Bed bugs, viruses and a buggered back...

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July 4th 2012
Published: July 4th 2012
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As per usual the blog begins with a journey; this time from our S.E. Asian hub of chez Freeman in KL to Bali, Indonesia (the cheapest route into Nusa Tenggara, the collective name for the archipelago of islands stretching from Bali as far as Timor to the north of Australia). However, before starting our trip I think we should thank Mark and Anke not only for letting us crash in their vacant home, but also for the three pairs of Anke’s trousers (two to be worn by Ali and one by my cross-dressing self) and the three pairs of boxer shorts (Mark’s - designer no less – that bear a few holes but have miles more mileage in them than my current chaffed airy efforts) that we’ve procured from their trash/goodwill bin. There is no pride in Backpacking; fortunately there is often goodwill... Saying that, I did come away with a few pairs of my father-in-law’s cast-offs and I did once pose for a few photos in my mother-in-law’s knickers, but that is another story entirely...

So, leaving under garments aside…

We had no intention of hanging around in Bali: it was tourist hell twenty years ago and is hardly likely to have changed for the better in the meantime. Our aim was to travel east to Lombok as rapidly as possible; then on to little visited Sumbawa and Flores before leaving Nusa Tenggara and heading north to the island of Sulaweisi.

Again it was a lengthy trip involving a Malaysian leg of bus, train, bus and plane. On arrival in Bali we slept overnight on the floor in Dempasar airport as there were no (affordable) forward transport options available given the hour, nor chairs for sleeping on for that matter. At first light we walked out of the airport to the nearest main road in search of a public bemo (minibus with two rows of facing bench seats). Flagged one down but got screwed both by the driver (overcharged) and Lonely Planet (sent to the wrong terminal – where other bemo drivers were duplicity unhelpful, but a kindly local put us right), caught a corrective bemo and then – miraculously, particularly for foreigner-consuming Bali – a free bus, and finally another bemo. Total travelling time, including the three hours of really rather good sleep at the airport – the only minor disturbance being several hundred Koreans who appeared from nowhere to queue around our prone, sarong-shrouded, bodies at 4 a.m. - was a tadge under 24 hours.

Padangbai on the east coast of Bali is the picturesque port town from which ferries to Lombok depart and, far more likely to be utilised by backpackers these days, direct speed boats to the Gili islands leave.

Bali is predominantly Buddhist and so, surely not unreasonably, we’d expected alcohol to be markedly cheaper here than on Islamic Sumatra and, land of the alcohol sin-tax, Malaysia: wrong. One day in and already our first bottle of emergency spirits (bizarrely purchased in Malaysia that does at least have Chinese – non-Muslim – supermarkets) was out.

Guest houses are also far more expensive than on Sumatra and very few, though empty and apparently desperate for custom, were prepared to haggle. However, Pondok Wisata Parta was and, upon gentle encouragement, duly reduced their price from 100 to 80 Rp ($9), including breakfast. This “homestay” -it’s not literally a homestay, i.e. placed within the family in their own house, but many places label themselves as such - is very Bali (the beautiful best of Bali): a serene setting within a walled botanic compound with numerous incensed shrines and a burbling water feature. The staff, including a lady who reminded me of the actor Forrest Whitaker (she wasn’t black, podgy, or with a constant smirk, but she did have the weird eye thing going on), were extremely welcoming and even provided gratis fruit and a big pot of coffee on arrival.

