Bali, Borneo and Beyond, part II |

Bali, Borneo and Beyond, part II

Jay Cowan
Harriet Garth

Once they’ve gotten over the notion that you’re certifiably insane for doing it, the Balinese will put forth a local theory about driving on the island that goes something like this: Obvious green signs are posted everywhere to tell you where to go, and, in the event that you somehow miss them, anyone will graciously provide you with directions. All you have to do is ask.

We’ve been putting this theory to the test from the first moment we began motoring about here, and it’s not a total crock. Alas, those green directional signs are not so frequent or obvious as one might wish. On too many occasions, they either don’t exist at locations where they would be especially helpful (such as, say, complex and busy intersections) or have been entirely overgrown by huge, green trees. Especially around Singaraja.

And while it is a fact that the Balinese, or even the other Indonesians who are moving here in droves for work, are almost never so rude as to tell you to f*** off, not all of them know where you’re talking about when you ask directions. Sometimes I’m sure they’ve just never been to the places we’re seeking. Other times I know I’m not saying the names right.

Thus we roam vexingly around Singaraja for half an hour or more the next morning, trying to find the road back to the other side of the island. I even ” against my nature and that of all us great explorer-type males ” stop frequently to ask for help, only to be rewarded with blank, time-consuming stares. Time is only an issue because we have a tee time at Bali Handara Kosaido Golf Club near Pancasari, up in the highlands, and each further delay seems to insure we’ll be late for it.

Sometimes I think we’re just missing the signage because of distractions. It may be a troop of uniformed school kids jogging alongside the road in formation, some huge, archaic truck tying up traffic and blocking our view, or big swarms of motorbikes surrounding us at stoplights in a manner that would give pause to the Hell’s Angels. Not that the motorbikes are really menacing. How can they be when they’re only 250cc Yamahas whose riders are usually small and smiling? But they roar around in desperate-seeming packs, so heedless that you fear hitting them at any moment and then being stoned to death by their companions. And in some parts of Indonesia, they really do ride in gangs and rob drivers at stoplights.

When at last we manage to escape Singaraja, the switchbacking climb into the mountains, while not confusing in terms of directions, is as fraught as the city driving, with disastrous potential. Oncoming traffic is often on our side of blind corners because they’re passing some ox cart, motorcycle or truck. When that’s not the case, we’re on the wrong side of the road for the same reasons, so the next hour resembles nothing so much as one long, extended and hair-raising game of chicken. And, of course, there’s nothing like a leisurely, relaxing cruise to the golf course to really set you up for a good round.

It’s also helpful to arrive late and discover that a big tour bus full of Japanese has just disgorged, flooding the course with other players. This club is more remote than the island’s other two, making it less expensive and, therefore, exponentially more crowded. A group of smirking Koreans with oversized attitudes is snotty about letting us have our tee time in front of them, so our caddy, Puna, directs us to the sixth hole and we start there.

The course’s location, at 4,000 feet, is spectacular, nestled into a vast, ancient volcanic crater that rises jungle clad on three sides and provides major elevation changes. While the course is ragged in places, with less than perfect greens and hard fairways that await the rainy season (like everything else), it still makes for a wonderful round that wends its way along cobbled cart paths and past huge, purple-flowered African tulip trees, with muezzins echoing in the background.

The third hole is especially lovely, plunging off an elevated tee on a terraced hillside full of thatched, steep-roofed huts that look almost alpine, then doglegging hard right over a creek to a well-bunkered green. Naturally, I butcher this beauty, along with most of the rest of the course, then blame it on the very difficult 139 slope rating. It couldn’t be my cringe-inducing swing that leaves Puna shaking his head and urging me to slow down. “Easy come, easy go,” he keeps muttering.

After an expensive but meager lunch, our 60-minute drive to Ubud turns into two and a half hours as we miss turn after unmarked turn and find ourselves severely bogged down in sludgelike Denpasar traffic. Ubud is in the heart of Bali, less than an hour from the ocean but verdantly ensconced in the cooler hillsides where city folk retreat to beat the heat. It’s also much more spread out than we anticipated, and even once we finally stagger into the general vicinity, cranky and flummoxed, we’re still more lost than found.

