The Trouble with Gili T

That's what the travel mags show you
Andy’s version of the travel mag picture.

I pity the fool who believes what the guidebooks say about Gili T.

What?  The Mr. T theme doesn’t work?  The joke’s been made too many million times?  OK.  Fine. I’m good without it. . . It’s easier to type without all these gold chains and feather earrings anyway.

Anyway, as I was saying, the guidebooks rave about the Gilis—how these three honey-drops of islands are perfection on earth, how the white sands glisten in the sunshine and the turquoise waters glow into the evenings, how boats drift on transparent waves and the lack of motor traffic culls a pristine aura that radiates long into the starry evenings, how the world-class diving opens doors to rainbow worlds of flowing wonder just beneath the surface of the gentle waves.

My wife and I read such chatter and were enchanted.  We booked nearly as many nights in tiny Gili as in boundless Bali.  We dreamed of savoring the tiny paradise as our own little apricot—uh, yeah, something like that.  We thought it would be great.

When we had to hoist our luggage overhead and wade through the surf to board the Gili T transport, we grinned at the adventure of it.  As we chugged across the lolling waters to the furthest of the isles, we smiled to one another in no secret language—this was going to be great.

On the slow boat--can't wait to arrive
On the slow boat–can’t wait to arrive

Here’s what we found, though.

Were there white sand beaches?  Yes, absolutely—but covered by an honest six inches of foot-slicing dried coral.  And don’t even think of stepping into the water shoeless—you’ll gain a foot full of salty lacerations before reaching knee-deep waves.  The only stretch of smoothish sand—a run of beach scarcely 50 meters in length, I’d say—tolerable for a person’s foot was packed solid with outriggers and fastboats and dive skiffs and snorkel launches and pleasure craft.  It was like a Black Friday parking lot, just with waves and anchors and a lot more bikinis.

Watch your step.  Coral hurts feet
Watch your step. Coral hurts feet

Was the water turquoise?  By all means—but good luck getting a view of it through the boats.  Wait, though, aren’t there the other sides of the island?  What’s to the west and the south?  Those feature not only the coral, but also a jagged ring of rocks out into the sea.  This effectively limits any water-borne activities to stepping gingerly and clumsily across the coral.

Here’s the deal: unless you’re looking to treat the island like a distant and expensive tanning salon, or like the world’s most exotic library, I’m not sure what good Gili T’s beach and turquoise waters do for you.  The people here were all about lying in the sun.  The industrious ones picked up a book flipped indolently through pages.  Believe me when I say I love to nap as much as the next fellow, and I earn my daily bread coaching and cajoling kids to read better.  But when I go to the beach, I want to enjoy the beach.  I want to get out in the salt and surf and make myself breathless and exhausted and red with the sun’s waves.  I’m like a kid at a beach.  And there’s not much beach good for that on Gili T.

A kid at the beach
A kid at the beach

Was there really no traffic?  Well, no motorized traffic—that much is true.  But this fact in no way implies the island was traffic-less.  Horse-drawn cidomos jangled their bells and honked their clown horns—yes, they used clown-horns to beep at each other—up and down the tiny streets early through the mornings and far into the dark.  They jam the mud-puddled streets so that the thousand cyclists are wide-eyed and tottering for balance at their crawling speeds, stammering in and out of swarming crowds of pedestrians and chucks of potholes.  Visitors from all parts of the globe glance endlessly around at the chaos of horses, carts, bikes, and porters—and since no one is sure which side of the street traffic is supposed to stay on, all are mingled together in a giant string of bedlam up and down the supposedly relaxing island.  I understand why no motors are allowed—they’d be carting boatfuls of traffic casualties to the mainland for sure.

