Indonesia, Travel Journal

29 June 2015 – 17 July 2015

The eighth and final entry in my Southeast Asia journal. 

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Our first guesthouse looked deceptively nice from the outside.

Singapore/Kuta, Bali (Indonesia) – Day 75

A nice man takes us to the airport, and for a price cheaper than we expected. He talks about Premier League football in perfect English, and his concerns about the growing cost of living in Singapore. In the airport we quickly learn our flight to Bali is two hours delayed, thanks to an erupting volcano in East Java and the enormous ash cloud it has belched out (we see it with our own eyes later!). It’s not the end of the world, though, because the airport has six hours of free WiFi and an abundance of charging stations. We enjoy a brief conversation with another traveler at the gate before boarding the plane. From there it’s quite an alright journey, though we detour slightly to avoid the guts churning out from the center of the earth. On landing in Bali, we hear pleasant Australian accents – lots of them. We jump a taxi, which costs less than a fiver, to arrive at our incredibly disappointing guesthouse. Now I want to take the time to name and shame here, purely because the owner was a jerk. We stayed at Warung Coco Guesthouse & Bungalows. The room stunk like the dreaded Sawasdee Smile Inn back in Bangkok – you’ll understand this reference if you read the first entry of this journal, of course. The sewage smell resonated from our dirty, grubby bathroom, and, the second we opened the door, a cockroach scuttled directly towards us! I stamped on it, which wasn’t fun in a cheap pair of Primark flip-flops. (It had to happen once I suppose, I’m actually surprised the crunching of horrible cockroaches in flip-flops wasn’t a motif of our whole adventure.) We complained to a member of staff who, clearing up the cockroach, gave a vague and uninterested response about the smell, saying it had something to do with the “seasons”.

For more than one reason we waste no time leaving the room, orientating ourselves with the new environment. We find a pizzeria and eat a medium sized pizza each, for a whopping £1.66. Then we make it down to Legion Road, which is party central. A sort of Kavos or Ayia Napa for the Aussies. It’s also the crime scene of the Bali Bombings, a horrific al-Qaeda attack that killed 88 Australians, 28 British, and 202 in total. I’d never even heard of it before. There’s a memorial on the road remembering the victims. We find a tourism booth with tours to the volcanoes Ijen and Bromo on the neighbouring island of Java (and where the currently erupting volcano is situated). I get a stir of excitement, but it’s so late all of the tourism booths have closed. We decide to head back to the hotel after a quick look-round, and are offered drugs my shady men almost every step of the way.

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Today was a bad day for us. It started when we headed to the tourism booth and learned more about the details of the Bromo and Ijen volcano treks. It’s a three hour trek just to reach Ijen’s crater, then another hour descent into it in order to see the blue flames. Although that’s all fine with me, I knew it would be a tough sell to Sophie, who wasn’t all that interested in the first place. After learning it would be an arduous twenty-four journey in total, with a four hour march on a cold, pre-dawn slope, I knew I had effectively killed any chance of persuading her. I end up sulking because ever since that chat with Sammy, back in George Town, I’ve been waiting to see the blue flames. And way before then, in STA travel, it was a picture of Bromo that made me want to come to Indonesia in the first place.

For the remainder of the day we sat by the pool in Warung Coco, and tried not to gag in the smelly bathroom as we showered for the night. We end up booking the tour, but for Bromo only. On a positive note, I had a delicious lamb dinner to make up for an unpleasant lunch, and in a lovely restaurant, too. We discover a bar with pool tables and play three games (I lose two out of the three). We drink alcohol, albeit gingerly. There’s all sorts of stories about the alcohol in Indonesia. Westerners have lost their vision – died even – because locals mix the drinks with methanol to save money. In some cases genuine bottles of say, Smirnoff ICE, have been replaced with the deadly stuff, and put on sale to unsuspecting tourists. We’re on Legion Road, though, and we doubt that such deadly mixing would be happening in the hub of tourism, and on the main road… We hoped, anyway. We don’t stay out too late, because it’s an early start leaving for Bromo in the morning, so we go back to the room.

Bali/Java (East Java province) – Day 77

I wake with an unsettled stomach. Breakfast is served: a massive plate of greasy noodles with toast by the side of the pool. I know we’re in for a long day, but I just cannot force myself to eat it. I nibble at the toast and that’s my sustenance for the next 24 hours.

A mini-van turns up to collect us. It has no seat belts; curiously they’ve all been cut out, and from out of my subconscious springs a relevant fact – that Indonesia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for road accident/deaths. On the plus side it’s just the two of us, and the chairs recline so we can sleep comfortably. It’s a four hour drive to the port on the other side of Bali, where we’re to take the ferry over to Java. We sleep for much of it, though I do drift in and out (and the driver doesn’t help things by driving like a maniac). Eventually we arrive at the port and are greeted by another man, saying farewell to the mini-van driver and following our new guide down the dock. It’s a nervous affair. We are led on to a large ferry, carrying lots of cars and some miserable looking Indonesians. Our guide vanishes without warning, leaving us alone on the strange boat. Fortunately, there’s a mundane looking family of Europeans on top deck, and two other travelers. We sit down on chairs that are bolted to the deck, in the middle of the boat, feeling more relaxed. Sophie spots our guide. He’s wandering about like some other passenger, glancing overboard. He then settles down to sleep without saying a word. The ferry to Java lasts over an hour and, considering it’s clear skies and rather placid looking water, rocks disconcertingly: like one of those pirate ship rides at a theme park. It’s no exaggeration when I feel it could capsize at any moment. From my subconscious springs another relevant fact: that Indonesia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for boat accident/deaths (in hindsight, not surprising considering the vast archipelago).

