I hope you’re all having a wonderful day wherever you are – This past week I had the opportunity to visit Indonesia as my second to last trip in Southeast Asia. It was an unbelievable experience seeing Bali, Lombok, Mount Rinjani, and Gili Air Island.
Selamat Datang di Indonesia! (Welcome to Indonesia! in Bahasa)
We arrived in Bali at around 6 pm to a beautiful airport full of exoticly colorful Hindi statues and literally hundreds of cab drivers blocking the exit, some holding signs but most just heralding at all the out-coming tourists from around the world. And this happens every day. Again and again. After finally finding an ATM and wading through the mass of hollering taxi drivers, we finally agreed to be driven to our destination by an amiable man named Nioman who followed us so persistently that we eventually had to give him business. Originally we had planned to head to Ubud that evening, but after learning that the rice paddies would be dry at this time of year and knowing we’d be pressed for time the next day we ended up settling for a brief overlay in Sanur beach about 30 min from the city of Denpasar. After much arguing and being followed by many cabbies, we ended up sticking with a private driver named Nioman who gave us a slightly cheaper price than one of the Blue Bird Group “taksis”. We ended up choosing a little expat hostel called the Big Pineapple off a small side street alley. It was close to several small restaurants, and we ended up stopping at a local pit stop market with halal buffet food. A heaping plate of rice and odd vegetables was only 9000 Rp, about 3/4 of a dollar. Although not overly appetizing and we had no idea exactly what we were eating, the meal was filling and we were able to get a good rest. The next morning we headed out to see Sanur beach, which is a long stretch along the coast crammed with little markets and resorts and hotels though the place seemed sleepy and deserted. There were dozens and dozens of lawn chairs available for rent and various types of boats crowded the water. In front of nicer resorts, there were workers clearing debris and rubbish from the beach, but in many places large amounts of tree leaves and seaweed and trash collected in piles on the shores. While the sky was pretty and the beach water seemed somewhat clear, the overall appearance was sloppy and burnt out. We walked for about an hour down the coast then back, and were hailed relentlessly by salesmen pleading for our purchase of something. Since the ocean seemed so cluttered with boats and debris, we ended up sneaking into one of the glittering resort pools for some quick respite from the sun before heading back to the airport for our flight to Lombok that afternoon with a taxi driver named Okan.
It should be no secret, and I would like to firmly establish now, that Bali will look completely and entirely different depending on where you stay and how much you paid for it. I grew up as a child hearing about Bali, this amazing exotic paradise of white sand beaches and blue waters where people lounged on beach chairs and drank chilled pina coladas all day. This is true for many people as the island is absolutely covered in resorts, many of which are truly very nice and fancy. Amidst the teekie torches and the whicker lounge chairs and the sparkling pool, it is easy to believe this is what Bali looks like. At these nicer resorts, bags of trash are collected off the beach every day to keep it looking respectable and the boats are kept at a distance. If you need anything, the resort will get it for you. There is valet parking, comfortable chartered taxis, massage spas, gift shops, and cute little restaurants. And if one travels outside this little haven, they will likely only got to other fancy resorts or restaurants, which maintains the perfect Bali bubble. This experience, however, is generally only that – a bubble, an illusion. The true Bali is a whole lot grittier and a whole lot like the rest of Southeast Asia, which is not clean and comfortable. Bali is fortunate in that the tourism industry has afforded a great influx of wealth to the island, which shows starting with the airport, located on a beautiful coastal stretch adorned with beautiful architecture and a lovely ocean view. The sky is so much clearer than any other in Southeast Asia, ironic since Indonesia’s polluting practices produce rancid air that blow northward to cover other country’s skies with brown. Bali however enjoys relatively blue skies with a general haze. The streets are mostly well paved and everything in the city of Denpasar (the capital where the airport is) seems mostly well organized. There are still dusty side streets with little hovel homes and faded storefronts, but poverty is not glaring. Along the coast, there are countless restaurants and water sports kiosks and souvenir stores catering to tourists, though admittedly the business seemed extraordinarily slow for a Tuesday midmorning – the whole place seemed to be sleeping.