The first night, shattered, we slept like logs, although I did wake to some strange rashes on my arms and chest – heat rash? The second night we didn’t sleep nearly as well with me constantly fidgeting and every few minutes blindly tossing aside some strange insect that I’d felt crawling about my person. Then I chanced to look at one of the strange insects. “Ali…. Ali, turn the bloody light on”. Yep, squashed between my sticky fingers was a – literally – bloody (ex-) bed bug and the buggers were everywhere. We found the night watchman, showed him the grisly scene and slept outside. In the morning (early – woken by both Muslim and Balinese calls to prayer) we waited for ‘Forrest’ to arrive and then explained (with photographic and bloody corpse evidence in hand) why we were leaving and indeed not paying for our previous night’s accommodation bill. Seems she only works there, the owner is away, and if we don’t pay she’ll be held responsible… and will have to pay herself. We offered to speak to him on the phone, contact him by email, anything (outside of paying for being eaten alive/sleeping al-fresco)… Eventually we came to a sensible resolution by simply convincing her to record our stay as a single night (the absentee landlord would never know and it serves him right for peevishly shoddy bed maintenance). Strangely, in over twenty years of backpacking that was our first (close) encounter with bed bugs.

Anyway, we left with ‘Forrest’s’ blessing and caught the seven a.m. slow ferry across to Lombok. The ferry’s ticket office clearly states the price for passengers, all passengers, and that was the last unbiased dealing with transport we were to have for the next eight hours or so.

Sumatra may well employ different price scales for locals and tourists, but these aren’t marked and not down-right mean. Bali and (parts of) Lombok are worlds apart. Disembarking from the ferry in Lembar, Lombok, we were ‘greeted’ by a melee of touts who were delightedly ($$$$) amazed to see a tourist (if you’re coming from Bali to Lombok you, almost without exception, travel door-to-door by tourist bus – hence saving you the following). Once their bemusement had subsided the cartel set to work: there are no public buses/bemos going to Mataram, you’ll have to get a taxi; you don’t want a taxi – then charter a bemo or a couple of ojecks (motorcycle taxis)… You are jostled, jeered and steered from one scam to another. There is even a ‘tourist office’ that merely acts as a respectable front for the most elevated extortions. To get to our destination was going to require at least three transport links and Ali was already getting stressed. Bluffing it out with bravado we managed to negotiate a more realistic price for chartering a bemo and then teamed up with a couple of similarly entrapped Javanese tourists to split the reduced rate. Nevertheless, we’d all still paid way too much. Once in Mataram we had to run the bemo gauntlet again, but did at least find a public one willing to take us, albeit at a massively hiked price. Then on arrival in Muslim Praya there was a sudden change from money-grabbing urbanites to friendly honest rurality. We loaded our packs into the back of a rusting old bemo already crammed with sacks of rice and baskets bearing thousands of sachets of sambal then sat with the assembled locals at a roadside warung - chatting, drinking coffee and passing cigarettes until the driver was ready for the off. Somewhat more chilled we even watched our bags disappear as the bemo did a quick circuit of town touting for other passengers – our fellow coffee drinkers having assured us that the bemo would definitely be returning. And so the last two legs went without a hitch: a short ride sandwiched among the ladies returning from market (including one endearing, if totally gaga, betel-chewing old hag who tried her damnedest to get me to join her as I dodged her flying red spittle) and then (the price negotiated by one of these jolly women on our behalf) an ojeck each to Kuta and finally a well-deserved beer.

Even accounting for paying over the odds, the price differential for two of 170k Rp against 540k Rp (tourist service) equates to something like five night’s accommodation, 15 large bottles of beer or 10 litres of pink hangover fuel (see below): a no-brainer in our book.

Kuta, Lombok, unlike its Balinese namesake, is a chilled calm. Water buffalo roam freely between paddies and dusty meadows; eateries and guesthouses lie strung-out along the dirt tracks linking golden coves and a distant white-fringed horizon of breakers crashing on the reef splits the blues of ocean and sky.