But we survive and, after stepping out on the soils of Java, are left to our own devices for 20 minutes while we wait for a coach to come get us. A huge travel coach turns up, completely empty, just for us. The only people on board are the driver and, presumably, a work college or friend. It’s a grueling venture inland that takes eight hours instead of five and, because Java actually is in a different time zone to Bali, we lose an additional hour. Out of the windows we see mosque after mosque after mosque, and vast crowds of the faithful, all robed, pouring out of after worshiping their God. It was kind of… scary. (It was Ramadan.) At around sunset we stopped for food, which was rice again, and still I could not bare to eat it. At some point in the complete darkness of night we reached Probollingo, a jumping-off point for Bromo, where we are required to leave the coach for a smaller van. There are other westerners waiting for transport, but none accompany us. I keep expecting us to arrive at Bromo any minute – considering the trip was supposed to take five hours – but there’s still another hour to go of mostly uphill ascension. The temperature plummets the higher we go, where the old van trudges windy, dark roads with cliff edges. We reach a slope that’s so steep the van can’t take it. The driver stalls, the engine overheats, and we begin to roll back. We get out, annoyed, and Sophie gasps at such a steep incline. Fortunately it’s not long before the driver gets the engine running again, and we finally reach our destination. It’s called Cemoro Lawang, a solemn cluster of houses in the cold and dark surrounded by a slightly intimidating and shadowy volcanic landscape. Without a choice, we are led to a (hostel? homestay?) down a quiet and dark path. A man opens what looks like a shed – at first I thought he was getting some tools or keys out of it or something – but is actually our room for the night. It’s by far the worst of the entire trip: cramped, squalid, damp, cold with a hard bed, a squat toilet, and not even a sink to wash your hands in. I console myself by thinking how late it is. We’re getting up for the sunset, so it’s not really a ‘night’ in the room, more a few hours of sleep. I find little spiders crawling about in the hut, but keep that information to myself.

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A lovely squat-toilet. Our first in Asia.

We leave our bags and head out to explore the village, but our motivation is more to do with hunger, a need to stretch the legs, and a desire to get out of our shack rather than genuine wanderlust. The only activity amidst the dark and silent wooden houses was a small cafe – if you could call it that. It was as cramped and as miserable as our room, the clientele being a few weary travelers getting some late night food. The menu again is just greasy and heavy rice. I order toast but it tastes sweet, dammit, and I can’t finish it. My stomach is beginning to revolt against the food. Everything is either really greasy, or sweet. I expect nothing left of my teeth returning to England. Back in the shack we snuggle together to keep warm. There’s only four hours before we have to get up anyway.

Mount Bromo – Day 78

As usual Sophie presses the snooze button, but somebody knocks on the door impatiently to wake us (making her grumpy). It’s not quite frosty outside, but I’m forced to wear Sophie’s elephant pants because I don’t have anything other than shorts. We hurry to get ready but there’s no real rush. Outside, the man who last night showed us to our room is waiting. It’s still the middle of the night and cold. I point to the ‘mountains’ around us, and he tells me which ones are volcanoes. There are a lot. A German couple and two bromosexuals (an apt term for the two Taiwanese tourists in our jeep – coining it) accompany us as we set off. It’s so dark. All I can see are the refulgent headlights of the jeep, and whatever it is they illuminate. Otherwise, we could have been in deep space save for breathable air. The driver rags us along, obviously knowing where he is going. I on the other hand, am slightly concerned we are about to tumble down a cliff-side. My skin stings as the wind picks up, as sand blows in my face. We pass what ominously looks like a small but recognizably volcanic cone that seems to have ambushed us from out of the darkness. We are driving across the Sand Sea, though we did not know it at the time, only later would we return under the light of day to find Mount Bromo waiting for us; that we’d passed within a few hundred meters of it, while it was churning away the whole time. Some travelers can opt to hike, rather than take a jeep like we have, but imagine hiking and an eruption taking place, taking the wrong turn or getting lost! What if poisonous gases from the crater drifted down in the dead of the night!?

Although we’d heard about the crowding a sunrise at Mount Bromo can bring (“traffic jams” was a word the Book used), we felt reasonably optimistic because we’d hardly seen a soul or headlights from any other vehicle. But as we started to move uphill it did get congested. My heart sank. Where had all these people come from, our sleepy little village? We get out and start walking to the top, to the summit of Genung Penanjakan, a supposedly excellent viewpoint of what’s known as the Tennger Massif, an iconic part of Bromo-Tennger-Semeru National Park. At sunrise you can see the old calderas, the very active Bromo, as well as the smoking guts of Java’s tallest peak, Mount Semeru, in the distance. We purchase scarves because we are warned about “fumes”, though I’m not sure if the man selling them to use was referring to volcanic fumes or the exhaust fumes from a hundred jeeps. (It could also have been a sleazy sales tactic.) We rush to the top along with the German couple but, depressingly, as we climb it gets foggier. At the summit it’s completely overcast. We wait almost two hours for the clouds to thin, but we only manage a view of the sun and, briefly, the hazy character of Semeru, but that’s about it. Just look at what we were supposed to see. That image below. Look at it! That’s the sole image that made me want to come to Indonesia in the first place. Now look at the second image, below it, taken from approximately the same place, of what we actually saw…

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Expectations…

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…versus reality (if you squint you can just about see plumes of smoke and the top of Mount Semeru in the background).

…shit, isn’t it. The Germans are good company, though. And very German. (They had sausages for breakfast!) We get back in the jeep, and I sulk a little bit. This is what we traveled 24 hours for? But as we descend, moving out of the clouds, a glorious view of the Sand Sea and volcanic landscape presents itself, now a golden hue in the early sunlight. As it says in the Book, there is a distinctly end-of-the-world feeling here, as though it’s the late Cretaceous or something. The jeep stops in the middle of the Sand Sea, about 2km from Bromo (so the driver says), giving us the option to explore. We are swamped with Indonesians trying to loan us a horse so we can use it to ride up the slope. This I felt, slightly dampened the experience. Here is a glorious volcano billowing smoke in a faux-prehistoric landscape, and all I can smell is horse poo mixed with volcanic ash. Worse, the horses are skin and bone. I couldn’t in good conscious ride one of them, though many of the Chinese tourists jump at the chance and – shockingly – our German friend does too, and she said she owned a horse back in Germany! We start our walk to the top, and Sophie has an allergic reaction to the horses (you can smell them everywhere, and I bet their hairs are blowing about all over the place) so our climb is slow.

