The island paradise of Gili Trawangan has attracted partygoers for almost half a century. Yet little has been revealed about the island’s methamphetamine problem.
The acrid smoke twirls upward elegantly, mingling with the thick tropical air in a haze that overwhelms me, penetrating my nostrils and making my eyes stream. Three tourists from Perth are sitting, staring at the ice bong.
The bong is just a plastic bottle with a glass tube taped into it. The local boys urge them on with chants of encouragement. The bong is passed around the two groups, who form an uneven circle on the grimy concrete of a shopfront. A wooden board thrust up against the doorway prevents intruders from prying in but can’t keep out the first few rays of the morning sun poking through the cracks. The chugging sounds of a distant boat disturbs the stillness, the first snorkelling tourists of the morning blissfully unaware of what is occurring behind closed doors.
This is Indonesia, a country where taking drugs is punishable by death but seemingly not on Gili Trawangan. And young people are flocking to there. There are no police or motorised vehicles and the sale of magic mushrooms is openly advertised outside bars and cafes. Everything from marijuana to crystal methamphetamine is sold openly on the cobblestoned streets. There are dangers in this place. On New Year’s day 2013, Perth teenager Liam Davies was fatally poisoned by a methanol-laced cocktail. Yet little is known about severity of the drug problem on the island.
Australian tourist Terry Gardiner who recently visited Trawangan says the drug culture is pervasive.
“You couldn’t ride ten metres on your pushbike without people offering you drugs,” Gardiner says.
“We were enjoying a meal at one of the better restaurants on the island and a member of the bar staff was persistently offering me all sorts of drugs. It’s everywhere.”
“It really detracted from the experience. These guys hound and chase you and I definitely wouldn’t be taking my teenage kids there.”
Nestled between Bali and Lombok, the Gilis were first used by the Bugis people as a stop off location during fishing voyages. The governor of Lombok established coconut plantations on Gili Air, Meno and Trawangan in the early 1970s, with 350 inmates from an overcrowded Lombok prison sent to help with the first harvests. Many decided to settle upon completion of their sentences.
The dramatic rise of Bali tourism in the 80s enticed travellers to the quieter shores of the Gilis. Whilst Gili Air and Gili Meno have a developed reputation amongst families, newlyweds and divers, Trawangan attracts tourists of a different sort. The largest of all three, Trawangan has developed a hedonistic reputation amongst drug tourists and partygoers. It is here I have taken up residence with my hosts, Darwis, Skribo and Kiki.
We sit shaded from the sweltering midday sun under their small shopfront, watching waves peeling gracefully along a jagged coral reef. The turquoise blue ocean glimmers with the reflection of Lombok’s mountainous coastline. Skribo is from Central Java, and I get the impression he is the wild one. There is something unsettling about him: the penetrating gaze, the frizzy mop of jet black hair tucked underneath his bucket hat, a smile that quickly contorts into a menacing smirk. By contrast, I take an instant liking to Kiki’s bubbling enthusiasm, and despite being the youngest, he is clearly the smartest. Like most other residents, he hails from the neighbouring island of Lombok. Darwis remains largely silent, his lanky frame leaning in his plastic chair yet when he speaks he holds a commanding presence. He is clearly the boss.
We walk through a thick layer of jungle tucked behind the shopfront and arrive at our humble sleeping quarters. There is pride in Darwis’ voice as he shows me their djapu, the makeshift concrete hut that will be home for the next few days. “My uncle and I built this ourselves,” he gleams. “It took us two weeks. Sometimes when it rains the floor floods, but it is our home. The simple life is best.”
The boys spend their days much the same as the holidaymakers. Their shopfront is at the edge of the island’s development, where goats graze beneath tattered DJ party posters and sounds of bar reggae floats on the breeze. Horse drawn carriages – known as cidomos – clatter along, occasionally screeching to a halt to avoid dawdling tourists. All supplies are brought in by boat, including food, water and drugs. The boys take turns in shrieking at passing tourists, attempting to sell everything from snorkelling equipment to sabu-sabu, or crystal meth.
Each night a different venue hosts the party in an attempt to distribute business evenly. I watch the boys circle partygoers, their efforts increasingly brazen under the cover of darkness. Throngs of locals line the main strip, trying to entice a tamu, or guest. As the crimson light of morning burns off the shadow of night, they retreat, dejected and defeated at their inability to find a drug tourist.