Our destination is what was Bali’s first luxury lodge, the Kupu Kupu Barong, built in the late 1980s. Fortunately, it is well-known hereabouts so that eventually we do find it. Upon arrival I’m so over the driving, especially on this part of the island, that we decide to park the Kijang and call the rental company to come and retrieve it a couple of days early. It and we are still intact, which after two weeks seems a minor miracle and one we probably shouldn’t push any further.

By now our moods are frazzled, and Harriet is openly suspicious of our accommodations. The street leading to them is kind of funky, and as we’re led down a steep path to our villa, her distrust deepens. Our personal butler, Gede, takes us into a pretty, open-air room, where Harriet whispers, “Well, I hope they have lots of mosquito coils,” then grumbles, “That bed is way too small,” about a canopied bale overlooking a stunning river gorge. Then she realizes this is only the entryway as Gede takes us through a door and into the next room. This one is larger and fully enclosed, with big windows, marble floors, a nice couch and a television and bar area. As we’re led down a flight of teak stairs, Harriet starts to smile.

Below is a huge, bamboo-paneled bedroom and bathroom, where the water in the big, round tub is completely covered with pink and red flower petals, the giant bed has more of the same spelling out ‘welcome,’ and our windows not only overlook the same magnificently terraced and plunging hillsides down to the Ayung river, but also another, lower level of the villa’s grounds, where sits our large, private swimming pool.

We’re now officially in shock. Really, this would make a fine house, let alone suite, and is easily the nicest we’ve ever seen, let alone rented. And we’re paying one-tenth of what something its equal would go for in Hawaii. Or Aspen. Gede notes that it is their Royal Suite, the best of their 19 villas and the one in which Mick Jagger stayed during a visit in 1991.

Well. We like Kupu Kupu Barong. Ginger blossoms scent all the rooms like paradise, while plumeria drifts fragrantly in the pool. The river churns scenically 400 feet below, surrounded by cascading, green rice paddies and big walls of fronded jungle. A full staff awaits to bring us whatever we need, at a moment’s notice. This could be a huge mistake. Getting used to something like this could spoil us forever.

A soothing afternoon tea is followed by an excellent room-service dinner, and we adjourn to our beflowered bed while large geckos roam the high, rattan ceilings and call out from the nearby coco tree in their distinctive “eh-urrr, eh-urrr” (or what some call “geck-oh, geck-oh”) incantations. I’ve become more adept at replying in gecko than Indonesian. If they repeat the refrain seven times, it’s said to be lucky. We’ve heard many go six times, but this one does it seven, over and over.

The next morning I get in a workout by making make four laps on a self-created circuit that starts at the hotel lobby, descends partway on a paved path, then leaves the property for a crude dirt and stone trail down the steep hillside to the river and back up. Exiting the grounds involves going through a hole in the fence each time and descending a short, precarious wooden ladder, where workers urge me to “Be careful, Mister.” I explain to the puzzled hotel staff that this is the Kupu Kupu Barong fitness center.

The area around the Ubud Palace constitutes what might loosely be described as downtown Ubud, or at least a good jumping-off point for strolling around. It is jammed with art galleries, restaurants, gift shops, basket stores, markets, wood carvers, mask shops and on and on and on. Their sheer numbers are amazing, but, even so, as in nearby Nusa Dua, there doesn’t seem to be enough off-season business to support them all.

Once we’re free of most of the taxi-and-tour touts, we start walking past beautiful brick-and-stone temples that crowd the streets along with all the commerce. Quickly, we realize that in spite of Ubud’s much-lauded elevation, it’s oven hot and humid. Of course, it’s also the absolute peak of the day for heat. And being here in it makes us prime marks as customers. There aren’t a lot of other tourists around, for good reason, and we’re clearly out of our minds. Probably addled by the heat, delirious and anxious to spend money.

