Editor's Note: In this harrowing tale of misfortune, TGR Editor-at-large Sam Morse chronicles a case of mistaken identity in the Gili Islands directly adjacent to Bali. The narrative looks at matters of fate, bad luck and serendipity through the lens of an intrepid backpacking traveler.
A disgraced tourist does the ultimate walk of shame down the main artery of Gili Trawangan. Indonesian law enforcement does not mess around! Alexinwanderland photo.
“YOU TAKE MY MONEY — YOU GO TO JAIL!” the Balinese man screamed through the mobile phone.
Shaking with terror, I tried to calm him down. “This must be a mistake. I didn’t…”
“YOU STEAL MY MONEY — YOU LIE!” he yelled, cutting me off.
This was clearly not going anywhere.
Sweating bullets, I took a deep breath and scanned my surroundings. I had just arrived on the diving and party island of Gili Trawangan, where I’d come to log some dives. Normally a mecca for beaches, bikinis, boats and belligerence, the island had instead welcomed me to its shores with the worst phone call of my life.
Standing dumbfounded on the idyllic stretch of sand, my future was now at the mercy of some faceless man — gripped by anger and righteous indignation — on the other end of the phone. Slinging my pack across a shoulder, I set off to find a way to mitigate the shit-storm that had been waiting for me on the island.
Most travelers that visit Gili T have a positive arrival experience that doesn't involve being accused of currency fraud. Sid Kandoi photo.
Earlier that morning, I stumbled out of a sweaty, overcrowded bus with all the other backpackers and misfits. An in-between town, Padang Bai sits on the Southeastern shore of Bali and operates as a ferry terminal for the Gili Islands.
I wandered the dusty streets looking for a ticket across the sea. Such a town has dozens, if not hundreds of tourism kiosks where just about anything can be bought for a price. Luckily, I didn’t need a prostitute, drugs or illicit documents. All I needed was a ticket. One way.
I chose a small shop to buy my fare. Handing over a wad of Rupiah, the shop’s owner gave me a ticket, a receipt, and also had me sign a ledger.
Heading east to the Gili islands with Lombok looming in the distance, a couple Balinese bros enjoy the ride up front. Sam Morse photo.
The ferry was more like an oversized jet-boat, and most of the tourists cowered below deck. I climbed my way upward through a forgotten hatch, and as the jet ferry launched over the rolling swell, I crawled on hands and knees to the bow of the boat, clutching the haggard rigging.
At the front, I held on and rode the surging craft. Looking around, I could see the receding hillsides of the Balinese coast, the overwhelming profile of Mount Agung slowly fading with the distance.
Reality takes on an interesting tone when years of planning, saving and dreaming give way to the present.
I had dreamt of this moment for a long time. In contrast to day-to-day life, reality takes on an interesting tone when years of planning, saving and dreaming give way to the present. Whether or not that moment is what you thought it would be, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the kinetic quality of life.
A sign graces the pier leading into the debauchery, beauty and madness of the Gili Islands. Noel Tock photo.
The Gili Isles glistened against the much larger backdrop of Lombok — Bali’s untamed step-brother to the east. As the boat got closer, my heartbeat grew in unison with the shrinking distance.
The boat struck sand. I had arrived.
I waited patiently for the throng of tourists disembarking from the boat to subside. I didn’t want to hurry this experience — to rush the journey just to reach the destination. Finally, the way was clear. I shouldered my pack and jumped into the waist-deep water. Wading to shore, I scanned the entire beach from end to end. Drinks, umbrellas, sex and snorkels — almost heaven.
Wading to shore, I scanned the entire beach from end to end. Drinks, umbrellas, sex and snorkels — almost heaven.
As I took in the scene before me, my eyes fell upon a man that was standing directly in front of me, not twenty paces away. The crowd now gone, it was just him and I on this stretch of beach, the two of us having a weird stare-down. Tucked against his chest, he held a sign. In the quarter-second it took to read, I felt my stomach ripped straight through my esophagus.
It said: SAM MORSE — my name.
I was full of alarm. There was no reason for this man to be standing there with my name on his sign. I was in a foreign place. Nobody knew my itinerary.
I knew from past experiences that, by default, this had to be bad.
The beach where I almost lost my freedom to a misunderstanding. Sam Morse photo.
I approached him, and as I did, he honed in on me as his target.
