Conversations After Sunset: The Further Adventures Of Sal & CoolCat


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Asia » Indonesia » Lombok » Gili Air
January 1st 2009
Published: February 15th 2009
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A not so fair trade coffee, a not so famous scientist & less than perfect weather



Several major domestic airlines connect the archipeligo, including Garuda, Batavia, Mandala, Merpati, Adam and Lion. You might recognize these names from news headlines. A disproportionate number of fatal air accidents occur in Indonesia. Planes slide off the end of rain-soaked runways or collide into the side of volcanoes. They have the adverstising slogans to prove it: such as Batavia; "Trust us to fly". Less recognized regional carriers exist in excess, connecting many of the same destinations as the big guys but at lower prices. However, bookings are usually done exclusively at airport agents, are often restricted to the relative port of disembarkation, flights are cancelled regularly and without a doubt safety standards are far below western standards. For this reason the EU has thus far refused any Indonesian airlines permission to enter their airspace. But heck, if you're looking for adventure...

Five am the streets of Legian are empty except for a straggle of drunk Aussie boys struggling to remember their hotel’s location. The taxi pulls into the domestic drop-off. Merpati’s check-in remains unmanned. “Pagi!” I shout inside the back office. The next door Garuda ticket agents wave consent for me to hop the baggage scale and investigate the open door. A young flight attendant is analysing herself in a pocket mirror, applying lipstick. She stands abruptly and rushes me out. She inspects my ticket and looks at me scornfully as though I should know better, “the flight has been delayed, sir. Come back at eight.”

For two or more hours Sally and I occupy vinyl armchairs in the back of Starbucks. (I shall insist there was no other option at this early hour where to procure sustenance and where to escape the sultry daybreak inside air-conditioned environs. My disapproval of the coffee chain still stands.) Starbucks is amusing to me in much the same light as Al Gore, zipping along the jet stream in his personal jet, spending how many gallons of fuel, broadcasting his trendy new war on pollution, before retiring to one of his several lavish abodes. Starbucks prides itself on offering its dear customers fair trade blends, highlighting the fact that the majority of choices on hand are not fair trade. Wouldn’t fair trade, by definition, suggest that Strabucks’ Indonesian branches draw attention to locally grown coffees and perhaps educate patrons on one of their nation’s most important export commodities. And using a little imagination, why not replace its 2for1 IKEAesque furnishings with beautifully handcrafted local furniture at a fraction the cost and further promote local industry. Fair trade my ass, Starbucks! And what for fair prices? It baffles me how the same beverage costs the same price whether in NYC or Chengdu. The outlet’s rent, it’s employees’ wages and its’ respective customer’s incomes are far from similar. But the average Pak Joe in Indonesia is not the cafe's target demographic. While there are over ten thousand outlets in the US, less than seventy stores may be found in Indonesia. Or compare British Columbia with one outlet for every day of the year and China with an almost equal number, the great maker of teas, at 384 shops. Starbucks sells the American way of life to those willing and able to pay for it.
Such issues percolating in the back of my mind, I enjoy a caffeine injection whilst treated to over two hours of xmas favourites remixed by once popular R&B artists clinging to wider recognition but fading fast into obscurity, given to fits both passionate and melancholic, and testing the very limits of Jingle Bells and my christmas spirit.

It’s less than half an hour flight from Denpasar to Mataram, a quick jump across the Wallace Line, named for Alfred Russel Wallace, a Naturalist from Wales, whom it must be credited helped Darwin prove his theory of evolution. In the mid-nineteenth century, Wallace spent several years exploring the Malay Archipeligo, collecting plant and animal specimens, and discovered that species from Lombok and Sulawesi eastward included cloves and nutmegs, marsupials, flightless birds and cockatoos, to be found in Australia but nowhere else in the world. Whereas from Bali and Borneo westward Indo-European species were to be found, such as thrushes, monkeys, tigers, wolves, otters, bears, deer, cattle, sheep, rhinoceroses, elephants, squirrels and porcupines. The contrast in species found inhabiting such close quarters would within two decades give rise to the study of plate techtonics. Ten thousand feet in the sky, attempting a shot of Gunung Agung, a blue triangle floating above a sea of grey, Sally’s camera battery dies. They’re quickly replaced courtesy the kind gentleman seated to her right, only to further exasperate her documentary desires. ‘No images’, reports the memory card.

