I’m so excited to share a little bit about finally making the trip to Bromo.
All photo credits in the gallery go to the lovely Sharis Coppens, who does fascinating documentary-based anthropological work in Peru that’s worth checking out. I realized the night before this trip that my camera wouldn’t hold a charge, and I’m very grateful to Sharis for sending these shots my way. Before now, all I had was a smartphone pic snapped of myself by a cute group of Indonesian college kids that I cajoled into enduring data costs for my sake…
So, oddly enough, I’d never actually been to Bromo Semeru Tengger National Park, despite its easy location in East Java; it was one of those things about which I kept telling myself “You have plenty of time!” only to realize that Peace Corps service was over. I’m so glad to have finally made this pilgrimage. Here’s a map with Malang and Bromo circled (click to enlarge):
At the time of the Bromo adventure, I had a couchsurfer with me–a German lady from Switzerland. We were picked up at midnight in a Range Rover, went east to the park after picking up Sharis and her partner and another tourist couple, saw everything, had lunch, saw some more things, and were back by noonish. But wow I tell ya, that trip felt like it was never going to end. Total exhaustion, but it was totally worth it!
Yes, I look the same in both of those photos, but there we are. Below you’ll find the rest–all taken by Sharis. I went through them one by one as best I can and explained what’s going on in the photos; click for gallery view so that you can see the whole captions, which will show up at the bottom of each image.
Here we are waiting at the sunrise viewing area, which was packed. We walked from the parking lot uphill for about ten minutes to get here, enjoying some ginger coffee and fried bananas on the way. It was really crowded and overwhelming at moments, but you can’t deny the beauty of watching the much-anticipated sunrise at Bromo or the fun of doing it with a whole mess of like-minded travelers (mostly from Indonesia).
Sunrise begins! We took this trip during the rainy season and wondered if clouds would block the view. Luckily, it all worked out.
It was very cold all morning! I wore two scarves, a sweater and jacket, and a knit hat; Indonesia has it’s chilly places for sure. Here you can get a sense of the crowds gathering to watch sunset. The rainy season is the low season, so you can imagine how crowded it gets when the threat of rain/clouds is nil.
The steaming, smoking crater–short and fat in the front–is Mount Bromo, and the tall one in the back is Mount Semeru. They are both active volcanoes. Semeru is the highest point on the entire island of Java. People are fond of hiking it, but it takes two or three days of serious camping, and the risk of exposure is real. Travis and Teguh hiked this back during PC days, and I bet some other PCVs have done it. I’m skipping Semeru in favor of hiking slightly-less-intense Ijen Crater next month…
The misty glory!
Crowds watching sunrise
The sun has risen!! Look at that mist and fog!
Bromo from the viewing area
Here we are on the way to going up to Bromo. We stopped in this area to have boxed breakfast. It was so amazing; the space was so vast and there was nobody else around, and not being surrounded by people is the rarest of rarities on Java (the most populous island on earth). The ground was barren from previous lava flows, I assume, and there were verdant ridges all around the valley, making it feel like we were inside a huge, deep bowl. It was eerily quiet and still, and I loved it.
…in Java, “nobody else around” actually means “a few people around.” My mistake. Anyways they may as well not have been there at all.
From a different angle
I had never had a legitimate reason to ride in a Land Rover until now!
This was the next stop on the trip. Another deserty area on the way to see the crater, this place was even more eerie than the previous stop, since it was starting to get misty and foggy as big poofy clouds spilled over the ridges surrounding the valley. This is the special whispering/singing sand of Bromo, which, during dry seasons, gets swept up by the winds and rustles up noisily against itself.
Our next stop was the parking lot area in front of Bromo, which took a decent walk to get to from here. There were tons of horses, brightly colored Land Rovers and Jeeps, and hundreds of people (if not more) milling about. The humans and human-related activity was so brightly colorful in comparison to the landscape, making a stark contrast and at times seeming pretty surreal. I didn’t feel like I was in Indonesia anymore! Honestly I felt like I was in a National Geographic magazine.
Some horses available to rent for the walk to the crater. We walked (on their poop).
A tiny Javanese horse and his wrangler
Heading to Bromo, looking for a tired client to hustle
Riding to Bromo
View on the walk
Folks making their way to the stairway to Bromo
Heading up the 400-some odd steps to view the crater. This took about 20 minutes to complete because it was so packed; we took three steps at a time and waited a minute or so between each set of steps.
From the top of the steps, looking down to the horse poop parking lot
BROMO! The beast itself!