“Are you Samorse?” He asked sharply.
“Uhhhhhhh, maybe…” I grudgingly offered.
With this, he hit the "send" button on his mobile and handed it over to me. The phone rang several times and then was answered by a gruff Balinese man who once again asked if I was Sam Morse. I said yes.
“You STEAL my money, you go to JAIL!!” the man on the phone screamed.
It’s a funny feeling having your reality crumble; every security, every trust in a predictable world, fully compromised and shit on in a matter of seconds. It’s funny because this loss of control is never a gradual process. One second you’re at the doorstep of perfection, the next you’re being accused of passing off forged British currency. One second you’re dealing with 1st world problems — the next you’re scraping the bottom of the 3rd world tier and contemplating Balinese jail time.
There’s nothing like being accused of something that you just didn’t do.
Who was this guy? Why did he think I’d stolen money from him? I tried to make my case, but he barely spoke English. He’d already made up his mind about me. Every argument I offered was met with:
Hanging up the phone (it’s hard to angrily hang up a cell phone), I tried to argue with the man’s courier standing on the beach beside me, but all he said was that I needed to return the money, or he’d call the cops in from the mainland.
Frantically, I walked the island’s main dirt road — the phone courier closely following while I searched for someone who could help.
In addition to running a top-notch dive op, Manta Dive can save your ass from prosecution. Flickr Creative Commons photo.
I stumbled upon Manta Dive and found an older British lady named Harriet (the owner) and her two Balinese office staff. With the courier still in tow, I explained to Harriet the situation. The courier again dialed his boss, but this time he put Harriet on the phone. She and my accuser went back and forth in Bahasa for several minutes. Finally, she muzzled the phone and gave me a look that conveyed an enormous amount of intensity:
“The man on the phone is the gentlemen you bought your ticket from in Padang Bai. He is accusing you of exchanging 700 counterfeit British Sterling. Did you do this?”
As I heard the words, it felt like the air was sucked out of my lungs.
One, I’ve never had any British Pound Sterling. Two — I don’t do stupid shit in foreign countries. At least not that stupid.
Once someone has been wronged, they care more about placing guilt than anything else. In the search for justice, this singular desire leads the victimized to create new victims.
Somehow, the proprietor of that business, the man on the phone, had connected me to currency fraud, and he wanted his money — and someone to blame. In essence, this is the problem with justice — once someone has been wronged, they care more about placing guilt than anything else. In the search for justice, this singular desire leads the victimized to create new victims, wherever they may be found.
Most of the time, catching somebody is better than catching nobody.
The spot where my fate was salvaged normally operates as a place of hustle, bustle and good times. Manta Dive photo.
With the help of Harriet and her staff, calm was restored, receipts were accounted for and innocence was finally established. During those proceedings, I watched the mobile phone get passed around the like a joint, each rotation offering new implications, new terror — a new fate. I've never felt so powerless.
But luckily, with each passing, the man’s accusations became more tempered. Finally, with the last passing of the phone to me, the aggrieved money-changer apologized.
“Samorse — I am sorry.”
And that was it. The potential of spending my vacation — and possibly much longer — in a sweaty Balinese dungeon casually waved away with “sorry.” I was mad, furious, sad and distraught. After the courier wandered off, I thanked Harriet, ordered two stiff drinks, smoked a cigarette (I don’t smoke) and booked as many dives with her operation as I could afford.
That loss of control, that feeling of no longer controlling your fate, is a common experience for the have-nots of this world.
Renowned for its world-class diving and snorkeling, Gili T — while beautiful — had made a resoundingly shitty introduction. Mikaku Doliveck/Bali Floating Leaf Resort photo.
There, on the shores of paradise, I was instead offered a glimpse of what hell could be like. Instead of daiquiris or piña coladas, I was allowed to taste the true bitterness of life. The feeling of having freedom taken and guilt assumed, all on an arbitrary hunch or lost receipt.
There, on the shores of paradise, I was instead offered a glimpse of what hell could be like. Instead of daiquiris or piña coladas, I was allowed to taste the true bitterness of life.
Most of us, perhaps more than we think, dangle precariously close to the edge of this slippery slope. A person’s life can be over for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for that matter, the right place at the wrong time.
In shock, I sat down on the beach, took a deep pull of Bintang and opened my journal to make sense of a senseless, chaotic world.
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