Backpacking Bonus 11: Gili Island Hopping

After spending over two and a half weeks in Bali with time running out on my Indonesia visa, I decided to make a move so I could check out the Gili Islands, a chain of three very small islands to the east of Bali (and technically part of the territory of Lombok, the next large island to Bali’s east). My original plan was to spend 10 days on Bali, 10 days for the Gilis, and 10 days on Lombok, but I scratched Lombok from that plan once I hit two weeks in Bali. Why rush things?

Each of the three Gili Islands has its own style and while I had read descriptions about all of them and could have selected just one island that seemed like the best fit for me, they were so close together so I wanted to try each of them out. As I mentioned before, Bali is the only place in Indonesia where Hinduism is practiced; all the other places practice Islam, which is conservative in comparison to Hinduism, but it is much more relaxed in Indonesia than it is in the Middle East. Keeping the change of religion in mind, I tried to stay aware of cultural formalities out of both respect and safety.

THREE separate WORLDS on tiny neighboring islands.

Gili Trawangan

Gili Trawangan, often referred to simply as “Gili T,” is the largest of the three islands and the notorious party island. I didn’t get my hopes up for this one and decided to start with it because I thought I would like it the least. Anyone can walk the perimeter of the island in two to two and a half hours. There is a wide lane–made up of stone, concrete, dirt, or sand at any given stretch of it–that circles the island making it an easy path to follow. Motorized vehicles are actually prohibited on all three of the Gili Islands so the typical modes of transportation include walking, using a bicycle, or taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo. There aren’t very many docks and the ones that do exist were built only to accommodate certain types of boats so the majority of the boats just pull up close to shore, often requiring “wet landings,” people having to step into the water to get to the island (especially when the ever-fluctuating tide turns the shores into long stretches of shallow water).

A horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo, jingles from the bells on the small horse as it trots along the wide, one-lane road around Gili T. (Just past the shores of Gili T, the

A horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo, jingles from the bells on the small horse as it trots along the wide, one-lane road around Gili T. (Just past the shores of Gili T, the “big island” of Lombok can be seen in the distance.)

As soon as I arrived and walk up to the main strip, I immediately started missing Ubud and Bali in general. The street reeked of stale beer and there were puddles in the lane. Sadly, for exactly the same price, I gave up a hot shower, swimming pool, and fabulous family in Ubud for definitely NOT that on Gili T. In fact, for the first time since I arrived in Asia, I was actually very concerned about having a lock on my door–and even then I didn’t feel all that safe. The locals were friendly, but kind of too friendly for my taste–always trying to find out my plan for the day, then invite themselves along which didn’t fly with me. The vibe on the island was super laid back and many of the local men had wild hair and tattoos. They were the type of guys who might offer you magic mushrooms… Oh, wait–they were offering everyone magic mushrooms!

Magic mushrooms were readily available pretty much everywhere on Gili T. In some cases, they even have special magic mushroom cocktails!

Magic mushrooms were readily available pretty much everywhere on Gili T. In some cases, they even have special magic mushroom cocktails!

The Gilis are famous for their white sand beaches, but the beaches on Gili T are less than inviting because they are dotted with large amounts of small rocks and coral pieces. Between the dirty, littered streets and the beaches that threatened to seriously hurt my feet, the thought of going barefoot as I had in Bali was not the least bit enticing. Besides consuming large amounts of alcohol and illegal substances, other popular activities offered on Gili T include snorkeling, diving, and renting a bicycle to go around the island. I just couldn’t relax much on Gili T so I decided to wait until I got to the other Gilis to pay for any activities. Also, despite public signs requesting that ladies wear more than just their bikinis around the island [when they were not on the beach] out of respect for the local Muslim culture, many female visitors disregarded those requests. I didn’t quite fit with the crowds–actually it was pretty far off–and I spent a lot of time dodging cigarette smoke and dreaming about getting back to Ubud and strategizing on how to work that back into my travel plan.

Everything about Gili T seethed

Everything about Gili T seethed “sex, drugs, and alcohol”–even the ice cream advertisements. This is just what the culture has become there.

