Lessons of a Backpacker in the Indian Ocean
© Copyright 2022 by Iulia Holca
Photo by the author.
After two long hours of being surrounded by endless ocean on all sides, we saw them in the distance: three small dots of islands sitting parallel to each other. One, Gili Trawangan (“Gili T”, as it’s known among tourists) was much larger than the others. We docked on Gili T and began walking on the main “street”, a non-paved and sand-covered walkway filled with Tuk-Tuks, bikes and people walking barefoot. We found our hostel by early evening and slept the sea sickness away.
My friend Anna and I had met our travel friends, John and Gerald, just a few weeks prior. The four of us decided to travel together on a spontaneous whim as many backpackers find themselves doing, while romance built up between John and I and Gerald and Anna. We were in our early twenties with no care in the world and just the small amounts of money in our wallets and a desire to experience new things. We knew we were naïve, though exactly in which ways we were about to find out.
That morning, we made our way to the beach which was essentially one long white-sand coastline surrounding the circular island. One particular part of the beach was more crowded than the rest and offered various activities like kayaking, paddleboarding and body surfing. I’d long loved paddleboarding; back in Vancouver, the inlet of the Pacific Ocean was quiet and ideal for water sports, and only during the winter did we ever see large waves or currents. Despite my fatigue from the day prior, I eagerly asked which of my friends would like to join me in paddleboarding.
John was quick to respond. He’d never before swam in a large ocean prior to this trip. He and Gerald had grown up in the United Kingdom in a small inland town and this was their first major trip outside their small homestead. The bright blue Indian Ocean surrounding Gili T was another experience John was excited to conquer.
We rented two large paddleboards and I showed him how to properly carry his to the water. I then demonstrated the technique of kneeling on the board and paddling farther out into the water before standing on it. To my surprise, he was an instant pro, as if he’d done this many times before. He had impeccable balance and found standing on the board as easy as walking on the ground. I was impressed; usually first timers fall off the board tirelessly as if they’ve lost all ability to balance.
“We should paddle to the other island!” He shouted towards me. His excitement, newfound talent and lingering exhaustion from the day prior culminated in an eagerness I’d never before seen in him. At first, I though this was an interesting idea. The other island, Gili Meno, stood parallel to Gili T. It couldn’t be that far away, I thought. But their beach wasn’t visible from here and the entire island just looked like a green hump in the distance with some white waves flanking it.
“I think it’s actually a lot farther than it looks.” I responded.
But he was quick to remind me that on the beach they were advertising a kayaking trip to that island. Surely if you can kayak there, you can paddleboard, too, he reasoned.
I remained hesitant but John continued paddling farther and farther from the beach and from me. I looked down around my board: the blue-green water was nearly transparent and I could see all the way down to the bottom. It was beautifully clear and stagnant, as if a tropical bath. So I continued to follow him, motivated by the sereness of the water.
Over the next few minutes as he paddled enthusiastically, John continued to yell back at me to paddle faster. I looked down again, and this time I saw a horrifying sight. The blue-green water was coming to an end, as if there was a clear line in the water between the beautiful bathwater and impossibly dark, almost black water. It seemed to me as if this line marked a gorge underneath the water, where it was now endlessly deep. I then immediately noticed another terrifying fact: this dark water was moving sideways, and quickly.
“John, the water looks really scary here and it’s moving sideways. It looks like a strong current!”
“Don’t worry, just keep going. We’re almost there!”
But we weren’t – the island ahead of us hadn’t moved in the skyline. It remained a hump of green, it’s beaches still completely invisible from where we were. I continued paddling, mostly to get closer to John to talk some sense into him. How can I convince him to turn around? I had been hoping he’d eventually give up on his plan, but it was clear he was not. I can’t leave him here, I thought, and I also don’t want to be a killjoy. The day prior had been terrible and I didn’t want to ruin his adventurous plan. I also felt a sense of responsibility for him; he’d never been in an ocean like this and this was an entirely new experience for him, one I’d initiated. While he was naïve to the current we were in and the optical illusion of distances between water, I remained naïve in my ability to communicate effectively with him. Up to this point, John and I hadn’t had any miscommunication – how could we, in just a few short weeks of galivanting around beach towns?
