The narrow frosted glass doorway that separates the airport from the outside cloaks the mysteries of Lombok behind a black velvet veil of night. A few steps forward and we emerge into a different world. Armed security keeps baggage and taxi touts at bay, or perhaps something more sinister? Airport security around the world has been considerably tightened in the last 15 years and security is water tight here as well.
The sights, sounds, and smells are fresh. Well, maybe some of the scents aren’t sweet but they are definitely a departure from what most are accustomed to. There is the gritty, savoury melange of smells of grilled meats, burning coconut husks and pungent, earthly smells of dried seafood that waft down street side walkways like aromatic rivers. Adjacent to this are rivers of a different sort, made up of a chaotic mess of eddying swirls of motorcycles, fast currents of 4×4 SUVs and distinctive frenetic yet slow moving currents of horse carriages that announce their arrival with a gradual intensity of hooves clapping against the black tarmac and rattle of wooden cartwheels
Our first 24 hours is no less an assault on the senses. On route to Bukit Merse, we stopped by a rice padi field in the midst of being harvested. Women using short handled scythes collected severed stalks in bunches as large as a single hand can carry, while the men smoked under a tarpaulin shelter and threshed the grains in a powered machine. Fragments of light brown rice husks were spat out by the business end of the machine and lingered in the air, carried aloft by gentle breezes. We were beckoned to come over to where the men stood. Grasping into the stalks of rice, they opened their cupped hands to offer us a taste of the local delicacy – crickets. Alone, I would have found the courage to reject the show of hospitality but when you have 3 stupid studs on a sunny island holiday, you grab, chomp down and gulp down the green pests of the padi as though it were a tribal coming-of-age rite where one earns the right to a mate. But, no, there was no one to impress except one another. The dubiously proclaimed “manliest” amongst us even had seconds and thirds of the bugs that tasted like a mix of celery and soil. There was a sharp lingering flavour that activated the sinuses. Not as strong as wasabi but more akin to parsley and celery.
Bukit Merese itself was gorgeous. Basking in the bright tropical sunlight of the tropics, it was a glorious celebration of greens and blues. Licks of land protruded from the shore in a wrestling match with the sea for dominion over space, continuous fronts of frothy waves beat itself against the cliffs and sable sands in an endless battle. Carpets of grass unfurled itself on the rolling hills, with small brilliantly coloured stands of vermillion flowers, pink blossoms and yellow posies poking up from the soil to break the continuity of green. Its easy to lose oneself amid such beauty, to sit back and slip back into yourself, to read, to think, to reminisce. And that we did, to the point the outlines of our singlets and shirts were seared into our skin, something that you will see in later posts. Patchy skin colour makes for very unflattering garments.
From the hills we dove deep into the chasms of the denizens of the dark. Close to Kuta lies a huge hole in the ground where bats have taken up residence. I didn’t expect it at the time but the cave was occupied by more than just bats. Access to the sinkhole is via a bamboo ladder than penetrates about 5 meters into the ground. Descending down the rickety ladder, trails of ants tried to push me back with chomps to my hands and stinging barbs on their mandibles. The smell of guano emanating from the cave also made an attempt to beat us back. Intrepidly, we continued. Pushing forward. Each step on the cave floor was met with a light crunch. Like a scene out of Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom, the ground was covered with cockroaches. Tiny one, large ones, poking their heads from holes burrowed into the floor covered thick in bats droppings. I had to keep my feet moving to keep the creepy crawlies from scurrying up my pant legs while I photographed the place.
To cap off a full day of exploration, we went to the top of Gunung Pengsong. The oldest Hindu temple on Lombok, this was the very spot where the conquering Balinese ascended to survey the land and plan the next phase of their occupation. At 200 steps, getting to the top takes a bit of work but it is well worth the effort. Facing West, the peak affords the visitor grand views of the plains below, the mountains in the distance and a glimpse of Gunung Agung in Bali. The temple itself is still a functioning one and we caught visitors praying in the last light of day. During festival days, devotees make their way up the the hilltop sanctuary to offer prayers and witness animal sacrifices to the Gods.
With only day 1 down, we could only guess what else the fortnight would bring. Stay tuned…