Balinese New Year Boat Troubles

After Balinese New Year, a day of raucous celebrations, the majority of Bali shuts down in observance of Silent Day. For Balinese people, there is no talking, no electricity, no cars, no work and no pleasure. Even visitors are expected to obey these rules and spending Silent Day on mainland Bali means staying in your hotel and doing pretty much nothing, which is why most tourists try their hardest to get off the island. The Gili Islands and Lombok are both Islamic as opposed to Hindu – the faith that is practiced in most of Bali – so Silent Day is not observed. For obvious reasons, this is where most tourists flee when this day comes around once a year.

And for obvious reasons, this is where we were headed when we ran into our second bout of bad luck (though nothing can be as bad as Ratgate). My friend Mus had organised our boat tickets to the Gili Islands to depart on the morning of Balinese New Year. We had a very early start because all the roads are closed mid-morning and not reopened again until the day after Silent Day. So, like hundreds of other travellers, we were on an early shuttle bus to Padang Bai for our transfer to the Gili Islands.

When we arrived at 7am it was packed. I took the tickets Mus had given me to the office where I was told I would be able to pick up our boarding passes. There was a bit of a commotion going on outside and a lot of people seemed pretty pissed off. I took the tickets inside to the desk and was pretty quickly shooed away by an angry Balinese man who told me brusquely that the boat was full.

I couldn’t really understand what he meant – the boat was full? But we already had the tickets! I spoke to a few people and they had the same problem. It seemed like the company had massively oversold seats on the boat and therefore there was nowhere near enough room for all the people who wanted to get on it. I went inside to speak to the guy again and was firmly told no, we had to wait for the next boat. I had resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to be relaxing on a beach in Gili T by 10am, but all I wanted was to get the boarding passes and have a guarantee that we’d be actually be able to get there at some point that day. If we didn’t manage to get on the next boat there wouldn’t be one until after Silent Day, so not getting on it really wasn’t an option.

They refused to give the passes out, so with Ellie and Alex outside guarding the suitcases Nat and I sat ourselves down inside the tiny office and kept our eyes on the desk. After what was probably an hour sat stressing about it, we saw a french guy we’d been talking to earlier get handed a boarding pass. Everyone made a mad rush for the desk, pushing and shoving to guarantee themselves a place on the boat. Finally, the golden tickets were in our hands.  

The others had found a little restaurant just down the way which had wifi and we settled in for breakfast, starving and still pretty dubious as to whether we’d actually be making it to Gili T that day. After a few hours in the restaurant we paid and decided to go and sit on the pier both for a change of scenery and so we could be closer to the boat when it arrived. Time moved unbelievably slowly as we played cards, read our books and snacked on Pringles we’d bought from a lady on the pier. We got talking to an Australian couple and agreed that if we didn’t manage to get on the ferry we’d charter a private boat to get there, no matter the cost.

It was getting towards go time and we thought there might be a bit of a rush for the boat, so we gathered all our stuff, the tension mounting. Suddenly everyone started moving off the pier and we were confused as to why until we were told by an official(ish) looking person to get into the “waiting area”. We tried to argue, but they were adamant. Instead of going in – because it was overflowing with people – we wandered over to a shop across the road to buy some water and figured we could sit there until we were allowed to start boarding the boat.

Alex, who was way behind us, started beckoning us frantically to get in the waiting area because they were about to lock the gate, which would have blocked us off from the pier entirely. We rushed over and joined the hundreds of other disgruntled tourists waiting. We’d barely got past the gate when they slammed it shut in front of us and locked it. With no shelter from the sun, we quickly started to boil and joined in with the complaints of everyone around us who also didn’t appreciate being herded into a pen like animals. 

After only a few moments we realised that thanks to our objecting we were actually in prime position and would be the first people freed from the cage, therefore giving us a much higher chance of getting on the boat. This was essential because – having taken this journey before – I knew for a fact that there were at least 100 too many people in the waiting area. Not everyone would be making it to Gili T.

As soon as they opened the gates it was like a stampede, people were desperately charging forward and it only got worse the closer we got to the boat. It was almost impossible for the people to disembark because the crowd was so huge. A man next to me was carrying a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old and was being squashed against the person in front of him. I was precariously close to the edge, with only one person between me and the open water. This is Bali we’re talking about, so obviously, there were no railings or safety measures. The poor woman next to me very nearly got pushed down the side of the boat into the sea.

I was just focussing on making sure that the 4 of us got on to the boat. It took some determination, but because of our optimal position in the holding pen we had much better luck than most and we made it on.

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Arriving at Gili T is generally a pretty magical experience – what with the crystal blue sea and sugar-white sand and the promise of cocktail after cocktail on the beach – but on this day it was nothing short of incredible. Of course, there’s always the fun of jumping off the boat directly onto the sand and making sure your bag doesn’t get wet when it’s thrown off by the crew, but after our journey that was just a bit of fun. I couldn’t help but think about the people who hadn’t managed to get on the boat and be extremely thankful that wasn’t us. Stress number two of Bali was over and we were in paradise once again, ready to drink cocktails and watch the sunset to our heart’s content.

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