Thursday, November 2, 2017

Indonesia Part 1: Gili Islands and Amed

Cooling off the horse in Gili Trawangan
Flying out of Nanning, China--where we'd lived for a year--was familiar since we'd traveled a lot during my breaks at the university. Yet it was surreal, knowing we weren't returning. At least not in the near future. Our first stop (after an overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur) was the magical Gili islands. Let me cut to the chase: Of all the places I've traveled, this is one I want to return to one day.

Because there are no motor vehicles, on the three Gilis (Trawangan, Air and Meno) you get around on foot, bike, and small horse-drawn carriages.

We spent half a day riding bikes around the whole island, stopping at will for swimming and food.
On Gili T, we woke each morning to the haunting call to prayer blasting on a loudspeaker and fell asleep each night to the heartbeat of distant party music. This compelling juxtaposition of religious devotion and secular indulgence was evident throughout Indonesia.
Shrooms are as available as fresh fish.
One morning at breakfast in our comfy family-owned B&B, I heard a young couple speaking English with American accents. Most travelers we'd encountered in the past year in S.E. Asia were Europeans, Indians, and Australians. And of course in China, we met few Americans. I couldn't help myself. I had to ask them where they were from. Chicagoites, Danielle and Evan were on their honeymoon.

Danielle and me
The four of us spent the day on a boat that took us to three snorkel spots. In most places in S.E. Asia it's almost the same price (and much more comfortable) to hire your own boat than to take one with lots of other tourists.

Snorkeling, we saw lots of healthy, multicolored coral and fish--and best of all, turtles. One day Dave and I snorkeled off the beach on Gili T and were instantly surrounded by five or six large turtles. It's sublime floating in warm, quiet water with these prehistoric creatures.

That day, we had lunch on Gili Air, which is known for being quieter than Gili T. (In the Sasak language, "air" means "water" and "gili" means island.) I loved Gili Air's maze-like streets.

As in many places throughout S.E. Asia, on Gili T there was a lively night market with foods that looked (and were) delicious--and a few that frankly frightened me. Those were mostly along the line of insects. Another similarity to many places we'd been, including China, was the adorable babies.

We had made our plan to spend two months in Indonesia before we'd discovered that Americans are granted one-month visas upon entering the country. We asked around about extending our visas and were told to see the "guy with the mustache" at a travel booth on the main, dusty road. Dealing with bureaucracy everywhere is a challenge--and even more so in a place where the rules seem, well...flexible, and you don't know the language or the culture. Handing over cash and your passport to "the guy with the mustache" is a pure act of faith.

the ferry
To finalize the visa extensions, we took a crammed ferry (more like a fishing boat) to Lombok's passport and immigration office. We'd been told the ferry would leave "about" 9 a.m. It finally took off at 10:30. Hanging out on a beach with a coconut isn't the worst way to wait for a ride.

To get to the Gilis, we took a boat from Sanur (south of Padangbai).
We had vague instructions about how to meet up with the guy who would drive us from the pier to a an inland city. We'd thought we'd already paid for the transport, but the driver insisted we hadn' maybe we got bilked a few bucks. I re-reminded myself that a few dollars is not a big deal for us but probably is for him.

The rest of the visa-procuring experience went relatively smoothly. And our driver showed us around a little, including taking us to see this pretty mosque:

and monkeys in the mountains.

monkey junk
We could have easily spent another week or two on the Gilis. But it was time to move on. Our morning fast-boat ride out to the Gilis had been extremely rough, with waves crashing over the boat. That happens periodically. It's the government, not the boat owners, who decide when the seas become too unsafe--and after our ride over, the boats had been cancelled for a few days. (We were incredibly lucky to not have to deal with delays or cancellations of boats, planes or buses during our three months of post-China travel...which included 16 flights.)

Our ride from the Gilis to Amed--the easternmost point of Bali--was bumpy but not as rough as the ride out. Disembarking from the boat meant stepping from a wobbly boat onto an even wobblier, floating, slippery "pier" with no handrails that was being buffeted by large waves. Our S.E. Asia mantra: There is no OSHA here.

Blue Star Bungalows...right on the beach.
We stayed a week at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed on Jemeluk Beach. Iluh, the owner, told me I could remember her name with the acronym, "I Love You, Honey."

And I did--love her, her small hotel, and Amed. Iluh told us that tourism didn't come to Amed until relatively recently. When her husband was growing up there, everyone was poor. No one had electricity and most kids didn't go to school. Things were changing but still, children wandered the beaches, trying to sell bracelets and other small items to tourists. Iluh suggested we buy only from adults and give kids school supplies instead. So we bought colorful pens for the children.

The kids try to hook you with the few words of English they know, starting with, "Hi, what's your name?" One girl, probably around eight years old, came by day after day as I sat on the beach. One day when she asked me my name, I pouted and said, "Really? You don't remember?" She smiled. I invited her to sit with me. She pulled out a little notebook and asked me to write down my name. We spent half an hour together in an impromptu English lesson, writing new words accompanied by pictures, her little hand perched on my thigh. I have been teaching for many years, and this was one of my favorite teaching moments of all time.

Jemeluk Bay
It's incredible to be able to walk right out into the water on Blue Star's beach and experience world-class snorkeling. Evenings, we ambled into the little town for dinner. We shared a few meals with a wonderful German couple we met. He's a filmmaker, she runs an NGO that promotes equality for women in developing nations.

nueu freunde
Meeting new people is one of the greatest pleasures of traveling. It's also sweet to travel with longtime friends...which is what we did when we left Amed to see more of Indonesia. I write about that next...stay tuned!

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