Snorkeling along the edge of the reef that separates Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan, I drift along with the current. A giant sea turtle beats its flippers below, causing a school of fish to break formation and spark an endless chain of reaction in the ecosystem that lives on the precipice of a coral cliff.
The water here is like a warm bath, and it’s the same dreamy blue that it was when I first visited Indonesia 15 years ago. Not even the rosy tint of a faded memory can embellish the vivid colors or how both the air and water hover at a balmy 27 °C. Even the sea snakes, banded kraits—whose bite I am told can kill you in a matter of minutes—possess a benevolent charm as they glide by, uninterested by the boats that frequent the channel.
Surfing at Gili Trawangan
The Gili Islands are a group of three tiny islands—Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and Gili Air—near the coast of northwest Lombok Island.
I met Heri on my first trip to Gili Trawangan, and even back then he made aerial surfing look easy. The island was barely populated in those days, and the surf break known as “Secret” was his own personal wave garden, with other empty breaks on Gili Air, a 10-minute boat ride away.
I remember the sense of trepidation I felt at dawn on those off-season days when the sound of the waves breaking against the reef could be heard above the rhythm of the monsoon rains. The surf on those days was scary, and the scars on Heri’s torso—which he calls reef tattoos—were a cogent reminder of the dangers.
Longing for Lombok
I found myself beguiled by the island life, and after spending seven months traveling around Indonesia by motorbike, I returned to England and moved to London. Months later, I found myself in a rat race with no beginning and no end. It was as if I had left a piece of my heart somewhere in Lombok, along with a front tooth, which I had lost in a surfing accident. Teeth, I was told by the wise doctor who treated me, “are more precious than pearls.”
Gili Islands Then and Now
Heri’s grandfather was one of the first inhabitants of the Gili Islands and his family owned one of the primitive huts on Trawangan, where you could stay for $2 a night. Over the years I’ve watched those wooden shacks transform into bungalows and now a hotel. In those formative years, it was the simple things that kept pulling me back to Indonesia—the sincere smiles, the simplicity, the anodyne water, and the way the sets roll in day after day, perfect and always offshore somewhere.
Yet when I visit the Gilis today, life has changed. The dawn call to prayer is now accompanied by the last stragglers from the party bars, which were almost non-existent back then. Scores of divers now come in on fast ferries that connect the islands with Bali, feeding a well-oiled tourism machine which, behind the glamour, has a devastating impact on the coral.
Still, the Gilis retain a paradise-like charm, and watching the sunset with a cold Bintang in hand, there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be. I often wonder whether the changes are good or bad for the local people. Their quality of life has certainly increased since my first visit, but the hedonistic party life sits uneasily with the local culture. The island life gives ample time to contemplate these quandaries; yet it is easy to criticize the tourist machine, without acknowledging that I am as much a part of it as everyone else.
Off the Tourist Trail
On an archipelago of 17,508 islands, it is still relatively easy to step off the tourist trail and find a wooden shack for a few dollars a night. If you can live without the air conditioning and the 24-hour bars, you might find solace in the simple life, where breakfast consists of Nasi Goreng (rice with chicken and fried egg) and Sambal (local ground chilli sauce) with hand-caught tuna, and scorching afternoons are spent napping under the haze of a mosquito net.
Indonesia is a country with a growing population. Anyone who has spent time in the ocean here will affirm that plastic pollution really is an environmental catastrophe. Rubbish that is not burned can often be found in a local river mouth, and the high tides take it all out to sea. Java is the most densely populated island in the world and the sea can be highly polluted in places.
Returning to Gili
I always return to the Gili Islands on a trip to Indonesia and catch up with old friends. This time, as I sit in the channel with Heri and 30 other surfers, we look over the horizon and watch for the next set. We talk about the good old days as we look back at the crowded beach, and I ask Heri whether he preferred the island then or now. He smiles at me and states unequivocally that it was better then.
As the next set of guillotine lines finally appear, we frantically paddle toward the peak. I wonder if Indonesia is on the tipping point of an environmental disaster, where the eternal seas have become a rubbish disposal site, or whether it is a paradise where the simple life still reigns. I wonder whether I am just older and more cynical. Or quite possibly both.
Dave Lawes is a freelance writer and share analyst with an interest in the interactions between government, social policy and financial markets. He is a keen surfer and travels extensively with a notebook and camera.