"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Asalaam Aleikum" Goes a Long Way

I found this as I was cleaning out my hard drive. I wrote it last summer.


I just took the holiday from Hell.

Our group—seven American students and four Indonesian students—made a plan one alcohol-sodden evening to take a trip to Lombok, the island directly east of Bali. It would be pretty easy (just take a ferry), and one of the Indonesians, Irwan, was from Lombok, and he said he would be glad to show us around. We all thought it was a great idea. Little did we know what this trip would entail…

Irwan gets around. He has been hooking up with one of the Americans (Katherine), while also maintaining a serious relationship with a girl in Jogja, Central Java. Katherine and Irwan seemed to be having a fun summer fling…until we all met at six in the morning to go to Lombok, and Irwan had his Jogja girl in tow. Oh dear!

So by now the awkwardness level has gone up considerably. On top of that, the magically-appearing girlfriend messed up our logistics. Instead of hiring one car to drive us to the ferry, we now had to hire two.

But we made it to the ferry--a rusty metal barge of a thing--and got underway. Five hours later we docked in a port city in the southwest of Lombok, then hired two cars to drive us on the narrow mountain road through the rainforest to a port on the northern coast, and from there we would take another ferry to a tiny island called Gili Trawangan.

At this point I realized we were not in fact going to Lombok, but to the tiny island of Gili Trawangan. I didn’t remember being consulted about this decision, but there wasn’t much I could do, since we were already thundering up the mountainside, as monkeys along the road watched our ascent and munched on bananas.

We arrived at the docks (little more than a pier for motorboats) and bought tickets out to Gili.

While Termana and Irwan bought our tickets, loitering men around the dock leered at us and tried to make conversation. One of them seemed fond of calling the Americans “spaghetti hairs,” and boasted that he had trained in one of the Indonesian jihadi movements. Yeah, right, I’m sure.

Finally, we piled into a motorboat, and off we went. It was already sunset, so the ride out to the island was beautiful, and the current was rather strong so there was a note of thrill. But I was exhausted and just wanted to get there. Before we hired the cars to take us over the mountains, Irwan had called a friend who supposedly knew the area, and the friend in turn brought his girlfriend, so now we were a party of thirteen.

Thirteen people, crammed into one motorboat, with waves buffeting on all sides, headed for a tiny island in the South Pacific.

It gets better.

We arrived on the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen—fine white sand, turquoise water, and just as the sun set.

We all plopped down at a beachside cafĂ© while Irwan, his girlfriend, and Termana (our program coordinator) all went off to find a hotel for us. Interestingly, the friend who supposedly knew the area stayed behind and chatted with his girlfriend. By this time, I had the beginnings of a migraine, and was too tired to care that our “guide” was falling down on the job.

Termana came back empty-handed. Everywhere was full—the bomb blasts in Jakarta earlier this week had sent tourists who otherwise would have gone to overrun Bali scampering for safer and more remote accommodations. So there we were, still on the beach, exhausted, the sun is going down, and we have nowhere to stay. Shades of The Swiss Family Robinson, much?

Termana said that maybe he could call a friend. The friend offered (I think jokingly) that we could rent his house. Termana took it, and to the friend’s dismay, all thirteen of us showed up at the door of his little house. The friend, his wife, and their two small children left us to seek other lodgings, leaving us two bedrooms (with a bed in each), a bathroom with filthy water, a cement floor in the living room (which was devoid of all sleepable furniture), and no electricity until midnight.

Great. Just great.

Not wanting to wait in the dark, cramped hut, we dumped our stuff and went out to waste time. We walked back to the touristy strip along the beach and found a nice restaurant to soothe our unhappy souls. All of the fancy, touristy stuff is on the street that runs parallel to the beach. Go inland, however, and you access the impoverished village amid thick vegetation where we were staying.

We ate a nice meal, then wandered back to our little house, me dragging my feet the whole way. I was not looking forward to spending the night in an overcrowded space out in the jungle. And on top of that everyone was actively trying to ignore the awkwardness of the Katherine-Irwan-Jogja girl thing. At least I managed to snag a corner of one of the beds, and the mosquitoes weren’t oppressively horrible.

Before the power came back on, I felt something fall onto my face—something that wriggled and writhed. I screamed and grabbed my cell phone, which had a light, and saw that it was just a centipede (and not a snake, which I had feared).