Gili T traffic--minus the clown horns
Gili T traffic–minus the clown horns

Was the diving really that exquisite?  Absolutely—the best part of Gili is underwater, make no mistake.   Now, let me qualify that with this: I can’t be sure of that.  You see, I’m not a diver.  Even so, I did spend as much time as possible in snorkel-mode.  And yes, it was all gorgeous—the swarms of fish brighter than early-nineties fashion (think Fresh Prince with fins), the fat, waving bulbs of dozens of species of coral packed together onto living rocks, feeding the life to the flowing fishes, the creeping sea-bugs, the wise-eyed and sharp-beaked turtles.  Yeah, the turtles were cool.  They were enormous and graceful and practically guaranteed on any snorkel or dive you chose; they were the divas of all the diving attention, and their presence on any swim is a major selling point for the Rastafarian and reggae boat-tour guides.  To see such turtles, such giant, clumsy-shaped, hard-shelled codgers glide so effortlessly through water clear as your bathroom glass, well, it was something special.  No, I’ve got no beef with the diving in Gili—that alone is worth the trip, I have to admit.  I don’t think I’ll ever look at seawater the same—so calm, so uniform, so vastly the same topside, but underneath teeming with life and color and action so varied and so unimagined that it boggles the mind.  Gili T is best seen from beneath.

A glimpse at what lies beneath
A glimpse at what lies beneath
A glimpse at the islands in question, and a sample ad of a snorkel day-trip.
A glimpse at the islands in question, and a sample ad of a snorkel day-trip.

Enjoy your time underwater, though, because once you reach topside, it’s back to blaring reggae (just another reason it’s not on my return-trip list), streets stuffed with Speedo-sporting Europeans, peak-season price gouging, and it’s own little world of abominations.  Take this one for example—a salad bar on the street.  “Strange,” you say?  “Unhygienic,” you protest?  “Why not put it inside like a sensible eatery would?” you ask?  Well, just make that street a dust-covered lane full of sweating horses and frazzled, windswept, sunburned tourists, and it’s even more… peculiar.

Here’s the story of the sidewalk salad bar as near as I can figure it: Somewhere alone the line, one enterprising restaurant manager decided to tout his salad bar by placing it streetside. A sun-drench Australian strolled by, saw some veggies, and ducked inside on a drunken impulse.  Somehow, the street salad must have caught somebody—because obviously the competition followed: an equally enterprising guy next door saw his neighbor snare some passing Rupiah, and the next day he too was armed with a makeshift table, a few bowls of greens, and a bit of Saran Wrap.  He must have snared someone too, because his neighbor followed suit.  And today what you see on any evening stroll in Gili T is a sidewalk walled in with salad bars and waiters beckoning you to try, to lift the plastic film and scoop the spoon into the sort of tempting veggies.

But the salads need company, so pretty soon the webs were woven with fresh fish alongside the sprouts, and kebabs next to that, and then the whole kitchen staff was sweating away over the flames of BBQ beef and fish-steaks.  It’s bizarre.  I prefer filling my salad plate away from the clown-horns and jangles, the bikes and the flip-flops, the stares of passersby at my elbow—is he going to take more tomatoes or maybe some cucumbers now?  Let’s all watch him.  Which dressing do you think he’ll take?

The snorkeling notwithstanding, why did I have such a hard time with Gili T? Why am I the one complaining while so many guidebooks are stuffing their pages with praise for the islands?  I’m not sure—I’m no snooty, picky, turn-up nose traveler.  Maybe it was because we arrived in peak season and the island was practically sinking under the weight of all us tourists.  Maybe it was the stuffed streets smelling of sunscreen and old beer and salad bars.

The parking lot at Gili T
The parking lot at Gili T.  Oh, it’s also your “private beach,” by the way.

I know for certain one that set me against Gili was the fact that our hotel was not, as its website claimed, on the secluded, quiet, peaceful northwest corner of the island, but rather on the northeast, very much in the mix of the noise—the blaring moan of the mosque and the incessant clown-nose honk of the cidomos and the babble of the streets.  It was either terrible incompetence or deliberate false advertising, and the managers refused to apologize, to admit any wrong, or to in any way attempt to make up for the blatant misrepresentation of material facts that attracted us to their hotel in the first place.  No, what we got was a 30 second phone call in Bahasa Indonesia and the statement—“OK, I call website, they take down map now.”  Uh, yeah, I’ll bet that’s what that call accomplished.  And even if it did, it didn’t get me any lodging where I was supposed to be staying.

