When we arrived in Padang Bai at 11pm on Thursday to catch the Lombok ferry, the line was already long. While waiting, we met the members of a long-distance, Indonesian bike team of twenty or so men wearing matching red and white jerseys and flying flags, excited to bike around Lombok & into Sumbawa.
Despite the chaos of loading trucks
and clear impatience to get upstairs and sort out our sleeping situation, I read Tanya and Andy an excerpt of a Whitman poem to start our journey from “In Cabin’d Ships at Sea”
Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears…
They sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions
of the briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.
Upstairs was a crowded mass of bodies. The good mattresses were taken, but Andy rented a white one stained black with wear. Tanya and I elected to sleep in the car.
The bathroom, like most on this trip, was without toilet paper or a hose. After pooping, I used the traditional method of wiping my butt with my left hand. Then I rinsed my hand in water (from the standing tub next to the squat toilet) by using the bucket to flush down my poop and clean my hand. There was not an actual sink, and there was no soap. This is why, traditionally, people only touch each other, exchange items or move through crowds with their right hang forward (the left hand is tucked back and behind). Luckily, I had brought hand sanitizer.
Despite the heat and the constant, metal moans of our mechanical shepherds, I slept soundly until Andy shook us awake and offered to drive through Lombok’s early morning light from the port in Lembar to Kuta.
We got a little lost, so we stopped to ask an old man directions. It was Idul Adha (a Muslim holiday commemorating the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah through the sacrifice of sheep and goats, whose meat is shared with friends and the poor), so he was crisply attired for the holy day. “Di mana Kuta?” “Di sana,” he said, pointing behind us. As we turned around, the man continued to speak in fast Indonesian. “I think he wants a ride,” I said. “You think that’s a good idea?” asked Andy. “Yes. Look at him—he’s ancient!”. We dropped him about 10miles down the road at his mosque, stunned by the distance that 80-year-old man had set out to walk.
Kuta was thatched roofs, white sand beaches, turquoise water and dead-asleep. As we decided what to do next, I spotted a car bearing surfboards. “Good eyes!” Andy said, and we piled back in my car, following down winding dirt roads to Segar beach. It looked chundry with a quickly receding tide, so we decided to go elsewhere.
More winding dirt roads, tobacco farms, and clear waters before Grupuk, a quiet village by the Indian Ocean.
Tanya and I had to go to the restroom, but everything was closed because people were at mosque, so a woman offered to let us use her toilet. She led us to her home, explaining she and her husband had already been to prayer that morning. These acts of kindness set the tone for the island, the warmth and sincerity of the people we encountered.
I was exhausted after three hours of ferry sleep, so Andy joined some German guys to boat to the break while Tanya and I ate and napped in shaded chairs on shore.
Lunch was back in Kuta over-looking teal waters.
Beach kids selling bracelets descended, and Tanya bought something from each after being reassured the money went towards school. (Schools in Indonesia are not free, so in many poor and rural communities, kids do not attend at all or they stop after grade 5. Girls especially are not encouraged to continue their education past a basic level; if there is money, it is saved for boys.)
Andy and I decided to sunset surf, giving Segar another try. It was a heavy wave with a dozen people catching the right break, so we paddled out to join the three others riding the left. I paddled hard but missed my first wave. I caught the second, but was too far on an edge and lost it. For the next twenty minutes, I was pummeled by heavy waves, losing my paddle while being dragged under. To retrieve it, I had to regular-surfboard paddle my 10ft-long 29in-wide board towards the rocks, thankfully able to scoop it, and start the arduous paddle out past the breaks again.
When Andy spotted me, he raised his hand & I raised my paddle. Out past the break he said, “Holy shit, I thought you drowned.” “Came real close. Lost my paddle for the first time; never good when you’re trying to surface while being dragged.” “Fuck, you ok?” “Yes.” “You want to go back in?” “Yes.” “Ok.” “Don’t feel like you have to come in, too. I’m not in a hurry to leave.” “No, I’m done out here, too. Too heavy.”
