Saturday, 29 September 2012

Boats, karaoke, and the first painful goodbye

So we continued our month-long paradise sojourn. We spent lots of time relaxing at Bintang Beach Bungalows, hanging out with our new Indonesian friends and fellow travellers.

Shout outs to James and Laura from the USA; Felicia from Sweden and Gwen from Holland. Not to mention the guy who looked just like John Locke from Lost – a very weird encounter when you're on a desert island! 

And special mentions for Danny, Tim and Larissa from Germany; the beautiful, classy Marga; and Paul, Paul, Emmanuel and Kerry from the UK. Thank you for the music!

Dave and I thoroughly enjoyed being long-term residents at the bungalows, sitting in our spots at the bar, imparting our hard-earned (?!) knowledge of the island to newcomers like sage locals, and reaping the benefits of being well established customers – such as extra helpings of fruit salad, free chips, and use of the bicycles when we needed to do a run to the shops.

Speaking of bikes, one of our favourite and most amusing novelties on the island were the ice cream vendors who, since there's no motorised transport on the Gilis, cycle round with an coolbox strapped to the front of their bikes and a loudspeaker playing out the jingle announcing their approach. So funny!

Danny, Tim and Larissa were lovely and quickly became firm friends and partners for sharing music and playing hours and hours of cards. Our 'Shit Head' tournaments (Becky: UK, Dave: Australia, Danny: Germany, and Ali: Indonesia) were fiercely fought battles for international supremacy. Shame we didn't keep score.

Dave, me, Danny & Ali
Marga, Emmanuelle & Paul
We also enjoyed the local kitty soap opera. There was a serious love square going on, which was very entertaining... Sambal the resident cat had a girlfriend (Mrs Sambal) who was being wooed by Marley, the big black cat from Legend, the reggae bar further down the coast. Then there was Mama Cat, who was looking after the last surviving kitten of her litter of four, who we're pretty sure was the first lady in Sambal's life, as the kittens all looked very much like him! She and Mrs Sambal really didn't get on; there were a few stand offs and at least one cat fight. Who needs TV?!

Sambal. It's tough being so in demand!
Mrs Sambal 
Dave and I had a lot of fun messing about on boats when we were on the Gilis, including a couple of day trips.

You can easily do ferry hops between the three islands; Gili Trawangan is the 'party' island, Gili Meno is the really quiet one, and Gili Air is somewhere in between (the Goldilocks island - juuuuuust right). We paid a visit to Gili T for a day, which is bigger and slicker than Air and with a slightly more commercial edge and not quite so laid back. 

You can definitely tell it's the party island – mainly from the groups of very hungover looking teens dragging their flip-flops to a local eatery for a fry-up, and the pretty blatant marketing of hallucinogenic fungi.

It's still very beautiful though and we walked about half way around the coast then cut inland to find somewhere for lunch and looked around the shops before hopping on the late-afternoon ferry back to Gili Air. When we got back it was quite a relief to return to the chilled place we were calling home! And like the pros we are, we made it back just in time for happy hour. As we sat drinking our Bintangs and munching some free popcorn in Blues Corner Cafe bar, looking out at the beach, we saw a kingfisher come down and land on the sand, gobble something down and then fly away. Sadly it was too quick for us to get a picture but take our word for it that it was very pretty and exciting. Not as thrilling as the other wildlife sighting we were soon to be treated to however... the indigenous Indonesian sand digger monster!

A few days later, we decided to venture out on a snorkelling trip and go out on a boat with a group. It was a pretty good bargain at about a fiver each. We were up early and both very excited to get into the crystal clear turquoise waters that we'd heard are so perfect for seeing tropical underwater life. However, the further the boat got away from the shore, and the deeper the water got, the more freaked out I got, until by the time it had anchored and everyone was getting their gear on, I was in full-on panic attack mode! I was just really scared of getting into the deep open water and could hardly move! But Dave calmed me down and as soon as he said "You don't have to go in if you don't want to" I was fine, and stayed very happily on the boat, sunning myself on deck, looking at the reef through the glass bottom and taking photos of Dave in the water. He had three really good dives and saw three turtles, lots of tropical fish and starfish. And I managed to see a turtle through the glass-bottom, so was really pleased with that.