Some local Hindus were performing a ritual offering at the time we were visiting Bromo. I didn’t speak to any of them so as not to disturb them, so I can’t explain exactly what’s going on here, unfortunately…
Our next stop was the “savannah” area, totally lush and green compared to the desert area we saw before the crater. Lots of people were doing motocross training in the park.
Another set of travelers enjoying themselves
In the savannah area
Taking some pictures in the savannah area. Can you see me? I’m actually in some of these… 🙂
This place was really overwhelmingly gorgeous. It had been too long since I did any outdoor activity / nature exploration, and this made me feel so warm and tingly inside! Totally transcendent!
The rocky road
Our final two stops were to see a farming village and a waterfall. Here, we stopped to look at some crops and appreciate the farming techniques of the local people. This reminded me a lot of my Peace Corps site, which was also near a volcano–lots of really perfect, healthy soil, and crops planted every which way on the sides of the foothills going up the mountain.
Another view of some crops
Our last stop was Rainbow Falls, and we were totally wiped out. After this, we headed home, got dropped off, and I slept for four hours. LOVED Bromo; would recommend it and would totally go back again. If my sister visits, we’re going!!!
PS: The next week, my pals and I went back to Rainbow Falls for a little more fun. Coincidence! The first and only two times I’ve been there were in the same two-week time span. Anyways, I love these people and can’t wait to go to Ijen Crater with them in a couple of weeks!
I don’t like to stir up unnecessary controversy,* which is why I want to open this post clarifying that I’m not writing this to cause harm. Rather, quite benignly, I hope to provoke reflection, something I see as a constant necessity.
There are certain realities about living as foreigners, or “bule,” in Indonesia that we need think about. I believe that host country friends should start reflecting openly on these realities, too, even though that’s not necessarily within the bounds of Javanese cultural propriety to have open critical discussion.
I’ve talked to a few people who harbor resentments and shame because of the way “bule power” operates in their lives, and unfortunately we have to make compromises in favor of open communication in cross-cultural dialogues, even if it means stepping outside of our comfort zones. Am I being hegemonic in saying that? Possibly. Do I think open communication between humans is ultimately one of the best strategies for solving problems? Yes…so, I’m in favor of the hegemony of open communication, by my own definition of it. We’re all in favor of some sort of hegemony, so don’t feel that bad about myself. Now, back to the topic at hand.
I’m going to talk about bule power and the privileged life I lead here.
It’s kinda fun to feel like a celebrity, which, as a bule, I often feel like here in Indonesia. It’s fun to get my picture in the paper without really having to do much, it’s fun to see how excited hoards of students get when I walk by or better yet walk into their classroom, and it’s fun to have people ready to help me at the drop of a hat because I’m a (Western)** foreign guest and Javanese cultural norms dictate that I be treated with the utmost respect. It’s relieving to know that I could find a lucrative job here because of my American degrees, my foreignness, and, what’s more, my native-speaker status. It’s amusing to think that I could probably become a real celebrity in the Indonesian pop culture if I put a little effort into it; I could probably become a talk show host or a model, and I could definitely be in a commercial, on a game show, or one of the bule interest shows (which do actually exist; let’s watch this bule experience x, y, and z aspects of Indonesia!).
(Most) Americans do not treat their foreigners the same way that (most) Indonesians do. There’s a stark difference when it’s people from the “developing world” coming into the “developed” world to live and work Our collective sense of American exceptionalism and superiority doesn’t afford Europeans much special treatment either. In local instances, international guests are well-received and exoticized–as I am here–but I’ve never seen the same level of fervor over foreigners in the US as I see here in Java. Usually, it’s quite the opposite feeling: resentment, confusion, and sometimes hatred of the other. Here, it’s decadent glorification.
But I’m not going to talk about whether this is right or wrong, even though I’m confident that the present-day relationship between Indonesians*** and foreigners (especially white ones) can find its roots in colonial history, replete with abusive and degrading power dynamics between the colonizers (mostly white) and the colonized (mostly brown), physical violence towards those viewed by colonizers as inferior on all levels, and various other forms of oppression and control. Obviously, the post-colonial hangover is not a positive phenomenon, at least when it manifests itself in lending privilege to others based on skin color, nationality, shape and pointiness of the nose, and brightness of the hair.
I’m not going to talk about what elements of Javanese/Indonesian culture may or may not be setting people up for abuse, because that’s victim-blaming. This kind of attitude gives foreigners a simple method for exculpating themselves from any guilt or responsibility for abusing local people and the structures of power that allow them to breeze through life here without a self-reflexive thought of any kind.
