Published: June 1st 2011May 25th 2011
We had the entire boat to ourselves. Well, that's not exactly true. There was also the crew of twelve and the amorous Berlin couple who had cloistered themselves above deck but other than that we had the entire Perama 100-passenger schooner to ourselves. Remarkable.
We were on our way back to Gili Air. Our personal Shangri-La which we had stumbled upon in the Fall of 2008. Our vacation dream come true. Our once in a lifetime experience coming around again. I was ecstatic. Standing on the ship's bridge waiting for my first glimpse of that idyllic atoll to the East I had my i-Pod cranked and my feet doing a happy jig. The sun was bright, the seas calm and the great pyramid that is Bali was steadily receding in our wake.
After leaving Cambodia we spent a bare two days in Bangkok waiting for our flight to Bali. After eight trips to the 'Land of Smiles' and having watched the attitude of the Thai people devolve from that of a friendly welcoming society to one of cash centered arrogance we have had more than our fill of that place and would have gladly skipped Siam altogether if it
were not for the fact that Bangkok remains the major air hub for SE Asia and try as one might a visit there cannot be avoided when flying.
We did a couple of days in the mountain town of Ubud before busing down to the port and the Perama boat. One way cost on Perama to Gili with transfers if 250,000 ($30 US) per person.
When the outrigger transfer boat from Gili T. put us ashore in Air the first thing I noticed was that the coconut plantation that had once occupied that beautiful stretch of beach had been replaced with a dive center resort. A quick scan of the surroundings and I came to the sad realization that most of the coconut trees were now gone. Chainsawed for bungalows, volleyball courts, swimming pools and diving operations. The beautiful sandy path along the beach had been turned into a tunnel by bamboo privacy fences behind which squatted high priced, A/C equipped huts for rent. The air hummed with large, hotel owned power generating plants. The formerly open views of the sea and Lombok from the path were now cluttered with bars, hotels, clothing stores and ticket agencies.
We managed to locate our old friend Eddie who had been the barman at Go-Go's Beach Club. Eddie is now in the bungalow game. Renting out the four he built near the pier. He got us a hut at his cousin's place next door (Resota) for 100,000 Rp a night ($12 US). During high season the rents increase by 150%. Eddie told us what had happened over a Bintang beer:
In the last year the number of 'Fast Boats' serving the Bali to Gili route has exploded. There are now 18 fast boat companies running the route. Fares have come down to the point where they are well within the affordability range of most backpackers. Where the old Perama boat took 8 hours to make the run the fast boats do it now in 75 minutes. All of this started a year ago. Last summer the sleepy island found itself inundated with 900 visitors a day. Real estate prices bubbled overnight as outside investors poured into the atoll snatching any available land. Coconut plantations, which had provided the islanders with food and export product for generations, were clear cut overnight. Basic bungalows were thrown up as fast as possible.
The number of dive operations went from two to seven in less than 12 months. There are 4 more under construction. There is a labor shortage and hungry folks from Lombok are pouring into Gili to work as maids, waiters and construction workers. This has put additional strain on the island's native village as new people crowd into the limited space. The island's water supply which only three years ago was already 'brackish' is now for all practical purpose pure seawater anywhere within 100 meters of the beach. Sewage is being pumped directly into the sea from the new hotels. The formerly glorious reef is now pocked with areas of dead coral and silt thrown up by the dive boats and snorkel tour operators. It is, in a word; a mess.
One morning at breakfast I struck up a conversation with a young Australian from Freemantle. He's buying up property on Gili for a backpacker hostel. Already has plans for a Jet-Ski operation. Para-sailing. Bar/ restaurant.. I've seen the face of change in Gili. It wears a BinTang beer T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts containing a fat wallet.
The new wealth is beginning to evidence itself.
This coconut grove is slated for a meeting with a chainsaw. To be replaced with bungalows.
Bicycles have become the new status symbol. On an island which takes no more than 45-minutes to circumnavigate on foot, the narrow pathways are in need of broadening as bikers and pedestrians lay claim to the same sandy roads. TV's are replacing cellphones as the primary source for news and entertainment for the natives.
The Gilis, which, until recently were part of Lombok's government administration are now a separate entity known as Gili Indhus. As a stand-alone community they elect their own local leaders who are being steamrolled by the new business environment. There is a new employment rule in Gili which states that a minimum of fifty-percent of all new jobs must be filled by native Gilians. We talked to a number of business operators who told us that these positions are opening so fast that there aren't enough natives around to meet the regulation. The island of Lombok is being used as a labor pool with predictable results. (For our take on Lombok's culture read our entry; 'Fear And Loathing In Lombok' from 2008.)
Drugs are now being openly sold on the island. Most meals are capped by a waiter offering to sell you a bag
of marijuana. Bars sell 'Magic Mushroom' shakes. The mushrooms are imported from Lombok. Sealed in clear plastic bags of water they float within like mutant goldfish purchased from an alien pet store. Pony cart drivers have caught the fever. Rides that once cost 20,000 Rupiah ($2.40) are now 50,000 and they don't haggle. Dive operators have price fixed the dives at $38 a dive. No dickering there either. Why the smaller operators would allow their hands to be tied in this way is beyond me. While the nicer operators get the lion's share of the business the smaller guys are withering away. Why eat hamburger when lobster costs the same?
