As with all the great stories, this is essentially a love story.
But that’s getting ahead of myself.
It really begins the moment my mother drove me to Ballina Airport to pick up Jon, who had been my flatmate for a year and half before I moved back up north. A mad dash in the car to grab the train to Brisbane airport later, we slept for a few hours and boarded the first plane out to Bali.
Life can be a cruel, sadistic and maddening thing but it’s these times that make you understand how truly great it can be when things fall into place. I’ve struggled with what is happening to me for a very long time and I needed to change myself again to save who I wanted to be. But you see, change is hard. To have to give up my career that I had singlehandedly created alone, spitting in the face of my fate, was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to experience. I felt lesser. For the first time I realised I had to understand that I AM disabled. Not in the negative meaning but more in the head and heart.
The surprising thing?
Life listened. I guess I must have paid my dues for long enough or however you can relate to this. You can’t “climb” out of depression. It IS you. So you need to change.
Jon and I fought our own battles for the year and half we lived together and I will say straight up that not once did I ever feel judged. That forced me to consistently reevaluate my own priorities because I had no cop out. See, when you judge somebody you are giving them something to focus on.
And of course it’s easier to focus on other people’s opinions rather than look at yourself and your issues. Without that, all you have left is yourself, whether you like it or not. And there was absolutely no way I could or would want to live with a shit version of myself so I started to listen to myself.
What I heard was a person who wanted to draw again. To take pleasure in creation as he used to throughout his childhood and teen years. To be that guy who gives unfiltered attention and hugs. The baggage? I finally let it drop to the floor and used my hands again. I started to read books again. Real books. Not clickbait or 1500 word limit articles. I stopped using facebook so much and started to watch less and less netflix and games. My imagination, while always vivid and in use, was finally allowed to CREATE again. I started carving again, bone and wood. I started writing again.
I also got more physical and started focusing more on my poi and firetwirling skills. My body actually feels like it is mine again. My eyes became clear too, not my vision but the eyes I look at in the mirror.
I actually fell in love with myself. No regrets. No doubts. I stopped wasting time and gave myself free rein to do whatever I wanted because I didn’t need to pretend anymore.
I wanted to go home. Not home as in your parent’s house but home. The place you know best, deep inside. The place you can wander and never get lost. So I did. That in turn, allowed me to relax. Have you ever met a relaxed person?
It isn’t about being limp on a couch or slouching. The person can be angry or frustrated but yet, it’s just a ripple that will be gone tomorrow. They’re the people that actually relax you because you know that they are present.
Which leads me to Bali. This is my fourth time in four years going to South East Asia for a month each time. The first was Cambodia, then Koh Tao then Bali. Why did I return to Bali?
Because of three people. Me, Simon and Hannah. I’ll let you read the Koh Tao story:
This should give you a glimpse of why. Put simply, I love them.
Their love story is, for me, life distilled. Both beautifully themselves and allowing the other to be so. It reminds me of who I was when I stumbled out of school and into the world, I was absolutely sure of who I was and I had very little baggage. People loved that and I kept finding myself in incredible situations and places simply because I listened to people and they knew I loved them even if we had only met a minute or a year ago. I gave freely then. Truly freely. Many times I ended up eating two minute noodles for a few days or even just rice or plain pasta but I was genuinely happy because I knew I had made someone else’s day or night brighter.
It was a wonderful chapter of my life. But, you see, I forgot one important thing. Myself. I didn’t understand that loving yourself is not arrogant and my biggest fear has always been that. By ridding myself of the external stimulii and conceptions of what this or that is, I allowed myself to negotiate terms with myself properly.
Yes, I will forever hate my body for giving me broken ears and dying eyes. How can I not? I never really forgave myself for that and to love you must forgive. All that power I had been endlessly throwing at others I finally gave to myself. Just for a little while. Habits do die hard and besides, I like giving to other people.
This time though, I’m giving properly.
I knew it was Hannah’s birthday but I had no idea it was her thirtieth until after I had finished carving a pendant out of wood for her. That, to me, is proper giving.
For the first time, I was going overseas without my camera. All I had in my bag was that pendant, a bluetooth keyboard and tablet, three poi and my fire poi, a portable power pack and a couple of clothes. My bag was light. As my friend Ida pointed out recently, I have been burdening myself both mentally and physically. I’m always carrying something.
