Searching Our Souls on the Gili Islands

After realising just how tough long-term travel can be, we felt ourselves sliding into a depressed state in our hotel room in Kuta. We knew we needed to change things up, fast, so we cleared our workload and headed to Lombok and the Gili Islands for what was supposed to be a relaxing, soothing couple of weeks in the sun.

Beach in Senggigi, Lombok

The beach in Senggigi, Lombok

We flew to Lombok and spent a few quiet days in an almost deserted hotel on a hill. Each day dawned clear and bright and by midday we were chased off the beach by the scorching sun into the cool depths of the hotel pool. As we swam we could look out into the mountains and spot the roof of the multi-coloured village mosque which, along with a horde of roosters, woke us every day before dawn.

Arriving in Paradise – Our trip to the Gili Islands

The journey from Senggigi to Lombok was beautiful but long-winded. We were dropped off just short of Bangsal harbour and made to wait while a dodgy transport company tried to talk us into booking an expensive return journey with them. Eventually we simply walked the rest of the way to the harbour and stood in the fierce heat for the better part of an hour waiting for a boat.

Boat from Lombok to the Gili Islands

The boat from Lombok to the Gili Islands

When it finally arrived we scrambled towards the tiny wooden vessel, which was already crowded and bobbing in the shallow waves. I kicked off my flip flops and attempted to board the boat but as I stepped up the weight of my rucksack threw me backwards into the water while everyone watched in amusement – my patience was wearing thin.

The harsh journey was worth it though; as we disembarked on Gili Trawangan we were instantly captivated by the beauty of the island. It looked like every cliché of paradise – clear turquoise waters lapping against a carpet of white-gold. There are no motorised vehicles on any of the Gili Islands, so as we walked the dirt tracks looking for a place to stay we were passed by tourists on bicycles and locals driving horse and carts.

Gili Trawangan Beach

Paradise: Gili Trawangan

We’d heard that Gili Trawangan was a real party island, which isn’t our scene, so we’d expected to spend just one night there before heading to the quieter nearby islands Gili Meno and Gili Air. We were surprised to find however, that we liked Gili T. Although the beach could get busy along the main strip, you only had to walk for twenty minutes in either direction to find quieter, almost deserted stretches of sand; we also stayed a bit further inland and were never troubled by noise during the night.

Horse and Cart on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Local transport on Gili Trawangan

Quiet Times on Gili Meno

After a couple of days on Gili T swimming, snorkelling and strolling around the island at sunset we headed to Gili Meno – or as close as the boat could get; we were made to disembark a good 50 metres from land and wade through the shallow, rocky water to get to the island. We were met with thick silence; there weren’t any locals waiting at the dock and the track around the island was deserted apart from a few other tourists from our boat.

Gili Meno, Indonesia

The view from our hang-out on Gili Meno

We found a hot wooden shack with cold salty water to stay in for the next couple of days and tried to get used to this new quiet lifestyle – without an internet connection and anything other than the sea to amuse us we were forced to simply sit, swim, read and think. For the first time since we left England we weren’t rushing from one adventure to the next, obsessing over work or constantly moving. We were left to reflect on how drastically different our lives were now and to imagine how they would continue over the next few months.

Our subdued journey continued on Gili Air a few days later – it was then that Andrew got sick.

Tears, Fears and Illness

What followed was a horrible couple of days; in between throwing up Andrew lay in bed, waves of heat emanating from his forehead while I worried and tried to force him to drink as much water as possible. We somehow made it back to Gili Trawangan and although he stopped being sick, Andrew still looked frail and weak – worse still, he seemed quiet and miserable.

Things came to a head one afternoon as we sat in a café overlooking the picture-postcard view of the beach. We started to talk longingly about London, reminiscing about our favourite places; I was shocked to hear Andrew, who’s never been a big fan of the city, proclaim how much he missed living there. It was then that I realised something was badly wrong. How could we possibly be missing home and feeling so miserable when we were here on this beautiful island?

Gili Meno Harbour

Colourful boats on Gili Meno

Being ill had given Andrew time to think – now suddenly the flood gates had opened and he was admitting all kinds of terrifying truths; how unhappy he felt in Indonesia, how much he missed working and having a routine, how he needed more mental stimulation and was contemplating a change in career – I was astounded by what I was hearing.

Throughout the more than eight years I’ve known Andrew, he’s always been completely sure of his capabilities and unafraid to try new things while I, by contrast, am periodically plagued by fits of self-doubt. It was deeply disconcerting to see Andrew now so uncertain, lost and concerned about the future. While I have a chronic tendency to worry and over analyse everything, Andrew is nonchalant to the very core and normally just takes life as it comes; he’s a staunch realist with the ability to cut straight through to the simple truth of the matter, which is something I’ve always relied on him for.