The sheer number of open-air galleries selling bright tropical paintings is almost hallucinogenic in its effect, as if they’re multiplying in front of our eyes. It reminds me of Haiti. We alternate between the paintings and the air-conditioned gift stores until I make the mistake of looking too long at a mask in one shop. The clearly desperate proprietress is on me like the heat. “Five hundred thousand, for you. Very cheap. I hungry.”

While wild and weird enough to have caught my eye, it has a delicate, hinged apparatus, so you can put it on like a helmet, and long, horsetail hair, neither of which would survive being stuffed into our luggage for the rest of the trip. But with no participation on my part other than trying to put it down after the proprietress models it for me, the price decreases to 400,000, lingers there as I head for the door, then quickly descends through 300 and 200 to 150,000 rupiah.

I really don’t want it and have done nothing but shake my head and try to retreat from the shop. But when the price hits 50,000, I think about Wayan Yuda, on the beach at Lovina, and know it’s probably just enough to pay the shop owner’s expenses for another day. By now she has hold of me and is nearly weeping, and I relent. For $5.50 she’s thrilled. I feel like I’ve inadvertently haggled with someone destitute for something I didn’t want, that isn’t worth what I paid for it.

A tour through the nearby Puri Lukisan Museum begins with a wonderful display of several centuries’ worth of traditional Balinese art: Wayang style, Pita Maha period and works by the artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Paintings and sculptures include some by the great masters. Some represent complex, heavily detailed scenes from Hindu and Balinese mythology, like wall-sized tattoos that you could stare at for days and still not see everything in them. Others are minute, lush Balinese landscapes full of wild birds, beasts and people.

Because these classic styles are so often imitated by local art students, everything looks virtually identical from gallery to gallery, as if the whole Bali art scene had been invaded by endless, cheap giclees. There are only occasional exceptions.

The grounds of the museum, with nice lotus ponds, are pretty in a neglected kind of way. A second building showcases outstanding contemporary Balinese art, and the third building hosts a fascinating visiting exhibit of historical news photos of Bali from the last 50 years.

We make it through everything at an accelerating lope, as though we started at the top and it’s all downhill. I’m hurrying because the temperature feels almost nuclear and seems to be reaching some kind of critical mass as we stagger back outside the last un-air-conditioned building and stand gasping in the shade of a big plumeria tree, inhaling its almost narcotic blossoms.

By 3 p.m. we’re indulging in side-by-side massages back at KKB, in their famous Mango Tree Spa, which is actually high up in a huge mango tree ” one that turns out to be almost on top of our villa. Don’t ask why it took us 20 minutes to find it, but I really needed the massage by then.

This is definitely the off-season, so even small boutique properties such as our hotel are far from full. But, clearly, the worry everywhere right now is that the lack of business could be more permanent than seasonal. Tourist numbers that plunged to half of their former amounts had just returned to pre-2002 levels by the end of 2004. Then the 2005 bombing happened, and no one knows what to expect.

Everyone talks about how much business is down, and they blame more than the impending rainy weather and even terrorism. A story in the Jakarta Post today sums it up tragically well: “Two years on, the government has admitted that it still has a long way to go in lifting Indonesia out of the mire of poverty, unemployment and slow economic growth that the nation has got stuck in.”

A report on the performance of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration so far declares, “This is due to the Herculean tasks we are facing and the many challenges that have come our way.” The report’s title, “Struggling to Rebuild Indonesia,” reflects the difficulties that the government has had to cope with, “including the need for political and legal reforms, earthquakes and tsunamis, an avian influenza outbreak, terrorist attacks and the persistent danger of sectarian conflict.” The recent surge in crude oil prices also hasn’t helped, it notes. There are so many problems that overly active volcanoes aren’t even included in the assessment.

Doing our part to buck up tourism, we are picked up by Bali Adventure Tours at 9 the next morning and delivered to the put-in for a raft trip. We’ll float right past our hotel, where Harriet saw rafters the day we checked in. Having been down to the Ayung myself, I’ve been skeptical of what kind of craft could fit in such narrow and technical water. But after some 500 or so steps down the hillside to a piece of quiet water in a deep, green gorge, we find out: 12-foot, self-bailing Avon Pros that normally hold at least four people and the guide. But because someone backed out at the last minute, probably once they met me, we get ours all to ourselves.