A number
Island HoppingIsland HoppingIsland Hopping

doh! conned out of more money by the boys at Bangsal
of options make the journey between Bali and the Gilis, including half a dozen boat crossings between various ports, charging a wide range of prices depending on the season, the vessel’s size, speed and departure hour. I heed reports of choppy waves and long monotonous rides, and opt for a flight, knowing too well we shall have to deal with the touts in Bangsal. We could catch a cab direct to the port but I’ve planned so that we’ve time to travel by public transport, another face of Indonesia I wish to show my friend. We hop a horse cart, a lime green covered wooden box pulled by a miniature pony. The relaxed pace and the clip-clop of hooves on pavement, in gratifying contrast to the jet engines, affords a swift reality check returning us to the developing world charm that first induced me to explore Indonesia. The road out of Mataram up the west coast passes through Senggigi and Mangsit, a stretch cleared in recent years of fishing villages, rice paddies and other local industry and replaced with luxury resorts set back behind high walls and lush gardens catering to affluent Javanese and foreigners weary of Bali but lacking imagination. Local transport is in short demand consequently and securing a seat on a bemo requires considerable patience. Drivers charge foreigners absurd fares, more than a taxi. I’m told I’ll have to charter a bemo but eyeing the driver suspiciously, the minivan packed with school kids returning home, I quote him the local fare and squeeze in the back before he can respond. My patience quickly erodes. Bemo drivers, despite their lack of English, are versed in cunning lies with false reports on distances and road conditions. At Senggigi, I hail a metred taxi.

A note to travelers en route to the Gili Islands passing through Bangsal: Beware. The LP reads, “Bangsal has become so overrun with small time hustlers and would be scammers that it’s best to completely ignore . Keep calm, and head straight for the ramshackle boat terminal to get your ticket.” The taxi pulls into a gravel car park a few blocks from the port, from where my friend and I are told we must continue by horsecart, of which several lounge in the shade awaiting unsuspecting tourists. We’d paid 4000Rp for a 3km ride in Mataram. Here we’re asked 25,000Rp for a 500m
Island Hopping in the Rainy SeasonIsland Hopping in the Rainy SeasonIsland Hopping in the Rainy Season

a few days later a speedboat Xing to Bali would crack its hull, leak and sink. among the passengers 2 co-workers of mine would help paddle shocked tourists to shore
jaunt. I give the ungrateful swindler 5000Rp. We’re let out a hundred metres before the end of the road in front of a ticket office where a man working alone at a wood table flips open a register and asks which boat service do we want: public, private or chartered. It’s just past midday so there should be plenty of public boats. “Public,” I respond. Sal and I each pay our 7000Rp and are asked to wait next door in front of a small warung for more passengers to arrive. Every few minutes a horsecart clips past packed with tourists, not a one stops to purchase tickets. “They’re from the resorts in Senggigi. They have all their tickets pre-arranged.” Ocasionally, a taxi purrs past as well. Strange, we’d been told taxis could not drive to the road’s end. A much too friendly, slightly overweight young man keeps a constant chatter going while I sip my coffee. From time to time a loudspeaker in its typically muffled and indecipherable tones announces what must be a disembarking vessel. The young man is concerned that no more public boats will be leaving and suggests we buy tickets for a private boat. I stand, look down toward the road’s end and take a step in its direction. The young man jumps to his feet, “Your boat will come soon. My Uncle is getting gas.” Obviously at this point I should’ve realized he was trying to con us. “You know, to avoid this problem, when you return in a few days, you should buy a ticket now so you can catch an organised shuttle bus directly to Senggigi or Mataram.” Sally and I look at each other. We’re both tired and she’s less clued-in than me. She nods her head. The young man and I haggle the cost, I even show him my kitas and argue I’m a student in Yogya. The price is reduced from 150,000 to 70,000 per person. He writes up a ticket, signs it, explains how to use redeem it and I hand him our money. Instantly, he gets to his feet, “Hurry, come quickly, the last boat’s leaving!”

A downpour ensues. Passengers huddle under an insufficient tarpauline cover, blocking the captain’s view and tipping the prahu off balance. Its outrigger scoops into the waves and sends greater splashes aboard. Reaching Gili T, the rain still falling strong, Sally and I, protected by cheap plastic ponchos, tip-toe barefoot down the flooded commercial strip of dive shops and bars, a tangle of half naked white folk displaying varying degrees of UV exposure seated across from dark skinned boys from Lombok smiling under baseball caps, all enmeshed in an unsightly plethora of advertising. My friend and I pass under a bar sign, happy hour, and take shelter under a gazebo’s thatched roof. The boys plump our cushions, set down menus and after a long search return with two bottles of Bintang. None of the staff understand what happy hour typically infers. “Yeah, happy hour all the time. You want happy shake?” Relaxing, despite the foul weather, enjoying the seaview and collecting our senses numbed by the day’s early start, I turn to Sally with a realization. “We were conned.” “Yup.” It’s possible to take a public boat back and a taxi straight to the airport for around 70,000Rp combined.”

