A host of hellos from Lombok, Indonesia

Farmer carries bamboo sticks (perhaps for irrigation?) through rice field

For all you folks fascinated with Bali after seeing “Eat Pray Love,” do consider visiting its next-door neighbor, the island of Lombok, a short and relatively inexpensive plane ride away. It’s quite different and equally fascinating. Here’s a piece I wrote on Lombok for the Boston Globe in 2005.

By Diane Daniel

“Whatever you do, keep the bathroom door open and don’t look behind it,” my husband warned. “And don’t ask me to explain.”

“Why not?” I said.

“I’ll tell you after we check out. Just trust me,” he said.

He knows my “ick” threshold is low for insects and creatures dead or alive, so I dutifully obliged by steering clear of the mystery behind the door.

Blue-green crater lake on Mount Rinjani as seen from the crater's rim at 8,658 feet

We were staying at Pondok Senaru, in the village of Senaru on Lombok, one of Indonesia’s 13,000 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited. Senaru is one of two main gateways (Sembulan Lawang being the other) to Mount Rinjani, at 12,224 feet, the second highest mountain in the country. We would climb much of it the next day, and what our lodging lacked inside it made up for outside with stunning views of rice fields, waterfalls, and mountains.

Our large bathroom had other “ick” factors: no sink or warm water, a dirty floor, and large, unidentifiable insects flying around the ceiling.

“I miss the Oberoi,” I whined.

Ah, The Oberoi, Lombok.

Infinity pool at the 5-star Oberoi hotel

Two nights earlier, we had arrived at the island’s most luxurious and remote resort hotel, in Mataram, on the west coast. We had come from Bali, only 20 minutes by air. Lombok, about 50 miles end to end and side to side, with 2.4 million residents, was a welcome change from its more touristy neighbor. The local people, called Sasaks, say the island resembles the Bali of 25 years ago: a relatively quiet land of beaches, mountains, rain forests, and rice fields.

Typically, we are the mid-range-hotel type, three stars out of five, only partly because we’re budget-minded. We don’t appreciate an excess of riches, especially in a developing country still reeling from an economic crisis in 1997, tourism-directed bombings in 2002 and 2005, and devastation left by the December tsunami, which occurred nearly 2,000 miles west of Lombok.

On the other hand, pumping money into the local economy is a good thing.

The country’s devalued rupiah was why we could afford the Oberoi, one of a chain of luxury hotels in South Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East named for the group’s Indian founder. The lowest published rates are $250 a night; Internet deals of $145 can be found. I imagine a similar night in the States would set us back about $700.

I had insisted that my first-ever five-star day be spent relaxing by the infinity pool that appears to spill into the Lombok Strait. Then perhaps I would sip a colorful cocktail at the Tokek, the outdoor bar named after the country’s 8- to 12-inch lizards. Or retire to our patio while room service delivered exotic fruits and a bottle of wine.

Such declarations, of course, are made to be broken. The next day we learned that we could borrow bicycles. As much as I hated to leave poolside, the lure of poking around on our own was too great.

A horse-drawn cart (cidomo) heads for the Tanjung market

The weather was a dripping 90 degrees, with about 80 percent humidity.

Our first stop was the market in Tanjung, the town about 4 miles north. We shared the paved road with motorcycles, fellow cyclists, cars, and public transportation in the form of minibuses, called “bemos,” and horse-drawn carts, called “cidomos.”

Children and adults often sat out on open-air bamboo platforms, set in their small yards near the street like a detached front porch. We also passed scores of uniformed children walking home from school.

“Hello! Hello! Hello!” came the cries from the locals, not accustomed to seeing foreigners on bicycles. “Hello!” we shouted back.

Most houses were built of bamboo with thatched roofs. Dirt yards held goats, chickens, and barking mutts. Some were littered with coconut shells. Men and women gathered at roadside kiosks selling cigarettes and snacks.

“Hello! Hello! Hello!”

We passed several mosques in this largest Muslim country in the world, though only some women covered their heads.

Farmer works fields with plow drawn by water buffalo

We pulled up to the market, where horse-cart drivers waited in thick mud to take shoppers home. The villagers stared at us without reserve. We tried to be less obvious by stealing quick glances, and I reminded myself to keep smiling.

Women, sarongs wrapped around their waists, expertly piled their goods atop their heads. We walked through tight corridors lined with piles of food items that included dried fish, colorful fruits and spices, and root vegetables.

“Hello! Hello!”

I bought rock salt from an open tub and freshly harvested cinnamon sticks and clove. My husband ordered three smoked creatures that looked like small snakes.

Back at the Oberoi, we ordered a bottle of wine and sat on our patio, gazing at palms and inhaling the perfume of blooming frangipani trees.

My husband, pulling his snack of smoked “snakes” out of the bag, asked the young man who delivered the wine what they were. The fellow’s reaction stifled shock implied that perhaps my husband was the first Oberoi guest to purchase such an hors d’oeuvre.

“Lindung,” he said. “It’s from the water. But not there,” he said, pointing toward the sea. “Fresh.” We determined that it was freshwater eel. Had he ever tried one?

“No,” he answered quickly, looking repulsed.

Nonetheless, my husband felt compelled to sample one but only after promising that his lips would not venture near mine for a minimum of 12 hours. His review: smoky, leatherlike, with more skin than meat. He stopped after one, minus the head.

Porters Lin and Pardi carry all our food and equipment, while wearing flip-flops

The next day, we took off with Asmuni Irpan, who was transporting us to Senaru, the starting point of our trek to the rim of the volcanic crater of Mount Rinjani.

Irpan is a former social worker who, since 2000, has been working on the Rinjani Trek Ecotourism Program, an environmental and community development project in Senaru sponsored by the New Zealand Agency for International Development.

“We organized it to be run by local people, a cooperative,” Irpan said of the Rinjani Trek Center. Through the center, Senaru men are given jobs as guides and porters, and women lead shorter walks around the village.

“We’re trying to find local government sponsors for some of the programs. Maybe in five years it becomes self-financed,” he said.

We chose an overnight hike that went to the rim of the crater, filled in by lake Segara Anak. The crater formed during an eruption 200 years ago that also formed Mount Baru, a new cone. Baru’s most recent volcanic activity, some puffing of smoke and ash, was just last year.

It was a strenuous hike, with more than 6,500 feet of elevation gain, from 1,971 feet at the trek center to 8,658 feet at the rim.

Guide Udin prepares meal during the trek to Mount Rinjani

Our guide, Udin, and porters, Lin and Pardi, met us at daybreak. They wore flip-flops and smoked clove cigarettes along the way. (Hiking boots are recommended for non-locals.) Lin and Pardi carried the gear, food, and water, roping it to the ends of thick bamboo poles hoisted on their shoulders.

The trail was eroded but passable. Pumice-filled volcanic sand made it slippery downhill. We started in a hot and muggy rain forest with palms, banana, and banyan trees, and ended on a cooler and drier rocky plateau.

At the crater’s rim after about seven hours of climbing the view was spectacular: the Rinjani peak to the left, with Baru, the volcanic mountain, rising up from the lake.

The next day, we returned to the same room at the Pondok Senaru. I avoided the bathroom door. On the ride to the airport, I asked about the mystery behind the door.

“When I closed it to take a shower,” my husband said, “there was a giant lizard on the back.I was afraid if it moved, it would start running all over the room.” To that I say: “Triple ick!” And to my dear husband, “Terima kasih.” Thank you.

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