I’m not going to suggest that foreigners bear all responsibility for ensuring that power dynamics aren’t abused in the relationships in which they are in the position of power, because that would just perpetuate the imbalances; as long as one person or group is in sole control in a relationship, there can be no real equality–only a semblance of it. Separate but equal isn’t a thing, as we know.
What I am going to talk about is the abuse of this power dynamic as I have witnessed firsthand. I’m going to try and show how and why this pisses me off to the utmost.
For a sense of what it looks like in lived reality, here are a sampling things I’ve seen and heard firsthand that I think you shouldn’t say or do if you don’t want to come off as a privileged jerk bule:
Work in the same place for several months and not know many of the Indonesian workers’ names, but know most or all of the foreigners’
“Oh, you know, some people just can’t make friends with Indonesians. It’s not possible.”
Expecting low prices for services and getting pissed off when things aren’t cheap enough (but actually still cost just a couple of dollars…I admit, I’ve had to check myself on this one; I won’t claim to be innocent here. I still get cheesed when people won’t come down to the local price–when I know the local price–even though the difference is at most a couple bucks)
“I’ve lived here for seven years, and I don’t speak a word of Indonesian.”
Expect other foreigners (i.e. me) to give a shit about you because you’re foreign (good for you!) and therefore deserve a shit to be given about you. I try to care about people from a humanistic standpoint, so here what I’m getting at is entitlement–entitled to be cared about not as a human but as a foreigner/Westerner, necessarily exceptional for that fact
Expect other foreigners (i.e. me) to be interested in being friends with you or being a part of your social circle because we’re all foreign and therefore we need to stick together; this suggests that in your mind any support network of Indonesian friends someone could build on their own would be insufficient, apparently because special foreigners special needs that only other special foreigners can meet
Letting your ass hang out of your shorts on the street in front of campus because hey, you’re technically not on campus and cultural sensitivity is a choice
“These people…(blah, blah, blah)”
Become indignant when people treat you like a foreigner, i.e., objectify you, instead of treating you like a person–this means that you only decry your objectification, which is actually pretty much constant, when it bothers, rather than benefits you****
Have I taken advantage of my own power and privilege here? Yes, absolutely. I have pretended on a few unimportant and at least one very important occasion that I don’t speak Indonesian in order to avoid negative consequences that a normal Indonesian person would definitely have to endure. I’m given special foreigner status at the gym where I work out and can attend any class at any time while my Indonesian friends have to choose and then stick to a weekly schedule each month. I can use my almighty foreign dollar to get things done faster when I want them done faster and not actually endure much financial hardship.
Have I used my power and privilege here for good? Yes. I have helped my friends out in various ways using my foreigner status to boost their cred, coolness, and legitimacy in various important and less important contexts; I’ve used my foreigner power to help my friends get benefits they wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, I’ve given people letters of recommendation even though I’m not as qualified as their professors or bosses because having a foreigner reference you can be more advantageous.
Of course, using bule power for good is also problematic. Why? Because it makes me complicit in perpetuating the imbalanced power structure; all of the other locals who don’t have foreigner friends don’t have access to the benefits I’ve been able to help my friends access, and me using my privilege reinforces to the Indonesians and foreigners witnessing it that giving foreigners privilege is acceptable, good, and correct. In my complicity, I endorse. The only way I could achieve otherwise would be to reject completely any benefits my privilege lends me and to do so vocally.
Are Indonesian people completely innocent bystanders, powerless to make change and step up to confront this? No. Remember, we’re in Indonesia. Home turf, people! You have the right to say what you think! You kind of need to! It’s not a perfect world and we can’t just kum-bay-ya and solve these issues by “working together” (oh how I despise that ambiguous and gumdrops-and-lollipops phrase that’s so easy to drop to sound legit), but both sides do have to step up and make some decisions about how to react and counteract these systems of power. For me, I’m starting with this post and trying to be an example of someone trying to engage, on a critical level, with what’s going on.
If that makes me a bule jerk, then that’s cool. Having critics means I’m doing something right, because ultimately if people are thinking enough about something I say to the point that they get pissed, then they’re thinking, and that’s good. And hey, I live in Indonesia, so I’ve got enough of a fan base that I don’t need to care much about winning people over; I don’t want to stir up controversy, but I don’t actually give so many fucks about it.
Thanks for reading.
*Or do I?
**I can confidently say that different people have different experiences; black Americans and Asian Americans have different experiences than white Americans; male and female foreigners have different experiences; native-speaker Westerners and non-native-speaker Westerners have different experiences; non-Western foreigners have different experiences than Western foreigners; hell, brunettes and blondes have different experiences. Not claiming any truths so much as discussing generalities and personal experiences.
