"He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move."
a toast and say "Adios 2011." No, no - I wanted this to be the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the most memorable year I've known. I wasn't sure how things would turn out - remember, I was traveling alone after all - but I was determined to give 2011 my best shot. It deserved no less.
- Jack London, The Call of the Wild
The Indonesia Trip
Part 1: Resa and the Bataks
Part 2: Satu, Dua, Tiga...
Part 3: Happiness Is Within
Part 4: Las Buenas Duran Poco
2011 was a hell of a year. Looking back now it's hard to believe all the places I went, all the things I did, all the people who's path I crossed. Over the course of something like 350 days, I moved to the other side of the world, I got TESOL certified, and I found an awesome job in Bangkok and became a teacher. Since then I've taught upwards of 500 students. I visited seven different countries (Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and of course Thailand) while never missing a day of work. All the while I managed to send out a few grad school applications as well. This was one of the wildest and best years I've ever had - and now it was coming to a close.
How could I ever hope to appropriately see this thing out? How could I ever do the year justice? There was just too much, too many memories to simply pop a champagne bottle, make
I was on my way to Gili Trawangan - Gili T as its known by foreign visitors who can't pronounce its name.
The day before I had arrived in Denpasar, Bali after the longest bus ride of my life. I exited the bus and scrapped all the plans that I had made before that hellish commute. I decided that I wanted to be in the Gili Islands as soon as possible. So without even stopping for a breath or a bathroom break, I flagged down a motorbike, climbed on back with my bags, and rode off towards Padang Bai - a journey of about 90 minutes.
It was after 7 pm, and the sun had set. As we motored through the heart of Bali in darkness, I realized that I was going to pass from one extreme end of this famous island to the other while only actually seeing a tiny portion of it from the window of a tour bus. I didn't like the idea of that, but at that moment it just couldn't be helped.
Padang Bai is the main ferry point for boats to Lombok and the Gili Islands. There's not much around beyond that - some small beaches, a few guesthouses and chill restaurants. I arrived in the dark, booked my ferry ticket for the next morning, found a room in the nearest accommodation and went promptly to sleep.
It was now December 28th, and I was sitting in the fast-boat ferry roaring across the sea from Bali to Lombok. Next to me was a German guy I had met at the ferry dock named Nick. He had just finished a semester abroad in Sydney and was doing some backpacking before he returned to Germany. This was his first time in Asia.
We stopped first in Lombok to let passengers off, then continued on to Gili T. The boats pulled up on the beach, so everyone had to splash down from the boat and walk ashore while the boat people hoisted the luggage one-by-one from the boat to the beach. All the passengers looked on from the sand, hoping to God that their bag didn't accidently slip from a hand and take a plunge into the sea.
When we both had our bags, Nick and I endeavored to do some serious haggling up and down the main road until we found a place that suited our price range. Eventually we found some cheap rooms right in the center of the main road and booked them for four nights.
I suppose now would be a good time to clarify that the Gilis are a little different from your run-of-the-mill Indonesian islands. First of all, 'main road' is a relative term here in that while none of the roads in Gili Trawangan are paved, this one was the largest path in the busiest part of the island. There are no motor vehicles in the Gilis, besides the boats of course. There are only three methods of locomotion available in these islands: walk, bicycle, or horse cart. And the latter seemed to be the most popular.
Secondly, the Gilis are tiny. Gili T is the biggest, and you could easily stroll around its circumference in an hour and a half. Meno and Air are even smaller. The islands exist only to serve their purpose of accessible but adventurous tropical get-aways. The smaller two are quiet and relaxing honeymoon retreats while Gili Trawangan is where the partiers go. During the day though, all three islands offer more than enough empty shoreline for any traveler to find their own quiet, deserted stretch.
