumbing with the hard, salty water pumped out of island wells.  Washing one’s hair required the use of bottled water.

    Over the ten days I spent at Coral Beach Bungalows, I carefully observe tourists who stop in to inquire about letting a bungalow.  Our location is north of the central hub and removed from the noise of crowded bars, restaurants, and sizeable, upscale hotels.  Some tourists are drawn to the relative peace and solitude of the north shores, but often find Hassis’ accommodations too rustic or, amazingly so, too expensive. Though travel guides tout negotiation as the prevailing method of transactions for goods and services in Indonesia, my experience has taught me otherwise, and certainly Hassis and Ana were averse to making concessions on their room rates.  Low budget backpackers would often straggle in and try to drive hard bargains, requesting rates of 25,000 rupiah per night, but Hassis and Ana took this as an insult, and simply turned these inquiries away. 

    The most well-heeled visitors were to be seen along with their massive amounts of luggage trundling past by cidomo further north to Gili Trawangan’s most isolated and expensive resort development, “Beda Dunia” (A Different World).  This sprawling resort charged close to a million rupiah per night (over $100.00 USD) and only accepted payment in cash by Euro or American greenback.  By the way- children were not welcome.

    An observant visitor soon learned that the boom in tourism had brought to local proprietors such as Hassis and Ana also boded for bane as well.  How long would it be before foreign investors who already owned and operated most island hotels simply force out the much more modest locally own bungalows and cottages by driving up land prices and offering local beach front land owners inflated real estate deals that would be near impossible to refuse?  I knew this woeful syndrome of tourist driven capitalism all to well having grown up at Lake Tahoe during the years it was developed.

    As Gili Trawangan’s economy becomes more dependent upon tourism, foreign owned concessions and off shore investors increasingly gain status as the island’s true power brokers.  Western monies from mainly Europe and Australia have developed the tourist infrastructure helping to triple beach front real estate prices over the past five to ten years.  The “arah” is the local unit of land measure, and is equivalent to a 10 x 10 meter plot of land (one hundred square meters).  For example, the undeveloped lot next to the Coral Beach Bungalow is fifteen arahs in size, and its price per arah has been driven up from ten to thirty million rupiah.  During the time of my stay, the lot’s asking price stood at 450,000,000 rupiah, or about $50,000.00 USD.  A couple of years ago, it was valued at half the price.

    During the summer of 2004, most island accommodations were still overwhelmingly bungalow-style, and low cost.  But gentrification was well on its way, and as soon as Lombok’s capital Mataram’s airport secures International licensing, foreign travelers will find it even that much easier to reach the Gilis, which some travel guides promote as being a “must see” tourist object in the archipelago.  All signs pointed towards all three Gilis rapidly going the way of Bali- overrun by rapid, upscale tourist development which is designed to draw in a steady flow of short-stay, high budget travelers.  The backpackers who “discovered” this island paradise would soon enough be priced-out, along with local concessionaires whose more rustic offerings would no longer be attractive to the increasingly luxury-minded tourist population.

    The process seemed to me a fait de complet, and not a question of if, but only when.   Hadn’t this all been seen a thousand times in thousand other like places?  And so the economic cycle of tourism development in many tropical islands becomes very clear and predictable.  The first tourist groups are often backpackers and low budget adventurers intent on extending their stay as long as possible while spending as little as possible, and in so doing living hand-to-mouth.  Word circulates; visitors increase, and in their wake concessions and accommodations grow to serve this low-budget demographic.  The first concessionaires are usually local businessmen who seize upon the opportunity.

    The second phase has foreign investment and speculation begin to take hold, accompanied by promotion and tour packaging in order to draw in larger, sometimes organized groups of more well-off tourists whose work, family, and school schedules allow for only stays of a week or two.  Specific to Gili Trawangan has been the great draw of diving.  Diving, snorkeling, beautiful beaches, glorious sunrise and sunsets are parlayed into a tourist boom. 

    The key to such success in Indonesia lies in a tour operator’s ability to create door-to-door service, where all travel needs, especially airline/hotel reservations as well as inter and intra-island transport are provided for.  Chartered cars, vans, and microbuses are the lynch pins of success in this scenario, as local island transportation is often notoriously uncomfortable, unreliable, and worst of all, unsafe.  Solve these issues with chartered transportation, and the rich and beautiful will follow.