***Most of my experiences in Indonesia have been in East Java and in the Javanese culture. So I use the term “Indonesians,” but it’s entirely possible that these phenomena wouldn’t occur in other ethnic populations in Indonesia, such as the Dani or Batak people of Papua and North Sumatra, respectively; there are hundreds of ethnic groups in this country, and cultures and relationships to outsiders have the potential to vary widely.
A man who lived a few houses down from Mas M killed himself this week. On the day, he helped his child get ready for school, dropped her off by motorcycle, came home, wrote his suicide note, then hung himself.
He wasn’t a poor man, though he was unemployed; his wife sells vegetables, and the family survives solely on her income. There were troubles in the marriage. She had recently demanded a divorce. His suicide note was addressed to her: if you want a divorce, here you go: divorce–dead.
The news of the man’s passing made the papers and was featured on the local evening news. The neighbors are still gossiping about the amount of blame to place on the wife’s shoulders in the matter. Mas M is convinced that the man had an ongoing psychological issue, and I’m inclined to believe him since I can’t fathom a parent of a young child taking his or her own life and being mentally stable at the time.
I don’t have statistics because the annual federal reports about healthcare in Indonesia that I have read focus primarily on more seemingly more pragmatic healthcare concerns like clean water, basic medical and nursing services, dental care, and infant mortality and health. Mental health is problematically but understandably not at the top of the lists of concerns in developing countries, and it’s not given nearly enough attention worldwide since mental illness and psychological disorders can be so invisible.
Even though I can’t quote stats for you, believe me when I say that mental therapy, counseling, and psychiatry are not widely available here in Indonesia when compared to a place like the United States. At the very least, mental health care options are not widely advertised or promoted as a normal or acceptable path to health and well-being. This is partially because modern mental healthcare hasn’t become part of the culture here yet (i.e., this isn’t because everyone knows about modern mental healthcare and rejects it outright).
The man who killed himself was undoubtedly suffering from something like acute stress or depression, undoubtedly psychologically burdened by his lack of gainful employment and his crumbling marriage. In Javanese culture, all three of these things are very looked down upon, particularly for men: divorce leads to gossip and divorcees can be shunned; men should always be employed, especially fathers and husbands, if they want to be viewed as respectable and contributing members of society; and family members of people who commit suicide are often implicated as being somehow off, wrong, or not right (i.e. implicated in not providing a supportive enough environment for their family member not to kill themselves, regardless of the family member’s mental health status or the actual home and family environment).
Many of the dukun I’ve been talking to help people with more than physical health issues, finding lost objects, matchmaking, or pregnancy and birth; they often also provide psychological and couples counseling, relationship and family advice, and mental/emotional support during difficult times. If someone is going through a rough time in their lives–feeling like they need help getting their crops to grow successfully so that they can eat and earn money, worrying about their lovelife going to hell in a handbasket, or finding difficulty coping with a serious illness like cancer or diabetes–they usually receive some level of counseling and mental health support when they pay a visit to a legitimate dukun,* even though this is not the primary purpose, in their minds, for the visit. This is a good thing not only because mental health care professionals are hard to find, particularly in rural areas, but paying for professional help is usually quite far outside the realm of financial possibility for the average Javanese villager. In fact, the unaffordability of modern medicine for some segments of the population is one reason why the services of dukun are still in high demand in some areas (mostly those that are more remote).
For coping with psychological issues, most villagers seem to rely heavily on religious leaders, and the general culture view of mental illness in that someone has strayed too far from religion and therefore has too many thoughts or wrong thoughts (which lead to wrong action, which leads to strife and tumult). The kyai is an Islamic cleric and religious leader who also offers healing services, and many villages have more than one depending on the size of the population and the strength of the religious culture in the area. As dukun, kyai can be men or women, though women kyai work primarily with female audiences/visitors. They use religious teachings and spiritual counseling to help people overcome their problems. They often prescribe lifestyle changes, encourage prayer, and promote fasting, charity, and adherence to Islamic doctrine as interpreted by whatever Islamic organization/”denomination” of which they are a part.
