Friday, January 07, 2011

Holly Jolly Gili Air

The boat motor died at least six times in the half hour it took to get to the almost swim-able Lombok Island of Gili Air. You can see the three droplets of white sand that make up the three Gili Islands in the turquoise waters just off north-western Lombok so clearly from land that it would probably be quicker to paddle there. It probably would be quicker if I SWAM there. Not that I voiced this opinion, of course. This lesson I learned many moons ago. We were headed up to a cottage on Maple Lake in Northern Ontario in the trusty old family mini van. Tally Hoe Road was a long, windy roller coaster type road that was probably only several kilometers, but felt like millions. My mom was behind the wheel and my cousin Adam was with us. Adam, still not known to be slow moving, boldly stated that he could 'walk faster than we were driving.' So, my mom pulled the van over to give Adam the opportunity to test his theory and 'walk the walk.' Literally. In the photo I took from the back seat there is a barely noticeable pint size Adam far far behind us, emerging out of a cloud of dust. Probably ours. Lesson learned.

Back to 2010 (even though our boat motor is from 1940): We t-boned another boat barely 30 seconds after leaving port. We just slowly floated towards each other, both boats with conked out motors, until the crash was inevitable, watched by all, avoided by none. By port, I mean the beach, by which you roll up your pants, pin up your sarong and discard your shoes before wading knee deep to board the boat. At this point, you, balancing your bag on one arm, your other bag in other other, and your shoes on your head, grab helplessly at the almost-attached, but mostly wavering, side posts and attempt to pull youself onto the narrow, wet slippery spit of wood while at the same time avoiding the sharp prop of the exposed outboard engine and managing the ongoing onslaught of waves. Then comes the obstacle course comprised of boxes of bananas, bags of greenery, satchels of rice, ziplocks of dried or fried something or other, old people, wide-eyed children, wooden doors, windows, a nursing mother, French tourists, grimy loose boards and a very pasty, very overweight blonde haired, 20 something, smiling dreamily and wearing square glasses, and whom (for reasons beyond my understanding) is wearing jeans and a dress shirt and has managed to somehow board the boat in his pristine white running shoes and socks. (?)

The boat in question is a long blue wooden boat, about 40 feet long and 5 feet wide equipped with a not-so-trusty 9.9 horsepower engine. This may or may not be a more effective engine than the one on the fishing boat that just passed us, which was a Whipper Snipper converted into a boat engine (you know, those things that trim the edge of the lawn). Either way, our longboat plowed through the waves (when the motor decided to work), judging by it's rather decrepit condition, the way it had been doing for centuries. The water sloshed into the boat, over the low sides, with every wave. I could taste the salt on my lips. My face was wet, my bag was drenched, my sunglasses were in need of windhsield wipers. The motor died again. The old Indonesian ladies weighed down with boxes of fresh peanuts and other unrecognizable delicacies yelled in what I'm sure was a language but really sounded more like one, long mumbly word in high pitch tones. The man sitting on the bow, his legs dangling over the front, would yell and the man in charge of the motor in the rear would crank on the pull cord until the old motor spurted to life again...for the moment at least. 'Are there sharks out here?' Jonathan asked the fifth time the motor ceased. 'Do you think we could swim to shore without getting all our stuff wet?' he wondered by the sixth, as we apparently decided to drift over instead of bother the engine again. By this time, of course, the boat would have turned itself around. So we were now facing the wrong direction and much of the motor's new, yet short life would be spent re-directing us to our destined island.

We landed near the beach and everything was unloaded in reverse, save the plastic food containers that have been thrown over the edge into the turquoise waters. Recyling is non-existent here. Garbages are barely a glitch on the radar of these people. Its shocking in a not-so-surprising way. So, we by pass all the hawkers offering us rides with their mini horse drawn buggies (this is a car free island) and shouting 'You need room!! Good deal!' and make the hot, sweaty trudge about one kilometer to our reserved Bungalow. Its true. We are cheap (I think 'thrifty' sounds better than 'cheap'). We probably could have gotten a ride for about $2, but gladly (?) forgo it by principle. The principle of cheap (thrifty).