    I take a hike around Gili Trawangan one early afternoon.  Large land parcels locally owned have been subdivided on the largely undeveloped north and western coastlines.  The land still retains a wild, untamed spirit, but the spell is broken soon enough by a prominent billboard advertising in English, “Get a Piece of Paradise! 15 Lots For Sale- Sunset Realty.” 

    Returning to Hassis and Ana’s Coral Beach Bungalows, I become privy to a real-life investment plan of a dreamer setting about to get his own piece of paradise.  My bungalow neighbor, Toni has shown interest in that undeveloped beach front lot sitting fallow next to Hassis’.  Toni is an attractive half Jamaican, half Irish Londoner has visions of developing a sports center on the lot, which would include a tennis court, skate boarding ramps, and a body building facility.  As a professional personal trainer, Toni believes the athletic physiques of the Trawangans would respond well to body building, and locals would be drawn into using the center.  Toni espouses a “progressive” brand of entrepreneurship, and he plans to employ local islanders to both build and staff his business.  Ultimately, the money to be made would come from visiting tourists, but the locals would profit from job creation.

    As a forty-four year old man, Toni is deeply enmeshed in a mid-life crisis as his wife of nearly twenty years is contemplating filing suit for divorce back home in London.  The embattled couple share three children, all of them girls.  As Toni enjoys his stay on tropical Gili Trawangan with his youngest daughter, Malah, he becomes increasingly enraptured by the possibilities of creating a new and separate life in Indonesia.  Toni’s wife would never agree to allow Malah to live with Toni on Trawangan and suffer long term separation from her daughter.  Toni would have to go it alone. 

    Faced with choosing between his needs and dreams and those of the rest of his family, Toni expresses great torment to me, the perfect stranger.  After seventeen years of putting his family first, he feels inexorably drawn to shifting that attention and energy and investing in his own plans.  Suffering from cerebral palsy her entire life, Toni’s eldest daughter medical condition has taken a great toll on him and his wife, further fueling Toni’s drive for escape now that the daughter was functioning well enough after a successful first year in college.  Toni’s wife was also having an affair, so both parents were rebounding from their family responsibilities with self-piteous vengeance, determined to have a fling with unfulfilled dreams more appropriate to the impulses of youth.

    A man with a perfect body; short and extremely handsome, Toni flashes short bursts of electric smiles as he spins his tale into my attentive ears. His daughter’s intermittent presence is the provocation for most of the smiles, and I just can’t see how this loving father could possibly make a “Sophie’s Choice,” giving up his daughter for an unsure future on an Indonesian island. 
    Such is the power of tropical allure.  A man can simply lose his head.  Just as Odysseus’ crew fell under the spell on the island of the Lotus Eaters, abandoning all memory or their past lives and connections,  just as well Tony might need someone or something to yank him free from the grips of  rapture.

    But none of this is for me to judge.  I sit and listen to Toni empathetically, as he pauses every few minutes to relight his hand rolled tobacco cigarette laced with a liberal dose of hash oil.  We sat together in Hassis’ restaurant as Toni filled the air with the pungent hash-laden smoke of his nervous exhalations. Still a new arrival on Trawangan at this point in time, I grappled with the fact that tourists openly imbibe illegal drugs, and that young, dreadlocked Indonesian men wearing dark sunglasses (a rarity in Indonesia) and playing bongo drums are peddling ganja along the sandy pathway of the island.

    Drug laws in Indonesia exact the harshest of penalties.  Arriving in Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport in Tuban some two weeks before my travels to the Gilis, I could not fail to notice a prominent sign warning international arrivals: “The Sale of Drugs in Indonesia is Punishable by Death.”  How did it come to be that Gili Trawangan was apparently exempt, a free zone that not only tolerated drug sales and possession, but allowed for its open, public use?

    Toni’s attention waxed and waned throughout our conversation, as he was continually on the lookout for “Joe” to arrive.  Joe was a local Sasak who warmed himself to tourists by means of his obsequious personal warmth and quickly pronounced promises to procure drugs upon request.  Toni had already purchased and now finished smoking a vial’s worth of hash oil which an unnamed Swiss tourist had smuggled onto the island.  Now itching for another vial, Toni had sent Joe for a refill.  Joe was already a day late in returning, and Toni was agitated.  Finally making an appearance, Joe flashes a million dollar Sasak smile, tosses back his long Rastafarian dreads and tells Toni the bad news.

    “Sorry, brudder, but I cannot get what you want.”  Joe put on his best impression of Jamaican patois and impersonation of a Reggae dialect.