One of the families with whom we make the walk is from the U.S. Embassy in Yogyakarta. They arrived there just before the tsunami and are leaving soon, having weathered the recent earthquake, the eruptions of Mount Merapi and the current mud volcano fiasco. They ask about our itinerary, and he says he hears the muck diving in northern Sulawesi is some of the best in the world. She says it sounds like we’re going to see more than they have during their entire stationing here.

I’ve done a lot of raft trips over the years, especially around Aspen, but never one like this. The water comes from the inland volcanic mountains, which rise to 10,000 feet, but is still tap-water warm by the time it gets here. After the rainy season the river roars, rising 1.5 to 2 meters, and you’d have trouble stretching the five-and-a-half mile trip to 40 minutes without a stop, says our guide, who identifies himself as Paul Newman. Today we’ll spend two hours floating and frolicking from shore in water that is clear and shallow, with lots of boulders, pocket water, rapids and ricocheting drops.

Waterfalls, springs and water draining from rice paddies pour into the river everywhere while we glide under overarching stands of huge bamboo and past sheer, vine- and tree-covered canyon walls and taro leaves the size of dining-room tables. Absurdly exotic kingfishers with long red bills glide by, and two different eagles swoop low through the canyon. Iguanas sun themselves on the rocks, and a small, green water snake slithers past in one backwater.

The guides like to bounce the rafts off the boulders and rock walls, and do most of the paddling. We stop for showers under the waterfalls, and at one point our guide takes a running jump from a boulder into a hole in the current. By now, scrunched into my lifejacket and dorky helmet, I’m roasting, so I quickly follow suit. Twice.

Raft trips here, as in Aspen, are a big business and we have Yanks, Japanese, Russians, English and Germans in our group. It’s like a busy spring day on the Roaring Fork, if the Fork was about the volume of the Fryingpan and phenomenally tropical.

Back at the KKB we meet Eka, from the Kayumanis Villas. She lives in Ubud with her family and has brought us beautiful embroidered robes as gifts. We give her a strand of freshwater pearls from Lovina, wondering if that seems weird to her. She wants to make sure our trip is going all right, she says, but we suspect she would also like to see the inside of the KKB, which she’s never been in, to compare it with Kayumanis’s own operation in Ubud.

Gede has arranged for a driver to take us and him to a reputable art gallery he knows, Agung Anom, at 4 p.m. so we can buy good paintings without fear of being fleeced. The gallery is in a part of Ubud that we haven’t seen, which is also full of a variety of shops and businesses that make it seem as though they must get 10 million tourists a year here.

Actual tourist numbers on the island were nearing 1.5 million a year before the last bomb. And, of course, Denpasar is nearby, 2 million strong and consuming madly, though how many 15-foot-high, manically carved sandalwood statues of Vishnu ripping the heart out of some adversary can they be buying? In addition to the exceptional gallery of Agung Anom, we visit one of the premier woodcarving outlets in Bali, Ida B. Markar, deep in a neighborhood of nothing but woodcarvers for many square blocks.

It’s one of those places they bring kings, queens and presidents to on state tours. We see the clippings. Once again, we’re the only visitors, and they have to turn on the lights for us. The shop covers about half a football field and is completely full of unbelievable carvings and sculptures. Shipping, we are assured, is not a problem. Even for a trio of entwined teak lovers made from a single delicate root, 12 feet high and 8 feet wide.

In the morning we are met by a different driver, whose name is ” you’ll never guess ” Wayan. “The big one,” he says, smiling, so that if we need to ask for him again the hotel can distinguish him from several other Wayans they have on call.

While it’s always good to have a big Wayan, today it seems especially nice. We’re heading out for a long tour, and Gede has told us that he thinks people around the famous Besakih temple, where we are headed, are unfriendly and, perhaps, worse. That kind of assessment, from an easygoing Balinese in a country gaining a reputation for random violence, makes us think it would be nice to have someone who knows the locals well. Someone such as big Wayan.