Now, not only did Andrew look different – pale and gaunt from his illness – but he sounded like a different person too, one who talked longingly about a life in the UK, getting a mortgage and a job; words that struck fear straight into my heart. I felt our shared dream of long-term travel was beginning to tear down the middle and while I was digging my heels in, determined to continue, it seemed that Andrew’s thoughts were already turning towards home.

It was an incredibly strange time.

We spent a long afternoon walking the entire circumference of Gili Trawangan, stopping occasionally to wade into the sea, all the while discussing how we’d ended up here and trying to figure out how we could continue.

Boat Docking on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

We did some major soul-searching on the Gili Islands

How we Want to Travel

We emerged from our trip to the Gili Islands battered and bruised but with a clearer idea of how we needed to move forward. First and foremost – we want to continue travelling. Although we were thrown sideways by how mentally tough the journey became when we hit Indonesia we knew that we needed to push onwards. There are so many places we still want to discover but to make the journey enjoyable we agreed that we have to make some drastic changes to the way we travel:

We need to scrap our budget. In Indonesia we became obsessed with sticking to a strict, self-imposed (and slightly unrealistic) budget of £30 per day. To meet this target we missed meals, lived uncomfortably in hot conditions without air conditioning or hot water and skipped activities – it made us miserable. We came to the conclusion that we need to spend a bit more to make our journey more comfortable and stimulating. Ultimately, this trip shouldn’t be a test of how cheap we can travel, it should be about really experiencing and seeing the countries we’re visiting. If we need to spend more to achieve this than so be it; we’ll just have to stop and work sooner than we originally planned.

We have to spend time exploring. While we were in New Zealand and Australia we were constantly on the move, visiting new places, trying out new things and having adventures. From skydiving and glacier hiking to taking boat trips, snorkelling and hiking, we were getting the most out of every day and we couldn’t have been happier. When we hit Indonesia, however, we began to spend great chunks of time in one place to work and save money – travelling became boring and restrictive. In future, we need to make sure we spend plenty of time exploring the countries we visit.

We need to stay mentally active. While my freelance work, writing this blog and travelling has keeping me mentally active so far, Andrew hasn’t worked since February and has begun to get bored and restless.  He wants to spend time on his own interests; improving his language skills and perhaps picking up some freelance translation work as we travel.

We have to make the effort to be healthy. I’ve no doubt that the poor diet we had in Indonesia had a drastic effect on our mood – we need to take time to eat healthily and look after ourselves.  We also feel better if we’re physically active, so we need to get into the habit of exercising on the road.

We need to think about the future. Our savings and my meagre freelance earnings won’t sustain us forever. We need to think about our long-term career prospects and focus on creating a sustainable income that will allow us to continue travelling for the foreseeable future and stop us worrying about having to return home broke and homeless in a couple of years time. That means that sometime over the next few months we’ll need to settle down somewhere and work on setting the foundations for this ambition.

We need to move slowly and establish routines. While we’ve figured out that we need to get out and explore the countries we’re in, we also need to work on striking a balance between fast, exhausting travel and intensive periods of work or hanging around in one place. We need to find places we love to settle in for a few weeks at a time so that we can recuperate, work on projects and establish some of the routine we miss from our old lives.

We have to be honest with ourselves. We need to speak up if we start to feel unhappy and make sure we continue to talk to each other.

We want to return to Europe. We’re surprised to find that we miss the people and the culture back home more than we ever imagined we would. We’re grateful that some of our friends and family are coming out to visit us in Thailand later on in the year but we’ve also set a goal to return to Europe in the summer of 2014 to visit people back in the UK and spend time exploring closer to home before we decide which part of the world we want to head to next.

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38 thoughts on “Searching Our Souls on the Gili Islands

  1. I think its good to share both the good, the bad and the ugly side of travelling. Its not always as fun and idyllic as we’re led to believe. But its great that it gave you the chance to reflect on how you want to travel. Its all really good advice and I’ll try to remember it myself when we set off in 20 weeks. (Not that I’m counting…)
    Kellie recently posted..The Marshmallow test – delayed gratificationMy Profile

    • Hi Kellie, 20 weeks – so exciting! While travelling is pretty incredible, we definitely weren’t prepared for the challenges and hardships that come with it when we started this trip. I feel that the longer we travel, the more we learn and adjusting our travel style has already made our journey much more worthwhile – no doubt there will be more for us to learn along the way though!