The pace of island life is dictated by the fast boats. For the first time I see Gilians actually running as boats arrive and depart. Gone are the days when the islanders sat together watching the sunsets. Today they race to meet the 7:30 arrivals. Cart drivers put ponies to the whip as they funnel passengers and bags to various hotels and restaurants. Masons are hard at it day and night making sure that new bungalows are ready for the summer rush which officially begins on July 1. Most
of the visitors are German, French and South Korean. We see no Americans. Karen and I laughed when we read that after killing Bin Laden the U.S. Government issued a travel advisory to U.S. citizens advising against travel in Indonesia for fear of reprisals. Hard to believe that we're the same people that won the Second World War. Apparently our new battle strategy is to hit them and then run away and hide. I have yet to meet an Indonesian that has expressed anything less than happy respect for the United States and its people. Telling folks here that you're an American results in a friendly smiles and a firm handshakes. They should have taken Bin Laden's compound and turned it into an American hospitality center. Coca-Cola would have been happy to sponsor it.
For all its clutter, Gili Air is still a beautiful place. Rising at 5 in the morning will guarantee you a deserted beach from which to watch the sun rise over the volcanoes of Lombok. The horizon glows in changing hues from violet to salmon. Spikes of sunlight comb through Lombok's jagged peaks, playing over sky and water till the landscape is platinum plated and
Cow and Calves
Placid animals that you encounter everywhere on the island. At least as of now.
Sol's weighty heat convinces you that it's time to head back to breakfast in the shade.
The nights though, are the best . Before the moon rises, the Milky Way lays like a twisting arc of baby powder flung against the pitch black dome from horizon to horizon. Galaxies, bright as planets, diamond the poles. Meteors punctuate the night sky with blazing exclamation marks. Look here! No! Look here! You lay on the sand to save yourself the aching neck and you feel your mind levitating, breathless, as the universe takes you by the heart strings and tugs you back towards yourself. I do not believe eyes alone are enough to take it all in. For this stuff, you need to employ your entire being.
Karen and I live in a large comfortable home. Four bedrooms more than we need. Two bathrooms more than we want to clean. Four acres more than we like to pick up after but it's our life and it's a good one. Now take two people from that place and put them together, seven days a week, 24 hours a day for five months in a single 13 x 13 room which can
Before the boats start arriving the pier is populated with folks snagging something for breakfast.
range anywhere from a hut with a toilet that can only be flushed with a pail of water to a luxury pad with 189 cable channels and a fully stocked mini-bar in a town where NOBODY speaks any English. Trips like ours out in the fringes are great learning experiences for us. We learn that you don't need a cell phone or a television or A/C or a car to survive. Withdrawal of these luxuries is uncomfortable at first but eventually we find ourselves marveling at our ability to get by. We start fantasizing about returning home and giving away all the stuff that our new pioneer spirit tells us we don't need. Nice thought. We learn how important social interaction is. Talking with the locals. Asking what's up or down. On a trip as long as ours the occasional spell of boredom creeps in and we have to give things a jolt to remind ourselves how lucky we are.
On day 4 in Gili I was laying in the porch hammock reading my dog-eared paperback. Karen was sitting on the porch chair reading her dog-eared paperback. She suddenly jumped up looking as excited as a 3-year old on
Christmas morn. Dina and Zuby made a surprise appearance. The jolt. We had met them in the Philippines. Again in Vietnam and here they were in Indonesia. Really nice people with whom we share much in common. I thought their visit was based on mutual attraction but I soon discovered that Dina had an ulterior motive. She was suffering from a serious ear infection and she was looking for a Doctor and truth be told I was the closest thing to a Doctor you could find on Gili Air on that particular date. Karen thinks I've treated about two dozen people on this trip. Everything from gastroenteritis to serious burns to dog bites. We carry a well stocked mini-pharmacy and damned if all that military medical training hasn't come in handy more than a couple of hundred times during my life. Dina and Zuby are big time divers and they had been on a ten day dive boat tour when she was taken painfully ill. They had to cut their trip short and found their way to our place. As large as the Earth is it still proves to be a very small world indeed.
Within a day Dina
was headed down a rewarding therapeutic track and we were glad for the company. It became a different vacation. And in the nick of time too as we were nearly out of books. We spent 10 days together on Gili. Staking out cabanas together to kill the hot afternoons. Taking meals in the evening at moonlit seaside tables. One day we found a restaurant owner willing to give us carte blanche control of his DVD player so we had a 'Movie' day. That was fun for us and good for the restaurant at the same time as our final tab for $18 US assured the owner's overhead costs for the day. When we couldn't stand it anymore we all headed to Sanur in Bali. Yeah, we took the fast boat. Sanur is a town with a tourist population so old the pool area at our hotel had the ambiance of a Florida nursing home for Soviet military veterans. After three nights we went to Lovina on the North coast. Three nights there and it was back to Ubud for a final respite before we head back to our separate homes. They live just outside of London. We're already making plans
for a reunion.
Take the fast boat to Gili, as much as I hate to say it. Cost is 250,000 Rupiah each way.
Best restaurants are Scallywags, Zip Bar and Chill Out Bar. Order the fish. Watch out for additional taxes being tacked onto your bill.
Cocktails are expensive so bring liquor with you if you're of that persuasion. You can bring bottles into the bars and buy mixers there. They don't mind.
There are no ATM machines on Gili Air. Bring sufficient cash or find yourselves at the mercy of the merciless Gili money changers.
Make reservations during July and August when the island is busiest. If you get in late and need a place to crash try the cabanas at the bar; Paradisio I, on the beach just past Go-Go's.
There are more photos below