They wanted to charge us the first night’s stay plus a cancellation fee.  We scrambled to find a decent internet connection to find a replacement room—but no luck, no internet connection.  You see, the world-wide web is a fickle privilege on the Gilis, generally running at speeds comparable to old-school dial-up AOL and with the consistency of a mediocre double-A batter.  In short, after a mad scramble to book an alternate room, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d either have to stay or head home early.

We stayed.  The staff we argued with eyed us with suspicion each morning we sat down to breakfast and each evening we strolled back to our room.  They all remember we complained.  Yes, our remaining days were spent on eggshells at the hotel (and coral at the beach).

Does Mr. Gili T treat all his guests this way—of course not.  Our friends also took a trip to the same isle that same vacation, and they loved it.  No complaints, only praises.  Top of their list?  The snorkeling—the alien glimpses of undersea life make up for plenty of frustrations above it: the colors swaying in the hot-cold currents flitting against your bare skin, the trickle of bright glows and spiny shadows sifting across a pallet of colors and motions scarcely imaginable above, the living cells combined in shapes and sizes and features unseen, unheard, unwitnessed in all land-bound life, the unearthly scene spread before eyes in silent wonder, the only sound the heavy pulse, the ceaseless rhythm of your own breath.  Yes, snorkeling was a rapture and a half.

Friends enjoying sunset from Gili's T south beach
Friends enjoying sunset from Gili’s T south beach.  That’s Bali’s Mt. Agung in the distance.

The others also liked reggae music and Rastafarian chilling, which is pretty much impossible to escape.  They gawked at the numerous restaurants—street-borne salad bars notwithstanding—and chances to bump, no, the certainty of bumping, into people from the world over.  Yes, yes, it’s all true.  They wanted to relax in sunshine and didn’t really care the beach was crowded with a hundred launches and a constant flow of tourists lugging enormous backpacks to and from the surf-stranded skiffs.  They soaked in the sunset light streaming off Bali’s peaks and splashing the equatorial sky a hundred hues too soft and too glowing to seem possible.  Those guys smiled in wonder at it all.

I guess I’m just the Gili Grinch, snarling at all the happy, sun-soaked whoos holding hands and chanting on the crunchy beaches under the sunset rainbow.

Yeah, we even caught a rainbow.
Yeah, we even caught a rainbow when we glanced back toward Lombok.

Whatever.  People told me Bali was overrated—I can’t say I agree.  But I would definitely make that statement about the Gilis, the latest hip fave and impressive name to drop among the traveling cognoscenti.

It definitely takes a Grinch to complain about a place like this.
It definitely takes a Grinch to complain about a place like this–seaside restaurant with quite a view (that’s Lombok again in the distance).

Don’t get me wrong—Gili’s definitely got its perks, plenty of perks to make plenty of people come and come back.  But for my money, give me instead a beach boasting soft sand and snorkeling not far off.  Give me a street I need not risk me neck to cross.  Give me a quiet meal on the water’s edge, a splash of sunset seen in a bit more solitude.  And while you’re at it, a reliable internet hookup would be a cherry on top, would cause my heart to grow three sizes and cease my Gili Grinching.  Such beaches do exist.  I’ve seen them.  They’re not far off.

Despite all this, I did enjoy my time in Gili.  I spent as much of it as possible underwater or with my beaming wife—she blooms anywhere tropical and is great at making my frustrations melt away.

Blooming on Gili T

She says she’ll be back, and I like to hang out with her.  But maybe our next visit will be more about Gili A or Gili M; both are reputed to be far more relaxed and considerably less raucous than Mr. Gili T.  So watch out, Gilis.  the Grinch may not be done with you yet.

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