Finally, we reach the crater-edge of Bromo. The volcano itself is fairly small, but the crater is massive, if that makes any sense. Inside, there are massive blast striations from previous eruptions (2010 and 2011, though villagers have reported “explosions” and “detonations” in the night as recent as a few months ago, apparently nothing to worry about!). There’s a yellow crust or bleaching of the rock around the vent, where the plume of smoke is billowing from. I assume it’s sulphur. You can intermittently smell it at times, it’s an unpleasant smell, like rotting egg. The smoke plume, in my opinion, looks quite serious. God only knows how noxious the gas is (actually the volcanologists and geologists probably know exactly how noxious it is, but saying ‘God’ sounds more magniloquent). My point is, we were stood right there, on the crater-edge. The smoke just happened to be blowing the other direction. They don’t let you ascend if the smoke is blowing by way of the stairs. But what if the wind changed? What would happen if one was caught up in it? Would it burn? Would it suffocate? I watched as it moved in a clockwise, then anti-clockwise motion, around the other side of the crater, threatening to turn on us. I can also hear this awesome sound of energy straight from the vent itself, the raw power of mother earth, like a soft growling or churning, or water turning over inside it. Then for some reason I wondered, what would happen if somebody just… jumped into the crater? Would it be painful or instant? A few brave tourists walk precariously round the crater edge, toward the plume. I get a few panoramic photographs from our vantage point, and find it’s time to leave. I wish we had a bit more time.

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A panoramic from the crater-edge.

Shockingly, we are back at Cemoro Lawang for breakfast in minutes, that’s how close we’d slept to the volcano last night, everything shrunken and less mysterious in the light of day. Our breakfast is pretty horrible. Stale bread in a plastic lunch box with a slice of cheese, a banana, and an egg with a black yolk. I eat everything except the egg because it’s the first food in two days that isn’t either greasy or sweet. Sophie and I then collapse into sleep during the hour’s drive to Probollingo, where we are forced to wait 40 minutes at some sort of transfer terminal for a (different) German couple to arrive – not what you want as a precursor to a 13 hour journey back to Bali! There’s a crowd of people waiting for another bus, all headed to Ijen. I enviously listen to their excitable gossip until we go our separate ways, departing with just the one other German couple on our coach. The trip back is tiring and mind-numbing, but we reach a relatively nice hotel to finally sleep in, and are upgraded to a premium room for free.

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The view from the boat. You can see Mount Raung on the far left belching out a huge gas column. This would cause us problems later.

Kuta, Bali – Day 79

Today was mostly a recuperation day so we slept in and, because it’s a decent hotel, lay by the pool. Unfortunately, the pool is located in a narrow courtyard overlooked by two hotel blocks so the sun can hardly reach it, and is snuffed out for good by 3pm. We eat some over-priced snacks by the pool before going back to the room to chill. It’s a nice room but, like Malaysia, it has no windows, which we do not like. Feeling fresh and rested, we head to Legion Road and eat some Italian food, though the food does not agree with my stomach and makes me feel sick. We play pool and discover a lovely cider – Bali Cider – before going back to bed.

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Not being thoroughly impressed with our hotel (it’s dated and a bit above our price range), we look for more accommodation to spend the night. We check in to the Sunset Bali Hotel, which is lovely, and at a really reasonable cost. The one downside is, it’s a bit far from the action. We taxied back to the strip where we lunched at a surfer’s bar before heading to the beach. Immediately I can see why surfing is so popular here, the waves breaking on the beach are massive and never-ceasing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Me and Sophie could spend the entire day jumping into them if the whole coast wasn’t CRAMMED with surfers, amateur and professional alike, and if we had somewhere to put our belongings.

It’s 50, 000 rupiah for an hour on the sun-loungers, but we barter for the price to extend to three hours. We also bump into Cath here, and spend the rest of the day chatting with her, taking in a glorious vision of the sun setting beyond the sea. We agree to meet on the strip in under two hours and go to shower, deciding on a place called MINI, a nice restaurant near some rowdy clubs full of drunk Australians (and dodgy men selling mushrooms). This is also my last-burst effort to convince Sophie to fly with me to Flores, to see the komodo dragons and the beaches with the pink sand, but I fail. (And I’m glad she talked me down, I’ll explain why later.) We play pool, the three of us, in the night. Cath is really improving. Finally we walk home, but not without a pizza to absorb the alcohol.

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Another lie in. I’ll admit at this point we’re starting to feel a little burnt out. Maybe we’ve not fully recovered from our Bromo excursion, maybe we’re just resentful of the increasingly expensive and shoddy accommodation here in Kuta (take me back, Singapore!). Unlike the rest of Asia, where it’s been low season through the summer, it’s actually high season in Bali, which we never thought about. I guess it makes sense, though. If it’s winter in Australia, the Aussies will all have come here to chase the sun. But the prices really are high even for grim hotels, and it’s eating into our budget. Although I feel a bit hypocritical writing this as we’re still in the Sunset Bali Hotel which, as I mentioned, is lovely and reasonably priced. But we got lucky this time. (We would get lucky with two places in Kuta overall, but not with Sunset Bali, which was really expensive when we tried to book it again.)

We opt for a day by the pool again, in what really is a lovely and intimate pool area which we have to ourselves. It suffers from the same problem as the previous hotel, though, and the sun hardly manages to shine on it. We lethargically waste the early evening in the room before heading to a bar that sells Bali Cider. It’s full of Australians, including two gimpy girls who feel the need to dance as they eat, and later meet Cath for dinner. Together we walk to a place called Crusoe’s Bar, which has a good few pool tables. Many of the tables are occupied with Australian men playing with the prostitutes. Maybe the game serves as an icebreaker? Anyway, I win my games 3 – 1.

