Love is thicker than water in Lovina

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Published: December 17th 2023

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One stroke at the paddle, two and three islands have passed… ~ Indonesian Proverb

HE SAID…
Today we were exploring the coastal town of Lovina and the coastal waters of Menjangan Island– by minibus, boat and snorkel.

Locations
> Lovina is a coastal town in northern Bali.
> Menjangan Island is a small island off Bali’s north western coast.
> West Bali National Park covers the entire north western tip of Bali, and Menjangan Island is part of the national park.

Transport
We travelled from Lovina to West Bali National Park by minibus, semi-circumnavigated Menjangan Island by boat, then returned to Lovina by minibus.

We woke early, breakfasted early and set off for West Bali National Park around 8:30am. We were traveling in a westerly direction along Bali’s northern coastline. On-route we had a brief market stop in the bustling township of Lovina. The market is housed in a large concrete building that rises two storeys and spans several blocks. Its metropolitan footprint is colossal, and it is not what you would describe as ‘well-ordered’. The stall keepers were friendly and their produce diverse. As we walked past stalls crammed with fish, meat, vegetables, incense and clothing, no-one tried to tout a sale. It was a local market for local

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people, with limited options for foreign tourists. We loved the place. A friendly (and inquisitive) market administrator desperately wanted to talk with us, but time was of the essence, so we had to leave.

We clambered back into the minibus and continued our long westbound journey towards the West Bali National Park. We mostly hugged the coastline, but occasionally headed inland. As we travelled, Susi (our guide) shared an insightful overview of Bali’s caste system. I struggle with the egocentricity and entitlement that underpins the caste system concept, and I struggle with the conditional nature of inter-caste relationships. However, what I find particularly hard to tolerate in Bali’s caste system is the need for people to be geopositioned according to their caste. It’s not enough to simply be known for your high caste, and nor is it enough to flaunt your social and economic superiority in flamboyant displays of wealth. No, you must also be physically higher than the lower castes.

Put simply, people from a higher caste must be seated in an elevated position to those from a lower caste, regardless of the occasion. This is poignantly described in Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali (which formed

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part of my pre-reading for this Indonesian adventure).

When strangers met at my house they were uneasy until each had discovered the other’s caste. Was the other a Brahman? A Satrya? Or a plain Sudra or commoner like himself? For although the ancient caste system was borne easily enough these days, there were still formalities in everyday life which must be carefully observed. Such as the question of seating. What distinguished my simple house as having been designed for a man of rank was the veranda, which was built on two different levels. A whole etiquette revealed itself in the way people sat.
Colin McPhee, A House in Bali

As we drove through affluent coastal suburbs and communities, Susi informed us that the minimum wage in Bali is very low. There’s nothing quite like a caste system to keep people in their place. How on earth can anyone escape the drudgery of a low caste – a societal construct of the affluent to keep the less affluent at arm’s length. You have no say in your ancestry, and you certainly can’t change it.

Anyway, enough from the closet Marxist. With blue sky above us, we continued our

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westward journey through lush green landscapes. The narrow roads were long and straight, and the traffic was constant. We passed a coal-fired power station jutting from the coastal verge, which foreign activists apparently protested and disrupted during its recent construction. Yet as Susi so eloquently pointed out, Bali has few energy options, and air-conditioning units are running constantly in tourist resorts. I quietly wondered if the activists relaxed in air-conditioned rooms while they were here…

It was a relief to reach West Bali National Park, the starting point of our snorkelling adventure (which I describe in the highlights section below). On our return trip to Lovina, we dozed in the minibus and retraced the narrow coastal roads we’d traversed earlier in the day. As I gazed out the window, rice fields, wooded forests and tree plantations blurred into a green montage. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived back at the hotel. Our westward journey to Menjangan Island had been long and arduous, and I’d started to question its merit.

Accommodation
Hotel Rambutan in Lovina. Marketing itself as a boutique hotel, this place is a sprawling collection of two-storey villas set in more than one hectare of tropical gardens.

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Our top storey villa was comfortable enough, with a fabulous terrace overlooking a section of the gardens.

