I managed to jam all of my worldly possessions back into my backpack and bomb down from Ubud to Padangbai on the southeast coast of Bali, the departure port for the Gili Islands off the northwestern coast of Lombok Island. As I came cruising in to the port area it became clear that touts were jockeying for business in the low season. The fast boat companies running between the port and the islands provide a kickback to anyone that can bring people in to their outfit, which means there is a swarm of touts gunning for foreigners. I even got hit up by a guy that pulled up next to me on a moped while we were driving who I politely told to pound sand.
I generally try to avoid touts at all costs since they are nothing more than middle men with the class of greasy used car salesmen, but I saw a fast boat approaching the port and knew I’d never find the corresponding company in time to get a ticket in the melee without one. Dealing with Egyptian taxi drivers conditioned me to bargain out of principle over pennies by walking away to compare prices with the competition. I grabbed the closest tout and hastily bargained down to 450k, about 25 bucks, round trip to the islands and back with a flexible return ticket. The islands don’t have any motorized vehicles so I ditched my moped and jogged towards the Golden Queen fast boat just in time to huck my bag to the staff and climb aboard for the hour and a half journey.
The three Gili Islands, Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan, are classified as chill, sleepy, and party, respectively. I decided to take the goldilocks route and opted for Gili Air. Once I stepped off onto the little island it became clear that without a bike I was going to have a hell of a time checking different lodging options. So I rented a bike and landed at Begadang Hostel, which seemed to be the only happening spot this time of year. For about ten bucks a night I scored a three bed dorm with AC and set about meeting the other inhabitants that were congregating around the courtyard pool, fittingly shaped like a mushroom.
Before dinner I managed to find the local gym, Holiday Fit, where I dropped seven dollars for a three day membership. These little gyms are so fun because you either have them to yourself or they are a great place to meet other travelers. No shirt, no shoes, no problem. Naturally, they are quirky. For example every plate was marked with kilograms and then said 44 lbs on the other side regardless if it was 20 kgs or 5 kgs. That minor mixup was more than compensated for by the Tiki protein shake bar where peanut butter berry shakes are served in bamboo cups and straws by the friendly, guitar strumming owner.
While I was working out I met an Aussie boat captain, Nick, that had just bought a plot of land on the island where he planned to build his home, a guesthouse, and a yoga studio where his wife could teach. He hoped to spread out economic opportunity to the locals by organizing group trips that would patronize different businesses, including those that struggled to bring in the larger groups. But what struck me most was his plan to buy a plastic grinding machine that could produce plastic “sand” to be mixed in with concrete. He would offer to pay the locals for large bags of plastic and coordinate with builders to provide his building material grade concrete which the bumpy roads could sorely use. Obviously the key is to reduce the use of plastic and packaging overall, but in the interim providing economic incentives to keep the island and surrounding waters clean was inspiring, especially after seeing garbage floating in the waters and on the beach in this fragile ecosystem paradise. It is difficult to make money, do good, and achieve visible results. On such a small island, he may pull off a hat trick.
That evening I lined up snorkeling the next day through the hostel and then headed to one of the beach restaurants with a large group of fellow travelers. Bean bags, Bintang (Indonesian Beer), and the beach at sunset made for a relaxing atmosphere to swap travel stories with new friends.
The next morning I awoke after a deep sleep that air conditioning had made possible and hurriedly threw some things into a go-bag, including my freediving mask. I can compromise on lots of things but having a low volume mask that fits your face and doesn’t fog makes all the difference in the world. The low volume part is really only important if you are free diving as the air in your mask compresses with depth requiring you to blow precious air from that one breath out of your lungs to reduce the pressure in your mask. If you don't the mask gives your face a hickey resulting in two black eyes. On the other hand, if you're scuba diving and have a tank of air to blow around to your heart's desire get whatever mask feels good and gives you the best field of vision.
The waters were clear and despite a strong current and few pesky jellyfish stings the snorkeling experience was delightful. There were lots of green turtles who seemed unphased by our presence. To avoid the swarm of others, I headed to some deeper water to find a turtle to freedive down to where the other snorkelers wouldn’t be able to join me.
