Friday, July 11, 2008

Enchanted Island (Gili Trawangan, 1990)

The travel guidebook claimed it was a fine swim from one Gili island to the other, and I knew I was a strong swimmer.

Every day in Bali I plunged into the Java Sea, and swam far out from the black sand beach to where I could float, and from the gently swaying water gaze at the green hills of Kayuputih rise above Lovina and the solid purple peaks of Java pierce the sky to the west.

I swam to near where the good coral was, scarlet and deep. I swam through sea lice that stung and stung my fingers. I swam so far that I could no longer see the touts selling postcards, the massage women, or the wooden bench where every day we sat and drank sugary iced tea and smoked single kreteks with Lasmana, the blind man.

One day Pasek and I take the ferry from Padangbai to Lombok, wanting to vomit as we pull away from Bali's shore. After sitting cross-legged on the floor drinking coffee for several hours at his cousins' house in Sengigi, we charter a carriage led by an emaciated horse to go in the direction of the Gili Islands. A boatman with a wooden sampan rows us out to an island with no cars and a few huts with thatch roofs that arch into the sky.

The sands here are white. We hold hands and slowly walk the entire perimeter of Gili Trawangan, stepping around chunks of driftwood that branch like capillaries. We stop and sit on a rock, and we turn toward each other and embrace, his wiry forearms loosely and tightly holding my waist.

My guidebook says I can swim from this island to the next, and it certainly looks easy because the water is so clear and calm. My arms are strong from swimming every day through the stinging sea lice. Pasek doesn't want me to go, but that's because the Balinese think the sea is full of black magic.

I pull my body away from him, feeling his shoulders drop through empty air, and dive into the clear warm water. I swim and swim. My muscles pull and glide through the sea and my limbs send schools of green and red parrotfish scattering. Huge sea turtles glide underneath me. I lose track of time. I keep my eyes closed to prevent the salt from stinging, and because I know I am going in the right direction.

I lift my head up briefly for air, and it is then I open my eyes.

I am quite far from the shore I have left, and even further from the other shore. Suddenly I realize that the current is not pulling me toward the next island. It's actually pushing me further out to sea. For a second I just want to keep flowing with the current - the water is so warm and there are no sea lice here and the sky is so wide and indigo.

I just want to flow and flow and not have to go back to land. I don't want to be in a hut as it gets dark to see if it is true that Lombok is full of black magic. I don't want to find out what is behind those dark flashes I see on Pasek's face after we kiss.

I look back, and barely see him standing frozen on the shore of Gili Trawangan, scanning the wide sea and the tiny dot I have become. I realize how far apart we are. My arms start to flail in panic.

The guidebook says it is possible to swim from island to island. But suddenly I realize the guidebook is wrong. I need to learn not from books but from surviving the swim back, from spending a night in a hut on an island full of black magic and finding out for myself if it is real.

Suddenly all I want to do is go back.

I turn and use all the strength in my arms and shoulders, one arm cutting into the current, then another, over and over, as hard as I can against the strong current as it pushes, pushes, pushes me away from solid ground. I fight, despite the currents that try to rip us apart, to be close to the figure standing on the shore. Though I can barely see him, I know he is watching me.

Finally I break through the strongest part of the current and the water calms and there I am right up on shore clasping Pasek's feet, and he reaches down to take me gently in his arms, knowing fully he had almost lost the chance to do so ever again.

We spend the night in a hut with a roof that arches into the sky.

He gives me sips of water as I toss and turn and burn with delirium, a red face always there. Pasek knows that the face is an evil spirit who has been able to access my weakened soul. He can see it too.

He braces a chair against the door so it can't be opened. He curls his hand around the ancient keris he has brought with him from Bali. And then he comes close to me.

The red face inside my mind grows and grows and the room shimmers and it is as if I am still swimming out to sea and the room is rocking as the waves lap it. I know now that Pasek is right, it is true that Lombok and especially the sea is full of black magic.

Then I feel a cool dry hand on my forehead, another hand on my chest, and slowly, slowly the room stops swaying. I begin to relax, to give up my futile tossing and turning, my resistance to the reality of how it is here.

Tomorrow Pasek will tell me he can't travel with me any more, that he needs to go back home. But he doesn't say that tonight. He just wraps his body around mine so I can't tell where his skin ends and mine begins, and the rocking of the room transfers to his arms. He gently, gently calms me inside as we breathe together on this island surrounded by the untamed sea - his chest, my chest, one breath after another here on this dry land, the rattan walls of the hut bringing in and letting out the evil of that water.