Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lombok, Days 4 & 5

The Novotel in Kuta Lombok certainly had a nice beach, but not much else.

Warning: Mini-rant follows...

For our final day (and two nights) in Lombok we decided to stay in Kuta at the Novotel. As soon as we entered the grounds I had a feeling that the hotel was the wrong choice. The drive from the hotel's entrance to the hotel itself took about 10 minutes, which put the town out of easy reach. (The hotel offers no shuttles to or from town.) This meant we were to a large extent stuck at the hotel. Don't get me wrong, the beach and sea here are gorgeous, and Kuta isn't exactly a thriving place (though it has some of the best surfing in SE Asia, and is also famous for the Bau Nyale Festival, held every February and attracting more than 100,000 people who come to celebrate the appearance of masses of sea worms), but the Novotel left a lot to be desired.

Like I said, the beach and sea here are incredible.

And sunsets are pretty nice, too. Of course, both restaurants open after dark, and most guests who come beforehand are herded into the beach bar for $10 drinks.

No complaints about the pool!

They nickel-and-dime guests beyond what seemed reasonable, and it quickly got annoying. For example, the hotel charges a premium ($30/day) for reliable Internet – the free Internet hardly worked while we were there, and didn't work at all from our room. Forget to return a beach towel? $15 charge. Food prices were jacked up because the nearest alternative to the hotel's restaurants (both of which only open for dinner at 7 p.m.) is several kilometers away, so you have no choice but to pay whatever they ask. For breakfast, the buffet is mandatory and costs $18/person – and the food items (when they'd actually been replenished) and serving spoons were often covered with flies and sparrows. In fact, the fruit had holes pecked into them by sparrows. I even saw one restaurant worker drop food on the floor and put it back on the tray for the guests to eat. What's more, the "authentic beach market" at night that the hotel touts sells nothing but junk and the sellers are pushy. you can tell, I was far from impressed with the Novotel here.

Again, the beach here is lovely, the rooms are adequate, and the hotel offers various diversions to keep guests occupied if they so desire, but for the rest...I highly recommend staying in town, even if there's not much to Kuta Lombok.

Is this plate of lukewarm, greasy food really worth $16?

After our stay here we headed back to the airport and transferred to Bali, where we overnighted in a hotel near the airport. After that, it was back to Saigon, and after a few days of seeing friends there we made our way back to Mui Ne. Lombok ended up being a great place to visit, and while I wouldn't necessarily rush back to see it again, I would definitely be interested in traveling to Sumbawa – the island to the east of Lombok – which is less developed in terms of tourist infrastructure but looks incredible. Sometimes staying in nice hotels leaves me wanting to rough it for my next trip. This was one of those times.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lombok, Day 3

Today we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel and packed our belongings for a trip southwest to an island called Gili Nanggu and then to Kuta Lombok, where we planned to spend the next two nights. Our driver and guide picked us up at nine and we headed inland a bit through the lush countryside before connecting once more with the coast – a dusty, meandering road through poorer villages than we'd seen before, where the impression we got was of a slower, more isolated part of Lombok, and where people made their living from the ocean, which was crystal clear and, in the morning's heat, very inviting. (I read later that the road has had recent problems with robberies, but I never felt the slightest bit unsafe here.) It was a longish ride from Senggigi, but the eye-catching scenery made the hours pass quickly.

Our initial destination was a small fishing village called Taun (Sekotong Barat), whose seascape is worthy of being called paradisiacal. We were dropped off at a harbor where the importance of fishing was clearly seen. Women in front of one structure were selling whole fish rubbed with spices and chilies, while others were drying a catch of smaller fish on mats in the sunshine.

We hired a boat, as well as snorkeling gear, for our trip to Gili Nanngu. The boat held five of us altogether, though it could easily have held more.

The beach at Sekotong Barat from which we set out.

One of several uninhabited islands we passed on the way to Gili Nanngu. Apparently, many of these have been bought by Chinese investors who plan to turn the islands into resorts.

After about 15 minutes we found ourselves approaching Gili Nanngu, which is actually quite small. One can walk around the entire island in probably 30 or 40 minutes.

As soon as we arrived we went to a changing area to dress in our swimsuits and slather on suncream. However, I realized immediately that I'd forgotten a bag in Sekotong Barat that contained my suncream, swimsuit, and a few other belongings. So for a few extra dollars we paid the boatman to return and bring them back. In the meantime we sat in a shaded beach pavilion and enjoyed the scenery.

When the boatman returned we quickly made our way into the water, which was incredibly warm and transparent. Our driver had filled several plastic bottles with some kind of green bread, which he said fish all over Lombok waters love. I had no idea what he was talking about, so he demonstrated by removing the bottle tops, diving into the water, and floating there with a bottle by his side. Immediately we saw dozens of fish swim up to him so that it looked like he was floating on a roiling cloud. With the seawater soaking into the bread and softening it, he squeezed the bottle so that small bread particles floated out, and the fish raced around gobbling them up.  

Crystal clear waters, full of all kinds of amazingly colorful and curious (and hungry)  fish.

