Monday, November 28, 2011

A Little Bit of Lombok


Lombok, Indonesia


This was the shortest time I ever spent on an airplane. From take off to landing the flight took less than 30 minutes. Jade, an Australian girl I befriended on the plane, had lived on the island of Lombok for the last two years and was therefore a useful source of tourist information. 



Do you want to share a cab? I’m going to Sangigi beach as well. It’s about 2 hours away from the new airport,” she said. 



Two Hours???”  


After spending 2 hours at Bali airport, and with two more hours on the road to go, I somehow wished I’d taken the fast catamaran instead of such a brief flight.

Bali is a destination that keeps the visitors coming back for more; the Balinese way of life, alluring landscape, charming customs and fascinating rituals captivate tourists of all stripes.  However, many returnees, who are either on their second or third visit, need new adventures and alternatives; a little more than just Bali. Thus, the island hopping begins. One of the popular options of course is the next island to the east – Lombok.

The island of Lombok is roughly circular in shape and slightly smaller than its better-known neighbor, Bali.  Although separated by only a narrow 35-kilometre stretch of water, the difference between the two islands is palpable. Despite their proximity, Bali and Lombok belong to different ecological regions (for those of you who might want to know more, look up the “Wallace Line”, named after the famous British natural historian, which runs between the two islands). Lombok is much dryer and less humid than ever-wet, steamy Bali – and the plants and animals found on Lombok owe more to their Australasian cousins as apposed to the more strongly Asian influenced flora and fauna of Bali. 
Charming rural life on Lombok, Indonesia

These differences extend to the culture of the two islands, with 95%  percent of Lombok’s residents following the Islamic faith (the Balinese are mostly Hindu), so instead of temples, you will see mosques here. In place of the big name resorts and hotels of Bali, lush green open spaces and rolling, forests hills dominate in less-developed Lombok. There is a quieter atmosphere here, fewer tourists and much less hectic traffic. Oh, there’s one more thing: instead of the ubiquitous Absolut vodka bottles, which are recycled and used to sell gasoline to the huge number of moped riders on Bali, on Lombok, fuel is sold in plane bottles which contained less intoxicating liquids. Perhaps you can take a guess why!

Gasoline in bottles

I was dropped off at Puri Mas Spa resort, a Dutch-owned and operated hotel with verdant tropical gardens that included a mini zoo (interesting to see the kangaroos and cockatoos in a nod to the Australian-influenced animal life of the island). Soon after arrival I discovered that Puri Mas has another property (under the same name) but right on the Mangsit beach, otherwise known as the hotel strip. As I preferred to be closer to the sea, I opted for a transfer, which the staff politely arranged. Just 20 minutes later, I found myself sitting on a deck chair by the hotel’s infinity pool, under a parasol that shielded me from the hot sun. Three fishermen in the distance were hard at work, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat, plying their trade in the waist-deep water. Just occasional warm sea breezes blew across the bay – but there was little relief from the heat. In front of me was the silver sea, seemingly endless, flickering under the bright afternoon sun and sluggishly preparing itself for what promised to me a glorious sunset show later on.  
The infinity pool at Puri Mas resort, Lombok

Sukadi, the taxi driver I made friends with on my way to dinner, volunteered to take me around the island for a flat fee. Half a million rupiah for the one-day use of his service that included the narration of facts and information of the island, gratuit! I bargained it down to 400,000 rupiah (about US$45). Senggigi beach is Lombok’s equivalent to Bali’s Kuta, and is the happening place. Of course, the night scene on Senggigi cannot compete with ever-bustling Kuta . Few people were on the streets, the restaurants were empty and the selection of food was limited. I walked into one roadside restaurant and decided to have dinner there, based on three things; a tourist-friendly menu, cleanliness and the chatty, friendly headwaiter – though I was so hungry he, admittedly, could have sold me just about anything at that point. A four-piece live band was playing “Hotel California” to five diners (including me!) seated at three separate tables and under the dim lights. Isn’t it funny how we try our best to avoid all things touristy when travelling? Yet sometimes we have no choice but to play along; tonight was one of those nights. Due to recent reports about how a methanol-contaminated cocktail caused an Australian tourist brain damage and kidney failure, I decided to not touch any mixed alcoholic drinks on this island. Apparently, 25 people, including 4 tourists, in the region had died after having cocktails mixed with local methanol-laced Arak recently. It is such a shame these beautiful islands are marred by greed acts like this.

