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The magic of the Gili Islands

By Nikita Puri
January 11, 2020 12:47 IST

Much of what Gili offers are experiences not strongly defined by geographical coordinates.
It's found in the warmth of the locals who love their land, who welcome strangers and find ways to make them feel at home, reveals Nikita Puri.

IMAGE: An overview of the three Gili Islands. Photograph: Kind courtesy Atilla Taskiran/Unsplash.com
 

My mother was surprised and pleased when I declared myself willing to change two flights to attend a cousin's wedding in Bali.

It pleased her less to learn of my real agenda: To sneak out to the Gili Islands.

The Indonesian archipelago has 17,508 islands, so it's a bit of a mystery why the Gili Islands regularly charm their way onto travel bucket lists.

The lure for me was that they were home to a sculpture garden by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, a man whose work I have followed for years.

How hard could it be to hop on a boat to the Gilis, snorkel to see the sculptures and return to Bali?

The answer: Strong sea legs, the ability to put your faith in strangers, and some knowledge of Shah Rukh Khan's filmography.

IMAGE: A man takes a plunge in the waters off Gili Air Island. Photograph: Kind courtesy Oliver Sjöström/Unsplash.com

The Gili Islands -- Trawangan, Meno and Air -- are a knot of three tiny islands one can reach from Lombok or Bali.

Our boat tickets were booked, but it takes more than tickets to reach the Gilis.

Take a boat with no air-conditioning and you're bound to get hit by stray ocean sprays as the boat speeds along.

You also need nerves of steel.

It took us two-and-a-half hours to get to Gili Trawangan on a speed boat.

Bintang, an Indonesian beer, kept us company.

IMAGE: The Gili Islands are a paradise for backpackers, You can hop onto a horse carriage, or cidomo, or rent a cycle and make your way across the biggest of the islands, Gili Trawangan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Marvin Meyer/Unsplash.com

The islands are a paradise for backpackers.

Perhaps it's the charm of the affordable and many-flavoured Bintang, the wide array of water sports, endless rows of hammocks and bean bags by the beach, fresh barbecued seafood, or the fact that these islands have no motorised transport.

You can hop onto a horse carriage, or cidomo, or rent a cycle and make your way across the biggest of the islands, Gili Trawangan.

The trip takes about two hours if you stop to Instagram the island's prettiness.

Local boats offer island hopping, but this also comes as a part of scuba diving or snorkelling packages.

IMAGE: The Nest -- life-sized underwater sculptures -- by Jason deCaires Taylor in the Gili Islands. Photograph: Kind courtesy Stijn Dijkstra/Pexels.com

In hindsight, it's laughable that we trained hard for months to perfect our swimming techniques in anticipation of our snorkelling trip, because tidal waves tossed us around like playthings.

In the stillness of the water under the stomping waves, though, I found what I had come for: 48 life-sized sculptures.

Figures of embracing couples, some standing, some curled up on the ocean floor, all in a circle as 'an echo of life', as the artist Taylor puts it.

The Nest evokes the continuum of time.

Made of environmentally friendly material, this is one of the several underwater artworks Taylor has made in shallow waters in different parts of the world.

Bit by bit, these sculptures are becoming home to soft corals and sponges, bringing in marine life as they do so.

These will then go on to form coral reef systems.

IMAGE: Turtles in Gili Trawangan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Andres Abogabir/Unsplash.com

From the depths of the ocean floor a turtle lazily made its way to the surface, and I followed it like in a dream.

Then another rose, then another.

The surface broke as they popped their heads out for a few quick seconds to breathe, and then moved back to their resting grounds and chomp on some coral below.

Here's a world that seems drowned, lost to the sea, but is only too real.

And every bit of it is a reminder to make conscious choices for the world we live in.

IMAGE: A horse ride at sunset in the sea off Gili Trawangan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Federico Enni/Unsplash.com

While Gili Meno and Gili Air are quieter, Gili Trawangan easily lives up to its name as the party island.

In Mad Monkey, an environmentally conscious chain of backpacker hostels (reportedly going to open near Mumbai soon), the laughter is contagious and loud, and everyone's a friend courtesy free-flowing spirits.

We swim in the pool -- every place here has a pool -- under the stars all night long.

Much of what Gili offers are experiences not strongly defined by geographical coordinates.

It's found in the warmth of the locals who love their land, who welcome strangers and find ways to make them feel at home.

While finding a place on the boat back to Bali, we are given prime seats as soon as we explain what Shah Rukh Khan meant by 'Chaiya, Chaiya' as he rode atop a train.

 

Nikita Puri
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