Thursday, March 3, 2011

What is lost...

   What do you get when you let go of the internal combustion engine? You could ask the people of Gili Air...
   We left Bali in the morning, taking a fast boat across the straight to Gili Trewangan, the largest of the three Gili islands. The trio sit off the northwest corner of Lombok, the next island east of Bali.
We then piled aboard a low-slung fishing boat, captained by a grizzled local tanned into immortality. Our first view of Gili Air was from the boat's wild pitch and yaw, as our Ahab fought the waves and current ad naseum (literally) to get us there.
   Gili Air (gili means 'small island'; air is Bahasa Indonesian for water) is perhaps a kilometre in diameter, with maybe a highest point of 5 meters. We can see a few low-slung cottages as the boat drops us off at the shore. Fishing nets and floaters, and no small amount of garbage, litter the dockside beach.
Touts try to grab our bags, but we wave them off. We're then offered rides to our hotel in, of all things, horse-drawn carts.
   Having given tuk-tuk drivers the once-over, it's only fair to describe the horse-drawn carts of Gili Air. The motor is a pony, about chest-high to an average person, coming mostly in shades of brown. Compared to some of the emaciated creatures seen shackled to carriages in Jakarta and Bali, they look relatively healthy and happy. They are harnessed to a small, single-axle wooden cart, with padded seats for the passengers around the edge.
   At $7 bucks a pop, we demur on taking more than one, figuring some of us can walk; we relent when we're pitched how far it is to the hotel, and we pile into two carts. The back of the cart tilts hazardously low with our weight before the driver climbs on to balance the load.
   With a tinkle of the horse bells we're off, and it's an utterly charming ride. The dirt track muffles the clip clop of the hooves, forcing the driver to honk a cartoon horn to warn pedestrians of our approach. Songbirds and roosters compete for the title of Chief Ambient Sound as we saunter along. The path is lined with flowered hedges, glimpses of surf and sand to our right, palm trees and neat-clipped pasture to our left.
   Now, just like in North America, a lack of distance to travel has been no barrier to using cars or motorcycles to get there. The islanders on Koh Lipe were fine with sandwiching their wives and children on noisy little Japanese wasp-waisted machines, hurtling along the island's one kilometer of paths in any direction.We have been looked at askance in many countries when we told drivers we were fine walking to our destination.
   The hydrocarbon addiction is as strong here as anywhere.
   But on Gili Air, they've broken the habit. Internal combustion engines have been banned on the island.
“Motors scare cows, and a lot of people had cows, so they said 'no engines',” says Kamil, our hotel owner, of the decision made long ago. People who have tried to bring motorcycles have had stones thrown at them, his wife adds.
   Now that I can admire.
   Here's what you lose when you lose internal combustion. It's obvious to say noise and fumes, but the full realization of what engines mask takes days to reveal. Like the blind man, your senses grow sharper, working to fill the hole created from a lifetime of the sound and smell and taste of exploding gasoline.
   The air is salty, humid and fresh, perfumed with delicate scents of hedgerow flowers teasing your nose. You remember how to smell the coming rain, a field of grass, or the presence of an animal.
   You can hear forever- an axe working across the island, a pony's throaty challenge to a rival, the surf pounding offshore. There's a gaping hole in the aural tapestry, a place your ears search until your shoulders relax and fall.
   You lose the speed of life. The psychic edge brought on by having to remember to shoulder check or step aside for the noisy, hurtling metal. Toddlers can play bare-assed in the streets and you don't fear for them. The road becomes a thing for humans, for living things, not the machine. The earth matters.
   And people matter more, it seems, here on Gili Air. There is little noticeable poverty on the island. People have clean clothes, white smiles, bright eyes, strong lean bodies. Their homes are well-built, gardens everywhere, litter hardly to be found. Their pastures are neat, their animals healthy. People share and support each other, we're told.
   Music is everywhere- and not canned. Young men serenade passers-by on cheap guitars and bongo drums, singing songs about their island. No radios, no news. You can't find a TV or an episode of Friends here to save your life.
   Is all this something that is a function of not having motorized vehicles on the island, or is that just another consequence of something larger?
   I ponder this as the rotating fan blows air on me from the restaurant's bamboo and thatch roof. It's the noisiest human-made thing I have heard for three days.
   Finally, I am far away.

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