Sunday 12 June 2011 - Friday 1 July 2011 33 °C
Less than 24 hours after arriving back in Ubud from our Bali road trip, we were on the move again. Our destination: the Gili Islands, just off the coast of Lombok. We had intended to travel via one of the “fast boats” to the Islands but the few recommended carriers were booked solid. We could have chosen one of the countless other fast boats available, but after reading several stories about the complete lack of safety and sea-worthiness of both craft and crew, we opted to take one of the much larger slow boats. Ironically, we later learned that a recent sinking (where several people drowned) was in fact the very company we chose. However, after a rocky five hour crossing, ending with a “not-for-the-timid” mid-channel transfer from boat to launch, we landed on the beach of Gili Trawangan, one of the three tiny Gili Islands famed for the white sand that sets them floating like pearls within the surrounding turquoise water.
The Gilis stand in stark contrast to Bali. For starters, there are no motorized vehicles; transportation is by horse drawn cart and bicycle. The dogs that roam everywhere on Bali are nowhere to be seen, their presence completely replaced by cats (complete with stubby, gnarled tails, the result of many generations of inbreeding). Accommodations are simple; most offer only cold showers, in some cases only salt, not fresh water. And while there are a few larger resorts, they are not overly imposing, kept partly in check by a requirement that no building can exceed the height of a palm tree.
Gili Trawangan – known as Gili T - is the most developed of the three and the largest (though you can walk around the entire island in only two hours). It is also the party island. There is no shortage of venues along its beach side “strip” to party hard from dusk to dawn, with liberal access to a plethora drugs if the never ending supply of booze is not enough. You can also watch (and buy) the latest movies on DVD that have yet to be released elsewhere. However, despite the flagrant illegal endeavours, the Village Chief makes it known that at least one activity isn’t welcome; beach wear - specifically bikinis – are not to be worn anywhere but the beach.
We spent four days on Gili T, hanging with the mainly Aussie (surprise) crowd at the Irish (yup) Pub and the Sama-Sama Reggae Bar, catching the rays at the beach in front of our bungalow and enjoying a full moon bonfire and BBQ organized by a rather colourful Parisian ex-pat. As great as it was, Gili T was not quite the serene paradise we were searching for. There was quite a bit of construction going on, building more accommodation for the increasing number of tourists (yet another “victim of its own success” scenario underway…) and the hard-charging party crew and constant hawkers (of things legal and illegal) wore somewhat thin after a few days. So we decided to look for change of venue…and didn’t have to look very far. Just across the channel, a quick $2.00 boat ride away, sat Gili T’s alter ego - Gili Meno.
Gili Meno is the epitome of what we dream of when we think of tropical islands. It is unspoiled, quiet, uncrowded… There are very few accommodations on the island and even fewer warungs (restaurants). There are no paved roads; only dirt and sand lanes for the horse drawn carts where you are just as likely to come across a cow or goat or rooster as another person. Food is simple island fare – fresh tropical fruits, fresh grilled fish (Snapper, Barracuda,Tuna) and ice cold Bintang beer. And the water… crystal clear, with snorkelling over lively reefs right off the beach. For the first time in our travels, the ocean glowed with luminescent colour that rivalled our beloved BVI (well…almost). We choose a little bungalow on the northwest coast, complete with no furniture other than a bed and a cold (but fresh!) water bathroom with nothing but a sink, toilet and shower head (oh…and one scorpion). It was as plain as plain can be – and we loved it!! Our couple of days on Gili Meno stretched to a week. We walked around the island, watched the sunsets from our little deck with the volcanoes of Bali shimmering far off in the distance, ate fresh BBQ fish at the little warung down the beach, and snorkelled the warm, clear waters every single day, including exploring the famous Meno Wall. We felt as close as we have ever come to living a castaway lifestyle and found that we are rather good at it (which will come as no surprise to those who know us). But…all good things must come to an end. With the days on our visa ticking down, we finally – reluctantly – bade farewell to Gili Meno and returned to Bail. While we made much better time crossing back to Bali by way of a fast boat (one hour instead of five), we quickly rediscovered the traffic snarls of south-central Bali and watched our 45 minute taxi transfer stretch to over two hours by the time we finally arrived at the surfing mecca of Bingin on Bali’s southern peninsula.