Our first stop is the Taro Elephant Park, where we are fitted out to ride Sumatran elephants named Phoebe and Sandur. We’re accompanied by their young mahouts, who brought them here from Sumatra and seem to take very good care of them, which includes four daily baths to keep them from overheating. “Elephant hate heat,” explains Harriet’s mahout. They also eat up to 500 pounds of food a day. What kind of food? “No egg or meat. Otherwise, elephant eat everything,” says the mahout with me. “Sometime get in trouble. Eat flowers along path and make manager mad,” he smiles.

As a result of their prodigious appetites, they also poop constantly and in large quantities. The mahout with Harriet put it succinctly, “Elephant eat and poo, eat and poo, eat and poo.” And once you throw in the occasional stroll around the grounds with tourists on their backs, that pretty much describes these elephants’ day.

They are extremely wise, gentle beasts, unless treated badly, and have very long memories. There are always stories in Asia about work elephants running amok and attacking someone. It usually turns out the someone was a former or current mahout known for treating the animals poorly.

During our ride we learn about their habits and such things as that only the male Asian elephants have tusks. At the end of our time, because no customers are waiting, our mahouts ride us into the bathing pond for photos, then have the elephants pose on their hind legs beside us and also while raising us, individually and together, with their tusks.

Just as with visiting a dolphin show in Hawaii, I have mixed feelings about treating elephants as glorified pets and objects for our touristic fancy. I think they, like dolphins, should probably have seats at the U.N., and I should be serving them drinks. But it’s still a really remarkable experience to be able to get that close and spend that much time with them.

After a circuitous and beautiful drive through incredible hillsides of rice paddies, we arrive at Bali’s “mother temple,” Besakih (pronounced Buh-socky). This sprawling temple complex climbs a hill at the base of 9,888-foot Gunung Agung, and we hire a young guide named Auguste to take us around. Besakih was begun in the eighth century and now occupies 40 or 50 acres. As this is the first day of Idul Fitri, which marks the end of Ramadan, the grounds are fairly humming with visitors, presenting us with the sight of a major Hindu shrine packed full of Muslims. Indonesians are traveling in force right now, and we see huge, sleek tour buses everywhere, most originating in Java, where the vast majority of Indonesians reside.

While we’re busy demonizing Muslims in America, it’s good to keep in mind that they’re out traveling in the world, visiting other cultures, gaining knowledge and being tourists the way we all should. They don’t disdain visiting the shrines of other religions any more than I might avoid Notre Dame or the Blue Mosque. They don’t hate the West, but instead seem anxious to understand and even emulate it. And, of course, they are not even a monolithic “they,” just individual people like all of us.

Besakih, meanwhile, is very lively, with weddings and other ceremonies being conducted in several temples while the rest are busy with picture takers and gawkers such as us. Though the numerous pagodas and shrines stair-step formidably up a hillside, from below they blend into the backdrop in a way that suggests Frank Lloyd Wright eating heavy Asian food full of violent little peppers and dreaming of Samurai palaces. It’s only up close, on their own level, that each temple and the ones nearby stand out in a kind of wild-assed relief, suggesting fraught visions and deeply compulsive craftsmanship.

Almost all the stone surfaces are heavily carved in some fashion, from complicated deities to simpler architectural flourishes. Pagoda-style roofs rise in decreasing layers up to 10 tiers high over single, small buildings. Others end in intricately filigreed rafters that point up toward the sky, lending them the look of highly embellished dunce caps, similar to the Buddhist wats of Thailand. Various colorful offerings adorn many shrines, black-and-white yin/yang sarongs robe the statues, and small, primary-colored flags flutter everywhere.

I’m still most impressed by the spectacular Balinese gates that front so many of the island’s temples: tall, narrow, ornately formed stone towers that are split exactly down the middle, like bookends, to create the entrance. It’s a very South Seas precursor of our classic Western ranch gates.

