Late night, dark jungle, three foreigners under a dull yellow bulb in an un-walled bamboo hut—and they’re angry. They’ve been in sun all day, snorkeling, swimming, hiking, lounging—and now, with bellies full of seaside eats, with minds and bodies worn to a sunburned nub, they’ve come to their lodging, to a quiet shower and blissful hours of shut-eye, and receive nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing—it was just locked away. And they didn’t have a key.
That’s right—all our stuff and all the showers and beds and comfort that we’d paid for, all just out of reach. Yes, that was us, by the way, locked out of our room.
We stewed and slapped mosquitoes; we grumbled about Ramadan; and we listened to the Gili Meno remix: the imam’s call to Ramadan prayers mashed up with the thuds of dance bass across the channel in Gili T.
“It’s ridiculous,” Luiza whined for the tenth time.
“It’s Ramadan,” Andy sighed, “just get over it.”
“It’s my fault,” I offered, “I should have kept the key myself.”
The bugs hovered and buzzed, the light burned on, and I checked my phone again—just to make sure the battery hadn’t magically come back online. Nope, still dead. Our guesthouse owner was out late at the mosque breaking his Ramadan fast, little knowing that his guests, who’d left their sole key with him, were stewing outside their room. We needed to pack for tomorrow’s trip. We needed to shower. We needed to sleep. Instead, we were grumbling in the paradise known as the Gili Islands.
Yes, we were fast becoming Gili monsters.
But to be fair, that pesky room key was something of a little monster on its own. Since we first checked in—that is, me with a horse cart full of the girls’ luggage—the key was a problem. I locked up the bags and went looking for the strolling girls. An hour later, I hadn’t found them on any of the dusty roads twisting under the dust-covered palms of tiny Gili Meno. Meanwhile, they had already arrived by a different route and were in a sweat to get inside and use the, uh… facilities. When we finally met up, sweaty from the hike in tropic heat, disgusted by the fly-swarming hole of a public toilet, the claws came out, and no amount of palm-trees and turquoise surfs could appease us.
Welcome to Gili Meno, everyone: middle sibling of the Gili sisters, the calmest, relaxingest, most under-developed little hotspot a tourist could dream up. It’s a sweet little dot of bright sand and tall palms surrounded by reefs more rainbow-swimming than the most strung-out 60’s hippy could dream up on all his LSD. This is Gili Meno, the loveliest of the tiny islands dotting the coast of the child wonder Lombok.
With big sister Gili T heavily invested in the club-and-party crowd, with Gili Air getting too cozy with the mainland, precious little Gili M spends her days in languid charm and sea-side huts catering to, as she brands herself, honeymooners and romantic-get-away-mongers. I guess they sent that branding memo to every guesthouse and restaurant on the island, since they all tend to shut down around nine and leave the inhabitants to a quiet night under a sky full of playful stars.
But on that storied speck of land, under that bamboo roof, under all the oceans of stars on that night, we weren’t under any magic spells, and definitely not in the mood for any sort of snuggling.
“It’s my fault,” I tried again—but nobody was buying it. “I should have kept the key myself.” The girls rolled their eyes. Everyone leaves keys at the desk here—why risk losing them in the waves? Of course I wasn’t carrying them with me. The crickets chirped on. Someone slapped a mosquito into a bloody oblivion. This wasn’t the Gili M we’d gotten used to.
That Gili M was full of sand fine enough to pass for sugar, and water so bright it hurt your eyes to gaze upon; it was loaded with beach-happy panoramas flecked with her Gili sisters. It pondered Lombok’s mighty mountains spiking the horizon. This place has made its name lounging in that sand, in that view, for a sixty-minute massage and a fruit salad thrown in for good measure for less than a ten buck total. It’s known for sunset watching over a gentle surf and a grilled fish and a creamy concoction of fruits juices. Or, if you’re up for it, perhaps a late-night strumming of a guitar around a table full of actual honeymooners swapping how-we-met and how-he-proposed stories and breaking into spontaneous snatches of songs under the gleaming stars, steps away from the carefree waves.
Or it’s also known for its turtles, those gentle giants of the pristine waves, those wide-eyed gliders flipping through the wonders of the reef, grazing on hapless coral, carefully, smoothly slipping away from over-eager snorkelers chugging through a sea blue enough to make any diamond squeal in envy.
What monsters could possibly call this home?
What beats the reef? Well, not much—especially around Gili M. There rainbow-blazing wonders make even M&M’s look bland; they swarm with more life than an anthill, and all of it colorful and strange and mesmerizing—the sleek fish darting in and out of reef-formed crevasses, peering into the danger of a thousand bigger fish, and one giant guy with a cheap set of masks and rented fins.
Long attenuations of shy lobsters peek from walls crawling with sea cucumbers and anemones, from across the dips and valleys of a waving playland not even Dr. Seuss could write justice to.
It’s even enough to drag a pair of land-locked and non-swimming Romanians away from the pearls and massages of the beach, and morph them into a twin-headed hydra of snorkeling obsession. Yes, yes, if you follow my winding sentences, Andy and Luiza both donned hunter-orange life-vests and cast themselves upon the whimsical little currents of Gili M and become snorkel-monsters.
