This is one of ten fun stories from ten years of travelling - it's ten because I had ten weeks before we were going on our next trip and it forced me to write one a week (I know that's an over use of the word ten :) - the rest are here.
If I’ve learned one thing from this last ten years of travelling, it’s that some people have no sense of humour. I know now that just because I have a beard and glasses, yet on my passport picture I have neither of these things, that I really shouldn’t tell the customs officer that I’m in disguise.
They don’t find it funny and as it turns out it’s certainly not funny when someone who’s given bad service asks for a tip, and you tell them not to eat yellow snow.
An odd one that turns out not to be funny was something I wrote on a notice board that got us kicked off a desert island in Indonesia. At least this was the reason we were given as the 50-strong group of men threw stones at us as we got on to a boat to leave our home for the last 18 months.
Of course, there is always a back story, and if you read this post, you’ll get a clearer idea of how we ended up running our own dive shop on a tiny island you could walk around in less than an hour.
You don’t need to read that story before you carry on here, but it’s well worth a read when you’ve done with this tale.
Gili Air, is a sandy teardrop of an island, two hours by fast boat from Bali. There are no police on the island, and the people are ruled by a tribal council.
(Gili Air from the sky, you can walk around it in an hour)
At least once a week a member of this council would call by our dive shop expecting payment. It was ‘island tax’ – a tax that varied by the week, and sometimes it was more than once a week.
We’d been asked to run the dive shop in conjunction with a hotel called Villa Karang. This hotel, perhaps the most luxurious on the tiny island, was run by a man who appeared not to like customers.
‘She said she didn’t like the food, she cried at what I said to her, I made her leave’ – he said to me once, so you get the idea.
(If you want a sense of this hateful place, just check out their website - on the front page is a list of their terms and conditions - do not stay here, just saying)
If a staff member pointed someone in the direction of our dive shop, part of the hotel remember, they expected payment for pointing. If someone on the island pointed a potential customer in the direction of our dive shop, they expected payment. Everyone expected payment.
Working here was a challenge.
As time went on the hotel decided that they weren’t making enough money from us. They got a percentage of each dive, they got ‘pointing’ money, and there was the island tax of course. When they realised that there wasn’t any more money to have, the island had 9 dive shops, and because our hotel hated customers, we really didn’t have many customers to work with.
You might be wondering why we stayed so long. The diving is wonderful, so many friendly turtles. I managed to do lots of writing, though if you’ve read my novel Tourist (a darkly twisted horror) that I wrote on that island, you can clearly see the insanity building as the month's past.
We liked the customers we did have, and Gili Air is a beautiful island.
(The stunning view from our dive shop - we stayed over a year for a reason)
Thinking back now, though, it was clearly a case of it’s amazing what you can get used to. In the centre of the island was a mosque, which blasted out its call to prayer from 4:30 am. On Wednesday nights no one on the island slept because it turned out Gili Air is a hot spot for Psy-trance. If you’ve no idea what this is, it’s awful, just awful ‘music’ that’s blasted out so loud it makes the sand shake.
It has no real beat other than ‘thump, thump, thump’ – and it’s only enjoyable if you’re high on something (usually mushrooms.) I would hate to guess how much money the Psytrance place had to pay in island tax, but I guess it was a fortune.
But did I mention that the diving was great? Writing this is making me wonder about my sanity for staying there that long.
Did I mention that there are lots of random holidays in Indonesia, ones our boat crew wouldn’t tell us about until they were leaving the night before? They would let us book customers in for the next day, the day they weren’t there, and then tell us they weren’t coming in - ‘holiday’.
Again though, the diving really was magnificent, and being only a stones throw from Flores and Komodo island, the biodiversity was phenomenal! Turns out though, that in exchange for this, we had to deal with some pretty ugly island politics. So, let me tell you what got us finally thrown off the island.
We had a big notice board that provided information for tourists about everything that was happening on the island. There are lots of cats on the Gilis and they are a cross between those Malay cats with no tails and the ones with, which had lead to lots of cats with half sized tails, or ones that look like they have a bit missing off the end.
(Our dive shop cat, Bones, you can kinda see the tail thing I'm talking about)
I put on the notice board – ‘Just for your information, if you are wondering why the cats have short, clipped tails it’s because the island people like to eat them’ – I was joking, though as I write it now, it seems more offensive than I thought at the time. I’d been on this tiny island for a long time, I’d gone stir crazy, and the hotel staff were finding new and unique ways to drive us crazy.