Overall, Besakih is reminiscent of such places as Schwedagon Pagoda and Mandalay Hill in Burma, or Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka. Their scale alone makes them major sights, their age is daunting, and the sheer amount of labor involved is difficult to grasp. At home, I can’t even find someone to fix our fence. How did so many similar, colossal sites spring up under multiple different religions, during roughly the same periods of time, all across southeast Asia? How did they get anything else done?

Our next leg of the drive takes us on what is surely the island’s most beautiful road, at nearly 5,000 feet high right along the spine of Bali, to the village of Kintamani, overlooking famous Lake Batur. So famous that all the huge restaurants with aerielike views of the lake are completely jammed by tour bus crowds, though we finally get fed. More importantly, we get to spend an hour or so surveying the grand vista as we hover hundreds of feet above a caldera lake bracketed by two volcanoes, Gunung Abang, to the east, and, nearby, Gunung Batur, which has destroyed entire villages and erupted as recently as 1997.

“Do you think we are far enough away from it if it erupts again?” asks a tall Korean man at a nearby table with a smile, as both of us try to frame good photos of the sight.

“Probably not,” I chuckle. “It would serve us right.”

But I, like the Indonesian government, soon have other concerns more pressing than possible volcanic eruptions. After all, there’s really nothing you can do about them, except avoid all volcanic areas, and that would eliminate big tracts of some of the most exotic parts of the planet.

The earthquakes and tsunamis sometimes associated with volcanoes are also a problem. I’ve always thought a tsunami would be terrifying. And I can’t imagine the horror that one of these islands recently endured. No other single cataclysm of modern times has killed more people, nor done it so broadly, quickly and without warning. Now every time there’s even a small quake in places such as Banda Aceh on Java, people run out into the streets and away from the ocean as fast as they can. I would, too.

Right now, however, I wouldn’t make it very far, because the only eruptions I’m worried about are in my stomach. Since about midnight, after returning from our drive, I’ve been brutally sick and am amusing myself trying to figure out what did it to me. I’ve had this happen before, in Nepal and Mexico, and it’s miserable. I’ve picked up a microbe somewhere and my stomach, normally difficult anyway, is now in full Krakatoa mode. I’ve no doubt my entire gastrointestinal system would leave my body altogether if it could.

Of course, this has happened on the day we’re scheduled to leave for Lombok, with plane reservations that were almost impossible to get. Was jumping and swimming in the Ayung River two days ago on the raft trip my big mistake? These things can have delayed gestations. Did I get tainted bottled water at the big tourist-trap restaurant yesterday? They had punched holes in the bottle caps and pushed straws through them. It seemed weird, but what doesn’t? Or should I not have eaten, and swallowed, that vanilla bean the guy gave me at the coffee and spice farm where we made our last stop yesterday? I thought it was something else and that he was handing it to me to taste. But he was alarmed when I bit into the thing. “Not for eat,” he jabbered, shaking his head. It was as bitter as a piece of tire and, as Harriet points out, had been watered regularly with what was undoubtedly bacteria-ridden sources. My money’s on the bean. But if you’re going to do stupid things on a serial level, you deserve to never know for sure what came back to bite you.

I spend the next 12 hours not eating or drinking, so that I can make the half-hour flight to Lombok without dying or having to hunker down in the head the whole way. In spite of Indul Fitri, the airport is mercifully undercrowded. A story in the Bali Times today says $87 million (U.S.) will be spent to triple the size of the Ngurah Rai airport here, seriously upgrading the already nice domestic terminal and adding more runways. It’s always hard to decide, in Paradise, when expanding your airport is a good idea and when it’s just an open invitation to accelerated doom.

Surprisingly, I survive the trip, on an old Dash-8 prop plane (like the ones Rocky Mountain Scareways used to fly into Aspen), with no big problems. It doesn’t help that there is no hotel van to meet us, but that eventually gets settled, and we make it all the way to the Oberoi, more than an hour north of the airport, with no major flare-up in my condition.

