In a story which will be told in later entries, I lost a lot of photos that I took on my iPhone 7 Plus. When travelling between different destinations I usually pack my Canon camera away and use my iPhone to take photos. Sadly the pictures to illuminate the boat trip to Gili Air in this entry are no longer with me, so I apologise for the large block of text at the start of this entry.
The bus is here at 8.20 when they said 8.30 to 9.00 am. I’m just finishing brushing my teeth and packing my toothbrush and toothpaste when it gets here. I head out to reception but they tell me it’s gone to pick someone else up, but within a few minutes it’s back.
Neo takes my big backpack out to the driver, who stows it on the roof of the bus. I say bus – in reality it’s an ancient Mitsubishi minivan from the 80s. Sitting in the front bench next to the driver is a couple who say hi when I get on. ‘How’s it going?’ I ask instinctively. We end up chatting for about ten minutes as we drive around the town to collect more passengers. She’s French-Italian and he’s German. They’ve just graduated and are having a holiday before starting jobs in September. They’ve been to Flores, which is where I’m thinking of going after Gili Air, and she shows me some incredible photos of their day trip to Komodo National Park. I seriously consider flying there instead of taking a four-day-three-night boat trip. They’re surprised I’m staying on Gili Air for a week – it’s a small island and there’s not much to do, so they’re staying for three days. I tell them that a week of having nothing to do is exactly what I’m looking forward to.
The van wheezes and rattles up the hills and down the passes as we make our way towards Bangsal harbour, from which the boats to the Gili islands depart. An American couple sits behind me and I swear the girl is talking to the guy in order to make herself sound exciting to the other passengers: ‘I can’t believe what an adventure we’re having,’ she trills. ‘Two islands in one day’ and ‘That is soooooo John’ while browsing Instagram on her boyfriend’s phone.
We get to the harbour 40 minutes before the boat is scheduled to leave and the driver deposits us at a cafe a couple of hundred metres up the road to collect our boat tickets. I’m supposed to hand in my bus ticket to a man at a desk who exchanges it for a boat ticket, but the driver never gave me back the receipt I showed him. He writes me out a ticket anyway. I order a coffee and wait to see what we’re supposed to do. The American couple stay on the bus and are whisked away elsewhere. It surprises me that the French-Italian/German couple communicate solely in English, but then I guess they would need to.
A third couple who sat at the back of the bus makes a move towards the harbour at 10:05. The boat is scheduled for 10:15. I collect my bags and also make my way there; the other couple is finishing their breakfast in the cafe. It’s smaller than Padang Bai, but there is still a lot of activity going on. There are wooden boats nestling along the shore, crowds of people and cidomo, or horse-drawn carriages, and men loading and unloading bags, boxes of Bintang and vegetables from and onto various boats.
I look around, unsure what to do. I spot the couple from the bus and ask them. They have just asked someone official-looking what to do. We go to a large concrete building behind us and show our tickets from the cafe. I’m told to head over to an area to the right of the road that led to the harbour; they are told their boat to Gili Meno has departed and the next one is at two o’clock.
I walk over and see a small hut with Gili Air written on it. Here I ‘check in’ for the boat. My paper from the cafe is exchanged for a ticket for the boat. The lady directs me to the boats to the right of the hut, one of which is surrounded by a gaggle of people with backpacks. Men hauling boxes of Bintang and baskets of fruit and tables and chairs step over the mooring ropes of the boats to load and unload them with their wares. A man checking tickets tells me I’m on the second boat.
I head to the back of the beach and put my bags down in the shade to wait. As at Padang Bai I kept my bags with me lest any “porter” attempt to take them for me and then demand money. I see a family of five with suitcases have their suitcases dragged off by skinny, wily men. They bring the cases about 20 metres from the road to where the boats are and then stand around expectantly. I see the mother amiably pull out some money as they discuss the amount. The two tall, blonde daughters in their early twenties – I presume they are Dutch – stand sour-faced during the whole procedure.
The French-Italians join me in waiting under the shade. She asks me if this is the boat we’re on, and I tell her we are to wait for the second boat. The first boat has just about loaded all its passengers and island supplies and then it departs. The ticket man disappears. We continue to wait as skinny men haul bags of rice, boxes of Bintang and long, steel cables over the mooring ropes and load them onto boats. “I’m not going to complain about my backpack again,” Miss French-Italian tells her boyfriend.
A crowd of people stand around one particular boat. These ‘public ferries’ to the Gilis are cheap – only 12,000 IDR – and regular (departing every hour), but they won’t depart until they are full, and in quieter times people can wait for over an hour before a boat will depart. Luckily it’s high season and this boat seems to be full. We watch it get loaded with pineapples, bags of rice and other sundries all heading for the island, and then the ticket man appears and people clamber onto the boat.
The locals all scoot down to the end of the boat near where the island supplies are loaded. I end up sitting next to the French-German couple in the middle of the boat opposite the Dutch? family, who have left a wide gap between them and the locals sitting near the supplies. I don’t know what is up with these girls but Jesus, they have faces like thunder. Perhaps they were expecting a yacht to whisk them away to the island? A local man near the end of the boat asks them to move up – there’s no room for people getting on the boat to sit down. The two girls look at him like he’s a piece of shit and do not move at all. Local people pick their way over the ribbed, wooden bottom of the boat and around the supplies and hop onto the vacant seats. The man who asked them to move shakes his head.
We set off. It should be a short journey to the island – about 20 minutes. We can see it clearly as we make the crossing. An Asian girl – not Indonesian – who hopped into the empty seats spends the entire journey taking selfies of herself – sunglasses on, sunglasses half way down her nose, sunglasses off, hair up, hair down, etc. No shame. It always fascinates me to watch people do that. I mean, how many photos do you need of yourself doing something? Her dumpy, head-scarved Indonesian friend sits silently next to her. The Asian girl is interrupted by a phone call and then continues to take photos of herself.
A similar boat overtakes us. Shirtless and bikinied backpacker types sprawl out on the roof of the boat. “I guess they’re not loaded down with pineapples,” I remark to the German guy. “But if they sink they don’t have anything to eat like we do,” he says.
The amiable Dutch? mother tries to take photos of her daughters on the boat. A wave rocks us and her extended elbow knocks into her daughter’s shoulder. She rounds on her mother, crumpling her face furiously and spitting out a vitriolic-sounding diatribe at her. I really can’t fathom what is wrong with these girls. The mother smiles and shrugs amiably.
As we approach the island the water starts to clear and a few hundred metres out it is some of the clearest water I’ve seen in a long time. It’s quite exciting to think of what this island will be like. My gold standard has always been Boracay in the Philippines, which, in some places at least, has white sand so fine it feels like walking on talcum powder and water that is warm and exceedingly clear. Pretty much every other beach I’ve been to in Asia has fallen short of the purity of Boracy, but I have feeling the Gilis could match it after seeing photos online.
We get off the boat in a small port. There are several cidomo lined up, and actually the beach is a little scummy here. I’m not concerned just yet. I chose a hotel near to the south part of the island and the boat station – my only barometre in this choice was price – and I head west a few metres and then turn right onto the road that leads up to the hotel.
The Gili islands have banned all forms of motorised transport. The only way to get around the island is by cidomo, bicycles or feet. I head up the sandy pathway towards my hotel. Cyclists, walkers and cidomo pass by. It feels like another world.
I check in and get to my room. It’s fine. The air conditioning is on so it’s nice and cool. I decide that as I’m here for a week I’m going to unpack everything. I have two reasons for this: I want to get my laundry out of my bag before it festers; and second, when I was in the cafe I couldn’t find my bank card. I’ve searched within the pockets and compartments of my satchel and not found it and it’s not in my wallet. It might be in the shorts I wore yesterday which are somewhere in the bag.
I unpack and put everything in the wardrobe but I don’t find the bank card. I get onto the Wi-Fi on my phone. Last night Neo asked for my number on WhatsApp. I don’t really like giving out my number to strangers, but I did out of politeness, thinking I don’t actually have to read and reply to any messages. He sent a message about an hour before asking if I had arrived. I replied to it saying yes, I got here just fine, but I can’t find my bank card. I sit on my porch, and then there is a loud speaker blaring a call to prayer from a local mosque. It’s really loud. I know they start at 5 am and my heart sinks, hoping that it won’t wake me up at that time. I go offline and then head out to explore.
It’s about 11:30 am now. The sun is blaring down. I slathered on my sunscreen before I left the room. When I get to the boat station I keep walking to the east. I’m really only planning to see what’s in the immediate vicinity. The ‘road’ is a sandy path set back from the water’s edge. I see people walking their bikes through the sand, which is brown and a bit muddy and quite powdery. That doesn’t bode well – I was looking forward to cycling around the island. The water is so blue and clear that I start to get excited again. At first, the spaces immediately next to the water are taken up by bars that have wicker day beds along the edge. I’m sure it will give way to beach at some point.
I keep walking. I recognise the names of many places I looked at when booking accommodation. The street is lined with bars and cafes and shops. Cidomo trot by and cyclists thread through the people walking. Several people are out in the water snorkeling or walking along the path carrying masks and fins. There are many diving centres and may stalls renting bicycles or mask and fin sets for snorkeling. It’s all very laid back.
Soon I come to a small hut that has a sign outside saying it serves the best coffee on the island. I’m keen to test the claim, but they tell me the coffee machine is broken and no one can come until tomorrow. I keep going. I see the water, but not really any beach. When I do see what looks like beach it is taken up by tables and chairs and daybeds of the various restaurants along the strip, so I’m unsure if I can go on. When I say beach, I mean small strip of what looks like sand – about five or six feet wide before it gets to the water.
I keep going. I browse some menus. It’s about 12 pm now. I stop in at a place that has an empty day bed facing the sea. I order a coffee and relax, watching the beautiful, clear blue water. People are snorkeling outside. A man in the day bed next to me puts sunscreen on and picks up a Go-Pro and a mask and fin set and gets into the water to snorkel.
I stay for lunch. For the first time on this trip I have chips and I immediately feel guilty, but my choice was prompted by the feeling that now I am on holiday. An older couple in snorkeling gear emerges from the water. The waiter asks if they saw a turtle. Yes, the woman says. I make a note to come back here one day.
When I leave I learn that this is the restaurant of the Turtle Beach hotel, a place that was highly recommended in a blog I read but fully booked when I looked into it. I’ve come about a kilometre now and I wonder if I chose the wrong location to stay in. I keep going along the sandy path. More shops, more cidomo, more cyclists. Some bars have signs outside saying they’re having a full moon party tonight. One catches my eye – it has fire dancers. Maybe a chance to practice taking some cool photos. I’m beginning to like this place.
Soon the number of beach-side restaurants thins out and I see open patches of ‘beach’. I say beach, but what I see is mainly what looks like a pebble beach but is actually comprised of large lumps of coral. It’s not sandy at all. There are a couple of trees and people are stretched out under them for the shade. I’m hoping to find an open stretch of beach where there are no people and you can just pitch up and stretch out and dip into the water, but I haven’t found it yet.
I check the map – I’m at the north-east corner of the island now. There’s no shade out on the beaches, but the water is beautiful. I keep going on the path and pass some more places, but the path is now a muddy type of sand again and is flecked with chunks of coral which get stuck under my big toes in my flip flops. It’s a bit annoying.
Along the north coast there are swings planted in the water. The water level is high and the amount of beach is small – again, just a few feet before it gets to the water. People lounge in the shallow blue sea or snorkel. No sign of a nice peaceful area yet.
I pass a place I had thought of booking. I was deciding between my place and this one. This one only had a single room available but it looked like a small rooftop apartment with a hammock outside. However, it was killed for me when someone mentioned bugs in a review, so I chose my place with its mosquito net and double bed instead. But this place looks like fun. It’s got a crowd of people in its restaurant and a small pool. I start to panic, thinking I chose the wrong place to stay again, given how far I’ve walked to get here.