This is what I wanted. I wanted to fall down - to just collapse into a torpid heap in the sand and lay there and not move. I was something like ten days into my Indonesia trip, and I felt like I had yet to cease movement. Medan to Lake Toba to Tebing Tinggi to Medan to Batam to Yogyakarta to Denpasar to Gili T... Ten days felt like ten months. I was exhausted. The flame was dying, and it needed to be refueled. R&R was in order.
I left Nick at the guesthouse to do his own thing. I strolled southward down the beach until I could not see another human being in either direction, plopped down under the shade of some low tree branches, and went comatose.
The western side of Gili Trawangan enjoys quite a unique ocean view. The Gili Islands themselves are extremely close together - almost close enough to tempt over-confident tourists into swimming between them. Looking east from Gili T you can see the pancake-flat Gili Meno and Air, and behind them both looms the massive Lombok, with its rocky coastline and interior mountains jutting up from the sea and dominating the entire eastward panorama.
That night, after spending quite a few hours on the beach collecting my scattered mind, I remembered it was a Wednesday. On Gili T that meant there would be an island party. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in Trawangan, one bar or restaurant will host a huge party for the whole island. This evening the party was being held at an Irish pub just down the road from my guesthouse. I met up with Nick, and we decided to check it out.
What started as a tentative "Let's just go see what it's like..." ended up as an all-night swinging bash for the record books. When people travel, they are so eager to meet and be jovial with other travelers. It's just so easy to make new friends, to connect with people. Everyone assumes that simply by traveling, they have at least one thing in common with everyone else they run into. And in a place like the Gili Islands, how can you not be happy and receptive to all the smiles and all the cheers?
No one wanted that night to end. Light meant a reset - a restart. We squeezed that darkness for every splendid second it was worth, and when it was finally tapped - when we had stolen every last joy-giving moment - we released our stranglehold on the night and retired with blissful exhaustion. With the sun came a new day
Although it had been a long, long night, I did not sleep late. By mid-morning I was up and heading back towards the main beach where the ferries drop of their passengers. My friend Ellen was supposed to be arriving to Gili T today, but I wasn't sure at what time or on what boat she would be coming.
Ellen is a friend from Bangkok. We actually have worked together at AUA since I began
in April. She was coming to the Gilis for New Year's celebrations and then moving on to Bali for a few days. I was hoping to meet her on the beach as she disembarked her ferry, but after about an hour of waiting and watching boats come and go I gave up.
While wandering back to the guesthouse I stumbled upon Nick, and we sat down for some breakfast and tried to recollect some of the previous night's absurdity. We just happened to be sitting along the main road, and during these discussions I just happened to notice Ellen walking by with all her bags. It was yet another fortunate chance encounter. We made plans to reunite for some beach time later in the day after she had a chance to find a room and get settled.
Some time after, lunch Ellen and I found a beach north of the main road to relax and catch up on events from the past two weeks. I had more than a few wild stories to share from my experiences in Sumatra and Java. It was good to have a familiar face around. This was the first time since Laos, back
in April, that I had had a friend join me in my travels.
Later in the evening, when the sun was getting low in the sky, I decided to get some exercise. Although the other two Gili Islands are perfectly flat, Trawangan has a large rocky bump in its southwest corner that provides an excellent vantage point from which to view the sunset. I always enjoy a good viewpoint, so I set out to climb this large hill. Truthfully it was not very large, nor a very strenuous ascent. About five minutes of steep stair climbing and I was at the top.
Looking east, there are wonderful, clear views of Lombok and the other Gili Islands. But looking west is even more impressive. As the sun sets, far in the distance, one can make out the silhouette of beautiful Bali and its two volcanic peaks. The sun does not set exactly behind Bali, but close enough so as to provide a multihued, backlit canvass, illuminating that famous island on the western horizon. The sun fell out of sight, and another day came to a close.
