22 - Vortex to Vortex (Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia)
From quicksand to quagmire. These were the days of my life. Bali to Gili Trawangan. A little scuba duba. A little hanky panky. Sometimes the panky minus the hanky. Smelly belly and a glum chum. Mt. Rinjani here I come.
by Mr. Nos T. O’maniac
I LEFT BALI. SOMEHOW. I was comfortable. Too comfortable. So I had to tear off the band-aid and mosey on. And I did. Somehow. Though I write as if “escaping” Bali was paramount to survival, obviously, I hyperbolize. I do that occasionally. What kept me there so long? Tons of stuff. There was little to worry about. I had a pleasant bungalow, bitchin’ wheels, and a variety of cuisine to satisfy my palate. No place to be. No appointments. No engagements. Woke up when I wanted. Slept when I wanted. Pooped when I wanted…mostly. I made nice with some natives, met interesting people from all over the globe, and spent time exploring hidden niches, both physical and metaphorical.
And Bali’s got karma. In theory, this Hindu concept goes a long way toward keeping malicious traits in check. And, somewhat naively I’m embarrassed to say, I considered what might happen when karma ran smack into dogma. Most of Indonesia is Muslim, including Lombok. I wasn’t sure how I might be received elsewhere, especially in less-touristed areas. My Honda Phantom was no Harley Davidson, but that didn’t stop less discerning eyes from making the association. I was worried I might have a bullseye on my back. So, if the mood struck, I would become Canadian…like a goddamn chameleon, eh?
Bali had something special for me, but it also had drawbacks. You simply can’t avoid the island’s tourist-trappiness. Overdeveloped, chaotic, and, dare I say, more than a tad gauche in spots. Yet, its main weakness could be a main attraction with the time, patience, and the motivation to explore. I was disappointed by all the development, especially the traffic, but disappointment settled to lethargic content fed by daytime naps and short motorcycle rides in the countryside. Bali hides a pearl (or it did), but it may take some digging to uncover.
Motives for visiting Bali are as varied as the people that hold them. Wanna find your inner self? Write a book? Become a yoga/qigong/tai chi master? Set up a business (probably illegal)? Learn to paint? Find a wife? Tour the island on a bus fit for U2? Become a consummate douchebag? All this and more could be yours. What you can’t be is original. Bali’s allll stocked up, thanks. Being original is unoriginal, so don’t even try. Half the tourists should wear t-shirts that read, "Join The Club, Asshole!"
A hole. A large gaping hole. That’s what I had in my cushy interlude. Adventure. I needed it. I didn’t fly to the other side of the planet to drink cat shit coffee and ride circles around Ubud. Besides, I’d be back. Plenty of time for more lollyassing.
So, I drove/floated east. Took a ferry from Padang Bai to Senggigi on the island of Lombok. From there, I hopped another ferry to Gili Trawangan. This was not my original plan. I intended to go straight to the base of Mt. Rinjani for a two day/one night climb up the volcano. But, as fate would have it, Rinjani was closed and didn’t open to climbers for another week or so. The island getaway and scuba fest were to be my reward for climbing. Instead, it would be my warm up. What could I do? The gods (i.e. Indonesia’s national park service) had spoken.
If “Mt. Rinjani” and the “Gili Islands” are ringing bells, it’s no doubt because of the recent deadly earthquakes on Lombok which included hundreds of aftershocks. For news reports, check out here, here, and here. That’s life on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
No motorized vehicles on the islands. Just bicycles and horse-drawn carts (cidomos). It was a welcome respite from the traffic chaos of Bali, but it forced me to abandon the Phantom. I left it at a guesthouse in Sengigi and hopped a ferry to the Gilis.
I have a theory. The ferry to Gili Trawangan passed through a wormhole, one I didn’t escape for ten days. I left Bali to overcome Ubud’s inertia only to hit quicksand in the Gilis. I’d read the best way to prepare for a hike up a 12,000ft volcano is to spend no less than a week and a half at sea level with little to no physical activity, save scuba diving, as a training regimen. Well, mission accomplished.
I dove my balls off if you must know the truth. My anointed dive shop (Buddha Dive) doubled as a guesthouse, so I could roll out of bed onto the dive boat. And most dive spots are within minutes of shore. Short transit times. Morning dives. Afternoon dives. Night dives if you fancy. Visibility was excellent, ranging from a hundred to a hundred fifty feet regularly. And there are loads of flora and fauna to occupy your attention. This includes batfish (platax), blue-spotted ribbontail stingrays, octopus, cuttlefish, white-tipped reef sharks, green humphead parrotfish, triggerfish, sea turtles, stonefish, leaf scorpion fish, a moray eel, and nudibranchs (sea slugs) to name a few. Stonefish, in particular, intrigued me. Let’s just say they blend. I spent minutes looking at one (or should I say toward one) before I realized it was there. If not for a guide’s keen eye, I’d never have noticed. When you consider how deadly poisonous they are, this can be unsettling.
I saw boatloads of octopuses, but they were always antisocial, refusing to cavort. Most species are harmless and curious, so I thought we’d get along famously. I made overtures but my guide reprimanded me via underwater whistle and finger wag. Probably for the best. My enthusiasm got the better of me. I was only thinking of myself, not the octopus minding his own fargin business. Saw plenty of cuttlefish (a close relative) as well. Amazing creatures are these. They hover in one place and pulsate, often changing color instantly for camouflage (like their cousin the octopus). Magnificent. I never grew tired of the magic show.