I decided to stay for only two nights and used most of my one full day there as a work day and a day to walk around about half of the island to explore. Despite the crowds and the dirty/lazy feel of the place, I have to give Gili T credit for some of its positive assets which include some really nice restaurants and beach clubs right on the water, spectacular sunsets, and some of the freshest and most beautiful seafood that can be found in the ocean. These are the little treasures I indulged in on Gili T and for a couple hours at a time, I almost forgot that I was on Gili T. I would’ve stayed only one night, but I arrived late in the afternoon on the first day, and as luck would have it, the following day would be the full moon–and hence a “Full Moon Party” on the island, of course. The investigative writer in me is always looking for a good story so out of curiosity, I stayed. Plus, I had never actually seen magic mushrooms at work…

A dazzling sunset from Gili T. The

A dazzling sunset from Gili T. The “mountains” in the distance behind which the sun is dipping are actually some of Bali’s volcanoes.

Along the main strip on Gili T, there are stalls and stalls of freshly-caught seafood. I was utterly impressed by the size and beauty of this Painted Spiny Lobster. (Although I would have preferred to see it alive in its underwater habitat.)

Along the main strip on Gili T, there are stalls and stalls of freshly-caught seafood. I was utterly impressed by the size and beauty of this Painted Spiny Lobster. (Although I would have preferred to see it alive in its underwater habitat.)

To my sheer disappointment, the highly anticipated Full Moon Party didn’t provide as much writing material as I wanted. In fact, it was pretty boring. There was loud techno music that people were not even dancing to, a few crowds scattered on the beach, and some local men trying to make friends with drunk girls. I walked down the main drag and and equated the rest of the scene to a typical college party with beer pong and everything. While I have a couple of friends who might have really enjoyed that setting, it didn’t tickle my fancy. And no spying on magic mushroom takers happened either. Bummer. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but I was a little bored, what can I say?

From the shores of Gili T, the full moon shone brightly, lightly up the water and the island itself.

From the shores of Gili T, the full moon shone brightly, lightly up the water and the island itself.

As I got back to the guesthouse just before midnight, the guys who ran the guesthouse and another girl who was staying there were getting ready to go out to start their night of partying and urged me to join them: “Alexa, come with us! It’s the Full Moon Party. Let’s go! C’mon. It’ll be fun.” I politely declined, saying that I already went and was ready for bed. (Plus, I hate it when people call me “Alexa” so I was irritated, especially when I had told him my name multiple times.) Call me a party-pooper, but I double-locked my door that night and made sure I got up nice and early the next morning as I did NOT want to miss the boat. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough…

If only the late-night party-goers could see the adorable local schoolchildren picking up all the rubbish on the beaches from the night before, maybe they would be more cognizant of fiinding garbage cans and not littering so much. Oh, but they were all still sleeping--late night, ya know?

If only the late-night party-goers could see the adorable local schoolchildren picking up all the rubbish on the beaches from the night before, maybe they would be more cognizant of fiinding garbage cans and not littering so much. Oh, but they were all still sleeping–late night, ya know?

Gili Meno

Quite the opposite of Gili T, the island that never sleeps, Gili Meno is so quiet that it is known as the “honeymoon island.” It is the smallest of the three Gilis and has a rustic feel to it. There isn’t much on the island besides some coconut plantations, seaside bungalows, and a handful of restaurants and beach clubs. Because this is a relatively secluded island, the prices of everything on the island are naturally higher than they are in other areas so affordable lodging options for me were few and far between.

Gili Meno is known as

Gili Meno is known as “the honeymoon island;” the businesses and resorts here are prepared to add those extra special touches for newlyweds.

I settled on a simple thatched-roof bungalow about 30 feet from the turquoise water that was softly rolling onto a white sand beach. With basic amenities including a toilet, a shower, a bed, and a porch (and salt, not fresh, water, I later discovered upon showering), creature comforts were definitely lacking, and while I would have appreciated to have a sink or wifi, I just went with it and decided to “unplug” for my entire stay on Gili Meno (which was only one day and night). Although I had electricity, I decided to take a break even from writing so I could have a refresh, get-in-touch-with-nature day–sometimes that is good for raising creativity level up a notch.

I am standing on the porch of my simple seaside bungalow on Gili Meno. With a view like this, what more do you need?

I am standing on the porch of my simple seaside bungalow on Gili Meno. With a view like this, what more do you need?

I rented snorkel gear for ~$3 for the day and headed into the water, but I made the mistake of going in at low tide and spent the majority of time trying not to freak out as I dodged spiny sea urchins clustered together in close proximity to any or all of my limbs at any given time. While it wasn’t the most relaxing activity overall, I did find a few really nice spots with some of the most curious and fearless small fish I have ever seen. They might have just been territorial when I got close, but they didn’t seem to be afraid of approaching me or getting in my face. And the variety of fish species and colors of them just from what I observed snorkeling made me very excited for the diving I had in mind on the next island.

After dropping off my gear, I took off to walk around the island, without my flip-flops this time because the sand was slightly more walkable than that of Gili T (but barely!). I stopped and settled into a quiet little spot with my bum in the sand to watch the sun go down, then continued on my way all the way around back to my bungalow, arriving in the dark with only the bright moonlight guiding my way. The locals or other visitors that I came across on the island mostly kept to themselves, although they would all offer a polite greeting to match mine.

Another breathtaking sunset, this time from Gili Meno looking west toward Gili T.

Another breathtaking sunset, this time from Gili Meno looking west toward Gili T.

For dinner, I stayed close and went to a small restaurant down the road, making myself comfortable in a reclined cushion with a small table right next to the sand. There was hardly anything between me and the water and the moon was still so big and bright and beautiful (because it was the night following the full moon). I felt like I was in a trance and to enhance that feeling, there was a local guy who started serenading the dinner guests with love songs, accompanying himself on guitar. I don’t know how long I stayed there even after I finished eating, but time just didn’t matter. At one point, I almost fell asleep so I finally got up and headed back to my bungalow.

The night after the full moon, it was still pretty full! This was my view (from a distance) as I lounged around eating dinner and relishing the soulful serenades in the background.

The night after the full moon, it was still pretty full! This was my view (from a distance) as I lounged around eating dinner and relishing the soulful serenades in the background.

The full moon (and the handful of days on either end of it) attracts certain fish–and a lot of them–so in the evenings, local fisherman line the beach and throw out their lines in hopes of making a great catch. There were a group of fisherman on the beach when I returned so I watched them for a while; it was high tide so the waves were big and crashing loudly a few feet away from them (and just a few feet farther from me). I couldn’t bear the thought of closing myself off from this magnificent melody of nature by sleeping inside my bungalow, so I grabbed my pillow, pulled down the hammock on the porch, and swung myself asleep outside to the rhythm of the sea. (A big difference from Gili T is that I actually felt safe doing this on Gili Meno.) The next morning, I got on the ferry to make the hop-skip-and-jump over to Gili Air.

The arid climate of Gili Meno results in more resilient flowers like this type (as opposed to brightly colored tropical flowers with paper-thin petals).

The arid climate of Gili Meno results in more resilient flowers like this type (as opposed to brightly colored tropical flowers with paper-thin petals).

Gili Air

Ahh. The Coffeeshop Island. As soon as I stepped off the boat, I knew this island would be my favorite of the three; it is the favorite for most people who visit the Gilis as it seems to be the perfect blend between the other two. However Gili Air is so much more than a mixture of the two other islands as it has developed its own cool vibe. The island is lively and seems to always have something going on, but everything winds down around 10 PM, and the crowds here are active, easygoing, and respectful. While I dubbed it the “coffeeshop island,” it is also the island that seems to have the most dive shops, and consequently, the chilled out diving culture. It’s almost as if coffeeshops and diving go hand-in-hand here.

