At the beginning of January, my family and I traveled to Bali, Indonesia, to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. I’d been hanging out and skiing in Alberta, Canada, the week before with Talal, Evan, Cody, Alex, and Jasmine, all close friends from school. Canada was freaking cold: well below zero, the type of cold where just breathing outdoor air hurts. Two days into 2017, I boarded a plane, then another plane, then another plane, and 30 hours later I touched down in Bali. The humidity healed my sorry, chapped lips in a day, and the sickness I’d picked up in Canada was soon gone, too.
We had a nice time in Bali. We sought out a few of the big tourist attractions—Uluwatu Temple, the Monkey Forest in Ubud, etc.—and lounged on the few beaches that were not covered in trash. Then my family packed up and went home, leaving me stranded in a foreign place with only a few hundred thousand rupiah to my name.
No, no, just kidding. I’d planned to stick around for a few extra days on my own, given my dad’s encouragement and the fact that I’d be antipodal to New York City and home. And I had more like a few million rupiah to my name. But when the fledgling media company for which I’d spent a year grinding out content (as a “permalancer”: an unsalaried, insecure, all-too-typical position in media today, designed to entrap young, vulnerable writers) unceremoniously changed its mind about my taking a few weeks off to travel (on my last day, to top it all off), I decided to extend my trip to two weeks. It wouldn’t be a full-on Southeast Asia backpacking experience, but it would be a good way to dip a toe into that lifestyle.
I spent the first night at a hostel in North Kuta, Bali, then took a bus to a harbor early the next morning. There, a boat would take me to Lombok, the next big pulau (island) to the east.
I’d done my research, and Lombok seemed like the place I wanted to be. In Bali, hordes of weekending Australians had long since ruined everything south of Canggu, but Lombok was supposedly untainted. On the boat over, I met Killian, a Frenchman on his way to Gili Trawangan, a little island off the northwest coast known for its debauchery, and we exchanged contact information with plans to meet up again.
The boat dropped me off in Senggigi, just north of Mataram, where I rented a motorbike for three bucks a day. These motorbikes are everywhere in Indonesia, and they rule. They’re quick, maneuverable, and practical. It’s not unusual to see tandem parents cruising around with a child or two on a single bike. In busier areas, the streets resemble the ocean: the small fish (motorbikes) school and dart around the big fish (cars and trucks).
Since I’m telling most of the truth, here, I’ll admit that I maybe haven’t ridden that many motorcycles in my life. Before Lombok, in other words, I’d ridden one, once, in my youth, for about ten minutes at my friend Gray’s house. With no cars around and a max speed of about my age in mph. But it was what I had to do to see Lombok. (To be fair, I do ride a bicycle just about everywhere I go in Brooklyn and even Manhattan, so I had half the equation covered.) In Senggigi, I found a guy who showed me the basics, like for instance how to start the thing. Ten minutes later, when Mohammed the Rental Guy asked me as an afterthought whether I’d ever ridden one before, I told him the truth: Why yes, I have ridden one before.
Then I was on my way south, to Kuta, Lombok, to see the island’s best beaches. It was about a two-hour drive, but I missed a few turns and did it in three. Little shacks adorn every road with gasoline-filled Absolut Vodka bottles, which these shacks’ residents will part with for just “eight” or “ten” rupiah each — which means 8,000 or 10,000 rupiah, which means $0.60 to $0.75. And this abundance of gas is good, because, as I’d soon learn, southern Lombok and roadside westerners sometimes do not mix.
In Kuta, I parked my bike and wandered the main strip to find a good place to stay. I eventually discovered a place called My Garden Cafe, and the owner, Sri, a small woman from Mataram, told me she had a bungalow open for two nights. I did some bargaining, then took the room. At 250,000 rupiah a night, or about $18, it was the most expensive place I stayed, but the delicious breakfast (included in the price—and Sri, it turned out, was a chef) and the good company (also included) made it more than worthwhile.
