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The Gili Islands’ radio paints an increasingly dishonest picture of the post-Goa rave destination

Chilli Island Radio plays songs like The Doors’ “LA Woman”, with its shaggy-headed bass line, written around the time the first Westerners came to the Gilis.

By Antonia Quirke

There has never been a radio station on any of the Gili Islands, a trio of coral-reefed humps off the coast of Lombok. Signs in bars promote Chilli Island Radio, a station on the mainland (sponsored in part by a brand of mosquito spray) that gives bustling “tips for travellers” (chiefly to be prepared for sometimes vomitously turbulent seas on the way to the islands). It plays songs such as The Doors’ “LA Woman”, with its gorgeous, shaggy-headed bass line, written around the time the first Westerners came to the Gilis as tourists, suggesting a general air of barefoot, sexy-tousled backpackerness. Which is increasingly dishonest.

For some years now, the largest of the islands has been a thumping post-Goa rave destination for Australian and British teenagers (the magic mushrooms are of legendary quality) and the night markets are full of kids flushedly tripping among disdainful Indonesian cats, who pick delicately on the remains of barracuda heads dropped from stalls. But as of this year, the heightened sound of night-long beach-clubbing has spread to the other two islands, and residents are consumed by a super-tight despair. (On the further island, Gili Air, the local Mullah recently installed new loudspeakers so the call to prayer might be heard over the lingering sounds of dawn parties, and their fast, repetitive psyche-trance beats layering and ceaselessly building towards nothing.)

Yet no word of it on the radio. A strange kind of omertà, which perhaps has as much to do with not wanting to verbalise the ruination of something beautiful, to admit its power, as it does about putting off any tourists. Instead, DJs talk warningly about “which way the wind is travelling that day” – which one takes as code for the direction of noise being carried across the water. The denial reminds me of the scene in An American Werewolf in London where the two stars cross the howling moor, asking with increasing dread: “Did you hear that? What was it? A coyote?” Only once do I hear the parlous situation articulated, on a Gili Islands edition of the podcast Travel with Rick Steves. The travel writer Dave Seminara talks about the “perfection” of the “no cars, no motorbikes” islands, admits that “Gili Meno might be changing”. Then shuts up. 

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This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire