My daily Instagram piece turned into a lengthy one, so I thought I’d post it here instead. In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting in Oregon, I felt obliged to...
Let the Island Hopping Begin: From Bali to The Gilis
Hello again, world! I promised more good stuff from Indonesia, so wait no longer. I began this entry from an island called Lembongan, just south of Bali. As I finish, I write from Coron Island in The Philippines. The last few weeks have been packed full of transit and reunions, so the blogging took a back seat to it all. As I wrap up my my final days in The Philippines, I finally allow myself to finish this post. And so the story goes, right? There’s a balance to be found between blogging and traveling and I’m determined to find it. On one hand, I don’t want to miss out on the beauty that is traveling, but on the other, I love the commitment I’ve made to this blog. All of that being said, the past few weeks on the road have been pure insanity. I mean that in the best way possible, but it has certainly been eventful. We’ll get to that later though. For now, let’s catch up on what we got into after Ubud.
I left off as Shira and I were making our way to Kuta. We were to meet Fleur first, then await Maartje’s arrival a few days later. Just next to Kuta (almost on top of it), sits a town called Seminyak. It’s Bali’s version of South Beach, Miami, if you will. It’s pricey and loaded with swanky hotels, shops and some of the best restaurants in the country. To give you an idea of the vibe here, it has at least one W Hotel property — perhaps even more. We had a couple of days to spare, as Fleur was not in Kuta yet. We just so happened to find fancy hotel on (super) sale in Seminyak, so we thought we’d stay there for a night. It costs us about $15 each and was only a little out of budget. Maybe we were avoiding the inevitable crowded and often dingy hostel life, but at such a cheap price, it was easy to justify. We knew Seminyak was a jumping off point for diving the USAT Liberty, something at the tip-top of our list. Perfect, we thought. We spent the first day on the beach watching surfers effortlessly tear into waves, wishing we could do the same. The wheels were turning, big time. We ended our day on that same beach with one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. The colors, the people, the surfers in the background like small shadows — it was a moment.
Ultimate sunset on Seminyak Beach.
The next day we switched hotels and embarked upon the hostel life. Well, that’s not really fair. We stayed at a place called M Hostel and it was probably one of the nicest spots I’ve seen yet. Hot water again (score!) and cozy, quiet dorm rooms made for the perfect night’s sleep before our big day of diving. We had booked our trip the day before through Nautilus, a solid shop in Seminyak. We were rested enough and had a light yogurt & cereal breakfast before being picked up at 7AM. The dive site is located about 2 hours north of Seminyak, so we got a bit of a nap in on the way. We arrived in Tulamben (the town nearest the dive site) by about 9:30. Our dive master quickly got all of our gear and paperwork ready, as we enjoyed a pre-dive snack before the fun. Shira and I were so stoked. It was her birthday present to me, as she paid for a chunk of it. Once again, I have amazing friends. Between diving, a birthday and a reunion with Maartje, I was through the roof. We ate a quick snack with our dive group and got moving. As you can imagine, it’s quite a popular dive site, so the key is to be one of the first groups to descend. It gets crowded and the visibility goes to shit quickly when 50+ (ahem, inexperienced) divers are kicking up the sand on the bottom. Before we knew it our Dive Master was helping us strap on our BCDs and tanks. Once we did a quick buddy check, it was time to get our feet wet. This particular dive site is a shore dive, meaning you start from a beach and slowly swim out and descend. The beach here is solid with pebbles, stones and waves. None of these mix well with fins on your feet and about 50 pounds of gear on your back. It was hard not to laugh, despite the frustration our DM expressed. What else can you do though? After a few minutes of struggle and one small slip-up, we were all in, past the wave break! We swam out about 10 meters, did our 5-point descent and we were off. We were headed 30 meters deep to see a sunken US Army transport ship from World War II. I was already flipping out. The history alone warped my mind. I was diving along side a WWII ship, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942. She was en route from Australia to The Philippines when it happened, so the two smaller, destroyer ships took her to the shores of Tulamben to salvage the cargo onboard. She sat there until 1963 when tremors from a close-by volcanic eruption moved it just offshore to where it sits today. And that’s where we were. Just amazing. It was hard to wrap our minds around it. I love history and like so many others, am so intrigued by WWII, in particular. To boot, the dive itself was spectacular. The coral that now lives on that sunken ship is both abundant and alive with color. The Liberty is any diver’s dream, especially those who are keen on wrecks. What a stellar day it was.
