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Traveling the Islands

By Bruce E. Pohlmann

July 15, 2007

Traveling. It's a large part of Indonesian life. It seems like people are always traveling. The gardener has to go back to Flores to see his sick father. The maid needs a month off to return to her village because her sister is having a baby. Your child needs to see a dentist that is only available in Bali. Your visa is about to expire and you need to run off to Singapore. These realities (well except for the visa example) are pretty common everywhere in the world (ok, I never had a gardener or a maid when I lived in the US), but everyone has family emergencies that they need to go home for. When I lived in the States, I needed to attend a wedding or a funeral, but I could get a plane and be there and back in a few days.

For the more adventurous traveler, getting around Indonesia like a local can be one of the highlights of a trip to the more remote areas of the country: you get a chance to talk to regular folks free of the economic distortions that accompany many interactions in the tourist ghettos of Bali and Lombok. So if you're interested in learning how to move around from Bali to Sumbawa (for some great surfing, or just a different view of Indonesia), here is a guide to what you can expect. I'll be working backwards in this article from Sumbawa to Bali.

The trip to Bali

3:00 A.M. We wake all the kids so they can eat something before we leave. Being the organized expat that I like to pretend to be, I've packed everything in the car four days prior to leaving which only slightly irritates my wife who has to work around our personal items for four days while she shops and takes care of her normal business. Our teenagers are cranky and want to shower in case they meet a good looking boy on the ferries. My ten year old son is willing to go without changing his bed clothes because it's still night and he's planning on sleeping in the car anyway. The seven year old cries because she stayed up late watching her favorite sinetron about lost love and the sexual perversity of the rich and famous in Jakarta. My wife has to run to the gate to let our gardener in who will be repacking the car with the real essentials for the trip while I'm showering and having a quick breakfast.

4:00 A.M. Everyone is packed in the car. Freddy, our gardener, has all the keys to the house and tool shed and he packs May, the dog, in the tool shed so that she doesn't follow the car out into the road and become another casualty of the Indonesian road races. We wave goodbye to Freddy while I tell the kids to quit fighting about their seating positions and who smells. Despite my vows of not smoking in the new car, I light up a cigarette as we leave in the hope that it will help me stay awake until we reach the harbor at Poto Tano in the north of the island.

4:30 A.M. I swerve wildly to miss a musang (a small fox-like creature) in the road and everyone wakes up and asks what music is on (Jimi Hendrix to keep me awake and remind me that once upon a time I had a life without significant others) and have I fallen asleep at the wheel.

5:45 A.M. We arrive at Poto Tano and are first in line to board the ferry. There are two overloaded antique trucks waiting in a different line. The drivers look wide awake and watch the show as all of the kids decamp from the car and debate about whether we'll get in the ferry at the dock.

6:00 A.M. The ferry unloads and we drive in first. The kids are excited. I'm relieved that the ferry is going to be fairly empty. The kids run up the stairs and find that we are on the ferry with the slides and children's playground set. I light up a cigarette and take a photo of the sun rising over Sumbawa. My wife immediately starts pulling out food for her and the children. She's brought me two packs of Oreos.

8:00 A.M. We reach the harbor at Kayangan on the island of Lombok. My goals are to get petrol at one of the stations that has nice bathrooms and isn't crowded, to get to the harbor at Lembar before 11:00, and to not have an accident while crossing the island.

10:25 A.M. We reach Lembar, but they've changed the harbor, and I can't figure out where the car line is. After asking several official looking folks, we find that they have a small parking area for sedans. All the waiting cars are lined up in the front of the small space. I see that if I move behind one of the cars in the front, I'll actually be in the back. I take an Indonesian approach and park in the last front spot effectively making it impossible for any incoming cars to park in the lot. The fellow that took our money when we entered the harbor told us that the next ferry would depart at 11:00. The kids are wide awake by this time and fan out among the small warungs looking for snacks. I light up a cigarette and chat with the three guys in a Fuji Photo truck. They're coming back from a tip to Sumbawa. We talk about the weather in Sumbawa (it's really dry isn't it; yes I haven't had water in our house for three days now). They somewhat unobtrusively sniff the air. Apparently I don't smell all that bad as we continue our conversation. They suggest that I'm going up to Singaraja (How do you know I'm going there? Your plates!).

11:30 A.M. We're on the ferry. Trucks and buses get on first. I'm the last sedan that they let on, and it takes 15 minutes to maneuver my car in so that it fits. I have to crawl out the back window due to an inability to open the doors. I'm silently hoping that my car won't be the extra weight that sinks the ferry. My wife, ever thoughtful, rents foam mattresses for us to place on the floor so that we can sleep. The kids run around for ten minutes and then immediately fall asleep. I lay down to rest my back, but stay wide awake for the next five hours of the trip.

5:30 P.M . We reach Padangbai harbour in Bali. As we decamp, we're pulled over by some officals. They want to see the car's registration and my license. Which license, I ask, in my most friendly tone? Your international one, the short pudgy official responds. Sorry I don't have one. Can you take one of my Indonesian ones? Apparently they don't get many bules with Indonesian licenses. We enter into a conversation about how long I've been in Indonesia. He's amused and sends us on our way.

6:00 P.M. We pass through Candidasa on the east coast of Bali and stare at the few tourists on the street. We still have a long 2 plus hours to go before we reach Singaraja, but everyone is thrilled that we're back in Bali. The kids are looking forward to seeing their cousins and aunts and uncles. I'm looking forward to a scotch and a shower and some sleep.

7:00 P.M. It's dark and there's traffic which makes a lot of demands on my diminished night vision. I take a left turn because it seems like that's where the main road goes. Fifteen minutes later we're up in the hills and obviously in desa land. The road suddenly disappears, and my wife makes the astute observation that I've taken a wrong turn. I carefully try to turn the car around without driving off the dirt road that has suddenly taken the place of the paved one.

8:00 P.M. Air Sanih, almost home. The kids who have been sleeping wake up and notice where we are. The littlest one sleepily asks if we're home yet. Soon, I tell her, go back to sleep. She kicks her brother's leg that he has draped over hers and goes back to sleep.

8:15 P.M. We reach the Singaraja city limits, and I start to relax. The traffic is heavy but the streets are lit so I can finally see where I am. The kids name off all the shops that we pass that they know. Yes, I say, almost home.

8:20 P.M. I take a right off Jalan A. Yani and head on north to Kampung Bugis. I pull the car into the little parking space in front of the house. The kids are out of the car before it stops. Cousins and neighborhood friends all gather around. Everyone runs into the house. I open the back of our little van to unload all the goods that we've brought from Sumbawa. Despite my requests that my wife not pack a lot of unnecessary items, among the things that I have to carry in to the house are a 25 kg sack of rice, five black plastic garbage bags full of mangoes from our garden, and five dozen eggs.

Total traveling time 16 hours and 20 minutes. When I lived in Pakistan, it would take me 13 hours to get from there to Bali. Traveling in an archipelago never a dull moment.

See the author's website here: http://www.cyberbali.com.

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