The night before we were due to travel to Gili Air, I did something all sensible travellers choose never to do.
I read the Trip Advisor reviews.
Now don’t get me wrong, Trip Advisor can be a useful tool. It can give you an insight into where the best restaurants are, and which attractions are not worth the money. It can give you a pretty good idea of whether or not you are likely to walk out of a café with food poisoning. It might offer insight into which tour companies are just a couple of optimistic, enterprising blokes with a mainly monosyllabic grasp of English.
But after hard won experience, I should have learned by now not to take it too seriously. Or rather, not to even bother with it.
Particularly when the boat trip is already booked, and it’s too late to turn back.
In this case, you will be saddled with a lot of undue stress and anxiety, and ensure that you spend the majority of the journey in a cold sweat, thinking that the boat is imminently going to capsize, or that your luggage is going too be dumped unceremoniously overboard, or that it will turn out that perhaps you have bought a ticket to an island that does not in fact exist, as the result of a new and highly inventive form of scam.
Needless to say, it was actually totally fine.
I feel that a lot of people on Trip Advisor have either unrealistic expectations, or have failed to be properly prepared for the country in which they are travelling.
Of course it’s not going to be organised in the same way it would be if this were a boat trip from Southampton. There probably won’t be quite as many checklists, or health and safety guidelines; there probably won’t be an orderly queue. It will be crowded and confusing to you; there will be lots of people shouting things, mostly in another language, and a whole heap of other tourists only adding to the melee. Your bag will be thrown aboard, not carefully placed. But it’s more than likely that it will all be OK.
Just sit back and enjoy the chaos. The chaos is not going to be resolved or improved or changed by your complaints or your disapproval, so why worry?
I kept my worries under wraps that morning, and did not mention to mum the 186 “terrible” reviews of the company, the person that emphatically said ‘Never ever ever use Wahana’ with three exclamation marks, the review entitled ‘Do not use this company’ (two exclamation marks).
But we got picked up from the hotel with no fuss, transported to the harbour (admittedly getting pretty cosy with the neighbours), deposited among the many people milling around and managed to muddle our way through without much problem. There was definitely a system, it was just a bit hard to translate. Everyone got given stickers like we were business people at a conference, except all dressed in holiday wear, and all the bags were labelled with the right destination.
All that is required for an easy crossing is a smattering of patience and a general vague interest in the proceedings. There might be a bit of a wait at the harbour (nobody really knows what time the boats go), but there are places to sit and drink coffee, and plenty of people to watch, which provides endless entertainment.
Padang Bai, the harbour town, was actually prettier than I expected. The curving beach was surrounded by tropical vegetation, and the bay was afloat with the colourful jukungs which are ubiquitous to Indonesia. I was kind of expecting a dirty, dusty, ugly place, but was pleasantly surprised.
In due course the boat was boarded, and every seat filled, however grumpily. The woman sat next to mum seemed to feel that it would be more fair if she had a row to herself, and everyone else stand, but that dream was soon sadly crushed.
It was certainly not the most comfortable boat journey of my life, but sitting up top to watch the sea churn by made the time pass pretty quickly, and before I’d had much time to regret my decision to sit on the floor and my consequently very damp shorts, we had arrived.
Gili Air is exactly the postcard picture, the laptop screensaver, the billboard advert of what you would expect ‘tiny island somewhere in the Pacific ocean’ to look like. I hadn’t really mused much on what this would mean in practice, but after we trudged our sweaty way through the sandy streets to our hotel, and were presented with a very welcome welcome drink at the hotel restaurant, I realised just how beautiful the place was.
There are no motorised vehicles on Gili Air, nor are there many streets (and the ones that do exist are not exactly well-paved). Though this made things a little bit tricky for mum and her gigantic, unwieldy suitcase, this also gives you an idea of the kind of place it is.
There are a few key activities that one does while on Gili Air. Namely eat, drink, snorkel and swim… and dive if you are a lunatic who thinks that sort of thing sounds fun.
And so we spent five days doing pretty much exclusively that (minus the diving of course, as we are not lunatics).
I did find it a bit overwhelming at first, the level of commercialisation on the island. You walk round the main beach track and almost the whole way along there are restaurants and cafes and dive shops crammed in both sides, all vying for your attention. It took some getting used to.
But then you do get used to it and you realise that you could happily go to a new, different place for every meal and every drink, and it is wonderful.
The pace of life on the island is so laid back, and everything is designed for chilling out. Everywhere there are bean bags and hammocks and little raised hut constructions with cushions and a low table. There are a whole series of businesses built primarily off the idea that people will want somewhere comfortable to sit and watch the sunset, and there for about two hours in the evening indeed the crowds do flock.
I have been to a lot of beautiful places in my life, but the Gili Islands are surely up there among the most beautiful.
I wasn’t so convinced on arrival. I was too busy concentrating on the sweat oozing from every pore, feeling sorry for the decrepit-looking horses that pull the carts to transport people to their hotels, and looking at the Google Maps directions I was using to negotiate our way (walking, thank you very much) to our accommodation.
But then I relaxed into it. I got used to the lazy pace of life, and relished rather than riled against the fact that all I would be doing with my day is reading, lounging around, snorkelling, and eating nice food.
It’s not a hard sell really.
The only problem is that it is hard not to want to shout from the rooftops how amazing the place is. Even mum, who rarely puts things on Facebook (except when she has redecorated the bathroom, and other such important life updates) had to restrain herself from compulsively uploading several photos a day.
I went through a similar problem when I saw a turtle for the first time while out snorkelling. After overcoming my panic at the giant misshapen object that came looming into view, it became one of the most exciting things I had ever seen. I wanted to tell everyone I knew (and everyone I didn’t), I wanted to mention it to strangers in the street. But I know how annoying it is when people brag about their travel experiences, so I limited myself to a couple of people (sorry guys), and kept the turtle to myself.
I had seen a little turtle on the Great Barrier Reef too, but that was back when anything that moved in the water sent me into palpitations.
This was a big-ass hawksbill turtle, floating stately up towards the surface, mere metres from my slightly gobsmacked face. After I got over my initial panic (and then the second smaller wave of panic), I was ecstatic. I turned round to see if mum had spotted it too but she had already headed back to shore; I shouted for her but it came out ‘nnnggg!!!’ as anything does out when translated through a snorkel straw.
I turned back to watch in rapture as he took a breath at the surface and then descended gracefully back down.
The next day we saw two turtles, and I realised that maybe the snorkelling on the Gilis is pretty good. And the turtles don’t seem to care about the tourist masses, either; a couple of times we saw them pretty close to the shore, in waist-deep water. It’s enough to make you jump if you’re not anticipating it, accidentally swimming centimetres above a turtle.
I am still not a particularly confident snorkeller. If I had it my way the fish would all line up one by one, and pass in front of my gaze in an orderly manner at a sensible distance. No groups, no sneaking round to the side. I snorkel in the way that I imagine a person guilty of a minor crime would walk: casually, but constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure that nothing is awry.
But still. The fact that I am able to enter the water without a significant meditation practice beforehand is an achievement, to me.
And then all too soon it was over.
Mum ended up having to leave the island the day before her flight, in order to make ABSOLUTELY SURE that she would be able to be at the airport the requisite three hours before departure, and the requisite extra two Mum Hours before check in.
I joke, but in fairness judging by our experiences travelling between destinations thus far in Indonesia, an extra day leeway was a sensible idea.
But it did mean that I was abandoned early; cast off back into the big wide world, and more specifically the world of backpacking and hostels. And my mum was leaving me, which is a weird kind of role reversal, since I am usually the one leaving her.
Don’t get me wrong, having a lovely double bed all to myself wasn’t a hardship. But it has actually been pretty wonderful the past few weeks having mum there to make me relax, and making it acceptable to stay in nice hotels. From Amed to Ubud to Gili Air, it’s been a fantastic trip.
I’m going to have a hard time adjusting, I think.