Shot of the USAT Liberty dive site entry point. Just a hundred meters or so down the coast you battle waves and pebbles before you’re comfortably afloat and ready to sink below the surface. Ahhhhh…..Bliss!
Obligatory & unorganized underwater shot with our Dive Master. Shira on the left, me on the right. Happiest of times.
After diving one of the most acclaimed dive sites in the world, it was time to rest up for the madness that would ensue in Kuta. We headed that way the following day to meet Fleur and her travel friend, Miles. We all met up at a popular Australian joint called Stakz. Little did I know how much time I’d end up spending there by the end of my Indonesian stay. We enjoyed a few Bintangs together and shared travel & Maartje stories. She and Fleur hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half, so they also had a special reunion quickly approaching. The plan was for Felur pick up Maartje form the airport the next night and we would all go out for my birthday as soon as she arrived. It was the perfect plan with perfect timing. But, we all know how plans go in the world of travel. Sure enough, Maartje’s flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka was all sorts of screwed up. Her trek from London to Colombo to Jakarta to Denpasar had a little kink in it, which caused a massive domino effect. She got stuck in Colombo for a night and wouldn’t be making it in time for my birthday. I was a little crushed, but also knew I’d see her the next day and we’d simply have to make up for it then. Oh, darn. So that was that. It was time to celebrate with Shira, Kuta style. Let me give you a quick rundown of Kuta, Bali, while we’re talking about it. Kuta is the Australian version of Cancun. Well, kind of. Prior to arriving, I read the worst things about this town. I heard people were throwing up on the streets, pissing all over everything, staying up ’til 4 in the morning tripping on mushrooms — just the worst. Like I say with most towns though, you have to go for yourself. Once again, I’m glad I did. It’s not nearly that bad. Anyone who compares it to Cancun has never been to a typical American spring break destination. Kuta doesn’t touch Cancun or Panama City. Not even close. The average age is 20-35 and about 80% of the people walking the streets are Australian. No beer bongs, no puking, no pissing on the streets. I found it to be quite entertaining. Then again, I do love my Aussies. It’s a massive surf town and is worth a visit. You can shop for days, haggling with locals over $2.50 “Raybans” and $1 singlets. The food and beer come cheap and the people watching is free. Aussies have their own version of rednecks (Bogans), many of which can be seen here. They are often covered in tacky tattoos and wear shirts with the most ridiculous sayings on them. This is where Kuta gets it’s bad name from — without a doubt. (My apologies to all of my U.S. friends who vacation in Panama or Destin every year. I’m not knocking it at all. I just think we all know why it’s called The Redneck Riviera, yeah?) If you can learn to laugh and just get in on the surf and nightlife though, you can have a ball in Kuta. And that, we did. Shira and I started my birthday night at a bar called “Surfer Bar.” Original, I know. We met two Aussies (go figure) who offered us some Hookah and some space at their table. The night went from there. I believe tequila was involved. Yeah, it definitely was. We ended up at the most famous bar in Kuta, Sky Garden. It’s your classic hip, multi-level night club with themed “rooms” or areas. We opted for the more casual, outdoor one on the top floor, blaring various remixes of 90’s hiphop. We are Atlanta girls, after all. We danced, met more guys, didn’t pay for drinks. You know. The usual birthday shenanigans. It was another fantastic birthday in another dreamy location. I celebrated my last birthday as a 20-something (shit!) just the way I wanted — on the road. I felt great. Except for the next morning. The next morning I did not feel so great. I felt every bit of 29…and some. The hangover was evidence of a good birthday, indeed.
Red Bull and “vodka” happy hour drinks. It’s quite common for the bars to swap the vodka for Arrack, the local, much cheaper spirit in Indonesia. It is brewed and distilled throughout the country, including backyards of small villages and other unsanitary places. Because Indonesia has imposed an import tax of about 200% in the last 2 years, Arrack has become the obvious and affordable solution. There’s a huge problem here though. It is often laced with methanol, which increases its potency, thus, increasing profits. As you know though, methanol is poison and it will kill you. The police turn a blind eye and the local distillers rake in the money. The methanol laced Arrack is responsible for the death of many tourists and locals, making it a hot issue right now throughout the country. After we learned this bit of information, we laid off the liquor and stuck with the Bintang. You just never know where the bottle may have come from, so travel advisories urge tourists to stick to beer. Good call, us.
