The Island of Bali’s Yesterday

By Vyt Karazija

It’s remarkable how people scoff when I say I want to take a holiday away from Bali every so often. “Your life is already a permanent holiday!” they say disbelievingly. Or my brother’s gentle dig: “Oh yeah, I’m sure you need the break from your stressful life…”

Well, actually, I do. For visitors, Bali is a stockpot of dreams that simmer gently for a few weeks to provide an unrealistic, albeit nourishing soup of experiences. But for long-term Western residents here, day-to-day demands intrude on the idyllic existence. The Bali dream is still there of course, but it becomes a pleasant backdrop: mere scenery in front of which the administrivia of bills, shopping, getting stuff fixed and generally managing one’s life takes place. A break in routine is often called for. Mine involved a few relaxing days on a quiet, peaceful island.

So it is that I find myself on a “fast boat” on the way to Gili Air, just off the coast of Lombok. It’s certainly fast – the four huge outboards are running at full military power, and we are literally flying at times. The Lombok Strait has graciously provided us with a two-metre swell on the starboard beam, and the fresh wind creates an unpredictable chop so that the sea looks like it is boiling. As the boat crashes jarringly into a trough every few seconds, the intrepid captain’s chair on its hydraulic mount smoothly absorbs the shocks. On my hard seat, my spine attempts to do the same. I guess it works, because I am five centimetres shorter by the time I arrive at our destination three hours later.

Within minutes, I see that Gili Air is very different to Bali – a lot hotter, too. As you would expect, the vegetation is quite different on the far side of the Wallace Line. There are coconut trees and other tropical plants in abundance, but it’s a surprise to see conifers and other plants more often sighted in Australia. The island itself is tiny – just over a kilometre or so across – so walking everywhere tends to be the preferred option. Cars and motorbikes are banned, but for those with flagging energy levels, there are the ubiquitous cidomos – traditional horse-drawn carts that serve as the somewhat expensive taxis here. Bicycles are readily available, too, but with the depth of sand on most of the tracks, pedalling is heavy going.

I need to stretch my back after its pounding on the boat, so I opt to walk to my hotel along the sandy track that circles the island. It’s so peaceful that I forget that Gili Air “roads” can be just as dangerous as those of Bali. I hear a jingling of tiny bells somewhere in the distance and think, how sweet; it must be Christmas. Two seconds later, a stealthy but frighteningly rapid horse brushes past my shoulder. With extraordinary presence of mind, I realise instantly that the cart it is pulling is wider than the animal itself and leap dexterously to one side to avoid being crushed by the wheels. Well, actually, I sort of fall over in a heap, bags and all, but it’s a fairly graceful sprawl and almost painless considering the alternative of becoming Gili Air’s first recorded road kill.

These cidomos are equipped with little air-bulb trumpets not unlike those employed by clowns. Strangely, they are apparently only used to attract the attention of a potential fare when the cart is empty. The idea of using it to actually warn day-dreaming pedestrians of impending death by chariot obviously hasn’t caught on yet. I resolve to register my disgruntlement by walking everywhere for the rest of my stay. But I do listen for those tinkling bells a little more carefully. I even circumnavigate the island in less than two hours – not including the three mandatory pitstops to rehydrate – and only have five near-misses.

Despite spending so much time walking, for two days I don’t realise that the roads consist primarily of sharp coral sand which, when scrunched between sandals and soles, causes massive abrasion. By the time I’ve worked this out, my feet look like I have been given a pedicure with a chainsaw. Next time, it’s closed shoes for me. Or (shudder) sandals and socks. Walking at night is fun, too. Gili Air only appears to have mains power for a few hours a day, which makes PLN in Bali seem fantastic by comparison. Long stretches of road are pitch dark, which makes carrying a torch mandatory. After blundering into bushes while avoiding the unlit horse carts, nearly falling into the sea, and stepping in countless piles of horse dung, I will know to bring a flashlight next time.

All this exercise tends to work up an appetite, and fortunately there is an abundance of fresh seafood on the island. At night, eateries everywhere lay out the catch of the day in readiness for their nightly barbeque. At one beach-front place, I choose a delectable red snapper, which, cooked to perfection, is brought to my table with an assortment of side dishes. Unfortunately, the meal also seems to come with free cats. Four of these persistent creatures stalk my fish dish from all sides, climbing on me, scaling adjacent chairs and even jumping on the table. No amount of shooing, cuffing them over the head or physically hurling them off the seawall makes any difference. They just won’t go away, to the vast amusement of fellow diners. I finish my meal hunched over my plate, elbows flailing at hungry felines. Not the most relaxing meal, but delicious nonetheless.

Apart from these minor inconveniences, don’t let me put you off a visit here. It’s peaceful – but with a mild party/pub scene if you want it – and the views of Lombok are spectacular. The locals are friendly, there are no crowds anywhere, and no one tries to flog you stuff. In many ways, it is a step back in time, and a very healing place to be.

Just take care when you hear those jingling bells.

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