    Toni and Joe spoke together in hushed tones, and Joe returned some cash Toni had fronted him.  “Sorry, man, but I keep trying, OK?” Joe reassures Toni before leaving.  Hassis was looking on, and with a half-smile inquires, “Hey Toni, did you get all your money back?”

    Toni grumbles, manages a resigned smile, and replies, “Yeah, well, he shorted me 50,000 rupiah.  Gave me some bullshit sob story. Oh, what the hell?  It’s the price of doing business.”

    But a surer buy was to be had in Gili’s bars.  Not hash oil, mind you- but something more exotic and a lot more local.  The island interior supported large plots of pasture, where small, brown cows grazed.  Their excrement provided the perfect environment for the propagation of a certain wild mushroom of the psychotropic variety.  The locals collected and dried them picking them directly from the cow patties.  Once ready for consumption, the potent psychedelic confections were sold openly by several bars in Trawangan’s central strip.  Advertisements were boldly posted on prominent wooden placards in front of several bars along the sandy thoroughfare. One purveyor’s sign brazenly exclaimed, “Magic Mushrooms Available Here!  Killer Shit!!"

    One day a large, hairy Italian brawler spent the afternoon and night time hours drinking beer and eating the resplendent mushrooms while consuming a pizza lunch at Hassis’ restaurant.  Hallucinating violently, he returned to the restaurant at 5:00 AM, and proceeded to create a most pathetic, yet amusing mayhem.
    Hassis had chosen to sleep outside on one of the restaurant’s berukas, upon which dining tables had been placed.  His wife’s sister was visiting, and Hassis had surrendered his customary sleeping arrangements with his wife to his sister-in-law as an obligatory token of hospitality. 

    Comfortably snoozing amongst the many large pillows strewn about the dining tables, Hassis was awakened with a start by the thoroughly soused, hallucinating Italian who had lumbered onto the premises, careening about like a wild bull.  The Italian made his way past the dining area and into the hotel’s open air reception area, but not before stubbing his toes and feet on the cement stairs several times.  He bellowed in pain as blood spattered everywhere which he tracked like an injured animal on the run.  In between injuries and screams of pain and anger, the man spotted the restaurant’s menagerie of newly born kittens, whose sight prompted him to sob with a heart-torn sadness, crying out, “Gato, gato!” repeatedly.  He lurched towards the cats, stooped over and with outstretched arms reached out for the tiny creatures as if they were his long-lost babies.

    Hassis, now standing and fully awake, was so taken aback and amused by this bizarre display of inebriation, that he simply watched events unfold in amazement, hesitating to interfere.  The man then revealed a possible motivation for entering the restaurant-reception area; as he finally focused his efforts on trying to pry open the sliding glass doors of some display cases which were filled with retail items such as candy, cigarettes, toilet paper, and sun screen.  But the cases were locked, and the man soon gave up his attempt at petty burglary.  Denied, he wheeled about face and attempted to walk down the stairs and back out onto the dining patio.  Stubbing his toe again, he fell face first onto the sand and cement paving stones which marked a path between the restaurants two ranks of dining berukas. 

    Enraged and bleeding from a growing host of lacerations, he attacked one of the beruka’s dining tables, violently rippling off the brand new table cloths which Ana had so carefully secured to the table tops with straight pins just the day before.  Cape-like he wrapped the cloth round his shoulders and back.  Several pins still fixed to the cloth pierced his skin, and he howled one last time, while resuming his sobbing laments for the kittens.
    Finally, the wounded bear of a man gathered his wits enough to find his way clear of Hassis’ restaurant and back onto the sandy pathway.  Hassis watched to make sure the man disappeared down the road.  By this time, the sun was rising.

    Later I asked Hassis, “How do you know the man had eaten mushrooms?  Maybe he was just horribly drunk.”

    He laughed and replied, “I saw him pour a bag of magic mushrooms on top of the pizza I made for him at lunch.”

    Later that day in the afternoon, Hassis spotted the man walking past Coral Beach Bungalows with a group of friends.  Hassis wanted his table cloth returned, but the man neither returned it nor apologized for his intrusive behavior.  Blood spots were still visible on the cement as Hassis had overlooked a few while cleaning up after the bule gila.