Sri and her French fiancé, Frederic, were the good company. After getting to know them, I learned that their place used to be called My Cafe, and used to host one of Kuta’s nightly parties, and used to be a flourishing restaurant (despite its location on the outskirts). Then, about two years ago, it all burned to the ground; Frederic would’ve burned, too, had a neighbor not awoken him. They rebuilt the place, and gave it a new identity: My Garden Cafe, which name they had since earned. Everywhere that was not restaurant, bungalow, or footpath was a professional garden, and every day, Sri and Frederic tended to the plants.
The traditional Sasak bungalow itself was simple and idyllic: a cabinet for clothes, a bed w/ mosquito net (very necessary, since bungalow walls do not meet bungalow roofs), and a wall-mounted fan; outside, there was a shower, sink, and toilet. Suffice to say it was very peaceful.
Frederic gave me some advice on things to do. I thought I’d maybe give surfing a whirl, so he told me to go to Pantai Selong Belanak, a nice beach with a beginner’s wave. In the morning, I packed up, hopped on my bike, and headed west. The 30-minute cruise was so pleasant that I actually chortled to myself. Long, undulating roads, luscious and foreign hills, and a breeze that just about caressed the soul.
But I hadn’t noted the date: Friday the 13th. When I pulled up to the beach, a mob of dudes were playing cards by the entrance. They waved me over, then demanded 10,000 rupiah if I wanted to park my motorbike. Frederic hadn’t mentioned this (negligible) fee, so I got a little flustered. I didn’t know whether or not I was being duped into forking over cash. The men pointed at the uneven, rutty, 100-meter-long dirt road between their shack and the beach, and said the money went to this uneven, rutty road’s upkeep. (Think: U.S. tollbooths.)
Since I had known I would be at the beach alone, and would therefore need to leave my backpack unattended, I hadn’t brought much money — only 7,000 rupiah. I eventually acquiesced, and offered them what I had, but the conversation had already turned confrontational. They said seven was not ten, and therefore was not enough, and sent me packing. The public beach was just around the corner, they said, and I was welcome to go there free of charge. So I did, but there was no surf, and a little local kid stared daggers into my soul, so I left.
I headed back east, thinking I’d have better luck at Pantai Mawun, another secluded beach. Same deal there: seven was not ten, ergo no entry. Alas. Dispirited, I decided to go back to Kuta and merely swim in the pristine waters there. On the way back, I came upon a nice view, so I pulled over to take a photo. A monkey foraged in a tree to my left. Said photo:
Then a man pulled up alongside me. He spouted some Indonesian words at me, then some English:
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
[An aside: This was, without fail, the exchange I had with local men. Each time, after “United States,” the local would either say “Donald Trump!” or “Barack Obama!” If the former, he would laugh as if there was nothing more preposterous he could have possibly said. (…) If the latter, he would proudly state that Obama had gone to school in Indonesia. It became a routine, and I’m still a little perplexed at its consistency. This particular exchange, however, went a little different.]
“What are you doing?”
“Taking a photo.”
Then he paused and inspected my person. He did not strike me as menacing. He pointed at my pocket, where anyone could see the outline of my wallet.
“I want money.”
My motorbike was still on, so I said “No” and drove off. He followed me. About a mile later, I saw a gasoline shack with some people out front; I pulled over and let the guy pass.
I knew that tourists were not encouraged to venture beyond Kuta’s limits after dark, but this occurred with the sun overhead. I later learned that the area used to be more dangerous—gangs with machetes would rob tourists on the open road, and so forth—but then the government stepped in. The government’s response was to increase police presence, interrogate suspects in nearby villages, and shoot a couple dozen of the “known” bandits dead.
Just about every other local I met seemed fundamentally good.
I felt better after a day swimming and writing at the beach in Kuta, so I ate and rode east, to Pantai Seger, to see the sunset. As one does when in Kuta. The setting sun did some nice things to the sky and the ocean.
When I got back to the bungalow, Sri and Frederic said they’d join me at the party that night, even though they don’t go out much anymore. The Friday night party, which has a DJ then a live band, and a good mix of tourists and locals (not something you’ll find much in Bali), is always at Surfer’s Bar. Sri and Frederic gave me grief about being shy until I went out and stopped being shy.
