Travel Books: Indonesia

Trying to stay on the cheap while travelling, I was relying on eBooks I could get from Toronto’s Public Library as reference for travel material. It soon became clear, however, after searching for “Indonesia” in the Library’s collection, that Indonesian books aren’t high on the list for serving Torontonians public interest. An amazing discovery, I know.

So, it meant I had to spend money on a book (Gasp). It became a mission: ¬†looked for a decent book on Bali for a while. There were some that got high praise, Under the volcano by Cameron Forbes, plus others which came out of the 1930s (Bali’s golden era, when ex-pats and artists set up here) – but thought there themes might be too specific about an aspect of Bali (one on gamelan music, for example) or from a too distant era.

So, I went with this one below, and swallowed hard as I forked over a few bucks.


It’s a decent enough book, providing a survey of the island’s history, including a glimpse at Holland’s colonial past on the island. Found it wavered into academia in parts and detailed hierarchies of the royal family over time (ex. this prince was married to this caste, which if you remember is non-royal caste that contained a third cousin from a previous marriage with his second cousin from royal lineage. Huh?). Sometimes it felt as tangled as trying to sort out the starting point of Internet traffic.

Overall though, found it a decent primer to learn about how the island’s image as this idyllic backdrop was largely cultivated by ex-pats, and isn’t entirely relevant of the actual Balinese culture.

Book I started but didn’t/couldn’t finish¬†


It’s a story about poor kids growing up in Sumatra and looking for inspiration in their lives. It was a decent enough book, but I found it a bit too simple and fairy-tale like. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and so I gave it a pass. From what I gather, it’s a bestseller in Indonesia. Who knows? I might have another shot at it.

Books I’d like to read (if I can get over my cheapness)


Meant to be a good history of Bali and gets praise from others ala: “If you only read one book on Bali, make it this one”. Since I’ve already read one will that spoil it?


Set in 1965 in Jakarta, follows story of a journalist around the time of the attempted Communist coup and Sukarno’s iron fist clamping down on it with wholesale impunity. Estimates are that he killed over 500,000 suspected Communists. It was also made into an early 80s film with Mel Gibson.


Lombok: a Lookee-see


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:



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.


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:


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:


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)

Manta & Sun rays


My right hand has started to go numb. My right elbow is throbbing, and Rose has just said: “It’s a right. Turn right up ahead!”.

At this moment, the only thing going right is the weather. We’re in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the East coast of Bali that like much of the mainland, is blessed with great views.


However, once you’ve tired of the blue sky and surf, and turn your gaze to the road, you realize it’s also blessed with a lot of potholes. Not a few. Not a smattering. Hives. Colonies. There’s more holes than there is an actual road, and we haven’t got a moon buggy to drive over them.

Right now, Rose and I are busy careening over every single one on a scooter. I’m turning my wrist to reduce our speed at the same time as clamping down on the brakes to make sure we slow down enough that we don’t bite our tongues as we pitch into each crater.

I’m sure it’s an easy enough task if you’re local. But I haven’t driven a scooter in a while, and I’m nervous. Rose is on the back, and I’m not used to steering and braking with an extra person. I’m tense and my knuckles have turned white from the crocodile bite grip I’ve got on the handlebars. In turn, this has put too much pressure on my hand so that I can no longer feel it, while it’s also sending pain up my arm where it’s now reverberating in my elbow.

It’s a fine old day in paradise, which could only be worse if we were lost.


And, wouldn’t you know it.

We’d asked our B&B where we could find a particular dive shop, which is the reason we’re here – to go diving. She’d pointed down the street to the left of the place, and said these simple, innocent words:

“It’s just down there”.

Now two hours have nearly passed, and we’ve been everywhere across the island. Really, everywhere. We’ve driven the entire length and perimeter, but we’ve yet to find “there”.

The greatest thing going for us is that we’re on an island. So, we both reason, and keep telling each other “we’re going to find it sooner or later”.

