Going Off The Grid on Gili Air

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If Ubud is the place you go to join an ashram for five months to find yourself, then the Gili islands are where you go to leave the real world behind and step into an alternate reality where time is but a human construct of no importance.

There are three Gili islands: Gili Trewangan (also known as Gili T), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Gili T is the most popular island, known for full moon parties full of backpacking bros in highlighter yellow sunglasses and sleeveless vests. Gili Meno is ‘The Honeymoon Island,’ where people go to lie on the sand and read their beach lit… partly because there is nothing else to do there. Gili Air is the piggy-in-the-middle lovechild of the two. It has the relaxed vibe of Gili Meno, with enough of the restaurants and bars of Gili T to keep things interesting.

And of course, plenty of mushroom shakes.

 

 

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We traveled straight to Gili Air with a brief pause in the middle of the sea brought on by getting something tangled in one of the propellors. Apparently this happens often enough that it warranted a laminated explanation in the pocket of the seat in front of us, so we were forewarned but thoroughly unprepared by how quickly the lack of a simple breeze (or any air conditioning) would turn us into melting human popsicles. Five minutes after the engines had been shut off, we were dripping into puddles on the leather seats with alarming speed. In a misguided but desperate effort to escape the microwave formerly known as the cabin, we climbed up a set of rungs to the roof of the boat, where I promptly bashed my head hard against a steel bar and lay panting in the equatorial sun until the engines started up again.

By the time we reached Gili Air, my two driving forces were 1. shade and 2. water, and they basically propelled me and my rolling case onto the beach and up the dusty unpaved road without pause. This despite the fact that my rolling suitcase does not possess the sort of all-terrain wheels you would hope for when traversing a remote sandy island in the Bali Sea. Upon reaching our rented bungalow I flopped on the bed like a dying fish, mouth open, trying to suck the moisture out of the air around me. A smiling lady with a slender build knocked on the door to welcome us with pineapple, orange, and banana juice. I drank it down like a shot, waited for her to leave, and then peeled off my clothes to stand, hyperventilating, on the coldest flagstone.

It is HOT on Gili Air.

In Ubud the air was heavy and the weather was warm, but it was nothing compared to Gili Air. Gili Air had an oppressive heat that seemed to congeal the blood in your body until your legs felt too heavy to lift. Late nights were almost impossible, since by that time the sun had scorched away any energy, leaving us warm and heavy and sometimes burned. The island was full of yoga retreats and organic food places and scuba schools, giving employment to a wide range of lean, tanned humans who looked like they had been stretched and starved for a prolonged period of time. They all had gleaming white teeth, sun-bleached hair, and that slighly manic look in their eyes that suggests they would struggle to slot themselves back into the regimented timetable of normal society.

There are no cars or scooters or motorbikes on Gili Air. People travel by foot, or by bicycle, or by horse and cart. It takes about two hours to walk the circumference of the island, leaving time for compulsory photos of the sunset and necessary submergences in the sea. The east of the island is littered with restaurants and bars, and the west side of the island is quieter, but starting to catch up. The sunsets are vivid and beautiful – apparently even more so after one of the proferred magic mushroom shakes – and if you think the temperatures will drop after dark, you’re wrong. The temperatures do not drop; they stay threateningly high, trapped by the humidity in the air, and can only be defeated by the judicious use of air conditioning.

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The water around the island is clear. The reef looks bleached and unhealthy from years of dynamite fishing, but the fish living there are bright-eyed and flashy. Every morning I would grab my fins and wade out into the sea for a look around this world that wasn’t my own. If I was lucky, I would turn slowly to find a large sea turtle eyeing me languidly, large flippers of its own slowly scything through the water. We would swim side by side, my eyes the size of saucers (his distinctly less impressed), until my new turtle friend decided to dive down to depths beyond my abilities. I examined clams, skirted sea urchins, and followed a mantis shrimp marching imperiously over rocks and coral until he disappeared under a slab of concrete.

I emerged from the water only long enough to dry off before my next swim.

When it comes to snorkeling – or, I guess, whatever you call snorkeling without a tube – I am a water baby. I get in, and I never want to come out. Under the water I never feel like my eyes are large enough to take in everything there is to see. I never feel like I am moving fast enough to find every area I want to explore. I can’t hold my breath for long enough to keep myself anchored in the underwater world, and it both frustrates and elates me. I stay in the water until my chest is heaving with exertion from my amateur free diving, jump out and dry off while rehydrating with a smoothie, then run back in for more.