Shira and I worked through our hangovers as the day went on, as I knew we had to be in decent shape for Maartje’s arrival. It was a long day of nothingness and waiting. By 10PM that night, hardly able to keep my eyes opened, I heard a little Dutch voice down the stairwell of the hostel. Maartje had arrived and I was suddenly wide awake. I think I tackled her half way up the stairs, not even giving her a chance to put her 15+ kilos of luggage down. That’s love though. Fleur and I introduced her to Miles and Shira and we gathered on our patio for Bintang time. Thankfully, Maarjte was quite exhausted from her 60 hours of transit from London, so going out was never mentioned….by any of us. A few beers and quality catch-up were plenty for everyone. We all slept well that night and woke up ready to enjoy a day on the beach. As usual, we ended it with a sunset and then went out that night. Between Maartje’s arrival and my birthday, we had lots to celebrate. Let’s just say, we made up for lost time that night. All 5 of us went out and even wore the Hawaiian leis Maartje packed from Holland. I mean, what says “Welcome to Bali” better than a Hawaiian lei? Once again we ended up at Sky Garden and once again, we felt amazing the next morning. We weren’t going to be slaves to the hangovers again, so we thought we’d try combating it with surfing. Much to our surprise, it worked brilliantly. Maartje and Fleur had both surfed before, so they gave Shira and I the basic surf 101 and we got right to it. Not to my surprise, they were both really good teachers. They helped us get on the boards and even pushed us at the right moment so we could actually catch a few waves. Other than Shira and I catching the same wave and colliding a couple of times, all went well. We both stood up on our first few tries and we felt great by the end of it. Okay, not totally great. I had a couple of battle wounds, which I didn’t realize until I got out of the water and saw the bloody evidence. Ooops. I wore them proudly and knew it could have been much worse. For those of you who haven’t surfed, but might want to give it a go — let me give you a tip. The surf board is not your friend in the beginning. It’s your enemy and it will beat the shit out of you. Don’t let anyone else tell you differently. It’s the thing you don’t think about before you so blissfully and fearlessly get out there. You think the standing is the hard part? No. My balance is okay, so I didn’t have too much of a problem with that. I did, however, loose several fights to the board once I was being tossed about in breaking waves, courtesy of the Indian Ocean. This is why the first thing Maartje told me was “cover your head when you fall.” I thought it was weird, as the sandy bottom there is pretty soft and rocks are nowhere to be found. Now I get it. So do the little scars on my legs. It made for the perfect first lesson and I cannot wait to pick it up as a regular hobby. I certainly see why they compare it to a drug. Screw the fears — put it on your list.
Another surf board filled sunset on Bali…
After a few days of partying, surfing and reuniting, it was time to move on. We left our mark on Kuta and vice versa. It was time to shift gears and get on island time. We booked a shuttle and a boat ride, packed our things and were headed to The Gili Islands. They consist of 3 islands and are about an hour northeast of Bali by boat. They are considered part of Lombok, Bali’s neighboring and predominately Muslim island. This would make for my first experience with daily prayer calls and Muslim traditions. I was really looking forward to it all. It was just the 4 girls this time, as Miles had plans to meet us later in the week. We took a van to the harbor in Padangbai and then hopped on a fast boat to Gili Trawangan, called “Gili T” for short. We sat up top and took in the views, sunshine and gallons of salt water. I always love a surprise ocean shower on a boat ride in these countries. The crew always tells you that you’ll be fine, the ride’s not bumpy, you’ll stay dry, etc. Liars. Personally, I think they get a kick out of tourists like us being caught off guard and thus, drenched by the time of arrival. We had to laugh. We salvaged our cameras and headed for the more appealing, dryer area downstairs. Most of the boat was laughing at us, per usual. Once we pulled up to the makeshift harbor on Gili T, we quickly realized the soaking wet clothes and hair were more than worth it. We were in paradise.