Life at sea is not without drama. One morning at Shark Point (didn’t see any that day) I found myself somersaulting gayly in an underwater current. Gaiety soon turned to terror, however. I began drifting up and away from the herd. Poor visibility prevented my guide from seeing my hot-air balloon impression. I felt powerless to halt my descent and was on the verge of losing visual contact. I doubled my efforts and discovered exerting yourself in a current a hundred feet underwater while trying to catch your breath is an excellent way to lose your shit. I came close. I could see the guide and another diver give each other the “Where the hell is he?” expression in international underwater sign language. My panic subsided when one of them grabbed my foot and brought me back into the fold. Turns out underwater freakouts aren’t that much fun. Huh.
The smarter thing to do would have been to get control of my goddamn buoyancy (amateur), or alternatively, let the current carry me away. The currents are well known. They would’ve found me eventually. Then again, blasting to the surface quickly is an excellent path to decompression sickness. The episode was great for building experience and character, but not something I wanted to repeat. Wish in one hand…defecate in the other.
If that wasn’t enough, the same day I was assaulted by a vicious fiend—a titan triggerfish. And it hurted. It hurted a lot. I was swimming to get a closer look at a humphead parrotfish when the bastard ambushed me. Fuckers are ornery when they’re nesting. I unknowingly violated this fish’s territorial integrity. At first, I thought a fellow diver was screwing with me. I turned to see said triggerfish in a swirling paternal frenzy just in time for a slash at my middle finger. With some violent thrashing, I thwarted further attacks while retreating to safety. Lessoned learned.
Notwithstanding marine ambushes and a short bout of unbridled panic, I was glad to be diving again. It had been years. If not for the motorcycle and the nebulous visa situation, I might’ve spent a couple months on Trawangan obtaining my Divemaster certification. Not a path to riches, but it might get you steep discounts at dive locations around the globe. I considered returning later but never made it. After another brush with undersea horror near Komodo Island, my enthusiasm waned. That, combined with the red tape immigration headaches, sealed it.
(Above photos are from the internet or taken from a fellow diver's camera.)
When I was there, Gili Trawangan was somewhat of a kingdom unto itself. I’ve already mentioned there were no motorized vehicles (unless you count boats). No police either. That’s right, no po-po. I found this curious considering the festive beach atmosphere. The beer and liquor flowed like wine. Bars were open all hours. Mushrooms (“shrooms” as the kids say) were sold openly. By “openly” I mean there were signs every ten feet (figuratively speaking). Marijuana also, though not quite as openly. The sales pitch was verbal rather than visual. Why? Marijuana is illegal. Mushrooms are not. I can only imagine what corrupt scheme prevented a law enforcement presence. I’m sure no money changed hands. Ever.
Trawangan had a nickname, Condom Island. That’s because of all the fucking promiscuity (pun intended). I’m not going to lie. I was a whore. A dirty, filthy whore. This reads like a priapic boast, I’m sure. It’s not my aim and you’ll see why. Long-term travel requires a different mindset than a “balls to the wall” two-week vacation scenario. You need to look after yourself. I couldn’t possibly overstate the importance of sleep. For travel. For life in general. Especially for life in general. Fuck with your sleep and it can all go off the rails Gangnam Style.
I was a perfect case study. Not only was I getting insufficient sleep, the quality of said sleep was suboptimal. Alcohol didn’t help. My diet was terrible and stomach issues abounded. Pooping wasn’t accompanied by the standard joy. But I plowed on. After all, there were attractive women everywhere, most of them near ten years my junior. In the abstract, it sounds like paradise but the lifestyle took its toll. My body never felt quite right, and this expressed itself in various ways. Mr. Winky wasn’t always cooperative, much to my chagrin (and shame). Nothing skyrockets your self-esteem like having a Finnish blond tell you, in the sack, how all she wants is “to get fucked now!” and how she would consider a threesome (male stand-in/devil’s triangle?) at that moment due to her borderline abusive randiness. What has two thumbs and craves humiliation? This guy!
Why do I share these ignominious details? I may have been high on the hog in a beer-soaked, sex-crazed scuba eden, but it doesn’t mean squat if you don’t mind the basics. That was as true for me then as it is now, and for millions out there living their lives. Perhaps, I was a failure as a man, but there’s no denying my body revolted. Mind affects body. Body affects mind. Depressive thoughts go hand in hand with a perpetual hangover and pervasive sleep deprivation. My frown was not upside down. I got low and pitched a tent there. It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t matter much because I could afford idleness and inactivity, but I shudder to think how millions press on through the muck day after day. What’s worse, with a few relatively simple measures lives could improve dramatically. If only…
Obviously, I’ve skipped the moral, ethical, and health implications. You be the judge. With consenting adults, disapproval is your only sword. I’d spent two-and-a-half years working in Bagdad with a man-to-woman ration falling in at roughly 10-to-1 on a good day. So, I let things get out of hand (more pun intended). I’m human. Perhaps, not a great one? Perhaps. And it wasn’t all disgrace and mortification. I fondly recall sneaking onto the grounds of a guesthouse with a twenty-two-year-old Englishwoman, stripping down naked, and getting naughty in the pool under constant threat of exposure. Mr. Winky wasn’t always cooperative, but when he was…
And so the days wore on. Between the diving, imbibing spirits, and having of the sex there were pleasant sunsets, leisurely strolls, and bouts of mysterious illnesses. If not for the regular dive times, I’m not sure clocks would’ve been much use. Besides, the incessant rooster calls let you know the sun was coming. I could hear those infernal birds in my nightmares. I’d meant to see the other islands (Meno and Air) but I could never quite drag myself away. There was a practical reason as well. Buddha Dive accepted credit cards. This was a huge advantage, and one I couldn’t forsake. Cash was not easy to come by as I recall. If there was an ATM, I’m sure it had withdrawal limits.
And somehow I broke away…
Every day I could see Rinjani call my name from across the channel. More than once I packed my bags. More than once I unpacked them, ferry ticket in hand. I would get there…eventually.
*Drone footage courtesy of Markus Warren.