What is interesting is that kyai, by and large, do not believe in the practices or validity of dukun, though the reverse is certainly not the case, especially when the dukun is Muslim. For the more orthodox practitioners of Islam, belief elements of the supernatural beyond standard Islamic cosmology are unacceptable and can even be heretical. For example, belief in both benevolent and malevolent jinn is standard, but the existence ghosts and ancestral and place spirits–even from Javanese cosmology and mythology–is strongly questioned. However, a villager could consult a dukun on a Saturday and visit a kyai on a Sunday for the very same reason and not be bothered by the contradiction in the slightest. The more devout among them simply say “percaya gak percaya,” I believe but I don’tbelieve. There’s no reason to commit either way if one or both can produce results; the end is more important than the means when well-being and religious righteousness are concerned.
What I have been learning so far about dukun never fails to involve contradictions, and I am going to start writing more about this. I’ve finished collecting data and finally have all of the interviews transcribed, so I’m moving on to the next phase of my project, which is analysis and write-up. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening, so now it’s time to speak and write.
Now that I’m not going to graduate school next fall, the possibilities for what I write and how are even more limitless than before; I’m technically not required to produce a written body of work in any format as a condition of my grant, but I had been aiming to produce an academic article in the form of a comparative piece using data from my thesis and Fulbright projects. However, I’m not sure that’s the direction I want to go any longer. I’ll probably aim to get an academic piece of some kind published, but I’m going to take the rest of the month to decide and explore my options. I don’t want participants voices to be lost and I don’t want to have to cut their stories down into little data-bites to cram everything into a short article, but I don’t want to lose sight of the original goal, which I still think is worth pursuing. I’m just contemplating alternative–additional–possibilities.
In the meantime, I’m going to start writing more and sharing here. Time to get my thoughts and new understandings on the page, and there’s no better place to start. Blank Word documents scare me.
I don’t really know how to wrap this post up considering how heavy the content was at the beginning. I hope that any of you who may have stigmas about mental health care consider reevaluating your ideas about the topic and make sure to support any of your friends and relatives (or yourself) in getting the care they need, if they ever need it, even if it’s just accompanying them to church, the mosque, a healer’s house, or a doctor’s office. There’s no way of knowing the inner workings of someone else’s mind or to know for sure whether any form of external support could have prevented the little girl’s father from taking his life, but it’s too much for a child to have to lose a parent to suicide and too much for any family to deal with.
Thanks for reading,
*There is such a thing as a “fake” dukun or dukun palsu, which is a person claiming to be a dukun and not actually doing anything for clients or someone who really does have supernatural powers (percaya gak percaya!) but whose primary motive in providing services is to earn as much money as possible from unsuspecting, innocent clients who are genuinely seeking help (or those nasty clients who are looking for someone to curse their neighbor or rival).
First of all, Lisa and I have started a new blogging project, and I’m very excited about it. It’s about knitting, travel, and the intellectual life. It’s called Graduate Knits. We aim to update once or twice per week, posting knitting-related content that’s relatable to everyone, knitters and non-knitters alike (yes, the world can be divided into these two types of humans).
Oddly enough, we started Graduate Knits during the very same week I decided not to pursue a doctoral program this fall. After several months of contemplation and much pestering of friends and loved ones for advice, my mini quarter-life crisis has come to an end, and the major development is that I’m going to move to DC to find work rather than move back to Indiana to continue school.
The basic truth is that I’m more likely to finish the program if I feel confident about starting it, and I just don’t; it’d be better to wait a few years and enroll if I feel more dedicated to the idea than waste money trying it out now only to quit in a year (and be less likely to ever start again). I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot here, and I don’t particularly want to spend money on something I don’t feel so hot about. At its core, the choice is not about finances, but finances do play a role in the decision; I don’t feel the level of passion I know I should be feeling, so I’m not going to force myself. I know I’m capable of feeling passionate, and grad school isn’t doing it for me anymore–at least not for the right reasons.
I have lots of issues about academia and, perhaps despite outward appearances, had to push myself pretty hard to survive my master’s program. Lots of my friends and family members think I’m just the perfect type to be an academic, but in reality I had a difficult time in graduate school (as everyone generally does). It wasn’t the best fit for me. I’m very hard on myself, and I don’t want to spend my life being hard on myself when I can never be satisfied; I need to learn to relax and being loving and caring towards myself, and part of this is consciously choosing the best type of environment for my personality type. At this time, I’m just not interested in subjecting myself to the stress, pressure, criticism, exhaustion, and tumult of a doctoral program; I don’t feel passionate enough about the program I was considering, and I don’t feel clear-minded about the direction or purpose that was motivating me to consider enrollment. I’m tired of pushing myself to be something I’m not because outside forces and influences are telling me I should. Overcoming the compulsion to set unreachable goals for myself and putting myself under insane amounts of pressure won’t happen overnight–I’ll carry this issue into the workplace with me and it haunts my personal life, too–but I know for a fact that academia is an enabler; it’s just not a healthy environment for me. I refuse to be responsible for putting myself back into an environment that is detrimental to my mental health. The rewards just aren’t great enough.