Later I stood alone on Kuta beach at sunset between thatched roofed houses with a few lights on in the distant hills feeling safe and open and yes, all I could think is, “There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be now.”
That night we met the Germans (Erik and Philip) Andy had surfed with and Juliana & Mitch from Chicago (who we’d met at our hotel) for dinner. Erik is doing a year studying abroad with his university in Jogjakarta (Java) and in Lombok on vacation. Philip is a graphic designer for a nightlife magazine in Geneva who’d been in Indonesia for ten-weeks on a surf trip. Juliana & Mitch quit their jobs to travel SE Asia for four months and decide where to live and work for the next few years. The stone-baked pizza was delicious and the conversation popped. Philip paused at one point, smiled at me and said, “You surf, you snowboard, you drink rum and you have a beautiful smile, I like this girl.”
The next morning, was my first experience taking a boat out to a surf break. The boat captain was an older Indonesian man with slightly rheumy eyes, a big laugh and a woven bamboo hat. He was taken aback by the size of my board (besar sekali!).
After we motored out of the harbor, the bay opened wide and blue before us. To the right were jagged cliffs, reminding me of the Oregon coast. We headed there first, a break near the cliffs called Outsides. I have never been on such a crowded wave in my life. The first wave I paddled after and caught, I looked up, saw an obstacle course of surfers to get through, freaked out, and lost my ride. I ended up staying to the far right of the break and catching a few short ones but didn’t feel confident enough to get in where it was really good.
Next we went to Insides. Trying to help lift my heavy SUP back into the boat and then hoist myself inside (I do not have the best upper arm strength) was a task. I ended up putting my legs in the boat first and then trying to maneuver the rest of myself in upside down, a pretty epic failure, so the boat captain came to help me up. “It’s like fishing for women. What a good catch,” Philip said.
The Insides were equally crowded, but it was a perfect, soft playwave that was a pleasure to ride. The first time I paddled for a wave, all the surfers were cheering me on, but I lost it. The second wave I did catch: my best ride of the day, a beautiful, perfect right that lasted for ages. When I finished, I lifted my paddle in the air in celebration, and then spotted Andy just finishing a great ride, too. We exchanged smiles and headed back to the line up.
About that time, 5 more boats arrived and 20+ people piled into the water. Where before, I was able to stick to the right of the wave and not have people to dodge, that corridor was crowded with bobbing surfers at various levels of ability. Looking down the coast at all the waves, I figured it was time to utilize my SUP. I paddled out around the break, let Philip know where I was headed and then took off down the coast on my own. It became obvious quickly why that slew of surfers was all at Insides instead of spread out along the coastline: the waves closed out pretty quickly. I caught a dozen short rides and then just paddled around a little, enjoying the clear, blue waters and being in the sun. Exhausted, I made my way back to the boat. When the others joined me, they all had the same complaint, “On each wave three people would drop in. There was no etiquette; it was dangerous.”
“One girl dropped in on me, fell off her long-board, and it slammed me in the balls. Luckily she was just learning, so it was a soft-top, but Jesus man.”
“The worst are the beginners. They are with their Indonesian surf guides, and their guides just tell them to go on everything. They don’t know what they are doing, so they are dangerous. And they are not learning the etiquette. If you don’t learn the rules from the beginning…”
I was grateful I had gotten out of the chaos when I did and just enjoyed paddling on my own.
Back in Kuta, Andy and I got Tanya and headed to lunch.
The beach kids were back slinging bracelets. One in particular, Tom, had amazing English skills and dreamed of one day being an English teacher. When he found out that we are all teachers, he burst into applause with a huge smile on his face. He recounted stories, make jokes and quoted odd sayings like, “Supercalifragilisticexpadocious.” “ExpiALAdocious.” “Expialadocious. Expialadocious. Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious.” He paused after reciting it, looking thoughtful and asked, “What does it mean?”
