Wednesday, December 11, 2013

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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