It is hard, but necessary, to look at Bali outside of its luxury resorts in the greater context of Indonesia as a nation, which is among the poorest in the world. Bali is yet another place where tourism has taken over every other industry and craft, even away from the coast in the inner region where towns like Ubud have become tourist traps to show the rice paddies. It is sad to see how now instead of selling handmade art, stores sell cheap prints and sarongs and trinkets mass produced all around Asia. It is sad to see how people now just sit around waiting for a tourist to give them business, hollering “transport” or “massage” or “jetski” or “buy something” the minute they see someone foreign looking. The price differential is also truly impressive – dinner will cost $9000 rupiahs for a tourist (about 0.70 cents USD, which is about twice the local price) for a full plate at little corner diners, and cost about $195,000 rupiahs (almost 20.00 USD) for about the same plate with maybe slightly better meat and a better aesthetic. The tourism industry is so lucrative compared to the cost of living that it has overtaken everything else like an invasive plant species.
It is amazing how quickly people are to be friendly when they think they are going to get something from you. Every time we travel we are assailed by taxi drivers and all sorts of street vendors who eagerly ask us our names and our travel plans as though running into an old friend on the street. The catch always comes however when they ask if you want to buy from them, and most often they do so in a very personal way, asking if we would specifically do them the service of buying from them. It must follow of course, that they are personally offended when we kindly refuse – after all, a good amicable conversation logically means business transaction should ensue right? Needless to say, it turns out we are terrible at making friends while traveling on a budget. The only real quibbles we’ve had abroad are with people who have not yet been paid and want to see just how much they can overcharge for the smallest of things. If you are traveling at leisure and book online and pay the online price, you will without a doubt overpay. But you will also only ever meet friendly people since everyone already has your money in their pockets. If you’re traveling on a shoestring like the average college student, be prepared to argue every penny and have people generally not like you all that much.
We arrived in Lombok at around 5 pm and for the first time in my life, there was someone waiting at the airport holding a sign with my name on it – the relief on my face must have been visible. Traveling as a college student can sometimes be rough, as the toughest part of most adventures is getting from place to place. Things are always so much smoother when someone is overseeing the details, and since we had arranged transport as part of our hiking package everything went smoothly. Our driver — took greeted us kindly and even taught us how to say “tarimagasi” meaning “thank you” in Bahasa among other words Ive sadly forgotten. We then went to the Mount Rinjani Trekking Club Office to make the second half of our payments before our driver dropped us off at OZ Hostel in Senggigi. Since this part of the island is mostly for trekkers, there were very few people around so we went to dinner at the Lombok Resto where we got a great plate of curry and ice cream for desert to quell the oppressive heat. We then went to the Taman restaurant next door to order Bali cider so we could listen to the live music by a local band playing western songs with a mix of western and Indonesian instruments. We then headed back to our hostel, which was quiet and deserted and spider infested. We only had to stay a little while, however, since we were picked up at 5 am the next morning for an hour and half transfer to Senaru. Our driver, –, was really kind and very capable. At one point the car got a flat tire and he just hopped right out and fixed it. In Senaru, we were dropped off at a traditional home where we were given homemade Indonesian banana pancakes and gritty coffee for breakfast. It was amazing to see how this family lived, with one little gas stove, a hole in the ground as a sink, and an outdoor washing bin. Everything was simple, and the people were weathered but kind. We then boarded the back of a pick up truck full of equipment and another trekker Amanda, who was in our group, as we made the hour transfer to the town of Sembalun where we would begin our trek. Little did we know we were about to embark on the most insanely challenging two day journey of our lives.