I was so excited to get to Gili Air. We had reserved a two level bungalow a while back, totally out of our price range, as our Christmas treat. It had exquisite luxuries, such as toilet you didn't have to manually flush by pouring in water, lights that were more than a fluorescent bulb hanging from a moldy ceiling, a hot water shower, and, AIR CONDITIONING! We had been surviving the last few days solely on dreams of these ammenities. Jonathan has been a little sick, his belly rumbly, head aching and skin hot to the touch. He hasn't been sleeping much, mostly due to the hot, sticky conditions but other possible reasons include: the rat that ran across the floor and into our ceiling (we changed rooms), the fan that died with the power in our airless hole of a room, fear of disease ridden mosquitos, geckos that live on the walls, 1am rooster calls, followed by the 5am call to prayer at a nearby mosque, followed by the constant roar of junkie motorbikes and their even junkier engines. Anyways, you can imagine how excited we were with our splurge of a highly recommended bungalow with a private roof top living room, complete with hammock and a plethora of pillows and a bathroom we didn't have to blindfold ourselves to enter. I emailed a month ago to reserve. For only one night, the bungalow cost more than seven times our otherwise nightly budget. It would be worth it, we told ourselves. Its Christmas!

As we carried along, people shouted prices at us for ocean-side bungalows. Much cheaper than we were paying. It obviously wasn' t that busy, despite the holiday and what the owner had said in his email. Most places were deserted, or occupied by a tiny smattering of tourists. We cut through a nice property and asked the owner about his air-con rooms. Less than half the price. We began to wonder if we were getting ripped off.

Hating the thought of a place that we were so excited about spending Christmas in would leave us disappointed and with a bad taste in our mouth, we devised a plan. We wandered onto the immaculate property of 'Sejuk Cottages' and, without telling them we had a reservation, asked casually for a room. Sure enough, the rooms were about half the price that we had been quoted via email. Granted, they were beautiful. The single level bungalow itself was nicer than any hotel room I'd seen and the infinity pool almost had me ripping off my sarong for a dip. The two level bungalows we had reserved looked fantastic, with their own private rooftop living room complete with a tree top breeze, hammock, a plethora of fully pillows, candles and incense...the perfect retreat.... unfortunately at the time, this was all lost on me, because I was too busy fuming. There are few worse feelings than the mixture of knowing you are getting ripped off and being consumed with disappointment. The young Indonesian boy who showed us the one level said we could have it for 400,000Rp. I asked innocently about the two level across the way. "500,000 Rp," he said.... but they were all reserved. Didn't I know it! We had been quoted 720,000 Rp! This is a big difference, for us. We had been spending an average of 100,000 Rp per night, so the difference was equivalent to two nights stay!

So, now, I was dripping with sweat from the hot trek here and very, very upset. Not really the best combination. Patience isn't really my thing. I spoke in small English words to make sure I got my point across. 'I am very upset,' I said, 'We have a reservation and we were told to pay much more. I feel angry about this!' I didn't even yell, I promise. The boy slowly came to understand what I had said. 'Why you not tell me you had reservation?!!!' he queried, with a dizzied look on his face, obviously realizing that any tip he would have gotten was long gone. He ran away. Literally. A friendly looking French man came over to investigate the commotion. He was the owner of Sejuk, Bernard. I said again, 'I am very upset. We do not feel good about this. We are not staying four nights here. I feel ripped off.' He apologized. It seemed sincere. He thought they would be busier and now they are not, so the prices had gone down. Not that I believed it, really. Still, I allowed him to show us the rooms again. I had my heart set on the two story, especially after I saw the sunny outdoor bathroom and stomped up the steep steps to the rooftop terrace. 'We will stay here one night,' I declared, more like a colony leader deciding where to set up a new capital city than a backpacker giving in to spending a night in luxury. 'Then we will decide if we will stay longer.' 'If you are still really unhappy you can have the room for 400,000,' Bernard offered, a last attempt at a peace treaty. I almost smiled. Bernard sent over a timid looking employee with two complimentary ice frappachinos... which I enjoyed from the comfort of my hammock. As soon as my head hit the soft hand woven material, Jonathan knew as well as I did that there was no way we were leaving this heavenly spot the next day. 'That was great bartering,' Jonathan complimented like it was all some sort of show. I glared at him.. with more than a hint of a smile breaking through.

As soon as I stopped feeling angry, I started to feel bad about getting angry in the first place. The next morning I apologized to Bernard for getting angry and told him we would love to stay all four nights I had reserved. Truth was, I was in love with this place. Bernard, a French native, built the small Sejuk Cottages with his Indonesian wife four years ago. All the bungalows are beautifully built, creatively decorated and encircled the flower-lined pool. Breakfast, which was included, was a spectacular event. It all started with fresh juice, of which after trying pineapple, lemon, orange and watermelon, we decided that banana was by far the best because it was more like a smoothie than a juice. Then, Jonathan would order the 'chocolat chaud' which was made rich and 'en francais' with cocoa, sugar and steamed milk, and I would get tea, with milk (another luxury). Then came the pancakes, stuffed with bananas, pineapple and/or coconut and topped with chocolate sauce or honey. If I wasn't ready to roll myself to the beach at this point, a fresh fruit platter would follow with watermelon, banana and pineapple. All artfully arranged on fine (looking) china. Sigh.