It does however have many hawkers. Currently it is low season and they, to their dismay, actually outnumber potential buyers. With school finished at around mid-day young children arrive en-mass from their villages up to eight km away to sell homemade bracelets. Just as in Cambodia the youngsters are charming yet wily and are hard to refuse. We rapidly procured several each (bracelets, not children) to quell the onslaught. The bracelet sales are ostensibly to fund textbooks, which they probably are given their enthusiasm for learning. Indeed we were fortunate as several classes had upcoming exams in Maths and English and most of the children were easily distracted away from rabid salesmanship with rapid-fire times-tables contests and multiplication problems that they’d sit solving, scratching figures in the sand. There are also older girls and women selling sarongs who, sadly, we had to consistently palm-off with “maybes”. One nice story, lovingly related on the first page of a small warung’s menu, details how one such woman was taken under a tourist’s wing and lent money to set up said warung (Sonya’s). The monies have long since been paid back, the two women remain firm friends and the young local woman’s life improved immeasurably (she also does one of the finest nasi gorengs we’ve ever eaten).

Whilst in Kuta we also became well acquainted with the local home-made rice wine (it’s pink colouration apparently due to the use of black rice, not meths) that is sold, under the counter, in re-cycled water and soft drink bottles. Quality saké it is not, but it is cheap, effective, and we both appear to have retained our eyesight.

Unfortunately our next destination necessitated backtracking through dastardly Mataram. Undaunted and armed with a firsthand knowledge of correct prices and a steely determination not to get screwed we made it to Senggigi both un-traumatised and on really rather close to what a local would have paid: smug grins all-round (and a congratulatory beer).

Senggigi was somewhat of a disappointment. It is an uninspiring and somewhat pushy tourist town on Lombok’s west coast, with an average greyish beach and somewhat expensive eateries – including some rather cheeky ones… Seeing a local, non-tourist orientated, Islamic eatery we confidently strode in and ordered nasi campur (a mishmash of a meal compiled from displayed cold dishes and served with rice). On Ali’s plate was the rice, a small portion of a vegetable dish, a spiced-potato crochet and some curry sauce. Before considering whether to plumb for chicken, tempe or fish to round it off she enquired as to the price thus far. “Fourteen thousand” came the reply. We were gob-smacked; “fourteen thousand just for that plate”? “No, fourteen thousand for the crochet, madam”. We handed the plate back to the startled patron, shook our heads and walked.

Whilst Senggigi has little to wax lyrical about we did find a nice guesthouse, Ziva Queen homestay: the rooms are average, the breakfast basic and the garden setting no more than pleasant, but the staff are wonderful. During the day the place is overseen by Eddie and at night – post-school - by Roonie, both amiable young lads (Roonie is off to Holland soon on a month’s exchange program for excelling students). We also lucked out with the other backpackers in residence: a young German couple, Joey (unusual name for a German girl) and Phillip, and an engaging Italian, Marco (admittedly not such an unusual name for an Italian male although, extraordinarily, he had no interest in football).

Our first night together also happened to be a Saturday and saw Germany play Portugal in the European Championships. The local lads had their friends turn up from various neighbouring villages and a dozen of us sat, somewhat raucously, consuming vast quantities of palm wine and beer between bouts of arm wrestling (the only western defeat coming when the two strongest Lombokans fought Philip simultaneously – and then they had to cheat to overcome the German goliath – but shit, did they celebrate). Whilst leading the Muslim lads astray (apparently consumption of alcohol is fine as long as it is not within sight of someone who might care) we discussed such disparate matters as polygamy (certainly, if the man can afford it) and divorce (extremely common in Lombok and just as accessible to women as men), beefeaters and their busbies (…and they never smile?), British geography (loved the concept of the Union Jack; impressed Scottish men wear a sarong variant), whether magnetism might not be the panacea to our energy problems (went over my head), extraterrestrial life forms and – of course – women, girlfriends and the peculiarities of cultural courtships (if the girl isn’t home by ten p.m. you have to marry her). And then at 3 a.m. we collectively (this will never happen again) supported Germany in their victory over the Portuguese (no one likes Ronaldo). Two nights later it was England vs. France and the less said about that the better.