Our day’s journey hasn’t ended yet. Late afternoon we are back at the wharf boarding the island hopper, bound for Gili Meno and onto Gili Air, where we’ve arranged accomodation. I overhear an Indonesian speaking Finnish with my neighbour and learn that he spent a year studying in Helsinki. The Finn informs me that there are three hundred Indonesians living in Finland. More needlss information filed away between a Norwegian rendition of 'Three Little Indians' and a little known fact that Finns drink per capita 11 cups of coffee a day, more than anywhere else in the world. The rain persists. Drops pitter-patter on our ponchos as Sal and I follow a rain soaked sandy road cutting inland from the jetty. Small homes and cleared yards peak between the flowering shrubs and palm trunks. We stand along the fence when an occasional horse cart clip-clops past. Coconut Cottage, a half dozen bungalows of varying size and splendour tucked in a handsome garden rich with hibiscus, provides perhaps Gili Air’s most luxurious lodgings. Elaine, from Scotland and her Sasak husband have been hosting visitors since 1992. Through a mistake in the bookings, Sal and I are upgraded - at no extra cost - to the largest and most regal bungalow.

Before sunset we’ve sniffed out some of the island’s more reknowned pleasures. My trusted companion rolls us a proper spliff and we ease ourselves into island life. For a few precious days there’s no agenda, only the play of light with time’s passing and the friendly greetings of the locals. Time recedes. Each action, I admire, is focused, accomplished with patience and attention, young boys balanced on a skiff playing their fishing lines, a group of men rebuilding a wooden hull, scraping and shaping with practiced moves. Beers, cocktails, topless young defined dark brown men, everybody on something, and late evening bars where a merry mix of foreigners and locals dance into the early hours. Shits and giggles and the world on its head.

The Date, the Dancefloor, Some Hookers & Everybody's Hangover


Mid afternoon, a last minute decision, Sal and I board the island hopper bound for Gili T where we’ll ring in the New Year with a few of my colleagues from Surabaya and a young man, a hotel owner, I’ve met through online personals. The weather’s unfestive but I wager correctly it’ll clear by evening. We stumble across Nick and Jamie, Simon and Marianne, and Adam playing cards at the Irish bar. Ubay appears the far end of a long counter of merry makers with his friend Ira, an attractive young Balinese. We continue drinking late into the evening, the crowds growing thicker and thicker, splashing through the flooded street. At Ira’s suggestion we order some delicious sushi and tempura from the Japanese next door. I watch Ubay shmooz with several other folks at the bar and am introduced to a few. Ubay manages a hotel in Senggigi, a business endeavour he and his ex-partner started. Shmoozing comes second nature to him. Small talk, were I too engage in more often, would lead all too quickly to bar brawls. I listen for too long while a young Mancurian tells me he wishes he were gay. “You guys have it so easy, ya’ know. No games, no guessing. Each of you knows what the other wants.” Not long before midnight, the Mancurian back under his rock, we head up the end of the strip where a large white tent has been erected and red carpets laid over the beach and dance music pulses over an empty dancefloor. Cover is too steep for most folks. Ubay fortunately gets Ira and Sal and I in for free. The cocktails, the company, the music, the locale make for an exciting New Year’s. Five! Four! Three! A sudden barrage of fireworks explodes over the sea. I’m lost to the music, ecstatic, communicating through movement with a beautiful stranger to one corner of the floor, her hair blowing in the seabreeze provocatively like a Shakira video.

Ubay and I return to his hotel room on the heels of his roommate, an acquaintance who’d arrived without any place to stay, and whom it appears has had much to drink and is now leading down the garden path three women and one man into the small room. Ubay pauses a moment to share with me in frustrated whispers what he’d like to do with the idiot. I wait outside while Ubay crosses the porch, raps at the door, and is let inside. A moment of calm firm language seaps through the cracks in the walls before the door opens and the silhouettes of two women and one man retreat down the path. There is an awkward dialogue on the veranda while Ubay’s roommate, dumbwitted and not the least apologetic, pleads with Ubay that he and his girl have an hour alone in the room. Ubay’s tone grows impatient. The roommate is compromising, suggesting some crazy ideas. I overhear this lying in Ubay’s bed. In the other bed a woman in tight clothing and heels sits propped against the headboard, a movie cliché under the glow of the bedside lamp. The couple leaves and Ubay and I continue our party but not before double-checking the whereabouts of our passports and moneybelts. Ubay’s roommate will return some time later to fetch something he’s forgotten. The door will swing open on a vision, I personally would describe beautiful - the lighting, the bedsheets, the figures just so - but for this innocent young man, something he’d conjure out of deepest darkest dread. Happy New Year!

