Back when I was still a dreamer and enamored by the very sound of exotic place names–Cozumel, Grenada, Bangkok, Tobago, Pamplona, Singapore . . . Bali beckoned, I answered. I knew that traveling low cost had its disadvantages, but on previous travels, the negatives had been minimal. My partner and I readied our backpacks and set off to explore Indonesia. We would concentrate our time on Bali, Gili Trawangan, and Lombok Island, hoping to find beauty and adventure. A word of warning, readers, be careful what you wish for.
I have often tried to describe Bali with its riot of orchids and jasmine, its fruit farms, its coffee plantations, and its hillside terraced rice fields, but I have never been able to do it justice or to aptly describe its lushness. To this day, I still struggle. In my mind’s eye, though, I view it clearly, this world of graceful green.
Bali was also rugged and rocky, a different beauty. We climbed Mt. Batur (in the Kintamani of Northeast Bali) at 5 A.M., a 5,633-foot craggy slate gray mountain that seemed to puncture the sky so we could watch the sunrise. The world below, the rivers and hills and valleys, the farms and villages, glittered in that orange-rose sunlight. We traveled to Ubud, a city of art galleries and temples, upscale restaurants, and spas, and to seaside towns, where water and sky met in blue bliss.
We took the two-hour ferry to Gili Trawangan. The island was more rough and ready, a backpacker’s heaven with its surf, full moon parties, and low-cost bungalows. We traveled by bemo, by donkey cart, and by dirt bikes down bumpy roads and jungle trails, and we climbed down cliffs via rope ladders to swim in the sea. We ate Nasi Goreng, Satay, Gado-gado; we drank Arak with nary a care. A hazy happiness. Then on we went to Lombok, first to Senggigi and then to Kuta Beach.
Beauty and adventure waited for us at Kuta Beach, but it was not what I had expected. We stayed at a low-cost bungalow operation. One table at the bungalow restaurant was occupied by five young men, sitting around, laughing, drinking, eating; one was attempting to strum a Doors’ tune. They were churlish, no smiles or nods as they watched us check in. They were still sitting at the bungalow restaurant when we returned hours later. The women seemed to do most of the work, sweeping courtyards, cleaning bungalows, washing laundry, hauling coconuts, gutting fish. Seven girls, stationed just outside the locked front gate, vied to catch my eye, holding up pieces of fabric, enticing me to buy. How could I buy from just one?
Children walked down the shale road, balancing coconuts on their heads while holding a machete in their free hand; they followed us relentlessly as we walked the two miles to the sea. I had brought pencils with me and some candy and writing paper. I had read that the children treasured these gifts, but I think the travel guide was mistaken; money was the language they preferred. They were urchins with attitude. Within an hour, the pencils and paper and hard candy were gone, along with any loose change we had in our packs.
A little later another set of children latched on to us, wanting us to buy cloth or fruit. They knew “hello” and “you buy.” A command, not a question. One boy, a bit older and in charge, stood out from the others with his reddish blonde hair, snotty nose, hellishly skinny frame, and dragged on a cigarette, a Jack Dawkins in the making. The others smoked butts. His group was all surly business. Never mind the candy and pencils; money and smokes were the currency.
Kuta’s landscape and sea were beautiful, primitive, a moonscape-like barrenness I had not expected, an edge of the world feel, different from the lushness of Bali and Gili Trawangan. In front of us was the ocean; on one side of the road was a hill with sparse scrub foliage where a tribe of monkeys took umbrage as we approached. They began to chatter and screech, louder and louder. One sat at the top of the hill and apart from the others; he was the largest, the king of the hill. Not once did he take his eyes off us, not once. He sat and stared until we began to round the bend in the road, then he moved quickly down to the very edge of the hill, and stood, just watching and waiting. My fear tasted like dry air.
When we finally left the beach, we opted to take the bemo back to the bungalow. It was over two hours late and packed with people. I managed to squeeze in next to an ancient aunty as she munched on betel nuts, her lips and teeth ruby red. My partner had to hang on to a rail outside the truck while standing on the small bumper, and a few other backpackers jumped onto the roof and sat. Every few yards, the bemo would stop to let riders off and on. It was not an express ride but better than walking all the way back.
By the time we returned to our bungalow, it was dark. We realized something had gnawed at our stash of bananas and mangoes, and to make matters worse, a gruesomely huge bug had attached itself to the back of my partner’s shirt and glowed red-orange from the beam of my flashlight. How to get it off? More importantly, do I tell him? I finally managed to find a bungalow broom and tried to swat it, but the bug managed to scurry away and disappeared under the bed.
The next morning, two Dutch travelers, staying nearby, were robbed as they walked back to their bungalow in the early morning hours. All their money, passports, tickets, credit cards, and cameras were gone. We were all a bit scared; the couple had acquired some bumps and bruises, and their pride injured, but they had not been seriously hurt. Other backpackers joined in the search, but nothing was found. The local policeman was sympathetic and would thoroughly investigate, but he was not optimistic about recovering the stolen items. Many of us chipped in to buy the Dutch couple return tickets to Bali, plus some cash so they could get to their embassy. The young men from the bungalow restaurant had vanished.
My partner and I decided to cut short our stay and leave the next morning for Bali, and we spent the remaining days at Legian. The trip had begun with such beauty and wonder and adventure, but 48 hours of mischance were enough. Murphy’s Law reigned. I had always managed to dismiss whatever went wrong with a shrug; such was life. It took me longer this time to shrug. Mishaps and bad vibes could happen most anywhere. We were unlucky in Lombok, but that did not make Lombok unlucky or off limits to the many travelers who sought out its charm. It was a popular island with a singular beauty.
I will not lie and write that I changed overnight. I continued to answer the sweet call of exotic places. I continued to travel low cost and continued to reach for that elusive brass ring. What happened in Lombok, though, made me a bit less cocky and more mindful, a good thing, yes?
Many years have passed since my Indonesian journey. Occasionally, when I take the travel journals down from the closet shelf, I think about the person who searched, and hoped, and wished to find beauty and adventure. My dreams now are of a different nature, although, every so often, the pull of faraway travel tugs at me. How my heart wishes I could answer.
As I begin to read, Bali, Gili Trawangan, and Lombok Island unfold into a kaleidoscope of colors and moments. My mind wanders back to those seven girls peering over the locked gate, who competed for my attention, and to the light-haired, thin-as-a-rail boy who bummed a few smokes off me and tried to negotiate a deal or two. They would be grown up now. I wonder are they all right?
Here’s how my dream unfolds for them: they’ve fared well and have grown strong, tall, and healthy. They know security and success and are no strangers to good fortune. They have had their share of laughter and adventure and have enjoyed the beauty of their land and sea. They love and are loved. And one last wish, if I may, readers and fellow travelers, I hope they’ve been able to hold on to their dreams, too.
The United States Department of State has issued a “level four do not travel advisory” for Indonesia citing, “Covid, terrorism, and natural disasters.” Because of the Covid pandemic, Indonesia has also closed its borders even though its economy relies heavily on tourism. Poverty continues to plague a large percentage of its population, and since 2002 incidents of violence and terrorism have occurred. Bali, Gili Trawangan, and Lombok lie within the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Rim and are prone to tremblors and earthquakes. And although efforts are underway, Bali’s beaches remain littered with plastic. Indonesia continues to suffer.
Penny Freel was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, Japan (1995-2003) where she co-chaired the Freshman English Department and taught American Literature, Film Studies, and Communication courses. From 2006 to 2018, she was a Lecturer at SUNY New Paltz. Now she tends to her garden, her writing, her cooking, and her family. She and Mr. Freel divide their time between New York and Florida.