We napped in lounge chairs. Then Philip, Erik, Michele and Ozzie came to meet us. We enjoyed pina coladas before returning to our hotel pool.
The water was slightly warmed, perfect for playing. I forget how much I love to swim until I am in the water. I couldn’t help but break away during pauses in conversation to swim a lap of butterfly, a lap of freestyle. As I enjoyed the feeling of my body cutting through the water, I looked up and saw Michelle teaching Ozzie butterfly. Ozzie is a Kuta, Bali surf instructor originally from west Java. He has crazy stories of the 10-years he lived in Jakarta. “I hear that they’ve installed metal bars to knock people down if they try to ride on top of the trains,” I say.
“Oh, they’re not low enough to knock you if you’re seated. I always rode on top of the train.”
“You did!! That’s crazy!!”
He shrugged, “The cars were so packed with people that if you waited to get inside, you’d never get to work. The population of Indonesia is almost 250million people and 28million of them live in Jakarta. The traffic is a nightmare. If you try to drive, you can be stuck in the same place for three hours. So there are trains. I loved riding on top: great view, fresh air. Inside the train, if you managed to get in, you’d probably never be able to push your way out at your stop. The roof was better.”
Ozzie, like most Indonesians, never learned to swim when he was younger, but he has picked up a little bit of freestyle, enough to allow him to surf. You could see his discomfort as he attempted to learn butterfly, chocking on water, eventually shaking his head and laughing before returning to comfortably floating. Most the fisherman, who spend the majority of their lives on the water, never learn to swim. In Indonesia’s archipelago of 17,000+ islands, swimming ability is rare.
In that moment, I was grateful for my parents who insisted I have lessons, who made it possible to spend whole summers at the public pool, who woke at 6am to take us to swim team practice and spent Saturdays in the hot sun for competitions. I had never thought to pause and be grateful for this gift of comfort in water.
To celebrate Tanya and Michelle’s birthdays, Philip arranged with his friend Mario to grill fresh fish and set up a bonfire on the beach. When we arrived, the smell was amazing. “Did you catch it?” Michelle asked. “Yes, with money,” Mario laughed, “That’s the best kind of fishing; you’re certain you’ll get a catch!”
Dinner was delicious, but already my belly had started to give me problems, so I had to use the restroom a number of times, which was in Mario’s house and required me to maneuver past his two children asleep on the floor. There was no light, but luckily some filtered through the wooden slats from outside. No toilet paper but a hose and hand soap next to the basin of standing water.
Michelle and I talked at length about her difficulties getting a work permit for Ozzie. She is from Australia and, as she said, “Bali has told me it is time to head home.” (This I understand, as I felt like Bali wouldn’t let me leave when I tried to go home last summer—no plane tickets were available to get off the island, and my boss kept calling to encourage me to keep my job.)
She and Ozzie had been together for three years. In order for Ozzie to get a permit, they’d had to fill out copious amounts of paper work, pay exorbitant fees, fly to Jakarta, and encountered innumerable problems, such as Ozzie testing positive for TB with the initial skin test, but then having the more accurate test of lung x-rays turn out negative, but not having the doctors send documents to the right place, so waiting weeks for the updated results to be processed. It had been immensely frustrating for her, a woman in her 40s in love with an Indonesian partner, to see the way her country was treating him, treats all Indonesians.
We made our way to the beach for a bonfire. It was quiet and dark and beautiful. We talked about spinning fire. I tried to remember what it was called and shared about a former student into it. A French guy appeared out of the no-where darkness, sitting by the fire and chatting. Then suddenly said, in his thick accent, “Oh, I spin poi,” and pulled his balls from a bag, igniting them, and spinning intricate patterns, seemingly manifested by our conversation.
Suddenly eight motorbikes raced from the main road, across the sand and straight towards us, blinding us with headlights. Tanya’s flight or fight response made her jump to her feet. We were frozen in a moment of uncertainty; I flashed on the horror stories I had heard about locals beating and killing foreigners on isolated beaches in Indonesia. I looked to Mario. “We okay?” I asked. He paused, trying to discern faces, and then nodded at me with a forced smile, “Okay”.
The engines cut off and a brunch of drunk Indonesian boys in their early 20s with European, backpacking girls swarmed with guitars and bottles of homebrew. Philip explained that they were from a bar in town with live music and probably came to the beach because the electricity shut off. We sang along to songs on the guitar. The drunk boys insisted on trying poi, and bravado & minor burns ensued.
At one point, one of the particularly drunk guys threw a plastic bottle on the fire. “Don’t do that!” I said, “Poisonous.”
“Poison?!?” he said, then staggered towards the fire and started deeply inhaling the fumes coming off the blue flames from the plastic bottle. He came back to me, arms opened wide and said, “I’m fine! Not poisonous!” he made fangs out of his middle and pointer finger on his right hand and plunging them dramatically into his left arm. “Snake is poisonous.”
“Burning plastics will be the downfall of Indonesia,” I countered. “Poisonous.” He just looked at me and laughed, walking away. “In moments like this, I hate the Indonesian educational system,” I say to Philip.
“If he even went to school,” he shrugs. “You’re not going to change his mind.”
Watching the dynamics of western backpackers and local boys singing American songs and embodying imported ideals of beach life, I can’t help but ponder the impact of tourism, the way that being in a place irrevocably changes it.
A few of us headed back to our hotel for a midnight dip: the hot tub perfectly warmed against the slight chill of the night. A nearly-full moon, palm trees and the occasional arc of a bat.
The next morning, I was belly-cramping, bathroom sick. The crew headed surfing, but I stayed in bed, fluctuating between sleep and using the toilet (I found out when I got home that I had both typhoid and an amoeba).
Philip came to get me a little after noon. “How are you feeling?” he asked, pushing a hair off my forehead.
“We’re going to lunch. I came to pick you up. It’d be good for you to eat something.”
Lunch was delicious and cheap nasi campur. I only ate about half, and Philip finished the rest. They tell me about Ane Guling where they surfed that morning. “All of us ate shit. It was a huge wave. Heavy and big. I think we each got one or two good rides, but mostly we ate shit. It’s good you didn’t come out.”
“And the paddle back was 45min against the current. Rough day on the water but its always good to go out.”
By now it was nearly two, and we’d meant to head to the ferry at noon. I brought the map to the guy at the hotel desk to double check directions. He confirmed our route. “Are there signs?” I asked. He started laughing and said, “There are no signs in Lombok.” The drive was gorgeous up into the cooler hills, tobacco plants in flower, deep rivers and ravines, small villages, everywhere people waving, smiling and calling hello.
It was a Hindu holiday, so there are processions with galungan music, a nice reminder of life in Bali on this mostly Muslim island.
We passed a huge assortment of mosques varying greatly in size and opulence. Some of them drop our jaws—massive and gorgeously constructed.
We entered Lembar to catch the ferry and were nearly to the shore, when all the people on the road waved at us—Turn around! Stop! You’ve gone the wrong way! “Di mana?” “Terus. Kanon.” We drove forward, looking for our right. The first street looked like an alley, so we paused unsure what to do, and a nine year-old boy carrying a huge stick spotted us and passionately waved us to the right. “Kanon! Kanon!” It was so amazing to have the whole community help to guide us home.
In the parking lot, we were told to park and wait. Immediately a crowd of vendors descended.
Tanya and I boarded while Andy waited in the car, hoping to get good spots onboard unlike our last trip. This ferry was twice as nice. There were bed-like areas for people to sleep for no extra cost. The seats were leather, huge and comfortable. And there was a deck with chairs where we watched the ship pull away from the dock.
As we pushed back across the Straight of Lombok to Bali, a flock of brilliant, white herons flew past the reflected reds of sea and sky.
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.