Bali's beautiful sister: Lombok - 11 - 18 June

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June 18th 2015
Published: July 3rd 2015
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Lombok is breathtakingly beautiful. Rolling hills in vibrant shades of green bow down to serene beaches, aqua blue water and spectacular surf breaks. Mount Rinjani towers over it all, mocking those who scramble up volcanic scree for a glimpse of her view below. The Islamic call to prayer echoes out four times a day, declaring that 4.30am is high time to rise and give praise. Tourism in Lombok is Bali's younger sister. Still young but growing fast, she's found her feet, is learning every day and is impatient to catch up. She's bright and knows how to work with what she's got; as her natural assets draw the crowds she converts her traditions to attractions, Salak village tours and traditional weaving demonstrations entice visitors to try and buy wares, at a 'good price' of course.Sengiggi southwards: explorations with friendsAfter breakfasting on the Gilis, my next course was Sengiggi, a seemingly bizarre place where large empty overpriced restaurants sell western and variable Indonesian food to holiday makers, who rest in comfortable seafront hotels and luxury resorts. I came a-visiting, to spend time with my 'digital nomad' friends Dave and Carmen. After a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon squatting by the pool of an expensive resort, we hired a driver and headed south. Tourists are a relatively new breed in Lombok and attract great interest in quieter parts. As we entered a Hindu temple we were mobbed by throngs of primary school children, deliriously excited by our presence. Afterrepeated introductions and photos, two teachers approached to shoo aside the children. Expecting release we were amused to discover that they wanted their own photograph our pale skinned selves.Following a minor cultural detour to learn traditonal weaving, observe local village life and pay above local price for artistic souveniers (which was difficult to begrudge after seeing local living conditions and the time taken to produce them) we arrived at Lombok's exquisite southern beaches. At Selong Blanik a long crescent of softwhite sand greets gentle waves of glistening water, framed by the horizon of shapely hills. Ramshackle warungs sell excellent fare and hire loungers and beginner boards to wannabe surfers. It is a place to sooth the mind and enliven the soul. Rarely one to sit, I swam, stretched and danced. Responding to music within, stimulated by contented and inspired emotion, I danced, glided and span across the beach, bare feet pirouetting in sand and splashing through water, eyes on the horizon absorbing the view without a care for who may be watching. Having danced my fill I let loose and ran - along the waterline, soaking my skirt, endorphines racing, joy beaming; aware that pure freedom and happiness embodied those moment. Open your eyes - free your mind - follow your heart - find your soul - be yourself. These words formed in my mind as I relished the moment. Jogging past local teenage boys (who inevitably wanted a photo) my mind spoke to them - 'this boys, is a what a free woman looks like'. I do not take my status lightly; denied to so many throughout history and across the globe, as I venture through the world and in life, I treasure and am thankful for the position, rights and equality modern Britain has granted me, and which I pray continue.Kuta, Lombok: a surfer's vibePowerful waves drive South Lombok's developing economy. Attracting thrill seekers from far and wide, once sleepy Kuta has transformed into a surf haven. On first impressions I couldn't understand the appeal. It seemed to be a non descript place with a raison d'etre to sell passage elsewhere. Rows of tourist stands flogging the same 'shuttles' and tours, punctuated only by fruit stalls, warungs, homestays and surf shops. A course sandy beach caters to residents. It was pleasing to see the locals enjoy their own environment; children playing in the water, fully clothed women resting in the shade, icecream motorbikes blasting out off key tunes to entice punters, fisher folk wading to catch their means to live, few tourists and no bikinis to be seen. I spent my first day pondering my next steps. How as a solo traveller would I navigate an island that requires my own set of wheels or sufficient rupiah to hire a private driver? After much contemplation I settling on delaying the decision for 'when in Rome', and booked myself a surf lesson. From the next morning I was hooked.Go to Gerapuk, The Lonely Planet advises, for the ride of your life. And it was, it really was. Pods of surfers flock to catch the marvelous playground swells; burning upper body muscles, frazzling skin, getting rolled under turbulent waters and diving out the way of sharp hurtling boards, all in a morning's work pursuing zoomingly ecstatic rides. For those with experience and skills, Mawi and Ekas provide waves not to be trifled with, which I inevitably passed on. Surfing by day, Kuta's visitors relax and socialise at night. Eating their fill of Beef Rendang and Sasak Pumpkin curry, they head to the beach bar to share stories around the fire or dance barefoot in the sand. I came to love Kuta's vibe; a hub for relaxed surfers and travellers united by their passion for life and their chosen sport, mellow fun and ripping rides were the name of the game. I temporarily switched flashpacking for backpacking and moved to a laid back homestay that was, as all homestay's should be. With five rooms hosted by a warm hearted and ever helpful family, travelling surfers of five nationalities sat outside playing cards and planning their next day. When the surf was low, all seven of us went on a road trip. We scootered by paddy fields, past rolling hills, through local villages and alongside bustling markets where women sat on the roadside displaying wares of fruit, garlic and flowers. Our end destination of three waterfalls was nice, but the real adventure was in the journey. As the only passenger on this trip having never ridden a scooter, the next day I bit the bullet and sought out independence. If 16 year olds can learn it in the UK, and Indonesian children ride three or four at a time, then it was high time I learnt. I adored the freedom it bestowed; that afternoon I explored roads to beaches, discovered impeccable shores, quiet coves, and alluring climbs to breathtaking, soul fulfilling views.

