Saturday, 19 January 2013

Dirty Magazine Pt. 4: Sumbawa and Lombok

world-map bali


This week’s edition recounts my favourite part of my trip to Indonesia, the time when I was welcomed into the homes of the locals and, if that wasn’t enough, invited to sing karaoke. I love karaoke, I did then and I still do now as my workmates can attest. These days however, I’ve progressed from the Beatles and the Monkees to Elvis and Sir Mix-a-Lot. Such things happen with age.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue

Pt. 1: Seoul

Pt. 2: Jakarta

Pt. 3: Surabaya

Pt. 4: Sumbawa and Lombok

Pt. 5: Bali

Pt. 6: Yogyakarta

Pt. 7: Jakarta and home…



In the exclusive Santika Beach Resort Hotel, Bali. Room 502…

Bond strolled in from his quick dip in the pool. The drops of water on his muscular body glistened in the hot sun. He entered his luxurious hotel suite and surveyed his surroundings. Authentic Balinese art adorned the walls, and the linen on the bed was crisp and clean. But Bond’s mind was elsewhere. Inside his head he was already planning his tactics for tonight when he faced his final showdown with his arch-enemy, the evil Colonel Ming, a renegade Vietnamese warlord who, having stolen nuclear warheads from Turkmenistan, was planning to take over the world. Bond stiffened as his eye caught a shadow brush past the nets of the French windows behind him. Carefully he programmed his watch, (which doubled up as a laser gun, helicopter remote control and an alarm clock), to fire and then our hero slowly turned around to face the doorway. Stood there, clothed in only a black bikini was an Oriental lady. Her dark, sensual eyes stared at Bond and her full lips pouted provocatively. Here was surely the most beautiful woman in Asia. She was a lady whom Bond knew well.

“Good evening Miss Deng,” said the spy suavely, “or should I say Miss Weng Zhou Ting of the Secret Service of the People’s Republic of China?”

“Good evening Mr. Bond.” She paused. “Or should I say, 007 Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill?”

“You know a lot about me Miss Weng.”

“I would like to know much more, Mr. Bond.”

“And I about you Miss Weng.” He eyed the crisp, clean linen on the King Size bed. “Shall we make ourselves a little more comfortable…?”

Meanwhile, next door in Room 503…

Bond’s compatriot eyed the luxurious surroundings of his five star suite. “This is a bit bloody posh!” he said quietly, not quite so suavely as Bond would have done. He started to walk casually towards the French windows, but unfortunately tripped over a paperback that he hadn’t seen lying on the floor. “Bollocks!” he exclaimed as he picked himself up. He opened the sliding doors and surveyed the scene before him. Besides the large pool, surrounded by Balinese sculptures and lush palms was a beautiful Oriental girl wearing a skimpy black bikini. “Just like a bloody James Bond film,” said the Englishman and then he turned to the girl who was walking towards his room.

“Konnichiwa!” he called out to the sultry Asian beauty, in a smooth, sexy Bondesque voice.

“I’m Chinese, not Japanese!” replied the girl indignantly, as she walked straight past his room and went into the one next door.

“Sorry,” replied the not-so-smooth guy. Unlike Bond he would not be enjoying the company of a beautiful exotic woman tonight, (although he had been offered earlier in the afternoon by a friendly Balinese guy who’d asked, “Mister, you want nice girl for fuck tonight?”).

“Better get on with writing that bloody journal,” said the man in the Stoke City shirt, next-door to Bond.

So he did.

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Santika Beach Resort, Bali

You might well be wondering what I was doing staying in a five-star beach resort on Bali when I a). Am a tight bastard who balks at spending more than five pounds a night on a hotel room, and

b). Never intended to stop in Bali anyway. Besides that, the last you heard, I was being dropped off by the trusty Pelni craft M.K. Wilis at the tiny port of Badas, which is on Sumbawa, two islands away from Bali. Well, let me start at the beginning…

The Wilis dropped me off alright on a balmy evening at Badas, a small collection of houses and a concrete pier nestled around an inlet of water on the northern shore of the isle of Sumbawa. From there I took a motorcyle along the twisting road, through palm groves and tiny villages, to the Hotel Suci in Sumbawa Besar, (usually translated as Sumbawa City, ‘besar’ literally means ‘big’). Upon promptly unpacking at the aforementioned and rather dreary hotel, I discovered that, horror of horrors, I had left the bag with all my showering and shaving gear on board the ship. Quite how I managed to do so is a mystery to me I must admit, since I remember clearly checking thoroughly the cabin and shower compartment, so who knows how it happened. Anyone who knows me well however, is probably less surprised, since I do have the worst luck imaginable when it comes to misplacing things. Only the day before departure I had a scare with my wallet, only to find it in the wardrobe. Some ascribe it to untidiness, I prefer to believe that I simply have bad losing things karma.

Well, whatever the case, my stuff was gone. To be quite frank though, I wouldn’t have cared an Indonesian rupiyah about it all, after all toothbrushes, shampoo and toothpaste are easily obtainable, but sadly the bag also contained my electric shaver, an appliance that was a present from a dear friend. A dear friend who would not be impressed when they found that I’d lost it. Still, what was the worry? My trusty Lonely Planet reliably informed me that Pelni ships stay four hours in each port, and the Wilis had only been there an hour at most. I would simply go back, explain my situation to the crew and return to Hotel Suci complete with sanitation kit. Simple! I explained this to the manager and he summoned his friend the motorbike driver, a lean man in an Osama bin Laden T-shirt, with a look that CNN would have labelled as ‘Islamic Fundamentalist’ without the slightest hesitation.

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Mr. Aki and his bike

On the back of the bike I leapt and together we tore through the night, Osama’s cousin and I, twisting and turning along the mountain roads at breakneck speed. In no time at all we reached Badas, but wait, what is this? “Wait! Wait!” I say. “Wait please!” I yell in vain at the K.M. Wilis which is steaming out of the bay, my electric shaver safely on board.

The journey back was less swift and in the outskirts of Sumbawa Besar it ground to a complete halt. We felt a few spots of rain, which meant that a shower was on the way. But this was the tropics and I’d experienced tropical showers before; ten seconds out in the open and you’re soaked to the skin. Osamaman too was evidently no stranger to the phenomenon. Quickly he pulled his bike to the side of the road by a shelter into which we ran. And then the heavens opened!

Up until this moment I had thought that my driver spake not a word of English, but a few seconds under the shelter soon showed me the truth.

“Mister, what is your name?”

“My name is Matt.”

“My name is Mister Aki.”

“Hello Mister Aki.”

“Mister Matt, where is you coming from?”

“England, near to Manchester. You know, David Beckham.”

“Yes, I knowing this. Mister Matt, you is speaking Indonesian?”

“No, I’m sorry, no Indonesian.”

Normally these conversations sopped at this point but unlike the majority of his compatriots, Mr. Aki took my ‘no Indonesian’ to mean that instead of conversation being an impossibility, I wanted learn some.

And luckily he was there to enlighten me.

“Mister, speaking English, thank you.”


“Speaking Indonesia, dirimagasi.”

Or something like that. I remembered it because it sounded pretty similar to ‘dirty magazine’. If you have only reached the maturity levels that I have, then no doubt you will find the fact that ‘thank you’ is ‘dirty magazine’ pretty bloody hilarious, and instantly memorable too.

“Speaking English, ‘My name is Mister Matt’, speaking Indonesia ‘Nama casa tuan Matt’.” ‘Tuan’ is ‘Mister’. I remembered that too, since I have a friend called Tu Anh. She however is a Miss, not a Mister, which is unfortunate I suppose. Like Mr. Aki she also does not have the greatest grasp of the English tongue, but, like he, she tries hard, and you’ve got to admire that. And Mr. Aki was now in full flow.

“Speaking English, ‘Good’. Speaking Indonesia, ‘Bagus’.”

Thus we spent that tropical shower, ‘Speaking English XXXX, speaking Indonesia XXXX’ and further ‘get to know me’s’ with Mr. Aki. For a start I learnt where he got his English from, a dirty, crumpled piece of paper in his pocket filled with useful phrases written in an Indonesia phonetic:

Wia du yu wonting go?

Its fifti tauzen pleez.

Dis is mai baik.

Its veri cheep mista.

And he achieved what I’m sure was his objective all along. My consent to have him drive me not only all around Sumbawa Besar during my stay, but also to Porto Tano, the embarkation point for Lombok.

The next day I was awoken around ten by Mr. Aki, (we’d arranged to meet at twelve), who was, Speaking English, “seeing I’m everything ok, good,” speaking Indonesia… I showered, packed and embarked upon my sightseeing tour of Sumbawa Besar. Sightseeing Tour however is perhaps too grand a title; there is only one thing to see in the city, and that is what I saw. The end.

That one thing is the Sultan’s Palace, or ‘The Old Sultan’s Palace’ to be exact. There is a new one too, but that’s government guesthouse now and not open to the public. Before becoming a nation, Indonesia, (or the Dutch East Indies as it was then known), was ruled by, (unsurprisingly, given the title), the Dutch, but on a more local level, by hundreds of sultans, each with their own tiny domain. Sumbawa’s sultan, a bespectacled gent is still alive and living in the town today, albeit powerless, though of course, not poor. His old palace however, now a museum, is open to all and sundry.

