Indonesia

Lombok: a Lookee-see

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After a day in Lombok, we thought we’d wandered into a nuclear test facility.

Starting out in Sengiggi, we rented a scooter to explore the coastline and found tons of beaches, like the one above, that seemed completely untouched:

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It was bizarre. No one was here. While there are some resorts closer to the town of Sengiggi, five minutes north there’s not much. No development, no people, no tourists. Nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. On our drive up to some beaches, we passed three cows, a handful of chickens, a couple of goats, and a ton of coconuts.

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Compared to Bali, where every square inch of land in the south is accounted for – it felt like we were in the Prairies.

We both wondered how this was possible – stunning beachfront, turquoise water that can easily glaze eyes and pin minds into a meditative trance with the word “FREEDOM” flashing over and over as a mantra in time to the sound of waves lapping the shore.

Plus only a short 45min plane or boat ride from its next-door neighbour – Bali, who gets three times as many tourists each year than its population, and is showing signs of getting bent from the impact – and nobody was thinking, ‘hmmm, maybe we can also cook up some interest here’?

Of course, it turns out some people were. Rose and I asked everybody we met, essentially “what’s going on here?” or not going on, and we repeatedly heard the same thing: “Yeah, tourism was good, then not so good after the bombings. But it’s getting better”.

The bombings referred to were two bombings in Bali in 2002 & 2005 carried out by an Islamic fundamentalist group, which affected tourism in Bali and Lombok. Interestingly in 2000, the same Islamic group was stirring up ethnic tension in Sengiggi.

In any case, the result was a tourist exodus from both islands. While the numbers are now the same as the pre-bombing levels in Lombok, Bali’s tourism growth still continues to outpace it. The only possible exception are these three tiny islands that lie a couple of kilometres off Lombok’s mainland:

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Called the Gilis, one in particular gets most of the attention: Gili Trawangan (the one on the far left above) – a haven for backpackers, boasting only horse drawn carts and bicycles for ground transportation and magic mushrooms and beer to do the rest.

We visited in 2013, and it was already stacked with tourists. Having read that new developments have since been built, I can only imagine it’s now even more packed.

Yet, turn towards the mainland where we are, and you’ve got the hush of a study hall.

Sure, this can have its own appeal. And many travel writers and the Indonesian Tourism board pick up on this quietness, and promote Lombok as a tranquil spot to escape the hustle of Bali, and watch your pant size grow.

But here’s the thing (okay, two things):

1. Yep, it was quiet. But to me, it wasn’t the type of quiet that comes from a place that’s naturally slow-going, easy paced and relaxed. Touts, though not huge in numbers, were persistent, often showing frustration if we didn’t buy something.

While the majority of people we met were friendly, I also get the sense after talking with a lot of them that if more action was happening here, i.e. more tourists, it would be welcome. Though, I also got the sense that most people weren’t really chomping at the bit to come up with ways to make it happen.

2. It was Ramadan. Lombok is predominantly Muslim and this year, Ramadan ran for the month of July (typically a high season month for domestic tourists) which meant that very little was happening during the day, as people were fasting until sunset and most businesses were closed. This of course, can help explain the deserted and quiet feel, though from hearing other reports and judging from the worn, outdated feel of a lot of the b&bs/hotels, I’m pretty sure it’s consistently quiet throughout the year.

While things were generally peaceful and quiet, there were 5 times a day when things got loud. Call To Prayer. This wasn’t a big deal during the day, since we were mainly hanging out at the beach or zinging along the island on a scooter, and the calls dissipated in the breeze.

The problem came at night, because it just so happened that the two homestays where we slept in Sengiggi and Kuta had mosques as next door neighbours. Not just our own bad luck- most hotels were within 500 metres of a mosque. And the prayers came through about four loudspeakers on each one.

Every evening, like clockwork, prayers would start and I’d jump out of my skin from a voice that was suddenly bouncing off the walls of our room.

The sensation reminded me of when I would tinker with a stereo and was unsure why there was no sound. During the course of my investigation I would turn up the volume all the way, forget it was on full, then push another button and CLICK. To quote the band Elastica…a connection is made, and BOOM – I’ve induced a panic attack that’s rattling my sphincter.

