A long car trip from Jimbaran to Lovina. Drove through landscapes verdant beyond reckoning. We climb and climb. Ears pop. Clouds hover over distant mountains. High passes reveal villages and the hyper-coloured green of rice paddies in patches of sun below.
Along the road, the damage done by the constant rain is evident: landslides have collapsed sections of road, leaving bite marks in the tarmac. Teams of workers clear the slew of debris and mud, rebuilding embankments with large rocks and coarse cement.
We swim at the base of a roaring waterfall, where the torrent drops into a bubble of whitewash. The water is so cold that it knocks the wind out of me and I clutch to the rocks panting and grinning wildly.
Our driver gets annoyed when we tell him we don’t want to see the civets that eat coffee cherries and, in the process, create the most expensive commodity ever to have come out of an animal’s rear end: luwak coffee. The civets, the Internet tells us, are basically being force-fed like foie gras geese – normally the cherries present a very small part of their diet, and the commercial demand cannot be sustained without resorting to these brutal methods.
Epic trip from Lovina to Pemuteran, in the north-west corner of Bali. We arrived last night after a rough ride in a ‘bemo’ or local public minibus. Our ride was an old 1978 Toyota driven by a wiry old guy who charged us the correct price straight of the bat – a rare thing here.
Five minutes into the trip and the rain began to fall, arriving in a split second and drenching the ground almost instantly. The air turned to mist and the horizon disappeared. The old minibus chugged through the rivers of flood water rushing down the road, which was, at one point, half a metre deep. Our driver took it slow as the old engine strained against the drag.
We made it through only to come to a shuddering halt a few minutes later. I smelled singed metal. Our driver got out, apologising. He flicked back the passenger seat to reveal the radiator. He popped the cap and steam and smoke erupted into the cabin. He apologised again.
The rain continued unabated. Water was poured into the radiator and bubbled violently out before settling. The cap went back on, the seat was flipped back down and our driver was back in his seat again. One try, a second, and then a third, and the motor came fluttering back to life. We cheered and he looked over his shoulder, beaming a broad smile.
The sun was low in the sky as we approached Pemuteran. The road took us close to the foreshore again and I saw fishermen out in the water up to their waists, a grey sky looming above as the rain continued to fall. Arms rose in silhouette against the light as hand lines were cast out and reeled in.
The resort is the most luxurious we have stayed in so far. It is right on the beach and our room is only about a hundred metres from the shore. There is a massive swimming pool with a bar adjacent and a spa. We spent the day swimming in northern Bali’s relatively clean waters and reading on the beach. I never thought that I would enjoy a resort like this, but I guiltily find myself loving it.
After four nights in Pemuteran, we drive to Ubud. It is much busier here, but I find myself liking it more than I thought I would. We take a long and arduous bicycle ride through the mountains north of the city. The terrain undulates and we fly down one massive hill only to crawl up another on the other side, and at some points, the gradient is so steep that we have to get off and push.
We stop a few times at little stores on the side of the road to rest. We slump in the humidity, sweat pouring off us, drinking little glass bottles of ice tea and coke. The locals look at us like we are mad – there are no bicycles on the roads here.
Our destination is Gunung Kawi Temple, the complex of which includes a series of impressive eight-metre high icons carved into the rock of a cliff face. The icons are old and majestic, crumbling and moss-covered. A group of men nearby prepare blades of grass for roof thatching into big bundles that look like horsehair.
Back on Gili Air. Even in the two short years that have passed since I was last here, it has changed quite a lot. There are new restaurants and home-stays, and overall, it feels more densely populated. The track around the island has almost completed its transformation from sand to concrete.
We arrived yesterday after a long trip from Ubud to the port at Padang Bai, then the fast-boat to Gili Air. The boat was, as usual, late, this time by about an hour and a half. We resolved ourselves to settle in and enjoy the wait, so we ordered a couple of beers sold to us from a plastic bag full of ice and looked for a place to ensconce ourselves.