During our last week, we even managed to venture off of the island over-night - quite a wrench! - when Ali took us over to Lombok. Dave and I jumped in an outrigger early one morning and were met by Ali at the harbour in Bangsal. He'd arranged a friend of his to drive us to Senaru in the north of the island where we could visit some waterfalls. We trekked through some lush greenery, sometimes wading through icy cold, fast-running mountain springs, and pretty soon found ourselves sprayed by fresh tumbling water and swimming in freezing cold pools. The perfect antidote to the tropical heat! 

Afterwards we piled, dripping wet, back into the car and drove south to Mataram, where we visited Ali's mother-in-law's warung for something to eat. Ali and his friend ordered a range of local dishes, including fried fish, gado gado and tempe and we all tucked in. We also had the priviledge of meeting Ali's young wife and his 8 month old son Zidane who, like most children, was inexplicably enamoured with Dave and couldn't take his eyes off him! 

After lunch we were back in the car and off to Sengigi where we checked into a small homestay that Ali knew. It was cheap and simple and, most importantly, close to the local karaoke bars. Another friend of Ali's, Daffy, joined us for some early evening drinks, getting-to-know-you-chit-chat and invaluable 'Shit Head' lessons. 

Then it was time for Dave, Ali and I to hit the town, where we soon found a karaoke club we felt lived up to our weekend-rockstar status. Asian karaoke is something else! They seem to take it 100% seriously for one thing - no tongues in cheeks here - and the songs and videos are projected onto a big screen while the microphone's brought to you so you can serenade the audience from the comfort of your big leather sofa.

We watched about an hour of Indonesian 'classics' sung by the locals, with Ali helpfully translating the stories of the songs for us. There was a huge variation of themes: 
  • boy loving girl who didn't love him anymore
  • girl loving boy who didn't love her anymore
  • boy loving girl who still loved him but was marrying someone else
  • girl loving boy who still loved her but was marrying someone else. 
The ones that were most difficult to follow were the ones that didn't seem to have their own music video, so were accompanied by something entirely random. Our favourite of these was the video that was shown alongside a couple of different Indonesian unrequited love songs, in which a man in Canada went prospecting for gold.

Soon it was our turn, and Ali eagerly called over the man in charge of the microphones to ask if we could request some English-language songs. This was no problem and he brought us over slips of paper, telling us to write down what we wanted to sing. Doubtful, we asked if he had a list of the English songs they had. No problem, we were assured, just write what you want. So sticking to our failsafes, I scribbled down 'Son Of A Preacher Man' by Dusty Springfield and Dave chose 'Let's Dance' by David Bowie. Our slips collected, we waited patiently, drank our Bintangs and listened to the wonderful renditions from the locals. Pretty quickly the guy came back, shaking his head 'no', they had neither of these songs. What a shock! So we were ushered up to see the DJ in his booth. After a lot of failed suggestions and confused shaking of the head (Who are these 'Guns N Roses'? 'Pulp' who?) we fell back on two songs there was no way he wouldn't have... Mariah Carey's 'Hero' for me, and Brian Adams' 'Anything I Do I Do It For You' for Dave. And the reception! It was like X-Factor, when you sing a first line of the song and then the audience immediately gives you an encouraging round of applause (or that's what I've been told!) They were all so generous and enthusiastic, we couldn't not reward them with another – thank heavens the DJ had an everyone-knows-it classic so easy to duet: Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' of course! It was such a great night, so much fun!!!

The next day, after a breathtaking drive along the bays of Lombok's north western coast, it was back to Gili Air for our last couple of days. And we were feeling more than a little pouty about it. We spent our time mostly at BBB, hanging out and partying with our friends, and soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of the wonderful island we'd come to love so much.

So lucky we had lots exciting adventures ahead of us to look forward to, or I don't think we'd have been able to leave!

