When a tiny Indonesian island beats a big European city.
Or, what am I missing from my two years on Gili Air.
I have lived in Belgium since 2008, and in January 2020, just before the pandemic, I took a break on a small Indonesian island called Gili Air. It’s March 2022, and I am back in Brussels, Belgium three months now.
The contrast of images, habits and daily routines is enormous. A series of transitions occur in such a move — from a little place to a big city, from a developing country to a developed one, from a tropical climate to humid cold weather.
So, now that the comparison is still fresh, but not premature, at which point does a paradise experience beat returning to a fancy European city?
First of all, bum guns.
It is not natural that, in the Western world, we wipe our bums with toilet paper. For 300,000 years, homo sapiens cleaned themselves with water. In the last 100 years, we changed our minds and started feeling disgusted when we use the same bide, bum gun or other eater sanitation with any other person. It’s such an intimate thing, and, also, that’s how pandemics start. Well, no.
In a few days in Indo, I got over the bum gun as a disgusting thing. It’s faster, more efficient, and leaves no surprises. It’s natural. And pleasant, too.
Going back to toilet paper for lack of option makes me feel like a victim of a massive marketing conspiracy by top hygiene corporations that launched a defamation campaign against water sanitation to create a market for their products. Like when Nestle convinced mothers that their formula was better than breastfeeding but with our bums at stake.
Life on a tiny island has a lot of spare time. First, I was on a sabbatical. But also that the market, the sunset drinks, your friends are at most 15 minutes away.
It’s needless to describe the time I need for the same things in Brussels. And it doesn’t have an impressive sunset landscape.
Third, the stories people tell.
After 12 years in Brussels, in the world of global politics where people understand what FTA, OECD, and ‘scarring effect’ mean, I ended up hearing the same type of stories. The dragons are hidden. But after 12 years of having the same job, I bet this happens to everyone, be that policy officer or carpenter.
Gili is different. It’s a melting pot of people with vastly different backgrounds. Sasak cooks and captains, a Swiss chess nerd and darts champion, a restaurant manager from Surabaya, an Indian divemaster, British and Malaysian entrepreneurs. I listened to stories that people with 3000 dives tell, and about how Gili was 30 years ago from a local bar owner, and from a Swedish woman who spent months and months on fishing boats.
Then, there are stories of the collective memory, and one standing out in particular — the Gempa. The 2018 earthquake took thousands of lives in Lombok and deserted the Gilis. But not everyone left, and those who stayed for days without electricity, talking through the evenings around campfires, and waking up by the sunrise on the beach had the most captivating ones.
Fourth is the easiness of going out.
From the couch to the bar, on Gili: Barefoot, I take keys, phone, and money. Out the door and on the bike. I don’t have to unlock it. I go up the cemetery road, into the jungle patch, the tree-covered pathway, and at the solar farm, I turn right, and after fifteen rounds of pedaling, I reach Begadang which is a restaurant, pool-bar, playground, open air cinema, hostel, and darts central.
From the couch to the bar, in Brussels: I put socks and shoes on, dress warmly, ensure I got thee kinds of keys, covid pass, mask, wallet, and phone. Oh, and the bike gloves. I arrive after a thirty minutes ride through fumes in a car jungle, and I have to lock the bicycle.
Five — the community.
Arriving at Begadang, everyone is there, and I know everyone there.
In a St Gilles bar, I know only the people around the table. Sometimes not even. “But isn’t that exciting?”
The truth is that I needed breaks from Gili, especially during the covid desolation. And the city’s diverse population and an assortment of activity options are in total contrast with those on a boring little island, right? At first glance, yes, but finally, no.
In the city, I go in length. I can meet and interact with thousands of people, but at any given moment I can interact only with a limited number of people .
On Gili, I went in depth. I would often see the same people for many days in a row, for example, a Norwegian buddy who loves sunsets at Mowies’, like I do too. The two of us almost never arranged to meet. I would just see him at sunset.
“And isn’t that boring?” Well, everyone’s depth is infinite if you stand with them, and a tiny island community is a fertile ground for getting to know how they experience that weird thing that life is.
Last the nature.
On Gili Air, I got sunrises opposite a misty Lombok, locals collecting crabs shimmering in golden sunsets over calm low-tide waters, children playing in the rain, or taking cover under trees. The mosque’s call to prayer, the waves always audible in the background, and waking up by bird flocks on the palm trees behind my wall.
In Brussels, a big-city skyline from my balcony lit with office lights, colorful sunsets, and clouds running in the sky - when I can see it. Beautiful art nouveau and art deco buildings, cobble-stone streets, and panoramas. Street noises, construction noises, and sometimes a bird’s song. Not too bad, I assure you.
I miss our island, and I’m having a fantastic time here too. There are many ways in which Brussels beat Gili Air and this is for another article.