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.
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.
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.