  2. Hi guys, having met you in person, I’m really sorry you’re having a hard time. Such a shame. I can fully understand that Andrew is feeling a bit fed up, you’re working and enjoying building your blog, he’s not. His experience must be very different to yours. I just wanted to say, hope you find balance soon, that’s what it’s about, finding balance. We totally blew our budget in Bangkok, but we’re on target again now, sometimes you have to spend more, sometimes you save, but you have to be happy with what you are doing or seeing or it’s just not worth it. I’ve missed a lot of meals too, I’ve lost over a stone in 6 weeks (yay!) but for me that’s great, for others it’s hard. Anyway, I’ll keep reading, you keep writing, lots of support from us. You enjoy it the way you need to enjoy it, here are no rules. A x
    Alyson recently posted..Blowing our Budget for BangkokMy Profile

    • Hi Alyson, it definitely is about finding balance. Since we left Indonesia we’ve had the most incredible time in Malaysia but we’re still burning ourselves out with weeks of fast-paced travel followed but static periods of recovery and work; we are getting there though but it’s a learning process for sure. Andrew has lots of plans for language and translation based work he wants to pursue and is feeling happier now; I’m sure he’ll find somewhere to teach along the way too. Thanks for the support and I’m glad you’re having such a great time (congrats on the weight loss too); I’m going to hop over and read about your budget blowout in preparation for our arrival in Bangkok less than a months’ time!

  3. Travel can really get you down sometimes. It is good that you chose a nice quiet place to dig deep into your souls and understand what you need and want. That is how we chose to live in Spain and just venture out here and there, as we knew we couldn’t last on the go non stop.

    That said we are nearly 1 month into a “go go go” summer break through Italy and tomorrow moving up to Austria and Switzerland. We are starting to get very tired and the kids are sounding off. We need to slow down, but those countries are too expensive to stay for long. We will need to zip through them in a week and then to France and slow a bit. Thanks for being so honest and showing others what really goes on. (I am very frugal and I had to compromise on this trip and not try and do it “the cheapest”, but comfortable for the family without missing out too.) A tough rope to walk.
    Heidi Wagoner recently posted..I Am Just A BIG KID On A Pagani TourMy Profile

    • Hi Heidi, your whirlwind summer break through Europe sounds amazing but I can totally relate to the exhaustion you must be feeling! When we were in New Zealand and Australia we moved fast too because it was just so expensive to stay still for long and although it was incredible it was also tiring. It must be hard to travel on a budget through those countries too; we’re going to have to brace ourselves for that when we get back to Europe next summer. Have a great trip.

  4. I totally relate to how you feel. I’ve slowed down too and have been working on reducing my spending to stick within budget. I put the purpose of voluteering behind my trip to stay active, learn new skills, and help others. It has made the trip meaningful. Instead of traveling to escape it’s an adjustment to this new lifestlye. I too will eventually have to pick up freelance gigs to keep this going. Slowing down on the road and getting to know some locals has given me a sense of community away from home. I hit the 3 month mark and it took a bit to adjust. I ask myself the same question if this lifestyle is really for me. I’m okay with going home broke cause I can always make the money back, but never the time. What’s your pupose beyond quitting the rat race? Thanks for sharing to give insight to others who may aspire to this path.
    Mig recently posted..7 Tips to Reduce Spending on the RoadMy Profile

    • It’s great that you have such clear goals of what you want to get out of travel Mig, I think some of the problem Andrew and I were having was trying to figure this out for ourselves. First and foremost we want to see the world but we also want to create a flexible, location independent lifestyle, work in areas we find fulfilling and learn new things – we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we can do all this. We want to find ethical ways to volunteer while we travel in 2014, so hopefully this will give our journey some shape; in the meantime we will continue travelling and trying to build up freelance work.

  5. Perhaps (and what do I know?) spending time in Asia was a hard start because it is so drastically different from what you know. And while it is much cheaper to travel there, it can (I think) bring about bad cases of culture shock. I follow a family that is traveling the world for 2 years and they purposely chose to tour Europe for the first year for some of those very reasons – acclimate to the differences without the extremes. They also stay in each place for 1 month, partly because it tends to be cheaper, partly because they don’t feel as if they have to hurry through each place they visit, and partly because they have a 10-year-old daughter with them.

    We’re all creatures of comfort and when we push ourselves out of those comfort zones too quickly – it can prove difficult as I think you’re discovering. From what I’ve read of others RTW travels I think what you’re experiencing is pretty normal – the process of realizing you’re not on “vacation” this is your life and how do you make it work?