An endless seven hours later, Jon and I got off the plane and walked over the road from Ngari Rah to our hostel (forget the taxis from the airport, just book somewhere within walking distance and then negotiate with that place for transport and tickets to whereever you want to go) and immediately booked the first boat to Gili Air for the next day.
Two $1.50 half finished mi goreng noodles (they were delicious but massive!) and a bintang later we crashed in our beds ready for the 6am shuttle to the ferry.
We arrived at the port completely exhausted from three days of travel and transit, got our tickets and jumped on the boat with perfect timing to start the final leg of the voyage to what I knew was island paradise. Jon had no idea what to expect and I was really enjoying watching him experience everything for the first time.
I sat next to a Melbourne girl, Saskia and really hit it off with her. Of course, me being me, I steered the conversation towards music. I find that you can tell a lot from a person’s taste in music and how they talk about it. So it ended up that she is Nick Cave’s niece and we then started talking about fame and its price. I loved hearing that Nick hates fame because I’ve discovered I do too from my brief brushes with celebrity from my photography and so on.
Finally we arrived at Gili Trawangan and half of the boat got off, Saskia included. I knew I would feel it but the bittersweet tang of saying goodbye to these people you cross paths with when you travel always feels fresh. People are so beautiful individually and as I said, I give. I listen. I make direct eye contact even if it’s always on their lips with brief flickers upwards to the eyes, which are what I desire the most to be resting my eyesight on but thanks to my tunnel vision, I can’t have both. Some find it disconcerting but the time has passed where I can accomodate these kind of people, not because I don’t want to but because I literally can not. So when I meet someone who blithely refuses to fall back to the text method for communication and is willing to repeat themselves, I REALLY notice. I hope I meet her again someday and go to the music festivals she said I must go to with her. My phone died two days later with her contact information but I know if I’m meant to meet her again, I will.
The remaining passengers were hustled up to the top deck which was fully packed by the time I got up there so Jon and I squatted on the floor behind all the seats next to a middle aged, overly tanned and peroxided couple and Joshka.
A little moustache with a quick easy grin that flashed over his face every few seconds and slender to the point of almost being painfully thin, I didn’t see how tall he was until we got off but by that time, the three of us had bonded steadfastly. From Germany, he loved mushrooms and was off to Air to kick back and enjoy a bit of a buzz and meet people and while I had difficulty lipreading him at first, he had one of those faces and hands that were animated enough that all I needed was a couple of signs from Jon to give me context.
We got off at the wharf and strolled onto the dusty, randomly cobbled or cemented or just plain hard packed dirt road trying to find Warung Sunny where Hannah had booked accomodation for Jon. We couldn’t find it and Joshka split to find his accomodation so we sat down and got some food looking out over the sand into the cerulean skies and sea. No postcard will ever be able to convey the true, rich endless blue of the water here. It is so clear even I can see through it when I’m swimming in it, all I can compare it to is when you fall in love with someone and you’ve just finished making real love and you look into their eyes… That tranquility, that breathtaking beauty and vulnerability is what I see in the water here. It is so incredibly pristine you just understand how fragile it is. I’ve always been a water boy through and through and the ocean calms me in general but this is different. It goes beyond that into being able to let go of thoughts completely because I’m so lost in the sight.
We decided to try and just go inland on one of the roads and realised we would need thongs (sandals, jandals, whatever man) badly so we looked out for some but Jon is a big guy, 6’2″ and has feet to match so the first couple of places we had to give up on until we saw this one shop that seemed to just sell thongs so we walked in and met Eka.
That woman has the most lovely smile – a true Balinese smile embedded in a brown round beautiful face and in tow was a little boy, Javan, who was just adorable. While we were buying, we asked if she knew where Warung Sunny is or else if she knew who Hero was. Instantly she got excited and exclaimed that he was her best friend and that it was just around the corner and we had to give Hero a hello for her. I left that shop shaking my head and smiling. Communities. Never underestimate them. Two minutes later we approached the destination and Hero was already walking out with his arms reached out and a big smile on his face. I instantly knew we had hit the jackpot. He is a supernova of happiness and love and it just explodes out with every breath of his being. I’ll get back to him later.
The room had a queen bed, a little cupboard and wall mounted fan (which became our best friend permanently) and a bamboo separator to hide the little fridge and sink behind which had a door to a room behind the bed where the shower and toilet were. A little upraised balcony and bamboo fence outlined the boundaries out the front with a neat little row of plants just under that.