Really, I’m not so sure why I was taking the decision so seriously. I’m only 28, and there’s plenty of time to do a doctoral program in the future if I have a change of heart or magically become healthier. But life is short, and I’ve never been a careerist. I don’t need a doctoral degree to find job satisfaction, so I’m not going to push myself to endure the pain and tribulations to earn one. I don’t care about the title or prestige, and there’s not even job security at the end. I don’t want to be at the whim of that job market, possibly ending up in the middle of nowhere working as an adjunct. I feel too young to be doing something so intense right now, and I already feel burnt out from my master’s program and my research. A major highlight–if not the major highlight–of my master’s program was working on the exchange and cultural programs I was working on, and the major draw about starting school in the fall was the chance to work on the exchange and cultural programs at the school of education at Indiana. So, why shouldn’t I just try to find work like that?
Of course, there are tons of benefits to pursuing higher education which I don’t need to elaborate about here, and I’m clearly not making a life or death higher education choice here. And, of course, being on the job market in DC isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but looking at the job listings gets me all excited and pumped up about the new possibilities for my future. So, really it’s just simple: I’ve realized the difference between what I think I should do and what I want to do, and what I want to do is not enroll in a graduate program. I think stepping away from the insanity of US work/academia culture has helped me grately, and I’m so glad that I’ve been able to spend three years of my mid-twenties outside of the US. It’s been a formative time, and I’ve gained new perspectives about myself and my idea of the “good life,” however vague and/or hackneyed that may sound. I applaud anyone who’s committed to pursuing formal education, but at the moment, that’s no longer my path. And I feel empowered by that fact!
Here are some interesting articles and resources exploring change, personality, and decision-making that I’ve come across over the past few weeks. Some of them are specifically about doctoral studies, and I really like this one about the general virtues of quitting. This TED Talk from Dr. Ruth Chang is great, and she also did an opinion piece about the same subject, “on a par” decisions, for the NYT. I’m happy to share these with you and would love for you to share additional resources with me in the comments.
I need to express my most sincere thanks to Caitlin, Liane, Kate, Sarah Kate, Lisa, Mom, and Maria for helping me with this decision. I’m also deeply grateful to Lauren for her wisdom and support. I’m the type of person who really hates change and decision making, so it’s always heavier for me than it should be; I can’t say how much I appreciate your kindness, love, compassion, and brilliance. You women!!!
Finally, I acknowledge that having different options for what direction I take my life and being able to make choices about it are huge luxuries. And I acknowledge that all of my friends, mentors, and family members just want what’s best for me and will love me no matter what I do–it’s time for me to feel the same way!
Maria and I traveled to Gili Trawangan for New Years this year, and, despite the fact that we spent the majority of our waking hours sitting in the exact same spot in the exact same Indian cafe not looking at much but the ocean and the clouds, it sure was strange!
Gili Trawangan is one of a trio of islands, known as the Gilis, in Nusa Tenggara Barat, Indonesia. They’re off the coast of Lombok, the island home of the famous Rinjani volcano, and Lombok itself is east of Bali, which is east of Java. Here’s a map, with the Gili Islands circled (I’ve also circled Malang, where we live). Click to enlarge:
We flew in from Surabaya on separate planes and slept our first night in Senggigi, me in a “fancy” place where I was splurging for the night, and Maria in a crappy hostel. It was kind of a mistake how we ended up in Senggigi on the same night in the first place, which is why we didn’t stay together. My place ended up looking a little shabbier in real life than it did on the hotel site I used to make the reservation, but the staff was lovely, the balcony off my suite faced the ocean, and the bathroom and bedsheets were sparkling clean. Didn’t end up getting drunk on the beach that night as I thought I would, but I did enjoy some ocean-listening in the darkness and a great night of sleep.
In the morning, Maria came over to use the nice bathroom. We needed to leave together to catch the ferry to Gili, so we hung around my room for an hour or two, just chatting. Our chatting was a big theme of the vacation. We are both having some crazy times in our lives, so we made a good travel pair.