After registering with the local headquarters and getting our climbing permits, we began our trek through long grass fields strewn with happy yellow butterflies and cows with bells grazing in the fields and beautiful forest trees. Everything was so peaceful, and the gradual uphill slope was minimal. It almost felt as though the plants hugged us as we walked by, the wavy grass whispering and laughing as we passed. The sky was a nice cloudy gray, protecting us from the abrasive heat. Or so we thought… Little did we know these clouds would soon turn menacing. We stopped for lunch after about two hours of comfortable hiking for lunch at a popular rest stop where we met with Greg, Jordan, David, and Max who were all young men in our hiking group led by our guide Siapieu (whose nickname was Apo but who went by Alejandro just for kicks) with a great sense of humor and Uji who was our main porter and amazed us all by carrying all the equipment in two baskets suspended on either side of a wooden beam over his shoulders. There were dozens of these strong young Indonesian men carrying these ridiculously heavy burdens, all wearing only tshirts and fliplops, with some like Uji even walking barefoot. They trudged up the mountain faster and more nimbly than most trekkers despite the weather.
After a lunch of noodle soup prepared by Uji and warding off several aggressive monkeys from our bananas, we set out again sweaty and smiling. Our mood quickly faded as we realized the second and longer part of the hike would be much tougher than the first. The path quickly became very steep and rocky as we crawled over brambles and across sharply inclined ravines. The clouds, so protecting once, began to release thick mist until eventually gathering into a full blown storm. Bitterly cold rain poured down on the mountain, covering everything with a thick fog blocking everything outside of a meter’s radius and drenching the long trail of hikers. Small rivers of water poured down the slopes, soaking our shoes and turning each step into a slippery rocky mudslide. For four more hours we trudged through this rain and cold and mud up what seemed like an impossibly steep slope as we headed into the unknown. Total strangers became friends as we encouraged each other to keep going and push forward. At about 4:30 pm, we finally made it to the base camp to our deep relief. The base camp was located along the crater rim, and our tents looked out over an excellent view of Lake Rinjani though we did not yet know it on account of the mist. We were of the first to arrive, and we huddled together in the rain to keep warm as we were all soaking wet. When the porters arrived shortly after with equipment, strong as ever barefoot with thin layers, we set up camp. Despite the fact that we were all shivering and exhausted, it was really neat to get to know the people in our group. Amanda for example, had been traveling for six months all over the world after working as a high profile Deloitte consultant and had recently got her yoga teaching certificate. Greg and Jordan were friends from the UK spontaneously hopping from country to country as the wind blew them. Max was on vacation from Germany, and David was a professional poker player from England. We were quite the motley crew, and we probably looked pretty ridiculous as Amanda led us in group yoga stretches to try and warm us up. Eventually tents were set up, we huddled into warm clothes, and dinner of fried rice was prepared. After eating we headed to sleep early at around 7:30 pm, falling asleep in our tents on the misty mountain within moments.
We woke begrudgingly to the sound of Apo calling us for coffee at 2:40 am. After a quick cup and some crackers, we began a challenge all together far more difficult than the day before – the climb to the summit. The night was pitch black and stars shown down out of an almost completely clear night sky. There was a trail of small lights from the headlamps of the other hikers going about 500 meters from where we started, climbing throughout volcanic formations and thick sand up a steep incline. We reached the next plane of the crater rim within 30 minutes and congratulated each other feeling rather confident. We had no idea what was coming. Walking along the steep, though well defined and wide crater rim, we continued the uphill battle in the dark. Soon we began to realize that the slope was becoming impossibly steep and the ground had turned to dust, layered with thick volcanic silt and small rocks. Stepping forward meant sticking your foot a half foot deep into the silt then trying to lift the other. The mountain demanded we give at least three steps for each one step of distance gained. Each movement became a colossal fight and the heavy sounds of breathing could be heard all along the trail of headlights as even the most fit hikers met their match. The night began to chill as we ascended, struggling and fighting to move forward with all our might. Every part of our legs