We look over a little field of grass surrounded by trees and coconut palms and when the heat gets too much I sit outside because it’s actually cooler on the balcony than inside and watch the day drift past. I have yet to see rain but the last couple of days a bit of clouds have loomed and dissipated, thankfully bringing a respite from the heat.
Dropping our shit off, we walked ten seconds to Hero’s restaurant and ordered his burrito. If anyone has ever read my yelp account, you will know that I like good food. I’m not saying it’s all or nothing, I can eat anything pretty much but his burritos are the best I’ve ever eaten. I’d be willing to bet on them winning world championships, they’re that good. Just look at the wall. Random visitors over the six months that Hero has had his restaurant open have written on that paper-covered wall and 95% of them say the same words: best and burritos. Right now, Jon has had ten and it’s day seven. He’s keeping count on the wall. I am at a miserable six or seven. For now. I just had to try the other dishes and all of them are superb as well. Nasi goreng for days!
Satisfied, we headed off to find Hannah. Simon was still in Koh Tao, Thailand, finishing off a month long fully booked out gig schedule and wouldn’t be back for another couple of days. Hannah is now a Dive Instructor and we headed to her work, crushed her in hugs and waited for her to finish work then had dinner. She was exhausted and so were we so we just talked for a while, headed back home and crashed out.
The next day we absolutely fried ourselves swimming all day. Burritos. Wandering around. Avoiding the horses and carts and bikes as they streamed past. While waiting for Hannah that night, we ended up at Unzipp, just down the road where they do two for one cocktails and when the boys found out Jon was English, they went crazy for him because they were soccer fanatics and the entire family had their own teams so there was always rivalry in the household whenever a match was on. This crazy extended to the amount of spirits they started liberally dosing our cocktails with (and have been ever since) but I’m not complaining.
The days proceeded like this apart from Jon and I secretly working on a birthday video for Hannah – I had messaged her family and Simon’s asking for short clips and got indundated then my phone decided to go for a swim in the sea. Rice doesn’t work.
But yes, thank god for Jon and HIS phone plus me having a tablet so I could at least still forward the videos to him. We also got her workmates to do a couple more and Hero and his boys in the kitchen too.
We met many people through that time too. An English couple that had got a bit screwed over with tickets here and weren’t sure how to finish their next leg of their trip to Australia. They walked away with our contacts and the knowledge they had somewhere to stay if it came to that and you could see their stride was a bit lighter.
The night before Simon returned, Jon and I got a call from Hannah to meet her at the Grand Sunset bar which was practically on the opposite end of the island so we chugged our last cocktail from Unzipp and started walking. We were never going to make it so Jon suggested getting an Uber. (The horse and carriage.) We waved one up and the guy quoted 150,000 which is $15AUD. I shrugged and said nah, lets walk. The guy then called us back and said 100. Fuck it. We hopped on and I grinned the entire way waving like a king to all the people we passed except for that one heart-stopping moment the carriage lurched on a sandy stretch and nearly tipped over. We arrived safely and met Hannah and Sophie, a woman that worked at the same dive company Hannah does. Sophie recommended a restaurant on the way to our accommodation so we went there for dinner after I had promised to meet up with her sometime over the month and teach her some Auslan.
So we got there, sat down and this awesome little dude with a frizzy little flattened afro and goatee called Ali came up and started chatting to us while we worked out what to order. I did my classic “What’s your favourite dish?” and he recommended the fried wrapped chicken dish so we ended up ordering three of them. Jon was idly playing with his phone and then suddenly looked up and started talking to Ali aminatedly and it turned out Ali has a Melbournian girlfriend and get this: he asked if we wanted ezy cheese. Jon knew instantly that he had worked for ezy burger where he works because that is the term they use to ask if you want extra cheese.
That chicken thing was fabulous. I burnt my mouth gobbling it up but I didn’t care. It was incredible. After Jon and Ali had bonded and he had told Ali he could get him work for cash for the three months he was coming over for in September – for what equates to 200,000 per hour of the local currency ($20) which is a fortune for locals – I told him to come up to Byron if he wanted a little getaway with his lady. Everyone left smiling and we walked Hannah home then went home and crashed. The world is small!