Our contribution to Bintang's farewell sunglasses collection

Monday, 10 September 2012

Gili Air: Our first home-away-from-home

Gili Air (pronounced Gilly Aye-Er) very quickly charmed the flip-flops off us both and we were soon in no rush to leave. It was so lovely, after all the preparations for the wedding and travels and the busy first few weeks of the honeymoon, to find somewhere so chilled where we could just sit still together for a while. We experienced that common traveller phenomenon of planning to visit somewhere for 4-5 days and ending up staying a whole lot longer... a month by the time we left! We just couldn't think of anywhere else we'd have been happier at that point.

A lot of it had to do with the home-away-from-home we discovered at Bintang Beach Bungalows (BBB). It was perfect for us; really great staff who made us very welcome and a good atmosphere with the other guests. We'd play cards, read, listen to music, chat and generally watch the world go by.

Dave contemplating life, the universe & everything
Two of the many lovely people we met were a couple of girls who'd been on the island for a few months and had ended up doing some work at BBB. Nadine and Kim were really helpful, giving us tips about things like cheap places to eat and good swimming spots. They also lent us their external hard drive so we copied a bunch of music and movies – really handy on quiet nights when you just fancied flopping in front of a film or wanted to play some tunes in the bar.

We did have a nasty shock during our first couple of days. Andi, the manager of the bungalows who had greeted us on our first day, tragically died in a motorbike crash on Lombok. Dave and I had been on a little exploration of the island and came back to the bungalows one afternoon to find a very sombre group of people sharing a drink, and we were told of the accident. Later that night we joined the staff and Nadine and Kim for a small 'wake' in Andi's honour. We knew him for all of about 48 hours, but the love that the others felt for him was palpable and it was clear that he was a great guy who would be really missed. He was 34. R.I.P. Andi.

Deep breath. Anyway...

Our bungalow was about a 30 second walk to the beach and Bintang's bar/restaurant, where there were little open huts called berugak and bamboo furniture and cushions set up on the sand. We spent a lot of time sitting up at the bar chatting to the guys who worked there, Ali and Adi – who seemed to be on duty every hour of the day, with Ali even sleeping at night behind the bar! We'd have our breakfast there every morning – usually the classic banana pancakes (spelled 'pencaks' on the menu - now all they'll ever be called by us!) and tall glasses of muddy Lombok coffee. Always that gamble of 'can I get one last sip without getting a mouthful of grounds?'

Ali & Adi
There wasn't any WiFi access at BBB, but it was available in some of the bars around the island, even if it was a little unreliable. There would also be regular power cuts, as the island runs off of its own generators that go down pretty regularly. At one point we were having 2-3 blackouts a day, which was a bit of a pain when the fan in our room or the speakers in the bar cut out.

There was a laundry service (or 'lundry' as the sign read.. another term we've adopted) and we treated ourselves to our first machine wash since being away. Oh the delight of simple things like clean clothes – really clean, not just done with shower gel in the basin! On this subject, I had to hold my hands up to Dave and congratulate him for the excellent forethought that led to his purchase of a travel plug before we left the UK. It's something I didn't really see the point of, but weirdly nowhere has plugs for their plugholes and how else were we supposed to wash our smalls?? 

We were also very pleased to have bought other 'travel essentials' like cotton sleeping bags (just in case of bedbugs), torches (the pathways on Gili Air weren't lit), padlocks (the only way to lock the door of our bungalow), and the wire mesh backpack cage (just to keep things like our laptop and passports extra safe in our room while we were out and about).

Another novelty was the open-air shower in our bungalow. I was unsure at first about it being outside, and about the cold water too, but it was perfect after a day on the beach, even if it wasn't always too relaxing dodging the bees that were somehow fascinated with the running water.

BBB did really good food (both local and Western) and we settled into a routine of eating breakfast and then a decent meal in the late afternoon, with maybe a fruit salad around midday. That saw us through no problem, but it's not like we were burning much energy sitting on the beach all day! Elsewhere on the island you could eat a good bowl of nasi campur (rice and yummy stuff) for about £1 in the warungs slightly inland but the island speciality was delicious fresh fish BBQs – restaurants would display the day's catch out front and you could choose your fish, which would then be cooked fresh for you over coconut shells. YUM!