I am proud to say I made it through that night without having a nervous breakdown. I slept okay, more or less, which was a miracle since I was sharing the bed with four other people. My friend shook me awake at seven in the morning, asking for Immodium. She was so sick, we had to take her to the clinic attached to a fancy-pants hotel. They managed to sort her out, though, so the day wasn’t ruined.

Those of us who weren’t sick had a little breakfast and then wandered toward the beach. On the way there, we noticed a miracle—a hotel with a vacancy sign! We sent Termana in to enquire (Irwan’s two friends had already left by then, and Irwan and his girlfriend had disappeared to make their own mischief). The hotel had only one room, which consisted of a queen-sized bed and bathroom—enough for two, maybe three people (if one slept on the floor). It was 50 US dollars, and most members of the group had not brought that much money (not realizing we’d be going to a tiny island where everything has to be imported and is therefore much more expensive), but I had cash so I contributed to the deposit with my friend Sarina and promised Antonia (the one who got sick) a place there. Termana handed me the paperwork and I signed it as fast as I could. I felt so grown-up, booking a room and securing a place. I can’t tell you how good it felt to move my bag out of that little house in the jungle and into that room!

From there, we split up. One group went to find more rooms, while the rest of us hit the beach. I dragged out my snorkeling gear and headed out to find the fabled coral reefs. What a disappointment, though! I saw a few fish, but close to the beach it was mostly sand with a few patches of dead coral. Maybe I had expectations that were too high, after the fabulous diving in the Red Sea last winter. Also the current was really strong and made it a little scary. And on top of that, my flipper broke!

I got out of the water and, resolving not to waste the day being disappointed and frustrated, got my journal and sat under a palm tree to write. The weather was perfect, and the beach was beautiful—no point in being upset.

I had a lovely afternoon under the palm tree, writing the story so far, and kind of laughing to myself about the whole situation.

As the sun began to go down, my friend Ruilin found me and we went for a walk (mostly because Antonia and Sarina had the key to my room and had locked the door). We meandered along the street parallel to the beach, looking for a nice restaurant where we could all have dinner. However, we walked right past an object of extreme interest--Buddha Dive Center, a PADI certified dive resort and training center. I had gotten my Open Water Scuba certification in Egypt last winter, so why not use it? If I could find a dive trip in the morning, before we all left to go back to Denpasar, this whole rocky trip would have redeemed itself!

At first I was shy about asking the guy at the counter for information. I hadn’t been diving since last winter—what if I made a fool of myself? But no, I would not let this go. I walked up and asked my questions. The guy, a friendly Australian divemaster, explained that there was a trip every day at 9 am for only 35 US dollars (equipment included). Ecstatic, I went off with Ruilin to find Termana, to see if our departure plans would allow me a dive trip in the morning. I thought they probably would—as far as I knew we had no schedule the next day. As long as we got back to Denpasar by tomorrow evening, it should be fine.

Well, instead of finding Termana, I found my friend, Jenny, who had been walking with Termana previously, and she informed me that this was not the case. We did, in fact, have a schedule the next day. We were supposed to get the boat back to Lombok at 10 am, then drive across Lombok to Irwan’s parents’ house in the southeast, directly on the other side of the island from where we’d need to take the ferry back to Bali. So, in other words, there was no time for diving tomorrow.


And that only begins to cover what I felt then. I had held it together the whole trip, under misguided leadership and poor information, under adverse conditions, under disappointment and frustration, under exhaustion, and we couldn’t even schedule in a dive trip! Why had we not discussed this as a group? Who had made the decision to spend a day driving across Lombok to a completely out-of-the-way place, then turn around and drive back again? What kind of holiday is that?

I stormed off to hunt down Termana and have a peaceful, controlled discussion with him about all of this.

“It’s a part of Eastern culture,” he said. “Every time you go to someone’s island, you have to visit their family, otherwise it’s like you’re not good friends with them.”

I instantly thought of a hundred loopholes. It’s not nearby. Irwan’s acting like a dick, bringing his other girlfriend along. Etc, etc, etc. But Termana said that I could go diving tomorrow, I’d just have to hurry. I took some time and thought about it.