Our days on Gili Air consisted of an exhausting cycle of snorkeling (free equipment provided by Sejuk), lounging sea-side sipping yet more juice and then retiring to our rooftop to while away the afternoon reading and recording every luscious moment in our journals. When we finally got hungry again we would wander around and parooze the menus, making the most difficult decision of the day: which bamboo-hut, with ocean and volcano view, would we eat in today? A couple days when we were feeling extra ambitious, we would circumnavigate the tiny island on foot, following the white sand beach that ringed it. The entire walk took about an hour or so, depending on how many times we stopped at cafes to recharge with a 'Bintang' (Indonesian beer).

On Christmas Eve we went on a snorkel tour that took us around to the best snorkel spots on all three of the Gili Islands. We were on a small 'glass bottom' boat with only about five other people. There were tons of colourful fish, beautiful coral and a couple sea turtles. Poor Jonathan couldn't see much without his glasses, so he mostly saw a kaleidoscope of colours. 'Stay with me and you will see turtles!' Our guide told us. 'You don't stay with me and you will not see them!' I didn't know how he could ensure our snorkelling failure if he was out of our sight, but I wasn't going to risk it. That was the plan, at least. The boat had barely slowed to a stop when our guide jumped in and was immediately lost among the fifty or so other people from a collection of other snorkelling tours. I don't know if you know this, but everyone looks the exact same with a snorkel and mask on. Especially from in the water. Oh well. I waited for Poke-e-mon to finally hop over the edge and join me and we set off in the direction of the mob. 'Where are we going?' asked Jonathan. Poor blind man. 'I don't know,' I replied, 'But I think we are chasing a turtle or something.' People had started to kick more frantically all in the same direction. I thought I heard someone mumble something about a turtle. Either that or they were all making a mad dash to avoid a shark. I preferred the turtle option, so I went with that one. 'All fifty of us?' Jonathan wanted to know. I laughed. 'Yup. It's going to be one of those real intimate experiences.'

On Christmas Eve we caught the last of the brilliant post-sunset colours on the west side of the island. We had gotten lost on the totally nonsensical paths that crisscrossed through the middle of the island and pretty much all end in someone's backyard and, therefore, we missed most of the sunset. We met lots of locals though. And their chickens. We walked back to Sejuk along the snow-white beach. We figured it would be harder to get lost this way, and the white sand reminded us of the snow we were missing back home. The night was gloriously clear and before long, the black sky was pierced with an explosion of twinkling Christmas Eve stars. Despite being thirty degrees and very far way away from everyone we know and love, we still felt the magic of Christmas Eve walking home along the beach that night. Jonathan and I talked about Christmas-es past and wondered what all our friends and family were doing for the Holidays. We reminisced about being a kid on Christmas Eve, believing in Santa, debated about Santa's favourite cookies and that time there were reindeer hoof-prints on Jonathan's rooftop.

We arrived back to a festively decorated Sejuk where Bernard and his staff had prepared a huge buffet of delicious smelling local fare, free for all the guests. They had strung long grass all around the border of the open air dining room and tied purple flowers into the green. Large leaves topped with flickering tea lights lit the way from everyone's bungalow, along the stone path to the party. It was Christmas in the tropics to an absolute T. Unfortunately for me, the cold I had been fighting chose this night to rob me of my taste buds. If I blew my nose, while the food was still in my mouth, I could just almost taste a little bit of ...something. Err. Bad timing, cold. Bad timing.

Christmas was celebrated in pretty much the same fashion as the previous few days. Snorkelling, lying in our hammock on the roof top terrace and sipping refreshingly thick mango, banana and watermelon juices. We called our families over Skype and that was an exciting treat. It made our Christmas morning!

For Christmas dinner was celebrated in an equally untraditional manner: sitting crosslegged on pillows on a bamboo couch at a Warung (small restaurant) called 'Munchies.' Really though, these bamboo couches are the way to go. You order, then lie back on the pillows looking at the stars and listening to the ocean and await your feast. When you are done eating, you don't even have to re-locate to a couch to un-do that top button. You just slouch back right then and there. Perfection.
We took the fact that the only other people at the Warung were watching a very un-festive movie as an open invitiation to sing Christmas carols as loud as we wanted while waiting for our meal. 'The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear!' I thought it was fun. Plus, although many restaurants try to get in the Christmas spirit by stringing up lights and bulbs, they still insist on pumping out horrible Indonesian dance music at all hours of the day, decidedly squashing any Christmas atmosphere. Where was the party? Maybe we were the party? We made it a goal to sing louder than the thumping of the bass, party style.

