Photo Journey Indonesia
By Jackie Leavitt
Indonesia epitomizes the word “diverse.” Its 17,500 islands spread 3,000 miles: further than the width of Europe. It encapsulates 255 million people with six recognized religions, although 90 percent are Muslim. It’s also home to many unique and endangered plants animals, including Sumatra’s orangutans and tigers and Borneo’s pygmy elephant.
With only five weeks to explore this country, my boyfriend, Arthur, and I knew we could only chose a few adventures. Should we hike a 12,000-foot volcano, or dive the coral surrounding Flores Island, home to the closest thing to a dinosaur, the Komodo Dragon? Do we visit Aceh, a semi-autonomous province in northern Sumatra that enforces Sharia Law, or explore the ancient Buddhist temples in Java?
Since it was my first visit to Indonesia — Arthur’s fifth — we decided to start in Bali, known for its Hindu temples, its surfing and its welcoming atmosphere for tourists.
Bali, Lombok & West Sumbawa
Our first spot was Bingin, a little surf community south of Bali’s capital, Denpasar.
Tight, cement stairs curled down the cliffside, shaded by lush overgrowth. All steps led to the ocean, where surfers dotted the frothing water that curled over the perilous reef. Upon arrival, Arthur and I joined the tourists that watched the surf and sipped spirulina-chia-coconut-mango smoothies while lounging on the beach bars’ decks, which filled the air with Jack Johnson’s lulling melodies. It felt like California’s paradise.
Every pathway, storefront and restaurant in Bingin smelled of incense. The smoke rose from prayer offerings: palm-sized boxes woven of banana leafs, filled with burning incense, flower petals and small treats, like a cigarette or a cookie. Each day, women in sarongs stacked prayer offerings for good spirits on elevated stone statues, shaded with a cloth umbrella. Then they casually placed similar offerings for bad spirits in the street, in front of the home, on some stairs, or on the beach.
The Balinese believe that good spirits reside in the mountains and bring prosperity. Meanwhile, giants and demons swim beneath the sea, and bad spirits scour the woods and desolate beaches.
While Arthur surfed and the sun turned golden on the horizon, I sat on a deck watching silhouetted surfers stepped gingerly over the sharp rocks as they make their way into land. They passed the local fishermen, who lifted nets in the calm water, protected by the reef. When Arthur finished, he joined me at the bar, where the patrons had swapped smoothies for Bintang beers. The afternoon light bounced and shimmered off of the shallow reef puddles while the we clinked beer glasses and cooled off from the day of sun.
Planning to spend five days in this area, Arthur and I rented a scooter ($7/day) and explored the surrounding areas. Only a 10-minute drive away sat Uluwatu, an area famous for its cliff-side Hindu temple, as well as a famous surf spot which people access by walking into a cave and paddling through a rock arch. The road to Uluwatu was lined with Western-focused food, so it was as easy to find French toast or lasagna as it was to get gado gado or nasi goreng.
After a blissful, relaxing week in Bingin, Arthur and I were eager to explore other areas of Bali. I was drawn in by the guidebook’s mellow descriptions of Ubud, a city known for its artistic and wholistic atmosphere, and which also appeared significantly in the international bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. Unfortunately this publicity has affected the city’s development over the past four years since Arthur last visited. Cars packed the streets bumper-to-bumper, and tourists clogged the sidewalks …Many of which were suspiciously middle-aged, single white women…
We found some peace in the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where Balinese long-tailed monkeys with little mohawks roamed the forests and ancient Hindu temples. But we were still walking among the camera-drenched crowds that lingered near stationary monkeys, especially around the babies that clung to their mother’s bellies. Operators sold bananas to tourists, so the monkeys would hop on their shoulders for the treat. Squeals of delight and terror filled the pathways.
We navigated away from the big groups, down a ravine where trees blocking the sun. We rested for a moment, taking sips of water, when we realized that a couple of adolescent monkeys playing near us had stopped and were looking at the bottle. Each time we squeezed the plastic, it gave a crinkling noise that soon had one of the monkeys launch itself onto Arthur’s shoulder. He laughed as it crawled down his arm and reached for the bottle. Eventually he moved close to a wall and let the monkey climb off his body. Only a few moments later, though, another monkey catapulted through the air, but this time it landed on me.