At dinner, I asked the group how they felt, since I’d just spent the whole time bitching about the lack of discussion of the schedule in the group. How do you guys feel if I go diving and we leave at 12 instead of 10? We’d get back to Denpasar later than planned, so how do you guys feel about getting home at midnight instead of at 9 or 10? Nobody gave anything very committal (except Katharine, who said she’d rather have the whole nightmare end sooner rather than later). I could tell from the looks on everyone’s faces that they just wanted to get home without any more complications or disputes, so I nixed the diving plan. It killed me, but I’m glad I didn’t force my will onto everyone.

I went to bed pissed off, while the others smoked weed on the beach. I guess that’s the number one attraction of the Gilis—a relaxed drug trade. I just went to bed, though, exhausted from feeling angry and put-upon.

Oh yeah, and that evening the power went out on the whole island. The whole place went pitch black and it was really scary. Everyone took out their cell phones and used the screen lights to see. Eventually the hotel got the generator going and the juice came back on. I must admit, though, the stars were quite a sight.

The next morning, we all woke up and went to the docks to wait for the 10 am ferry. It didn’t leave until almost 11 (this being Indonesia), but we got underway. We docked at Lombok and Termana called the drivers we had hired previously, and they picked us up. “One hour to Irwan’s house,” Termana said.

Three hours later, we rolled into Irwan’s district of the small city of Selong, in southeastern Lombok. We parked the cars and continued on foot, the streets being too narrow for cars. I had told myself that I would smile and be polite, but nothing more. I would do my part, but I didn’t have to lie to myself about being happy about it.

We followed Irwan through a maze of back-alleys, and arrived at his house, a modest establishment of concrete, but had running water and was clean. His mother had prepared a feast fit for the end of Ramadan (Irwan’s family, like most of Lombok, is Muslim).

Since there were no chairs, we all sat on the floor. During the meal, some of Irwan’s friends joined us, and the neighbors (especially the children) stood in front of the house and stared at the group of mysterious white people in Irwan’s house.

After the meal, we all moved outside to the porch (again, without chairs) to drink the famously potent Lombok coffee. By this time, we had attracted quite a crowd. I would say at least twenty people stood in the dooryard and watched us drink coffee. I felt so uncomfortable, I gave the children my bag of Oreos, which I had bought out of need for comfort on the trip.

That must have broken the ice, because then Irwan turned to his friends and said, “That one speaks Arabic,” pointing at me.

My time to shine, I guess.

The young man sitting next to me turned and looked me up and down, probably not believing I was capable of such a thing.

I busted out with an “Asalaam Aleikum,” and off we went.

He had learned Arabic in the Islamic school (called a madrasah), which most Muslim children attend aside from their regular schooling. His accent was a little different, and I was a little rusty, but I managed to learn that he was studying to become a teacher and wanted to teach English someday. He was also a poet and a member of the local writers’ association, which Irwan also belongs to (I forgot to mention that he has written a novel). By then I had attracted a crowd of young men, willing to try their Arabic with me, and also help me with my Indonesian (which is abysmal). They even taught me a few words in the local language of Lombok. The little kids stood around and laughed at my funny accent. By the end, I was sad to leave.

Irwan’s family had arranged for a car to take us back across the island to the ferry. As we walked away, it seemed the whole neighborhood turned out to see us off. We found the car (a pick-up truck with benches in the back and a cap overhead), and got underway. We didn’t make it to the ferry until almost 8 pm, but we secured seats and left. After a grueling four hours, we docked in Bali and found a similar car/pick-up truck thing, and got going. Exhausted but still alive, we were almost home!

Or, so we thought.

We first drove an hour to Denpasar and dropped off Jenny and Luke at their homestay. But then, our driver announced that we had a flat tire, and couldn’t go any further until he changed it. We were too far from home to walk, so Termana called some friends to come and rescue us. We all made it home in one piece, and I collapsed into bed, not able to think about what was coming next. The day after tomorrow, I was going to catch a 6 am flight to Java, and begin the next stage of my adventure: a research project in rural East Java.

Do I regret any of it? No. Really, I’d rather just laugh about it.

Thanks for suffering through that whole long story. I love you for it!


  1. what a journey :)
    I love the way you wrote the journey. It's so interesting to know people's perspective on one moment from various angle and emotion.

    Poor "Katherine" :(
    We text each other, when Katherine in Lombok while I'm in Bali. It's so sad.

    Btw, you forget to mention the friends in charge to drop you off to get a ferry to go to Lombok. Me & Billy :p

  2. Reading your version of this makes me laugh now at how that weekend was both awful and hilarious at the same time. It makes for a fantastic story now!