Kuta/Ubud, Bali – Day 82

I can’t remember what made us decide to go to Ubud, maybe it was because a traveler had told us how great it was (“make SURE you DEFINITELY go…”), maybe it was because I didn’t think much of Kuta. In our minds we’d pictured Ubud to be somewhere like Da Lat in Vietnam or the Cameron Highlands because we were told it was cooler there, and up in the mountains. And although we both enjoyed those two places, we simply didn’t feel like going to Indonesia’s version of the Cameron Highlands. Truth be told, I don’t know what we were thinking. Anyway, I’m glad we went. Because Ubud was positively beautiful.

Today started with checking out of Sunset Bali and breakfasting there, while we waited for a shuttle-bus to take us away. In true Southeast Asia style the bus is late – Bali does have some of the worst traffic congestion we’ve seen, to be fair. It’s also overcrowded when it arrives. Sophie is sandwiched between two boys in the back and has my bag at her feet, while some fat Australian demands I squeeze up between him and the driver in the front. Other westerners joke that the bus still isn’t done picking up passengers. What follows is an hour of safe driving. I get talking to the Australian, who is on his way to the neighbouring island of Lombok to do some motorcycling. He tells me he’s never visited another country other than Indonesia, and he almost always goes to Lombok. What a waste.

We’re dropped off at the bus “station” (slab of concrete) at the end of the pleasant-sounding Monkey Forest road. From there we get a taxi because we don’t know where we’re going. Our place is only two minutes away but a bit of traffic and a wrong turn make that fifteen. First impressions are great: Bali is, I think, the only place in Asia far NICER than I expected it to be. It looks so different, you could be in another hemisphere, never mind another country. For starters the predominate culture/religion is Hindi, so Hindu architecture is abound: dragons, monkeys, turtle statues, ceremonial incense and, all over the place, offerings of flowers and sticks on the floor. It’s still hot, but hot in England hot, and (as we find out later) pleasantly mild at night. There are cute spas and restaurants. Our accommodation is, also, by far the most interesting we’ve stayed in. It looks like a temple; the door to our room wouldn’t look out of place in High Garden or the House of Lannister. We don’t actually like it at first, but we grow really fond of it. We book a trip to the rice paddies for tomorrow and go in search of food, stopping to hand our dirty laundry over to a woman on the way. Ubud has me in nirvana, it’s all so serene. There’s a nice outdoors bar with live music. We enjoy Long Island Iced Teas for 55, 000r and take in the good vibes. Also, I get my first real glimpse of a truly southern hemispheric sky, and what I assume to be a faint band of the Milky Way. I don’t recognize any of the constellations, it’s like looking at a book in another language. One half of the sky seems empty; the other crammed with bright stars.

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The door to our room in Ubud.

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From the balcony there is a great view of what I think is Mount Agung in the east. It’s a lovely morning; our breakfast is small but pleasant (poached egg on toast). Not long after, we’re picked up to go and see the stunning rice terraces. We head down a small path that descends into the terrace, and unfortunately there are Indonesians demanding tips at every turn for no real reason – just to be allowed to walk past them! It’s 10, 000r in at the entrance, which you can’t grumble at. But then there’s a little wooden bridge with a “toll” and a hut further along where an occupant demands a fee for further access. We had an hour on the trip to explore, but really we could have done with more time. My eyes feasted on our wonderful surroundings in the hot sun, and I snapped plenty of beautiful photos. Back in the car, our driver asked if we’d like to see a coffee plantation. We say yes, and he drops us off a little down the road. We are promptly handed a tray of ten teas/coffees with flavours brewed on site, ranging from vanilla to coconut to cinnamon. He shows us the plants, ones found in the jungle and used to grow spices and extract flavours from. I’d never thought about it that way. Plants that smell of ginger and vanilla! I always thought the flavours were synthetic somehow, manufactured chemically. But there was a leaf in my hand that smelled unmistakably, of vanilla. We are then shown a type of coffee produced by a civet. The civet is an animal similar to a ferret. It eats the coffee berry, everything except the bean, the bean is then fermented in the stomach and excreted. Anyway, we try this civet coffee (it should be noted, though, that some consider this animal cruelty, something we naively overlooked at the time and, in hindsight, probably wouldn’t have tried had we thought otherwise). I don’t like it, but then again, I don’t like coffee in general.

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The stunning rice terraces.

We’re dropped off at the Sacred Monkey Forest and there’s plenty of Macaques (someone appropriately referred to them as the “pigeon” primate) jumping about in the bushes, grooming, and play-fighting. We take a stroll through. They steal bottles from tourists, and one even scratches a little boy, breaking the skin! The architecture and temples are, for me, the real lure of the walk, and the scenery in general. We spend a good hour or two in here before heading back on to the road of our guesthouse. There’s so many massage parlors on the way that we decide – why not? And it’s so cheap! £3 per person for a half-hour back massage. In fact, it’s so relaxing I have trouble keeping awake. Feeling refreshed, we head back to the room, picking up our fresh laundry on the way, and meet Cath. In an astonishing coincidence, she has booked the room next to us in the same hotel. We head out to dinner together (a lovely chicken breast for £2.50), and walk to what has been decorated to look like a western saloon, playing endless games of pool. Cath is really improving and beats both me and Sophie (to offer some meager defence, it was my fault for potting the black). And together, we narrowly beat her on the rematch. We walk back but I get starry eyed again, and Sophie has to virtually push me back to the room.

Addendum: Two of the guides today asked about the snow when they found out we were from England. One said “I’ve never seen snow, only in my dreams”. They seemed curious about the seasons, too. On the equator, things pretty much stay the same. Save for the wet and the dry seasons. As Suresh said about Malaysia: “The weather is so boring”. In fact, this isn’t even the first time we’ve heard Southeast Asians express a sort of FOMO for snow.