The immortal Joshka kept popping up with a new group of friends in tow. Firstly, there was a German couple and that night I had managed to get a bar boy to get me a plastic bottle of kerosene (incidentally it’s called Gas-20 here if you ever need to find some) and gave my first performance on this Island in front of them. Over dinner, they wanted to know about sign and all these things and Jon relished the opportunity to polish his interpreting skills.
The next time he brought a kiwi couple (Reuben and Julie) and one other kiwi girl, whom we hit off with massively. We had just given Hannah her present, my tablet with instructions to turn it on, swipe up and press play, the pendant and wrapped in a sarong Jon had bought. I decided to give it to her the night prior to her actual birthday because I didn’t know if she’d want to be shown the video in front of heaps of people and Simon had arrived that day.
You should have seen her run up and leap onto Simon when we had met up with him and walked to Hannah’s work. Wrapping her legs around his waist she just hugged him burying her face into his shoulder.
So we had dinner at Hero’s then went to Legend Reggae bar for a few drinks and met the kiwis. Julie is one of those women with these smouldering eyes and 1920s poise and chic. She was so easy to lipread and the first thing she did was point at my chest at my greenstone pendant and I knew straight away she was from New Zealand. Reuben, her partner, I met later and instantly liked. Tall, gangly yet a perfect match for Julie with windblown hair and various piercings he simply extruded calmness and awareness. I’ve lived for about a decade on and off in Wellington mostly through my childhood till my early twenties and I know that accent perfectly so it was soothing to lipread them.
When we arrived, toothless was there. A wizened old Balinese dude in a tidy little straw hat and collared shirt with a big grin of happiness on his face that showcased the two missing front teeth which gave him my nickname – I never did get his name. I didn’t ask, actually. I just looked at him, smiled, ordered a drink then offered him a cigarette. A few minutes later, he gave me his joint and for the rest of the night, we crossed paths dancing and grinned at each other. He knew I was deaf and knew how to get my attention by watching the others and their interaction with me. I’m willing to bet money he owned Legend and was delighted that my group had rolled up – we were that group, excited, happy, welcoming and talking to almost everyone that came up through the night. I would never have known had I not offered him that one cigarette because he sorted me and Jon out with the bar boys, telling them to look after us. It’s the little things.
We also, I’m not quite sure if it was just me approaching her or if she had already talked to one of the others but the friendship was instant, met Helen and Lucy. Jon hit it off with Lucy and me with Helen. Another New Zealander, straight black hair and penetrating blue, happy eyes that gave me complete attention with a smile that matched, I fell in love with her instantly and danced the night away. She had come over with Lucy, her business partner, to work on her boutique clothing company and was having a little getaway on Air before heading back to Bali then home to her son and boyfriend. A speedboat, wakeboard and fishing just five minutes away from her house? There was no way I would ever turn down an invitation like that! You’ll be seeing me in a few months, Helen!
The next morning, we ran down to Hannah’s work just in time to wave her and Simon off as they went for her birthday dive then we headed back to Legend where the girls had said they would be lazing around next to the beach all day.
On Jon and my way there, a Balinese guy started waving at me from the side of the road. I was slightly taken aback because I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen him on this island before but me being me, I just accepted it and smiled right back and waved then asked where I knew him from. Jon interpreted and it turned out, much to my delight, that he remembered me from a year ago when I had visited Gili Trawangan for five days because he was one of the boys that had been running the Black Pearl, where Jutty and I had stayed. That story alone is worth an entire chapter but that’s another story for another time. I immediately crushed him in a hug and felt him laughing the whole time. Turns out that massive, crazy but lovely potbellied Belgian (or was it Danish?) owner had sold the place and they had extended the place a bit. And yes, the giant still guzzles vodka. I waved him goodbye wholeheartedly and kept going to the rendezvous.
Eventually we found them with Joshka and the other kiwis, all of which were leaving in a hour.
Of course my heart broke to say goodbye to them all, the couple had told me to go to Burning Seed with them this year, which I just may do, and I got all of their contacts. These last hugs are real. We had all bonded and I could see they were all tempted to postpone leaving (for some of them, again) but they couldn’t. I was asked to come over to Bali the next day if I wanted to hang a bit more. I nearly said yes but in the end simply told them I’d just do one better and fly to them and visit.
Simon and Hannah popped up with Tess, Hannah’s mother.