‘Open’ of course being a flexible word in such countries. When we arrived there it was locked and Mr. Aki had to raise the caretaker from his slumbers; still I can’t complain, the guy forgot to charge me. The palace is a large wooden house on stilts, and a little akin to a Maori dwelling in style. Inside it was dark and stuffed full of relics with detailed descriptions in Indonesian. Despite having a guru with me, (I’d learnt earlier that speaking English, ‘teacher’, speaking Indonesia ‘guru’), I was still none too wise, but it was nice to wander around and look at stuff all the same.

Having completed my tour of Sumbawa Besar, I retired to a Chinese restaurant, (it looked like the only restaurant in town), before embarking on my journey across the island to Poto Tano with Mr. Aki.

When he’d suggested to me the idea of travelling across Sumbawa, backpack on my back, on the back of a moped for 35,000 rupiyah, I was at first a little hesitant. The bus was, (according to Mr. Aki), 25,000 rupiyah, (i.e. it was really about 15,000), but he was, he assured me, “more quickly”. However, I remembered how pleasant the initial ride from the port to Sumbawa Besar had been and thus Sumbawa’s highlights may not be in it’s big tourist attractions, (“No offence Mr. Sultan.” “None taken Mr. Matt.”), but it’s countryside. And by this mode of transport I would be able to experience it first hand, plus stop when I wanted to.

And so it was. The countryside was spectacular and on my way I learnt the names of all the animals, (Speaking Indonesia). Onward we sped, through the lush palm groves, past mist-covered mountains, around sheltered inlets where fishermen plied their trade, past verdant rice paddies with hard-working coolies and through throngs of primary school children, all in their uniforms of coloured shorts or dresses, and Hawaiian-type shirts, (each school has a different colour and the school emblem is repeated all over the shirts instead of palm trees). At one small town Mr. Aki stopped at a restaurant for take-out and later we dined by the seashore on rice and fish.

At the end of the seventy kilometres my bottom was beginning to complain but my eyes were still feasting for more. The scenery had changed from being lush, green and almost Caribbean, to a harsh landscape with sparse vegetation, more akin to Kirkcaldy than Kingstown. Strange jagged hills rose up besides the road, but we chugged on, around the corner to the tiny port and settlement of Poto Tano, where our ferry awaited.

Onboard the boat I was once more the subject of much attention; firstly from the hawkers of bottled water and snacks, and secondly from my fellow passengers. As we sat down a crowd swarmed around and Mr. Aki started to tell my lifestory, (speaking Indonesia), to the eager listeners.

Foremost amongst the throngs were a middle-aged lady and her younger relative who were sat behind us. The lady had a round, happy face which cracked into cackles of laughter when I winked at her. Her relative, whom I later learnt was her cousin, was a bonnie lass of about twenty. She spoke some English and we talked for a while. She really was quite pretty and I was enjoying our conversation rather a lot until she asked if I was Christian. Upon receiving an answer in the positive, she replied, “Christian no good. Muslim good.” Confronted with such sound theological reasoning, coupled with her very limited English, and my, (despite the best efforts of Mr. Aki), even more limited Indonesian, I could think of no suitable retort. Looking back, this was the only time during the whole trip when someone did attack Christianity, which was considerably better than I’d anticipated beforehand. Nonetheless, it was a shame that it came from someone young, and what’s more someone rather pretty who I’d have liked to have got to know better.

Upon reaching the shores of Lombok we returned to our motorbike and journeyed the short distance to the nearest town, Labuhan Lombok. Upon reaching the outskirts, Mr. Aki to my surprise, stopped the bike, got out his piece of paper and announced, “Pleez resting foa minit mai hom.” This surprised me somewhat since I’d assumed that he lived on Sumbawa, but I was eager to see inside an Indonesian home so I happily consented.

Mr. Aki lived in the last house at the end of a dirt road, on the edge of town. It was obviously quite new since the house next door was still unoccupied and the house across the road, unfinished. It was small too. I was invited into the main room, which was devoid of any furniture, the only contents within it’s four whitewashed walls being a large green carpet, upon which lay a child of about two, fast asleep.