We spent six days on Gili Air. I swam with three large sea turtles. I traipsed through coconut farms and yoga retreats. I followed unsuspecting shoals of fish, and drank countless banana lassis. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a week I completely forgot about the real world, what time was, or why it was necessary.

The only thing I didn’t do was try a mushroom shake.

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Being Thankful in Bali, Indonesia

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In the early hours of the morning, if you walk the streets of Ubud, you will find people sitting on the stoops of their houses or stores, nimbly weaving dried palm leaves together into little containers.  The first day I saw this, I watched them do it and wondered about their silent, skilled work. These containers were then set in front of their places of work, in front of their shrines, in front of their houses, and filled with different items. I asked a local about these and she smiled, nodding.

“Yes. Canang sari.”

“Are they for a festival?” I asked, eyeing the brightly coloured little baskets.

“No, no. Daily offering.”

“I’m sorry, did you say daily? Like, every day?” I said, incredulously.

“Yes. Daily offering. Every morning!” She replied, cheerfully.

I looked at them in a different light after that, these little ritualised baskets of colour. Set out with such care in the morning, those that lined the footpath were often trampled underfoot, leaving them bruised and sorry looking by the end of the day.

From what I understand, these are meant to be offerings of gratitude for peace to the Hindu gods, as well as a way to keep evil spirits at bay. These beautiful baskets brought me a sense of peace at the same time that they unsettled me; after all, who has time to do that every day? Every day! Imagine having to set them out every day, and sweep them away every night. Imagine the commitment and effort and time and dedication to detail involved. These are physical prayers, pleated by familiar fingers.

I like to feel for common threads between different religions. The Muslim call to prayer reminds me of the ringing bells of the churches near my home, while Hindu mala beads are similar to rosary beads. I can’t think of a Christian equivalent for these canang sari, however. There is nothing that I do every day to give thanks for everything that I have. There is nothing that I can think of in Catholicism that is physical in nature – unless lighting a candle counts? – with such ritual meaning.

I like the idea of doing something each day to show gratitude. I probably won’t start weaving palm leaves together anytime soon, but I might use the memory of the offerings as a reminder to be thankful. I might try to keep it in the front of my mind a little more often. I know the news these days can get a bit bleak, and the saying “no news is good news” is really coming into its own lately, but there’s a lot to be thankful for. There really is.

Sometimes, I could do with a daily reminder of my own.

BRB From Bali

Thanks to the distractions of sun, sea, sand and patchy internet, I have been on an impromptu blog pause while I’ve been traipsing in and around Bali. I photographed monkeys and ate nasi goreng and read books and swam with sea turtles and watched sun sets and pet stray cats and drank banana lassis and spent a lot of time with my toes dug deep into the sand, feeling extremely lucky.

There are awful things happening back home in Europe. I can feel the ripple of fear from half a world away, however hard we try to mask it. When will it stop? How can we put an end to attacks that are seemingly so random? It feels frustrating. It feels like something nestling close to despair.

Then I grab my mask and I dive underwater, where all I can hear is the sound of bubbles leaving my mouth. I kick my fins and swim into a shoal of silvery fish, who scatter wide-eyed as if I’ve interrupted a secret meeting. A large blue starfish with arms the size and shape of bananas drapes itself over a rock. A moray eel bobs out from under a rock to stare at me, his trademark slackjawed grin making me feel like an amusing bit of entertainment he’ll tell his friends about later.

I watch a batfish waft with the current, cleverly concealed next to a submerged piece of rope. I kick to propel myself down deeper and feel the cold undercurrent close over me as I follow a mantis shrimp hurriedly scurrying across the coral.

I think about how insulated we are under the water. I feel totally removed from real life. It’s just me and my fins and my breath, visiting this blue world that doesn’t know or care about wifi or worries or world news. I stay in the water until my skin has softened and wrinkled in protest. I stay until my lungs burn from holding my breath.

Then I swim back towards the shore and come to the surface just in time to hear the familiar strains of reggae music.

Don’t worry … about a thing.

Every little thing … is gonna be alright….”

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I’ll be back on Monday.