Thankfully we had ear plugs, which meant that Rose and I began to resemble a couple in a retirement home, as I would have to pop out an ear plug after feeling Rose tugging on my arm, then look up to see her red-faced, frustrated that I didn’t hear her – and I’d lean in close and say: “Hunh?” – then we’d switch roles and repeat the scenario until one of us gave up or fell asleep.

Unfortunately, sleep didn’t last long. Each morning, prayer started at 4:30 at the same volume pitch from the evening – and if my ear plugs were well-suctioned in place, I’d open my eyes for a second, recognize the throbbing rhythm through the ear plugs, and the sound would invariably blend into my dream.

However, there would be occasions when, during the night (maybe from a particular action-oriented dream in which I was saving the world from global warming by creating an ingenious new energy source or saving the world from having to eat Miracle Whip) one of the ear plugs popped out of my ear and I’d bolt up at 4:30 when morning prayer came in, now in a semi-nightmare state worried I’d shown up naked at school and a teacher was asking what I’d done with my clothes.

This happened a handful times. Mercifully, the nightmares varied.

Apart from early morning starts, the rest of our time was spent roaming around beaches of Kuta in the South, which are really beautiful:

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And, wandering the town, sampling ridiculously tasty low priced food. On one of these stops, we thought, since we had an extra two weeks before our flight to Australia, maybe we could see more of Indonesia.

We settled on going to the island of Java where we’d see two old standbys from our past travels – Buddha and Vishnu – in grand style.

Talk soon (Sooner than last time)

Then one day on a bus and a ferry…

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After Labuan Bajo, our next stop was seven stops in 24 hours. A schedule fit for the Amazing Race – but, there were no yellow cards or a smiling New Zealander to greet us on our route. This was voluntary. The only possible incentive was to write about it afterwards. Aside from that, the question was why?

First, I have to clear up that map. It’s a liar. We followed A-G in order, but didn’t follow that long arc across the water from C to G. For some reason Google Maps wanted me to take this route, as much as I tried to disagree. In reality, we preferred this kind of path. There’s a freighter that leaves Labuan Bajo once every two weeks with a sleeper class, which would have been an even clearer line from A to G. Unfortunately, our timing didn’t work out.

We wanted to fly back to Lombok – but learned that no airlines want to despite how many times we agreed they should. That left us on the water.

We read various reports of some sketchy ferry companies that operate runs from Labuan Bajo to Lombok. One had sunk. And others also looked like they were ready to go overboard. In my eyes, these boats just seemed a little too dependent on Nature for their own success. In dead calm, things looked possible – but a little turbulence and the ship, in my estimation, would shrink in confidence to resemble an empty teacup, waiting for a top up.

Ironically, before we started our trip, we’d emphatically agreed not to take any local ferries. Like clockwork, we’d hear at least one report or more a year of a ferry sinking in Philippines or other Southeast Asian country. Often the cause was overcrowding on a shoddy vessel.

Revising our agreement in haste (we had one day to sort it out), we decided that to counter this problem we’d seek out a behemoth. A ship that was so big, waves massaged, rather than menaced it. We wanted a bully – a ship that could cut through waves, plough through swells, and break through currents. After a false start with one ferry company that folded on the day we wanted to take it, we found our Mothership.

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Although it was a local ferry – it ran everyday between Labuan Bajo (A) and Sape (B) – and we hadn’t heard any bad news. It also carried passengers, cars, trucks, and bananas. A whole lot of bananas. While I didn’t automatically feel safer that bananas were on board, (though they are tasty) what did give me comfort was that they were packed full within big dump trucks that, like a Russian doll, were themselves in something bigger: the ferry.

The boat left at around nine that morning and Rose and I were securely in the middle of what, two months ago, I would have considered anarchy, but now accepted as life in Indonesia.

Some families were sitting on the ground of the passenger deck, picking through food they had brought on board, ignoring the oil stains their barefeet scraped across on the floor’s metal surface. Others threw down a handful of sarongs, nestled between their bundles of bags, and drifted off to sleep, seemingly oblivious to the high pitched squeals and screams rushing out from stacks of speakers channelling an Indonesian slapstick show on a TV – followed two beats later by laughter and howls from the enthusiastic audience watching.