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The road where Mr. Aki lives

In my experience, if you want to tell how poor a household is, you don’t look at the size of the dwelling or its location, but rather it’s contents. I’ve been to huge houses in villages that belong to some of the poorest people. The dwelling may be large, but it is also usually empty. Conversely, Western and Japanese houses are so full of bits and pieces, furniture, nik naks, pictures; all those things that we pick up throughout our lives and that we spend (waste?) our excess cash on. I never realised it fully until I returned home after several months in Greece, (which is hardly the third world when all is said and done), where I’d occupied a large yet sparsely furnished house. Upon entering our family home I felt overpowered and claustrophobic by all the clutter in the rooms, and by the patterned wallpaper that seemed to make the room seem even smaller. I couldn’t believe that I’d never noticed it before, but having grown up with it, I hadn’t. Yet in the third and second worlds, (i.e. which hold the vast majority of the human race), rooms are so much barer, walls are whitewashed not papered, and the furniture there is what is required, not just clutter.

Even taking this into account however, I had been nowhere like Mr. Aki’s before. Bare is one thing, a complete lack of contents is another. Admittedly the Asian habit of sitting on the floor did away with the need for chairs and a table, but nonetheless, this place was austere.

Mr. Aki got out his paper and pointed to a line that read Dis is mai waip. An attractive lady of about thirty smiled at me and presented me with coffee. Mr. Aki showed me the paper again. Dis is mai kidz read the line that he now pointed to.

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Mr. Aki’s family

Now which ones were Mr. Aki’s kids, was now difficult to tell. Since I’d arrived a steady stream of young visitors had followed me. As in the Philippines, Indonesian village houses seem to be ‘Open to the General Public’ type places. By now the dwelling was filled to the seams with countless children of all ages, shapes and sizes. Around twenty were now perched on that green carpet, eyeing me curiously. It was strange to see. In the Britain that I’d grown up in, we had to knock on our friend’s doors and then ask the relevant parent, “Please may I see Steven, Mrs Edwards,” or something like that. But here they all just strolled on in, seemingly caring not an iota whether the Aki’s actually wanted them in their home. All and sundry were now there, (even a parent I noted), sat down, eager to watch the special showing of ‘Foreigner drinks coffee’, exclusive to the Theatre Aki.

Not that I minded this of course. Well, ok, I did mind being stared at whilst I consumed coffee, but the kids I didn’t mind at all. It was obvious that I was indeed a special event and they were determined to make the most of me. One small girl, who was aged about eleven, in particular kept asking questions in surprisingly good English: Where did I come from? What did I do? Did I like Westlife? Could I sing a Westlife song for her? Sadly my knowledge and enthusiasm for Ireland’s number one band of popsters is almost non-existent, but I did remember that they’d once done a cover version of Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons in the Sun’, which is a most excellent tune and one that I occasionally murder in karaoke bars. Thus I sang that, which caused big beams all around and resulted in a choir of voices accompanying me for the chorus. After that we survived on a diet of English teacher stand-bys; the memorable ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’; the immortal ‘Wheels on the Bus’ and that classic gift f the Beatles to the TEFL profession, ‘Hello, Goodbye’. I then taught the kids how to play Paper, Scissors, Stone, which surprisingly they had not come across before, but which they picked up quickly and with enthusiasm. (N.B. In the Philippines however, the game is very popular, and surprisingly they use the Japanese name ‘Janken Pyo’ for it. The reason for this is that the Filipinos were taught the game by the occupying armies during World War II. Quite why the Japanese armies in Indonesia did not pass it on to the natives there, I know not).

It was around this time, I think, that Mr. Aki fully realised what a valuable asset he’d stumbled upon. Not only was I a foreigner, (i.e. rich and interesting as a curiosity), but I could also keep the kids occupied and, (and this truly was the icing on the cake), I had a camera. Admittedly, it was a pretty crap camera, a manual winder that I’d purchased in Surabaya for 20,000 rupiyah, (under ten quid), but it was more than he had. What’s more, I was prepared to pay for the films and the processing. Thus, I was commanded to go outside and commit the various people of the vicinity to film. So photos were taken, of various family groups, babies on motorbikes, and innumerable groups of giggling children. Mr. Aki’s youngest son Samsul, in particular was fascinated by the flash, and he cackled with laughter every time that a picture was taken.

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Karaoke with the kids, Labuhan Lombok

It was about this time that Mr. Aki also announced, “You are resting one night my house, ok?” To be honest, I didn’t really fancy a bumpy ride on the back of the motorbike to Mataran now anyway, and I was having too much fun with the kids. Besides, what real choice did I have? “Ok?” Of course it was ok! “Dirty Magazine, Mr. Aki!” I replied. My host for the night beamed.

His beams didn’t last long though, when I informed him that my film had, sadly, run out. Straight away he fired his bike up again and commanded me onto the back, and into town we went. First stop was the film shop, a ramshackle hut by the side of a river, and then into the main square, where Mr. Aki left me with the bike whilst he scuttled off to a restaurant to acquire some food.

One side of Labuhan Lombok’s central square is occupied by the town’s main mosque and when we arrived it was time for Maghrib or Evening Prayers, one of the five daily prayers set down in the Koran. As I stood by the bike, listening to the voice of the muezzin as he called the faithful to prayer, I couldn’t help but think about how it was that the islands of Indonesia were converted to Islam all those hundreds of years before. To most Westerners today, Islam has a bad image that inspires fear in the hearts of more than it inspires piety. For the trendy who wish to ‘discover their spiritual side’ other Eastern faiths, such as Buddhism, or Hindu sects such as Hare Krishna seem to draw them. Islam is for fanatics, terrorists and wife-beaters alone. Yet stood there in that square, I could not help but think as to how beautiful that call to prayer was. Even though I couldn’t understand the words, the Arabic, dipping and swirling like it’s script, instilled a sense of peace and serenity inside me. It was not hard to see how the humble islanders had been impressed by the rich Arab traders who bought wealth and faith to these shores hundreds of years before.

Mr. Aki soon returned, laden with produce and we headed back to his home where we ate rice, chicken and fish by candlelight, (the place had no electricity supply). After the meal, more children arrived, the lively eleven year old, (who’s name I learnt was Nurmisuari), had brought her older sister and that sister’s friend, both middle school students who wanted help with their English homework. I happily consent, though I found the task to be much harder than I’d anticipated. The problem was that the example sentences that the textbook gave, were quite plainly, not correct English at all. I could write out the sentences as they should be, but since the teacher obviously wanted the homework sentences to fit a pattern, (a pattern that sadly does not exist in the English tongue), the correct answer would probably be marked wrong. In the end, I’m sorry to say, I abandoned my defence of correct English usage, and gave the girls the following completed sentences:-

The Yogyakartans put too many sugar in the gehab and it spoil it.

The Yogyakartans put too little sugar in the gehab and it spoil it.

Do the Yogyakartans put too many sugar in the gehab and it spoil it?

And so on and so forth…

Homework completed, it was more Westlife, and after a rendition of ‘Flying Without Wings’, (a song that I profusely hope will not survive the test of time), it was announced by Mr. Aki that we were, “Going visiting wife grandfather”, who lived just down the road and turned out to be the father of Nurmisuari and her sister.

That the man who’s house we then visited was ‘wife grandfather’ I very much doubt, since he looked only several years older than the aforementioned ‘wife’ herself; I suspect that grandfather was the relative that they shared in common. Whatever the case may be, Nurmisuari’s father was a moustached gent of noble bearing who turned out to be a teacher at the local primary school. After the obligatory greetings and photo session, we got down to the real reason for the visit. His house was connected to the Indonesian National Grid, and on top of that he owned a karaoke machine.

With Westlife discs.

And one very special VCD where the Irish boys did a duet with Indonesian child star, Sherina Munaf. Nice.

Karaoke might have originated in Japan, and it may still be practised there with vigour in bars and karaoke boxes, but almost everywhere else in East or South-East Asia, it’s even bigger. What is different from Japan though, is that whilst the Japanese go out to sing, the others stay at home; the karaoke machine is now almost on a par with the T.V. as the main form of home entertainment. From Bangkok to Beijing and Cebu to Singapore, humble and affluent Asians alike, can be found can be found crooning into their microphones in front of their T.V. and karaoke machine. And Labuhan Lombok was now exception. Thus we whiled away the rest of that balmy evening, the local primary school teacher, Mr. Aki, ‘Wife’, the teacher’s wife, numerous nut-brown kids and I, sipping sugary tea and singing along to the strains of Eire’s finest.

Our journey to Mataram the following day turned out to be not by motorbike as planned, but by bemo (shared minibus), the principal form of public transport on Lombok. What’s more, I was not going alone, it turned out that the whole family were coming along for the ride, (with the exception of Gunter who had been deposited at school earlier in the morning). At first this puzzled me, I mean I know that I’m a great guy and all, but surely this was going a little too far? Mr. Aki soon made the reason clear to me however, ‘waif’ was leaving Jakarta on the 4th for Saudi Arabia, and they were slowly making their way across Indonesia to see her off on her momentous pilgrimage, staying with friends and relatives en route. One extra meant more sharing of costs, thus a cheaper trip, (and much cheaper if the one extra is a rich foreigner).

I asked Mrs. Aki, (whose name was never given), about her trip. Was she excited? “Yes very.” It was her first trip abroad. She showed me her passport with the large ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stamp inside. It looked impressive.

“Have you been to Saudi Arabia?” she asked.

“No, no. Christians aren’t allowed,” I explained. “In Saudi, you wear niqaab?” I asked her, covering my face with my hand in imitation of a veil.

She laughed, “Niqaab no. But hijab, yes.” She made a motion of covering her head.

I must admit that one thing that did surprise me about Indonesia were the lack of hijab or headscarves worn by the women, perhaps only twenty per cent at most. Yet the covering of the head and other modest dressing is proscribed by the Koran. Most Indonesian ladies however don’t even wear full sleeved shirts or loose tops, their mode of dress being far more similar to that of Manila rather than Mecca. Dressing in hijab is however, I was told, on the increase, particularly since the American actions following the September 11th terrorist attacks, which demonstrates well how such attacks normally have the opposite effect to that desired. Nonetheless, from what I saw, Indonesia was nowhere near becoming the next Afghanistan, and indeed its populous struck me as being far less religious than the neighbouring Filipinos; another surprise.

Although Mrs Aki was not yet a hag, there was one on the bemo who had already made the trip. He was a sage-looking gent of around sixty years of age who commanded great respect from his fellow passengers. The reason for this was simple, not only was he a hajji, but he had done it the hard way: by boat. “Two months to get there and two months to come back” he explained. “It was a great journey, I saw Medina, Riyadh and of course the Kabah in Mecca.”

The Kabah in Mecca is the holiest place on earth for a Muslim, the final destination of the Hajj. Second comes the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Islam’s third most holy site is not in Saudi Arabia however, but on Temple Mount in Jerusalem: the Al Aqsa Mosque.

“You are Christian?” asked the Hajji.

“Yes, that’s right.”


“No, Protestant.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “I think for the Christian Jerusalem is like Mecca for the Muslim.”

“Yes, that’s right. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ died and was buried.”

The Hajji nodded wisely once more. “You have made Christian Hajj to Jerusalem?”

“Well, I suppose so, yes. I also saw Al Aqsa and the Jewish Wall.”

“That is good.” He paused. “But tell me, how did you travel to Palestine?”

“I came by aeroplane and returned by boat.”

“By boat? Ahh, that is good!”

Whilst he was entirely right about Jerusalem being the Christian holy city, it’s importance is not the same as that of Mecca to the Muslims, towards which all prayers are dedicated. True, Christianity has a great history of pilgrimages, not only to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, but also to the tombs of saints, (e.g. St. Peter’s in Rome and Canterbury Cathedral), or the scenes of miracles or holy sightings, (e.g Lourdes). These however do not compare with the Hajj which is actually one of the fundamental requirements of the Islamic faith. All Muslims physically and financially able should make the Hajj, and each year millions, (like Mrs Aki and the sage gent on the bemo), do. Personally, I consider this to be a great strength of Islam. Apart from the spiritual side of the journey, it’s quite often the only chance that most Muslims ever have to leave their country, (or even their village), see a little of the world and meet other people from a vast variety of other (Islamic) cultures. Memories of their trip to the Holy City in the middle of the vast, sandswept Arabian Desert stay with them forever.

I remember little more of that trip through Lombok due to the fact that I was asleep through most of it. What I did see was uninspiring, scruffy towns and an unspectacular landscape. I am told that Lombok is one of the finest islands (scenically) in the archipelago, though sadly that description didn’t apply to the parts that I passed through.

Another place that was particularly uninspiring was its capital city, Mataram. There we changed bemo for a local service that took us to the Aki family’s residence for that night, which turned out to be a small room situated next door to a Madrassa (Islamic School), with jilbab-clad students assembled outside.

The room turned out to be occupied by a rather attractive girl of about twenty and a gent of a similar age who both seemed rather startled when the forceful Mr. Aki interrupted their slumbers in the dwelling’s single bed. The man, (who was never introduced), looked rather sheepish and departed pretty quickly, but the charming lady stayed. She was introduced as “number one friend of waif”, a student of biology at the local university. And unmarried.

It was time however for me to be on my way, so after the obligatory photoshoot and Westlife conversation, I and my host departed on a horse-drawn trap for the bemo terminal to procure some transportation onwards to Membar, the port for the Bali ferry. Here however, the bemo drivers were less friendly and honest than in Labuhan Lombok, and all were intent on ripping me off. Thankfully however, I had Mr. Aki as my aide, and he was having none of it, getting into several arguments before settling on a suitable bemo. “Here bemo no bagoos!” he snorted as we were parking.

“Dirty magazine, Mr. Aki” I said as we shook hands, and I meant it. “Here is some money for the trouble and expenses.” I offered him fifty thousand (about three pounds).

“No, no, I cannot accept money, not one rupiyah! You are my friend!” came the reply. “But promise please to write and send the photographs.”

Well, ok, so I lied a little. He did call me his friend, and he also asked for a letter and photos. But he had no hesitation in accepting the money too, and even asked for five thousand more, “for smoking.” I had no qualms in handing it over, he’d earnt it. After all, the man in the Osama bin Laden T-shirt had made my holiday.

Mr. Aki proved to be entirely correct in his appraisal of the Mataram bemo drivers, for at Lembar, an idyllic little port set amongst lush green hills, the driver started demanding fifty thousand for the twenty kilometre, (twelve miles), journey. I stubbornly refused, and an argument ensued until the local tourist officer intervened. In the end I paid thirty thousand, which the aforementioned tourist officer assured me was exorbitant anyway. The bemo driver unsurprisingly thought the opposite and we both went away unhappy men. I boarded the boat angrily, thrusting aside numerous hawkers, and settled down on the deck to read a Tolstoy book that I’d purchased in Seoul. As I had been boarding, a fat man sat near the door and shouted, “Hey mister, where are you from?” Having just left the bemo driver I was in no mood for conversation and a curt “England” was all that portly gent received in reply.

Sat outside, watching the gorgeous tropical scenery roll past, the deep greens of the island contrasting beautifully with the blue of the sea, and enjoying a good read I soon calmed down and began to think about the next stage of my journey, the paradise island of Bali. Prior to setting off, my big dilemma had been whether to visit the island or to give it a miss entirely. The thing is, I tend to try and avoid backpacker hotspots, because they tend to mean substandard accommodation at exorbitant rates and the finest collection of local rip-off merchants for miles around. As for the backpackers themselves, (of which I am one), most are ok, and they’re generally interesting people, but there are a certain percentage who quite frankly get up my nose with their spirituality, self-discovery and tendency to sit around smoking weed and talking crap. Besides, why travel all the way around the world to fraternise with people from London, Amsterdam and Dusseldorf, I can do that quite easily in Europe? And Bali is Indonesia’s backpacker hotspot.

On the other hand, Bali is famous for a reason. It’s culture is unique, it’s an isle of Hindus in amongst a sea of Islam, it’s scenery is spectacular and it’s temples are world famous. As a well-travelled antique-dealing friend of mine said when I told him that I was off to Indonesia, “How can you go there and not see the temples of Bali?” The chances are that I’ll never be in the area again; he had a point. Eventually I decided to leave it to Chance, and Chance dictated that the only Pelni ship that I could take and get back on time was the one to Sumbawa, and that meant returning through Bali.

As I was musing upon all of this, and enjoying the works of the great Russian, the aforementioned fat man deposited himself on the bench beside me. “Hello mister, my name is Agoom,” he announced, and proffered a chubby hand in my direction. Having calmed down now, I was once again open for conversation.

Agoom turned out to be a rather friendly and indeed knowledgeable guy, (my experience has taught me that larger people are normally more friendly and trustworthy; good thing I’m not travelling around in the time of Emperor Nero). He also turned out to be the Head of Security at some posh hotel in Kuta, Bali’s main beach resort, though he operated a furniture dealing business on the side. Like most Balinese, he was a Hindu and he informed me that his name, Agoom, denoted that he was from the second from bottom of Bali’s four castes. In the end he proved to be a pleasant travelling companion, and so did his friend, a Muslim from Sulawesi who spoke little English but was fluent in Japanese due to being married to a girl from the Chiba Peninsular near Tokyo. We talked together about Bali, Japan and the forthcoming World Cup, and the five-hour journey went quickly.

“Are you travelling by bus to Denpasar [Bali’s main city]?” enquired Agoom.

“Actually I’ve no transport arranged yet,” I replied.

“Then please come with us then in our car!” offered my newly found friend, who bore a striking resemblance to Hawaiian sumo wrestler, Konishiki. It was there that the alarm bells started ringing. Why was he being so nice? Is it wise to get into a car with four, (he had two more friends), unknown men, one of which could have easily killed me on his own without a gun or knife, sitting on me would suffice. ‘Say no to strangers’ was the mantra that we were taught at primary school. For not the first time in my life, I ignored it.

“Yes I will, if you’re sure. Thank you very much Mr. Agoom.”

If I ever go missing, you’ll know what happened. I’ll have been abducted by a strange sumo wrestler.

“Where are you staying in Denpasar?” asked the Huge Hindu.

“I don’t have a hotel booked yet,” came my reply.

“Oh, don’t worry, Denpasar has many nice hotels for about fifty thousand rupiyah. If you want I could get you a room at the Santika Beach where I work for about forty dollars, but probably you prefer Denpasar.”

I said that I’d think about it, not intending to do so at all. Forty dollars was considerably more than I normally pay. Agoom didn’t push it either, so we left it at that. However, upon looking in the Lonely Planet a while later, I discovered that the Santika Beach was in fact not just a posh hotel, but in fact one of Bali’s most deluxe five star beach resorts. Forty dollars might be more than I usually pay, but for a five star beach resort, it is damn cheap; the published rate was one hundred and fifty dollars. Plus it was in Kuta, the established beach resort and away from the backpacker ghetto. I hadn’t washed or shaved properly for three days, (since leaving the equipment to do so on the K.M. Wilis), and my entire wardrobe quite frankly stank to high heaven, (indeed, I’m surprised that people kept coming up to me wanting to chat); perhaps a night or two in a nice hotel was what I needed? Admittedly it was still a little pricey, but… Ok, I admit it, I was weak, no true traveller am I, I gave in to my inner desires.

“Are you sure Mr. Agoom, forty dollars?”

“Of course, I can call them now on my mobile phone.”

Thus ‘twas arranged, and thus the following day I woke up in a room fit for James Bond, a suite fit for a honeymoon on a paradise island, all courtesy of a Security Guard with a penchant for antique furniture! Quite a change from my accommodation the night before!

As I lay awake in my King Size bed, a cup of complimentary tea in my hand, I mused upon the previous day. During the ride in the back of Agoom’s Toyota four wheel drive, (one suspects that there is some money in the furniture business), I must admit I was scared. Who were these dodgy people in the vehicle with me? What did they really want? Were they Islamic terrorists intent on kidnapping tourists as a means of protesting against Israeli attacks on the West Bank? Or were they drug-runners who wished to slip some coke into my bag unawares, using me as their carrier to Japan, (one of them definitely had Japanese connections, remember)!? These irrational thoughts raced through my mind as we sped towards the island’s main city, and I eyed my travelling companions carefully. Agoom’s question, “Do you trust Balinese people, Mr. Matt?” didn’t help either. It was only when I truly weighed the situation up in my mind that I felt a little better. There were several factors in my favour:-

1). Agoom was a Hindu, thus unlikely to be a Muslim terrorist.

2). If they wanted to deceive me, take me to an isolated spot and then kidnap me, why were they driving along the island’s main road towards their stated destination?

3). Agoom would probably be getting a cut out of the forty dollars hotel charge, (if he wasn’t pocketing the whole lot), and so he probably had a definite interest in getting me to my destination. And he had definitely booked the room, I’d heard him do it.

4). Previously I’d been to two fortune-tellers. Not one had warned me to beware of a big Balinese man, and both had said that I’d live to about seventy.

Thus I reckoned that it was about ninety per cent certain that they wouldn’t kill me. Good odds. After that I felt much better.

We stopped off at the village of Gianyar for a bite to eat. Agoom suggested that I try Bali’s speciality, suckling pig. I took up his suggestion and did not regret it, it was delicious. The only problem was that I had to eat it alone. Our three other travelling companions apologetically said that as Muslims, they couldn’t sit with me whilst I devoured pig meat. They weren’t altogether that pious though. When I joined then later they were all happily drinking Bintang beers; alcohol is against Islamic Law.

Upon reaching Denpasar we dropped one man off and then started heading into the city’s murky backstreets. I began to worry once more, but it turned out that those fears were unfounded; we were merely driving to Agoom’s house, a humble yet clean and orderly residence with a Hindu altar in one corner. This was the third Indonesian home that I’d been invited into and it was by far the most affluent. I assumed that Agoom’s two professions brought in enough money to keep him comfortable enough.

It was late at night when we finally reached the Santika Beach Resort, and I was handed my key, (plus given a complimentary drink of fruit juice), by the sarong-clad receptionist, before being directed to my suite. Tired as I was however, I did not retire straight away. Instead I showered, shaved and returned myself to the hygienic portion of humanity. I then filled the bath full of water and promptly lowered the exclusive standards of the establishment, by using it to wash my stinky socks, pants, T-shirts and shorts, before finally sinking into bed. Thus, when I awoke, the only blot on my otherwise perfect and colourful canvas of a tropical paradise were the row of steaming clothes, hung out over the balcony drying in the sun.

Next part: Pt. 5: Bali

1 comment:

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