“Almost everyone here smokes sabu,” Skribo tells me. “It keeps us going. We can stay up all night and work harder and faster. I have been here three years, but I can’t afford to go home.” Stunned by the irony of his statement, I suggest that perhaps if Skribo didn’t spend his profits getting high, he may be able to return home. I’m met by a blank stare.
Sabu-sabu is a new phenomenon in Indonesia, and its use continues to rise at an exponential rate. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that crystal methamphetamine is now Indonesia’s “primary illicit drugs threat” accounting for 62 per cent of all drug arrests in 2011, up from 38 per cent in 2009. It’s estimated that there are 1.2 million crystal meth addicts in Indonesia.
Asia Research Centre researcher and prominent author on organised crime in Indonesia, Dr Ian Wilson says sabu-sabu took off not as a recreational drug but a productivity drug.
“A lot of workers are just expected to keep going. If you get paid per hour you want to put in extra hours just to get by, so it has become popular amongst the lower and working class.”
Trawangan’s drug culture has bred jealousy, greed and mistrust among locals. As I watch Kiki counting his money in the djapu one evening, he springs up in a sudden panic and stashes his money under his mattress. “Someone from outside is coming,” he exclaims. A shirtless man jerks his skinny frame through the doorframe, scratching vigorously at his pocked skin. It’s clear he hasn’t slept in a few days.
There is a mistrust amongst the locals but they share in common - envy and disrespect of their customers. “They come here and act like they are king,” Kiki grunts. “They have no respect for us, they come and behave like idiots and flash their money around, thinking they can do as they please. No wonder they get ripped off.” Few tourists come to harm from the drug dealers. Their lust for foreign currency moderates their behaviour towards outsiders, and it is often visitors own misadventure that lands them in strife.
Whilst I was on the island, Brazilian man Fernando Viera Campello went swimming on a toxic cocktail of alcohol and magic mushrooms and drowned.
Throughout mainland Indonesia, drug users are ostracised by their community. On Trawangan, they are out of sight and out of mind.
“Trawangan is self-contained and there’s no risk of spread,” Wilson says.
“In Jakarta a lot of resistance to drug areas is because people are worried they’re going to spread into neighbourhoods. Trawangan is an island, it’s isolated, it can be contained, it’s basically for foreigners and so it’s not considered such a big deal.”
Whilst Trawangan might isolate problems from the community, Wilson says the lack of resistance has allowed those working on the island to feel as if they can do what they want.
“There’s no counterforce that they are afraid of for overstepping the mark. Maybe they will export their problems home if they do go home, but on Trawangan there’s no community base that is a source of resistance.”
In the absence of police, a makeshift taskforce called satuan tugas (SATGAS) regulates Trawangan. Originally established by local fisherman to protect the coral reefs from fishing practices using dynamite, SATGAS has since evolved to cope with the influx of tourists and presiding laws are somewhat traditional. Recently, a Western tourist caught stealing a handbag was paraded around the island with a sign labelling him as a thief draped around his neck.
Despite the lack of police, there seems to be an overarching political hierarchy that controls the island. I ask Darwis about the consequences of not having police on the island, and he hints at a vicious struggle for power. “Sometimes, I wish there were police here,” he huffs with his head in his hands. “The politics, it’s all bullshit. Sometimes the politics are worse than the police…” His voice trails off into the breeze, afraid he has already revealed too much.
Understanding the drug problem in Indonesia is complicated by the open secret that drug dealing is tied into politics and the security forces. Many police and soldiers test positive for drugs in their urine, and high ranking officials have been caught smoking sabu-sabu or heroin with noted dealers.
Wilson agrees that for the right price, anything is legal.
“Rather than trying to eliminate criminality, the police are more inclined to have an arrangement with criminal gangs that’s mutually beneficial and not overly disruptive,” he says.
“There’s a politics of exemptions – where the law is enforced and where it’s not. Trawangan is a tourism zone so it’s one of those places of exemption where the laws are suspended because of arrangements between those who are making the money and law enforcement agencies.”
So what does Trawangan’s future hold?
The religious undercurrents of Indonesia’s hard-line approach to drugs has done little to foster other strategies to combat the drug problem in Indonesia. According to Wilson, the allure of money is far greater motivation for Indonesia’s security forces – who have to subsidise their own existence – than a willingness to keep drugs off the street.
“I don’t see why it would change sometime soon unless something happens or there’s a shift in power at another level,” Wilson says.
“Because Trawangan is such a huge source of money which filters back into poorer villages there would be a lot of pressure against that.”
“That’s the way these economies intertwine.”