When we planned our adventure from our sofa over seven months ago, we thought that after spending a month in Nepal that we might like to go relax on a beach. The most obvious place to go between the continent of Asia and New Zealand was Bali, an island whose name alone fills the mind with glistening beaches and vibrant culture…in a word, paradise. In the months leading up to the trip, we garnered some mixed reviews about Bali from friends and acquaintances and also from random blogs; this prompted us to change our flights and head to a different Indonesian island, Lombok. Lombok sits just to the east of Bali, and while you would think that its geographical coordinates would make it a shoe-in to be the ‘secret, uncrowded Bali’, we found ourselves really struggling to understand the confused cultural undercurrent that seems to plague this island.
The island is beautiful—pristine beaches harbored by rocky headlands, palm trees swaying in warm breezes, tropical Indian Ocean everywhere. Our bathing suits and shorts, completely neglected so far on this trip, were now placed at the top of our backpacks, along with our towels that were waiting patiently to be spread across warm sand. But, immediately upon our arrival, this paradise felt much more austere than our senses were expecting. As soon as we reached our hotel room, we searched online to try to put words to what our intuitions were telling us, and our hunches were not unfounded. This predominantly Muslim island is having an identity crisis.
The town of Kuta is jam-packed with restaurants, guesthouses, and surf shacks catering to Western tourists, but the body language and facial expressions of the locals give you the sense that they want your money there but they don’t want you there. But who could blame them? Picture blonde Western girls wearing bikinis, zipping around on mopeds through dusty, poor villages. Every local woman that they pass is covered with a traditional headdress and long pants or skirt. Every local man is rubbernecking at the skin and hair blurring by. Five times a day, you can hear prayers being broadcast from the many mosques dotting the town. Meanwhile, the Western beachgoers are trying to get a tan and sip fruity cocktails at sundown, documenting it all with Instagram photos. When the local people looked at us, we didn’t register any warmth in their eyes. Instead, we got a chilly feeling that our ‘Western-ness’ was being translated into dollar signs. At night, you are beckoned into restaurants where, while you are eating, you have to turn down an almost constant flow of young, impoverished children selling little woven bracelets—at first this pulls at your heartstrings and then it quickly becomes irritating. This band of children is known as ‘the bracelet mafia’ and they are probably over 300 strong in the town of Kuta. You could cut the tension in the air of Lombok with a knife; it was bred from the passive-aggressive cultural and socioeconomic clashes, and when we read accounts of tourists being approached and robbed on their mopeds at night and then deciding to carry bags of big rocks as weapons, we actually brought our little pocket knife out with us.
On our first day on the island, we hired a moped and started down the winding road towards the beaches with the big surf breaks. We learned quickly that it’s a treacherous ride to get to a beach! When you turn off of the main road onto a beach-access road, you have to pay a small ($0.70) ‘toll’ to local teenagers and then drive another ten to fifteen minutes along a path filled with broken asphalt and rocks. At the second beach access ‘tollbooth’ that we went to, the local kids started signaling to us that we had a flat tire. Indeed, we did, and unfortunately, at this point we were around a 35-minute drive back to our hotel where we’d rented the moped. So when the boys said we could follow them to a mechanic up the road, we decided that we really had no other choice but to go. The ‘mechanic’ turned out to be another young man operating out of a tiny house in the little village. Women were hanging around and children peeked out and smiled shyly at us while we waited for the diagnosis. The boys spoke almost no English and the mechanic spoke no English at all except for numbers, clearly stating to us that the new inner-tube would be ‘350,000 rupiahs’ (equivalent to US $25). Everyone was being friendly to us and we were feeling lucky to have been guided to a mechanic to resolve this situation, so we didn’t think twice about paying him this money. As if a foreshadowing of how naïve we were in this situation, we thanked them a million times and I even turned around and waved as we pulled away on the moped. Back at the hotel about 30 minutes later, we realized that like idiot, gullible, amateur tourists, we’d been had. The hotel manager almost choked as he repeated back to us, “350,000 rupiahs!?! That is outrageous! This should have cost 40,000 rupiahs (equivalent of US $4) at the very most.” We wanted to cry—we’d just spent almost nine times the money that we should have, and while in the big picture this amount of money is not the end of our world, our budget for the day was completely blown, replaced by the sick realization that we were being viewed as money trees. “Toto, we’re not in Nepal anymore.”
However, culture-shock aside, Brian drooled over the surf that we had access to on the South coast. We accidentally timed our trip perfectly as a giant swell accompanied by perfect winds lifted the left-hand point breaks rippling through the coastal bays. We found the beaches to be ‘safety zones’ from the locals’ hollow stares and the swathes of aggressive child peddlers. Brian surfed many hours while I read books in the shade of makeshift beach palapas.
Desert Point is a world-class surf break located at the Western tip of Lombok that only ‘works’ when there are certain ideal conditions. As our stay on Lombok ripened, it became apparent to Brian that the conditions were right and that his soul would be in agony if he didn’t at least attempt to check and surf this break. The problem was that Desert Point is really, really remote and if you approach it by land, you must drive across the island, through small villages that are completely undeveloped (and hence, potentially dangerous), and through dense brush along rocky, abrasive roads all the way out to the coast. Also, according to online forums, this area of Lombok is ‘ridden with cerebral malaria’. As an official ‘surf wife’, I already knew that I’d have been a fool not to say, “Ok, I’m on board. Let’s take these malaria meds and let’s go!” So we rented a car and had a true adventure of a day getting to and home from Desert Point. It wasn’t breaking perfectly, but Brian still got to surf a wave that is on his bucket list. When we reached home safely after dark, we felt grateful that we hadn’t gotten a flat tire or run into any other type of trouble because the roads were just as bad as we had anticipated and the locals just as standoffish. Thankfully, Brian waited until we were home to announce that in taking me out to Desert Point he had ‘pushed it too far and gotten really lucky’. Next time, he’ll save it for ‘the boys.’
That night, we started memorizing Indonesian greetings and simple phrases. I learned to cover my shoulders with a shawl out in public. With a little language and having me covered up, we were received much more warmly by the locals. We spent a total of eight nights on Lombok and with time we became more comfortable. It will be interesting to see how this island adapts to its changing cultural fabric. While the Lombok tourism board is currently pushing the island as a ‘Muslim tourist destination’, it is simultaneously being touted as ‘the other Bali’ to attract the Western tourists. In our melting pot of a world, perhaps watching how Lombok handles this situation will be a lesson to us all.