On my bike ride back from the harbor I stopped by a house that had a few spearguns hanging up to dry outside and met Hani, who agreed to take me out the following morning. Dinner was at a small local restaurant with a large group of us from the hostel. The woman running the place left her stove unattended for too long while taking our orders and an oil fire started in the kitchen. We watched her run back to address the issue but when the smoke increased and we could see the light of three foot flames through the cracks of the bamboo wall several of us sprang into action. Luckily someone intercepted her as she ran toward the inferno with a large bottle of water as that would have almost certainly been the end of her little tinderbox of a restaurant. Another guy threw a towel over the blaze, smothering the flames and averting disaster. With a bit of adrenaline as an appetizer we all settled back in for our meals before having drinks at the beach around a bonfire.
This kitchen was one water bottle away from being a smoking crater.
As the sun rose, I was pedaling along the bumpy roads towards Hani’s boat to go spearfishing. After checking an offshore atoll for larger pelagic fish to no avail, we hopped out along a reef shelf to drift with the current. I cursed myself for each drink I had consumed the night before as my calf muscles cramped with dehydration and lack of oxygen. No point in being a hero out here, I’m not going to push it too deep today and risk a deep water cramp or an infamous shallow water blackout. I saw some large snapper, unicorn fish, and oriental sweet lip but they were in the open water where they knew to stay just out of range of my gun. Finally, I saw a sweet lip swim around the backside of a large coral head and I dropped down to the sandy bottom on the far side. As I peered under the reef I could see the fish’s silhouette directly facing me a bit out of range. My lungs started to ache as I waited motionlessly. Come just a little closer. He did. Now he was in range but looking directly at me providing too narrow of a target profile.
Just as I thought I was going to have to surface for air and try again he listed a bit showing me his broad side. I squeezed the trigger and without waiting to see if I had hit him I pushed to the surface. Ahhhh, you really appreciate air when you haven’t had it for a while. The tugging on the gun told me I had hit him but not fatally. I pulled up the spear, swiftly killed him, tied him to my float and went about resetting my gun. Untangling my spearline from my bands and float line proved to be a real challenge as the current and wind had begun to toss me about while whisking me down the coastline.
When I finally unfucked the rat’s nest and successfully reset my gun Hani and his boat were nowhere to be seen. Shit. The end of the island was a few hundred meters away and the current had picked up significantly. I thought back to the fliers that were posted up around the island reporting a woman missing that had last been seen a few days before as she headed out snorkeling. Oh yeah, now that I think of it I remember reading that almost every year some unlucky soul is claimed by the currents between these islands. Ok, no need to panic but time to make moves for shore. I didn’t see any channels before the end of the island where I could avoid the reef break and swim to safety. I’ll take some scrapes over missing my chance to make it back before the island ends. I swam diagonally with the current towards the reef break which I realized with dismay had become exposed as the tide went out.
From the beach the waves breaking on the rocky reef look small and insignificant but when you are swimming towards the shore those same little waves gleefully play cheesegrater with you across the reef. I watched the bottom get closer and closer moving only towards shore when the waves moved me along. The water going out meant that regardless how hard you kick you’re stuck in place until the next wave moves you far too quickly and uncontrolled into shallower water covering the razor sharp rocks below. Swearing under my breath but feeling relieved, I spooled my float line as blood trickled down my knees and onto the sand. After a decent walk along the beach I rounded the island to see Hani’s boat. Salvation. I shared my catch with some friends at the hostel, which a local restaurant cooked up for us and called it an early night.
I tried to get an early start the next morning since it was a travel day. I was heading to the western Bali town of Canggu, a surfer spot that is more built up than Uluwatu but offers plenty of yoga, surf, and nightlife for the backpacker crowd. After the fast boat back to Padangbai, I hopped on my moped to travel to the other coastline. Along the way I was pulled to the side at a police checkpoint where other westerners and a few locals were having their documents checked. Thankfully the guy I rented the scooter from in Kuta warned me that the sweet spot for police shakedowns was 100k rupiah, about 6 bucks. I parked my moped and walked past a ruffled couple that were losing an argument with several cops. My police officer took me to the side and pointed out some random aspect of my international drivers license that he claimed didn’t allow me to drive scooters. Under his breath he said 250k rupiah. I smiled politely and said “No, I’ll give you 100” and was sent on my way with a high five. Can’t make this shit up. He gave me a high five. I feel like in the history of Italian Mafia shakedowns there weren’t many high fives given to the victims. As I walked back past the visibly flustered couple, still fighting the good fight, I whispered to the guy, “Just give them 100k rupiah and you’re good.”
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Ben quit his job to travel the world. He intends to keep winging it as long as he can.