Monday, March 14, 2011

Spicy's Big Break

   I'm woken in the morning by a strange, haunting whistle. I try to place what can possibly be making the eerie noise. It resembles the sound you make spinning a hollow, plastic tube; certainly it would be a perfect soundtrack for a UFO movie.
   I go outside and try to locate the source. At first it's above me, then moves away, then is in the distance. A few moments later it is back. 
   "Come look over here," says a staff person lounging in the courtyard, when I ask him what is making the sound. I go over and see where he is pointing.
   Above us, a flock of pigeons whirls by, about 50 strong. They are making the sound. It's a mystery what exactly causes the noise, whether the beat of their wings or a call they make as they fly. I'm told by one person they are kept birds, and the sound is from a kind of noisemaker around their necks. Will report back.
   What is clear, though, is Gili T (for Trawangan, or fortification, or gun emplacement, after its colonial role) is different from Gili Air, where we have spent our last few weeks. T is the big brother, the Big Apple, of the Gili Group. It is larger physically, and even has a hill in the centre of the island; its downtown area is more urban, more 'sophisticated', more developed. There are many more places to shop, eat, or sleep, arrange boat tours and diving, and buy mouldy second-hand books. Even the horses pulling the carts (motors are banned here too) are bigger by about 30 per cent.
   The beaches are wider, and whiter, there are more tourists- the young and the old, the suitcasers and the backpackers, than on Gili A. It's country mouse and city mouse, and after two weeks of watching cattle graze I'm actually feeling overwhelmed. And this is the off-season.
   Gili T has more of the hustle to it, more hunger, more need. We meet a young man we dub 'Spicy'. He worked on the beach when we first met him. He directs arriving tourists to a hotel, and gets the equivalent of a dollar if the person books there.
    He needs to do that twice a day to make ends meet. 'Ends' being his own, and his family's. His parents are sharecroppers on Lombok, renting land after their handicraft business folded in the economic meltdown from the Bali Bombing in 2002. They still dream of returning to their home island, Spicy tells us.
   He lives on the beach during the day, eats at the local's market, then sleeps, with a dozen other young male workers, at an empty gazebo after the bar's patrons have abandoned it for the night. It has no walls, no washroom.
   But Spicy is optimistic. He just got a real job.
   He gets to train to work at an upscale resort. For the next month, he'll learn to sweep, wash, change sheets, and maintain the grounds. He'll learn proper deportment and how to deal with people of privilege.
   And he'll do it for free. After a month of unpaid labour, he'll get an interview with the French owner of the resort, who comes in periodically to check his property. If the owner likes him, he'll pay Spicy 800,000 Rp a month. About $90.
   It's Spicy's big break, and he's excited by the prospects. At $3 a day he can start thinking of someday paying his family's way back to Bali, maybe getting married.
   The next day I hop on a bike to tour the town. Turning away from the beach, with its persistent dope dealers and pearl hawkers, I'm trying to find the pastoral heart of Gili T., the way Gili Air kept an English-country-garden style hidden in its interior.
   The difference between the two islands become immediately obvious as I move beyond the walls of the villas and resorts defining the beachfront. Most of the homes here are hovels, punctuated by empty lots of garbage, construction waste or fallen, decaying buildings. It's far more close to the third-world norm we've seen in other parts of SE Asia.
   Among the cat-urine stink and goat pastures, women gossip and go through each other's hair for lice. Half-naked children play in the pitted, puddled streets, dodging fast-pedalling teens and horse carts. Images of western rock stars- Jim Morrison, Bob Marley- are painted on walls of yoga retreats and convenience stores.
   There's not the same sense of orderly, supported community here that you sense instinctively exists in Gili Air. You are on your own here to make it on your own. With bigger and more, it seems you get harder and meaner too.
Gili T. might be the Big Apple of these islands, I think as I head for the beachfront again, but it's rotten at its core.
    I emerge on the island's west coast. Bali can be seen lying blue and distant under the setting sun. I bike past abandoned resort projects, returning to the land under moss and scrub brush, more victims of the Bali bombing.
   Instead of restarting those, new projects are being built, skeletons of walls rising among the grey bags of cement powder and piles of bamboo. Swallowing more pasture land and coconut grove, more of the only means for people here to make a living independent of the recommendations of the Lonely Planet.


  1. Boom. That's quite a review. Making me think about Gili T as my option.

  2. Or rethink to be precise.