Maybe 90 minutes later it was time for lunch. The island, though small, has some basic but decent-looking accommodation and also an open-air restaurant with surprisingly reasonably prices. It's nothing fancy, as the photo below attests, but it offers enough to keep you going as you snorkel and lie about.

The island is also home to a sea turtle sanctuary. Turtles are hatched here and released at different times of the year. It's open to the public, too, so one can wander inside and see what goes on.

This was one of four tanks holding sea turtles of different ages.

After lunch and wandering about some, we went back to snorkel some more, and I took a short hike around half of the island, where I came across not a soul.

After maybe three or four hours it was time to leave Gili Nanngu, so we took showers and changed back into our pre-snorkeling clothes, and not much later we found ourselves back at Sekotong Barat, where we returned our gear and, after watching a hen and her tiny chicks for a few moments, set off toward Kuta Lombok.

A blurry shot from the back of a moving car, but you can see the whole spice-and-chilie-rubbed fish standing vertically in the purple basket.

These next two shots are of poor quality, but I'm including them because I couldn't believe how people were transported in local trucks. In the above shot, I counted 16 people, mostly children, packed in the back of the pickup.

Men sitting on top of rice sacks piled on the back of a truck. This is far from a rare sight. Many times we saw trucks with rice sacks piled much higher, and with more people riding atop them, sometimes literally holding on to the ropes that tied the sacks down. 

On the way to Kuta Lombok we stopped in a Sasak village called Sade. It was late in the day and most of what could be visited was already closed. A guide did show up to lead us around, but there wasn't much to see. We came across a woman roasting coffee from beans they grew in the village, and we came across some cows, doves the villagers tamed and around whose necks they placed bells that made beautiful music when they flew overhead.

In the end, however, it felt a bit like a tourist trap. The guide brought us back to the village's main store, pushing hard for us to buy something, and insisting that we dress up twice in local clothing. We didn't want anything, so we declined, and this seemed to make him mad. We tipped him for showing us his village, but he wasn't very pleased.

We made it to Kuta Lombok at around seven or eight at night, and since it was dark by then we didn't get a sense of what Kuta looked like as we drove through it. We ended up staying at a Novotel there, which on paper looked great, but turned out to be a huge disappointment. But more on that in my next post...

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Lombok, Days 1 & 2

It was hard to tear ourselves away from West Bali National Park, but at the same time we were looking forward to getting to Lombok, as friends had told us how nice it was there – a throwback in many ways to what parts of Vietnam looked like 10 or 15 years ago. This proved to be true, in some ways, though the service industry there, as well as traffic, seems to be much better than in Vietnam today.

We opted for an $80 flight from Bali to Lombok, in part because it took less time than driving to the east part of Bali and then getting a ferry across Lombok Strait (a ride that we heard was uncomfortable and unsafe). Various local airlines make the quick flight, but Garuda Air had the best reviews, and we could easily see why – Garuda was the only airline that afternoon whose flights didn't get delayed or canceled.

Despite what I said about good service, when we arrived at the airport our pickup wasn't to be found anywhere, but we were approached outside the terminal by a young one-eyed man with a taxi service who convinced us he was good for the money; one of his drivers took us to our hotel in Senggigi, on the west part of Lombok, about 30 minutes away.

On the ride from the airport to Senggigi at dusk.

Transport is interesting here, partly because of designs featured on vehicles, but even more so because... commonly sees vehicles piled high with goods and topped with passengers.

Even children are stowed on top of vehicles.

We checked into a hotel called Svarga Resort, which a friend of a friend helped open and was promoting. The sky had turned dark, but coming in we'd seen an amazing sunset along the coast leading up to and through the coastal town of Senggigi, and we'd gotten hungry along the way. The resort was within walking distance of the town's main strip of restaurants, cafes, shops, and ATMS, but it was a bit long to deal with after a day's journey so we opted for this colorful and rather crazy form of transportation: a horse-drawn cart. Or maybe not a horse, but a pony – a horse-pony the man had named Jackie. Jackie wasn't very horse-like, though he did clop pretty quickly through the street when the driver started yelling at him, all of which threw us back and forth against the sides of the cart, which was thankfully fitted with cushioned seats.

He – the driver, not Jackie – recommended a restaurant that he swore wasn't touristy and had the best food in all of Senggigi, so we let him take us there. The place was called Yessy Cafe and, wouldn't you know it, was full of backpackers. (No wonder, either, as their menu offered Thai, European, Italian, Indonesian, and Lombok items.) We ordered a plate of gado gado and a whole red snapper grilled "Lombok style" (which, we decided after eating it, meant absolutely nothing). There was nothing special or even very satisfying about the meal, but the staff were friendly and arranged for a free ride back to our hotel afterward. They gave us their card when we left and said they could pick us up for free, too, if we wanted to come back the next day to eat there. Just call them (62-0-8175700422 or 62-0-370693148) for a ride if anyone's reading this and planning a trip to Senggigi. Not a bad deal, though I wasn't rushing back to eat their food.

Gado gado at Yessy Cafe.