I've dubbed Gili Air

I’ve dubbed Gili Air “the coffee shop island” exactly for this reason: laidback coffee shops line the shores all around the island. Some of the phrases on the signs at the entrance of this cafe include “Only Coffee, No Wifi,” “Life is Good so Be Easy,” “Enjoy Your Fresh Air,” and “Holiday No Stress.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up.

I planned to stay four nights on Gili Air, and my “hopping” theme continued as I booked an expensive room (expensive for me is anything over $25; this was ~$32) for two nights at “7 Seas Cottages”–only because the hostel dorms were full, then I bounced over to “7 Seas Backpackers Hostel” for my last two nights at only $5/night. It’s not like I needed a fancy room when I was spending all my time outside soaking up everything about the island, plus, by saving money on lodging, I could work a couple dives into my budget.

Being on Gili Air was like this: Imagine getting a great night’s sleep. You wake up naturally in the morning and walk across the street to a restaurant on a white sand beach, then make yourself comfortable in an open bungalow with a table facing the bright blue water, where you enjoy a leisurely breakfast and maybe get a little work done. Then you head back to sunscreen up and collect your sunglasses, hat, beach towel (or sarong), and perhaps a book–equipping yourself with the necessities for spending the next couple hours on the beach or by the pool, soaking up the sun and taking an occasional dip in bathtub-temperature water. In the afternoon, you casually stroll down the road with maybe a fruit smoothie, a coffee, or a fresh coconut, just enjoying the people and activity on the island. By mid- to late afternoon, you’ve wandered far enough around to select the perfect spot for sunset viewing and get comfortable once again on either a beachside bungalow or a brightly colored bean bag in the sand, ordering a snack or a beverage while you wait for the sun to go down. After stopping back at your place for a quick shower and change of clothes, you go out one more time in search of a mellow dinner spot and have many options to choose from, most of which have their tables in the sand by the water’s edge, jazz music (or another set of relaxing tunes) and nice lighting dictating the ambience, and a large selection of fresh seafood and other local fare on the menu. And then you go back for another good night’s sleep.

This is a typical Indonesian breakfast:

This is a typical Indonesian breakfast: “Nasi Goreng,” or fried rice with vegetables and a fried egg on top (often served with a puff cracker), a plate of fruit, and coffee/tea. Very balanced! Oh, yeah–and this is a typical meal time view from the Gilis. Here, on Gili Air, the “big island” of Lombok can be seen in the distance…as well as a snorkeler on the right edge of the photo.

Bungalows lining the beach just for daytime

Bungalows lining the beach just for daytime “relaxers” is a common thing on the Gilis.

That is pretty much how I spent my four days on Gili Air, with the exception of adding a couple dives in the mix. The sun and the fresh air had such an effect on me that I didn’t even bother watching the time–it all blurred together. I ate when I was hungry, walked when I was restless, and went to sleep when I was tired. And I slept like a baby every single night.

Here is yet another sunset picture, but on a tiny island, sunrise and sunset viewing are pretty significant daily events.

Here is yet another sunset picture, but on a tiny island, sunrise and sunset viewing are pretty significant daily events.

Of all the Gilis, Gili Air had the nicest beaches because the sand was softer so they were actually walkable. The water was easily accessible so many people were snorkeling just off the shore at all times of the day. And the sunsets might have even been the best on Gili Air, but I could be biased because I loved the island so much. I thought I was going to stop taking photos of all the sunsets, but I just kept taking more. I couldn’t get enough. And I wasn’t the only one: even the locals on the island paused everyday to gaze across the horizon as the sun put on its show-stopping performance, transforming into a giant red ball as if to say, “Don’t you dare forget me!” and passionately going out with a bang before disappearing from the view of its captivated audience, leaving a lasting impression on all. Brilliant.

A colorful sunset from Gili Air (with Gili Meno in the background).

A colorful sunset from Gili Air (with Gili Meno in the background).

Even after the sun goes down, the after effect of sunset lingers, turning the sky all different shades of purple, pink, and orange as can be seen on Gili Air in this photo.

Even after the sun goes down, the after effect of sunset lingers, turning the sky all different shades of purple, pink, and orange as can be seen on Gili Air in this photo.