The next morning was my last at My Garden Cafe. Sri cooked me a healthy pile of banana-pineapple pancakes, as shown above, and I spent a couple hours hanging out and talking with her and Frederic. They are very good, sincere people, content with their humble lives.
I moved across the street to another bungalow at another place—Same Same, named after an expression you’ll often hear around Lombok: Same same, but different, which basically means that all us humans are composed of the same gunk, despite outward appearances and behavior. I met three more good people there, and we spent much of that night and the next day together.
But first, I went to Pantai Tanjung Aan. You can be sure I brought my ten rupiah this time. This was a nice frickin’ beach, despite no waves. See, for instance:
I was the only tourist there for a good hour, and there was a big celebration or festival of sorts going down at the beach’s entry. Then two backpackers walked up and joined me: Mo, from Germany, and Dina, from Morocco. Both had been country- and island-hopping for several months; they’d met that morning in their Senggigi hostel, and had then shared a motorbike to head south for the day. We all seemed to get along well. After a few swims and more conversation, we looked at the hills to our right and decided to climb them. This proved a good decision.
We spied one particularly summit-esque hill, and told ourselves we’d be fools not to check it out. When we reached the top the sun was out, and I was just about giggling at the beauty. All three of us were. We stood upon a verdant spit with nowhere ugly to look. To the north was Lombok, to the south the open sea. Lombok’s southern coast, with its recurrent bays and beaches, stretched east and west. Dina said this spot was perhaps one of the best spots she’d been on her whole trip through SE Asia. Proof:
Almost all the travelers I met were extraordinarily friendly, genuine, open, curious, and down-to-earth. Solo travel can prove a hell of a drug, I learned, with its reliable influx of such quality people, of breathtaking, natural sights, and of lucky surprises. Mo, Dina, and I hiked back down after a good hour or so spent taking it all in, then said our farewells.
Later, I went to the Saturday-night party, this one at Bus Bar, to join the trio I’d met that morning—Vikki from Hungary, and Nick and Friere (spelling uncertain) from I believe Finland. Sunday morning, we woke up and caught the weekly local market’s vestiges.
The rest of the day was nice and lazy. At the hostel, a guy named Caspar had a miniature travel guitar; that night, he let me play some tunes for a captive, tranquil audience. I’d been over two weeks without a guitar, which meant Caspar’s was sweet relief. Later, I overheard him playing an almost exact acoustic rendition of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow,’ his voice perhaps better than Chris Martin’s, which performance I later learned made a few people tear up.
I left the next morning to head west, to check out the supposedly good snorkeling at Gili Nanggu. I spent two nights in Sekotong, in southwest Lombok, in another bungalow. The water’s seasonal murkiness meant just decent snorkeling, and the weather was not ideal.
To save some rupiah, I shared a boat with a middle-aged couple to Nanggu, and I rediscovered the perils of collective decision-making. In the midst of a rainstorm, in our efforts to be empathetic and predict one another’s desires, we decided it best to leave Nanggu and return to the mainland. None of us had wanted to be the person who made another person feel trapped. Oh, I mean—I’m not too set on staying out here, and it sure doesn’t look like this rain’s going anywhere, and, you know, if you want to go back I’m all for it and don’t even think twice about asking. Thirty minutes later, when it cleared up again—which it does like clockwork—we realized our foolishness, and paid a little bit more for another boat trip out. I much preferred independence.
So, the following morning, now January 18, I packed up and got on my way. I went north, and inland, to Tetebatu, just south of Lombok’s volcano, Gunung Rinjani. Some backpackers I’d met way back in Senggigi had recommended a cheap place to stay, there: Tetebatu Indah Homestay. It turned out to be a little tricky to locate, so I got a little lost, but in a good way: I wound up finding a little hike through a forest, and on my way back I saw some dogged farmers going about their daily lives. Aside from knowing how to say that they didn’t know much English, these rural folk didn’t know much English, but then a guy came along who did, and he told me where to find the homestay.