Originally, Ellen and I had thrown around the idea of venturing to the other two islands - possibly to do some snorkeling or just to relax on other beaches. But the morning of the 30th was gray and cloudy and seemed to be alluding to rain. So rather than risk a boat trip in bad weather, we found a little sheltered hut along a secluded stretch of beach, settled in with a couple of good books, and resigned ourselves to having as relaxing a day as possible.
The hours trickled by. It never did rain, but it was never sunny either. This day I was totally content to do not much of anything.
For lunch I walked down to the small market and bought a veritable feat of tropical Indonesian fruits. Besides such local specialties as the snakeskin fruit and the rambutans, I brought back a whole durian fruit because Ellen had still never tasted the durian. The sight of the durian drew the attention of a few other westerners who had been traveling SE Asia and never mustered the guts to try a durian.
The company was welcome. Anyone who has ever opened up an entire durian knows it would be impossible to eat the thing between one or even two people. This still held true even though the Indonesian durian was apparently a much smaller brand than the Thailand durian. The largest durian I saw in Indonesian wouldn't even have reached half the size of an average durian in the Tesco Lotus across the street from my apartment.
After this hefty but healthy lunch we veged out on the beach for a few more hours. Later in the afternoon we walked around the south end of the island where there were a string of bars with beautiful sunset views. We sat down at one such place and enjoyed the views with a couple of cold Bintang beers between us.
It was my last full day in the Gilis. It was the last day of 2011, and the sun was burning. Ellen had some plans of her own this day, so we agreed to meet in the afternoon at the usual sunset spot.
I still had not been around to the back side of the island, so my idea for the day was to slowly saunter my way around the perimeter of the island, enjoying the sun and the sand and the ocean as I went.
Just north of the main road and the ferry beach, I found the best beaches on the island. I'm not sure how they managed to stay so isolated up there - it was just five minutes from the other beaches - but there was almost no one around. The sand was the color and texture of powdered milk - almost as if bleached white. The sky was so, so blue, and the sea was a rippling mirror to those azure heavens above.
I continued my stroll around to the north tip of the island where I had lunch in a beach hut built over the ocean. It felt as though I was lounging in some tropical palanquin that somehow managed to stay aloft above the sapphire waters that stretched to infinity in at least three directions.
After lunch I resumed my lazy trek into the unexplored portions of Trawangan. In the west and northwest areas of the island, intermediate development fell away. There was nothing there except for an occasional secluded resort. The shore was raw and natural. The dirt road became a trail in truth. There were no more walkers and very few bikers. The horsecarts passed by every so often, but that was my only company. The sun was high in the sky, beating down on this equatorial land with everything it could muster. I took frequent breaks in the shade of low, gnarled beach trees.
Eventually I made it down to the southwest corner of Gili T. I desperately needed to replenish fluids, and conveniently there was a ramshackle beach bar constructed there on the very shoreline. Planks were nailed directly into tree trunks to serve as a table. Benches were constructed from a few long bamboo stalks. It may not have been particularly comfortable, but a more authentic tropical beach bar I could not have found.
I sat there for a long while, taking in the views and reflecting on the past twelve ludicrous months of my life. I felt like I had packed a lifetime of memories into one year. Just trying to remember it all is exhausting. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia - traversing subterranean caves in Laos - zipping through a network of canals in a Thai floating market - marching through the sparkling urban jungle of Singapore - getting lost in a rolling maze of tea bushes in central Malaysia - exploring ancient temples in complete solitude in Myanmar - getting drunk with a Batak village in northern Sumatra. For an average person, many of these experiences would serve as the number one, best, most memorable event of a lifetime. I managed to do all these things in less than one year. It's mind boggling... What an utterly blessed and fortunate life I lead.
It was now almost time to meet Ellen, so I broke out of my reminiscing and got up to leave. As I began down the beach, I crossed paths with another traveler and struck up a conversation with her. Her name was Lucia and she was from Argentina. I instantly knew we would have a lot to talk about. A couple years ago I lived in Chile and was able to visit Argentina a few times. I was very fond of her country, and I absolutely loved her hometown, Buenos Aires.