Bingin was unlike anything we had previously experienced on the island. Accommodations of all shapes and sizes were clustered together along the sides of narrow dirt lanes. Our room for the first night was actually a private garden complete with an outside dining area and three thatch-roofed, open-walled “bales” consisting of a living room area, sleeping area and bathroom, making for a cozy 1000 square feet of living space (not including the garden). Feeling a little lost in all that space, we moved right next door and spent our last 2 nights in a traditional Balinese family-style compound where guests and family mingled together. It was something to see – surfboards next to deities next to a beer fridge next to a nursing mother next to a TV playing surf movies... While we were in one of the most popular surf areas in Bali, the beach was not exactly right next door; it was down a rather haphazard series of broken steps, under dangling electrical wires (and the occasional flight of monkeys), through a warren of warungs and rooms-for-rent clinging to the limestone cliffs that run down to the water. For those who carted their surfboards down this obstacle course to the ocean, their efforts were well rewarded.
As much as he chomped to get out there, Warren opted to stay onshore as he recognized that the size, speed and hollowness of the waves over the very hard limestone reef would probably lead to much more pain than pleasure. Instead, we ate fresh Mahi-Mahi burgers, drank cold beer and watched the offshore spectacle as riders ripped up 12’-15’waves, throwing backslides, aerials and 360s, mixed with the occasional tube and frequent “Holy shit!” wipe-out. It was a great finish to our time in Bali, made even better by spending our final evening eating yet more fresh grilled fish on the beach, watching the phosphorescence glow created by the waves crashing just offshore.
The next morning, we woke to thick, low grey clouds and rain, our first bout of unpleasant weather since our trip began in January. It was of no concern though, as just a few hours later, the gloom was far behind us and we were again enjoying sun…in Singapore.
Three years ago, Lee-Ann spent half a day in Singapore enroute to India. She was immediately enthralled by the city and insisted that she wanted to return with Warren someday, sure that he would love it… Well, someday finally arrived, and she was right.
Singapore is a clean, quiet modern city, with a diverse mix of soaring skyscrapers and charming shophouses from the 19th century, generously sprinkled with green – trees and shrubs are everywhere throughout the city. The streets are wide and well paved, and even during rush hour there is really very little traffic (and virtually no honking – quite a change from every other Asian city we have visited). We spent several days exploring the city, mostly on foot despite a cheap and very efficient public transit system (although the MTR might have been a better choice over the slippery tiled sidewalks after a thundershower). We were somewhat taken aback as we walked the streets by what we did not find: no garbage, no broken sidewalks, no honking horns, no stray animals, no beggars…even the alleys are pristine. We could hardly believe we were still in Asia! However, despite the general “orderliness” and points of “sterility” within the city (for example, Little India was notably devoid of any market street chaos) due to its notorious list of fully enforced fine inducing laws (no littering, no spitting, to gum chewing, no jaywalking… and on and on…), Singapore emits a tangible street level energy, the basis of which is clearly derived from the city’s ethnic blend
Singapore is a teeming mix of Chinese, Indians, Malays, Arabs and westerners – all richly engaged in their own customs and cultural identities while simultaneously working and socializing as Singaporians; the focal point of this convergence being the city’s passion for food. The head-spinning number of restaurants, food stalls, hawker’s market and pubs truly lends credence to Singapore’s reputation as a foodie’s paradise. We ate as much as we could during our time in the city, sampling a variety of the locals’ favourites including the famous Chili Crab at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant we discovered. Unfortunately, while a few days is enough to see the city and get a feel for its vibe, months would be required to begin to do justice to all culinary options that Singapore has to offer.
We loved Singapore. It was the perfect transition from the chilled atmosphere of Bali into a larger, faster and more populous environment, setting us up (hopefully) with the headspace we will definitely need for the next chapter of our adventure.
When we began our journey five months ago, we envisioned that Singapore would be a turning point of some kind and that has indeed turned out to be the case. We’ve reached the halfway point of our tour and it is here that we have chosen to say goodbye to Asia, taking with us thousands of pictures and millions of memories. But before we step on the plane and bid farewell, we would like to wish Happy Canada Day to all our fellow Canadians and a Happy Fourth of July to our American friends!
Now, we're off…to Cairo and the Land of the Pharaohs!