I was immediately surprised at how soft the fur was, and all fear evaporated into wonder as this tiny creature climbed around my ears. I stared at its tiny fingers, which were miniature versions of mine: fingernails and wrinkles and all. Our eyes probably stared into each others with the same curiosity. “I think you have a new spirit animal,” Arthur said.
We left Ubud the next morning on what turned out to be an auspicious day. We passed several Hindu ceremonies on our ride, and our driver told us that, after he dropped us off in Padangbai, he would also attend a funeral that had been delayed for this special day. We waved him goodbye and hopped on a fast ferry to the Gili Islands, three small isles off Lombok’s northwest coast.
The first stop was at Gili Trawangan, the recognized party island, where most of the ferry guests disembarked into the shallow water after the boat nosed into the beach. Our stop was Gili Air, with several beach bars but with a laid-back vibe, which was a happy medium between Trawangan and the last Gili island, Meno, the smallest and least developed.
The first thing we saw once we stepped off onto the dock were the numerous horse-drawn carts that lined the streets. People are not allowed to have gas or diesel vehicles on the island, so they navigate by foot, horse, bike or electric scooter. Because the island is so small, Arthur and I opted to trek around to some snorkeling spots. The water was warm and the current strong, and although there wasn’t a super vibrant coral ecosystem, we did see a sea turtle. We ended the evenings joining the cocktail-hour crowd and watching the sun set over Bali in the hazy horizon.
There are two types of ferries in Indonesia: the fast-and-expensive tourist one, and the slow-and-affordable local one. Leaving Gili Air, we opted for local travel, which dropped us off far from the bus-hub of Mataram, a city that would quickly become our least favorite spot in Indonesia. To get there, we took a cidomo horse cart to the nearby main street, where we flagged down a bemo, a privately owned van packed with locals and whatever merchandise they want to bring, including human-sized bags of beans. The driver threw Arthur’s surf bag on top with the beans, we squeezed into two seats, and off we went!
We accidentally got off at the wrong stop, so it was on our next bemo ride that another driver flagged down our van. He had seen Arthur’s surf bag on top as an opportunity to shepherd us in a private ride to Kuta. We waved him off, but it was the tip of the iceberg with the attention that would bombard us in Mataram. All the bemo drivers saw tourist dollars when they glanced at Arthur’s bag. Men surrounded us, shouting “Kuta” and trying to secure Arthur’s surfboards.
We eventually convinced a driver to provide a normal bemo ride, and then began our all-afternoon trip to Kuta, which would have taken only an hour or two in a private car. After two bemos and a ride in a friendly couple’s personal van, we finally made it to Kuta, sweaty and exhausted.
Deciding to prioritize time over saving a few dollars with another epic bemo escapade, we decided to hire a taxi for our drive to Lombok city. There, we caught the only ferry going to the southern tip of West Sumbawa: the fast tourist one. We motored into port just as twilight darkened the sky, but there was enough light to see the lush, rounded hills of this less-developed island. An employee with Santai Bungalows picked us up from the dock and brought us in darkness to our surf bungalow ($20/night). It wouldn’t be until morning when we’d see and explore the area, which included Yoyo’s surf spot and a cafe that quickly became our favorite nosh: Lisa’s Garden.
It was a relief to be in West Sumbawa. It seemed like the further from Bali we traveled, it was less dominated by tourism. It felt much closer to normal. People in Sumbawa would wave as we scooted by, all of us with large smiles. They didn’t see us only as a means to make money, like they did in Lombok, and we weren’t surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, like we were in Bali. We also didn’t see the islands as a personal playground, and made sure to be respectful of the more conservative Muslim culture, like covering our shoulders in town and making an effort to speak Indonesian.
This was the Indonesia we had hoped to find, and like sponges, we soaked in the island’s beauty and relaxed nature.
We had really wanted to continue our journey east to see the Komodo Dragons on Flores Island, but having already spent two of our five weeks in the country, we decided to save eastern Indonesia for our next future visit, when we’d also have proper Malaria medication. Instead we’d go west by more than 1,000 miles to Sumatra. Our flight left from Denpasar, so we began the two days of travel back to Bali, which — as you can tell from the map — involved many ferries, bemos and taxis and confusing back-tracking.
Stay tuned for Photo Journey Indonesia, Part 2, when we explore Sumatra, Java and the Mentawai Islands!