I go past a row of warungs selling jewellery and sarongs and trinkets and fresh coconut oil. I get my camera out and take a quick snap and one of the sellers watches me. “I’m good photo too” he says. He wants me to take a photo of him. As in Vietnam, I don’t really like that, but I do it anyway. He calls over some of the other sellers and they sit on one of the warungs across from their stalls. I feel a little awkward and it’s hard to get directly opposite them because of the thatched roofs of the stalls and people passing, so I take a quick one and turn off the camera. He wants to see the picture, so I show him. One of the other sellers (the long-haired guy) isn’t happy with it, but I say I can edit and crop it and he seems happy about that. Lord knows what he thinks I’m going to do with the picture – it’s not like he’s going to end up in some newspaper or magazine or something.
I keep going. Nearby is a place that looks very nice. It’s called Scratch. Most of the places I’ve passed look like bamboo buildings with thatched roofs but this is sleek and modern – all tiled floors and shiny bar and big, wide tables. It has swings around the bar and the open front faces the clear waters. I step inside and get an iced coffee. It’s about 2.30 now.
I ask for the Wi-Fi – I’m thinking of posting a pic on Instagram. I get a message from Neo. No one found a bank card in my room. He calls me. I have been thinking about it and the only explanation I can come up with is that I must have taken the cash and then not taken my card from the machine cos I was rushing to give him a tip before he left the hotel. I check my bank app and nothing untoward has happened. He checks the ATM booth – it’s right next door to the hotel – but there’s nothing in there. I’m kind of glad I deigned to give my number now.
No bother, really – I can just transfer the money to my UK account and use that card. I go offline and keep walking. After Scratch the restaurants thin out and it becomes open beach, but it’s still very coral-y and there’s nowhere shaded. It surprises me a little because from the pictures online it looks like a very beachy kind of beach. On this part of the shore are swings in the water and people are sitting on them having their pictures taken. I’ve nearly circumnavigated the whole island now. I keep going and soon I’m back at the boat station.
Despite the lack of sandy beaches I’m really looking forward to some R&R here. I go back to the hotel and have a quick shower and sit on the porch. I still can’t find the bank card. I must have left it in the machine and the machine would have swallowed it. I’ve got plenty of cash though, so I don’t need to transfer the money just yet. I call the bank from Skype on my laptop and have the card cancelled. the operator says that there has been no activity since the withdrawal I made last night.
The call to prayer begins while I’m on the phone. It’s incredibly loud. My plan now is to head out for sunset. As I’ve already walked the path around the island I’m going to try the internal paths that cut through the interior of the island. I take a left out of the hotel and make my way along the pathway, take a right at the end and then keep an eye out for Shady Lane, which leads to the west coast. There are no street signs, of course, but I find the lane. It’s narrow and sandy and goes past some open fields that are full of palm trees and cows. The sun is going down and the sky is getting a golden glow. The heat has died down and it is a pleasant walk. I soon learn why the path is called Shady Lane – the trees grow up and their branches reach across to each other, making the path a little like a tunnel through the trees.
When I reach the beach I am surprised. The water has pretty much disappeared. The tide has gone far out and there are just a couple of centimetres of water now where a couple of hours ago the water was a lot closer. It’s interesting to see it so shallow and still – and it makes for great reflections as the sun goes down.
I look for a place to sit down and I find a bar with a row of bean bags set out facing the sunset. I plonk myself down and get a large Bintang and settle in for the sunset. Almost all of the bars along the beach have the same set up, and gradually the bean bags start to fill. The bar next door has placed a large swing at the water’s edge and people are queuing up to have their photos taken as they sit on the swing and gaze serendipitously at the sunset.
It’s a gorgeous sunset. I have to say that Lombok has treated with me some amazing ones, but this is a great one. The sun sinks slowly in the sky and is reflected in the still waters. Local people and tourists are walking in the waters and seem to be collecting something – I guess clams or whelks or something. Boats have come to rest on the sea bed and are titled to one side. Lombok is over to the left, bathed in a glorious golden glow. It’s very restful and peaceful.