She told me that she and her friend were living in Java studying Indonesian culture and were here in the Gilis only for the holidays. Just as I was about to ask her, "Oh really, where's your friend?", in the far corner of my peripheral vision, strolling slowly out of the water, my answer came.
Hollywood couldn't have done it better. Sashaying up from the waves, her skinned glistened - her deep tan accentuated by a perfect white swim suit - long, dark, dripping hair swinging behind her. She moseyed up to Lucia and I and said, "Hola. Soy Melina" in that silky Argentinean accent.
For a moment I was stunned - hard pressed to recall any language at all, let alone the reasonable amount of Spanish I knew but hadn't used in years. I eventually found words, and the conversation continued. As luck would have it, we discovered that we were all staying in the same guesthouse. It seemed as though some guiding hand had decided that we should all spend the coming night together, so we made plans to meet later and enjoy this fateful New Year's Eve.
I met the girls around 9 o'clock. Ellen and Nick joined us as well. We started with some drinks at a reggae bar with live music. Spirits were high and
spirits were flowing. I found myself, not surprisingly, being drawn to Melina. But it seemed as though she was drawn to me as well. Bar after bar, drink after drink, my Spanish got better and the two of us spent more time in close company. With about an hour left in 2011 we came to a beach club with raucous, beating music, a booming bonfire, and a crowded dance floor next to the sea. The minutes went by in a flash. Suddenly the year was complete. And the countdown started.
Ten - Nine - Three hundred sixty-five days flashed before my eyes, then stopped... Reveling solely in this immaculate moment...
Eight - Seven - Anticipation was mounting... Everyone ready to run into the light...
Six - Five - Saying goodbye to a year, but always looking forward into the night...
Four - Three - A new day was arriving... Each soul, each face pulsing with life...
Two - One - Grab someone and kiss them... Hug them hard. You might miss them after tonight...
Next year is this year.
There was light - and thunder. Rainbow bombs burst above my head, blooming like flowers of flame and reflecting off the tossing sea. There was music. Bass pounded and rippled the sand under my feet. The crowd rolled and jumped to the mixed and remixed rhythms of the night. Waves surged up to join the party. Lights, strobes snapped and shown. There was life all around me, and I didn't have a single word to say. The New Year roared in and was received with the vibrant collective energy of ten thousand souls.
Happiness was within and without. Nothing but joy, nothing but smiles, nothing but ecstasy.
At least five different pyrotechnic displays were raging up and down the beaches of Gili T. Across the sea fireworks were popping above Gili Meno, Gili Air, and Lombok. Boats in the water between here and there were launching their own contributions to the glorious spectacle.
It was all a blur. It was all a dream. I was moving, running, rocking, flying. More, more, more until the last minute, and I thought I might die, and that would've been okay, but I didn't die.
It was so good to be alive, thriving here in the wonderful company of these people. I joined my friends dancing around the whipping bonfire. I found Mel, and we danced. We danced there in the sand in those opening moments of the year. But then we kept going. From place to place, beach to beach we danced the night away until even the darkness got tired and gave up.
She and I watched the first sunrise of 2012 from a swinging hammock under the boughs of a twisted shoreline tree. What a magnificently serendipitous segue this had been from one unbelievable year to the next. In truth, it could have been nothing less.
I came into the Gilis with no plans, no expectations - only hope. But somehow it all came together brilliantly in the end. And how apropos to cap off such a year in such a way. I could not have dreamed of anything more fitting.
So much of that dazzling night was made remarkable because of the lovely girl who was now reclining next to me. Melina - one of the most beautiful people I had ever seen. It had been such a short but infinitely memorable time to spend together. And now it was over.
I was leaving on the 9:30 boat to Bali. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, already reminiscing over the intoxicating time we had shared. I thought this was the end.
I thought I'd never see her again.