Pelan-pelan, pak!” I asked Sukadi to slow down a bit in Indonesian, only to receive his cheeky grin in response. Despite the hour – it was still only 10am – even the morning sun kept the atmosphere stuffy and sizzling and I rolled down the window to draw in some cool air. I was now looking down at the scenic coastline dotted with countless palm trees that punctuated the sweeping expanse of white sandy beaches. Piercing blue and numerous shades of green suffused the scene. 
Our driver with the jack fruits


Driving through the island’s idyllic villages allowed me to observe the way of life. Lombokans lead a simple idyllic lifestyle. A woman was seen putting freshly caught fishes on the grill while the men smoked and shared chitchat. Some men nearby were loading coconuts into a truck. Obviously there is so much to be done with the insane number of coconuts on this island. Frequently we passed by women wearing conical hats either picking up vegetables or working in the paddy fields. As soon as they saw me pointing my camera at them, they shyly turned away but never failed to say “Hello”, flashing their megawatt smiles.



While travelling through Sukarara village, I was alerted by the noise and crowds on the street. Suddenly the traffic came to a standstill. Sukadi asked a child on the street and translated to me that there was a parade as part of a circumcision ceremony passing by. In Indonesia, according to the laws of Islam, this procedure is done when boys are somewhere between 6 to 11 years old. A little boy, aged around 6, was dolled up, costumed and being carried around on a multi-colored fake horse like a king, followed by three beautiful young girls as part of his entourage. The little boy looked quite bewildered by the hoopla but he seemed to be enjoying the attention (perhaps he didn’t know quite what was in store!). The girls were also on their respective thrones but they did not look so thrilled as they sat under the blazing sun with their makeup melting. A bullock cart piloted by two grown men was tailing close by and on it, a stereo blasting lively Indonesian songs through two large speakers. 
  On the way to circumcision ceremony, Lombok


An hour drive further took me to a village at the foot of Mount Rinjani, an active volcano that is proclaimed as “the second highest mountain in all of Indonesia”. At the tourism office I learned that two days trekking is required to get to the emerald green Crater Lake, Segara Anak (meaning “Child of the sea”) that I longed to photograph and a further one or two nights camping out in the wild in order to climb the extra 1,000 m to the summit. 



Why didn’t you tell me this?” I looked at Sukadi with puzzlement. Though to be honest it was not his fault but mine. I should have done my homework. Unequipped with mountain climbing gear and with only three days in hand, the volcano visit was now out of the question.


I consoled myself with a quick tour around the traditional Sasak village nearby. Sasaks are the indigenous people of Lombok and are related to the Balinese in terms of race and language – but are Muslim rather than Hindu. In addition to making distinctive basketry, earthenware and selling pearls, the tribe makes their living from “songket” handicraft. Songket is the weaving of fabric, which belongs to the brocade textile family that is common in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Apparently, the girl who cannot weave in the village cannot get married. 

Huts made out of cow dung, with thatched roofs lined the small lane on both sides. Children, some unclothed, were playing close by, unbridled and unattended. My presence had certainly brought them amusement. They tailed me around the village, giggling. The smell, the sight and even the air here felt different. The locals were friendly and accommodating but I felt that I was violating their privacy by taking pictures of their children and homes. While my thoughts were at it, the rain started pouring down as though it was a warning. So off we dashed, back to where we came from, but Sukadi, a man for all seasons, had a better idea - a late lunch at CoCo beach.

It was way past two in the afternoon when I arrived at this small warong (restaurant in Indonesian), nestled among a  forest of palm trees by the beach. Simply titled CoCo Beach Warong, here, patrons can enjoy scrumptious local cuisines in the bamboo gazebos while watching the mighty waves crashing onto the rocky shore. I lunched on a grilled fish prepared with local spices accompanied by fried rice with crispy fish crackers, snake beans and a fried egg on the side. It was a peaceful afternoon, spent listening to the soundtrack of nature on shuffle and doing absolutely nothing.

                     
The Glorious Sunset on Lombok island, Indonesia

Later that day, Sengigi beach became crowded with local tourists. Unlike Kuta of Bali, international tourists are rare. The bathers, swimmers, kite flyers and sunset watchers were scattered all over like pebbles on the shore. The amber sun was now gently glowing, gorgeous and sentimental. The view of the mighty Mount Agung on Bali, in the far distance, was hazy and yet still just visible in the evening mist. Seeing the sun gradually go into hiding below the horizon, changing its hues by minutes is, as clich├ęd as it may sound, priceless. Although it is a daily event, how many of us can truly appreciate a simple thing like this when we are not travelling?

Be it lazing around in the sun, immersing one’s self in the rural lifestyle or savoring adventurous activities, Lombok is a perfect little getaway. Although some parts of the island have been developed to an international standard, very much is still unspoiled and, probably, in much the same state is it’s been for centuries. A pleasant surprise for me was that the hospitality and graciousness of the Lombokans, which is on par with the Balinese. I wish I had stayed longer - but I am definitely coming back here again in the near future, perhaps for a fitness challenge. The trekking of Mount Rinjani that is.  Till next time!