I noticed a couple of Australian guys nearby drinking beers and chatting to an old lady attempting to sell them jewelry. They joked with her, and she smiled and cooled them with a fan of folded parchment. I asked them how long they had been waiting and one, with a cap pulled down over blonde dreads, replied, ‘oh, about six beers’.
Over a morning coffee, we talk about the island and about development – would it be better off without it? Better off without us, in other words? A bind: we bring in money, but we also put a lot of pressure on the ecosystem. In time, this pressure and a lack of management risks ruining this place.
Earlier this morning I read an article declaring Bali as ‘the world’s best tourist destination for 2017’, and I find it hard to imagine why in some ways: the environment there, after many decades of intensive tourism, has suffered a lot. The only place that you don’t find rubbish in the water there is in the northwest – the final frontier for tourism in a place where it has reached saturation.
Yesterday we arrived at Selong Belanak after catching the public ferry from Gili Trawangan to Bangsai, a bus from there to Kuta and then a taxi to Selong Belanak. It is not far in terms of distance, but it takes a long time, as everything does here. At each point, we wait around for something that remains unclear to us; such are the complexities of the logistics here. I end up falling asleep in the taxi and only wake up a few minutes before we reach our destination, a small home-stay about 700 metres from the beach.
The beach is spectacular; cliffs rise steeply on both sides; long headlands disappear into the horizon to the west. Dozens of fishing boats bob in the water offshore. There is not much here: a line of makeshift bamboo huts that sell simple Indonesian meals and cold drinks. Men stand at stalls roasting corncobs under umbrellas. Dogs stroll the beach getting into fights over scraps.
Strolling along the sand, I meet one of the owners of the huts, who is in the middle of making some extensions to open a small warung. His uncle and his uncle’s children dig holes into the sand, drive in a long thick bamboo upright and then pack sand around its base with nothing more than sticks. Walls of woven banana leaves are erected between the uprights. I ask him when he thinks it will be open and he tells me, three days – construction here is simple and fast.
I ask him where I can buy some cigarettes and he offers me one of his. I look inside the packet and see he only has two left. I decline, he insists and I relent. It is a small gesture, but it affects me deeply – why is it always the people with the least that give the most?
We smoke and chat and he tells me about the fishing boats. Since arriving, I had been wondering about what they are fishing for, and in turns out that they are catching juvenile lobsters, which they raise and later sell to suppliers. Just a few years ago, he informs me, a single boat could haul in more than a million of them in a single night, enough to buy a car with the proceeds. Now, there are a lot more boats and a lot less lobsters, and they are lucky to catch a hundred a night. Still, they keep fishing – a fully-grown lobster sells for about 500,000 IDR a piece, about a quarter of the average monthly wage here. There are so many boats in the water that, at night, their lights glimmer like a small offshore city. What will happen to this city and its inhabitants when the lobsters are gone?
Later in the day, I meet a young guy called Amon, whose family runs one of the other huts on the beach. He speaks English well and has a wonderfully gravelly laugh, probably a result of the 31mg clove cigarettes that he is eternally chugging back. I ask him where he lives and he looks at me with surprise and says, here of course, motioning towards the back room. He sleeps there, under the counter, on a bamboo mat. He often awakes in the morning to find a couple of the local stray dogs nestled up to him.
Our last full day today. Last night, we watched the sunset over the beach and had a few beers with Amon and some of his friends. He produced a small portable speaker and asked me to play some music for him. So we listened to music and spoke about life on the beach.
I had so many questions about how things work down here: is the land privately owned or state owned? Who can build here? Who decides who builds here? Of course, these are the wrong questions. He told me that if you want to build here, then you build here. As simple as that.
The matter of who owns the land becomes clear later, when I am told that it is privately owned. However, until the owner gets planning permission to do whatever it is that s/he wants to do, it is a free-for-all, a wild west of opportunity. Amon told me that he and his family saw their opportunity four or five years ago and began to hire boards and teach surfing to the tourists. So, for the mean time, whoever wants to build here can build, but one day, all these places will give way to the resorts. I sincerely hope that they don’t, because Selong Belanak is perfect the way that it is.