Further up the coast is the port of Bangsal, supposedly the most dangerous and infuriatingly tout-infested town on Lombok. No one even approached us as we confidently strode the 1 km from bemo terminal to harbour. From here public long-tailed boats chug over to the Gili islands: quiet Meno for the lovers, bustling Trawangan for the partiers and Air for the in-betweeners. All three are tiny specks (easily circumnavigated on foot) encircled with fine white sands and set in crystal clear, coral-rich waters famous for their diving.

Many years ago we’d stayed on Gili Meno (see Meno mushrooms) when it boasted just six rickety beach huts. Knowing that we’d only unfavourably compare its current status with that of our memories we decided to visit Gili Air this time round, a decision we were later to regret.

Flat Gili Air has plenty of building work in progress but still retains a sleepy rural character, and at least the on-going developments are predominantly traditional single-story wooden constructions with palm frond roofs. That said, whilst we have no problem with 4 a.m. calls-to-prayer (even though the tiny solitary mosque has, totally unnecessarily, surely the most powerful tannoy in the Islamic world) or the circling rounds of cock-calls that can occur at any hour, early morning chain-saws are another matter. The island has no motor vehicles; the only mode of transport being cidomos, horse-drawn traps whose tinkling bells warn you of their approach on the dusty lanes that crisscross the coconut groves of the interior.

Our guesthouse – Blue Moon – is run by an eccentric Swiss lady. Set within a jungle of coconut, banana, frangipani, and mango trees it only has five huts; the dirt paths through the site picked-out by succulents, pink bougainvillea and the ubiquitous hibiscus. It also acts as a cat rescue centre with, at last count, 32 current adoptees. So here we are minding our own business, ambling around the island, eating some delicious local food (scruffy little Warung Bambu run by Bar serves some of the most original dishes we’ve had since Laos: the bakso, a spicy beef ball and glass noodle soup, is only bettered by the pelecing kangkung - local water spinach accompanied by Bar’s take on a green, coconut-infused, sambal ) and catching the odd sunset. It is at this point that we are informed that our neighbouring hut houses a very sick Frenchman. And so our week of woe was ordained.

Twenty two years ago Ali and I both simultaneously contracted Dengue fever (break-bone fever): a grim, mosquito-borne virus that leaves you debilitated for weeks afterwards (see Dengue fever). There is no preventative medication and no cure, you just ride it out. Fortunately it is only fatal in very rare cases, on first exposure – a second bout can be far more serious.

Initially it sounded like our neighbour Vincent had malaria: a reoccurrence, he first contracted it many years ago in South America. We push him to travel back to Lombok to visit a hospital but he is reluctant and already in poor shape to make the journey. Everyone keeps an eye on him and we selfishly persuade him to at least sleep under his mosquito net before giving it to all of us.

A few days later and we both have dull headaches (initially attributed to the all-nighter watching England luck-out over the Swedes), aching limbs and rising temperatures. Day two sees all the symptoms magnified greatly: pounding heads; Ali is unable to sit or lie-down so painful are her bones (this didn’t promote sleep and she took to performing strange gyrations whilst lay on her side which didn’t, in turn, aid my slumber either); our temperatures hit 39˚C; and we are freezing, wrapped in sleeping bags in an ambient temperature of 32˚C (admittedly not the best way to control a fever). We have his symptoms exactly and logistically there is no way it can be malaria (he hasn’t been on the island long enough for the local mosquitoes to have become infective and it is not usually on the Gilis), but it does sound like – and painfully remind us of - the early stages of Dengue, in which case there was worse to come and for us maybe much worse.