Lombok is a beefy island, not as big as Bali but taller (Gunung Rinjani is one of the highest volcanoes in the Pacific, at 12,224 feet) and chunkier. It was once slated to become the next Bali, but with tourism hurting that has never happened. And tourism started going south here even before it did on Bali, which we didn’t know until we got here ” not always the best time to discover such things.

We had heard about occasional armed robberies of tourists in the less-inhabited regions of the island, but they didn’t seem to be that big a deal. What we now also know is that in 2000, a series of sectarian attacks across the island targeted Chinese-Christian homes and businesses, with a number of deaths and much property loss. “The impact on tourism was immediate and severe,” says Lonely Planet, in a section of the guidebook I had previously missed, “and the island is still trying to put this shameful episode behind it.”

It’s easy for people like us to think, “Well, it’s terrible, but we like it less touristy.” Obviously, no kind of violence is ever a desirable way to thin out your tourists, even though it’s been tried in Hawaii and many other places. The fact that, on occasion, others besides Americans are the targets of violence also doesn’t make it any more palatable or mean you can’t get caught in the middle.

Beyond that you have the hoary old debate about the pluses and minuses of tourism in general. Being inveterate tourists ourselves, and lifelong residents of tourist communities, we try not to be wildly hypocritical about the issue, though it’s hard not to see it as a very mixed blessing anywhere.

In the case of Lombok, the island is extremely poor and subject to bad droughts. It could use some kind of help. Whether tourism is the answer, or not, is hard to know. In a country where natural resources are even more aggressively exploited than they are in America (in the form of massive logging and mining), tourism doesn’t seem like the worst alternative. No matter how anyone feels about it, they probably won’t be able to avoid it for much longer because Lombok is accessible, beautiful and much less densely populated than Bali. The latter becomes especially noticeable by the time we reach the Oberoi Lombok on Medana Bay.

The largest nearby village can’t have more than a couple of hundred residents, at most. Our hotel and the only other resort that we see close by very much resemble fortified compounds, albeit elegant ones. The standard entrance guardpost is augmented by beautiful stone walls that are clearly meant to be seen as the kind of decorative privacy features found at many high-end resorts around the world. These ones are just a couple of feet higher than most and topped with concertina wire. Harriet isn’t sure whether that makes her feel better or worse. It’s nice to know we have the protection but a little worrisome to think we might need it.

From our villa we look directly out on tranquil and gorgeous Medana Bay, about 50 yards away. It’s a beautiful place to be wretchedly ill. My relapse begins just about the time we get settled in, which is right after I attempt to eat the lunch they bring us while we wait for our room. It feels like I have a stomach full of battery acid, and I’m back to cursing my stupidity and spending all my time either in the bathroom or the bed.

By evening I’m so dehydrated and depressed that I’m wondering if I can ever really travel in the Third World anymore, given my apparent brain damage and lack of resistance to any kind of illness, and thinking we should maybe just abandon this whole endeavor and head home. But I still don’t call for a doctor until the next morning, which is also Harriet’s birthday. Nice present, I know, but at least I also have some pretty pearls from Lovina for her.

After being diagnosed, rather quickly once the doctor puts a stethoscope to my stomach, with the infamous “Bali-belly” bacteria, I’m loaded up with drugs and antibiotics, lavishly attended to by the hotel manager and staff and, 24 hours later, able to reel out of the room for the first time since we arrived. I get in a light workout, actually manage to fit three meals into my shrunken stomach, swim, shell, take about 20 more pills (okay, seven), lounge around the pool, watch the local seaplane come and go and feel vaguely human for a change.

It’s amazing how just not feeling totally shitty can completely change your head around. I don’t have to be robustly healthy as long as I don’t feel at death’s door anymore, and I’m jolly and happy to be here again, to the point of being as unbearably pleased as I was unhappy. I’m sure Harriet can’t decide which is worse. And, unfortunately, I’ve wasted two of our too-few days here, so any thoughts of climbing Rinjani or visiting several other sights we had hoped to see are now gone. On the other hand, there are far worse places to be confined.