‘I had to sacrifice my family or the love of my life.’

Balqis (29) is an extrovert positive minded woman who grew up as an Islamic, but chose to follow her own believes. Inspired by her situation she created a hidden paradise on Pulau Weh Island.

What does happiness mean to you?
Being happy with yourself. Everybody can be happy, no matter who you are and what you do. The most important thing is to accept who you are.

What is your background?
I was born on Pulau Weh as a third child from three siblings. When I was twelve I moved to Banda Aceh and went to Islamic boarding school for three years and learned English. I had to learn the tribe language ‘Achenies’ otherwise people refuged to talk to me. Since then I started to wonder about foreign countries. I was curious why the Dutch, English and French had colonies in Indonesia. I learned about Islam and although I understand it very well, I didn’t feel comfortable living in Aceh as a woman. Aceh is the most strict Islamic province of Sumatra. When I turned fifteen I desired to be free so I told my mom I wanted to study foreign languages and explore the world. But my parents forbid me because they were scared I would lose my mind and virginity living in a free world. People in Banda Aceh see me as a different girl because I play with the boys and I like to race on a motor bike. In my culture the man decides about a woman’s choices so I had to study in Aceh like my brother. I chose to study accounting because in this field there is more potential to find a job. My family didn’t have a lot of money so I did everything I could to earn extra money.

How did your life change after the Tsunami?
I’ll never forget that day. I just bought a present for my friends birthday. But I never got the change to give her the present. I learned life is too short to keep secrets. If you love someone, just tell it and if you want to surprise someone do it because you’ll regret it if you’ll never have the change again. Within fifteen minutes you can loose everything, your best friends, your school, your whole life. I freaked out, and couldn’t believe this was really happening. It felt like the end of the world. After the tsunami we were starving for three days and wandering around on the streets with nothing. And then one day when I bumped in to a journalist who asked me if I spoke English. I said, ‘a little bit’. He asked me to work with him as a translator for the media. My English improved and after he recommended me to other journalist my network began to grow. A few months later I joined medical teams and small NGO’s and got a job offer from Unicef. When I started working for Unicef I met my husband, an Italian from Zwitserland. I was still Islamic and not allowed to date a foreigner, so we started dating secretly in Medan. I lied to my family telling them I was going to work in Medan. I read a lot of books about religion and traveling the world. It gave me a different perspective on religion and inspired me to change my believes and become the new Balqis. I feel good now that I can be myself. I still keep the good parts of the Islam like to obey your husband. Because that’s how my man fell in love with me. Inspired by our own situation, we opened our guesthouse Casa Nemo and created a place on Pulauh Weh where people can be themselves.

Where do you stand in life?
My dream came true. I am proud of myself. I am the luckiest woman on earth. My husband gave me everything. He is my guru. He respects my culture and supports me to follow my passion. I have an amazing family who support me although it is against their believes. I make them feel ashamed in society. I drink alcohol, eat pork, wear sexy dresses, have a tattoo but they still love me. I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to create a home away from home for my staff. When the ladies arrive at Casa Nemo they put off their scarf and talk about sex. It feels like my own queendom.

Are you familiar with the 30 years dilemma ?
No, I had my big dilemma when I was twenty and fell in love with a Western guy. I had to sacrifice my family or the love of my life. The secret dates in Medan soon came out. My love said he would never marry me because he didn’t wanted to convert to the Islam. I cried for three months. Untill he came to tell me he wanted to introduce me to his family in Switzerland. But my family didn’t allow me to go with him whiteout getting married first. He had two months to decide if he would circumcise and convert to the Islam to legally marry me. These were the two worst months of my life. My parents were fighting all the time because my mother supported me but my father didn’t. I couldn’t focus anymore until the day he proposed to me. He had everything well prepared, candles, music, an Italian dinner, and a bathtub full with flowers. I could only cry, but of course I said yes.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you have a dream?
One day me and my husband will set up a creative art centre in Pulau Weh. Artist here are seen as useless and don’t get any support from the government. We want to gather local artist so that they can meet each other and share experiences. We give them an audience and promote them. Preferably I stay in Indonesia because it is the most loving environment for kids. Everybody loves children. But at the same time I don’t want my son to be at school indoctrinated with only the Islam. I still haven’t decide what to do.

What wise lesson did your parents teach you?
Develop and sustain yourself. Never steal and never do corruption, be independent, creative, honest and be humble. My family always says, ‘whatever you do don’t forget God is watching you’ and ‘If you do wrong, karma will come to you’.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Travel and explore the world. There are so many special people. The more we mix with each other the more peace and understanding there will be. That’s exactly what happened in my family.

When was your last moment of happiness?
Every day I feel goosebumps of happiness. I receive a lot of appreciation from my customers at Casa Nemo. But the most strong feeling of happiness I have when I wake up in the morning and hear: ‘mama’. Although my son keeps me from sleeping, he gives me energy too.

Under the same sun is an ongoing travel log which you can follow on our travel and lifestyle blog Meet You at the Bridge. The reports show the similarities and differences on what it means to be happy for women between the ages of 25 and 35 who hail from different cultures.

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