burned with the effort as we gave it all we had, leaving it all on the mountain. Slowly we passed huge volcanic boulders as the stars twinkled on. There was almost beauty in the steady rhythmic cadence of so many people breathing heavily as they pushed forward relentlessly. I am proud to say that youth was in our favor. Determined to fight the good fight, we pushed forward and managed to pass almost everyone, even those who had set out 45 min before until we were almost leading the pack. As the first glimmer of fluorescent pink cracked the skyline between the sea and sky over the horizon, we finally neared the summit after three hours of grueling climbing. After scrambling over a volcanic rock formation in the bitter cold, we reached the top where we met with those who had arrived, wrapping our hands in socks, huddling together, and kicking our heels to keep warm on the rocky summit peak. Some brilliant minds had even brought their sleeping bags. Slowly we all waited for the sun to come and warm us as we froze, the heat and sweat of exertion turning quickly to ice. Soon enough, the sun burst into the sky in all its brilliance, illuminating a beautiful orange and blue sky, casting an enormous shadow of the summit peak over the whole massive crater and volcanic valleys of mighty rocks. The view was nothing short of absolutely breathtaking. We all cheered as the sun began to warm us and we began to see the beauty of our climb illuminated. Looking down we could see the steep madness we had just climbed, almost giddy with our joy. We stayed for a while, taking pictures and just soaking in the glory of a sky on fire. When the sun was well over the horizon, we began our descent with our team, which was really more of a slide. The volcanic silt, which had been a menace to climb was almost fun to slide down. We hopped in big leaps and bounds, laughing and talking and enjoying the beauty. Our descent was rich with sights of glorious rolling green hillsides, a dazzling Rinjani lake, and beautiful rocky cliffs of awe inspiring height. In the crater, the Rinjani volcano could be seen, still smoking with thick clouds of dust and sulfur from its last eruption in October 2015. Within 45 minutes we had reached the base camp, exhausted but so proud and excited. We enjoyed a nice breakfast of bread and banana pancakes as we watched the sun shine over Lake Rinjani. After packing up, we took our final pictures and said goodbye to half the group continuing to the lake, and a respectful reverent goodbye to this mighty mountain fortress as we began our trip back to Sembalun. Our porter Uji accompanied us down, and despite his load, he beat us down the mountain. The day was a perfect glittering blue, and we got marvelously burnt as we skipped down rolling green hills and forests in almost three hours, a feat that had taken so much pain the day before. In Sembalun we took a transfer to Bansagl harbor in Senggigi for several hours in the back of a truck where we rested our tired feet and prepared for our next adventure. Overall we had climbed and descended 3,782 meters in altitude in two days. Mission accomplished.
It has been said – life’s a mountain, not a beach.
This is very true, as Mount Rinjani successfully proved. However, it is nice to visit a beach after braving the mountain which is exactly what we did. There are three main Gili islands off the shores of Lombok – Gili Trawangan, Gili Air, and Gili Meno (Gili meaning small island in Bahasa). We chose to visit Gili air, the most quiet and relaxing of the three. After a public ferry crowded with way too many people (mostly locals from Lombok working in Gili Air) and supplies and luggage, we arrived at the harbor of this choice vacation spot where the waters were decent but trash could still be seen as the Southeast Asian trademark. Here we stayed at Captain Coconuts, a hostel complete with floating beds hanging from the ceiling, a pool, delicious healthy food, and a good bathroom which is not to understated in Southeast Asia. The place was run by a very sweet Australian-Indonesian family, and had all sorts of thoughtful amenities. After a coconut mint smoothie for some well needed refreshment, we headed out Mowie’s, a beach restaurant where we got a stunning sunset view over the low tide waters. Dinner was a delicious healthy mix of well needed nourishment with our feet in the sand watching the water. We found it ironic that the restaurant’s motto was “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be”, which was so true after Rinjani. Exhausted to headed back pretty early after nightfall to shower and fall into a happy floating bed, caked with sunburns and heavy limbs. We did nothing particularly exciting the next day in Gili Air apart from walk around the tourist town, occasionally put our feet in the water, and eat delicious food. Sadly, Gili Air has been turned into a completely tourist place and the environment definitely shows it. Dead coral and debris still litter the beach.
