After a short boat ride from Bangsal, I was stepping onto the white sand of Gili Trawangan (commonly known as Gili T), one of the three Gili Islands, located in the clears waters just off the northwest coast of Lombok. Motor vehicles are banned on each island, making for a nice contrast to the teeming cities and towns of Southeast Asia.
Gili T is known for two things; partying and scuba diving. I was there for the latter, namely to finally get my Open Water Certification (which allows for dives down to 18 meters), but the busy bars full of scruffy backpackers made it clear that plenty of people were there to get wasted.
I was still filthy from Rinjani, in addition to being absolutely exhausted, and really didn't feel like staying in the dorm-style hostel I had booked. Since it was already evening I had no choice but to check in, though I quickly booked a private hotel room for the other three nights I had on the island. Gili T has an infamously free-wheeling party scene, with ample booze and easy access to drugs (despite Indonesia's draconian anti-drug laws), but I was in bed by 9 every night. Rock on.
The island is a strange place, with confusing contradictions all over the place: the small local population is Muslim, like most of the rest of the country, and a huge mosque with a towering minaret dominates the main road, while tanned northern Europeans saunter past in tiny bikinis. Dive shops, which preach conservation and ethical treatment of nature, sit next to outfits offering spear fishing excursions. None of that really mattered though, as my main goal after showering was to find a hamburger - I did, destroyed it, and immediately passed out.
The following morning I was woken up nice and early by the booming call to prayer, after which it was time to start my dive course at the excellent Gili Divers. (Partly owned by Swedes, I couldn't believe how many tall, attractive blondes were constantly passing through.) The course started with a long, cheesy video introducing the basics of diving, followed by a session with the equipment in a pool. That afternoon, much to my surprise, we were taken out for our first real dive - I wasn't expecting that until the next day.
The weather was perfect and the water incredibly clear, though I was a bit nervous - I'm normally very strong psychologically, but the concept of breathing underwater left me unsettled. I was constantly aware of everything that could go wrong, and it took me a little while to settle down once underwater. There was a strong current which reduced visibility, but seeing the sheer amount of fish down there was an amazing feeling. We often think of the world below the surface as a great unknown, and having the opportunity to see the variety of fish and how they behave was eye-opening. Although I did puke once we got to the surface, probably from coming up too quickly.
Day two of the course began with more pool skills, and my main issue was clearing my mask when it filled with water. I completely freaked out whenever I couldn't see, much to my frustration, as I'm generally pretty calm and collected. We then went for another dive, this time to a site known for sea turtles. We saw several, and things were going well until I felt like I was breathing in water. I kept purging my regulator, which only shot more water into my mouth, and surfaced in a panic. This earned me a sharp rebuke from my instructor, as there were numerous boats in the area that could easily run over a diver who surfaces without warning. That night I was not feeling confident about the course, though a massage and the dessert table at the night market helped a bit.
The third and final day of the course included two dives. The first was going well until my mask filled with water and I couldn't clear it, and once again went to the surface, even while the assistant instructor signaled for me not to. After returning to the shop I was wondering if I should even continue - it would be a waste of money to quit with one dive left, but at this point I was just trying to get through each dive without fucking up, instead of enjoying the underwater scenery. I talked to my instructor and he said that I had somehow pushed my mask up above my nose, so clearing it wasn't doing anything. It's hard to signal that message though, and in my inexperience I didn't know what was going on. He said he'd keep a close eye on me during the final dive, and we suited up to go.
This time we found a baby white-tip reef shark hiding under some coral, and I felt fine until we got deeper and my mask started to squeeze my face - hard. I couldn't fully open my eyes and signaled to my instructor. He came over, loosened the mask and then reset it on my face. I had to clear it and nearly panicked, but he stayed with me and calmed me down. Once I could see again, I was fine for the remainder of the dive. Basically it all came down to my mask - if it fit well I was fine, if not problems ensued. We returned to Gili T and received our dive cards - I was now certified to dive anywhere for the rest of my life, though the process hadn't exactly been smooth. I celebrated by cycling to the north end of the tiny island to watch the sun set over distant Bali.
That night I stuffed myself at Gili T's amazing night market one last time, and the next morning it was time to move on to Gili Meno, the next island over. Whereas T greets visitors with a main drag full of bars advertising shot specials and all-night happy hours, Meno features a few cafes around the harbor, and little else. This is the most quiet of the three Gilis, with largely empty beaches and no nightlife to speak of. Meno is also popular as a honeymoon spot, though I didn't realize to such an extent: I only met one other person who was traveling solo over three days on the island; the rest were couples who I could tell were judging me. I wanted a shirt that said, "I have a girlfriend, she just wasn't able to come on this trip. Leave me alone." Fortunately the beauty of the island distracted me from this issue.