Ubud, Bali/Sneggigi, Lombok – Day 84

It’s barely after sunrise and we’re stuck on the deserted roads waiting to be picked up by a tour van. We start to think maybe we’ve been forgotten about (why are we always the last ones to be picked up)? But in the end everything turns out alright. While we are waiting an Indonesian taxi driver drops off a group of white tourists with one black woman, then curiously turns to us and says: “African woman. Black. Blaaack!” Before driving off. There are stunning views on the drive to the harbour of the Bali landscape, including the very photogenic Mount Batur overlooking the rice paddies. We arrive to find a mass of parked vans. As usual, there’s a complete lack of organisation. One man asks for our tickets, takes them, then vanishes, all while we’re queuing for the wrong boat. Then he reappears and shows us the right “office” (shed with a desk in) to sort things out. On the way to the boat a mean man follows Sophie up to the toilet she is using and hammers on it, demanding she pay to use it. It shakes her up and makes us both angry. The boat itself is small, fairly comfortable and – the best part – doesn’t look like it will sink easy, and there are westerners everywhere.

On arrival Lombok looks idyllic – white sandy beaches and palm trees. Unlike Bali, it is a Muslim-majority island, and a little forgotten about (so we read in the Book). Rather confusingly, there’s another Kuta on the island. We decide within half an hour of landfall that we don’t want to travel there, because it’s supposedly “plain unless you’re a surfer”. It must be where all the surf-junkies go to escape the crowds of Kuta beach in Bali, which also has great surf. I don’t think we thought much about the Gili islands, at least I don’t recall us thinking much about it, but we seemed to be set on going to them once we settled in Sneggigi, the immediate area from the dock. It’s an average place. Nothing wrong with it but not much going for it, there’s a good number of bars, hotels, restaurants, and shops, but it’s “cool” has been “stolen” by the Gili islands (again, quoting from the Book). We walk along the strip and, with no prior accommodation sorted, decide to treat ourselves to a hotel with a nice pool area. We check in and within minutes are sunbathing, resting after a tiring day. Afterwards we buy tickets to the “party” of the Gili islands, Gili Trawangan. I barter the seller down to 50, 000r. Then we play pool.

As the day draws to a close we sit outside an empty bar and drink Long Island Iced Teas, bartering for the 2-4-1 deal even though happy hour has long ended, and watch the sky. After sunset it turned a dark pink, then to a purple-lavender colour, something I’d never seen before. I didn’t even know a sunset was capable of producing those wonderful colours. We enjoyed a few more drinks and went to bed.

Sneggigi, Lombok/Gili Trawangan – Day 85

It’s another early rise for our transport, and another wait. Eventually the driver picked us up – then asked to check our tickets while he was driving! We are dropped off at some sort of collection point with other westerners on their way to the islands, unfortunately there are some very rude and intimidating men that mar the experience, trying to sell us a boat ticket to Bali. Their asking price drops from 600, 000r to 400,000r, but still I’m not interested. The men continue to stand next to us, even over us, even after we’ve stopped talking, and refuse to give us the WiFi code unless we buy something from them. They’re harassing other people though, which makes me feel better. The scary bit came when everyone got up – when it was time to board the boat. The men told us it wasn’t for us, that everyone was going to a different Gili island. True, of the small crowd of travelers none we’d spoken to seemed to be going to Trawangan (the most popular, party island) but it didn’t feel right that everyone was leaving – and for us to be left alone with these men. I asked one of the men. It was 10am at this point, when our boat was due to leave, and he just said, “buy a ticket [back to Bali] and I’ll tell you”. We got our stuff and walked out defiantly. Some travelers, we noticed, were getting into little horse drawn carts. An Indonesian man shouted at us to hurry, that we’d miss the boat if we didn’t go by horse. We couldn’t even see the sea, but we decided to walk anyway. The man with the horse, initially demanding 50,000r, turned desperate and halved his asking price. We took it, but we were scammed, and a few others fell for it. The cart pulled us down a very short and easily walk-able route which revealed the boats and the sea, and I was a bit pissed-off. If it weren’t for the intimidating men not letting us leave without a ticket, we would have seen a fair portion of travelers walking together who chose to ignore the carts and the scam. But because we were so late out, we only saw the few travelers scrambling into the carts. I’m glad I never caved and bought a ticket, but it made no difference really. I later found out their asking price was no inflated figure, and we eventually bought tickets back to Bali for a similar price (it gave me the pleasure of turning them down, though).

At the marina, Sophie made the mistake of letting a man carry her bag on to the boat for her. He practically swept it from her back, lugged it a whole three feet, then begged for a tip. It was an uncomfortable experience because, as we were the only travelers for whatever reason heading to the most popular island, we were entirely on our own in a midst of Indonesians. Sophie refused outright to pay the man, for what was admittedly a sneaky tactic. But my argument was, it’s better not to let things escalate for the sake of a few pence – even if it does mean sacrificing some pride. I scrambled into my pockets, found whatever coins I could, about 1000r (six pence), nowhere near a satisfactory tip but it worked, and the man left us alone.

The boat departed. It was slow, stunk of petrol, full of grimy men and women with hairy legs. Mercifully it only took about 15 minutes. The whole time, even from the marina you could see the beautiful three Gili islands like toys on the sea. At the corresponding marina on Gili Trawangan we were in the usual predicament of lugging our bags in the scorching sun, looking for a place to crash in the night. Our first impressions of the island are great, it’s alive with mostly young people, and cool bars and restaurants overlooking the sea. As with most of the places we’ve visited, it’s good vibes only.

Off the strip leading to the marina was a dirt road, and I think we were told most of the accommodation was in the interior of the island, so that’s why we followed it. The contrast here was strange. Within about forty paces from the strip chickens clucked about our feet, and the caterwauling of a local mosque drowned out the now faint buzz of club music. There was a guesthouse in front of us, £10 a night. A man leads us to our room, reasonably friendly. The room looks a bit… iffy though. Like it should smell (but it doesn’t). And there are no insects apart from the occasional ant. We agreed on the spot. Afterwards, we went back to the strip and ate a delicious chicken in mushroom sauce on the beach. The water is among the cleanest I’ve seen, the sand almost as white as Koh Rong, although similarly with Koh Rong, debris from the marina scuffed it a little.