The homestay turned out to be very simple, but there were—once again—several good people staying there. Bram, the owner, is a local, and he and his family have been renting out their spare rooms for over a year. It was about $9 per night, which, as is the norm, included breakfast. I did some laundry, drank some Lombok coffee, tried some local tobacco, and chatted with another guest—Tyler, from Alaska. The first American I’d met, and one of only two I would meet. Tyler was an oddball, but a good oddball.
Bram’s wife told me the name of a nice waterfall nearby: Burung Walet. It wasn’t far, so I walked. With curious children, suspicious mothers, dogs, rice fields, mosques, and the occasional motorbike, it was the quintessential Lombok stroll.
A bit later, a few paths converged. I wasn’t sure where to go, so I picked one at random. Soon thereafter, I saw three kids playing in a yard. “Burung Walet?” I asked, pointing down the path. They giggled, shy, and ran out behind me. “Burung Walet!” they said, pointing down the path. I thanked them, and started walking. After a dozen strides, there was another fork. I turned left, then right, uncertain, then looked behind me. The trio had been following me. When I saw them, they shrieked, laughed, and ran away, only to return and point me left. I thanked them and kept walking, and they kept up their nervous, giggly pursuit. Every once in a while I’d snap around and throw them a goofy face, and soon enough they were right on my heels. With a gesture, I asked them if I could take their picture, and they immediately struck a pose.
After the photo, they started leading the way—skipping, hopping, and running down the path, gleeful. Soon, they dropped me off at the waterfall’s entrance. “Burung Walet,” they said, all smiles. Then they ran on home.
Five minutes later, I descended into a green, sunlit, cobwebby gulley, took off my shoes, and began the short walk upstream. I soon found the waterfall, and I had it all to myself, and I swam and let the cascade massage my back, and all was good.
Later, after I met a teenager named Gusti who showed me his family’s village, and where they made sugar, I returned to the homestay for dinner. That night, Bram and his friend Bran stayed up with me and a few other guests and gave us a crash course in Lombok Islam. Bram studied with a guru, he said, and he could’ve passed off as one himself: methodical, wise, reserved but lighthearted. He smoked, lambasted radicals, invoked the same same mantra, smoked some more, and praised our open minds.
Bran spoke about Rinjani, which last erupted in October, 2016. It wasn’t a big eruption, but they felt the ground shake in Tetebatu. If there ever were a big eruption, Tetebatu could disappear. But Bran wasn’t worried. “The lava will not come here,” he said. Rinjani knew that Tetebatu was its owner, he explained, and therefore would not send its lava south.
Bram, though, was worried.
In the morning, Rinjani was clear and the sky blue, which is rare in the wet season. I had planned to circumvent the mountain to the east, via a pass, and looked forward to both the ride and the views. But first, Bran showed me the local morning market, then two handicraft villages: a bamboo-weaving and pottery-making village, then a textiles village. At the latter, Bran asked a guy to show me around. The man told me that normally, all the women would be weaving, but, since it was lunchtime, most were inside, cooking. Two kept at it, though, and I got to watch their intricate work.
Then it was back on the bike, headed to Senaru, just over the mountain. But two hours had passed, and now clouds obscured the mountain’s peaks. As I drove uphill, I got a couple good views, but then the clouds met the road in front of me and I had nowhere to go. So I tossed on my raincoat (thanks, Sam) and entered the storm. It started light, but the few people who passed me heading south looked a) cold, b) miserable, and yet c) more waterproofed than me.
Eventually, the drizzle turned to a downpour, then it was a damn deluge. And, given the elevation—Rinjani’s summit: 12,224ft—it was cold. I did my best to remain upbeat. All my backpack’d belongings, drenched? No matter. My inadequate clothes a sopping mess, my body virtually deliquescing, and my teeth chattering? Soldier on. That low point in the road with an unmapped river flowing across it? Ford it! Just go slow because right there, see, the road washed out.