As we relaxed on the terrace in the late afternoon, one of the hotel’s groundsmen was whistling as he watered the gardens. I loved the sound at first, but when Ren quietly reminded me of an Agatha Christie television drama where a recurrent whistled tune was always heard moments before a murder, the atmosphere changed entirely! ????

Cuisine
…Breakfast (Hotel Rambutan, Lovina)…
For some unknown reason, I made no notes about our first breakfast experience in the large open-sided dining area at Hotel Rambutan, and nor did I capture any images of our table or the breakfast provisions on offer. I typically jot something down (however brief) or take a quick photo as a record for future reference. But I have nothing, apart from a single line of text: Breakfast at 7:30am in the open dining area of Hotel Rambutan. I recall great food, refreshing drinks and friendly staff. I also recall obnoxious travellers at the same table. Therein lies the problem. I won’t let this happen again.

…Lunch (Thatched Gazebo, Menjangan Island)…
After two snorkelling stops, our long wooden

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boat pulled into a basic jetty on Menjangan Island. We disembarked across a couple of long boats that were already moored at the jetty and made our way to the sandy (and very windy) beach. This was our lunch stop, where we were to enjoy a picnic lunch prepared by the friendly staff at Mama Mia Resto and Sea Food – a tiny eatery at our set-off point on the Bali mainland.

After quickly changing out of my wet board shorts and t-shirt, we settled at a small thatched roofed gazebo on the exposed beachfront for lunch. The wind was so intense, we could barely hold anything down. Clothes, hats and food items would be sent tumbling along the sand with each wind gust. Our picnic lunch wasn’t great. We each received a blue plastic Tupperware container with small compartments that contained the following:
> chicken (overcooked)
> fried fish (with heads and tails intact)
> tofu
> tempeh
> a boiled egg
> onion fries
> pickled vegetables
> chilli sambal
> rice (dry and clumpy)
> rice crackers (many of which were lost to the wind).

Regardless of the wind and the questionable food, it was

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enjoyable eating a picnic lunch in a small thatched roof gazebo on an island beach. Even the warm gusty wind blowing in from the Bali Sea started to take on a romantic ambience after a while.

…Dinner (Beachfront Table, Lovina)…
Not only was this dining experience the highlight of the day, it was one of the absolute highlights of our Bali travels. We walked a short distance from our hotel to the beachfront, then cautiously made our way along an uneven concrete surface that ran parallel to the beach. Suddenly, before our eyes, appeared a long table set on the promenade. Plastic chairs were arranged around the table, which had been beautifully laid out with numerous small bowls of food covered with butcher’s paper. The legs of our plastic chairs sank into the sand as we sat down.

At one end of the table, closest to the calm ocean water, stood a middle-aged local woman. She had prepared this extraordinary meal, and after introducing herself, she described the various dishes:
> blue marlin skewers with lemongrass (my favourite dish)
> chicken satay skewers with peanut sauce
> beef satay skewers
> sweet tempeh
> corn fritters
> fried

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noodles
> young corn salad
> green bean salad
> tofu
> sweet potato
> hash brown potatoes
> tomato sambal (with chilli)
> tomato sambal (without chilli)
> prawn crackers
> rice.

Our friendly cook once lived in the beach house next to where we were seated, and this is still used for group meals when the weather is unsuitable for open-air dining. However, she now lives above a small eatery that she operates near our hotel, because her son and daughter-in-law have moved into the beach house… enough said!

She described her tough life in Lovina as the warm night air embraced us, and it was difficult to bear witness to her honesty. She can’t read or write because she didn’t attend school. She doesn’t watch television because she can’t read the subtitles. She can’t use a mobile phone. She was significantly impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as were many others in the area, but no lives were lost. She is annoyed that white skinned and blond-haired people (i.e. the Dutch) are buying all the properties in Lovina. Properties she would love to own, but cannot afford.

On finishing the meal, we bid

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farewell to our lovely host and slowly wandered back to our hotel. It had been a long day of travel, and while a lot of time was lost on the road, this incredible meal on the beachfront of Lovina, only metres from outriggers bobbing up and down in the slight swell, had made the day extraordinary. We settled on our terrace with a glass of golden arak liqueur and caught up on our travel notes. I love travel days like this, especially ones that end like this.