After lunch we decide to hire bikes and ride around the entire island, something we’re told is not only possible but a must do, at a cost of 70,000r. It’s a beautiful experience. After about 20 minutes of cycling, we reach the famous swing-in-the-sea that everyone gets a photograph on. We take some just as the sun is setting with the help of some Chinese tourists, and enjoy 2-4-1 Long Island Iced Teas sitting on a bean-bag on the beach. Our entertainment is the visually stunning outline of Bali on the horizon, and the conical shapes of its volcanoes as the sun sets. After our little trip, we head back to the room for an unpleasantly cold shower, before repeating our lunch experience. We enjoy some ice cream and walk down the strip, which is now full of drunk, partying westerners. We head to the popular bars, the ones with the most drunkards, and try them out ourselves.

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A perfect moment in the setting sun.

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Starved of sleep, the pair of us lie-in past midday. With great shame, I’ll admit we breakfasted on the same meal that had served us previously for lunch and dinner. Today we decided to again cycle around the island – though this time in the opposite direction, hoping to fully circumnavigate it. But we’re a little anxious on hearing the news: the ash cloud of Mount Raung, the volcano on Java we passed, has forced five Indonesian airports – including ours – to close, leaving thousands of people stranded. (It’s the same volcano, I believe, that caused delays in us getting from Singapore to Bali, I don’t know why it wasn’t considered problematic in the intervening days since – though I understand the news report said the ash cloud was considered to be higher than usual.) I’m glad we never went to the far-flung island of Flores now. Imagine that! We wouldn’t have been able to fly back, and almost certainly would have missed our flight back to England. Anyway, we make it to the beach with the swings again, and stay to watch a small queue of travelers waiting to get pictures. This time the tide is out, meaning it’s possible to walk out to the swing instead of wading. We cycle on, completing our lap of the island, though in some parts the path was overcome with sand, forcing us to get off and slog through on foot.

We ate dinner at a very popular place called Ocean 2. There’s a buffet with soup and bread to enjoy before the main course. I eat so much I actually end up over-stuffed, killing any urge to spend the night drinking. We buy some cider and head to the hotel fully intending to go back out, but never do.

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Sophie wanted a pool day today. Our unexpected early night had one plus: it got us out early. We cycle to our favourite spot by the swings, and on the way I’m struck again by the transformation of the road from our guesthouse to the shore. It runs from grubby and dusty in the shadow of a mosque (we an see the minaret peering, unfinished, over the building tops) complete with chickens running about, to a busy street full of clubs and bars advertising (illegal) magic mushrooms in the window. Two worlds in two minutes.

There’s a hotel opposite the beach with the swings, and the staff are nice enough to let us use the loungers and have a swim for free! (Though they recommend we buy a drink.) We don’t buy anything until the 2-4-1 deal comes on at 4: 30pm, a good stretch of the day and burning of the skin later. We dry off and, as the pool empties, a group of swallows appear, dive-bombing the water. We watch them for a while, then cross over to the beach. The sun is setting; we have a mojito to egg it on before riding back. Riding around a beautiful paradise island at sunset, it’s one of the finest experiences I’ve had. Sophie agrees with me, there’s a particular charm, a certain loveliness about Gili Trawangan that’s unbeatable: a rowdy slither of bars on one side near the marina, an authentic Indonesian village feel toward the interior, all within five minutes’ travel. And at times, you feel like you have the island to yourselves.

We glide from the strip and down the lane that leads back to our room. The lane is poorly illuminated, and westerners fade into view from the shadows heading to party, chatting excitedly, dressed up. Then after another moment a large group of Muslim men appeared, perhaps having just left the mosque, robed, also in conversation. Such a bizarre contrast. We ate in Ocean 2 again, having to queue because it’s so popular, and again we eat a bit too much. We find a chilled place on the beach lit by candle light, with bean-bags to sit on. I knock over the candle accidentally, smashing the glass and extinguishing the flame. But that doesn’t deter a little hermit crab from crawling under our table! We have a beer followed by an ice cream and buy some cider for the room. We head back to the room with the intention of going back out, but again Ocean 2 had defeated us.

Gili Trawangan/Gili Air – Day 88

An early rise. I give a confused man 200,000r to cover the cost of our room (he had no idea, an opportunist would have just walked away), and we walk to the marina for our boat – we’re island hopping to Gili Air! As I mentioned earlier, the three islands are so close they look like toys on the water. You can see Gili Meno and Gili Air a bit further away, strikingly beautiful and with the volcanic mountains of Lombok in the distance. The boat to Air takes five minutes but, on arrival, the marina is crowded with people looking to fetch a ride out. Horse-drawn carts are waiting to take us somewhere and overcharge us, but we ignore them. We walk and find a guesthouse about two minutes’ walk away, a little copse of wooden cottages – Tyrell Cottages – down a sandy road. They’ve one room left for one night only. That’ll do for us. We settle down, dispatching our backpacks and walk round the immediate area, back past the marina, orientating ourselves. There’s a popular coffee shop but with a limited menu, so we breakfast somewhere else: a trendy place where you can hire bikes. We ask the staff where the remote beaches are, so we can have one to ourselves, and are prompted to cycle eastward, down the south coast. A plethora of bars blatantly advertise magic mushrooms on our journey (punishable by death in Indonesia) before the concrete path surrenders completely to sand. With no signs of letting up, we abandon our brief slog and turn around, heading to the “best” beach in the south-west corner of the island. The water looks visually stunning but is very, very choppy. To the point where I’m thinking: maybe there is a typhoon raging somewhere, having its effect on the sea. I cannot understand how, under a clear azure sky, the water can be so tempestuous. The sand beneath our feet is a volcanic grey and unfortunately, like so many other beaches in Asia, trashed with rubbish and washed-up junk. We walk along the coast and the grey sand turns white, and it is here we find people lodging on their towels. The beach here is also resident to a number of bar tables; further down the rubbish starts to clear. We head to a restaurant that has its own sun-loungers. We buy one coke and spend a large chunk of the day there. At this point it started to get really windy; and plenty of sand is kicked up, stinging our faces. We watch an  Indonesian boy toiling on the bow of a wooden ship, which is rocking frightfully on the choppy water, pulling on a rope. He squats on the deck as the boat jostles violently as huge waves crash into it. The boat is just one of many like it, brandishing the flag of Indonesia. I’m not sure if the boy’s actions had anything to do with it, but eventually the huge waves forced his boat up, capsizing it. The boy vanishes into the water just as the boat splinters into pieces. We watch a score of skinny young Indonesians run into the water, presumably to see if their friend is okay. At this point great chunks of wood are floating on the water. A white man from the beach also runs over to help, and I’m wondering if I should do the same. I look on confusingly as the Indonesians scramble frantically with buckets, trying to remove water the boat has taken on. The boy is recovered, and seems fine. He is walking back to the shore with his friends around him, where he suddenly faints. The men hoist him up and carry him off. What a scene to witness! They never did save the boat; the waves smashed up the rest of it and dispersed with the contents.