You know the classic western fairy godmother? Searingly innocent clear blue eyes surrounded by a face creased with happiness, I’ve known her for a few years now and she’s learnt to fingerspell to be able to communicate properly with me for the odd word that I may miss when I’m lipreading her. We do add some improv hand flapping as well, which has led to many evenings of laughter. As Jon said, after meeting her properly for the first time, ‘Hannah is a chip off the block.’ Truer words have yet to be said. Such an eternal summer child. I finally realised that her eyes were the exact blue of the sea here, which would explain the effect she has on me – tranquility.
We ambled down the beach road and found some Mexican, talked and then headed off for a nap before the big night.
Dinner for 13 people at Hero’s then back to Legend with half of the group (some had to work etc) and had a few drinks. I got to know Josh, a stout and burly man with a clean shaved head who I later found out had one hell of a gangster accent. Jon said he was one of those guys who would cut you down with words, not blows which just served to cement him as a guy to have on my team.
I got to know Kelly more, I had met her the night before but not properly. A beautiful slim and tanned friend of Hannahs, I bonded with her and smiled as I watched the sparks sizzle between her and Jon.
I met a breathtakingly beautiful American woman called Jacs, who had been staring at me with her Spanish friend and I went fuck it, walked up to her and said hi. She immediately started spelling to me in ASL (American Sign Language) and my jaw dropped. We talked for all of five minutes then Jon tapped me and when I looked at his face, I was suddenly on alert.
“Uh, we’re going to Gili T.”
“Go ask Simon.”
“But… But… We just popped. And I just met these two… Oh fuck it! Lets go!”
Damn you, Simon. How am I ever going to be able to top that as a present for my future girlfriend’s birthday? He had worked his usual magic and a local guy had offered us his private speedboat and Josh paid for all of us.. And he would wait for us and drive us back. Man, you have no idea, this place doesn’t have planes or helicopters or nothing. This was the equivalent of a private jet to another island. Hell, fuck the equivalent, this was exactly the same!
By the time we got to the boat, we were all high as kites and grinning with excitement. The feeling when the boat slowly powered out into the blackness, the dots of lights from Air dwindling into the distance as the faintly illuminated twin plumes of the massive motor’s blades exploding the water into white foam in a trail far behind us was incredible. As was the nearly full moon blazing bright shining onto the water in one direction and Trawangan growing until we were there… The rest is a kaliedoscope of laughter, dancing, hugs and talking to people. Apparently I had been surrounded by women because I was just having fun and teaching sign while the strutting topless “I’m so hot” guys were standing on the fringes sniffing disdainfully with ill concealed jealousy. I honestly did not notice any of this, simply each person as they came into my sight and talked to me. The blessing and curse of my tunnel vision. But that’s always the way. By being yourself and present, you allow others to feel safe and want to be a part of your excellent time.
Several hours later, we ordered stacks of woodfired pizza and hopped back onto our speedboat back home. As we got off onto the bobbing deck, one wave jiggled my foot out of balance and one leg went straight down between the floating deck and the actual deck, saturating one shoe. I’ve got a pretty good bruise on my leg but that’s it. I don’t know who it is that has been assigned the job of looking after me but you do one hell of a job, guardian angel!
We went back to Kelly’s place which was next door to Hero’s and blobbed out. She had a massage table so I gave a couple out then the last survivors, Hannah, Simon, Jon, Kelly and I walked to the sunrise side of the island and watched the sun rise.
I’ve been writing this ever since, crying most of the time. Not with sadness but sheer unadulterated happiness and gratitude. The last few years in Melbourne were okay but I am not a city boy. I don’t care about rank or position or appearances. I cannot stand secrecy or confidentiality. Politics. Greed. Possession. There is no real community in cities.
All these people above are just the icing of the whole cake that is Gili Air. The locals are starting to recognise that brown leather cowboy hat, greenstone pendant and usually only clad in shorts heavily tanned with glasses guy that always smiles at each and every one of them and waves. They know. And I know, too. I give respect and do not expect it back, thus earning it.
Josh manages the Grand Sunset bar/hotel so I’m just resting in my room trying to escape the heat a bit then we’re all meeting up there at 5 to watch yet another eyegasm of a sunset. Of course there will be cocktails. And smiles. And laughter. And love. So much love.
I’ve fallen in love.
And I couldn’t be happier.