For my budget’s sake, I waited to go SCUBA diving until my third day on Gili Air. (I knew once I started, I would be tempted to make it a daily activity!) Originally planning to dive with “7 Seas Dive” just across the street from and associated with my lodging choice, I went over to check out the operation, but wasn’t immediately convinced that that was the spot for me so I kept wandering down the street to see what I could find. (Dive shops are like lodging options–you need to check out a couple to find the right feel and fit for your tastes.) There was a place a little way down called “3W Dive” advertising an Early Morning Dive to a dive spot called Shark Point so I went up to enquire and met a dive instructor named Lise who was so steady and thorough in her explanation of their operation that I immediately signed up. We did paperwork and sizing for my equipment and parted ways with, “See you at 5:30 in the morning!”

Going on an early morning dive meant that we caught the sunrise first of all, but also that we were the only ones on [and in] the water as the other dive shops on the island wouldn’t have their boats out until around nine. Since I had gotten rid of my first-dive rustiness in Pemuteran Bay (in Bali), I felt very relaxed. In addition to that, Lise briefed our group of three divers so well before the dive, making sure all the underwater communication signals were clear and that all of our checkpoints were examined, that I felt extremely comfortable and in really good hands. I had never had such a professional, thorough pre-dive briefing before. Lise was so passionate about marine life and protecting it that it made me appreciate everything just a little bit more. She was all around wonderful.

Photo courtesy of 3W Dive. I did NOT take this picture, but I thought it was a cool shot of the dive boat and our crew on our way out to Shark Point for the Early Morning Dive. At the front of the boat, instructors Lise and Mick are briefing their dive groups on underwater communication and procedures. (Lise is the blond woman, and I am sitting to her left at the table.) I think the photographer is Max, who is the new manager at 3W Dive.

Photo courtesy of 3W Dive. I did NOT take this picture, but I thought it was a cool shot of the dive boat and our crew on our way out to Shark Point for the Early Morning Dive. At the front of the boat, instructors Lise and Mick are briefing their dive groups on underwater communication and procedures. (Lise is the blond woman, and I am sitting to her left at the table.) I think the photographer was Max, who is the new manager at 3W Dive.

So, what did we see under there? Well, to start off, there were gardens upon gardens of healthy coral reef. It was really alive and visible–it looked like underwater flowerbeds lining the hills and valleys of the seafloor. With all the healthy coral came a varied assortment of fish, of course. There were so many different schools of fish–big fish, small fish, yellow fish, catfish! And they mostly lingered within or near the reef, in symbiotic relationships with the other tiny sea creatures. Some of the larger sea life we spotted included a huge Bumphead Parrotfish (which can usually be spotted a lot within a few days before and after a full moon), a Painted Spiny Lobster (like the one I was holding in the market on Gili T), a yellow, territorial Moray Eel, and a handful of turtles, both Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles. The difference between the two types of turtles is that Green Sea Turtles tend to be large, have a very detailed and ornate shell, and sedate behavior (in other words, they are usually spotted resting or even sleeping); Hawksbill turtles are smaller, have a sort of pointed beak-mouth and a “dirty-looking” brownish shell, and are very active, constantly spotted eating underwater. Despite the fact that we were diving at “shark point,” my group didn’t see any sharks, but this brings up a very good point about diving: nature is unpredictable so it is best to dive with an open mind and a “see what we will see” attitude as opposed to assuming you will spot certain things, then coming back disappointed if you don’t see them.

The following day, I went on another morning dive (but this time, not so early). With Cristiana leading our group this time, three of us went in the water with her for another great underwater experience. This time, even though we were at “manta point” and didn’t see a single sting ray, we did find a baby white tip shark that we hung around and observed for a little while. Most sharks are hardly aggressive at all so there is no need to be afraid of them. We also spotted more turtles, Batfish, Moorish Idols (like Gill, Nemo’s mentor in the fish tank in Finding Nemo), a tiny crab and Pink Squat Lobsters [that look similar to feather stars], a Pineapple Sea Cucumber that was gigantic, and–my favorite fish for this dive–a yellow Majestic Angelfish with a beautiful violet-colored face.