Late morning, Sally’s voice, like an echo in a western landscape, trails from the distant edge of a hangover. She’s on the patio having one last smoke with some friends. Then her form can be seen lying on the next bed, a curly head of hair, bra straps and a wrinkled bedsheet.

I follow Ubay and Ira down the strip bathed in a hot lazy sun, cross an unkept square, perhaps an abandoned basketball court, and enter inside a quiet narrow warung. At the far end beyond a row of tables, a glass case sits atop a counter displaying several colourful and scrumptious vegetarian dishes. The propietress, well-aged, white hair in a ponytail, directs her young staff with a quick sarcastic tone. Granny joins us at the table, smoking a kretak and joking with Ubay. A wind swirls playfully along the beach among a copse of spindly fir trees opposite Horizontal Bar where beautiful young people lounge on futons placed a polite distance from one another. Muscled Romans, oiled and fitted into striped banana hammocks partnered with women of graceful limbs and oversized sunglasses watch furtively to keep count of who’s watching them. Lanky Bambi eyed Slavs soak up the afternoon nursing their party pains. Sal joins us. She looks a little withered and pasty, but her eyes are smiling. She brings me up to speed on the previous night’s events.

The New Year has been a lucky one thus far. Sally’d returned to the white tent party and had gotten to talking with two young Italian guys, the party organizers, who admitted they’d lost a sum procuring the sound equipment and DJs and shipping it all over to the island. “Yeah, they were hot,” she confirms but I have to question the clarity of her beer goggles. She’d joked
Coconut Cottage, Gili AirCoconut Cottage, Gili AirCoconut Cottage, Gili Air

upgraded to posh bungalow
the night before when we passed a row of posh bungalows opposite the party that she’d have to sneak in and have a swim in the private pool. Sure enough, the Italians had invited Sally back to one of the bungalows where they’d chilled out on the pool deck until past sunrise. Crossing town she’d bumped into two of the staff from our cottage back on Gili Air. Sally smoked a few more reefers while the boys waited to catch the morning boat back. Sal and I are invited to stay another night at Ubay’s so take full advantage of a beautifully retarded afternoon, sipping smoothies and pretending not to watch the Romans in their banana hammocks.

Evening, a trio of European bankers settled in Hong Kong, friends of Ubay on a five-day whirlwind holiday taking in Phuket, Bali and Gili T, pay a visit. I tire quickly of their vanity and pretentions and join my fellow English teachers slumped around a low table in a thatched gazebo. They’re each served a happy shake and after half an hour I watch with amusement as they sink into their cushions, sharing an increasingly comical and disjointed conversation. I decline the
Gili AirGili AirGili Air

much simpler accom. the sunset side of Gili Air
shake having spent a rather disoriented afternoon a few days previous.

Paradise is a naïve patch of earth with a palm grove, aloe vera and unnamed flowering shrubs. It acommodates a few cabins, provides shelter from heavy rains, and to each a porch to gaze out upon the sea and the setting sun or the black and white electrical storms. A band of happy young men, eternally so, bronzed and topless, wind caught in their hair, climb the palms and drop down the coconuts, wrestle cool bottles of beer from the waves, lure plentiful fish and hunt wild boar in the bush. I could stay here forever. Sam’s overheard me. He remarks to his young friend, in a mocking tone, “yeah, man, if you got the money.” They laugh to each other. I wince. And instantly paradise has shed its anesthetized veneer. Everything in moderation. It’s time to go.




Additional photos below
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everybody's so cool on this island


15th February 2009

that's the way it is
A nice description of the real Indonesia outside the polished resorts. Keep us posted! Salaam, dirk
16th February 2009

Interesting account of your time in Indonesia.
2nd March 2009

Beautiful Photos
Beautiful Photos, Kevin, miss Indo a lot, be careful tho' when fraternising with the locals. Remember you are in a Muslim Country. Pretty cute btw.
21st April 2009

So Nice..
You look great, and your writing is still fab, as always. I miss Sally, she introduced me to Veuve Clicquot... and life has never been the same. ;-)
8th March 2014
Cool Cat, Ubay & Sal

Hi kak ubay kamu masih ingat aku gak.. Aku sisca teman nya jean..waktu itu kita pernah ketemu di lombok dgn jean

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