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.