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A statistic: 68% of Indonesian men smoke. I’d say it was a conservative estimate that 90% of them were on board, making passionate love with their addiction. Rose found out that one of the biggest employers in Indonesia is the cigarette company, Gudang Garam. And with higher and higher taxes on cigarettes in North America and anti-smoking health campaigns, and in other parts of the world (New Zealand is increasing prices on a pack of smokes, 10% ever year – the latest price: $23 a pack) Asia has become a big focus for marketing. Case in point – (imagine the reaction if this were in Canada):

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Though, you’ll notice they had included one of those visual warnings to say smoking kills, albeit a mild one – exhaling a skull of smoke.

It’ll probably be a while before their government has enough strength to bend Marlboro and others to sign up for the North American poster gallery of horrors which we’ve plastered over our cigarette packages: tongues, gums, brains and lungs blackened and eviscerated by the disease that, in the cigarette companies extensive research and legal detentes, is only ALLEGED to have an effect on health.

I no longer smoke, and rarely see a pack anymore. But when I’m in a gas station waiting to pay and see the clerk lift up the faceless wall behind him to show a smoker what he or she can achieve if they really put their lungs to it, I imagine it’s not a smoker asking for a pack of cigarettes, but a medical student, interested in a specific autopsy – that he/she wants a sample of to take home and study.

In any case, on board our ferry, the air is a fog. And Rose is distressed. I’m not much better – but I think I have more tolerance, since I still like the smell, and sometimes get cravings, even though I quit eight years ago. Now, unfortunately, there’s little chance to catch oxygen in between smoke, so we decided to move into another room, labelled VIP, which really stands for Very Important Price. Anyone can sit there – in a smoke free room with reclining seats, and a Western toilet, as long as you pay an additional $2.50 each.

Done. And so were the remaining hours on this leg, as we sat back, read, wrote and chatted (pretty much the normal ingredients of any of our given days). Poof. 7 hours down.

B. Sape to Bima

We disembarked at this ferry terminal to a squall of vendors. Guys would approach asking us where we were going, then lead us one way, while another guy would ask the same thing and lead us in another direction, only for the two of them to end up in a fight. Complete mayhem.

Amazingly we got on the right bus with our luggage tied down on the roof, which had the dual function of offering a pillow or back rest to other passengers who were also riding up there in the open-air.

The bus took off as if it was a subway. We careened around corners, passed bikes and cars ripping along as if the driver was late for a first date. The backdoor was wide open the whole time with one guy ushering people on the bus who were waiting on the side of the road. He’d make sure they had one foot in the bus, then yell at the driver to take off again. Usually, this meant new people would choose their seats by falling into them.

At one point, I looked out the window at some passing scenery and I jumped. The hanging guy was outside my window, giving me a thumbs up with a huge smile – as he flapped in the wind at 80km/h. It was an odd sight, but also startling – because, I couldn’t see much of anything out of the bus – I was too tall and the windows were made for Rose. The effect was that I had to bend down, stick my knees up high on my seat and peer out the window with my chin on my chest. I returned a thumbs up – which, given my folded, knees up position, might have looked like I had also just been sucking it. Eventually after two hours, I unfolded out of my kid’s pose, and Rose and I were steered along to our next relay – the bus station.

c. Bima to Ferry2

We’d arrived in what was essentially a holding tank. A group of buses were all lined up, heading to various destinations with some buses competing for the same ones. All the bus owners were waiting for buses like ours – minis – to drop off their passengers, who would then fill up their big, proper touring buses. This meant negotiating a new price. And, Rose wouldn’t miss it, arranging a decent price based on prices we’d read from other travellers.

We were on a bus with the promise of air conditioning and a good pedigree based on the words “NEW” splashed across the front of the windshield, and a big Mercedes symbol.

It was a six hour bus ride to our ferry stop, and the promise began to fade at around the one hour mark, when Rose and I realized – the humid cool coming from the air conditioner was as good as we were going to get.

After drifting off to sleep, I woke up three hours later, sticky from sweat, and groggy. It was then I noticed the promise was really on the ropes – the bus had stopped with engine trouble.

I have no engine know-how. I normally have to get a second opinion when I’m looking at an oil dipstick. However, after looking over the shoulders of the guys tinkering with the engine, I was pretty sure they were replacing the fan belt. Or it could have been a calliper. Or, it could have been anything else entirely. I don’t know what a calliper is, only that it seems come up in movies or TV shows featuring cars.

Regardless, the problem was solved in 10 minutes and we were on our way.