There was a big dance party at a bar called Space on our first Saturday on the island, where they had some international DJs come over to play. Dave and I went along with Ali once he'd finished work and had a few beers and a dance in the sand. They'd set up a stage and loads of UV decorations and black lights, plus people doing fire shows. The music was 'psytrance', which isn't exactly our genre of choice, but it was good fun and my first ever beach party! (How had it taken me 30 years??)

We had our own beach party at BBB one night too. Nadine and Kim were leaving for Australia, so they threw a big farewell send off. There was a bonfire on the beach and the locals they had gotten to know over their months on the island cooked up a fantastic feast of grilled fish, water spinach, rice, tempe, and a delicious spicy sauce. We drank far too much 'home brew' rice wine (called 'brum', preferably said as a kind of car noise) being passed around and plenty of good music for dancing.

Dave enjoys the local brew
James, Laura & Ali
 We felt like we'd settled in and found a good bunch of people to spend time with... and those people were the main reason why Gili Air will always have a special place in our hearts.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Indonesian island hopping

Bali had been great, but it can be quite hectic and we were ready to leave for something a little slower-paced. So it was time to embark on our first bit of island hopping, something I'd read about, been advised about (how doable it is), and that I'd casually mentioned to people: "We'll be doing some island-hopping around Indonesia." But in my mind it had always been something of a far off fantasy, an unknown entity.

Then we were heading for the Padang Bai public ferry, our lives in our backpacks and our magic piece of paper from Pesona Bintang* Tours in hand. We went back to the office at the agreed time and the nice guy ushered us over to board the ferry, where we waved the 'ticket' at a couple of official looking guys who pointed 'onward'.

To get over to the Gilis from Bali in one day you have to be on the 9am ferry from Padang Bai so you can make it over to Lembar and then up to the north of Lombok in time to make the boats going over from Bangsal to the Gilis.

We'd gotten to the ferry quite early so managed to nab a couple of chairs upstairs on the open air deck. It began to fill up around us with a good few Westerners laden with their own backpacks and lots of locals too. A lot of people ended up sitting on the floor. While we were still in port, women prowled the decks hawking food and drinks like instant coffee, bananas (small and green but firm and sweet) and hot nasi goreng wrapped in brown wax paper. I hadn't wanted coffee, but after the 150th emphatic call from the women I suddenly needed one and caved (advertising works!) I bought two coffees and a few of the little bananas; the coffee was ridiculously sweet (some local sachet with sugar included) and Dave had to finish mine before I slipped into a diabetic coma. Once the ferry was ready to depart, the saleswomen vacated for shore and we were off.

Padang Bai harbour

Sitting at our table, we got chatting to a couple of Indonesian guys about various stuff like the price and strength of local cigarettes, and other cultural differences. This was also the first time we noticed the odd Asian phenomenon of men surreptitiously taking photos of young, beautiful Western women on their digital cameras. Bit creepy. 

We also passed the time reading (me still ploughing through On The Road; a good book but not one I couldn't put down so it was taking me a while) and snapping photos.

Gunung Agung on Bali, gently smoking away

It took about three hours to get to Lembar and then we sat for an hour waiting for the ferry in front of us to unload before we could even dock.

Our Lonely Planet guidebook had warned of the 'gauntlet' you had to negotiate at the port, where hordes of guys hassle you, trying to take your baggage and get it into their vehicles so you'd travel with them, and that the best thing to do was put your head down and get out of there. So when we disembarked we completely ignored the large crowd of Indonesian men shouting and bustling and walked straight past them towards the car park where we hoped to find our onward shuttle bus to Bangsal. With it not being immediately apparent, we asked the Tourist office for assistance; the very helpful man put a phone call in to the Pesona Bintang representative and along came a guy with a big frown on his face saying angrily to Dave “I call you! I say Bintang ticket!” - we'd been so freaked out by the Lonely Planet that we'd walked straight past the person who was trying to help us. To be fair, he wasn't communicating any clear instructions and was rather lost in the scrum, but the warnings did seem a bit over-dramatic considering they almost caused us to miss our connection. Anyway, no harm done and we were directed to our little bus. The magic paper worked again and we begun our trip north to Bangsal.

The ride was great; there were about half a dozen of us, plus the driver and the guide, so there was plenty of room. I donned my headphones, turned up the music, and gazed out of the window at the passing scenery of this new island, our second stop on our year away. More Indonesian life to witness. 

We stopped briefly at the outskirts of Mataram so those who didn't have their tickets to the Gilis could buy them. After a couple of hours, we arrived in Bangsal and once again showed our magic paper to a guy who ushered us away from the hordes of youngsters (including the others on our bus) who were heading for the 'party island' of Gili Trawangan.

After a little while of waiting around without much of an idea of what was happening - things kept being said about having to wait for more people to fill the boat or that the water was too choppy - we got chatting to a European yoga instructor who was living on Gili Air with her dive master boyfriend. She told us that this charade was a frustratingly common occurrence but after a while we were directed to a small wooden outrigger with about a dozen other people. A short chug over the Lombok Strait to Gili Air and we'd made it! About eight hours of travel, and by initial impressions well worth it.

A man driving a pony and trap, costing us 50,000 rupiah for two people and luggage, took us on a 10 minute ride to Harmony Beach House, where we'd made a reservation with the owner Colin. There are two rooms at Harmony, up some steps on the first floor above their bar and restaurant, and they're basic: small and pretty open to the elements, with a double bed, mosquito net, a table lamp, a fan and a couple of little bits of furniture. The two toilets and showers were downstairs in an outhouse, 50% of which were out of order. We dumped our stuff and, as I was pretty hungry after our long journey from Bali, headed next door to Legend bar – a red, yellow and green decorated reggae joint that plays Bob Marley on loop – for some dinner and a couple of beers.

There was quite a large balcony area at Harmony, and as there was no one occupying the other room, we chilled out there for a couple of hours before turning in.

We'd heard from Justin and Ros in Ubud that Bintang* Beach Bungalows was a great place to stay on Gili Air, so the next morning, while I was battling with the shower at Harmony, Dave set out to find it and take a look at their offerings. Under an hour later he returned and asserted “Pack your bags, we're moving”. We settled up and checked out of Harmony, carried our belongings on a three or four minute walk to Bintang, and were shown a couple of different rooms by the friendly, helpful boss Andi. We settled on a cute airy little bungalow, with a high ceiling and white walls, its own veranda and outdoor bathroom, a fan, mozzy net, little table and dressing table. The price was 150,000 rupiah per night (about £10) including breakfast - the same price as Harmony had been. Thank goodness for the recommendation for this place, as it was such better value!

A little about the island itself. Gili Air is a tiny paradise! You can walk around it in about 90 minutes and there's no motorised transport so there's only bicycles and the pony and traps. It's the perfect picture postcard spot: white sand beaches, turquoise oceans, and spectacular sunsets behind distant Gunung Agung. The sea is beautiful; clean and crystal clear. At low tide there are pools in the sand flats where loads of little creatures live – crabs, anemones, starfish etc. At night the skies are full of stars as there's very little light pollution and you can see the Milky Way, Jupiter and Mars with just the naked eye. There are plenty of bars and restaurants – pretty quiet while we were there as we'd arrived at the end of high season – and there's an ATM and some shops for sundries.

This is the place we'd call home for the next month.

* In a few Asian countries there is no enforceable copyright law so if something becomes popular, like Bintang beer for instance, it's ok for other businesses to use the name. In some places it might mean you ask a taxi driver to take you to the Hilton and you're dropped at a tiny guesthouse instead of a huge plush hotel, and allover Indonesia various incarnations of 'Bintang' pop up.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Down south in Bali

It was time for us to move on from Ubud and travel to the south coast of Bali. We needed to head down to Padang Bai to catch the ferry over to the Gili islands, which lie just off the coast of Lombok.