I looked back towards Gili T. To my horror, the crowded beach from where we’d come from was far in the distance and we’d drifted sideways a considerable amount. Soon, we’d drift to the very end of Gili T. We were being pushed between both islands into the open Indian Ocean from where we’d arrived the day prior amidst violent waves.
“JOHN, we have to turn around, NOW!”
My attempts to convince him went unnoticed, so soon my yelling became insults and soon my insults became incoherent yells of frustration, as if I was almost feral. He retorted with shouting back that I was insane for not finding this fun, that I was exaggerating. And so we continued yelling at each other, both without proper explanation, all the while drifting farther and farther. I attempted to explain what ocean currents look like and how they work, while he explained his athleticism which would somehow get us both to the other island. I asked him what we would do once we got there. I concluded we’d be stuck there while he reasoned we’d figure it out once we’d get there. This interaction felt endless, as endless as the Indian Ocean surrounding us, and became impossibly infuriating on both ends until John finally agreed to turn around, citing his desire to stop my shouting as the only reason for doing so.
When we turned around, Gili T had drifted from us far enough that we were now parallel to just the small tip of the island, far from the beach we’d come from. We began furiously paddling in silence though we made nearly no progress. The strength we’d needed to paddle to where we were needed to be amplified some ten times to get us back.
Why weren’t we wearing lifejackets, I wondered? I wondered how I had found myself here, exhausted in the battering hot sun in the middle of the Indian Ocean, without a lifejacket or a phone, not even a hat or sunglasses, while yelling at a man I barely knew, who just a day prior I was convinced was my newfound soul mate. To curb the dreariness of the day prior, I had anticipated a simple one-hour paddleboarding rental, not a near-death experience marked by a shouting match with someone who had now witnessed an anger-induced side of me few had ever seen.
While it took us only about fifteen minutes to reach the black, current-filled water, it took nearly an hour on the way back. The deserted beach of Gili T we were approaching was flanked with rocks and crashing waves. We navigated the rocks, reached the white sand and collapsed onto the beach. John sat in silence, staring out towards the distant island he’d been so keen to get to. He was still upset.
“You were really mean back there.”
“Well, you weren’t listening.”
There seemed no possible resolve to this argument, so we agreed to never speak of this event again. We hoisted the boards underneath our arms and began walking on the unpaved walkway towards the beach we’d come from, expecting to be charged far extra for the time we’d rented these boards. Some twenty minutes later into our still-silent walk, now entirely frail with exhaustion and near sun stroke, we were approached by an older man walking quickly towards us, barefoot. He appeared a mixture of concerned, shocked and relieved.
“You made it! We’ve been watching you from the beach. We saw you were pulled out into the ocean by the current, and we almost called the Coast Guard.” He had come to see if we’d made it back to the edge of the island.
I slowly turned around to John, a deadpan expression on my face.
We thanked the man for watching out for us and continued walking, still in silence. On the beach, we found our friends in an equal state of shock and exhaustion. They were soaking wet and red-faced.
“What happened to you two?” I asked.
They explained they rented a tandem kayak and had attempted to reach the other island, too. They’d gone a slightly different route than us, which is why we hadn’t run into them during our escapade. Contrary to us, they’d managed to reach the coastline of the other island but were met by white-capped waves that nearly flipped them over several times. Anna wanted to return to Gili T rather than try and overcome these waves. Gerald, who was kayaking for the first time in his life, was insistent that they could make it.
My friend Anna told me in private: “We fought the entire time. I yelled a lot.”
The four of us spent the rest of that evening in relative silence; John and Gerald with looks of both defeat and pride and Anna and I with a mixture of “I-told-you-so” and embarrassment from the wrath we’d both brought upon them. As many backpackers do, that day we learned several lessons and skills in the midst of a near-death experience. Our collective naivety was immensely evident, both in the forces of the ocean we were surrounded by and in the nuanced skills of adult negotiation and romantic communication.
Iulia is a previously unpublished writer who writes about the experiences that have shaped her life.