D. Ferry to Labuhan Lombok

The bus arrived at the ferry dock, and drove right onto another behemoth. This time the setting was a bit different: it was now two in the morning, Rose and I were completely out of it from sleeping, waking and napping again, yet there was one thing that stayed true: a pack of guys each smoking a pack of cigarettes.

There was no TV as entertainment. Instead, there was a man with a dream and a microphone. He walked up in front of the seated audience, plugged a microphone into a speaker and started to sing a popular Indonesian song, which I guessed was popular because guys in the audience also sang, but then when he’d get to the chorus he’d screech out an improvised howl, which the guys in the audience reacted to with huge laughter.

Teetering between choruses, he was drunk and kept getting more excited at his improvised howl as he saw the reception it got. So, he would keep it up – adding more and more howls, until the song eventually descended into what was nearest to death metal, alternating between grunts and screams. His audience stayed with him for a while, though I could tell their interest was waning. I wasn’t into it and Rose had never even switched on.

At that moment we spotted another VIP room, and walked in. This time around, it wouldn’t be so cushy. No reclining seats. No seats at all. It was filled with benches, which were all filled with people lying down across them. We had the option to curl up on the floor on what looked like kids’ squishy mats, but Rose refused on germophobe grounds, which was reasonable, but I was so tired I was giving it consideration.

Instead, we both sat at the foot of a sleeping woman, heads in our laps, trying our best to stay asleep, despite still hearing the muffled yelps of the metal god from behind the door.

E. Labuhan to Mataram

We stirred at 4am, made our way back on the bus – and steering between consciousness and exhaustion we finally landed in our last stop, Senggigi, Lombok a few hours afterwards.

In total, that added up to 24 hours, and time for bed. We finally emerged, later that day, only after we confirmed that we could form full sentences.

Talk soon

Dragonquest

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It took only five minutes for this guy to show up after we’d arrived on his island. Amazingly that turned out to be the least dangerous part of our trip.

Some quick geography: Komodo National Park – as you may have guessed from its leading title – is where you will find Komodo dragons. They live on a few islands within the designated area of the park (the green):

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Currently there is no place for tourists to stay on any of them, which is why many people fly into Labuan Bajo on Flores island- a growing hub where tourists can sleep and eat (Red “A” above). Here’s a shot of the harbour from the place we stayed:

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Interestingly, Komodo dragons can also be found in a few pockets on Flores, however, for whatever reason (small numbers maybe?) they are not for tourists’ cameras.

As a launching point into Komodo National Park, many of the tour operators in Labuan Bajo opt to go to Rinca island to view the dragons. Mainly this is because it’s closer than Komodo island – about 1.5hrs versus 2hrs+ and apparently also better for sightings.

But to see them, you have to get there. And this is how we were going to do it:

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From that angle, it looks like a quaint little fishing boat that may stir romantic visions of the little engine that could. However, from the angle of sitting on its deck, I can vouch it very nearly couldn’t.

It was a sold out tour. Great news for the operator, however, for us, the tourists, it became a perilous seesaw of concern, which began with our chairs. There were 11 of us, and 8 chairs. Three people hopped on top of the engine hold to lie down, while the rest of us took our place on deck.

Now you might imagine how lucky we were to have a seat. And, you would be right, had they not been tiny lawn chairs made of such low grade plastic they could only bear the bum and weight of a small garden gnome. The other possibility is that the engineers had intended them to be objet d’arts, not meant for people to sit on.

When I did, the four legs splayed out like a baby deer slipping on ice. As the chair buckled, I had to adjust my weight on it to get the legs up again to a normal point. At first I thought I was the problem, then hearing another guy on board declare: “Aaaahhh!”, and seeing him do the same thing, I was convinced if I lifted the chair I’d find the name: “MATTELL” stamped on it.

I wanted to look under the seat to see where they were made, but that was the other problem: everyone’s knees were touching everyone else’s and a slight adjustment in weight might crunch the legs down again.

I summed it up as a mislaid shipment of Barbie chairs, and hoped for better things to come.

But they didn’t – at least for the duration of our boat trip there. Another quirk of the ship was that it rocked back and forth without any help from a wave. Rose and I were sitting next to each other, and as the boat tilted backwards, our chairs slid until they hit the wood frame of the boat with a sound: SHHHTTT (which, coincidentally, sounded a lot like the word we were repeating in our mind).