When the sun disappears at around 6.15pm, a lot of people get up and leave, but I’m staying put for golden hour. There are whisps of clouds in the sky and I want to see what will colours the sky will change into. The bars set out candles and turn their lights on. It’s really nice.
When it is dark I get up and make my way back to the boat station. I decided not to get dinner at the beach bar, and I’m looking for a place to get a bite. I wander down some lanes that turn off from the main path that encircles the island. I realise I am lost, and I check the map. I squeeze down some narrow pathways that go past people’s houses and then find myself close to a place called Ruby’s Cafe. It’s packed, so I don’t eat there. I head down the lane and then see a place called Eazy Gili Woerung. I decide to eat here when I realise it is right next door to my hotel.
After dinner I am incredibly tired. It’s about 9 pm and I am about ready to collapse into bed. I had planned to go up to the north coast and see the fire dancers at the beach parties advertised, but I have second thoughts about that. But then I think again that this might be the only chance I have and that it would give me a chance to try to get some good pictures. I set my Apple Watch to track my walk and see how far it is and how long it takes.
It’s a simple route – head north, go right, turn left and head north again. There are several people walking and cycling along, and plenty of cidomo are trotting by so I figure it must be an easy route. After a few hundred metres it gets dark. There are no buildings or lights here. It’s a bit eery, especially when I look up and see a blanket of stars in the inky black sky. I keep going – people are still passing by on foot and on bikes – and take the turns. It darker still and I flick on the torch on my phone as I’m sure it’s impossible to be seen without it. I am surprised when an electric motorbike that silently passes me.
The end of the lane emerges right inside an outdoor space that is part of Legend’s reggae bar, which is hosting the beach party. I hear the dance music through the darkness before I get there. Lights are flashing and the music is loud. I move round to the beach part and I see more places with bean bags and candles out on the sand. However, it looks full, so I mooch along and then get back onto the path. As I do so a German couple gets up from a bean bag next to a fire on the beach and goes to the bar to pay, so I quickly dive in and get their bean bags.
Another large Bintang appears before me. The bean bag is large and soft and I can stretch out on it. I’m far enough from Legend’s that the music isn’t too loud but it can still be heard. It’s like mellow house music, and I quite enjoy it. The fire next to me crackles and pops as the embers char. I’m on the front row facing the sea, and the waves are lapping peacefully. I’m glad I made the walk here. (It was 1.4 km and just under 15 minutes to get here, according to my watch.)
It’s not quite 10 pm. Outside Legend’s I see people starting to make a bonfire on the beach. This must be for the fire dancers, I think, and I shift a little so I can see them when it starts. Seemingly in response to that fire a staff member from this bar drops a couple of logs on the embers of the fire next to me and pokes them to get a fire going.
I am so relaxed here. I lean back in the bean bag, and then I bring the other one around so I can put my legs up on it as a stool. I listen to the crackle of the fire and the lapping of the waves and the mellow music and I close my eyes and just peace out. I actually feel as though I am going to fall asleep, that is how restful I feel. It’s a wonderful feeling to just be out there on the beach, sitting under the stars and listening to the water and chilling out.
I still keep an eye out for the fire dancers every ten minutes or so. There are people crowding around the Legend’s fire, but I don’t see any sign of dancers. I close my eyes again and relax. There’s no rush. I could stay here like this forever.
A good hour or so goes by. Soon I have to maybe start thinking about getting back to the hotel. To be honest, I don’t really want to move from where I am, but I know I’ve got to make the walk back. There is still no sign of the fire dancers and Legend’s isn’t exactly heaving, so I would imagine they would make an appearance later. I get up and pay and make my way back.
When I get back to the hotel I feel excited for the week that is coming up if this first night of rest and calm is anything to judge by. After a few weeks of being out and about and busy every day I am looking forward to the peace and rest of island life.
I crawl into bed, turn on the air conditioner and settle in for a long, deep sleep.