Day 443 – 17 May, 2016
The Gili Islands are a small trio of land masses, only blips on the map really, that somehow support a population of 3,500, yet host several times this in tourists to share the sun, sand, marine life, water activities, and notorious wild parties. To get there, you can either fly to Lombok, the larger adjacent island with an airport, or as most people do, you can take a fast boat from Bali. For me, this took the better part of 6 hours, not due to the distance but purely due to typical disorganized time schedules and disinterested boatmen. Scheduled to be picked up at 10:00, I waited until 11:00. A 90 minute drive from my hotel in Nusa Dua to the pier at Padang Bai, followed by another 60 minute wait, nearly 2 hours on a slow “fast” boat, making two stops at both Lombok and Gili Air, before finally arriving on Gili Trawangan. The top of our ferry was loaded with drunk passengers by the time we arrived so watching them maneuver down the unstable metal ladder was interesting, to say the least.
The Gilis are widely known as having white sand beaches, great snorkeling and diving off shore, and even some surf sites for those enthusiasts. There are no motorized vehicles on the islands, only horse carts and bicycles, which was refreshing after months of horns and auto pollution. Gili Trawangan (or Gili T) is popular among the party crowd because of its illegal, yet tolerated, shroom shakes and other drugs. Gili Meno is favored by honeymooners as it is more secluded and less developed for that really off-the-grid getaway. And Gili Air falls somewhere in the middle of the two.
An Internet search told me that wifi was spotty, the only water came from drilling so that there was no fresh water on the islands (only less salty sea water) and not to expect much in the way of services. I don’t know exactly when this blog post had been written, but it seems development has come at a lightning pace. Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed my time on both Gili T and Gili Air, but I wish I could have seen it 10 or even 20 years earlier. The kind of growth that has blossomed in the Gillis has undoubtedly contributed to the beach erosion, polluted waters, damaged coral reefs and a decline in the marine life to be found nearby.
It’s still possible to find a wide sandy beach, although it may be covered in plastic waste (in one hour during my morning swim, I collected 5 plastic bags, a yogurt container, 1 plastic bottle, a handful of plastic lids, a full package of straws, a child’s toy, and more unidentifiable pieces. It’s still possible to see sea turtles swimming in the depths off shore (which was a highlight for me), but the corals are bleached, dying, or dead. The plentitude of boats make swimming and snorkeling dangerous sports when the boats plow right through the middle of a group of submerged snorkelers. The boatmen toss their big rusty anchors into the sea, even when there are buoys available to tie up, without any concern for whether coral might be underneath.
On my long-tail boat ride from Gili T to Gili Air, the boat was heavily listing to the starboard side. I know this because I counted, but there were 17 people plus 6 large pieces of luggage on that side of the boat. On my side, there were 12 people and only 3 pieces of luggage. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the boat was tilted, yet neither of the boatmen payed any attention and through gritted teeth every time a wave would hit us from the side, I would hold my breath and wait for us to topple over. This is why I love and why I hate Asia – there are no rules here, no regard for safety (never life jackets on board and no such thing as overcapacity), no punishment for littering or carelessly damaging the coral reef, no distinction between boating and swimming zones (every man for himself), opening and closing times are only suggestions, smoking a cigarette while loading a propane tank onto a leaky motorboat, leaving children to play with fire and sharp objects and motor vehicles, piling 5 people and a dog on one standard motorbike without helmets, leaving unattended rubbish fires at the boundary of primary rainforest, serving rotten meat at a restaurant rather than discarding it, wasting energy on the wrong things (like sweeping pine needles off a dirt path instead of picking up garbage off the beach), openly advertising magic mushrooms, the list could go on….. If you want to open a business, it’s not necessary to have any qualifications for said business. Massage? Just walk around with a bottle of oil and a towel – no experience required. Restaurant? Just set up some tables under your lean-to and don’t bother to actually have any food available if someone actually sits down – no cooking experience necessary either. Guest house? Open up your spare bedroom that you have never bothered to clean. Anyone can be an entrepreneur. Customer service barely exists – it’s usually preceded by a blank stare and a wait of several minutes before you are told they can’t help you. A healthy dose of patience, humor, and tolerance are required to travel in Southeast Asia. In some ways it’s frustrating beyond compare, but in other ways, it’s refreshing beyond reason. Pretty much anything goes….and does.
Nevertheless, I spent 6 blissful, much-needed rest days between Gili T and Gili Air. I saw some pretty remarkable sunsets and sunrises, both almost every day. I hopped from beach chair to cabana to ocean-side massage table and back to beach chair. I swam with majestic sea turtles, who are as curious of you as you are of them. I took a sunset yoga class to sweat out some of those travel toxins. I ate the freshest seafood, straight from ocean to table. It was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries. Next stop, I’m taking this journey to the wild frontier.