    We’ve never traveled extensively like you are and I know it’s not something we’re most likely to take on. I like to go for a period of time and then return home to reboot, but I also recognize there are parts of the world I would never be comfortable in. Maybe give some more thought to where you’re planning to go next and ask yourself – do we really want to go there or are we going because we said we would?

    Thanks for sharing this very realistic view of long-term travel. Keep taking one day at a time, you’ll find your balance.
    Patti recently posted..Route 66 – Illinois ~My Profile

    • Yes Patti, I think you’re right that Indonesia was a hard start for us. I can see why people would choose to begin a trip in Europe and I’m glad to hear that other people have perhaps experienced something similar to what we have. On the upside we felt much better once we made the decision to change our travel style and then to think about whether we really wanted to be in Indonesia or whether, as you suggested, we just thought we should be there. In the end we finally listened to our gut and left Indonesia early – we had an amazing time in Malaysia because of it. As always Patti, thanks for the support and kind words – you’re as much a traveller as we are so I appreciate the advice.

  6. Hi hear you dear. This is not easy. This ying yang of finding out who I am and who I don’t want to be, how I want my days to look like and what feels like is pushing together and pulling apart my couple-hood. I also write book, blogs, and projects and can happily lived fully enlightened, challenged, and inspired behind the computer screen, which kills my body, my family relationships, and the damn reason we’re traveling in our third year now around the world. We’ve had our seasons, tons of really crappy ones and many joyous, life-changing ones too, as will you. It’s not easy to carve meaning out of total freedom… You may like this post friends. http://thenomadicfamily.com/2013/04/life-on-the-road-real-question-29-what-do-you-do-all-day/#comment-5437 I know, based on reading your insights on what you want, that you will find that ever-delicate balance. It’s hard and that’s the joy of the road- that it invites, you, forces you to do discover who you want to be without anyone but you two mandating what happiness will look like. I’m rooting you on and know, for sure, that one step at a time, one season at a time, you’ll find your way. Glad you are both feeling healthy now. Tons of love your way, Gabi
    Gabi from GabiKlaf.com recently posted..The Space To Be A Woman- A Man Strong Enough To Handle the Feminine Power In Full ForceMy Profile

    • Thanks for the support Gabi, it’s good to know we’re not the only ones who have tough patches on the road. You’re so right in that: ‘it’s not easy to carve meaning out of total freedom’; back home we were so stuck in our restrictive routines and the mundane obligations of everyday life that suddenly being absolutely free to go wherever we please and do whatever we want is at times overwhelming – we have to completely re-programme ourselves from the way we used to live and we realise now that this is going to take time.

  7. I don’t know what it is about Gili Meno, but I also got horribly, horribly sick there. I’m glad you were able to make the most out of an unfortunate situation and discover what it is that you want out of traveling. I must say, all your points on how you want to travel completely mimic our goals-especially thinking about the future. I think one of our biggest fears is being forced to stop traveling because we can’t sustain it any longer. It’s interesting to note what you said about your budget as well. Dan often makes fun of me for having quite luxurious tastes even though we are budget travelers at heart. We’ll see how that goes! I really am excited to learn more from your experiences as we are about to follow in your footsteps.
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..Photo Friday | Sunsets on the Beach | Whitsunday Islands, AustraliaMy Profile

    • Hi Casey, sorry to hear you were also ill on Gili Meno, perhaps it’s something to do with the lack of fresh water on the island. It is hard to strike a balance between budget travel and affording ourselves the luxuries of things like hot water, air-con and the occasional western meal while we travel – I’m definitely more fussy than Andrew who will eat almost anything and can happily wash in cold water. I wish you luck with your transition from living in Taiwan (somewhere we can’t wait to visit) to long-term travel; we’ll be following your journey too 🙂

  8. Oh you guys! I’m so sorry to hear about the rough time you have been having (or were having in Indonesia… I know you’re quite happily off in Malaysia now!), but I think it’s really great that you were honest and talked about this dark time as long-term travel is definitely not all sunshine and roses… there are quite a lot of cold showers and moments of anguish. I think that the angst the two of you have faced is a rite of passage that all long-term travelers have to go through, because really, it’s not just taking a vacation (as you’ve acknowledged), but really a completely new lifestyle and that takes time to adjust to. I don’t think I’ve read a single person’s blog who wound up having exactly the trip they had planned on taking because when you’re sitting back home furiously planning, there’s just no way to really know what you’re in for. You have to leave through this new way of traveling and living for a while before you can really understand what works for you and what doesn’t.