The final straw for me with the hotel was when the crazy manager got rid of our shop cat and her litter of kittens. We can only assume he took her to the mainland because she was ‘getting in the way’. I think now if I saw that man in the street I’d run him down – I imagine you’re not allowed to threaten to run people over online, but well, you know….
The cat incident led to words being exchanged, it wasn’t pretty. We booked our flights back to Singapore, and we were set to leave in two weeks. We had to allow this much time because we had work visas and you have to hand over your passport to the immigration on the main island (Lombok, a big island about 20 minutes away), and get permission to leave the country.
With all the problems with the hotel, we’d been told that we should have a meeting with the hotel manager and the island elders. We agreed of course, and that was set for the Friday. We agreed with our staff that we should have a meal after that meeting, and this would be our farewell meal.
Oddly enough we decided to go out on the Thursday night instead; we had a great night with great company, and it felt like a nice send-off.
(The diving on the Gilis is fun, at least it is if you love turtles and who doesn't?)
On the Friday morning, the hotel manager rang us and said we should close up the shop. He didn’t say why but it set alarm bells ringing. We decided that by shutting the shop, we should actually start to pack up our things.
Around lunch time a small group of men started to collect at the entrance to the hotel. Then more people arrived, then more...
We didn’t think too much of it until they started yelling abuse and ripping apart our notice board.
The hotel manager arrived, as did the tribal leaders. We were invited into the restaurant of the hotel. It was all very civilised; tea was served and then one of the elders pulled out a photocopy of the cat joke. He demanded to know what we meant by the joke. I say joke, clearly, he didn’t find it funny. I tried to explain it was tongue in cheek, but minds were already made up here.
The group of men grew outside, and the yelling picked up. One of the elders went over to them to try and assure our safety. He could only do it if we left the island right away.
We apologised profusely and explained that we had meant no malice in this silly throw-away joke, but the decision was made. Jokes about cats were not to be tolerated.
Grateful that we had packed up most of our stuff, we loaded ourselves up like pack horses and made our way through the crowd. Our personal possessions in the house we were renting had to be left…we were told that it was not safe to go back for them and that we had to leave immediately.
It was dusk now, and the 50-strong crowd were screaming all types of abuse – I assume, it wasn’t in English, but we got a general idea.
(Our wooden house on the end of a giant lizard filled woods. We did at least face face the sea)
Someone punched me in the side of the face as we pushed our way through and as we made it onto the boat people picked up rocks from the beach and gave us a happy send-off. Thankfully, none of them landed on us – I’ve often found that the most cowardly of men have bad aim.
We made it to Lombok, by now it was dark, and we were a little panicked. The worry was that someone from the island might have rung ahead and announced our pending arrival and another group of yelling men would be waiting for us.
They weren’t thankfully, though we stayed in a hotel that night, and changed to a different one the next just to cover our tracks a little.
For the next ten days, we were kept hostage by the Lombok authorities. Not literally, but by the fact they had our passports and we couldn’t leave until they had sorted our exit visas and given them back.
Eventually, we were called to answer for our crimes. This involved us having to sign a letter that said we were the worst people in the history of mankind and being stoned off the island was entirely our fault. We signed, sighed and left Indonesia.
It has taken me over five years to write this story down as it was such an anger inducing time that was almost enough to put us off travelling for good.
Landing in Kuala Lumpur, we realised that Indonesia hadn’t quite done with us. They have massive visa stamps, and it turned out that they had filled up my passport, so I wasn’t leaving KL any time soon.
Thankfully, KL is in Malaysia, a wonderful country and it was no hardship to stay in KL for 6 weeks while I sorted a new passport. This also gave me time to reflect on my time on the island and how it had changed me as a person.
I would never claim to be ‘chilled’ – I think that being chilled is for people who don’t have enough things to occupy their time – but I do think that I developed more patience living on such a tiny island. Nothing rushed there no matter how much I wanted it to.
I also learned that there is a time and a place to make jokes – though I do think that people without a sense of humour are best seen and not heard from, or not seen… like ever… :)
(yep, still a little bitter about this one, but then one day it’ll make for a fine dinner party tale).