There’s a common perception that in paradise all is perfect. Yet many fail to appreciate that to find utopia, and furthermore deserve it, you must often overcome great obstacles. It can be a test of endurance, tolerance and desire. Never was this more impeccably illustrated than during our exploration of the Gili Islands. These three tiny droplets of white sand are nestled amongst some of Indonesia’s finest living coral reef, and are so remote they barely register on the map. Each famously promises a plethora of exotic experiences, but can be stubbornly unyielding with their treasures until you have earned them.
Arriving in Gili, some ground work was required to manifest our shared vision of simple island life. Suffering from bad guts and hindered by heavy backpacks we traipsed along miles of rough sand tracks, scouring the coastline for the perfect beach hut. We viewed dozens of theoretically viable bamboo shacks but each presented deal-breakers (the dead animal mounted on the wall was a particular low point). Our bodies ached and our patience thinned in the heat. Misguided by sweaty exhaustion, we stopped at a shabby collection of huts called Lucky’s, and quickly regretted it. But it brought to light an important issue of life on the road: hygiene.
As a traveller you become at one with dirt. Daily, you contend with unwashed hair, sea salt, chlorine, sweat, road dust and other unidentified grime. You pass an acceptable level of filth and simply stop caring. The question “Do I stink?” is met with the response “To what degree?” and you wear rancid smelling clothes which under normal circumstances you would throw away. Contrary to my reputation amongst friends as a neat-freak, as a backpacker I’m reasonably resilient to muck, but Lucky’s certainly tested my tolerance. Forget the thick coating of dust on every surface, the gritty layer of sand covering the rotting floorboards, the stained sheets or the musty mosquito net suspended from the cobwebbed ceiling – what I most objected to was the stench of sewage. As I cowered in the bathroom doorway with a sarong covering my airways, Ben located the source: a huge, festering crap blocking the toilet. Human faeces: in abundance. It also transpired there was no functioning plumbing, no running water to abate the problem. What use was there in alerting the owner? He was stoned, had been napping on our bed when we arrived and I suspected was also the perpetrator of the crime. My skin crawled.
To escape, we wandered to the sea. But low tide exposed a bed of razor-sharp coral thwarting any ideas of a cleansing swim, and we learned that on this southern tip swimming was only possible during a short window each morning. Was this really what we had travelled 8,000 miles for? We felt disheartened that having planned to spend a significant portion of our trip there, paradise had shown us such hostility. Crestfallen, we killed some time in a dicey café where the food was coated in warm, salmonella-inducing mayonnaise, and where I helped some locals revive a woman who appeared to have died at her table (incidentally, she had merely drunk herself into a shallow coma, no doubt to numb the disappointment of her surroundings).
When we could avoid our festering hut no longer, we surrendered to Lucky’s and endured one night in that disgusting room, lying fully clothed, trying not to inhale too often, both promising that at first light we would bolt.
A few hours later we rose to watch the sun bleaching the full moon from sight against a backdrop of a magnificent volcano.
The rays of this new day cast a different light on the island as it awoke and opened its arms to us. We had survived Gili’s ugly side. We had passed the test. Later that day, our search for seventh-heaven ended at The Place with No Name: a beautiful, hand-carved wooden hut overlooking azure, swimmable waters. A large veranda hugged the exterior, housing a hammock and a day bed. Relieved, we relaxed and became absorbed by an uncomplicated lifestyle. We showered outdoors in a stone-walled bathroom under stars, or rain, or shine. In the mornings, shards of sunlight seeped in and filtered softly through the mosquito drapes onto our four-poster bed.
Time slowed down, and the surrounding paradise gently unveiled all its promised joys. Life became a string of simple pleasures, of sensations shared and savoured. From life at The Place with No Name, here is what my senses recall:
The sliding, silky coolness of the sea against my sun-parched skin. The itch of a mosquito bite. The constant roughness of sand between my toes and sheets. The breeze on my face as I slept. The brightness of the moon and stars. The daily shock of colours before my eyes: blood-orange sunsets, sapphire waters. Snippets of conversation and laughter from women transporting concrete blocks on their heads. The squeals of joy from a boy, jumping from his father’s fishing boat. The sweet scent of frangipani flowers, fallen from a tree. The faint waft of diesel around the jetty, or pungent manure from clip-clopping horses. The silvery sheen of an overcast day. The sound of geckos late at night, of thunder and hammering rain. The fiery shock of chilli hitting the back of my throat. The jagged edge of a distant volcano silhouetted against the sun’s morning display of colour. The sticky feeling of aloe vera smoothed over burnt skin at dusk. The peacefulness of an island with no cars. The shimmer of a school of fish flying clear out of the water. My head submerged in crystal waters, the buzz of a motorboat all around me. Glimpsing sunrise through my open bedroom doors. Never wanting to leave.
A palm-fringed island may be exquisite to the eye, but I have found its true beauty lies in the slowing of the clock, the calming of the mind and the peace that comes with simplicity. Give it time and a small island can teach you so much. It teaches you to pause, to breathe, to appreciate and to reflect. It offers you the chance to daydream, the space to discover. It permits you to be still, silent. It encourages you to explore – the land around you, yourself and each other.
And it teaches you this: Sometimes paradise is a rough diamond, a jewel whose sparkle is hidden until earned. But polish it gently and exercise patience, then you will see it shine like a thousand stars.