    The saving grace of this sorry episode was found in Hassis’ restrained response to the events.  He was more amused than angered, and chose to be accepting without allowing himself to feel victimized.    This admirable pacifism is an example true to the temperament of most Indonesians.  Rarely have I ever seen an Indonesian raise his voice or gesture in anger.  There are very few reputed centers of population in the archipelago where violence is a common behavior.  If such a marauder had behaved as such in his own country, he could have easily been knocked cold or perhaps shot by a terrified hotel clerk who kept a weapon behind the reception desk for protection.

    Tales of tourist debauchery aside, an investigative question remains.  How is it Gili Trawangan is exempt from drug law enforcement?  More than one reputable island source told me off-duty police visit Trawangan from nearby Lombok in order to consume alcohol and illegal drugs themselves.  The island’s nominal authority, the Kepala Desa, looked the other way.  I inquired about security on the island, and Hassis said there was a council of islanders appointed by the Kepala Desa whose job it was to look after island security.  In fact, Hassis had once served on the council.  No, the council did not interfere with drug sales or its use, either.

    I was much too green and new to Indonesia to see that in all likelihood, the powers that be were all simply being paid-off by the island’s European hoteliers and purveyors of potable spirits.  It simply made economic sense to play into Indonesia’s infamous proclivity for corruption and buy-off Gili Trawangan’s Kepala Desa, his security council, and the Lombok police.  This investment would pay off handsomely for the foreign owned hotels and bars, who enjoy that much more business once news that the island was a protected drug haven.  A zone of exemption had been successfully established on Gili Trawangan, and everyone stood to benefit.

    This was my gut sense of things, though I had no hard evidence at my disposal.  If I were a betting man, I would still lay my money on this type of corruption as being the source of protection for the law breakers.

    That European economic interests have transformed Indonesian islands and the lives of their native peoples is an old story.  And a continuing one.  Also, that Europeans have leveraged the weaknesses of Indonesian society to benefit offshore investments is equally a grand tradition.  The history of Indonesia is littered with cases of European powers such as the Dutch, English, and Portuguese taking advantage of warring Indonesian kingdoms or sultanates in order to reap economic gains.  For example, European powers would form a military alliance with one Indonesian king or sultan to help strip power of a rival Indonesian power and in return receive trade benefits and access to natural resources and even slave labor.

    My senses told me a neo-colonialism was afoot in Gili Trawangan.  Old habits die hard, and the idiosyncrasies that characterized Europe’s relationship with Indonesia from 1500 to 1949 have not died along with the old colonialism.  There is good evidence that the European colonial instincts have simply found a modern expression in keeping with modern political realities. 

    If my hunch is correct, then the European concessionaires on Gili Trawangan have exploited the Indonesian’s love affair with corruption.  The foreign economic interests promote their businesses through pay-offs to local Indonesian officials in an effort to relax drug law enforcement which will draw the younger, jet set, drug consuming clientele that is the niche tourist profile that crowd the island.

    If there were no casualties in this seedy arrangement, then one could write it off as a bemusement.  But such unholy alliances are rarely benign, and for every sin free of commission, there usually exists one by omission.

    The European concessionaires were clearly reaping considerable profits on Gili Trawangan.  The other shoe dropped during the next year after my visit (the summer of 2005).  While in Makassar in late November of 2005, I received email from an Italian woman whom I had met on Trawangan in August 2004.  A veteran of several annual visits to Gili Trawangan, she informed me that across the board, all hotel and bungalow room rates had increased three fold during her visit in August earlier that year.  Everyone was suddenly cashing in on twenty-five years of tourist development.

    There’s no crime in making good on a long term investment, right?  But there is something terribly wrong in all this.  Who are the victims in this success story?  Haven’t the locals such as Hassis and Ana benefited as well?  The answer is no, and that’s one source of irritation.  The island’s poorer families and their children are the inadvertent recipients of the shitty end of this stick.

    Trawangan families face a dilemma in schooling their children.  Indonesia’s public school system is structured similarly to the United States, whereby elementary level serves grades one through six, junior high seven through nine, and senior high school ten through twelve.  Gili Trawangan is one of hundreds of small Indonesian islands that only offers elementary schooling, grades one through six, known as “Sekolah Dasar” (SD).  Presently the sole option for continued education after age twelve for a Trawangan child is for parents to send them off the island to Lombok.  Most local families don’t have the means to do this, as it requires paying room and board for their child in some neighboring Lombok village unless the family is fortunate enough to have relatives based on the mother island.