A couple of days in advance (before things started shutting down for Galungan) we went to the Perama office in Ubud to buy our bus tickets. It cost us 50,000 rupiah each - about £3.30.

So it was time to pack up our lives into our rucksacks and leave the Indra Homestay behind.

We'd met a really nice English couple called Justin and Ros during our stay with the Indras, and they gave us some great tips about the Gilis and how to get there, like where to stay and how much we should be paying for things. They were our first encounter with travelers that resulted in some fantastic word-of-mouth advice.

Dave and the luggage at the bus station
Humping our packs down to the Perama office on the Thursday morning, we stocked up on bottled water and after a relatively short wait got onto the bus. It was a decent size but completely full, with no leg room and everyone's luggage piled up front between the passangers and the driver. They really pack you in!

The bus journey itself  was a fun, easy, 90 minute trip. It was great to be out on the road again after being in Ubud for a while, and to see the Balinese landscape whizzing past the windows of our bus. 

There was still a lot of Galungan activity, with penjors lining the roads and people attending religious ceremonies. When we reached the coast we saw a huge gathering of people down by the beach.

We'd found ourselves some accommodation in Padang Bai with  a bit of advance online research. Marco Inn is run by a Dutch guy and his Balinese wife. We contacted Jacob beforehand to make sure they had a room, and this turned out to be a good move. When we all piled off the bus on the main street outside the Padang Bai Perama office, we were immediately hit by the onslaught of guys trying to direct us to their guesthouses. Having something organised in advance was a bonus as it meant we could politely say we already had somewhere booked. 

We found Marco Inn pretty easily and were shown to our room on the first floor. It was small but comfy, with a double bed, cold water shower and one of those toilets that doesn't have a normal flush but instead has a big bucket of water with a cup that you have to empty into the loo to get rid of the 'evidence'. We paid 150,000 rupiah per night - about £10 for the room, with breakfast.

Jacob and his family were really welcoming and there was a small open courtyard where we could chill out and play with their two pet bunny rabbits!

The downside? We were staying really close to the ferry port and centre of town, and it was ridiculously noisy at night. During the day Padang Bai is a pretty sleepy little harbour town but we had a restless, sometimes sleepless, stay. Earplugs were no use when the ferry horn and tannoy, cockerels crowing, dogs barking, and the mosque call to prayer all went off in a ridiculous middle-of-the-night cacophony.

Our main mission was to organise our transport to and from the Gili islands. At that point we didn't really know how long we wanted to stay on the Gilis, but the idea was to head over to Gili Air first for a few days and then see what happened. There are a couple of ways to get over to the islands, mainly the fast boat (quick and expensive) and the public ferry (slow and cheap). We opted for the latter option and had a bit of a scout around for deals; there were loads of local agents advertising the trip and we finally bought our tickets from a guy who was set up at the end of the main street nearest the ferry (Pesona Bintang tours). After some bargaining, we managed to agree upon open return tickets for the two of us for: 
  • ferry from Padang Bai to Lembar
  • bus transfer up to Bangsal
  • boat from Bangsal to Gili Air
  • back from any of the Gili islands whenever we wanted. 
It cost us 400,000 rupiah - about £25 - which we were pretty pleased with. 

As well as the official stuff we needed to sort out, we also spent some time along Padang Bai beach front, which was really pretty with lots of traditional boats moored up and bobbing in the shallows. It was lovely being back at the coast after all that time spent inland in Ubud, and the constant calls from the hawkers had changed from "Transport?!" "Massage!?" to "Diving!?" "Boat trip?!"

We spent two nights in Padang Bai and found a really cheap little warung that fed us well on nasi mie and goreng and where we could pick up the unsecured WiFi from the nearby bar (we didn't have internet access at Marco's)! 

On Saturday morning we got up, repacked, and - using our magic piece of paper from the tour office - boarded the ferry to our desert island getaway.