Highlights
…Snorkelling adventure…
We arrived at a small coastal inlet within the West Bali National Park in the late morning. A narrow wooden jetty stretched into the glistening blue ocean, and this was our set-off point for Menjangan Island. After being fitted for fins, goggles, snorkels and lifejackets, we clambered into a long wooden boat with a basic wooden cover (to protect us from the sun) and set off in a westerly direction.

We cruised across some fairly choppy water to the northern coast of Menjangan Island. This was our first snorkelling stop, and it was slightly sheltered from the wind. The island’s coastal cliffs had caves full of bats, and

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after drifting close to the rocky shore to view them from the longboat, we anchored offshore and slipped into the water.

There was an abundance of fish life under the choppy ocean water. Long thin fish, brightly coloured fish, large fish, tiny fish, star fish. Many of these were available from the Lovina market, which we’d visited earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the coral wasn’t healthy. Having snorkelled at my own pace for a while, I looked up to position myself and found I was quite some distance from our longboat. “I have been working these flippers too hard”, I thought to myself. So, I decided to make my way back to the longboat – at speed. What I didn’t realise is that our longboat had moved, and the longboat I was swimming towards was not ours. Oh no! I had to be chased by our snorkelling guide, and when he caught up to me, I was reprimanded (for good reason). As we both bobbed in the choppy water, he reminded me that he was my guide, and that I was required to follow his direction. I apologised profusely.

The current was strong, and we had both been

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swimming against it during this embarrassing drama. Luckily the swim back to the longboat was easy, as we were able to exploit the current. I apologised a few more times, but I think he had stopped listening. We clambered aboard (using a small wooden ladder slung over the side) and cut through the choppy water to our second snorkelling stop.

On the way, Ren told me she had been in the water with the snorkelling guide. With his support and encouragement, she had been able to view the colourful fish life under the waves, using goggles and a snorkel. It was so good to hear, and I wish I’d been there. The guide had previously suggested that our second snorkelling stop was going to be off-the-shore (as opposed to off-the-longboat), and that would be the most suitable place for Ren to snorkel.

When we arrived at the second snorkelling stop (on the western tip of Menjangan Island), the wind had picked up quite a bit and the current was noticeably stronger. There was no option of an off-the-shore entry, so we slipped into the water from the longboat. The guide must have seen the weather turning and realised

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this stop was not going to suit Ren. The current was too strong for snorkelling. We were being pulled through the water with considerable force, and getting back to the longboat was slow and hard work. At times I was simply maintaining my position in the water, despite moving my fins as fast as I could. The guide started yelling that we should simply go with the current, and he yelled at the boats to meet us at a spot closer to shore…

It was time for lunch (which I describe in the cuisine section above). Despite the gusty wind and basic food, I enjoyed our beachfront picnic on Menjangan Island. After gathering the items we’d lost to the wind (or at least those we could find), we boarded our longboat from the island’s rickety jetty and sped off on our return journey across the choppy Bali Sea.

We hugged the coast of mainland Bali for most of the journey, where trees in the National Park grow right down to the shoreline. While I could distinguish some white sand along the shore, it was mostly hidden by thick forest and fallen trees. We arrived back at our set-off

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point around 2:30pm.

Lowlights
…Lost time on the road…
We left the National Park and retraced the narrow coastal roads back to Lovina in a minibus. It was a long drive back, and I wondered if the time spent on the road was worth the snorkelling experience. In hindsight, I don’t think it was. Our overall travel time was seven hours return, and we were in the water for 45 minutes. The coral was bleached, the wind chop and current made snorkelling difficult, and the picnic lunch was very ordinary (especially the over-fried fish). I know the weather is beyond our control, but there are times when an activity needs to be reconsidered in unsuitable conditions. If only we had gone somewhere closer to Lovina. We could have used the extra time looking around the coastal town…

SHE SAID…
For only the second time in Bali, our hotel in Lovina was near a local mosque, and the 5am call to prayer was a soundscape to our early morning. Our room in Rambutan Hotel was a bit on the basic side, but it was large and functional, and over the years we’ve come to value these things

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as much as soft cotton sheets or fluffy white towels. ????

