(Continued from Scooting Around Sembalun)
I’d mostly slept during the drive from Sembalun and hadn’t done much research about Kuta; I was expecting a smaller, nicer version of Kuta, Bali, and I’ll admit I was hit by a bit of culture shock when we arrived at Roy’s Homestay on the outskirts of the tiny village. The home-stay was incredibly basic – there was a well in the dusty driveway – but our room was nice enough.
We checked in at about 4pm and Alexa was still feeling ill, but we agreed to venture along the beach-front to try to find something basic for her to eat.
The sky was moody as we headed out, and I immediately regretted not taking a jacket. I feel the cold more than most (another fun symptom of my chronic illness) and rarely venture out without something warm; I’m sure I confused many passing tourists on Gili Trawangan and Gili Air when I went to find food wearing a hoodie to keep my (infected) chest warm. As we walked I was surprised by how cold it was, and hoped Kuta would warm up over the next three days.
Kuta seafront is currently being renovated; soon there will be a paved strip in front of Kuta beach, but this meant we had to dodge bricklayers and walk along the sand – which, for two ill people, proved difficult on the way to food and near impossible on the way back as we battled against the cold wind. So far Kuta wasn’t hitting the spot for me and Alexa’s illness (which we now know was actually Dengue fever!) meant she wasn’t having a good time either. We headed to bed early and hoped that the next day would bring more adventures, namely in the form of Linda from Sweden.
I’d met Linda in Canggu and had a great time riding on the back of her scooter through the rice-fields of Ubud. She’d flown to Lombok from Cairns on her way back to Europe, and so as soon as she arrived we hired a couple of scooters from the homestay and set out to find a beach. We arrived at Tanjung Aan, a wide bay with a rocky outcrop in the middle, which has two-tone sand: to the left it was golden, to the right it was white. We climbed the outcrop and Alexa had a Jack moment without her Rose, much to my disappointment.
Later that evening we had dinner at Sonya’s, which is a family-run open air restaurant led by the friendly Sonya who found her feet after being financially aided by a British woman: her staff grill fresh fish in front of you and the simple food is delicious, complementing the unfussy atmosphere.
The following day we had an early breakfast in the village and drove to Mawun, heading through the village and up a winding hill past Ankari yoga, until we arrived at the bay. It’s a semi-circular cove and beautiful stretch of sand flanked by huge hills.
To say we were pleased when the sun came out is an understatement! There are more rocks on the shore line at Mawun than other beaches in the area, but only along a small section so you can swim fairly easily without worrying. Barely anyone was on the beach, aside from the kids offering coconuts – the young boys we got talking to were sweet, and generally a visit to Mawun is hassle-free.
Next we headed to Selong Balanak, which was my favourite beach by far – it was clearly more frequented than some of the other beaches but it didn’t take much effort to walk further along from the small car park area and to unspoilt sand, which was amazingly white.
The bay is distinctly split into two, with epic mountains either side, and the incline to the sea is free from coral or rocks so I didn’t need to wear my hideous Teva sandals each time I went for a dip.
The waves are also huge, so we inevitably got wiped out a fair few times – losing our strapless bikinis in the process. It felt great to be knocked about after the calmer, shallower waters around Gili Trawangan and Gili Air, and even though we swallowed a ridiculous amount of seawater we played in the sea for a good few hours each time we visited.
The night before Linda left we had a fancy dinner at El Bazaar’s Mediterranean restaurant in Kuta village, which had been recommended to us, and Alexa and I shared a delicious mezze platter. The food was pricier than at Sonya’s or any of the other basic, street-front restaurants but it was nice to splash out on one of my final nights in Indonesia and bid a fond farewell to Linda.
The next couple of days blurred into one, and, aside from my now well-documented embarrassing problem, they were the most memorable and relaxing of my trip so far. Alexa and I visited three beaches each day and soaked up the glorious sunshine.
We had a great time riding through the mountains, usually the only people on the road, and waved at passing families and children and saw some village life.
It was great to see the next bay from the brow of a hill and be glad that the view was untouched and not spoilt by a golf resort (yet). It’s abundantly clear that Kuta will eventually go the same way as Kuta, Bali, which is a real shame – I hope it retains some character and charm before the high-rise resorts spring up. It made me realise how much I appreciate an unbroken landscape, and how big resorts take away from small business owners and have the potential to drive locals to breaking point. Which brings me to my next point . . .
Kuta, Lombok, feels quite safe – the locals we met were friendly and helpful but there have been one or two horror stories which I avoided telling my parents about whilst I was in the area. There have been reports of locals driving around on the lookout for tourists to rob – and they’ll be wielding machetes. A couple of years back a man was foolish enough to refuse to hand over his valuables – and he lost an arm. Alexa kindly updated me on this story as we were driving through the mountains before sunset, and I immediately felt myself clutching tighter around her waist.
The next night after beach-hopping we decided to push our luck and stopped at Mawi beach break, joining surfers (and hipsters) who were relaxing after a long day on the waves.
The sunset was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen (although who’s keeping track?!)
The waves were huge, and the sun made it look as though they were on fire.
