Published: May 9th 2011May 9th 2011
16th December 1990.
Two nights ago we’d met the solicitors from London: Alex and Gwynn, both bronzed and sleek from months of travelling, although looking amazingly smart on the back of this. Three bottles of banana wine at our hostel in Cakra, Lombok, and we were of the same opinion, that Meno sounded best. The smallest and least developed of the three Gilis, Meno is half a mile long and less wide. Covered in palms, encircled with fine white sands and Indonesia’s ubiquitous turquoise seas it has no cars and few people, locals or backpackers. We had no idea what was on the island or how much anything would cost, but we knew where a boat left from.
Turned out that a beachfront losman (shanty hut on stilts) is 15,000 rupiah. Five pounds! That’s not cheap, but at least meals are included: there are no restaurants or shops on the island, nor electricity for that matter. The dozen or so losmen dotted along the shore sit amidst the fringing palms, each hut fronted by its own low coral wall and gazing out, over the sand, to the sea. There are several residents’ dwellings tucked back from the beach and a shared communal seating area where meals are served. Tourism is certainly new to Gili Meno, with the few locals surviving by making salt, fishing or growing cocoa. Samui and even Phangan had already long passed this.
The sea gently laps just yards beyond our hammocks hanging on the rickety balcony as we emerge from the humid hut in search of lunch. It’s a warm, but cloudy, day and down the beach the Jewish brother and sister sit under the woven palm shelter on split coconut trunks either side of the broad planked table. Both are dark and rounded: he a curly-haired, grinning puppy and she a short and generously vivacious pear. Spencer is an architect and Janis a criminal defence barrister. They’re even more bubbly than normal as we join them. Abi and I start on a bottle of the local arak which was closely followed by lunch and the solicitors.
Several hours pass with Abi taking further stick at cribbage as we all drink, chat and wait expectantly. The weather takes a turn for the worse and we huddle closer to avoid the encroaching drizzle, the odd head turned seawards in search of a boat bearing our “trip to the moon”.
Four thirty and a young lad emerges from between the trees with seven mushroom omelettes: small, grey, rather unappetising looking things. Didn’t see a boat? Why seven? One sixth extra free, so no one was complaining as we divvied them out, gobbled them down and then waited.
Nothing happens for thirty minutes until Abi lets fly with a laughing fit and from then on it was all freewheeling. The next six hours passed as though in slow motion, vividly clear yet distorted. Initially we all felt extremely heavy, limbs tingled and everything was hilarious. The rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun hung low on the horizon. One by one the three girls wandered off for a stumble along the beach, their voices carrying back to us on a much warmer breeze. By now my vision was rather hazy, distances seemed immense and the entire island suddenly unfamiliar and ethereal. Amidst cries of “come see, come see” I caught up with the girls sitting at the edge of the water as they marvelled at what was surely the speediest of all hermit crabs. They enthused about the spectacular sunset to “the blue man” – me. This was no ordinary sinking sun; the colours had the girls entranced. Abi could feel the colours; the world was crimson and purple. She was “walking in colours”. “The colours are tangible”. Our barrister, soon to become known as ‘the jacuzzi of emotion’, was gawping at millions of dazzling fish – fish that she could touch right before her eyes. Giggling we meandered back to the lads, away from the last of the fiery elephant clouds baiting the baying bear. A palm became a rearing horse, a coconut husk a knowing wig.
Eventually back after walking for what seemed like eons we discovered that dinner had arrived. Only Spencer, the now gorgeously camp ‘Nicola’ could eat. Apparently he’d demanded to see the manager: “I want to eat the manager”. Instead he’d made do with eight bananas. Dinner was a scary event – the other two foreigners on the island, oblivious to our state, had turned up. Janis was upset by the food and pleaded for it to be removed; her rice was moving. We started back on bottles of rough aniseed arak and demolished packets of cigarettes. It was dark, the hurricane lamps were lit and our solidities flickered. Between convulsions of laughter Abi decided she’d had enough: “I’m scared and I want to get off”. All personalities were exaggerated, faces caricatures, the table – our crutch – now vast and dwarfing, the German ogre horrific. Abi was later to state: “throughout the whole experience the only stabilising factor was her ugliness”.
Janis’s emotions began to run riot: talking, pleading, yelling, screeching, she went from euphoria to inconsolable crying. Alex remained collected as ‘Jonathon’… ‘James Bond’; Abi was ‘Nursey’, ‘Mummy’; Spencer really was ‘Nicola’ in his bizarre effeminate double act with his fragile sister. Gwynn was agitated, on edge, twitching on her cigarette. Uncontrollable bouts of sweating and never-ending laughter were the only constants.
Spencer disappeared into the night and Abi and I went in search. He was sitting motionless on his balcony staring at the still blackness of the sea beyond. “It’s a film” he confided in us, “but it’s big enough for three”. He spoke calmly of a broken down car and how we must go to the aid of the driver. We looked equally intensely, but blankly, into the blackness and thought about this for a while, before advising a return to the others. “Yes,” he replied, “we could use some more help with this; we’d better take a lantern, in case we scare them with our shadows”. With this he gingerly slid forwards off his chair towards the four steps leading to the sand. He braced himself and looked deep into my eyes. “It’s a good job we climbed mount Merapi” he announced as he negotiated the precipitous four feet to terra firma on his bum.
The night was pitch, bearings gone, but a momentarily lucid Janis spotted the swaying glow and beckoned us. We explained the situation to her and she became frantic at her brother’s hallucinations: “We’re on Gili Meno, an island, there are no cars. We’ve been here for six weeks”. “Err, two days” corrected Bond. Things began to break up. Janis danced, her gargantuan breasts scrabbling like proverbial puppies desperate to escape from her none too substantial bikini top. Then she began verbal assaults on the rest of us. Gwynn was even more uncomfortable, Spencer a lumbering manic and Abi intense, describing her feelings with incredible articulacy. Then slowly, ever so slowly, the trip subsided. Everyone is shattered, totally fatigued. Six hours had seemed like days. The table shrank, it wasn’t quite so dark, faces not so distorted. We stripped and skinny-dipped among the biting insects that really were there then returned, shivering, to the table with just the odd giggle escaping as the tense muscles unknotted.
No one slept much that night and the Germans were never seen again.