Unfortunately, I was starting to come down with a cold and cough, and even my sometimes-super-effective gargling with hot salty water did nothing to stop the pesky germs from marching forward with gusto. The previous night, Andrew had very kindly hiked to the hotel’s restaurant on the other end of the property to get a small bowl of salt from the kitchen. I now had a handy supply to keep up my routine morning and night cleansing… just in case. I suspected the source of my cold was not sterilising my water bottle thoroughly enough after lending it to two trip mates who had embarked on a hike without any water. Oh well. These things happen.

Fortunately, the beginnings of my cold didn’t affect my appetite, and at 7:30am we sat down at the hotel restaurant. It had a bright welcoming atmosphere, helped greatly by hanging over a pool and looking out at the gardens. While we looked at the menu, we were all served a fresh fruit plate and a delicious smoothie of banana and papaya. I ordered an omelette with toast, while Andrew opted for

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the banana pancake with honey. The omelette was okay, but the banana pancake was the better choice. Food envy struck again! ????

We left the hotel at 8:30am and set off on a long drive to a marine reserve for a snorkelling trip. I loved our short stop at the Seririt Lovina Market on the way. It was a very local market filled with all manner of produce. Some stalls were housed in a two-storey building, but the life of the place seemed to be in the makeshift stalls that lined the alleys and footpaths around this building.

With Bali being predominantly Hindu, this was the first time we’d seen so many women in hijabs (headscarves that cover the hair, neck and ears) on the island. I suppose this concentration of Muslims in Lovina accounted for the call to prayer that had woken us so early that morning.

The stalls in the alleys were full of all manner of vegetables, freshly killed chickens, fresh fish, dried fish, smoked fish and cartons of eggs. Inside the upstairs section of the market building there were racks upon racks of clothes, as well as a whole section dedicated to fruit

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stalls. Downstairs, a dark jumble of stalls sold household items, spices, and supplies of flowers and incense sticks for temple offerings. Despite the large Muslim representation at the market, Susi (our group leader) mentioned that there’s a strict law that only Hindus can sell any of the temple offerings.

The women in the market seemed extremely amused to see a bunch of tourists walking through their space. Some of the amusement seemed to be aimed at the fact that most of us were dressed more for a snorkelling trip than for walking through a conservative local market. None of the giggles or chatter I witnessed were malicious, but this didn’t stop a couple of people in our group feeling uncomfortable and leaving the market.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed this visit, and I loved that the women seemed to be a naturally happy bunch. To be honest, I found their amusement quite amusing. In fact, many of them asked that they be included when I asked to take a photo of their produce… and then giggled like schoolgirls and tried to pull their friends into the shot too. ????

To get to our snorkelling jumping off point, we endured

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a two-hour drive through busy roads with heavy traffic. We eventually drove through the gates of the West Bali National Park and pulled up in front of a small rustic beachside restaurant called Mama Mia Resto and Sea Food. We met our snorkelling guide, and after a lot of lost in translation moments, we were eventually fitted for lifejackets, flippers and snorkels. Getting a whole group fitted for anything is never a quick activity, and patience is a much-needed commodity. We finally walked down the small jetty to our boats.

I was happy to see that we would be using small traditional Balinese wooden boats. They held five or six people each, so we split into two groups and began our boat ride. It was an amazing trip on what I can only describe as the very embodiment of postcard worthy blue water.

From the jetty it was supposed to be a 30-minute trip to Menjangan Island where we’d be having lunch, but first we had a couple of snorkelling stops along the island’s coral reef. We pulled up alongside one side of the island to look at some sea caves in a cliff. The caves were so

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full of bats that some were literally hanging in full light at the mouth of the cave. I was very surprised to see that. We then kept travelling to our snorkelling stop.

When we stopped at the first location, there was a bit of noise with everyone getting their gear on etc. and there was a bit of confusion about the instructions from the lead guide (about what people were supposed to do). His English was okay, but not very clear; and many had to seek clarification from each other. I felt this could have been handled much better, but more on this later. Within minutes everyone had jumped off the boat and were snorkelling around us.

I am not a swimmer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have no fear of water and when the lead guide suggested I could jump off the boat with him, I was a bit hesitant… but seriously considered it. My only other snorkelling experience has been off beaches, which is a much more comfortable environment for a non-swimmer. Anyway, after some encouragement from Susi, I climbed down the boat ladder and into the red lifebuoy ring being held by

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the guide.