We were right, of course. We found it. Not sooner though. Much later. About another half hour more, after we’d thrown up our hands (one hand for me) and were on our way back to our B&B to ask the woman who gave us directions if she might be able to be a little bit more specific.

And, there it was, in plain letters, what we”d been searching for: Lembongan Dive Center.

Right. Next. Door. To. Our. B&B.

I estimated we drove by it at about, oh, the 6 second mark of our soon to be 2.5hr journey. Maybe I’m exaggerating: probably, more the 5 second mark.

After this, I thought Rose and I could star in the following public service announcement to help promote tourism:

“Do you have trouble with instructions? Find everyday conversations incredibly complex? Do you pull a door when the sign says push and you can’t help push when it’s time to pull?

Hey. We understand. Don’t get down on yourself. There’s a whole world out there you can explore. Book your ticket to travel today!”

Merci, thank you, Terima Kasih. I think it’s important to embrace one’s talents.

Thankfully we found the dive shop the next day, even early enough to get our dive gear on, and headed out in search of manta rays.

Amazingly, the water was as choppy as the road. There were huge swells, as the boat ran up over a wave, then came smacking down on the other side before rolling up another one to land smack dab again.

Rose and I each have our own travel weaknesses. Mine are planes. I had a panic attack flying in one nearly 15 years ago, and I’ve been fighting the impulse since – convincing myself it’s the safest form of travel, blah, blah (the statistical angle), you know being rational, while trying to beat down the irrational nutcase who pops out mid-flight to say things like: “You think that person sitting over there stowed a bomb on board?” or “What are the odds of hitting another plane in mid-air?” or ” That mechanical groan sounds like the wing might fall off” or after a bit of turbulence, in a similar cackle to Axl Rose from Welcome to the Jungle: “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!”.

Rose’s problem are boats. She’s had a long, violent history in their bathrooms, on deck, and leaning overboard. So, to pick up diving as a hobby might seem a little masochistic. But Rose, if you’ve come to know her at all, is very methodical, and here she was no different. She puts a firm system in place to counteract her swells inside. As I might hang tight to an armrest on a plane (keeping it aloft in my mind), Rose stares laser-like at the horizon, never to have her gaze interrupted. Even if I wheeled out a plate of pancakes with Devon cream and raspberries, she wouldn’t see them.

The side effect of this rigorous exercise is that she also takes a vow of silence. So intent is she on taming the sea inside her stomach to ensure nothing passes her lips, that she also includes words in the embargo.

In the early stages of the boat trip out, Rose and I got chatting with people on board, asking about their stay, where they’ve dived and so on. Then, as if on a dime, when the swells started and we smacked down – Rose turned away from the group, and entered her silent meditation as we all kept talking. So, to someone who doesn’t know her approach, it might have seemed as if someone had said something so supremely offensive that she now refused to speak to them.

But her silence wouldn’t last. Like someone who’s hypnotized until the magician says a special word to bring them back to lucidity, someone on deck said: “mantas!”, and Rose bolted out of her trance with a smile on her face.

Just to our right off the ship, were two 4 metre long mantas, swimming right near the surface. It was amazing to see – but as I was still staring, people were scrambling to put on their wetsuits and gear. “Right. We’re here to see them underwater”, and cluing in I got dressed up.

We dropped backwards off the boat, and as I turned around a manta was swimming right towards me with its wings and mouth spread wide:

“HOLY SHIT”, I nearly spat out my regulator.

Eventually, we settled into our dive and for the last 15 minutes we all sat around 20 meters deep and watched five massive mantas twirling around above us near the surface, eating food, and swooping around.

I was laughing underwater, I couldn’t believe we had this luck. Afterwards, Rose didn’t lose her grin for the entire ride back – and something remarkable happened – as we smacked down on top of another wave.

She spoke. She gushed. She couldn’t stop saying: “YESS! Did you see them flip?”

Could mantas cure sea-sickness? We’d test the theory at our next stop in Komodo where we once again suited up for diving.

But before that, I’d have a huge test. And, I barely earned a D+.

Talk soon