Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Gorgeous Gilis

“Gili Trawangan!!!” “Gili Trawangan!!!” shouts a man in dark blue uniform as the fast boat carrying passengers from neighbouring Bali has arrived at the jetty. Many passengers hurry out carrying their bags and belongings. Some of us have had a power nap while some were busy evening out their tan on the rooftop during a two-hour trip through choppy sea. The claustrophobic small boat, which is packed today with tourists from all over the world -Brazilians, Germans, Americans, Australians, Japanese, French and Dutch, from judging the conversations I've overheard - has already dropped off some passengers at two previous stops, the nearby Gili Menos and Senggigi beach, the gateway to Lombok island.

The three Gilis; Trawangan, Meno and Air, are an archipelago of three small islands and usually frequented by diving enthusiasts and tourists who wish to see beyond Bali, which lies 35 km west of Gili Trawangan.

The biggest among the three, Gili T is also the most developed and unofficially dubbed as the party central for its numerous hotels, pubs, restaurants and services. The other two Gillis already have some resorts and restaurants but still somewhat virgin in comparison.

I first came here on a weekend trip. 3 years ago to be exact. I still remember my first encounter with the Gilian air; conspicuously clean,crisp and calm, as automobiles and motorised transportation is prohibited on the islands. And of course, the top-quality water: turquoise blue, crystal clear and cozy warm. My two friends wouldn’t stop taking photos of each other with the splendid backdrop, the two stark blues sandwiching the quaint green hills of Lombok in a distance. 

“Come on, guys! We have two whole days and there are much nicer spots than this”

The horse carts (called “Cidomo” here) run on fixed prices. Completely unaware, I bargain the price using my limited Indonesian. But the driver points at the price chart mounted on the cart. A lot more civilized than I had expected, 75,000 rupiah ride (about 8 USD) takes us to our hotel at the further west end of the island. I learn upon arrival that “Queen Villas”, as it was known when I booked online, is in fact now “Aston Hotel”.

“Are you sure this is Queen Villas?” I doubtfully double check with the porter who greets us at the entrance.

“Yes, sir. This is Queen Villas managed by Aston”

We are certainly well away from the happenings. There is nothing after Aston except for a small village with lots of palm trees. By Gili T standards, this is remote. To go back to the main strip which has restaurants, spas, pubs and cafés, it’s at least a 20-minute bumpy horse cart ride. Or the alternative would be to bicycle. 

Queen Villas aka Aston is rather concrete with rough finishing though I’m quite impressed with the room for the price I pay (110 USD a night). The spacious room is equipped with a gigantic king size bed, a neat bathroom and a balcony that overlooks the pool and gardens, which, I believe needs a professional tending.  

“The bikes are free, Sir! Provided by the hotel”, assures Darma, a Balinese reception staff with a smile that could light up the dark grey sky. It’s almost 3pm and we haven’t had our lunch. We each get a bike and furious-ride back to the main strip. On the way, we pass by loved up newly-weds on unicycles (I swear it’s true), overly baked beach cookies relishing the sun and fat Russian tourists in skimpy speedos. “Pearl Beach Lounge”, arguably the “Ku De Ta” of Gili T, is the swankiest beachfront establishment here.  It looks pretty new but undoubtedly a popular hangout. 

I order a Caipirinha and a few Indonesian delights to nibble. “Sorry for waiting, Sir! The bar is busy”, apologises the waiter when I scoff at him for taking so long. Well, “busy”, I can see. All comfy couches with umbrellas have been taken. There are only a few sun-tanning beanbags left, laid out side by side on the clean white sand facing the piercing blue ocean. I take over one and meet the sun. My two friends, on the other hand, are truly Asian; they prefer to sit in the shade even after a bottle of SPF 35 generously splashed across their bodies. Figure why whitening lotions sell so well in Asia. 

After a few too many Caipirinhas, it’s time to carry my two and half shades darker self home. We return to Aston in order to catch sunset from the beachfront bar. The perk of being in the further west of the island is that we are treated to the magnificent view of Mount Agung from Bali, gloriously peaking out of the sea, backed by the sunset symphony. It is unfortunately a cloudy day therefore the peak of the mountain is veiled partially by the cirrus clouds. I put my DSLR away and also stop Instagramming my shots on iPhone. Sometimes, I stress too much on simply nothing and forget to just ‘be’. I order a large Bintang beer and rest my back against the comfy lounge chair. The idea of heaven really is not that complex.

After breakfast, we head out to the jetty on a cidomo around 9:30 am. We have booked the glass-bottom boat for our snorkelling trip. It is busier than I’ve expected at the jetty today. We are told to pre-order our lunch from the menu before boarding, as lunch is included in the package.

“Only order items less than 40,000 rupiah”, yells a frustrated looking man who sits in the tiny ticket booth. The young Australian couple who initially wanted Angus steak with fries settles on a Nasi Goreng (fried rice), which costs 35,000 rupiah. We opt for Nasi Goreng as well, keeping it simple. Let’s just not make the man any madder!