    My conversations with local islanders revealed this delimitation of education to be cause for painfully endemic social problems.  Even if families could finance continuing education for one child, inevitably the family’s other children rarely could enjoy such benefits.  It was simply cost-prohibitive, and invariably families had large numbers of children.  And if only one child could be afforded education after age twelve, which on would be so favored?  If the eldest child is male, chances are he would get the nod as inheritance in Sasak and Moslem culture favors the eldest son in Indonesia.

    How does this affect the island girls?  In Lombok and the Gilis, marriage comes at a young age, in part due to the reality that school comes to an abrupt end at age twelve.  Once a Sasak girl leaves school, marriage comes sooner than later.  Marriage at fifteen is still very common.

    The story of Hassis’ brother, Saleh, and his young wife, Misrah, is a case in point.  As with the millions of Indonesians, Saleh and Misrah are land-rich- meaning they own a house and the land it’s built on- but are cash-poor.  Both husband and wife have no schooling part the sixth grade.

    Saleh is one of the youngest of Hassis’ nine brothers and sisters.  His position in sibling order had not favored him, nor had his club foot.  When I met Saleh he was twenty-six, and he had not worked in eight years.  He was forced to marry at age fifteen as he had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. This marriage soon dissolved.  Misrah, another local Trawangan, came into his life when Saleh was twenty-three.  The two soon married, and in the summer of 2004, they had a toddler.  Unemployed and penniless, Saleh depends on family handouts, and this includes the two arahs of land he owns as well as the two room, concrete block house he built on it. The land was given him by his father, Haji Ali, a grand land owner and original agricultural settler of Gili Trawangan having come from Sulawesi some fifty years ago.

    Saleh and Misrah had little money to eat on, but did have a house to live in.  Their plight was shared by millions of couples like them throughout Indonesia.  But now Saleh and Misrah were desperate for cash, and Saleh was tempted to sell their land and house as Trawangan's real estate prices were beginning to soar.  Saleh had approached the family’s eldest son, Hamsi, whose skills as a boat builder and hard work had distinguished him within the family hierarchy, and asked Hamsi for a loan to start a business.  Hamsi refused, as he didn’t believe Saleh would or could repay the money.  Saleh’s extended unemployment and failed first marriage were held against him by Hamsi as well. 

    Hassis was the lone sibling to hand out any life support to Saleh and Misrah.  Misrah helped Ana with the restaurant, but Saleh did nothing in return for food and petty cash. 

    Family support had found its limits, Saleh’s temptation to sell house and land for 35,000,000 rupiah ($4,000 USD) was growing.  For an Indonesian to sell his house and land was almost unheard of, and considered behavior tantamount to insanity or suicide.  The family’s one luxury item, a television, had been recently repossessed Misrah to tears.  Saleh’s eternally roving eye drew him to tourist women, and he would make jocular verbal references telling us about a secret Japanese girl friend who would soon be returning to visit him on the island.  Saleh’s infidelity added to the pall of potential doom enveloping him and his second wife, Misrah.

    Impoverished, adolescent in outlook, undereducated, and self-contemptuously lazy, Saleh was good at walking about on the club foot that had always destroyed his sense of self, and pointing guns to his head.  He generally ignored his wife in social company; in fact it was several days before I knew they were even married- and I never did see him acknowledge his toddler’s presence.

    So what of Misrah, Saleh’s misbegotten wife?  Like many other Trawangan girls, she had simply graduated from the island’s elementary school at the age of twelve and naively walked into marriage and motherhood with a non-providing husband while still a teen.  In a state of total dependency, Misrah has next to no control over her life, all the while watching her husband sit, brewing over his troubles in a state of paralysis.

    Saleh’s land-rich family and the easy island life he had enjoyed all his life could be lost to him if he sold his house and land.  His exposure to tourism and tourists’ ways had seduced him into pleasure seeking and he had become soft.  It had all seemed to collude and help bring the worse out in him.  But maybe if he and Misrah had had the opportunity to finish their schooling, life would have turned out differently. 

    Maybe; maybe not.  Either way, expanding educational opportunities for island children would be monies better spent by the foreign business owners on the island than having it go towards the corruption of local authorities in order to make the police scarce and turn the other cheek to drugs. 

    This unholy alliance between outside money and local officials is an old story set in modern times.  Greedy European interests collude with local power brokers and the average Indonesian suffers as a result.  Gili Trawangan is both microcosm and exemplar of what has plagued Indonesian throughout a great deal of its history.  Neo-colonialism has found a new controlling agent in Indonesia- armies of tourists.