Sunday, January 13, 2008

Here Comes the Sun

I hope you all had an enlightening Christmas break and are invigorated and refreshed to face the challenges of another year as opposed to trudging around the office like a brokenhearted zombie, as I am. I did have an enjoyable holiday however. Java and Bali were under a constant deluge over the festive season which evidently seemed to culminate in all the usual death, destruction and landslides. Bali holiday makers had a slightly damp time of things and a friend of mine in Kuta texted me to inform me that the beach was temporarily closed and that he actually saw a dead pig washed up on the sands. A message from Allah, no doubt, inveighing against the evils of the two-piece bathing suit.

I opted for Lombok however, which turned out to have been a lucky choice as things were rather sunnier over there. It didn't start out so well though. I landed at Mataram in the middle of a huge downpour and, despite being provided with a handsome Lion Air umbrella, got soaked on way from the plane into the terminal building.

Christmas Day also proved to be pretty dire as the rain kept coming down. I hadn't yet hooked up with my friends and, the icing on the cake; I had to negotiate the rude and aggressive hustlers at Bangsal port as I attempted to catch a public boat to Gili Trawangan. "Ha ha Mr, may be no more public boat today, you can sleep in the street here until tomorrow, ha ha." Charming fellows indeed.

Things picked up in the Gilis though. The three tiny islands off Lombok's north-west coast are a popular drawl for tourists with their desert island beaches, coral reef diving, evening parties and lack of motor vehicles.

On the main island of Trawangan, horses and carts trot gently along the main strip of restaurants, bars and hotels next to the stunning views of Gunung Rinjani on the mainland which are afforded from Trawangan's beaches. My chums and I managed to spend five dreamy days, snorkelling, eating, walking, watching the Christmas football fixtures and indulging in oneiric mushroom trips. Paradise. It's like a mini Bali without the Ozzie Surfers assaulting one senses. I'll certainly be back again in the future.

After the Gilis, we headed back to the mainland, scored some funds from the ATMs of Mataram and headed into the south of Lombok, the territory of the indigenous Sasak people. After rocking up at Kuta Beach, I was immediately struck by the contrast with its more illustrious namesake across the water in Bali. Whereas Kuta-Bali is densely jammed with humanity and as overdeveloped as Jakarta, Kuta-Lombok is a meditative paradise of spectacular scenery, deserted white sandy beaches and..... well, that's about it, what more do you want for pity's sake? Boorish happy hours? Ludicrously expensive surf clothing outlets? A Circle K every 10 yards?

Lombok's south coast is blissfully free of all this extraneous flotsam and is the real natural paradise that the slightly tarnished island across the water claims to be. The only potential spoiler is the possibility of having your stuff pinched from the beach whilst you go for a paddle, which has apparently proved problematic here in the past. I guess that's the price you pay for the relatively small amount of tourist development in Lombok, so keep an eye on that backpack.

Once again though, Kuta-Lombok threw my nagging feeling of ambivalence towards tourist development into sharp relief. Tourism is a fantastic potential source of revenue for a relatively impoverished local economy such as the one in South Lombok. On the other hand, sitting watching a spectacular sunset in an equally spectacular bay in the Kuta area, I couldn't help wishing that the inevitable tide of noisy beachside cafes and the accompanying hordes of goodtime tourists could somehow be held back from spoiling the idyll I was enjoying. A completely untenable, hypocritical position may be. I mean what was I if not a good time tourist?

On the other hand though, Western tourists perhaps expect too much these days. Who needs every resort to be an identikit mishmash of neon lit bars and satellite TV availability? Whatever happened to the thrill of being a dog-eared traveler washing up somewhere seldom frequented by Uncle Whitey? Alas, that On the Road/Dharma Bums Jack Kerouac quest for a natural Nirvana seems to be dying and backpacks are being swapped for suitcases by the current younger generation of lifestyle choice package tourists. Will the great spirit of adventure recover from this onslaught of indiscriminate, media fuelled hedonism? Or are those days, inevitably, over forever?

The peace and tranquillity of Lombok afforded me a genuine chance to unwind and de-stress myself. Two weeks in Kuta, Bali and I'd need another holiday just to get over my holiday.

After my inner chakras had been re-harmonised, returning to Jakarta came as a somewhat rude awakening and, on top of that, the roads have been pockmarked with lunar craters by the recent heavy rains. I'll be back to my old self with more neurotic tales from Pertamina-ville next week folks. Stay dry everyone.