Our impressions of Islam on Java

First, some interesting facts/observations about Islam and Indonesia:

  • Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world
  • Java is the most populous island in the world and one of the most densely populated places in the world with 143 million people
  • We have been able to hear the call to prayer, 5 times a day, from every place we have stayed on Java (the first beginning around 4:30a)
  • We have seen few people praying during the call to prayer or in the Mosques
  • The men and youth we met and watched smoked incessantly
  • Ramadan is starting on June 28th, from dawn to sunset Muslims cannot eat or drink, no smoking, sex, or swearing is allowed.  The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities.

Being on a beach in a Muslim area:

Truth be told, being on a Muslim beach was an adjustment that we could never fully adapt.

We came to Batukaras off the advice of Lonely Planet that it was a laid back town perfect for beginners to learn to surf. After the congestion and overwhelmingly large city of Yogyakarta this sounded like the perfect next destination. However there is a vastly different approach to beach etiquette between us and the Javanese tourists that are in Bautkaras.  I don't mean this to be an "us" versus "them" post but wanted to organize the ideas I've been explaining to family in friends to show what we have observed in the differences. 

Our approach to the beach was to wear functional clothes for learning how to surf: swim suits with a tank top to prevent board rash. The Muslim approach is to go swimming in exactly what they wear all day, which includes the women wearing their hajib into the water. Everyone is fully clothed and literally soaking wet head to toe when leaving the beach after the end of a long day.

As the water is too cold in the Pacific Northwest for us to do much swimming our beach activities usually involve boating and sunbathing. Well the water is pretty close to 80 degrees where we were on Java so everyone, and I mean everyone, is in the water. There are more people in the water than on the beach (making it a bit dangerous for this to be a huge beginner surfing beach!). The beach wasn't big enough for everyone and all the different activities.  Another interesting observation was the lack of alcohol, there is none to be found on the beach (quite the opposite from our time in Brazil!).  Alcohol has also been much harder to come across on all of Java, and only beer can be found.  

Skin color considerations:
Being tan is still king where we are from. Hence the practice of wearing a bikini to get the fullest tan possible even though swimming isn't necessarily on the agenda. The Javanese we met want to have the lightest skin possible and dislike their dark skin color. Hence perhaps another reason behind staying fully clothed at the beach.

These differences made it incredibly awkward for us to be at the beach and we ultimately ended up leaving early. The men all openly stared at me. Boys and men would follow me as I was leading my board out into the surf, sometimes even holding my leash. While all the guys in the town were looking at me, Eric was ignored. The guys would greet me and talk only to me, something he increasingly felt was creepy. Every time we set foot on the beach we had pictures taken of us and people saying "hello missssses, photo?". When we stopped for breaks it was like we were the backdrop for a popup photo booth becoming part of family photos on the beach.

I understand that we were dressed in a way that openly goes against their beliefs so was provoking a reaction of sorts. However this reaction was so severe that it took away from the whole experience. We loved learning to surf but also learned a big lesson that for us, it's too uncomfortable to be on a Muslim beach again. While other travelers said they'd go back to Batukaras again, I couldn't agree.

We are so lucky to be seeing different parts of the world and part of our travels are learning more about the people, locations, and religions that we come across.