A Breath of Gili Air

by Anjelica Jardiel

The Gili islands are a beautiful trio in the south of Indonesia.  There are no cars, no motorbikes, no police (save a sporadic weekly patrol--some weeks they don't show up), so pretty much anything goes.  Bars openly advertise that they sell mushrooms, and you can get anything you want, if you ask the right person. Gili Trawangan is the party island, Gili Meno is the quietest, smallest and most romantic for honeymooners, and Gili Air rests somewhere in-between. 

For my weekend getaway from Bali, I decided to go to Gili Air.  I wanted a chill, somewhat quiet environment where I could restore my system through yoga and scuba diving and go to bed early. Bules, aka foreigners, pronounce it, "Gili Air," but the proper pronunciation is, "Gili Ay-Ehr."

It's an easy commute from the south side of Bali. My Indonesian friend Tasha booked me transportation with a company called Ganggari for a nice discount of 1 million rupiah (less than $100), round trip. It's normally about $62 each way online, so if you are lucky enough to have Indonesian friends, have them make the call for you.  I was picked up from where I was staying in Kerobokan by a mini-bus at 8 AM, with about 8 other travelers. We drove to the port of Padang Bai, an hour or so away, and were lead to a fast boat from there.  

After a few hours on a peaceful, blue ocean, Gili Trawangan was the first stop. The vibes could be felt upon arrival--electronic dance music thumping, young people excited to party. Gili Air was the final stop, arriving around 11:45 AM. I got off and was greeted by offers for a ride to my lodging by horse and carriage, but I decided to walk through the town.  I was dripping sweat during my sunny and humid 20 minute walk, dragging my suitcase through pot holes and pulling over to let bicycles and carriages pass.  Despite this, I was charmed by the locals and their constant greetings, chickens running amock, and small village ambiance. 

I chose to stay inland at H2O Yoga and Meditation Retreat. For $110, you can stay for 3 nights in a shared room, take 7 yoga classes and have a breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and coffee or tea provided every morning. For an upgrade of about $15 per night, you can have a private, air-conditioned bungalow with a hammock on the front porch. My private bungalow was cozy and cute, poolside, with a fantastic outdoor shower. Insects came in and out, minding their own business (for the most part), and a gecko lived on my roof that pooped on my bed daily.  If you're able to handle living amongst nature and don't mind encountering the occasional huntsman spider, this place is a recommendable community.

The island is easily walkable if you have the time, but I rented a bicycle for $5/day (60,000 rupiah), and rode down a couple minutes to the shore, where I found Gili Divers on Air. They have 3 dives a day--9 AM, 2 PM and sunset, for a night dive. I booked on the spot at 12:45 PM, had some lunch down the way, then we took a long boat to Han's Reef. Visibility wasn't the best for a sandy bottom reef dive, but it's a great site for tiny creatures, like nudibranchs.  

My second dive a couple days later with the same dive shop was to Turtle Heaven, one of the most popular dive sites in the Gilis, with good reason. We saw at least 7 huge green turtles, who paid us no mind. I literally swam up to a sleepy one, about two feet away. We made eye contact, I waved, and he went back to sleep, with two fish eating off of his shell. Scuba diving is like an underwater safari to me, and this part of the ocean is full of life--box fish, puffer fish, clown fish, anemones, corals, trumpet fish, peacock shrimp, moray eels, and parrot fish, just to name a few. 

Food-wise, my favorite find was Pacha Mama, which has another location in Ubud. Opened by a Sumatran man, his daughter, and her Swedish husband this place boasts healthy fresh eats, with gluten free and vegan options, and even house-made kombucha. They have a gift shop downstairs with volcanic soaps, raw cacao, jewelry and ikat fabrics.

I met a boy on the island at Smile Bar, along port side the shore.  I ate nasi goreng, Indonesia's famous fried rice, while watching the sunset. He made me a mushroom smoothie with pineapple and Coca Cola that didn't work. I was a little disappointed to have eaten fungus grown out of cow dung for nothing, but you live and you learn.  

He was 23 and from Lombok, the big island city nearest the Gilis. He told me about his life sleeping on the beach every night and working from wake until bedtime. He doesn't go back to see his family very often, despite it only being a 20-minute boat ride away, because he doesn't have the money. On his own, he supports his mom, dad and two younger siblings. He greets everyone with a smile, even though they don't often smile back. I asked if he was happy, and he confidently said yes. As a Muslim, he prays everyday, and feels this is his key source of happiness. Unlike predominantly Hindu Bali, the Gilis are Muslim, and chants are heard over a speaker system multiple times a day, unless the electricity cuts out, which is common. 

He walked me back to my bungalow and bought me my favorite chips, Happytos, along the way. We smoked on my porch, then it started to pour rain, so I said he could stay, but just sleep. Emphasis on, JUST SLEEP. In the end, I kicked him out of my room, because he got the wrong idea, and I didn't want to hook up or even cuddle, but he altered my perspective. 

Vendors often say, "Please help me," or "For good luck," when they try to sell you things. As a traveler from America, where $1 can equal anywhere between 13,000 to 13,950 rupiah, sparing an extra 10,000 rupiah is really nothing for us. A big benefit to traveling in Southeast Asia is how much we can get for our money, but I ask you to be mindful when asking for discounts. I'm not saying we need to feel like we are donating to charity or pay more than necessary, but please be aware of your advantage, be compassionate, and if someone is especially nice, give them a tip, even though it's not customary. 

The people I meet along the way are the ones who shape my travel experience. As someone who travels alone more often than with company, I stay open, trust the Universe, and it always gives back. Learn from other humans, and share their perspective with your side of the world.