Yet who am I to blame; I led the charge.
Scarcely a half-hour after working out our initial key-monster snafu, I was chasing giant green turtles through the sunset light of the northwest coast, Andy and Luiza washing themselves in those crisp, golden rays on the shore. Scarcely a hundred meters out, the shallow valley drop ten meters to turtle’s endless buffet ground, and a hundred meters more will plunge you over a shelf that may as well lead straight down the blackened depths of Apollyon himself.
The next morning found me training Luiza in the art of the snorkel’s drift and flow, but this time among the coral gardens of the southeast rim, and the following day, chartering a friendly teen with a tiny boat for a cruise around all the Gilis’ watery hot-spots. Not a day flies by in Gili without the siren call beneath the placid waves entrancing you, tugging you deeper and deeper beneath, until you too are transformed.
The Trade Union Monster
Gilis sell themselves on the fact that, for once in all the crazy islands of this crazy archipelago, no high-pitched whine of motorbike can split the magnificent night or the brightest morning or the busiest afternoon sun. That’s right: no motorbikes. No cars. Only horse power.
At first that seems like a cool thing—less pollution, right? Less noise? Certainly. Less traffic? Well, maybe.
The narrow dirt roads can get choked with the little buggies and strands of pedestrians, and the jingling harnesses of the horse bells, after awhile, aren’t much better than the motorbikes’ zip. But worst of all, the most monstrous of all, is their trade union.
Oh, woe the day when the oppressed masses band together and demand fair wages! Woe the moment when the marginalized buggy drivers decide they’re better off not negotiating rates with any customer, but insisting on a fair price. Curse the man who laminated the chart specifying exactly how much they charge to jingle you between any two points on that island. The monstrosity!
Yeah, it cost me a few extra bucks to get to my guesthouse. The signature Gili buggies are ubiquitous on Gili M as well, and those guys are locked down tight on the no-negotiation deal. That sent a shiver down my spine. After a year in Indonesia, I know that all is negotiable, that sometimes you just have to phrase things right or slide your proposition into a private conversation, or somehow drip some words hinting that no one else is going to know about the deal in question…
But not these guys: hard stares and furrowed brows and slowly shaken heads. “No,sir.” Or “No, mister.” or perhaps the occasional, “Sorry, mister.”
No negotiating with the buggy drivers—they’ve got a chart and everything: Point X to Point Y, costs Z. It’s a monster of rigitiy in the archipelago of hidden prices and shadowing propositions, a monster that would chew up all your spare change if you weren’t so cheap ready for walking.
Island Cool Monster
He lurks among the trendy cafes lining the northern beach; he silently watches your movements, waiting, waiting, smiling and waiting. Lean and lanky and sporting a pony-tail that oozes cool—this guys embodies island style.
And if you step within the sandy floors of his restaurant, he’ll be at your side and taking your order in an instant. He’s got the menu memorized, can take a dozen orders flawlessly without writing anything down, and, most monstrous of all, has internalized a healthy dose of words and phrases in three dozen different languages. Just try to stump him.
His smile is wider than a horse with a million-dollar dentist, and he doesn’t mind showing all his pearly chompers. Life is funny, after all, when you wait tables in a tourist mecca, when the world comes fawning to your doorstep, and all you need to do is chat them up bring out some food.
“Let me guess that accent,” he tries on Andy.
“Nope,” she laughs, “not Italian.”
“And I know it’s not Russian,” he says while collecting the menus, “because we’ve had a lot of Russians in here lately. Maybe… Czeck?”
“Try again,” Andy leans back and smiles. She’s good at this game, and if the Western world has made the Gili’s its extended backyard, more Romanians can’t be far behind. Their vanguard has been sent; the masses will be here soon.
“I’ll be back,” he says. “Let me think a minute,” and he saunters back to the kitchen.
Between fruit juice and grilled fished and timely check-ups on the table, he strums a guitar, learns half a dozen phrases in Romanian, correctly pinning it down as a Romance language without any prompting, and somehow manages to work in his life story as well.
“No,” he tells us, “not from Gili. From Ambon.” Our ears perk up—Ambon? We’ve been hearing that phrase a lot lately…
“Yes,” he nods to our queries, “it’s true. Ambon is lovely. But Gili has the money for work. Come to Gili and work, go home to Ambon for the real beauty.” In the waning sun and its flames of beauty sliding wispy fingers across the languid sky, we sip our coconut, nod, and ponder. Ambon? Better than this?
The island cool monster holds a degree in marketing, a fluent command of English, and a year-round gig on a beach notorious for chilled out vibes and pristine beauty. Raining season sees empty rooms and chilly rains, but what does that matter—if there’s a fishing rod or a surf board or a guitar nearby, he’s busy.
He ought to own a guesthouse somewhere, or command a fleet of minions for a big-name Bali resort, but he’s got bigger things on his mind: “How do you know,” he turns to us suddenly, “when you’ve found the one you want to spend your life with?”