The boat fills up immediately. I hear many languages spoken. Four bikini-clad babes have taken their spots at the front deck where the direct sunlight is 100% guaranteed. Next to me sit an elderly couple from South Korea, equipped with caps, backpack, water bottles and the whole nine yards. A young fella, possibly not more than 18, has been chatting up the storm with nearly everyone around him. I notice that he’s openly smoking a joint. A few minutes later, an older gentleman comes and takes a spot next to him. He as well is holding a join in his fingers and guess what, he is the father of the young chap. I’ve learned from their accent that they are Australians. The two men are clearly on a higher level, obnoxiously loud, giggly and annoying.  A young American couple watches this unfold, wide-eyed, with pure fascination and disbelief.

I grow impatient, as the boat hasn’t left although it is full. Then I realise why it’s being held up. The mother from the joint-smoking family is having a dispute with the guy from the ticket office. I can’t quite figure out what the problem is but in the end they all get off from the boat leaving us in peace. A certain sharp-tongued Aussie friend of mine appears on my mind. He would have rolled his eyes, called them ‘Bogans’ and totally shut them up.

I’ve tried snorkelling a few times before. But I find it difficult to breathe through the mask and swim with fins. So I always end up seeing nothing, struggling to stay afloat the whole time. This time as well is no exception. Besides, where they drop us off, a few hundred meters off Gili T, the water is way too deep and there’s really not much one could see. 

However, this changes at our second spot, off Gili Meno, the middle island. From the boat, I could see the shore. There are a few catamarans docked in a distance and a number of swimmers in the water, possibly the tourists who are putting up at one of those beachfront properties. Not the one to easily give up, I decide to go again. The water is much shallower here and there are thousands of fish down below. About 10 minutes in the water, I’ve mastered the art of breathing through the mask. I put away the flippers subsequently and decide to swim without. I begin to enjoy the experience. Two French guys from our boat are incredible divers. They each take a big piece of bread, dive down to the bottom and start feeding the fish. Soon it has turned into a scene that one could only see in an aquarium. But it is happening right before my eyes and in a natural habitat.

My two friends are not comfortable swimming without their life jackets in the open waters. They float around the boat in their neon-orange ensemble looking quite comical. 30 minutes is all we’ve got and soon we head towards Gilli Air for lunch. Understandably, the service is slow and the food is atrocious. What can we expect from an all-inclusive 10-dollar snorkelling package. I shove the so-called fried rice (a literal version, really, rice fried with nothing else but a few pieces of carrot and cabbage) down with, what could have been, if I can remember, three small bottles of beer. Maybe more.

Now that I’ve improved my skills and found success in Snorkelogy, I am one of those who jump into the water first when we reach the third and last spot.

“Look, Look, there’s a turtle down there”, advises our snorkelling guide.

I quickly adjust my mask and look down. Within minutes, I spy the slow-moving turtle approximately 15 feet down under next to a mammoth flower-like coral. Such graceful creature!

As I’ve become more comfortable using the mask and swimming without the flippers. I find it quite liberating. I keep a steady breathing pattern, which stays in sync with my breaststrokes and kicks. It’s truly magical. I have seen so many fish yet I’m still finding Nemo. I do get scared every now and then. Especially when what-ifs enter my mind. What if I get too tired? What if I get cramps? What if I get left behind? But I compose myself and keep going.

I now understand why people dive. It’s a whole world out there. The feeling of having overcome my fear and gaining new experience is indescribably precious. I’d do it again. 

When we get back to Gili T, my bladder is about to explode thanks to three beers that I willingly swallowed (I should have known better!). I didn’t want to release myself in the sea either. “What if someone swimming nearby notices? I mean, the water is pristine and the colour is definitely not yellow” Thankfully, I find a toilet not far from the jetty.

Three of us agree on the idea of having a massage. We pass by a couple of spas in the main strip but we choose “Black Penny” as it appears to be clean and not too busy. What a great choice, I must say. The male masseur I have is skilful, intuitive and able take my tired body to a state somewhere between deep sleep and consciousness. That’s what pampering feels like. Adele’s “Someone Like You”, a remix version, is faintly playing from a café house nearby. Then suddenly I hear the thunder rolling. “Wait, is it going to rain?” It was all sunshine and blue sky all morning. “Am I hallucinating?”

Soon I feel teeny tiny drops of rain falling on my face. The thatch-roofed spa obviously has some little leaks. That beautiful natural aroma instigated when rain and soil collaborate, is both familiar and melancholy.  Not only does it confirm the change of weather but also wake me up from the delirium.

“Your massage is finished, sir”, says my masseur aka the man with the Midas touch. I’m practically gold; perfectly tanned and presently illuminated by lavender oil. The three of us walk out feeling like products freshly manufactured out of factory. I suggest that we stick around for both sunset and dinner in the area.

While the boys grab a bite at a restaurant, I go for a stroll. With the downpour earlier, the sunset of course is dismissed. An enormous rainbow is left behind, if that’s any consolation. But as twilight approaches, a rather unique ambience arrives. The smell of the rain is very much intact in the air. The rising tide is gently brushing up my bare feet, warm and inviting as I walk along the beach. The sun is long gone yet its orangey rays can still be traced behind the hills of Lombok. A couple, seemingly on their honeymoon, is taking a selfie near the pier, not far from the beach joint, Pearl. I leave my camera bag on the sand, further away from water, undress myself and hurry down towards the approaching tide. I reward myself a one last dip.

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