We ended up spending about 12 days on Gili T. Hey, it happens. We were no rookies to this island life thing, so we weren’t too surprised when almost two weeks had gone by so quickly. Although we spent a chunk of our time being lazy, we also managed to dig into a few island activities during our stay. Shira even decided to do her Advanced diving course on Gili, which I was a huge fan of. Within our first or second day on the island, we found a shop called Blue Marlin and they were fantastic. The shop was beautiful and the staff was top quality. The pool out front didn’t hurt either. It wasn’t long before Maarjte and I were asking them if they needed any Dive Master spots filled. They told us to stick around a few weeks and that it would almost happen naturally. People are always coming and going, so with any island, Dive Master jobs are constantly becoming available if you’re willing to hang out for a bit. Unfortunately for us, we had plans to be in The Philippines in two weeks. We inquired about their Instructor Development course, which is something we have both been interested since finishing our Dive Master together last August. We chewed on it a bit and told the shop we might return after The Philippines. You just never know. We hung around the shop a lot that week and finally did a fun dive while Shira was doing her advanced. We went to a deep dive site called Turbo and it was pretty fantastic. The currents in this part of the world make for some really fun diving. They are also quite dangerous, so it’s important to go with a really solid dive shop here. It’s not rare for people to get caught in an outward current and end up near Lombok, several kilometers away. They get picked up by a fishing boat and are usually just fine. We heard this story a few times during our stay on Gili. That being said, I’m glad our dive wasn’t that eventful. We also got a day of snorkeling in, which allowed us to see the sister islands, Gili Meno and Gili Air. Although I’m not a huge fan of snorkeling (sorry, I’m a spoiled diver), we enjoyed a full day of boating, sunshine and laughs. This was our routine every day on Gili, really. We would lie on beach chairs or beanbags, eat lunch in a beach hut, drink a Coca-Cola, eat again, have a Bintang, take a shower….you get the drift. We even managed to catch a sunset from the westside of the island — a must-do on Gili T. The reason I say “managed to” is because the sunset point here is a bit of a walk. It’s easy and beautiful, but it’s not something people catch every single day. Looking back though, I wish we would have. It was a stunner. I also managed to squeeze in a sunset run on one of our last days there. Way to go, me! I know, I know. It’s so easy to get lazy when you travel, so this was exceptionally refreshing for me. I think I could have run 10 miles that day. There’s just something about that island life. We’re meant to be.
Oh, did I mention that the dive schools often have swim-up bars too? Well they do — and the drinks were worth every bit of the $4 price tag.
Goofing off after the lunch we ate on Gili Meno. It’s a much quieter, less developed island and the food was fantastic!
The sunsets on Gili are some of the best around. I have about a hundred more photos like these, but thought I’d save you the redundancy. You just couldn’t look away or you’d miss a new shape or color in the sky. Those are the best kind…
After almost 3 weeks in Ubud, Seminyak, Kuta and The Gili Islands, it was time for Shira to head back to Atlanta. Dammit. We had an insane time in Indonesia and I am so happy she and I could share that with her. This makes for our fourth country together in less than a year and I see many more in our future. For me, this trip together was especially awesome because of Shira’s decision to tackle her advanced diving course. She faced her fear of the dreaded night dive and won. A lot of people don’t have a desire to jump into the pitch black water and descend to 12+ meters with a handheld torch being their only source of light. She was one of them and I get that. It doesn’t sound appealing and I know loads of people who would never even think about going on a night dive. I also knew, however, that Shira was capable of doing it for the sake of conquering the fear and acing her advanced course. She did too, and I could see that. I think as a group, we pushed her just enough. That, with the help of her amazing instructor, gave her enough confidence to give it a go. Not only did she try it, but she nailed it. No panicking, no turning back. Shira was a certified advanced diver and I was one proud friend. I am so grateful to have been along for the ride on that one. We celebrated that night by going out to a nice restaurant down the island where we indulged in tuna tartar, proper cocktails and fresh seafood entrees. The four of us toasted to our time together in Bali and The Gilis and enjoyed the rest of the night out. I woke up early with Shira the following morning to walk her to the boat terminal where we said our “not goodbye.” I don’t really say “goodbye” these days. I simply say, “See ya later.” With Shira this is especially true. I’m not sure where we’ll meet again, but I also don’t worry about it. I would imagine our next adventure involves whale sharks, but one can only hope. Regardless of time or location, laughs will be had, passports will be stamped and memories will be made.
Shira and I getting all fancy with dirty martinis for her last night. They were also worth every dollar. After weeks of drinking only Bintang, a proper cocktail is priceless, really. Our last photo together in Indonesia. I’m already excited to see where our travel paths cross again.
I’m off to enjoy my last days in The Philippines, amigos! Thank you again for stopping by and I hope you enjoyed reading about Bali and all of her beauty. Lombock and Lembongan were our last two stops in Indonesia and I can’t wait to share those stories soon. I’ve already started editing photos and they are shaping up nicely. Chicks on motorbikes, incredible diving and more sunshine are on tap for next time. See you then! xx
My disclaimer from here on out is this: A chunk of these photos belong to Maartje, who has a great eye and a fantastic little Sony point & shoot (which I intend to buy as well). Thanks to her, the photo portion of my blogging has become easier and quicker. Yay for having awesome little Dutch friends!