“Huh?” We’re taken aback by the sudden turn to the serious; we didn’t realize this man could be anything but chill.
“I mean,” he fidgets a bit and looks over the star-speckled dome above, “it’s just that… that I think I’m ready to do more than this.”
Our monstrously talented waiter slips off into the gathering shadows—the night crowd is growing at the bar, and they’re craving some home-spun music in his mellow voice. We’ll miss him, to be sure, and we’ll wish for a chance to hear him croon again. But at least he’s left us with a tip that will forever change the way we see Indonesia: Ambon.
If all my facetious talk of made-up monsters hasn’t sunk in quite yet, let me point out the actual monsters lurking on Gili M.
Exhibit A, wolf spiders big enough to catch pigeons. OK, OK, maybe you’ll say I’m exaggerating yet again, and of course you’re exactly right, but believe me when I tell you that the inland trees are rife with spiders. Talk a stroll around the salty lake in the heart of Gili M, and glance a few moments through the undergrowth: waiting for you are a million eyes as still as French mirrors, from a thousand spiders giant as your hand, from webs stout enough to pass for tangled fishing line.
They thrive for some reason, though I can’t figure our what they eat to grow so large. Tiny game like flies and mosquitoes ain’t going to cut it, I assure you. These guys need nutrition, and maybe they split a cow now and then. Maybe a tourist. I don’t know. But go for a walk around Gili M’s salty little lake, go there and witness all those monsters, go there and tell me you don’t feel their hungry eyes watching your steps.
Exhibit B, scorpion. OK, I admit it—if anyone out there hails from Arizona, they’ll think I’m a sissy. But Gili M sports scorpions. I know, because I fought one.
Here’s the scene: four AM and the toilet’s calling. I’m groggy and half-seeing and half-stumbling. I’m only awake enough to remember to wash my hands before turning back in. And there, in the sink, in all his crusty, scaly skin and miniature pincers and barbed tail dripping venom, is the two inch monstrosity of a scorpion.
I’m a Missouri boy, and therefore no stranger to bugs and critters. But a scorpion in my face hearkens me back to desert days in Kuwait and the dry climes of Baghdad. It speaks creepy western flicks and Nat Geo specials on Death Valley. It, in short, is enough to jump-start my heart rate and send me searching for something to kill with.
The nearest weapon at hand?—a cardboard soap-box on the rim of the sink.
I grab it. I take a deep breath. It’s him or me, I say in my best John Wayne.
And then, in a moment of uncertain fury, I take my first stab.
The little guy is quick, clicking his spindly legs around the porcelain basin. I leap back, ready for the counter-attack, but, well, he’s kind of stuck. He can’t climb out of the Porcelain trap of the sink. Gathering my breath and my courage, I approach the sink.
I jump another ten feet back and suffer a bit more cardio scarring. It’s Andy coming for the bathroom. What she found instead was her husband wide-eyed and wielding a cardboard soap-box in a battle of Bruce Lee quickness and intensity, of wits as sharp as a Sherlock novel, of persistence equal to…
Oh, who am I kidding, I was freaking out over a tiny bug.
“Hey, uh… Let me kill a bug real quick,” I tell her in my deepest, manliest voice. “No problem.” I may have flexed a little.
She closed the door and left us to our death-battle in the arena of a sink of a tiny bungalow on the edge of Gili M.
It took a couple more smashes with the cardboard. It featured an intense moment of him sneaking his tail around the outside and flailing poison dagger-blows at my fingers. But in the end, what can I say—I lived to blog about it.
“Babe?” Andy asks as we climbed back into bed, “was that a scorpion?”
“Uh… maybe.” I was hoping she was too sleepy to notice. For the remainder of our stay, Andy refused to use the bathroom without my personal secret-service style sweep of the premises. Luiza, we decided, didn’t need to know until we were safely back home; after all, she was the one sleeping on the mattress on the floor. Eventually, we revealed the secret of the Gili monster on a Skype call, after she was safely back in scorpion-free London.
So in the end, there in the moonlight that muggy night, among the mosquitoes and the starlight and the guesthouse owner breaking a daylong fast somewhere but who knows where, what were the grouchy monsters fated to endure? How about an old cell phone tucked in a backpack pocket with a bit of battery still kicking.
Switch the SIM card, hunt down a business card behind the desk, and call poor Mr. Sammy away from his holiday feast.
He came. He brought the key. We got in the door. Grouchy words and a curt goodnight, and I hope Mr Sammy could somehow enjoy the rest of the feast as he returned from his hiatus to babysit the monsters locked out of their room.
Yep, the monsters got some sleep and, a few hours later, spoke nicely to the owner at the breakfast table. And guess what, another scorpion–this time in the form of a large, sinister tattoo on the forearm of a fellow guest. Andy shrieked, hyperventilated, grabbed her butter knife, and took a wild stab… Monsters.
We packed their bags and boarded a boat—whose price had to be haggled endlessly from the unionists—and waved goodbye to the sparkling little island floating sweetly in the turquoise sea, monsters safely out of sight.