I was so happy that I found “3W Dive” on the island. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It is the smallest dive shop on the island with one boat and only four instructors, maxing out the dive groups to only 3 divers per instructor. It is a well-run operation with efficient management, professional staff, and great service. There is great attention to detail and they prioritize giving divers a personalized experience. It is owned by a French man, and most of the people who work there are also French (but they all speak English pretty well!). I was so impressed with how tight-knit the “3W Dive” staff is–they are like a family, joking and playing around, but also very open to allowing their guests to be a part of their fun. Dive shop cultures tend to be easygoing in general, but there was something extra special about this group. * If anyone is looking for a dive shop recommendation for Gili Air, this is the spot. You can look them up on TripAdvisor or check out their website: http://www.3wdivegili.com. *

Speaking of culture, the Gili Islands seem to have two very distinct cultures that manage to function side-by-side: the local culture and the “foreigner” culture, which includes all short-term travelers and tourists plus all the non-Indonesian residents who live and work on the islands, running dive shops, restaurants, lodges, etc. The “foreigners” who live and work on the island are mostly French, while the tourist crowd consists of a ton of Australians and Europeans. (In my travels to this area, I have met only a handful of people from the United States; I suppose this is a little far away to take a short vacation.) These two worlds, or cultures, do not blend together well; in fact, it was difficult to tap into the local culture at all.

Just off the shores of Gili Air, a handful of typical boats, found only on the Gilis, can be seen. I don't know exactly what they are called, but many of the local boats have "balancing arms" on their sides and most of the boats are also painted with bright solid colors.

Just off the shores of Gili Air, a handful of typical boats, found only on the Gilis, can be seen. I don’t know exactly what they are called, but many of the local boats have “balancing arms” on their sides and most of the boats are also painted with bright solid colors.

As tourism has picked up on the Gilis, it seems that the local men have a lot more interaction with visitors and are therefore more comfortable with them. On almost every island, the men were so comfortable that they had no problem approaching female visitors, especially solo females, striking up a conversation, and almost immediately inviting themselves along to whatever the person had planned for the day. This happened to me a couple times, but their attempts were never to any avail. In contrast, the women on the island really keep to themselves. With religious roots in Islam, the lifestyle for women is quite subdued, and this can be observed in the most basic form of how they dress: long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and a veil or scarf covering their heads and necks. It’s unbelievable to me how different “the rules” are for men and women! I made a small effort to connect to some of the women, but many of them were not the least bit interested, seemingly untrusting/resentful of me and closed off. (I did meet a really cool, modern young woman at a smoothie shop called Gili Bliss, and, if I could make a prediction, I suspect her dynamic personality and leadership tendencies will influence the changing culture for women on that island.) In any case, the culture here was quite the opposite from Bali’s and I found myself seriously missing my local Balinese lady friends and the [mostly] non-intrusive Balinese men.

The local men on the Gili Islands have a visibly active community, here they are playing volleyball on Gili Air.

The local men on the Gili Islands have a visibly active community, here they are playing volleyball on Gili Air.

While four days is hardly enough time to create relationships, I fared pretty well with the 3W Dive shop crew when I wasn’t by myself. A few other activities I did included walking the perimeter of the island–non-stop, it could take about an hour and a half, but of course, I set up shop [for writing] in a place or two along the way–and, on my last night, having a candlelit dinner date night at a romantic authentic Italian restaurant called “Biba,” right on the water. (Solo date nights have become a habit of mine, usually on the last evening that I am in a place; it’s important to me to pause and reflect on the experiences and relationships that different places have provided me with.) I saw smoked salmon ravioli on the menu and was surprised to discover how much I was craving salmon. The Italian owner described the dish to me: handmade ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese in a tomato cream sauce mixed with pieces of smoked salmon–salmon that he imports from Norway to Java, where he has an Italian friend who smokes the salmon, then ships it to him. Sold. There was a part of me that felt like I should order seafood that came directly from the sea, but after diving and admiring the beauty of the underwater sea creatures, I felt better eating seafood that was more removed from my recent experiences. The dish was delicious!!