We decide to cycle around the island in an easterly direction, thinking naively that the sand-covered path must have been localized in the south west. It’s hopeless. Unlike Trawangan, a good deal of Gili Air’s path is impossible to cycle over. We have to get off and push, which is hard work in the unforgiving heat. The only consolation is the sheer beauty of our surroundings: there’s a feast for days for the eyes, with Gili Meno and Trawangan, and Bali all there to take in.

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Gili Air, a feast for the eyes.

We finally make it back to the cottage with the intention of showering, only the power has gone out. This is normal, we are told, and will be back on later. We eat, then argue with a man at the marina (he said we didn’t have a ticket for our boat back to Bali – we did). There’s a lovely, relaxing bar on the south coast overlooking Lombok and, in the twilight, I take a photograph showing two planets: Venus and Jupiter, with Bali in the background. We have a drink, and I try to make something of the night sky. It’s weird not recognizing a majority of the constellations, but I can see the Great Bear low on the horizon, faithfully directing me north to home, Polaris being situated right above Jake’s (my mum’s horse) stable, standing from the back door. They’re literally half a world away, on the other side of the globe. There always seems to be a haze in the center of the sky but I’m still not convinced it’s the galactic center, it probably is a great concentration of stars, though. I stand on the shore, my feet in the stand, trying to get a better look of them – when I notice something really strange in the sand. Fantastic, neon blue grains of sand, glowing beautifully in the dark. I show Sophie one, by scooping it up in my hands. She says the ‘glow’ reminds her of the fireflies. Together we head to the water and, with each wave hitting the shore, more blue sand seems to come with them, glowing brighter and brighter, like stars. I’m obsessed with the blue sand, as we walk away I’m left wondering what the phenomena could be. Then it hits me. Is this the bio-luminescent plankton we were told to expect on Koh Rong? I Google it and it seems to match up (the ‘glow’ of bio-luminescent algae is the same natural phenomena that causes fireflies to glow).  What a lovely touch to end our day, and something I never expected to see! We head back to our cottage and sit out on the porch. The geckos are calling to one another, a distinct and pleasant sound, we stay there for a while and listen.

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The beach with the bio-luminescence, the two ‘stars’ are in fact planets: Venus and Jupiter.

Gili Air/Kuta, Bali – Day 89

Our wonderful sojourn at the Gili islands has come to an end. The third and quietest of the islands, Gili Meno, will have to be explored another time – if we return one day. Sophie and I sit on the marina, waiting for our ride out, enjoying a nice cool breeze. It’s a harmless affair getting on the boat – the real crowds are waiting for us at Trawangan, where suddenly it gets crowded. The sea is very choppy and I suspect, delaying our return, and the boat rocks as though it could capsize any minute. (Again my consciousness is knocking on the door, reminding me just how deadly Indonesia is concerning boat accidents.) We make it to the shores of Bali, alive, and a pleasant man takes us and other guests back to Kuta in his mini-van. It’s a five hour journey that ticks over quite smoothly, abetted by wonderful scenery, before we reach our hotel. Cosmetically the place is lovely. The food is not, however, being overpriced and mediocre. We take the lift to top of the building and admire the rooftop infinity pool, having it to ourselves. After a few hours and a nice shower, we taxi to the strip, where it’s still early and quiet, and do the usual.

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All smiles as we leave Gili Air.

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It’s Sophie’s twenty-third birthday! To celebrate we make use of the room service, ordering ‘breakfast’ (chicken strips at 11am). Then we utilize most of the day sunbathing by the rooftop pool. It’s the best pool area we’ve had in Kuta, simply for the reason there was nothing to impede the sun. There wasn’t a taller building or tree nearby. At the end of the day Sophie is pleased with her tan.

Night falls and we freshen up before taxiing to the strip. The meter says 14,500r but the driver tells us a 30,000r ‘minimum fare’ is mandatory.  It does actually say this in English on the taxi door, but we’ve done the same journey a few times for 20,000r. Sophie flat out refuses to pay and we just walk off, giving him a 20,000r note. For whatever reason I start to get a bit paranoid, Can we ring a taxi again? It dampens the mood for a bit, until we start playing pool. Sophie trounces me 3 – 0 which makes her happy, then we go to one of the few bars that’s open. Legion road is strangely dead and I have no idea why, to the point where we feel relieved to see a tourist walk past. That’s how alone we felt. We order 2-4-1 Long Island Iced Teas but they’re far too cheap, suspiciously cheap. We drink all the same, and I’m secretly hoping not to wake up blind in the morning. The food is surprisingly delicious, though, considering the run-down appearance of the bar. An uneventful taxi ride later takes us back to the hotel, safe and sound.

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Sophie playing in the pool.

