We were walking down the sandy paths looking for a restaurant.
Not one in particular, just one that looked OK, one that could accommodate the 8 of us, with something that the kids would eat. Our 4 year olds disappeared, running off ahead, my 7 year old too, trying to find them. I couldn’t go any faster because my 2 year old was bending down to collect every shell, stone and piece of shiny garbage along the way. I couldn’t split myself 3 ways to catch them all. My friend’s 2 year old was having a moment, my au pair didn’t know which way to run. This wasn’t going to work. This system had to change.
We were on Gili Air, one of three tiny gilis off the north coast of Lombok, Indonesia. The gilis seem to be well known amongst the backpacker community but not so much as a family travel destination, with people seeming to favour the popular and predictable island of Bali. With me were my best friend and her 2 children, myself and my 3, and my au pair – a 20 year old German girl. There are no cars on Gili Air, just cidomo (horse drawn carts) and bikes. For $4 per day we got a rusty old banger – the sort of thing you would put out onto the curb side for the bi-annual rubbish collection in Australia. Xanthe, my 7 year old could ride her own bike, Sophia (au pair) and I had one of my little kids each on the back of our bikes and Susan, who has very slight children, was able to ride comfortably with one of hers on the back and the other strapped on the front in an Ergo carrier. We could just manage to accommodate them all.
There isn’t a lot of official sightseeing on Gili Air. One of the major drawcards is diving and you can’t dive with little kids (also, I don’t dive!). We did a boat trip with snorkelling and other than that, you eat, you play in the pool or play at the beach. Our pool was lovely and we spent a lot of time in it.
We stayed at Gili Air Bungalows which was one of the most highly rated accommodations on TripAdvisor and for good reason. It was well priced, clean and included a wonderful, huge breakfast with my kids’ new favourite thing – watermelon juice.
So back to the bikes. We hired them out of necessity for carting the kids around but they turned out to be the best thing about our trip. It was amusing to see how fast the kids got used to the bikes being our transportation. I don’t think my littlest two have ever been on the back of a bike before. After a day, I would put on their shoes and then say “let’s go to the bikes” and they would go trotting out to the parking area and climb up on the the seat on the back like they had been doing it all their lives. They figured out how to hang on effectively despite having no seatbelt and just loved cruising around in the sunshine enjoying all the sights and sounds. Predictably, all my kids got sick with some kind of virus and a temperature where they couldn’t walk so the bikes were great for transporting them too.
Lewin was so comfortable in fact that he even managed to fall asleep on the back one afternoon. We pulled over and had to tie him on to get him home with whatever we had on hand – in this case a sarong.
One night we were playing at a restaurant on the beach and Lewin ended up naked in the sea. When we left he was still wet so I put down a sarong and put him in the seat without dressing him for the 10 minute ride home. As it was dark the nightclubs were starting up so we had loud music all the way home in the warm night air. That’s one of the best memories of our trip.
Over the next few days we rode all over the island. Out for dinner, to the beach, to look at the shops. We rode to the other side of the island to look for a nice setting to take photos of my girls in matching dresses. We rode out to a far away restaurant called Scratch that one of my insta-friends had recommended. It’s a great restaurant – more expensive than the local places but wonderful, creative food and actual coffee. I had been drinking sachet coffee with non-dairy creamer for almost a week so I was quite excited to have a real latte.
One day my bike got flat tyres and I was devastated. We were on the far side of the island and the bikes were difficult enough to ride with good tyres through the sandy paths dodging tree roots and scrawny stray kittens. With flat tyres it was almost impossible and very frustrating. I walked the bike back most of the way and the lovely guys at the bike shop swapped the bike for a good one.
Every couple of days we’d roll past and pay them a few more rupiah to keep the bikes a couple more days. They were pretty casual there, they knew where we were staying and did their business just by recognising our group. We were easily recognisable, with 5 kids including two little flaming redheads, standing out amongst all the black-haired local children.
The last time I rode a bike was pre-kids in Costa Rica and I had such a good time screaming down the hills listening to what sounded like brutal murder, but were just howler monkeys. That was back in the day when digital photography was unreliable and I lost all the photos of that day. I think I felt so upset about that, that I never rode a bike again. Until Gili Air.
The sea was nice enough, but not the best beach I’ve ever been to. The area seemed safe, we didn’t have any problems. The food was good, the kids mostly ate pizza and spaghetti bolognese but we sometimes got the older ones to try the local food that us adults were enjoying. We had a nice snorkelling trip where we were able to swim with a turtle. We had made friends with another family so we all went out on the boat together and helped with keeping each other’s kids safe while we snorkelled.
One thing I noticed about Gili Air was compared to my albeit minimal experience of Indonesia, it was very tidy. The local shop owners were always out sweeping the streets and there wasn’t a lot of rubbish compared to what I saw on the trip across Lombok to the airport. I saw a sign at a dive shop (a day too late) that they organise a weekly beach clean up for the backpackers. And I saw another restaurant was offering a free beer to anyone that brought them a bag of collected rubbish. I was so happy to see these initiatives because the pollution is one of the main reasons I don’t spend more time in South East Asia. I also thought it was good timing that we came here to see all the painfully skinny stray cats. At home in Australia we were in the process of registering our cat with the local council. Dogs have been registered since I can remember but cats are a new thing. They have to be microchipped and sterilised and I thought it was a perfect opportunity for Xanthe to learn why. She could see first hand what happens when cats are allowed to breed unregulated. The last part of the story is how we got there. To be honest it wasn’t easy or quick, which would be a good reason people less adventurous than ourselves would just go to Bali. We found a cheap flight but it was via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We flew 5 hours to KL then stayed overnight in the airport hotel. In the morning we then flew another 3 hours to Lombok, took a 2 hour taxi ride out to the port (be careful, there are 2 different ones) and then a boat trip over to Gili Air, then a cidomo to the accommodation. When we left we had to do this in reverse. Long, tiring, but as usual, in my opinion, totally worth it!