As soon as the sun dipped below the ocean Alexa and I sprang up and pretty much ran to the bike, both determined to get back to our hotel before nightfall. We were the third pair on a scooter to leave the car park and make our way up the ridiculously long and winding pathway back up to the road. Unfortunately we underestimated how long it would take us to drive back and it was soon dark. And I was terrified, mentally writing snippets of this post as we drove because the only thing getting me through the journey was hoping I’d survive to tell the tale. There was nothing we could do but speed through the mountains – although I wasn’t sure what I was more afraid of, Alexa’s driving or the machete wielding madman. I peeked over Alexa’s shoulder and saw the speedometer hitting 60mph on a straight stretch of road; we knew them fairly well by this point, but it still put the wind up me. Then we rounded a corner . . . only to be flagged down by a policeman and a patrol car.
We pulled up beside two other couples who had been in front of us when we left Mawi. I immediately panicked. Are they going to check Alexa has a license? Fine us arbitrarily for being tourists, which happens regularly in Bali?
“What’s happening?” we asked one of the couples, bleary eyed as the policeman shone a torch into our faces.
“He’s going to tell us together . . .” a French boy replied.
My anxiety escalated and I imagined us thrown into a police cell for the night. Hopefully my brother would answer the one phone call we’d surely be allowed to make . . ?
The policeman waited a minute or so, then announced he wanted to help us. I filled in the blanks.
“It’s no good driving back to Kuta on your own,” (because of the machete-wielding madman . . . )
“You need to drive together,” (because of the machete-wielding madman . . . )
“It’s dark and dangerous,” (because of the machete-wielding madman . . . )
“And you could have an accident on the road,” (because of the MACHETE-WIELDING MADMAN.)
Apparently we could slip on the falling rocks at the top of one of the hills, where construction workers were excavating a road. If we were in convoy, we would be able to get help should the worst happen (like if the . . . you get the picture).
The policeman told us to wait until he flagged down two more scooters-worth of tourists from Mawi, and we set off in convoy along the road. By the end of the journey we had merged into a twelve-scooter-strong army and I sat smugly behind Alexa – I was proud of our International teamwork, until a couple of scooters attempted a risky manoeuvre around a blind bend and I realised that driving so close to morons was maybe putting my life more in danger than if the M.W.M. jumped out from behind the undergrowth and tried to whip my bum-bag off.
All in all we got home safely that night, but we agreed not to risk another late-night jaunt back from the beach (because Jim would worry, and have even more ‘danger tourism’ nightmares.)
On our final day Alexa contemplated learning to surf at one of the schools along the bay at Selong Balanak – there are a handful offering good value lessons, as well as rudimentary cafes and even a western style toilet block (the kind you see at fancy festivals) – but she decided against it since she wanted to spend more time with me before I left Indonesia (aww). She also had her Indonesian travel dream come true that day, when a herd (?) of buffalo walked directly past us. She shot up from her towel and scooped up her camera, although I couldn’t really appreciate the novelty. I was hoping they wouldn’t take a shit near my micro-fibre towel.
Buffalo! On the beach!
Alexa also made us stop every time we saw cows, or goats, as though they were the most fascinating creatures she’d ever seen.
I obviously couldn’t complain, since the last time I tried to call her up on something (cruelty to animals as she walked through intricate patterns of crab balls on the beach) she threatened to make me walk home.
Plus I was happy to indulge her, since we had more fun in our few days together than I could’ve dreamed. She also indulged me and looked after me to no end – sending me to the pharmacy and pretending not to overhear me in the toilet when my bowels (once again) turned to water. We’d shared some of my most favourite memories – the waterfall trek, the mountain climb that almost happened – and I was so grateful to have done them with her.
On my final night we had a look around the market stalls and Alexa bought a Bintang vest. When I pointed out that she could’ve got it for a couple of quid less, she said the stall owner would appreciate her money more than she did. That kind of perspective is one of the many reasons why I’d grown to love her – and I made a mental note to remember that it’s not necessarily about grinding down to a bargain at the expense of their profit (no matter what my Indian Grandma would have me believe).
We rounded off the day with a romantic fish dinner at Sonya’s, but were unfortunately made to move to a smaller table and share with two European surfer boys. Alexa indulged them and made small-talk; I glared at them for monopolising time with my soul twin and favourite spooning buddy in the few short hours we had left together. That night neither of us slept well – I was too anxious about my flight to Singapore. I really didn’t want to leave Indonesia and start again in Malaysia – a new country with new currency and customs – but mainly because I didn’t want to leave someone who had become, in a short space of time, one of my dearest friends.
I knew that the next day I would be closing a chapter on my first month of solo travel – a month of well documented extreme lows, starting in my first night in Canggu and ending with my many bouts of illness – but I’d seen and done so much that felt extraordinary. Every memory – good and bad – has added something to my spirit and I was proud to get past that milestone in one piece.
I also had to acknowledge, as I said goodbye to Alexa and made my way to the airport alone, that my mum and sister-in-law maybe were right when they said ‘It’s not where you go, it’s who you go with.’
The days I spent alone in Indonesia had been few and far between, and inevitably I’d spent them lying in bed, or on a beach, trying to recover from illness. But the days that stood out for me – filled with laughter, and interesting conversations, and closeness – they were the ones I’ll remember. Sophie, Linda, Paz, Alexa and Nick made my first month unforgettable.
So maybe I’ll change the saying. ‘It’s not where you go – it’s who you meet along the way.’ Yeah, that’s it.
– J x