Saturday, April 23, 2011
Remember that scene in the original Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi brings Luke Skywalker to Mos Eisley to arrange for transport off the planet? Filled with smugglers, con-artists, murderers and fugitives, it seemed like the kind of place you wouldn't feel safe walking through even during the middle of the day. As Alec Guinness so succinctly described it: "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." Despite being the only actor to have ever lived who could have pulled off a clunky bit of dialogue as that, Guinness' assertions regarding Mos Eisley's reputation as the most dubious transport hub in the galaxy were a little off the mark. Clearly Obi-Wan had never been to Southeast Asia.
I've probably barked about this in the past, so forgive me if you feel I'm repeating myself here. I guess this serves as an indication that this kind of bullshit doesn't just happen in isolated spurts. Bus stations across Southeast Asia are where the lowest of the low come to gather. Those who congregate there are the scavengers of society, circling their prey in search of a quick buck. If there's money to be made, they'll go to any means to make it. Some of them would probably sell their own mothers if they felt they could make a profit. On second thought, some of them probably already do.
Their m.o. is fairly standard. First, you will be dropped off in an unfamiliar setting with no clear indication of where you really are. Then, they swarm you, their victim, with an onslaught of questions, offers and demands. Then they'll create a sense of comfort and familiarity to throw their prey off guard. Finally, once you've been goaded into believing that you can trust the smiling hyena with whom you now on a first-name basis, he pounces, and suddenly you find yourself a few dollars shorter than you had anticipated and an ego that's been beaten and bruised.
But I digress. Let's talk about the rest of Lombok.
Lombok is a small island in Indonesia, just east of Bali. A lot of people who've been there describe it as what Bali used to be twenty years ago before it was overrun by sprawling resorts, Starbucks, tour buses and Julia Roberts. Decades behind Bali in the development of its tourist industry, Lombok does in fact retain some sense that you really are in Indonesia rather than a far-flung Australian colony. This makes Lombok a breath of fresh air, if you can get past the occasional whiff of burning plastic and raw sewage. In fact, with the lack of crowds and corporate intrusion, the mountainous and lush landscape, the quaint villages and rice fields, and the spectacular coastline seem all the more striking and authentic.
Our first stop was Gili Meno, one of the three Gili Islands off the northwest coast of Lombok. Renowned for their long stretches of white sand beaches, coral reefs and laid-back vibe, as well as the endless loops of Bob Marley, Jack Johnson and Bryan Adams played at the variety of beach bars that dot the shoreline, made the Gili Islands just the sort of tropical island experience we wanted before we say goodbye to Southeast Asia for good (okay, we could have done without the Bryan Adams, but the rest was crucially important). The relative seclusion of the Gilis also translates into fewer tourists, which helped to make our stay that much more relaxing and free from the crowds that swarm to places like Bali and Phuket and who incidentally speak a lot of German and Russian. Never mind, we saw a lot of these too. Granted, Gili Meno is considered to be the quieter of the three islands, and more than once it was referred to as the "Honeymoon Island" by the various drivers, hawkers, boatsmen and generic layabouts that hang around the "ferry terminal" on Lombok.
There is, however, a sense that Gili Meno is waiting in anticipation for something bigger. It seemed like a lot of locals were trying to cash in on the hopes of a growing tourist share in the next few years, as a string of bungalows in several locations around the island appeared to be in various stages of construction. Of course, the timeframe for their completion is in question, considering that of the three days we were there, we only once saw work being done (and only on one bungalow, for about an hour). There was, however, a massive resort development under construction not far from where we stayed, with a whole shanty-town set up to house the workers who were laying the foundation to what I'm sure will be the first of many blights on the island. What I'm trying to say is this: if what you hear about the Gili Islands appeals to you, and even if it doesn't, these pictures damn well better do the job, then you need to go now, 'cause it won't be around for much longer.
It goes without saying that this is a real shame. The island, its people and the accommodation available has a certain kind of character that can't be replicated and is most certainly lost when a corporate hand steps in to 'clean things up.' Take our guest house, for instance. The door-lock to our two-story bungalow could be closed but not opened, and could only be opened by using a credit card to jimmy the lock. Of course, all of this effort could be circumvented by lifting the latch to the wooden door on the first floor that gained you access to the toilet and shower. From there you could simply climb up the steep ladder and through the hole in the floor of the second-story bedroom - no key required. And of course nothing was done about this problem when we brought it up with the guesthouse staff, most of whom were busy spending the day dozing off by the beach. This money can't buy.
After three days of beach BBQ's, colourful sunsets, snorkeling and shaking sand out of everything, we returned to the island of Lombok en route to the small town of Senaru. From there, we arranged to do what any normal person would do while on holiday in a tropical beach paradise: climb a volcano.
Mount Rinjani's summit is 3726m above sea level, and normally takes people 3 days to reach. Since we didn't have the time, nor in all truth the physical capacity to actually climb it, we opted for the two-day, one night excursion to the crater rim. The crater is a mere 2600m above sea level, which meant that we only had to tackle a piddly 2000m ascent over 8km from our departure point. No sweat. Actually, there was a lot of sweat. After nearly seven hours of uphill hiking, everything we owned was drenched in sweat, despite the cool temperatures that the high elevation provided us. While this helped to keep us cool to some degree, by the time we reached our camp at 2500m, we were absolutely frigid.
Of course, all we really had to do was walk, or rather climb, and everything else was taken care for us. We were assigned a guide and a porter, who carried up all of the food, cooking supplies and camping gear in two baskets hung from a bamboo pole. Laced up in our sturdy, North American hiking boots, our guide and porter relied on their sandals and flip flops to grip the steep terrain. In fact, some porters wore no form of footwear at all and managed the climb and descend in their bare feet, often racing downhill at breakneck speeds with the full weight of their supplies on their shoulders.
Despite the discomfort, pain, rain, the fact that we ended up losing our boots, and the days of recovery that followed, it was worth it for the view:
And to leave you with something completely random...If you can figure out with this Indonesian cigarette ad is all about, then all the better to you: