My travel book to Indonesia described the Gilis as a trio of beautiful islands so bare of resources that they were almost unlivable. Yet long before I got on the ferry I was warned by other ex-pats that at least one of the islands, Gili Trawangan, was packed with tourists, while another, Gili Air, was overwhelmed with luxury villas. And so I made plans to visit the third island, Gili Meno, the smallest, most uninhabited of the three.
The islands were no more than a kilometer apart from each other, but for some reason pertaining to the tides the ferry would only stop at Trawangan. It was my good luck to be aboard a boat whose captain was gladly bribed, however, and for an extra ten rupiah I was taken as close to Meno as the vessel could go and told to walk the rest of the way, the water being only neck-deep.
Holding my pack above my head, I waded through the shallows and met the shore of an island whose indigenes had never bathed in anything but saltwater. My senses were instantly alive. Everywhere around me were the same enrapturing screensaver images that had mocked and dejected me during all those soul-stomping office gigs back in the States. “Keep dreaming”, those images had said in Boston. “Not in this lifetime”, they’d told me in LA. Now here I was.
I trekked along the water through a boneyard of washed-up coral fragments, the ocean so flat and smooth it might’ve been shaved with a razor. The swoop and call of opulent jungle fowl, the skull-faced woman draping laundry across the crab legs of a jukung canoe, the snorkeling tourist submarining across the fiercely-clear shallows—never had a place so definitively announced peace and simplicity.
With no trees on this stretch of the island, I crawled into the shade of some shrubby vegetation and opened my notebook, determined to articulate with poetic sensibility every exotic nuance around me. I sketched one elaborate ode after another, but when I read the words back to myself nothing felt “right”. The pretty jungle birds weren’t as lively or flamboyant; the old washwoman lost all her humble poignancy; the snorkeling tourist was drowned in extraneous description.
My enthusiasm fell off a cliff. What good was all this beauty if I couldn’t subjugate it? What good were pure blue waters, heaps of sumptuous white clouds, delicate breezes and tropical aromas if I couldn’t extract from them some inspiring perspective that would rouse the weary 9-to-5 world and send it sprinting toward the travel life?
I wandered down the beach until the heat beat me into the shrubs again. Fifty yards from shore a young native couple, no older than a pair of high-school kids, was teaching their baby daughter how to swim. The water was serene and they were barely waist-deep, but that didn’t matter to the child. The situation was a nightmare, and she clung for dear life to her mother’s waist, sobbing hysterically.
The boy-father took his time. Immersed to his shoulders, he bobbed around his daughter like a jellyfish, gingerly calling her name. With soft cajoles and gentle tones he would drift incrementally closer, then quickly drift back when her panicky sobs burst into wild distrustful shrieks. At last he waded over and unpeeled the girl from her mother’s body.
Gripping her by the armpits, he hoisted her above his head and smiled into her shrieking face, still saying her name as she kicked violently at his chest, still saying her name as he lowered her into the water and laid her on her back as though the sea were an operating table. With his arms scooped beneath her shoulders and thighs, he began to move her across the shallows, the child’s fearful moans rising to a horrible pitch, then dwindling with each second she didn’t sink.
After a while the father turned her over and showed her how to kick. Then he flipped her upright and taught her how to move her arms underwater, and how to stay calm when the ocean got near her mouth. In less than 20 minutes a flower of confidence had bloomed, and the girl was treading water without help, all her wailing terror replaced by a silent fascination with being afloat.
It’s possible to experience something so complete in beauty that you also see, at the same moment, something of beauty’s incommunicable nature. An hour earlier I would’ve crushed my mind around that scene like a fist and crammed it into my notebook. Now that instinct faded and my notebook stayed shut.
There was no one else on the island to bear witness to that event, no one who would’ve thought to look at it twice, anyway. Only me in the shadow of some nameless vegetation, watching with a kind of fixation that had nothing to do with forming a perspective or grasping for a message, but the perfect joy of being there when a bare island child, for the first time ever, drifted off from her parents and floated on her own.
About the Author: Timothy L. Marsh is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, Wales. He has lived in several countries in the last several years, including France, Indonesia, Ireland and South Korea.
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