Throughout the sleepless night we contemplated our options: well, we wouldn’t be climbing Mt Rinjani in the next few days that much was certain. Should we high-tail it to Lombok just in case we needed drips? Where were the insurance details? Shit, we hadn’t written a will…

Day three dawns, Vincent announces his complete recovery (day 6 for him) and we feel remarkably well ourselves with fevers down to low-grade pyrexias. This waxing and waning doesn’t spank of Dengue (nor malaria given the 24 hour cycles) so we decide to sit tight for another day. Seems things are calming down, that is until we decide that we could probably force some food down our throats and I promptly faint in the restaurant. A night of 40˚C fevers for me and Ali (seemly 12 or so hours behind me in her attacks) takes to wrapping me in cold wet sarongs to bring them down – with commendable results. With our heads banging we discover that tonight is a festival and the mosque will be broadcasting the all-night chanting of ‘Muezzin and his mad Mullahs’; really, all night. It finally stopped at 4 a.m., just in time for morning call-to-prayers.

In my mind I’m running through other possible causes: chucks are everywhere – bird flu? Stray, semi-wild cats are even more abundant – can their fleas transmit some form of typhus? Paths are overgrown with foliage: ticks? We’ve all been eating loads of local eggs… What about that bloody pink hooch? What on earth has 24 hour attack cycles? There is never internet access when we try and the medical centre here is worthless.

Day four and once again the symptoms have subsided somewhat (as finally did the catawalling of the bloody mosque) and we managed a couple of hours sleep. Then as evening approached so Ali went into spasms of rigor, her temperature now a tadge under 40˚C, and it was her turn for the damp sarongs. Just to round things off a thunderstorm rolls in – we have a large hole in our roof – and I am forced in my rather shaky state to scale the hut and secure tarpaulins. Ali back on an even keel and I kick-off. This is seriously tedious and rather unpleasant. We keep telling ourselves that we should be tickety-boo in two days (we’re definitely in better shape than the scurvy looking Frenchman). We now also have several other minor symptoms: sore throats (think bizarrely you get one with malaria); tight chest (me) whilst Ali reckons hers is making a whooshing sensation, plus her fingers are going white and numb when she enters into her shakes. Too exhausted we skip the final England group match.

Day five and my fevers abruptly halt, leaving just the malaise and headaches. Twelve hours later, one further attack, and Ali also appears to have finished. We sit around for a further day regaining some strength and planning our evacuation.

So the cause of our illness remains a mystery. Beer and kudos to the medic / parasitologist who comes up with the explanation we consider most plausible.

The sensible option was to head to Mataram – in case of relapses – and pause there for a day or so of further convalescence. Setting off this was totally our intention, but the journey was going so smoothly that before we knew it we had taken two bemos, an open back truck (lengthy pause en-route as all the men clambered down and wandered off to the local mosque for Friday prayers), skirted two-thirds of the way around Lombok and were at 1200m in tiny Sembalun Lawang with Mt Rinjani looming ominously above us.

Assaults on Rinjani are not to be taken lightly: the first day requires four hours of trekking through the foothills and then four further hours of steep climbing to the crater rim camp at around 3000m. You then wake at 2 a.m. for a freezing three hour night climb up and along the narrow volcanic sand rim to the summit (3726m) for sunrise, descend to camp again before a five hour hike/scramble down to the lakeside camp and its volcanic springs. The third day is five hours of climbing back up to the crater rim and then a five hour hike down the volcano and back to town. So, all being well, it’s about 30 hours of seriously arduous walking in three days. Certain porters do this barefoot with up to 40kgs hanging off the ends of a bamboo pole. I had less than 10kg to carry, but we did still feel rather woozy and weak, so we waited another day before setting off.

The morning of the ascent (three days after our last fevers) we met up with our guide and porters a little after dawn, and tried our best to convince ourselves that we were feeling fit and well. In all honesty we weren’t; but it was a beautiful day. Hmmm, probably not ideal for lightheaded trekking at 32˚C, but…

At the first checkpoint Anto, our guide, commented on how we were actually an hour ahead of schedule. Then, post-lunch, the climbing began in earnest and we soon discovered just how little we had in our tanks: we were fucked. Before long we were on a laggards pace and our legs were jelly. The porters went on ahead to set camp. It was blatantly obvious that we didn’t have a hope in hell of making the dangerous summit, nor did we have any inclination in trying to do so: sunrise from the lower crater margins would do us just fine thank you.