After a quick check that my snorkel and mask were on securely, we set off. He basically held onto one of my arms while I snorkelled along with him while hugging the lifebuoy ring. I could immediately see that the coral reef was only a few metres under me and the water was teeming with all manner of amazingly brightly coloured fishy life. I was beyond thrilled! The coral was bleached and broken in parts; but it was much healthier than I expected it to be.

There was so much activity going on that it took me a little while to calm down and force myself to focus on one thing at a time. For the first few minutes my whole vision was filled with different kinds of fish that were all some configuration of white, black and yellow. They seemed to be streaming away from the other snorkellers. I loved the colour coordination, but it did make we wonder if this was some sort of phenomenon or if it was pure coincidence. (I think these were angelfish, butterflyfish and sergeant major fish).

My favourites were the tiny electric blue fish (blue reef chromis fish)

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that darted around, and there was a big orange Nemo fish (clownfish) who seemed to want to follow us for a while! I also thought I saw a Dory fish, but the colouring wasn’t quite as blue as I imagined it should be. As you can tell, my fish identification knowledge is extremely poor, but I did some googling while writing this and managed to find the names (included in brackets) of the ones I think I saw. Snorkelling above this reef was such an incredible experience, and one that I’m very very grateful for.

This was a marine reserve and the boats had to adhere to strict rules, like only taking us to certain areas, and not staying too long in one spot etc. The current was taking the group further away from the boat, and apparently one of the instructions had been that the boat would circle the group and meet them further along. Well, I returned to the boat and we moved around the snorkellers and waited for them a few hundred metres away. I saw that Andrew had started swimming back to where our boat had been a few minutes ago, further confused by the

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fact that another similar looking wooden boat had taken our spot. Susi mentioned this to the guide, who decided to swim after Andrew. Andrew is a good swimmer, and it took the guide ages to catch up to him. Anyway, it all ended well, but I hope the guide realised he needed to be assured that everyone had heard and understood his instructions before leaving the boat.

Our second snorkelling spot had a much stronger current and choppier waves, so I opted out of going back in the water. I spent the time taking in the beautiful surrounds. We were bordered on three sides by distant blue tinged mountains and volcanoes, some as far off as Java. In the middle distance there were islands covered in tangles of green trees and shrubbery, uninterrupted by human destruction. The sea immediately around us had splodges of colours that ranged from light aqua to deep blue, chromatically mapping the varying depths of the coral bed beneath us. Susi and I chatted on and off, but for the most part, the only sound was the wind whipping around our boat and the lapping of water.

At times I felt as if I

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was bobbing along in a beautifully vivid watercolour painted by an artist who had challenged themselves to use every hue of green and blue imaginable. I adore that feeling of being so engulfed by the vastness or enormity of nature that you feel how small and insignificant humanity is in the true scale of the universe. ????

The current kept getting stronger, so the snorkelling activity was cut short. Thankfully Menjangan Island was only 10 minutes away at this stage and we started looking forward to lunch. Menjangan Island is part of the national park, and is named for the deer population on the island. The only deer sighted was a small one who was watching us from the nearby bushland. I’m so happy the deer are still very wild and shy – they clearly haven’t yet started associating humans with food. I can only hope it will stay this way for a long time to come.

The restaurant we’d met our guide at (Mama Mia Resto and Sea Food) had packed us a bento box style lunch in plastic containers. We sat under the thatched roof of little wooden shelters on the beach and tucked into lunch.

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The food wasn’t great and had the most underwhelming and tasteless food options we’d had to date (rice, fried fish, fried chicken, tempeh, tofu, egg, pickled vegetables, onion rings, a corn fritter and a satay stick of unknowable meat). However, in fairness, I have to acknowledge that they were catering to tourists who they assume like bland food, and the nature of this sort of picnic means the food is always going to be stone cold. On the other hand, the setting was sublime! Any meal would always play second fiddle to this island setting with such absolutely stunning water views. ????

The return two-hour boat and road trip was very tiring, and it seemed to go on forever. It did however give me time for contemplation. Looking around at the water and surrounds, I was so grateful this was a marine reserve. I only wish that they would extend the reserve further around the coast so the dolphins of Lovina gain some protection from the idiot tourists who pay boat captains to pursue them at speed and hound them relentlessly. ????

