The tall, thin, blonde Dutch woman shifts her weight and asks, “Is there someone in there?”
“Oh, wait moment Miss,” says my student with a big smile, as she walks over to the bathroom door to tell her friends to hurry up. She returns, her frame looking smaller than ever. “Can you speak Indonesian language?” she inquires with hopeful eyes.
“Yes,” says the woman. “Can you speak English? What is your name?”
“Yulia. And what’s your name?”
They work through the usual script.
“How old are you?” asks the 5’10” woman clad in her black and pink bikini which just barely covers the essential parts.
“I’m 18, but my face is like 14!” jokes my 4’8” student who’s wearing a bright yellow long-sleeved shirt and long black leggings that stop just above her foot.
I observe from the side. I make a move toward mediating, but then decide to hang back. They’ve got this. My student gestures toward me, explaining that I’m her teacher. I smile politely but don’t intervene.
I’m slightly on edge. I’m being stared at. Of course, I always get stared at in Praya, due to my light hair, eyes, and skin. Yet here, in a sea of fair skinned Westerners, I still stand out. This time, as I don my long dress and button-up blouse, the stares are a result of the skin I’m not showing.
When I was first told I’d be visiting Gili Trawangan, the party island that sits conveniently between Bali and Lombok, with my students and a few teachers, my only response was, “really?” I anticipated some weirdness as the island is now a tourist haven, but I convinced myself that it’d be fine. Surely my teachers knew what it was like and wouldn’t suggest the trip if they weren’t okay with it.
But once we arrived, there was no doubt about it: It was weird. We stepped off the boat, gathered under a tree, grabbed the packaged rice and water that we brought (to avoid paying for the expensive food on the island) and set off as a group of 20 to explore. With two Indonesians on my arms, we braved the crowded road. In front of us was a woman wearing tiny shorts and a bikini top, walking in a group of similarly scantily clad women. Walking around Praya, it’s difficult to spot a piece of exposed hair, let alone an exposed knee.
We walked for a while among the tourists. We eventually found the only strip of unclaimed beach — a construction site (not a very scenic spot by any means, but, fortunately, you’re never too far from the water on such a small island). My fellow teachers thought this as good a spot as any to eat lunch. The students settled down under the shady trees and dug into their rice. I found a small little hut to sit in and eat, joined by some students and teachers. We had a clear view of both the ocean and the tourists scurrying back and forth on their bicycles.
“I’m a little bit upset,” said one teacher, “I was here in 1996 and it’s so different. It’s like Bali. There are too many buildings, it’s so crowded, there are so many tourists. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s not beautiful anymore.”
At first I found myself getting frustrated with this teacher’s reaction. “Just make the best of it,” I wanted to say. “Look at that water. It may be different, but it’s still beautiful.” He had to have known that Gili T. has become a hot spot for tourists, partying, and drugs. And, despite all that, it is still beautiful. It has everything you would want on a tropical beach paradise.
But I honestly didn’t know what to think. I wavered between feeling oddly embarrassed about the “sexy culture” of the West (and how I’m tied to that) and also thinking how nice it would be to stay in one of these “expensive” (10-20 dollars a night) beachfront hotels, lying on a lounge chair, sipping on a cold beer, and working on my tan.
Instead of taking a nap, like the teachers and some students wanted to do, I joined a few of my female students to rent bicycles and ride around the island. These girls are amazing bargainers, so we made friends and haggled down the price of a few bikes. As we stopped in a store to browse, a few of them picked up bikinis and asked me if I wore this at home. I was honest. “Well, yes,” I stated. “Then why don’t you wear it here?” they queried. “Karena, saya malu.” Because I’m shy/ashamed. I went on to explain that it was not appropriate for me to wear those clothes with students or teachers. They understood immediately. “Yeah, you’re right you’re a teacher. Ibu Guru,” they confirmed, and we switched to a game of pointing out which boys we thought were ganteng or handsome.
We biked, snorkeled, and ate ice cream cones. Several people approached me along the way to ask if I was Muslim (the only possible explanation for all the clothes!). All told, we had a blast. The girls kept saying how much they didn’t want to go home.
But my earlier conversation with my fellow teacher still rang in the back of my mind. “Do you know how much a bungalow is a night?” he had asked me. “I asked over there and they said 400,000 rupiah a night ($40). Can you believe that expensive price?”
I thought about it all day and I tried hard to put myself in his shoes. Imagine having such a naturally beautiful island so close to your home, but there is no longer a place for you there. Miles of beautiful white sand, and yet you find yourself on a small strip of dirty sand in the middle of a construction site. In a few months even that spot will be overtaken.
I know this is a common side effect of tourism. Locals, who generally run and work at resorts and hotels, cannot afford to enjoy the luxuries they provide. Indeed, this happens everywhere. I know that in my nearly two years of living in Indonesia, I will have seen more of the country than my students, neighbors, or teachers will in their lifetime.
It’s frustrating and it’s unfair, and yet tourists will continue to flock in their bikinis to the Gilis. I suppose that in many ways I’m lucky to be able to experience both worlds. Understanding our differences in customs, dress, and rituals is all part of cross-cultural exchange.
So with my Indonesian friends in their long-sleeved shirts, and my fellow countrymen in their itsy-bitsy swimsuits, I hope that both can learn that one is not right and the other is not wrong; that “sexy” does not mean “bad” and “covered-up” does not mean “oppressed”.
“Bye Yulia!” shouts the Dutch woman as she spots us walking away. “Enjoy the rest of your day!”
“Bye, Miss,” she shouts back with a wave. “Thank you!”
About the author: Lily Wiggins is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Praya, Lombok. She served her first Fulbright year in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. Wiggins graduated from Pitzer College in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.