#7 - The Other Kuta Beach

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January 23rd 2012
Published: January 23rd 2012
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The other Kuta Beach….

I’m spending the weekend in Kuta! Not the big, famous beach in Bali, but the small quiet beach on the neighboring island of Lombok. It has rained this whole weekend, which is a bummer, but that has given me a lot of time to reminisce, to think about tourist development, and to make some comparisons. This is what I’m musing about as I walk around this small village….

I made my first trip to Bali somewhere around the year 2000. I spent the better part of the three weeks wandering through the smaller villages and less developed areas. I don’t know why, with so many famed tourist destinations, I spent my first trip to a new place on the road less traveled – but, it was the right choice. I found Bali to be a magical island. I was charmed by the offerings to the gods made at my door each morning. I loved the mountains, rice paddies, and carvings that came together to provide an exotic setting. I learned about their healers (second hand, fortunately). I also found the people to be completely delightful. Many that I met were trying to sell me everything from knock-off watches to sarongs, but their friendliness would win out over their business acumen and we would become friends.

Developed areas in Bali made me nervous. One of the first stories I heard was that of Candidasa. With a nice strip of white sand beach, this coastal town was ripe for tourism. In the building of resorts, developers decided to save money on construction materials. They mined the reefs that were just sitting there off shore, free for the taking, to make the cement for their projects. In one of the world’s best examples of irony - without the protection of those reefs, Mother Nature decided to wash away their lovely beach. The newly built resorts did not attract nearly the numbers they were hoping for without any sand to relax upon. When I passed through on the bus, the waves were still lapping against the walls of the hotels. They are still trying to rectify the situation. So, I stuck to small towns and artsy communities. In addition to being able to live on and astounding $5 to $10 a day, I got to see why Bali is such a special place.

But, it seemed a shame to go all that way without seeing the most famous tourist area of all – Kuta Beach. This home of surfers, nightclubs, and shopping is where one-third of all tourists in Bali stay. I decided to spend my last few nights there. What I found was appalling! It was one of the ugliest, most crowded, charmless, dirtiest places I’ve ever been. The tourists were rude and loud and the local hawkers created an ill-tempered gauntlet that had to be navigated constantly. The locals were nothing like the people I had met on the rest of the island, they had become hardened shysters with none of the charm that had drawn me in.

Every time I shook my head at some new travesty I’d discovered, people whispered to me, “go to Lombok, it is like Bali 20 years ago”.

Well, it took me 12 years and several trips back to Bali before I finally made it here. There are lots of Lombok locations that are higher on my list of travel priorities. But, since I only had a 3-day weekend, I thought I’d start with somewhere that is easy to get to and might be time sensitive – the other Kuta Beach – the small fishing village/surfer destination on Lombok’s southern coast.

Why time sensitive you ask? Ok – a little history – Kuta in Bali was a small village whose residents engaged in not much more than fishing and cattle rearing. The first hotel was built in the 1930s – pretty much bamboo huts – and that was the extent of development until around 1970. That was when the newly constructed, nearby airport opened up to international flights. Within 5 years, there were more than 100 hotels, still mostly run by locals. Word quickly spread about the wonderful surfing beach and cheap food, booze, and accommodations. Over the next decades, development raged out of control and tourist numbers increased exponentially. Since there was no actual planning, all this chaotic development put strains on the island’s water resources and infrastructure. Problems such as sewage and trash management were never dealt with properly. Thirty years later, when I arrived, the place reminded me of one those situations where you have 10 college students living in a 2-bedroom apartment, partying around the clock. Loads of visitors still go there and seem to like it. I have to wonder why. Even if you are staying in one of the high-end resorts, you’re still in Kuta. I cannot fathom, when one of the most magical places I’ve seen starts just a few kilometers to the north, why people choose to spend their vacation in an overcrowded place that smells of sewage. Can the allure of cheap beer and a convenient McDonalds be that appealing?

Now on to Kuta in Lombok…

You see, Kuta in Lombok is a small village that mostly engages in fishing and cattle rearing. Sound familiar? It is known for its long stretch of white beach and good surf. It currently has only a handful of small guesthouses and local restaurants. Up until now, it’s been pretty far off the beaten path, but there have been murmurs of large developers buying up the land to turn it into something else. As of yet, only one luxury hotel has been built and it is on an isolated stretch several kilometers from the village center. But, Bali may provide us with foreshadowing as to what will happen here. In October 2011 the new Lombok international airport opened. Those sly developers managed to have the airport moved. It used to be near to the northwest part of the island, which is where most of the tourist areas are now located. The new airport is a couple of hours drive time from Senggigi, Mount Rinjani, and the Gili Islands, and is now 20 minutes from Kuta – just like in Bali. Hmmmm….