After a taxi ride to, well, near the port, we took a cidomo (horse and carriage) to the ferry. Naturally, we had to stop at the cidomo driver’s friend’s business where people tried to haggle with us to organize our transportation. We said no thanks and explained we were just waiting for the public ferry. After a few confusing moments and even more hectic moments in the port proper, we got our tickets and went to the shore to catch the boat. The transportation hagglers (hawkers?) were super intense, even more so than in Bali. There’s a speedboat service for twenty dollars that gets you to the island in five minutes, and a public ferry that takes half an hour, but costs just a couple of bucks; I don’t think many foreigners take the public ferry, so the hawkers were really trying to get us. If I remember correctly, we were indeed the only foreigners on the public ferry– if not on the way there, but definitely on the way back; I don’t remember any other non-Indonesians on the first ferry. The boat was a rickety old wooden one, crammed with people and stuff but completely safe (or something).
We landed and had to overcome that terrible first hurdle on any travel adventure: find the place we booked to stay. There aren’t any motor vehicles allowed on the islands (yay!), so we had to rely either on the horse and carriage or our own two feet. Lots of people use bicycles on Gili T, but we had our luggage, so that wasn’t an option. Maria had booked us a hostel a month before the trip, which seemed to be the last available room on the entire island; everything was crazy full and crowded for New Years. Our hostel was a newish one, so it wasn’t on the GPS. We decided to explore a little bit while looking for the homestay, hoping that among the many many signs for various hostels and hotels posted on walls and at intersections, we’d see ours: Gili Tralala. Little did we know that this is also the nickname of the island, which would make finding the hostel that much more difficult.
My initial impression of the island and the atmosphere there was just WOW. There’s basically one major boulevard, and it’s lined with shops, boutiques, learn-to-dive resorts, cafes, bars, and restaurants. One side butts up right against the ocean, so most restaurants have oceanfront dining, which is so lovely. There were tons of foreigners around: lots of beach babes and big, buff dudes and a multitude of quirky folks since the Gilis are a major dive attraction in Indonesia (my basic estimation after my Indonesia travels is that divers are a quirky bunch). The most pleasing thing to my eye was the number of cafes with an international flair: we saw Indian, Italian, “Latin-Mexican” (whatever that is), French, etc etc! It was magical. The food scene in Malang is decent, but there’s definitely not a strip of internationally themed cafes anywhere in the city, especially not setting right next to a sparkling teal-blue oceanfront!
Eventually, we made our way down a side street with lots of signs, hoping that our hostel would be there. A nice young kid on a bike asked us where we were going, so we told him: Gili Tralala. He gave directions and we followed, promptly realizing that he had mistakenly, albeit with good intentions, directed us to a mural that said Gili Tralala. We found another man, also on a bicycle, and asked for help again. He took Maria’s rolling suitcase for us and started asking around. We made it, eventually, but not after a good twenty minutes of trudging around in the mud and muck. Our hostel seemed to be relatively in the sticks, and the arrival was, of course, strange.
The hostel had over-booked itself, so we got downgraded for the first night into a shared dorm. No big deal, except the travelers also in the dorm smelled like buttholes and sawed logs like a pair of professionals. The owner, an older Austrian man who has been living in Indonesia for seven years and doesn’t speak a lick of bahasa, was somewhat apologetic and promised us a private room for the next night. The rooms were shit and way over-priced for the New Year, but we were happy to find a place to drop our stuff and sleep at night. The best part of the hostel was the Lombok couple who managed it, and the worse part, by far, was the maniacal rooster that crowed its pitiful, morose crow all night every night, starting at about two in the morning.
The majority of our vacation was spent parked at the Indian restaurant about five minutes by foot from our hostel, on the main strip and, of course, on the oceanfront. I liked it so much I’d even link to it in case other travelers ever read this blog (or in case non-travelers want to check it out). I think I may even write a Trip Advisor review about how amazing it was, which I’ve never done before because I’ve never cared so much. The cafe is part of the Pesona resort, which does dive training and dives and also has a homestay/hotel. It’s owned (as far as I can tell) by a real live Indian family or family of Indian descent, so the food was legit…not like some restaurants, Indonesian and American, too, that offer ethnic foods but don’t really know how to prepare them well. I’m remembering Maria’s story of ordering something along the lines of gnocchi bolognese in Malang and ending up getting cubes of boiled potatoes with tasteless beef jerky gristle. Blessed be, the Pesona cafe was not of this type.