Later that afternoon we took the ferry back to Bonsagl where a local from the hostel offered to set us up with a ride to the airport. It turns out he was going to get 50,000 Rp from this deal, the harbor guys would get 100,000 Rp, and our driver would only get 150,000 Rp. We didn’t understand this breakdown, but eventually we realized the driver thought we were going to Mataram, another town, instead of the airport, which he claimed would be more expensive. We literally only had 150,000 to pay him as the rest of our cash, so we agreed to stop at an ATM to get the remaining 50,000 for his price since we had no choice. To our surprise, he picked up his wife and two adolescent daughters and we all headed to the airport. It was quite an interesting experience for several reasons. The first is that there was a spider the size of my palm inside the car that gave us all a heart attack. The second is that the family was silent the whole car ride, a concept foreign to my noisy home. The third was that the driver stopped for food when we went to the ATM. He didn’t ask if anyone wanted anything, but bought cake and Sprite for himself then had his wife feed it to him while he drove. The fourth was that he asked us to wait in the car at around 6:45 so him and his wife could go use the prayer room at a gas station since they are Muslim. The mother and daughters had to use a separate entrance and could not go in the same place as the husband. And while he was still inside, the daughter came out and stole a sip of Sprite all the while making sure her dad wasn’t coming. It was overall so bizarre and made me so grateful for my own family. We were grateful to finally make it to the airport safely too, where we got dinner and settled in to wait overnight until our 4 am check in the next morning. Ordering food at the diner was quite funny since it was all Indonesian name plates we didn’t recognize and the waiters laughed with us we tried to figure it out. We then got water and settled in for a long night before heading out the next morning and enjoying a huge chocolate muffin in the airport to drown our self pity for the terrible night sleep on an airport bench.
So that was our Indonesian adventure – incredible and unforgettable. Indonesia is a very fascinating nation, as it has the fourth largest population in the world and is composed over over 4000 languages united by the Bahasa language while each region maintains their own language. The country is predominantly Muslim, though regions like Bali have strong constituencies of Hinduism and Reiki. It is one of the poorest nations in the world, and has also struggled with substantial violence. There is undeniable beauty in Indonesia’s landscape – some of the most rich and beautiful on earth. There are monkeys all over the forest, and islands like Lombok are covered in rich, verdinous forests of mighty tropical trees. However, burning trash is still common place filling the air with toxins, and there is no sustainable infrastructure for dealing with trash, especially what gets dumped into the ocean. There is brokenness elsewhere as well. While we were in Gili Air for example, we were offered hard drugs several times which felt very abrasive and disconcerting. Gili Air was a beautiful island, but another place dominated by tourism. While we loved the relaxed vibe and restaurants, thats really all there is. And while all the tourists are out vacationing, locals from the main island of Lombok next door take crowded public boats over each day to work. The islands are also slowly being damaged by the trash and even sewage pipelines being dumped in the ocean. Most amazing to me is that there is so much poverty and so many rundown shacks in Lombok where all the locals live. As in many Southeast Asian tourist spots, luxury is an illusion. I so wish there was a way to keep the water this way forever and that everyone had the freedom and means to stay in a beach cabana. And while I loved the sunset and the sky, I must say my home California beaches are still my favorite.
Indonesia will definitely be a place to watch as its socioeconomic landscape changes. With such a large population, they are beginning to take a larger role on the global stage. The culture of Indonesia is so unique, in everything from the Bahasa language ( and the Sasak Lombok regional language) to the Muslim prayers broadcasted on speakers everywhere several times a day. It was definitely a place of learning rather than one of vacation. Indonesia is worth every penny for its natural beauty. Mount Rinjani, though near impossible, will forever be one of my most treasured memories. It just goes to show that sometimes the places worth seeing and the things worth doing are the hardest to reach and accomplish. But the fruits are well worth it. Life’s a mountain, so get out there and climb it. Then face the altogether much harder challenge of climbing the intangible mountains of poverty, sickness, environmental decay, pollution, violence, injustice, prejudice, and hatred that cover our world – they are far more difficult to conquer, but even more so worth the view of defeating them to see the sunrise.
Check out the pictures below to see something about the experience!
I hope you all have a wonderful week – and that you conquer your mountain (especially if that mountain is finals which are coming up soon!)Meet Madelina