When planning my trip, I considered the lux resort, but decided not to isolate myself in a high-end bubble. I decided to go for a local guesthouse and get a good look around; after all it might be my last chance. When I first checked in, I immediately questioned the decision. A rave review of my room would consist of one word – functional. But, the room seemed clean and I did indulge in a place with a nice pool, if it ever would stop raining. (It didn’t) Since I couldn’t laze in the sun, I decided to pop open my umbrella and walk around, perhaps see the beach I read so much about.

The road along the beach has guesthouses on the non-beach side and small shops and restaurants on the beach side. Most of the beach-side places look like something Gilligan would build, if he decided to open a business. Any place where there is a bit of grass, cattle graze in a pasture with a view of the sea. Little by little, I start to see the problems: the buildings are ramshackle, my path is frequently blocked by flooding, and I find piles of trash – as one does in places that are used to only organic waste. Perhaps this place can use a little development after all. I start to wonder if the resort still has rooms available.

I go back to my room and do a little research. The village center is a short walk away. I decide to have lunch near the beach and then check it out. The restaurant is friendly and the food delicious. They give me more perfectly cooked mahi-mahi than I can eat, along with a banana-tamarind smoothie for around $6. Feeling good, I venture into “town”. Almost immediately, I start to get a beat on this place. Near the entrance to town, I see cattle grazing to the left and a large lake on the right. Men are standing waist-deep in the lake and seem to be digging. Half the village is there to watch. I watch for a while and move on.

After walking to the end of town (about 10 minutes), I head back. A boy, who is herding the cutest baby cows, smiles and greets me, not the smile of someone who will try to sell me something, but a genuine, welcoming smile. By the time I get back to the lake, I see the men were successful in their mission. They have now unclogged the drainage that runs under the road. There is a whirlpool that has formed and the lake is slowly draining. Apparently, it isn’t a lake. It is someone’s front yard. I head back to my room with a nice, small-town feeling.

That evening, I decide to go back into town to eat at one of the many places I’ve seen earlier. Imagine my surprise when get to the edge of town and the road is gone! Apparently, those men did their job a little too well. The rush of water was so powerful that it washed away the road that it used to flow under. Once again, the whole village was there to steer pedestrians and motorbikes around the collapse. I had to walk through the “lake”, which had now been downgraded to a mere swamp. As of today, it wasn’t fixed, but there was a nice dirt road going around the damaged section.

I go to one of the first restaurants and while I’m perusing the menu, the waitress runs over and apologizes, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have given you that menu!” Why, I ask, is there another? No, the chef is out sick, so we don’t have any food… How’s that for job security? So, I go down the street and try another place. Like everywhere in this town, they are friendly and the food is excellent. The waiter even sits down with me so I can teach him English. I explain that I teach math, not English, and he quickly runs away….

So, although my initial reaction was that a nice hotel or two would not be misplaced here. I’ve changed my mind. I spent the next two days chatting with the people of Southern Lombok. Right now, the locals and the surfer/backpackers live in harmony. There are enough tourist services and a range of places to sleep. The locally-owned restaurants are some of the best I’ve encountered and unbelievably cheap. Sure, there isn’t much to do and it lacks the religious mystery of Bali. But, this is a pretty and relaxing place…where one can surf, swim, sleep, read and eat. It is not loud. It is not overcrowded. The people are welcoming. Sure, some of them want you to spend your money here, but they are not obnoxious about it. So, although it didn’t quite have the magic that I encountered in Bali, Kuta Lombok started to remind me of how I felt during those 3 weeks in Bali. Don’t we need some casual, laid-back places like this? Travel destinations should retain their personality and individuality. Resorts, as much as I love them on occasion, provide us with one homogenous experience, no matter where we are in the world.

Kuta Lombok is not for everyone, but that is a good thing, isn't it? I shudder to think about what I might find in 5 or 10 years. I think it is just fine the way it is. My only suggestion: clean up the trash piles – and then send the developers packing….


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