My four rules of travel:
1. Never miss the opportunity to wind up a Canadian by asking them where in America they are from. This can then be further enhanced by stating upon their reply that ‘Canada is one of the northern states, isn’t it?”
2. Eat as the locals do.
3. Travel as the locals do.
4. No matter where in the world you are or however remotely far flung you may be, there will almost certainly be an Irish pub nearby.
From the grubby backstreets of Hanoi to the cobbled alleyways of Dubrovnik, there are small doorways of green within which you’ll always find a selection of ghostly white characters eating stew and potatoes and drinking overpriced warm Guinness in 35 degree heat. As strange as that may be, it’s just a fact of life, they are everywhere. So it was with no great surprise that on arrival in Gili Trawangan, one of a trio of stunning drops of sand off the coast of Lombok that amongst the roadside stalls and the shacks selling Bintang and the local moonshine, Arak, that we came across Tir na Nog and its four leaf clovered decor. So much for an exotic island escape. To be fair to Trawangan, at least you knew what you were getting.
We’d just spent three nights in Nusa Lembongan, from which we had expectations of the Balinese beach paradise that perhaps once was (and I’m sure still is, in places). It was naturally beautiful; clear warm waters licked at white sand beaches around much of the island, beaming smiles from the locals greeted you everywhere and an abundance of sealife surrounded the mangrove forests and coral reefs around the island. The problem was, it was horrendously polluted. We snorkelled amidst schools of plastic bags; spotting Manta Rays, Turtles and even a discarded toothpaste tube or two. I’ve swum in some pretty grubby places in my time – a teenage habit of drunken skinny dipping has seen to that – but there have been none as heartbreaking as this. Back on dry land we explored the island – Dream Beach, Mushroom Bay, Sunset Beach – each sounding more idyllic than in reality. It’s not that there was anything particularly wrong with the locations, but when each strip of sand is crowded by an expensive resort with a swimming pool to boot, you tend to lose the effect of that perfect setting that it was put there for in the first place. Nusa Lembongan was no doubt once blissful, but has since started to succumb to the all too familiar over commercialisation that these places tend to suffer from. But that’s the great irony of travel I guess; visiting somewhere as a tourist and then moaning that it’s too touristy.
We went east from there, motoring across the Bali Sea to the Gili Islands. Trawangan is the liveliest of the bunch with a reputation as a party island. With a bustling strip of happy hours and knock off sunglasses, it was evident from the outset that this was a justified reputation, something which was only furthered upon check in at our guesthouse.
“The room is 200’000 rupees a night, OK?”
“We’ll take it”
“Breakfast is between 7am and 10am”
“You want drugs? I have drugs”
“Erm, it’s 11am and I’m not sure I want to risk the death penalty today, but thanks anyway”
Finding some bicycles we set about circumnavigating the island, a fairly risk free option with a lack of any motorised traffic. A sand swept track made the going slow – the smooth cycle paths at home in Cambridge this was not – but deserted beaches and coral reefs, welcoming local villagers and possibly the most glorious sunset I’ve ever seen were the reward. Looking back towards Bali we watched the sun sink behind the imposing silhouette of Mount Agung, and to be honest, only a picture can do it justice.
We ate well on Gili Air, the next island, that will be my endearing memory. That’s not to say there was nothing else here – for the little that was here was it’s key – we enjoyed quieter living with long lazy beach days and tremendous snorkelling off the beach. But it was here that we discovered seafood barbecues, a continuation of the outstandingly good food we’d found so far. Asian cuisine is something that any visitor will invariably crow about, even more so for the ridiculously cheap prices, and Indonesia is no different. Having had a few, ahem, ‘incidents’ with curries in Thailand in years gone by, the relative safety of milder Nasi (rice) dishes here has been welcome. With a general proximity in most places to the ocean it makes sense to opt for seafood, and whether its fresh snapper grilled within banana leaves, catfish fried at a roadside Warung or mammoth prawns and marinated Jackfish barbecued at your request, it’s pretty impossible not to eat well for very little cost. So with bellies full we spent some time in the sunshine, content. It was to be some welcome respite before what was to be a typically arduous Indonesian journey onward.
A step by step guide to Indonesian travel
Step 1: Public boat to Bangsal harbour, Lombok – a mere 8000 rupees (about 60p) and barely enough room for the rapidly accumulating sweat to make it down your back. Bonus points if the boat doesn’t sink.
Step 2: Fight off (often physically) the attention of the notorious Bangsal touts and find a Bemo, the Indonesian public bus service.
Step 3: Bemo to Mataram over precariously winding hilltop roads, clinging on for dear life as pedestrians, dogs, monkeys, pigs and other road users dive for cover. Snack on some mysterious looking luminous green bread you’ve been gifted by a fellow passenger.
Step 4: Another Bemo across Lombok to the eastern port of Labuhan Lombok. Watch a fascinating world flash by from either the open doorway, hinges too rusty to close, or the gaping hole beneath your feet. As locals come and go with a bewildering array of goods, restrain yourself from attacking the driver who has an obsession with beeping his horn at apparently every single thing he sees. And I include empty clear air in that.
Step 5: Make the ferry to Sumbawa by a matter of seconds. Enjoy a largely uneventful boat ride to what you perceive to be the bustling harbour of Poto Tano, where you’ll easily arrange passage through to Sape, from where your next ferry departs.
Step 6: Arrive in Poto Tano to find a large empty car park, a few market stalls, a worrying amount of lifeguards and a goat. The only buses here are local ones heading in the wrong direction. Wait for four hours before a bus going the right way arrives with room to take you.
Step 7: Take the remaining two seats on the bus, which are naturally next to the toilets on the back seat. Settle in for six hours with a surprisingly large Indonesian man dribbling in his sleep next to you, agonisingly bad karaoke videos playing at ear piercing volumes, and the ever growing stench of urine.
Step 8: Wake at 2am to find you need to change buses. Your new bus doesn’t leave until 5am. Try and sleep inspite of the Mosquitos and more god awful Indo-pop, this time from someone’s phone. Travel final two hours on the now heaving bus through villages and markets before descending into Sape with breathtaking views of the sun rising over rice paddy lined hillsides.
Step 9: The final leg. Eight hours on a ferry that after a relatively calm start, soon looks like a war zone. Bodies lay scattered amongst litter, caged hens, food scraps and cigarette ash, phlegm, an insufferably noisy rooster, vomiting children and an elderly blind woman selling peanuts.
Step 10: Arrive at your destination, Labuan Bajo in western Flores after a few hundred kilometres, 32 hours, barely any sleep and a journey as rewarding as it was arduous. Grab a beer, watch the sun set over an impossibly picturesque harbour and reflect on the last few days. You’ve travelled like a local, eaten like a local, ticked off that obligatory Irish pub…now where’s that Canadian to wind up?