After a while, I acknowledged that maybe my determination was beginning to falter. I was freezing, and my bike came close to giving up the ghost on a particularly steep incline. It didn’t, though, and I was spared: I had reached the road’s apex, which had a sheltered area; many locals sat in wait, and they invited me inside. One guy, amused by my presence, took my photo. Twenty-odd minutes later, the rain let up, so I got back on the bike and finished out the ride.
In the Tetebatu homestay, a German couple suggested I stay at Guru Bakti Homestay in Senaru. So I did. I spent the evening there getting to know Macho, an employee at the homestay and an accomplished mountain guide. Macho’s pinky had the longest fingernail I’d ever seen. He explained that it was for picking his nose up on the mountain. He also told me that he and some friends had gambled on the U.S. election, and he’d lost two million rupiah—$150—on Trump’s victory. I hung out with two guys from Toulouse, France, for the rest of the night.
I woke up early the next morning—January 20 in Indonesia, but still January 19 in the U.S. I had breakfast, then walked to Senaru’s two waterfalls. I’d read online that guides accost tourists who visit in the afternoon, claiming that, without a guide, there’s no hope of finding the second, more attractive waterfall. If the tourist falls for the trap, she will pay said guide at least ten bucks. Then she’ll get to the waterfall and it’ll be crowded, and she’ll be bummed. I went before the guides were even out, paid the ten-rupiah entrance fee, and found my own way. I had the entire park to myself. This was one damn fine morning.
On the other side of the planet, an onanistic megalomaniac dreamt false, self-aggrandizing dreams of a boisterous, teeming inauguration.
On the way back, I paused near a monkey sporting enormous gonads and tried to make a friend. I sat on the ground, thinking I’d come off as less of a threat that way. On the one hand, I wanted to believe that he wasn’t malicious, but on the other, I didn’t want a big chunk missing from my arm. The closer he got, the more my heart rate increased. But once he discovered that I did not have food for him, he climbed a tree and made his intentions clear, so I left him alone. Can’t win ’em all.
After an exhilarating tromp through a long, dark, narrow, bat-filled canal on the way back, which the French guys had suggested I check out, but sans any mention of bats, I returned to Guru Bakti feeling quite alive and refreshed. There, I packed up my now-dry clothes and once more hit the road—back to Senggigi, to return my beloved motorbike and catch a ride to the Gili Trawangan-bound public ferry. There, Killian (the Frenchman from the first boat) had booked me a bed in his tent for 85 rupiah, or $6, a night.
He’d been there a week, so he had made many friends, and they all allowed me to join the group. Laura and her friend Aurelia from France; Laura, Lea, and Felix from Germany; Noodles from England; Barbara from Hungary; and, later, brothers Hawk and Cutter from Canada. Each night we went to the night market, where Killian had a favorite cart that turned twenty rupiah ($1.50) into a full plate of delicious fare.
We’d then wander down the main strip to the Jungle Bar for its 8–10pm happy hour. It’d be an understatement to say that Killian loves to dance, so after some time he’d coax us all onto the dance floor. Every night at the Jungle Bar is about the same: people trickle in, then drink until they’re drunk enough to dance on black-lighted tables to the same exact nightly playlist of American hits. But it was nonetheless a good time. At precisely one in the morning, the Jungle Bar would close; somewhere up or down the road, one predetermined bar would keep the party alive until about four.
Days we spent going on walks or hikes, snorkeling, and hanging at the hostel, which is called GiliFit and which is really quite nice. Gili T, as it’s known, is small: you can circumambulate it in under two hours. (Motorized vehicles are outlawed.) But it’s pretty, and—in the wet season—calm.
After four nights, I was sad to leave my new friends, not to mention paradise, but there was the issue of that pesky return flight. I stayed up till the sun rose on January 24, slept three hours, packed, and took the boat back to Bali, where I stayed in Kuta (Bali, not Lombok) for two nights, got a rejuvenating $8 massage, and then wasted away in several airplanes and airports until, some 40 hours later, I walked out of JFK into the snow, into the turmoil, and back into something akin to real life.