The surf school guys were my muse for contemplating local mental wellbeing. I watched them joke, laugh, rib one another, smile, engage in a water fight and have fun whilst earning their daily rice. When was the last time I saw this level of enjoyment in a workplace in the UK? I cannot recall. The local surf trade offers young males a new and appealing alternative to a life of farming and fishing. As the instructors waited for tired pupils to paddle back from a ride or a fall, they glided along waves with gleeful ease, powering back in time to see to their duties. At night they ran a bar, socialising with customers whilst bringing in rupiah, to spend on beer at the end of night beach party. It is, of course, not the norm; a lifestyle open only to young males, providing venture from the full rigidities of Islamic Lombok society that their younger years and testosterone crave. Their waterborne responsibility by day gave way to night time hunting of newly arrived game; western women. Nevertheless, it initially seemed to me that they were the epitamy of mental and emotional wellbeing. On an island where material possessions are few, they appeared to possess a valuable state of mind and being.I wondered at this beautiful island populated by seemingly warm hearted people. Though as I delved a little deeper I discovered that all was not what it seemed. 'You can't trust what they tell you, they hold a lot of aggression, and just want your money' informed another traveller. I looked at him in surprise. 'Many of them are on drugs, Lombok has a real cocaine problem. It's common to the developing world, a method of escapism which fuels tensions'. As an outsider to the drug world I was blind to this and cannot speak to the truth in Lombok. 'Knowing where to buy drugs is like learning how to read waves' informed my new acquaintance. As we sat around the beach fire, discussing our respective 'journey' and the broader topic of mental health, he told me of his history of drug use ensuring from a period of severe depression in his younger years. As a result, his eyes are open to what mine do not see.Poverty in Lombok is clearly visible. People get by with very little, whole families in one ramshackle room, some relegated to mattresses outside, toothbrushes stored in dirty toilet rooms with only a tap, bucket and no soap. Day and night young children patrol tourist spots pestering visitors to buy handmade bracelets, 'you buy one, just one, good price'. Very bright with impressive English learnt from retail interactions, small children are sent out to earn their keep, learning the realities of our unequal world young. Nearly every male in Lombok smokes from late childhood onwards because it carries the status of manhood. When I asked my surf instructor if he knew how bad it was for his health he replied. 'Yes I don't want to smoke, I am 25 maybe shall give it up when I'm 26'. Why not now I asked, 'because if I don't smoke my father says that I am not a man'. With this self perpetuated social pressure to conform to constructed masculinity, hard earned cash feeds the tobacco industry instead of families, dragging half the population towards early graves. As I walked along the street constant calls to 'come look, just looking', 'where you want to go?', 'you want transport?', 'sarong?', 'fresh coconut? Pineapple?' 'cheap cheap', 'good price' were a reflection of the constant material and mental pressure these people are under to make ends meet. Every day they are reminded of how little they have compared to the privileged cash cows who wander into their patch; can I blame them for herding and enticing us to graze? No, as tiresome as it is, I cannot.

After several days paddling and playing hard in Kuta my body and mind craved relaxation, recuperation and alone time,. I returned to Bali and retreated to the mountains, spending my next few days in solitary rest and exploration. I breathed cool highland air, admired wide sweeping views and resurrected my kindle, before wanderlust tempted me away for a far less pleasant encounter. My next post shall tell the tale.

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