This was my last night and final sunset on Gili Air. Left: Perched on a swing for sunset viewing, I took a selfie using my selfie stick. Right: A man nearby who was also watching the sunset (and had seen me playing with my selfie stick) offered to be my photographer and snapped a few pics as the sun was actually going down.

This was my last night and final sunset on Gili Air. Left: Perched on a swing for sunset viewing, I took a selfie using my selfie stick. Right: A man nearby who was also watching the sunset (and had seen me playing with my selfie stick) offered to be my photographer and snapped a few pics as the sun was actually going down.

I had seen Lise on my way to dinner as I passed the dive shop and she had invited me to meet up with them after dinner as that night, they were having a celebration in honor of their manager, Mick, who had just stepped down from the position after three years and was getting ready to depart the island to pursue a new opportunity. So I swung back around after my meal and ended up hanging out with the dive shop “family” for the rest of the night. It wasn’t just the 3W Dive crew, though–it was about 25-30 French people in the “dive circle” all around the island; I was the only person there who didn’t speak French, but Lise included me anyway and allowed me to pick her brain for quite some time.

Lise is a 33-year-old French woman who left her corporate job a few years back, packed up her backpack, and took off traveling. (Perhaps this explains why we connected and could relate to each other so well!) She has been living on Gili Air for three years with her other half (who is also part of the diving world), and it has been their dream to open an Eco-Lodge on the island; they are breaking ground in 2 weeks. I asked her a lot about how they manage their relationships with locals and she explained to me that no matter what they do, they are never going to be accepted into the “local” culture because it comes down to money. While they have two or three close local friends, she explained that most people just end up asking her for money because they assume she has more because she is white. (This is a similar dynamic to what I experienced in Guatemala; it made me grateful that I was living at the same economic level as many people in my town which allowed for the development of deeper relationships; but I would be ignorant to think that I somehow slipped past being branded with the “rich American” stereotype nonetheless.)

Lise continued to tell me about the island and how it is led by a tribal “chief” who handles all the issues that arise. Crime is practically non-existent on the island and there is no police force either. Incidents, if any, are dealt with by the island chief because nobody wants to be involved with the police or justice system from Lombok–that is supposedly a terrible experience. Knowing that it takes time to learn how the local systems function in a given area, Lise and her boyfriend put in the three years on the island that were necessary before they could implement their dream project. When I asked about her survival strategy for blending into the island and being able to build a business there, she said, “Be discreet.” Anything and everything she and her partner do is with a low profile.

In addition to the great conversations I shared with Lise, I also had the opportunity to connect with Mick, also a French guy in his early 30s. I admired the quiet bond he had with some of the local men on the island and how they shared some inside jokes; I think it is easier for a single person to integrate in a local culture than it is for a couple. Mick preferred living in a very simple manner on the “inner island” where it is quiet and he could eat at the local spots and interact with the people at the heart of the island. He told me that it is quieter than ever now because the chief banned dogs from the island as well! There are only cats (except for one dog). As he was preparing for his pending departure, he reflected on some of the things he would miss about the island: the fresh, breathable air on the island because there are no motorized vehicles anywhere, only bicycles and horses pulling carts; the comforting jingle of the bells on the horse carts as they trot by on the road; the geckos in charge of “insect control” in the thatched-roof, open-to-the-air bungalows; and, of course, mango season, which starts in December.

Through Lise’s and Mick’s eyes, I got a glimpse of the inner workings of Gili Air; their perspectives made me appreciate the island even more. Also, they clearly demonstrated that this is how they have chosen to live their lives: people are still living even if they don’t have a 9 to 5 office job; a structured and predictable position working for someone else doesn’t define a person’s life–the options are endless. They both really love what they do. I am so grateful for those precious moments I spent with them and the stimulating conversation we shared. I could’ve stayed longer there, but I could feel the time pressure of my soon-expiring visa for Indonesia so I had to be on my way. As the boat pulled away from Gili Air, I blissfully watched the island disappear, knowing that a tiny piece of my heart would always be there.

