Nyepi, the day of silence, brings Bali to a complete standstill, all businesses close, including the airport, no lights are allowed and everyone must remain indoors. It is a day of reflection and meditation, the Balinese believe that by staying hidden, the evil spirits will pass overhead without noticing the island, thus bringing an auspicious start to their New Year. As Bali falls under its annual cloak of silence on March 26, many escape to the neighbouring island of Gili Trawangan in Lombok, for the first ever Jammin Island Roots, Rock, Reggae festival.
Gili Trawangan is a hedonistic slice of paradise with a well earned reputation as a party island, and its white sandy beaches, swaying palms and blazing sunsets make it the ideal setting for a reggae festival.
A relentless surge of boats bring Indonesians and tourists piling on to the beach, and the plethora of guitars, drums, dreadlocks and sweet reggae infuse the island with a distinctly Caribbean vibe.
It’s late afternoon when the festival gets under way, an angry storm is brewing over the mountains of Lombok and thunderous clouds creep towards us. The official opening is marked with the release of 100 baby turtles to the ocean. We carry the little creatures down to the beach, their legs flapping furiously and there’s plenty of cheering as we place them on the sand and they scramble awkwardly down to the water and freedom. As the turtles discover the rhythm of the ocean, gentle reggae rhythms fill the air, and then it’s the rhythmic patter of falling rain as the storm hits the island forcing the event indoors. Instead of dancing barefoot in the sand under the stars, we are packed inside Sama Sama bar, but the rain doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The air is thick with smoke; the arak (rice wine) and the laughter flow freely; dreadlocks are flying and the atmosphere soaring. The heat is intense, but I found consolation in the fact that I am sweating out the alcohol as quickly as I consume it and looking around I can see that I am just another sweaty body grooving on the dance floor.
The crowd is a great mix; Western surfers; Euro backpackers; island locals and of course the Indonesian dread community is out in force and providing plenty of eye candy for the western girls. Some of the guys look pretty scary with their wild hair and elaborate tattoos but these are not trench town rastas, mostly just nice guys from exotic places like Borneo or Sulawesi or Papua who dig reggae and like to get irie. Indonesia’s burgeoning reggae scene has produced some incredibly talented musicians and festival headliners include Steven and the Coconut Treez who achieved international fame with their Trawangan inspired song ‘Welcome to my paradise;’ Lombok’s own Richard D’Gilis; and Lawa Am Q, from the Spice Islands.
We are all united in the sheer spine-tingling pleasure of the music and I am not talking about the same old Bob Marley songs that you hear ad finium on beaches all over the world, this is real roots reggae, Indo style. The performers seem to have more fun than anyone and there is a constant rotation of musicians on stage as these brothers from another mother jam it out like there is no tomorrow.
As the evening progresses I notice that the photos I am taking are increasingly out of focus. I wonder if it’s me; have I had too many jugs of rum and coke? Or it is the people I am photographing; perhaps they have had too many? Or maybe I am just capturing the vibe, because it all seems to get rather blurry and surreal. The storm passes and we all stumble outside to clear our heads, bask in the star light, eat barbecued fish and watch the fire dance show. Then it’s the rhythm of the drums and the gentle lapping of waves on the shore as the dancers twirl and swirl in a whirl of fire.
The music is even better on the second night of the festival but the pace much more relaxed and fewer people means more space to dance and a much more intimate atmosphere – it feels more like a really cool party. Richard D’Gilis croons his song ‘Gili Trawangan,’ and we all sing along,
“Pulau yg indah
ga ada polusi dan polisi”
(The beautiful island, the beach so clean, no pollution, no police)
The “no police” bit gets everyone cheering.
When the music ends people drift towards the bonfire on the beach and the soft strumming of guitars. A bunch of us head en masse to Rudy’s bar, a dark, divey outdoor club where The Chemical Brothers ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’ is booming. And once again we are all leaping around the dance floor. Just before dawn the music finishes. The muezzin call to prayer rings out from the mosque, roosters crow, stragglers stagger on to the beach and finally as the first rays of sun hit the water, the island falls silent.
The next day everyone lounges around at Coral beach 2, a guesthouse set on a quiet and very pretty part of the island, fringed by bougainvillea and palms. I float in the fluorite sea and ponder whether to have an avocado and chocolate shake or a fresh papaya juice. Or maybe it is Bintang o’clock. Life is sweet! The musicians are gathered under a palm tree, still jamming, still irie.
For now we are all enjoying the island which is so picturesque it’s almost surreal, a kind of fantasy world where things like time have no consequence. Nothing is urgent and everything is put off till tomorrow, even leaving. Last year I planned to stay for a week, and was still there two months later. Some people never really leave and the island has been bought up parcel by parcel by Westerners. It is no longer a well-kept backpacker’s secret and more and more luxury villas and boutique resorts are springing up all over the island. Thankfully it has retained its quirky laid-back atmosphere. One of the restaurants has a sign ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem,’ which kind of says it all. Bicycles and horse drawn carts are still the only form of transport, thongs are still the footwear of choice, the smell of weed still permeates the air and many bars and shops still offer ‘trips to the moon no transport needed,’ via their mushroom shakes. The island is quite an anomaly; mainland Lombok ─ Islamic and conservative ─ is just twenty minutes by boat, but here on Gili, anything goes and the locals are more up for it than anyone.