Being Christmas, I opted for a fancy feast of bbq-ed Red Snapper, rice and veggies with garlic butter. My fish came with eyes and skin and a tail and about a million little bones, though. It gave Jonathan the stare down throughout the entire dinner, which made him uncomfortable, so I donated the remainder to the stray cat sitting not-so patiently at our feet awaiting scraps. Christmas spirit and all. Jonathan had wood fire pizza which was delicious.

Sadly, the next morning, it was time for us to leave paradise. We gave in and took the horse and buggy to the port, because our ticket insisted we be there by 8am, even though we knew it was stupid to rush because nothing is ever on time. At the port we couldn't find our pre-purchased ticket. It was stressful because this ticket covered our transport from the Island all the way to Kuta Lombok and then the ferry and shuttle to Ubud. It was worth 790,000 Rp. We searched the money belt, every pocket of every bag and every fold of our clothes. No ticket. We thought that maybe one of the thirty people who insist on seeing/taking your ticket whenever you are going somewhere maybe didn't give it back? We bought an overpriced ticket for the boat back to mainland and prepared ourselves to fight it out with the company from whom we bought the ticket when we got there. Whenever my mom loses something at home, she calls in the powers of St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things (or at least that's my interpretation), and says the little rhyme. 'Tony, Tony, are you listening? Tony, Tony, something's missing!' Miraculously, Tony always comes through, and sooner or later the item is recovered. I gave it a last ditch effort, challenging Tony to find something that we potentially didn't even have anymore. We sat huffing and puffing a few more minutes. Jonathan checked the money pouch one last time. There, in between 10,000Rp bills, he found the lost ticket! It was like Charlie when he found the Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory. He was Charlie, waving the ticket around above his head and I was like Grandpa Joe doing the jig. Woo hoo! Now if only we could convince the ferry guy to refund the boat ticket we had bought.... not likely.

Despite the rocky start, we absolutely loved our time at Sejuk and would highly recommend making it your base on Gili Air. It was one of the few places we have been that we weren't ready to leave when the time came. The other day Jonathan and I were sitting on the edge of a bed in a dank hotel room taking turns sticking our faces into a disgustingly dirty fan for a smidgen of reprieve from the humidity, when he turned to me and said: 'You know..... If we only bought one meal a day..... and shared it.... we could afford to stay at Sejuk for the rest of our trip!' He calculated. Hmmm. I closed my eyes and gave it the moment's consideration the idea deserved. 'Tempting. Very tempting.'

Comments on Comments: Thanks for your comments Looch, Gina & Parentals! We brought with us a little Asus netbook that we use for writing the blog and organizing the photos. Living in such a high-tech world has been very helpful for us, and the blog. There is actually more wi-fi here in Asia, than in Oz and New Zealand! In Western countries we mostly went to the city library, wherever we were, because the wireless internet is usually free there. In Bali and Lombok lots of cafes would have free wi-fi, so we would catch up there in the afternoon with a cold drink. Singapore was way ahead of us! They had free wi-fi all over the city. But, you had to sign up for a free account and then they would text you your password. Since we were apparently the only people in Singapore without a cell, we didn't get to take advantage, unfortunately. Here in Malaysia, I'm embarrassed to say, we have been using the free wi-fi at (cough) McDonalds. I know, I know. But, its the only free, reliable internet connection we have been able to consistently find. Sooo... we get internet..with a side of icecream. Did you know that McDonalds here has delivery? With no minimum order? Fries delivered to your door via scooter! Just in case your fries aren't cold enough when you get them at the counter. Useful, maybe ever find yourself in Malaysia with a hankering for a Mcflurry.
As for helmets, we really didn't like not wearing them on the motorbike, obviously. I'm a complete balance-less disaster, so I wear a helmet riding a bicycle too. The other day we rented bicycles and asked for helmets and completely confused the bike owner. 'Ohhh you want a motorbike? I thought you wanted a bicycle' he said. 'No, a helmet for the bicycle,' I replied. He pretty much fell over laughing.

Last thought before Jonathan cuts my fingers off: Check out Niagara-This-Week over the next little while... you may just see some familiar faces. You can get the paper online too.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE LOVE that you were bargaining!!! I was laughing out loud remembering Rome!!!


Sarah said...

As I was reading about your very stern bargaining, I was laughing out loud. Ed asked what was so funny, to which I replied, 'you know Kristen... she writes how she acts':) Very funny, I could picture it happen and hear your voice. Good work on getting the better deal!