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It may be one of our final days traveling, but it’s still austerity traveling. We check out of the hotel and move into a guesthouse: Waringi homestay right by Legion road. It’s hidden down one of Kuta’s many side-streets, but it’s a gem. A fantastic location and price, complete with clean and pleasant rooms. We get there early and unload our backpacks, then call Emirates. Our flight home, we find, has been postponed due to the eruption on Java. Instead of tomorrow, it’s going to be the day after tomorrow. Because of the delay it counts as a different flight, so a new ticket has to be issued to us as passengers. We eat and visit Kuta beach, where we play tag and watch the sunset. After showering, we dine in a fancy restaurant with good WiFi, to keep check on our status with Emirates. We discover another side of Kuta down the side-streets, with cool bars and restaurants, and great tasting cheap cider. At Crusoe’s bar Soph beats me at pool before moving on to a place called Turtle bar, drinking vodka redbulls for £1, and playing “run the mill”, a game of cards Sophie’s nan taught her. It’s a fun little night.

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The first thing on the ‘To Do’ list is eat a hearty breakfast, one in a place with decent WiFi so we can phone Emirates. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a very stressful affair. After waiting a day for the airliner to get back to us, we are then told that it is WE who should contact STA Travel to reissue our ticket, despite not one but TWO Emirates advisers telling us not to worry, that they’d take care of it. Later on, a third adviser actually lied to us, deliberately misinforming us that our tickets were ready and issued, just to get us off the phone. We’re sent an itinerary, but not the tickets and, because STA’s office is literally on the other side of the world, we’ve no choice but to wait until 4pm (9am in England) when someone will be behind a desk. It’s an unpleasant chore and hangs a cloud of anxiety over our last day.

There’s not much we can do. We head to Kuta beach and barter two sun-loungers down from 400,000r to 120,000r. Then I figure why not, and have my first ever surfing lesson. It’s 200,000r for a two hour lesson. Not bad for the surf capital of Asia! My instructor lays the board down on the sand and talks me through the technique and posture required swimming into waves. He asks me if I want a wet-suit. I naively say no. After all, why would I want one? (I regret this decision before long.) We head into the water and I lay on the board, my instructor holds on to me, waiting for a suitable wave; when it’s safe to go. I look around: it goes without reminding that Kuta is a popular surf trap. There are hundreds of amateurs chasing waves, practically on top of each other. It would be so easy to collide with somebody, I wonder how often it happens.

To my delight, I’m actually not bad. My first few attempts are some of the best: I smoothly ride successive waves back to the shore, before grounding on the sand or slowing to the point I fall off. The waves coming in are really big, and my instructor dives under to escape them. Wading back into the sea, the trick is to hold the surf board down so it pierces through the water like an arrow. I keep going, and fall a few times mid-surf. If a wave catches you this way, you tumble and are thrown about underwater by the weight of the reinforcements. If you mistime, and let the waves pass under you, the water makes an ominous, almost Sci-Fi noise – like a laser or Death Star firing. I deliberately threw myself much to my instructor’s dismay, because I was on course to smack into a young boy. It was one of my best surfs, too. It was at this point, about an hour-and-a-half through, that I started regretting the wet-suit decision. My chest was sore, like really bad sunburn, from constantly mounting the board. The instructor gave me his wet-suit, literally taking it off there in the ocean and handing me it, food stains and all. Putting it on in the ocean was incredibly difficult, not only because of the huge waves but also because wet-suits are almost adhesive when wet, sticking to me improperly before I could don it. I kept my board-burn out of the sun, and met Sophie back on the beach in a great mood.

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Surf’s up!

At 4pm we returned to the place of breakfast, knowing the WiFi was dependable, and Skyped STA Travel. They commiserated and said they’d “fast track” our ticket reissue, having them ready within the hour. We decide to stay put and buy a water. An hour comes and goes, with no email. We’re both worrying because, as it stands, we have no way home! We decide to head back to our guesthouse, back down the little side-streets, a laborious affair in the evening heat. We are literally meters from the entrance when two dogs in the street take a dislike to me. They only do this however, after Sophie has walked past them – separating us! Other tourists walk past indifferent. They only seem to have it in for me. They growl and snarl, and walk toward me whenever I dare to step closer to the guesthouse. Not good, especially because rabies is endemic in Bali, and the vaccine costs hundreds of pounds. I throw a tantrum. I’m tired, pissed off, and fed up. Not wanting to be mauled by savage dogs, I resign to retracing my steps and finding some other way to the entrance, coming out behind them. (The dogs were much closer to me from where I was, and I reckoned I’d have made it if I’d approached the guesthouse from the other direction.) It takes me fifteen minutes to figure out my way back to Legion road, marching up the opposite direction I had come, eventually threading my way back, where Sophie is waiting for me in the lobby. She has already emailed STA Travel, but to no avail. We get ready to go out, and find a nice restaurant with strong WiFi and cheap cider. We have a reassuring email from STA – but still no tickets. It’s late now in Bali, with club tunes echoing out from the bars, and revelers in the streets. Some point between our eating and drinking insanely cheap beverages we finally get our tickets and can relax. We discover a new bar, have a final game of pool, and jump on a pretend surf board for some photos before bed, saying goodbye to Bali’s nightlife for the last time. Goodbye endless Australian Smirnoff Ice drinkers, goodbye.

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We wake at 4:30am. The taxi is waiting for us as we walk outside. Bali is sleeping now. Our taxi does a fine job of navigating the narrow side-roads, and I look at the stars one last time. It’s only a short drive to the airport, with no complications. We check-in, eat overpriced food, and overhear the chatter of groups of Australians homeward bound. There’s a slight delay boarding the plane, but the volcano has not stopped us. There’s been no swing in direction for the ash cloud. Yesterday, when the dogs went for me, all I wanted to do was go home. Now suddenly I wish I was cycling again round Gili Trawangan, re-discovering our own little waterfall at Kuang Si Falls in Laos, or exploring the living postcard that is Ko Tao. Typing this journal on to WordPress, two years later, I can confidently say once you activate the wander-bug, there’s no cure. I say ‘activate’ because it’s in all of us, and is an innate part of what it is to be human. A desire to explore. To be free. To learn more about the world. As Carl Sagan put it so eloquently:

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.

Thanks for reading.

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The sun sets on Kuta beach.

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