The previous evening had provided all we needed with which to pack our bags and return to Bali, and so we were slow about our last moments before heading to the harbor. After a long breakfast, I caught up with friends and family via Skype, and Emily made her way back to the sun to gather what light she could before we departed.
I eventually joined her and we took turns dipping into the see-through pool that is the Java Sea.
We tied the whole thing up with gelato and walked leisurely to the harbor. Emily had our fastboat tickets, whose pretty damn good price she’d so impressively haggled for yesterday. We were sad to leave, but ready, satiated.
Only we couldn’t leave. There was some problem with the tickets she had handed the representative. After looking at them, he left his station and walked away from the dock to a group of Indonesian men to discuss something we couldn’t understand.
At the same time, a blonde man with a Dutch accent was walking alongside me, talking on his cell phone: “All my friends are dead. They were all killed. Yeah. Yeah. I’m heading there now.”
And the lens of doom suddenly colored the scene. We were surrounded by danger.
To my right:
This man was a criminal! His friends were criminals! They’d been in a gunfight with other criminals — no, with police!
Maybe they were in the military. A bomb had killed them all at once. How else do friends die all at once?!
Maybe he’d been in a war and was having an episode due to his post-traumatic stress disorder. He didn’t just say they died, he said they were killed.
Had they died on Gili Air? Did we miss something as we slept?
And to my left:
We were tricked, these tickets are fake. We paid a fake travel agent for fake tickets!
Wait a minute! These men are the culprits. This guy who has our tickets, he’s trying to send us somewhere other than Bali. What if we’re being sex trafficked?!
How could we be sex trafficked among all these non-residents, clearly waiting to board their boats off the island, too? Why are we being singled out?
He’s trying to sell our tickets and make some money off of them. That’s what’s happening. It’s all about the money. Somebody has to stop him.
What if the guy with killed friends and this harbor guy are running some scheme?!
I had barely opened my Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) book, had only learned a little bit. Like that Gili means small island. And that we could shout good-bye to this small island with “Selamat Tinggal!” as our fastboat departed, if it ever would.
“I think we’re overbooked,” assessed Emily through squinted eyes.
“Ohhhh…” I nodded, slipping out from my mental tornado.
At this point, I was completely uninvolved with when we’d get there, whether we would, as Emily was best at taking the reins in circumstances like these.
She returned to the dock and the harbor office. I followed her and found a seat. At the counter, she continued prying. “Where is our boat? When can we leave?”
Alongside her, two Canadian women around our age were asking the same questions and also making demands. But with much more intensity: “We have a plane to catch! This is your responsibility! We purchased tickets for 12:00! This is unacceptable! No, we are not going on a 3:00 boat!”
In front of me, I watched a couple with two toddlers — twins maybe — sitting in wait. And a young teenager in between them that looked a lot like the mother, nothing like the father, and only a little bit like the little ones climbing on her. When the little girl hit the teenager in the face, I watched her explode, spewing something in French. Frustrated, she stormed down the pier by herself.
“They overbooked our 30-passenger boat by 120 people,” Emily told me as she plopped down next to me. “He said we can’t leave until 3.”
In the meantime, the Dutch man was back on his phone, going over it again: “They’re dead. They’re all dead. It’s surreal.”
And then to a villager at a storefront, he demonstrated a gun shooting up to the sky: “They shot it down.”
He began a conversation with two Australians behind me, and I strained to catch what parts I could: “… coming here… killed them all… entire football team… Amsterdam… ceremony last night on the beach.” The women shifted uncomfortably, unsure of what to say.
Another hour of this, all of this — all of us. Each with our separate dramas, our respective pains, our festering needs, our pleas — each with a story we wore like orbs around us, blocking out everything and everyone beyond us, yet in concert with one another like many moving parts of a well-oiled, if overworked, machine.
But this man, this man with the friends — I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I wanted to know it all. His story seemed make-believe, but I sensed it wasn’t. Nothing else at that harbor could possibly matter at that moment. He was there by himself and now sitting alone.
I wanted to go to him, to embrace him. To let him tell me everything as he’d been telling strangers throughout the afternoon, to have him pile all of his questions onto me, both of us knowing I had the answers to none.
Emily rested near me between trips to the counter, where she pushed against whatever obstructed us a little at a time until she found an opening —
— the arrival of our actual boat.
“That’s our boat,” she said, pointing to it as she made a final trip to the counter. She demanded our tickets back and seats on the boat we’d paid for yesterday. This had a domino effect. The harbor rep told Emily she’d have to take it up with the captain, and, hearing this, our entire cast tagged along to the 400% overbooked boat.
We were grouped together at the back of the line for this already full boat, but we were diligent. The men herding us changed their tune with rolled eyes from Not enough room to Fine, then you have to sit up top.
There was no order to any of it, no pier from which to board the vessel. We had to hoist our own weight and that of our bags up — and now — blocked from the entrance, we were climbing to the roof where there were no seats, only a huge pile of all the other passengers’ luggage tied down with blankets and rope.
“Gili style!” shouted the Dutch guy, in strangely high spirits.
Once we integrated ourselves with the cargo, once the boat started moving, on high alert with our bulging eyes and raised eyebrows, there was nothing we could do but deflate with relief and laugh with one another — Emily and I, the Canadians with their waiting plane, the Dutch guy with his tragedy, and one of the boat’s crew members who had been half-rejecting/half-herding us minutes before and was now trying to sell us his taxi services.
Emily was making friends with the other women and the crew member while I had my conversation with the man from Amsterdam.
It was through this absurd seating arrangement that I learned that my new friend’s soccer team — all of his closest friends — were en route to visit him on Gili Air when their plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, was shot out of the sky.
His dad had been living in Bali the past seven years and he, after a very colorful life, decided he wasn’t cut out for any conventional way of living. Despite all the critics, he left his position as a social worker, left all of his friends, and moved to Gili Air just a few weeks back after years of visiting, where he hoped to eventually open his own bar and restaurant and become a master diver.
After the funeral in Amsterdam, his destination that day, he vowed he’d never go back: “Now, I have nothing left.”
We talked for the first half hour, and once we retreated back into the silence we were able to find even while speeding across the rough sea, he began singing “Let It Be,” arms sprawled open to the sky.
We couldn’t help but join him, and even managed to find a handful of other songs we all knew.
Whatever we were individually going through then, the coordinates of our separate lives were all located on the same expansive gray scale from joyful to unbearable, mundane to unbelievable. The teenager on the pier whose mother had betrayed her by starting a new family with a new husband who didn’t love this teen the way he loved his own children. The man who had to constantly recover from personal connections for the sake of potential sales. The women who would make their long flight home in the nick of time. And the man who lost almost every single person he loved — many who had shaken their heads at his risk-taking while clinging tightly to their own much safer lives — to one of the world’s most shocking news stories.
In Bahasa Indonesia, Gili means small island. Gili Air was indeed a small island, and so were we, each of us.
But, if you were to zoom way out for that one moment during our moment together on the very top of the passenger luggage on the roof of a fastboat aimed for Bali, you too might believe that we were all part of the same mass, one no different from the other.