—–

Back in Bali once again, I returned to my “home away from home” at Merthayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud, and once again, I was greeted with a warm, excited welcome from Wayan and the staff. They got used to me returning and started joking about this being my new home permanently. It was so refreshing to me to return to a place where the local people are so open and friendly. I felt so spoiled at the guesthouse, especially when they started serving me breakfast in my room so I could eat on my balcony and work at the same time (they even started bringing me second servings of fruit and tea). While I was considering returning to Bali for another two weeks after leaving to renew my visa, I ultimately made the decision to move on to a new place from there. And so I spent my last three days in Bali making preparations for the next leg of my journey and paying extra attention to the things and people I loved the most there. I even made it to another Acro Yoga “jam session” and fit in a couple nice visits with some of my Ubud friends, including Wayan, Mona, and Mark.

Back in Ubud, Wayan took me to visit her parents' home, where their dog had new puppies. On the left: Naya is behind the momma dog nursing her puppies; on the right: I am loving on two of the pups.

Back in Ubud, Wayan took me to visit her parents’ home, where their dog had new puppies. On the left: Naya is behind the momma dog nursing her puppies; on the right: I am loving on two of the pups.

When flight day arrived–the same day as my visa was going to expire, I was feeling reluctant. “Ok. Fine. I guess I’ll go now… Only because you’re making me leave.” (That’s what I was expressing toward the Indonesian government in my head!) And it ended up being an emotional departure for me. Leaving Ubud this time, I knew that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon, and while I only spent a total of 15 days at the guesthouse (when I added up all 3 times I was there), I still developed a tight bond with everyone there, especially Wayan. (I didn’t even cry when Allan and I parted ways in Cambodia after 2 1/2 weeks together–but maybe that’s because I know the chance of seeing him again is greater…) So much growth, healing, peace, and love came into my heart while I was in Indonesia so it was only appropriate to recognize that. I sort of felt like a baby bird being pushed out of the nest here. But I know that you can’t stay in incubation forever, as nice, warm, and comfortable as it can be–once you’re ready, it’s time to fly. That day, the flying was literal for me–but there was no denying the transformation that took place during the last 30 days.

In Acro Yoga, this is also a form of

In Acro Yoga, this is also a form of “flying,” which I am demonstrating here in “bird pose” with Jamie as my base.

TRAVEL TIP: This one I got directly from Allan. Snorkel before diving. SCUBA diving can be an expensive hobby so if you are going to engage, you’ll want to get your money’s worth every time. If you are in a place that offers diving, rent some snorkel gear (or use your own) and hop in the water to investigate first. Some things to look for include the state of the reef and marine life (does it look healthy or overrun?), the visibility (rainy season usually results in poor visibility), and the variety of creatures if that is important to you. If your “taste test” impresses you, then go for it–spend the money and enjoy the diving; but if it doesn’t, save your money and stick to snorkeling or choose another appropriate beach activity like swimming, surfing, or sunbathing. After my snorkeling appetizer in Gili Meno, I couldn’t wait to dive from Gili Air, and I was very pleased with my diving experience there.

{Still} Blissfully yours,

Alexandra

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carole Fischer
    Nov 18, 2015 @ 12:37:07

    Alexandra, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your blogs. In my head I was with you every step of the way. This last blog is dated October 9 so that leaves me far behind you but I look forward to seeing you back home soon! I love you. Gram

    Sent from my Sprint Phone.

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Nov 18, 2015 @ 19:24:04

      Hey Gram!! Oh, I am so happy to hear that although I wish you could REALLY be with me for some of these adventures. 🙂 There was a glitch with the posting system (WordPress changed things on the new version of their App) — I finished writing this chapter on October 9th, but I kept it as a draft until yesterday. I was confused by the posting date as well, but I went back and found a way to fix that. So you are all caught up!! I pace my posts so they are at least 4-5 days apart; there are still a handful left, but I’m nearing the end… Can’t wait to see you next week!! Love ya!

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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