Now the same thing the other way: we go forward and have to hang on to the side so that we don’t slide into the two people facing us.

As we picked up speed, the rhythm did as well going back and forth: SHHHHTT. SHHTTT.

I looked over at a pair of other tourists across from us and noticed, after every bump, one guy would put his hat over his face in a mix of fear and anger, while his friend joked with me:

“After this, the dragons will be pussycats”.

I felt a little more resigned, partly because the other problem was that there were no life vests for anyone. If we went over, we had to swim for it, and I was genuinely prepared, just hoping we’d fall out near enough an island that we didn’t have to swim too much.

I asked Rose: “If this goes down, do you think they’ll count us as dragon fatalities”.

And so it went. We bobbed and weaved our way along – thankfully without a wave in sight, and approached the dragon’s lair:

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After arriving at the visitor center within five minutes, we spotted one that snuck out from under the building next door (same one as very top pic).

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Our guide motioned us to step back, which I was happy to do – because I’d filled my head with Komodo dragon facts before visiting and knew they were incredibly fast plus their saliva was an issue. The popular finding was that their saliva was septic, which meant if they bit you it wouldn’t heal easily. However, this was being debated by some scientists who now think the saliva may be venomous.

Either way it’s bad. And, they are willing to give it a try – a group of divers who got lost in a current here in 2008, washed up on Rinca island, and for three days, fought off dragons as they approached until they were found by a rescue team.

Plus, there was another story of a tourist who wandered off by himself, and that was that. Whether this is meant to scare tourists to stay close to their tour guide, who knows – but it wasn’t something I was going to test.

However, for our stroll, they had plenty of their main food sources on hand that are also island residents like deer:

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And monkeys, Water buffalo:

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Plus each other:

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We were told this guy is getting old, and weaker, and will invariably end up in another dragon’s stomach. The same goes for their own kin. We spotted this one at the beginning of our trek:

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And, it was explained that dragons have no maternal instincts. Once they give birth, the baby is on their own to fend for itself, and if it’s not fending well enough – it’s open game for Mum to snack away.

It was hyper-Darwinism. Ayn Rand would have loved it here.

Me, not as much. The more we walked, the more it sunk in why there aren’t any tourist spots here – the place is blighted. Not merely from a smaller version of a Tyrannosaurus Rex scampering around or three highly venomous snakes, including a spitting cobra, waiting to emerge at night to hunt, but even the palm trees aren’t inviting spots to sit below and daydream:

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And, amazingly, even these hardy, daggered palms are no match for another tree, which we spotted a few times along our trek that had wrapped itself around a palm as a parasite, slowly killing it.

Now factor in the heat, sand under your feet with these towering trees overlooking your path:

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And, I preferred my chances on our rocking boat.

Interestingly, Komodo Island, was used as the basis for Skull island in the film King Kong. While we were on Rinca nearby, its topography and wildlife I think is fairly similar.

As the story goes, a wealthy New York adventurer in 1920s was commissioned by the Bronx Zoo to retrieve live samples of Komodo dragons. He went by ship, detailing his journey and the strange wildlife he saw – brought back two live dragons for the zoo (which unfortunately, but not surprisingly died shortly after), and wrote a script which he later tried to sell.

He was friends with the director of King Kong who used his story as the basis for King Kong. The director added “King”, which the New Yorker had used in his story by referring to the dragons as: “King Komodos”. Plus for the story itself of someone going to a remote island to retrieve a whispered about species, the director swapped out Komodo dragons for a mongo ape including using ” Ko” from “Komodo” to use as “Kong”. Anyhow, a little tidbit that added an undertone of strangeness to our walk.

We didn’t spot any more dragons on our walk – which seemed preordained as our guide instructed us point blank: “Take all your photos here. We might not see any dragons later on.”, as we found this guy lolling about, in front of the kitchen only a few minutes after spotting the other one at the visitor center.

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In any case, it was our first introduction to Komodo (we dived the following the day). Interestingly, in retrospect, its tough, unforgiving nature on land turned out to be foreshadowing for what we would also find below the water (see last post).

Next stop, our next Indonesian island – Lombok, directly East of Bali. With no flights from Labuan Bajo we had only one option: Ferry + Bus + Bus + Ferry + Bus + Taxi = What time is it?

Talk soon