Pallavi Aiyar finds an island near Bali, watches the sunset and bathes in near-empty beaches.
Within minutes of leaving Lombok’s newly built international airport behind, it becomes apparent why this southern Indonesian island’s reputation as the “un-Bali” is well deserved. Instead of Bali’s high-octane, tourist-thronged, traffic-clogged thoroughfares, our taxi meanders along two-lane byways flanked by paddy fields whose green seems to burst out at you. We spot the occasional conical straw hat bobbing in the distance as a farmer wades across the vista.
“How do you like the Lombok Ferrari?” our taxi driver jokes, as he toots his horn at an oncoming horse and carriage.
Only a half-hour flight from the Hindu enclave of Bali, Lombok is a Muslim-majority island. Instead of the swirls of incense smoke and offerings of flowers and food that dot the typical Balinese village, it is a succession of mosques that thread the landscape in Lombok. “We have 1,000 mosques on the island,” our chatty driver beams. The mosques we pass look newly built. Many are fronted with shiny white bathroom tiles.
Little is known about Lombok prior to the 17th century except that a group of animist farmers called Sasaks, who migrated south from either Burma or North West India settled in it. The Sasak converted to Islam between the late 16th and 17th centuries, but were soon after conquered by the Hindu Balinese kingdom of Gelgel.
As a result, many of the island’s Muslims adhere to a syncretic mix of Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist and animist beliefs, known as Waktu Telu. The mosque building that is so in evidence as we drive towards the hotel, however, is indicative of the rise of a more strict, purist form of Islam. Nonetheless, there are other signs of the island’s historic pluralism. We pass Chinese graveyards filled with lacquered Taoist deities and a mechanics’ shop named Ramayana.
Our resort, set directly on the island’s western sea front, is a few minutes’ drive from the main tourist drag of Senggigi. It is a low-key, uncluttered area where the chief entertainment is the molten sky, as the sun sets behind Bali’s volcanic Mt. Agung. We take in our first sunset while sipping strawberry basil mojitos, sprawled besides the resort’s infinity pool, the flaming horizon punctuated by the hulking silhouette of the volcano.
The next day we take a tour of Sasak villages in the southern part of the island. Distances are long and we spend almost four hours on the road, which makes for a tiring day. But, the tour includes a stop at Kuta beach, which is as different from its namesake in Bali, as peace from chaos. In Kuta Bali, the waves are high and the view comprises Australian surfers. In Kuta Lombok, the sand is white, the turquoise water is shallow, and the views are unblemished. I feel a tad scantily dressed in my one-piece swimming costume, though. The handful of other women on the beach is decked out in ankle-length robes and hijabs.
The real beach action begins the next day as we head to the Gilis, a clutch of three islands surrounded by some of the best dive sites and snorkelling reefs in the area. We start off at Gili Meno, a half-an-hour boat ride away from Lombok. We find an empty stretch of beach and park our kids there along with sand buckets and spades, while we get busy pulling on masks and flippers.
While the concept of me snorkelling had been rather appealing, the reality turns out to be somewhat undignified and entails much floundering and gasping. I manage to inhale lots of water and my flippers keep slipping off. Eventually, I find myself quite far from the shore and am discomfited by the distance. I spot my little one, his superman-bathing outfit reduced to a blur of blue. My older son’s swimsuit has mysteriously stretched down to his shins and come to resemble a Moroccan djellaba, which while odd, is at least religiously appropriate. They wave at me. I flail back.
But just as I’m about to give up and signal the boat to come to my rescue, I manage to fit the flippers on, close my mouth over the breathing tube and stick my head under the water. Suddenly, I am skimming over a deep coral reef, a shoal of twinkling blue fish flashing past. The world goes quiet, but my mind switches on in Technicolor. I spot bright yellow fish and lime green ones. It is a dream-like experience, wet and lapping and vivid.
Later we head to Gili Trawangan, the most developed of the islands, for lunch. It’s heaving with day-trippers from Bali and Lombok. Welcome to the “party island” a sign proclaims. As we relax on the beach, we’re handed a flier advertising an all-night “moon” party at one of Trawangan’s sea-front bars. “If the music is too loud, then you are too old,” it says. We realise it’s time to head back.
The boat trip back to Lombok is choppy. We are sprayed with great waves of ocean water and the kids are frightened. Through sea salt-stung eyes, I look over at the ferryman, who is squatting phlegmatically by the rear, smoking a cigarette, right next to the gasoline tank. My nerves are shot. Luckily, it’s nothing that a dinner of prawn sambal and strawberry basil mojitos can’t fix.
When we head back to the airport a day later, our taxi driver is as garrulous as ever. He tells us about the planned increase in international flights to Lombok. Air Asia is ramping up the number of its flights from Kuala Lumpur, as is Silk Air from Singapore. Naturally, he’s excited at the prospect. But it’s obvious that the island’s time as the “un-Bali” is limited. I’m glad we didn’t wait to visit.