The area known as Sentral or ‘downtown’ has a ramshackle assortment of dive shops, restaurants and bars lining the seafront. Lounging is the key word; it’s all about the cushions really, they fill the berugas (open sided huts), the day beds and the sofas. Dining is informal, candle-lit and alfresco, most restaurants offer fresh seafood, you choose what you want and then lounge around while it is cooked on the barbecue. At Pesona restaurant you can sprawl on the bamboo mats under a blanket of stars and smoke sheesha (water pipes) filled with apple tobacco; A couple of places even have berugas fitted out with plump cushions, televisions and dvd players, perfect lounging conditions. Lounging aside, most of the action takes place here in Sentral and there are three organized parties a week, rotating between the bars: Monday night is Blue Marlin, they have an excellent sound system and belt out old school hard house. The spacious wooden deck upstairs is great for dancing: Tir na nog, the Irish bar hosts Wednesday night parties with a mix of hip hop and pop. In true Irish style this is more of a drink till you fall off your barstool type affair: Friday night is Rudy’s, a dark, sleazy, outdoor club with random music, psychedelic décor and mushroom shakes. It’s the sort of place where you find yourself doing funky moves to Michael Jackson or Ice T at 4.00 in the morning: Sama Sama Bar has live acoustic music every night of the week, their house band S2 play great reggae and the open-mic nights can be hilarious.
I have met people who have put off going to Gili because of its reputation as a party island, but away from the south eastern Sentral area, things are really quiet and the beaches on the undeveloped western side of the island are the stuff of cast away fantasies. Walking around the island takes about an hour and a half and is a great way to experience its contrasts. Heading north from Sentral the style becomes increasingly rustic and relaxed, more island hick than island chic. The area known as Coral beach on the north eastern tip of the island is my favourite. Its quiet here and the wide expanse of beach is dotted with berugas where I can settle in for the day; eat fabulous Italian style pizza and snorkel right off the beach.
Continuing around the island; there are groves of palm trees; patches of dense coastal scrub; deserted beaches filled with drift wood and bleached coral; and the occasional resort. The views out to sea change dramatically; the eastern side of the island overlooks the small island of Gili Meno and the mountains of Lombok; the northern tip is flanked by open sea; but as you continue walking down the western side, Bali and its towering volcano loom into view. Sunset bar, a huge open-air building hugs the south western corner and is indeed a great place for watching the sunset. Sadly the owner died of a heart attack on the opening weekend and it now sits empty, although enterprising locals sometimes bring a boom box, beer and spirits and set up a make-shift bar.
The view is also pretty good from a lounging position and I often find myself sinking into the cushions in a beach-front beruga with a thick sticky Lombok coffee. Monsoon season is a magical time when the heavy, dark clouds looming over Lombok create a moody back drop. Nature is broody here and unleashes dazzling electrical storms which whip the sea up in a frenzy of whirl pools and crazy currents. But the storms blow out as quickly as they blow and calm is soon restored. It is also a great place for people watching: Colourful outriggers from Lombok bring locals with sacks of produce to sell in the market; Fast boats from Bali disgorge backpacker-laden tourists searching for cheap digs; Beach-sellers ply their pearls, watches and silver; Local women glide by with baskets of bananas or fresh fish balanced on their heads; Children play in the shallows and giggle; Muslim women pass by covered in head scarves, long shirts and trousers; Western girls pass by – barely covered at all. Goats and chickens trot along the road and there are cats everywhere, mostly with deformed tails or no tail at all. It’s a genetic defect, but the islanders love to invent stories and will tell you that cat tail soup is a local delicacy.
The locals are friendly and cheerful and always up for a chat and a laugh. When I tell them I am Australian, they say “Hey mate, ozzy ozzy oy oy oy.” When I ask where they are from, I inevitably get the answer, with a smirk, “From my mother.” The groups of local Casanovas (also known as big mosquitoes) that hang around can be a little intimidating and prey on the western girls. “You want boyfriend,” “you want free transport,” “you want take me home.” They are mostly harmless, just bored and always on the lookout for a girlfriend and a free ride. Enough of them get lucky that you can’t really blame them for trying.
Gili is also a popular dive spot and a good place to get certified. Dynamite fishing and coral bleaching have taken their toll on the reefs, but you can still find patches of healthy coral and the marine life is plentiful with reef sharks, seahorses, manta rays and turtles. Efforts are being made to regenerate the reef, the dive shops actually pay fishermen not to fish in the waters surrounding the island. Another initiative is the use of Biorock, which uses electrical currents to stimulate coral development. There are a couple of decent places for snorkelling just off the beach, although the best coral is found on the snorkelling boat trips which also visit the islands of Gili Meno and Gili Air.
In the days following the festival, as the dreads, the drums and the guitars trickle off the island, I have that really flat ‘the party is over’ feeling. But then my friends inform me that it is Bintang o’clock, and it is Monday night – that means a party at Blue Marlin. And I am reminded that here on Gili, as the song ‘Welcome to my paradise’ goes, “the party is never-ending.”