The food there was absolutely incredible. I can’t even find the words to describe the experience of eating that food. I think the best indicator of our contentment was that we ended up staying there every single day for five to seven hours, eating food, drinking amazing local coffee (and sometimes espresso treats!!!), smoking shisha, and enjoying happy hour. They had floor seating with nice wooden tables and lovely lush cushions; we sat and ate, sat and ate, and chatted for hours and hours. And oh the food, oh the food!! The naan! The chutneys! The paneer and the sauces! Oh drool. Oh, drool! We must have spent 75% of our budget at this place, and it was worth every single penny. If you ever to go Gili, you must go to Pesona. The only better Indian food I have ever had was in India. This topped everything I’ve ever had in the States, even the lovely Indian joints in Bloomington. I could keep going and going about how amazing it was. Thank goodness Maria and I are of the same mindset and could enjoy the countless hours of sitting and chatting and eating and eating, not really caring about doing much else. Just take this in for a minute and imagine this splendid tastiness on your tongue:
#Foodgasm is all we could say. On the last day, we tried to find an alternative joint to try. We walked up and down the strip for an hour before giving in a returning to Pesona. We really did try! But in the end it wasn’t too hard to give up on the search and get back to the Indian joint, especially since the cute waitress saw us walk by in the morning and basically jumped for joy and yelled, “Hey, beautiful ladies!” when she saw us. The day before we had started getting discounts in the form of happy hour specials way before happy hour even started; how could we neglect Pesona on our last day? We would have left the island full of regret. So, we did the right thing, obviously.
The other notable feature of this trip was the nightlife on Gili T, at least in the downtown area. We didn’t go wild and crazy as perhaps we would have a few years ago, but rather chose to remain aloof and take it all in, observing all of the strange drunken people in action. We had a nice New Years doing just that, drinking cocktails while sitting on bean bags watching fireworks near the water. The funniest part of traveling with Maria and enjoying the Gili T nightlife–besides her funny jokes and stories–was the attention her big, beautiful hair received, and it attracted people more easily as the long, late nights went on and people became increasingly emboldened by drink. One pair of strange birds in kilts (see picture below, courtesy of @raeraeraeraerae) were especially interested and approached us as we were walking down the promenade on New Years day, in the eveningtime.
Maria engaged with them, being the travel writer and outgoing person she is, and I kept right on walking, fumbling with my phone and pretending to be super preoccupied and way too chic for it all. These dudes were huge, buff, and shirtless, plus wearing kilts and making all sorts of smiley goo-faces and being too interested in us. Maria, in her excitement and to my great mortification, called me over to chat. (Afterwords, she said she knew I wasn’t into it, but just felt like she had to call me over since the darker man claimed to be Native American and she knows my background and interest…I was skeptical of him and didn’t really mind, in the end, that she called me over. She didn’t mean any harm.) They shook my hand and just leaned in a little too close during the conversation, ending with an invite for us to join them later at a bar up the way. Of course we didn’t, but it wasn’t our last interaction with them…
We saw them schmoozing it up the next day, still in their kilty glory, in the bar across the way from where we were sitting. Friends, it truly was a show. They were up on all kinds of ladies, and everyone seemed to know them. I came to the conclusion that they must own the bar, and Maria said if they did then the kilt schtick would be great marketing/promotion. We sat on our bar stools watching the crowd for a good three house, making up stories about people and eavesdropping like a pair of old lady friends. We are great people watchers. At one point we were considering surreptitiously filming people and providing commentary in order to make a people watching YouTube channel, which I still think is a good idea. There were just so many oddballs to watch: an older drunk man in red with cowboy boots fawning over a local guy, a pair of tortured young lovers whose story we just couldn’t figure out because their body language was so awkward, an older couple arguing over some Facebook photos indicting the man in the pair for being out and about partying when he had told the woman he wasn’t, a pair of sultry ladies with hip style being totally aloof about it all (haha, no not us, in addition to us), and oh my gosh more. It wasn’t as debauched as Kuta, Bali, but there was plenty to keep us entertained until the wee hours.
As you can imagine, we both felt great by the end of the trip, despite a questionable snorkeling excursion that I don’t even want to rehash. Travelling back to Malang took an exhausting ten hours, but Maria is sure she’ll go back to Gili T for diving. I feel like I can finally check the Gilis off my travel list; it’s kind of a right of passage to hit up these types of famous tourist places (I felt the same about certain spots in Bali) despite that one can find exciting and off-the-beaten-path alternative destinations quite easily when equipped with bahasa and a decent budget for transportation. I had a good time and will fantasize about the food for the rest of my life, and I’m glad to have traveled with Maria to experience her perspective and build a new friendship. All in all, we each spent about $350-400 for the whole thing (including plane tickets), so from a practical perspective it was very worth it, and there’s no price to be set on getting closer to a new friend in such a beautiful place. A strange, beautiful place.