Grilled fish, which was mostly flavorless and full of bones, also at Yessy Cafe.

We returned to our hotel after that and grabbed a shower in a bathroom that was a little too visible from outside, and was full of flying ants. The room itself was huge; the photo below only captured one half of it; the bathroom is in a separate room behind the mirror.

It seems wrong to include a shot of an unmade bed, but I wasn't going to make the bed just just for a decent shot to upload here. Anyway, had I made the bed it would have looked not much different.

The next morning we awoke to an incredible sky and a view, over a vast swathe of coconut palms, of the ocean. We climbed a few flights of stairs to the restaurant, which has a pool attached, and had a quick breakfast. We had an early appointment with a local friend who was going to take us around the island for the next two days. Actually, we didn't know he had this plan for us until we met him in the lobby. We had little planned ourselves, so we gladly took him up on his offer. Little did we know what the morning had in store for us...

We never did get to use this pool. Which is probably just as well, since everyone in the restaurant, and the construction workers beside it, would have watched us.

As soon as we met our friend, he mentioned to us that the male model for a wedding magazine photo shoot at our hotel was a no-show and the photographers were desperate for a replacement. They suggested, god knows why, for me to replace him, and once the suggestion made the rounds, everyone grew excited by the prospect. What excited them even more was the chance to replace the female model with my girlfriend, so in essence they gave us a free trial wedding photo shoot. I'll admit it made me a little nervous...

They took us to one of the suites – it was incredibly nice, with a private pool and two floors – and had me try on the model's clothes, all of which were, as I told them at a glance, much too small for me. After proving this to them with several outfits I'd never have chosen for myself, and embarrassing myself in the process, I headed back to my room and dressed in some wrinkled khakis, the only button-down shirt I had (it was missing a bottom button), and came back to a round of applause (more embarrassment).

In the meantime, my girlfriend, who speaks neither English nor Bahasa Indonesian, was made to look like a Lombok princess, much to her silent (thankfully) consternation. She was a good sport about the whole thing and only complained under her breath about sweating in the shots they took of us beneath the broiling sun. Since it was all in the spirit of traveling, it ended up being fun. We never did get copies of the shots, but that's probably just as well. We did get a free dinner out of it...

Do brides usually wear jeans and sneakers under their wedding dresses? I'm thinking not...

When we did set out, we made it just in time to a local restaurant before a torrential downpour started, and I got to eat seafood and rice with my fingers – and feed shrimp heads to mewing cats beneath the table – with impunity, since that's what local people also did.

Mixed grilled seafood: squid, shrimp, and a whitefish. Oh, and water spinach so spicy it was impossible to eat.

After lunch we traveled to Pura Lingsar, a temple complex and holy site where Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and orthodox Muslims come to pray together and seek healing powers from mineral waters and luck from holy eels in a pond.

You must have been listening to our guide, too...

We were more or less given a guide when we arrived, and while he was very attentive and seemed well versed on what made the temple important, his English was so hard to understand that my girlfriend understood nothing of what he said while I understood maybe 30%. Even so, we followed him around for about an hour and feigned careful attention.

I did figure out a few things, though. For example, the temple is associated in some way with rain, rice crops, and irrigation, which seems to be why the mineral waters and the surrounding ponds are considered sacred. The temple was built almost 300 years ago, and some of the original structures can still be seen. The spirits of the island's ancient ancestors are said to live among the temple structures.

People took this quite seriously. They bought boiled eggs from vendors outside the temple, then crumbled them up and dropped them into the water. There was vegetation at the bottom, which made it hard to distinguish between that and the eels hiding there. However, when the eels attacked the boiled eggs you knew it immediately – the water immediately grew clouded, and that in turn brought out more eels.

From there we visited Taman Narmada, the former summer palace of an ancient king and currently a gardens with ponds and a swimming pool. We were given another guide here, and while he was much better at communicating with us, I never once saw the man smile. In any case, the pool and main buildings, including an important temple that's only open to the public once a year, were built in 1805. Former kings, I was told, kept harems here, and from elevated open-air structures would watch them frolic in the pools.

I took this photo from the ancient kings' perve spot. There were no lovely maidens frolicking here as in times of yore. Unfortunately.

The pools are open to the public now and are popular with families. There's even a zip line here, though it didn't seem all that secure to me. The gardens also play host to various traditional dance performances and annual festivals.

This girl howled like a banshee all the way down.

A woman selling food outside a temple in the gardens.

After that we went to a local pottery studio where we were allowed to make a token piece on our own – except after half a minute the women working there took it upon themselves to finish what we'd started, which wasn't much.

We never got bored traveling in Lombok. There were so many scenes like this. Life here seems very slow-paced and traditional.

The pottery studio – a bit of a tourist trap.

Finally, we returned to the hotel to claim our spoils as accidental models. I ordered ayam taliwang, which is char-grilled chicken with a mild chile and candlenut sauce, along with steamed rice and vegetables. I think I ordered two glasses of wine and dessert, too – why not? It seemed like fair compensation for our two hours of "work"!

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