Arriving at camp was a serious relief, made even better by the steaming mugs of sweet tea awaiting us. Looking down from the crater rim, over the forest and gnarled gullies, towards town far below is spectacular. The view into the caldera itself is something else again. In the late afternoon light the inside of the volcano is cast in bronze; a giant burnished barnacle with entrails of wispy clouds mysteriously sucked in over the ramparts to coalesce as great white blankets that sweep down and roll over the turquoise lake in its depths. There is almost no sound. It really is majestic and our exhausted bodies were quickly forgotten – not that we were going to be lured into 2 a.m. death hikes to the summit. The porters busied themselves preparing dinner whilst we marveled at the sunset and laughed in the face of mysterious viruses.

Sunrise from the lower crater rim was stunning. Very few of the other trekkers in evidence had attempted the summit either due to high winds overnight and we were content that the exertions of the day before had actually left us feeling stronger today. Around 7.30 a.m. we began the decent to lakeside and were making great time when suddenly Ali announced that her back had seized. She tried to walk (climb) it off, but before long she was doubled over and in agony. It was still three hours down to the lake camp. To continue onwards meant soothing hot springs but the possibility of being stranded there tomorrow or, best-case scenario, a ten-plus hour slog back to town. To return to the crater rim would mean at least two hours of heavy climbing with Ali mimicking a forlorn yelping crab, but five hours less walking and no climbing tomorrow. Alternatively we could camp where we were (just) and split the difference. We – sensible for once – very slowly and deliberately climbed back out.

Camp re-established and I’m busy trying to massage Ali’s back. We think it’s muscular – fortunately – and a party of Japanese agree and proceed to donate various muscle-relaxants. There is little she can do but rest and hope for the best for tomorrow. This left me at a loose end so Anto and I headed off up the scree towards the summit. It’s an ill wind…. because the views even higher were breathtaking, including the perfect cone of Gunung Baru the smoking volcano now growing within Rinjani’s crater and an unbelievably clear view of Gunung Agung on Bali some 60km away, it’s summit piercing the endless sea of clouds spread out below us.

Ali’s back had improved minimally overnight and it was a slow, jarring and painful crawl back to town - aided only slightly by a couple of walking staffs fashioned for her by Weewin, one of the porters. Our thoughts now turned to how long we would be grounded because it didn’t look like Ali would be carrying a pack any time soon… Two days later, having endured the torture of the most reticent restaurant in Asia (the only one in town: all staff remain permanently hidden in the kitchen from which they have to be coaxed with constant knocking on the locked door; they are loath to have to cook anything; and rarely have anything that is listed on the menu anyway – all that said, what finally turned up was always pretty good), Ali’s back was greatly improved – she really is a rather resilient old bird - and we were Sumbawa-bound.

Sumbawa doesn’t see many tourists, possibly as we’ve heard stories of those that do venture here getting stoned (and not in a friendly “sit down and share a spliff me old china” way). Sumbawa Besar didn’t greet us with a hail of rocks, but six of eight guesthouses/losman insisted they were full when they looked pretty damn empty to me. The seventh offered us a room at a ridiculously low rate, but a) it was a filthy hole and b) it had mugging written all over it. The last option was a grubby room at an obscene price… We may be hurrying through Sumbawa…

Oh, photo quality (78 of the buggers) not looking too hot on blog - click on first photo and scroll through from there for better resolution...

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5th July 2012

Hi guys! Your photos are amazing Andy, and I really appreciate that I don't have to go through what you are to see these wonderful sights! I hope you have both recovered from that grizzly virus (sounds awful), and so happy that you're still around to tell the tale =) I will send you a proper email update to tell you about what's being going on with us! love you guys, be healthy! hugs and love, Mairi, Derek and the Jokester (his new name)

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