Andrew and I also discussed the fact that we had been in this part of northwestern

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Bali when we stayed in Pemuteran (our first stop in Bali). In hindsight, we could have avoided the long road trip if we’d done this snorkelling trip back then. But even though it would have saved us time and given us an extra day to explore Lovina, the optional tour from Pemuteran had been relatively expensive, and the timing hadn’t been convenient for us. Oh well. These things happen.

Much later that afternoon, I was so happy to be back at the hotel and finally open the door to our villa. It had been a long day. Normally we’d have explored the town in the couple of hours before dinner, but it was becoming obvious that we were at that part of the trip where our energy levels were starting to wane. Things weren’t helped by the fact that we were both starting to show more symptoms of a damn cold and cough. So we were sensible and rested. Boo!

That evening we experienced a unique food experience that we won’t be forgetting for a long time. Ibu Wayan is a well-known local chef who used to have a small warung (local food stall) on the beach. She

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came to Intrepid’s attention through one of the group leaders, and they asked her if she could cook a private meal for us on our last night in Lovina.

At 7pm we walked down to the beach and along the Beach Footpath to Ibu Wayan’s house. We emerged from a lane that ran between two buildings and saw a long table set up in an open space. It was right on the black beach sand and there were two small lights strung up over it. The table was laden with two rows of small dishes along each side, plus a large rice cooker and two big jars of krupuk (rice crackers). It looked amazing!

This was the original nasi campur (rice with various side dishes). Given it had become my favourite dish to order in restaurants in Bali, it was so lovely to experience the home cooked version of it. There were two sambals and 11 side dishes, and we needed a system to make sure everyone got to try everything. There were three types of satay sticks – marlin with lemongrass, chicken with peanut sauce, and beef; perkedel (Indonesian version of Dutch frikadel meatballs); corn fritters; fried

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noodles; tofu in a tomato sauce; stir-fried sweet potato; tempeh manis (stir-fried sweet and spicy tempeh); young corn salad and a green bean salad.

Under a bright quarter moon, with our plastic chairs sinking into the sand and the wooden boats bobbing in the dark sea just metres away from us… we enjoyed this amazing meal. Unsurprisingly, it all tasted as good as it looked! It was a lovely relaxed dinner, and I believed Ibu Wayan when she said she cooked her food with love. For dessert we had bananas.

We ate until we could eat no more and sat back and listened to Ibu Wayan talking about her work and life. We estimated she was about 60 to 65 years old. Despite being illiterate she speaks three or four languages, and she has worked in the service and tourist industries her whole life. She started as a masseur at a hotel, moved to selling clothes in the market, and then opened her food stall (Warung Desi) on the beach. It’s named after her oldest daughter, and it became increasingly clear that Ibu Wayan had made and continues to make many sacrifices for her family. She talked about

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re-mortgaging her house to help rebuild the houses of family members (who were affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004). She talked of how she still pays the mortgage on her house, but has had to give the house to her son and his family (while she lives in a room about her warung). She talked about how her son can’t afford to buy a house because prices have sky-rocketed due to foreigners buying up the land and houses in Lovina. This was a perfect example of the double-edged sword of tourism.

This was the only first-hand account of the 2004 tsunami we’d heard on this trip. It had occurred to us along the way that Indonesians don’t talk about that fateful tsunami as much as their neighbours in South East Asia and South Asia. I was surprised at this, given the epicentre of the earthquake was off the west coast of Indonesia’s island of Sumatra. But it seems the countries west of Indonesia were far worse hit than the Indonesian islands (which are predominantly scattered east of Sumatra).

This was the loveliest way I could think of ending our time in Lovina. This lazy laidback seaside

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town in North Bali should have been a very restful ‘barefoot on the beach’ stop for a couple of days… but a combination of factors had caused us to have quite a full schedule. Regardless, it had been an enjoyable visit, and I was grateful that we got to sample quite a few of the cultural and environmental highlights that Lovina is famed for.

We ended the balmy night on our balcony… sipping on our snakeskin fruit and coconut arak with cloves and honey, and writing travel notes. Bliss.

Next we travel south to Sanur, our last stop on our Bali trip.


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