    I think all of your new goals for your travel lifestyle sound really excellent, especially the money one. We have definitely had finance-related meltdowns while on the road, but oddly, they’ve never been about our budget. We’ve been really good from day one about recognizing that sometimes things are more expensive than we had planned, or you just need to spend a bit more to keep yourself sane. We figure there’s no point in us setting hard and fast budgets for countries until we’re actually on the ground and can see what is realistic, and even when we set ourselves a budget, it’s really more of a guideline and we never feel bad about breaking it, especially if it’s in pursuit of something fun or interesting. We always say that it’s better to go home a few months earlier and have had the time of our lives than to stress about money and miss out on the very reasons we’re traveling in the first place.

    One way we differ, however, is in thinking about the future! 😉 I find that whenever I think about it, I start to get stressed and I’d much rather enjoy the moment. I know that our hard-earned savings won’t sustain us indefinitely, but we made a vow when we started this trip that it would be about seeing as much of the world as we could and doing all the things we wanted to, NOT about holing up somewhere because it’s cheaper to live in Chiang Mai for 3 months than to actually travel around Asia and trying to do work that will pay the bills. We figure there will always be time for work, and while trying to set that up now might mean we have less of a fallow period when our funds run out, we’ll also know we didn’t really spend this time as we truly wanted to. While I hope that I spend a large part of my life as a digital nomad, working on the road, for now I want to simply enjoy this gift of being free and fearless!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Chewing the Fat with Battered SuitcasesMy Profile

    • Hi Steph, it’s heartening to hear that other travellers have a tough time adjusting to nomadic life; sometimes I feel that every other travel blogger/traveller we meet on the road is effortlessly having a great time while we struggle. We do seem to have gotten through our bad patch though and are feeling much better now.

      I wish we could have started our trip with the same attitude towards our budget as you guys, we have definitely had to learn about that the hard way! We get stressed too when we start to think about the future. As you say, it’s true that there will always be time for work later on but for us, we feel we need to build some more freelance work while we travel to reassure ourselves that we can make location independence work for us – this will allow us to travel without worrying so much about the future. Another reason we want to try this is that Andrew feels he needs more mental stimulation so I think for us, combining work and travel (and hopefully volunteering) will be good for our overall state of mind and make our travels more rewarding.

    • Thanks Laurel, even though we had a tough time we really did learn a lot from this experience and our travel since then has been much more enjoyable.

  9. Thanks for posting this. Most travel blogs only talk about the fantastic adventures they are having but not about some of the hard realities. I’ve never done the kind of trip you’ve done but I remember taking a package tour through Spain and towards the end I was glad it was over just because the constant getting up very early each day and packing and repacking was overshadowing the fun of all the sightseeing. Not to mention my travel companions started getting on each others’ nerves! I look forward to reading more about your travels, both the good and the not so good. I’d like you to talk more about the financial part of the long-term travel too.

    • Hi, thanks for commenting. Yes, packing and repacking becomes a real chore after a while, I’ve also had the experience in the past of arguing with my fellow travel companions! We’ll be sure to include more financial posts and cost breakdowns in the future. Thanks for reading.

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  17. What a thorough article. I really enjoyed reading this and it kinda takes me back to last year when I also visited Gili Island. Anyway, later I found out that there’s plenty other beautiful islands in Indonesia like Derawan Island or Kei Island. Have you heard about that? I usually read http://www.jakpost.travel for my daily digest about Indonesia’s tourism destinations. You should read it too, and maybe one day we got bump into each other in some place in Indonesia. 😉

    • I haven’t heard of those islands but I’ll definitely look them up Theresa. I don’t think we’ve seen any others islands in South East Asia since the Gilis that have looked so nice.

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    • Hi Miriam, thanks for reading and commenting. We did learn a lot during this stage of our travels; we now move more slowly and spend a bit more to feel comfortable (although we still live pretty frugally).

  19. Interesting posts. Gili Island is a collection of exotic island. the natural environment is very charming and natural. very nice to be traveled there. is a certain satisfaction. nice post.

  20. Wonderful write up and amazing pictures.
    Best sunset of my life was on Gili Trawangan. No doubt i returned to Gili T after Rinjani trek, though not initially planned.
    You have a new follower 🙂

    • Hi Ankur, thanks for reading and commenting. Despite the fact that we had a tough time adjusting, Gili T remains one of the most beautiful islands we’ve ever visited. Enjoy!

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