Snapshots of Nusa Lembongan

Sunset between the islands
Sunset between the islands

 

If you believe clichés, a picture’s worth a thousand words.

 

That’s actually an old newsman’s quip about the power of photography in the press—that a publishable photo ought to tell a thousand words’ worth of narrative. Now, though, people toss the sentence around as if to suggest a picture is infinite in wordiness. For authors, though, we know the limit of a thousand words: it’s about three pages in a word processor.

 

If you believe the guidebooks, Nusa Lembongan is Bali back in time.

 

They say it’s an island still unsullied by the tourist curse, still pristine in local customs. They say here you get a glimpse of Bali before its rice fields fell to agro-business and tourist traps, before the village life cashed in for nightclubs and restaurants and art galleries. They say it’s still pure, and only a few dozen kilometers off the coast.

 

Here’s my version.

 

Sunrise

finds driftwood and coconut-shell fires already stewing, men and women combing the sharp rocks of the beach for scraps of seaweed. Their yards are full of tarps stacked high with these tufts and sprigs of green.

 

Local greetings
Local greetings

From the boat rocking in the tide, a man hands a bundle of sleek, silver fish to a woman waist-deep in the waves. The gathered crowd on the shore applauds; they together rejoice in the family’s good fortune of good fish.

 

Over the scene looms the clouded tower of Bali’s Mount Agung—the cone I came to photograph in the golden light, but its imposing façade is reduced to a bit performance in the unfolding pageant of lives still untroubled by the tourists’ touch.

 

As the tide calms and sun climbs higher, rectangle patches of darkness crystallize in the clear waves. Seaweed scattered in a patchwork fit for a quilt: these are the local farms. Low tide, village men walk out and harvest, stand in the sterns of their small boats and pole through the maze like silent and sun-darkened gondoliers; high tide, their women pick up remnants washed ashore—a few more pieces, a few more grams, a few more cents for cobbling out a local life on yet another tourist hotspot.

 

I’m walking back from a bit of sunrise watching.

 

A sun-up worth waking for
A sun-up worth waking for

The men and the women look at their feet and tend to not greet me unless I speak to them. They are generally short, generally bony, and sometimes wear a drooping paunch of prosperity at their belly. Their teeth have never seen a dentist, I guess, and maybe that’s why they seem ashamed to smile.

 

The children, though, will test their schoolbook English and pose for photos: they fly the Japanese two-finger peace, or the Australian single-finger salute, depending on their contact with the outsiders. This month they have a break from school. This month is filled with splashing mornings and splashing evenings; it’s spent in small houses away from the heat of the white, white sun.

 

Andy and I walked this way last night, in the somber peace and sleepy heat of late afternoon. The beach is sharp with broken coral and coarse sand; thick ropes mooring boats tauten and relax with each wave.

 

Suddenly, cheering erupts from the streets ashore. There, a gaggle of children squeal through the rites of an egg-balance relay. Their white teeth glint in the golden sun, and the music of their laughter surpasses even the beauty of the coming sunset. A handful of well-fed teens in Jesus T-shirts is leading them through the games. Now they are blowing balloons for the next round. Curious parents look on from the corners.

 

That was last night. This morning the village returns to its chores.

 

_________

 

On the Boat

In the waves
In the waves

 

I couldn’t stop watching the waves—the giant swells and groans across the fields of rich, deep blue. One moment our boat would be cornered in by a wall of water on each side, and the next it would roll on top of a long knoll, a wide arc stretching away and down to each side.

 

Then comes the next swell heaving from the deep.

 

They were gentle, these waves, as we churned our outboard motors parallel to their sweep. They would rise high enough to cut the coast from view, but coming to the next peak, we could watch all the details of the surf breaking maniacally at the beach, the mad spray of mist and foam that moments ago was gently lifting our vessel heavenward.

 

Imagine all the hills of my Missouri home, that fertile cornfield and bean-basket set into so many ridges and valleys, and liquefy it—turn all that rolling topography blue and send in rising and falling across the endless miles of nothing. We weren’t even clear of Bali’s stalwart peaks, yet already, here at sea, I felt like an ant crawling across the rise and fall of a sleeping elephant’s ribs.

 

No end in sight—only the rhythm, the hypnotizing, unflagging rhythm, the ebb and the flow of—

 

“Take a picture of her!” Andy cuts into my poetic waxings.

 

Sure enough, there is Luiza, bony and grinning at the stern, waiting for a photo to immortalize the moment.

 

“Then I want one!” Andy shouts over the outboard motor’s wailing. She is grinning, the waves are rolling, and the fame of Bali’s mountains stays plastered on the background.

 

I always say that I want a sailboat, and I that want to know how to sail. The thought of taming those long, swift winds into my servants, of capturing the raw force invisible in nature and setting myself apart from everything but the primeval rise and fall, rise and fall, forever and forever all around, seems like something so blissful, so natural, so fundamental to our existence. All the navies and whalers and pirates who once cruised the world in such winds must have been missing out on something momentous if they came away from a voyage failing to feel as deep and rich in thought as the ocean that lay beneath them.

 

Enjoying the views
Enjoying the views

But we go with motors, and for now, in the crowd of bulging backpacks, rumpled tourist maps, and unshaved faces, the motor’s howl does a nice job of getting you alone with your thoughts. It’s hard to talk, and it’s easy to stare at the eternal crests and troughs of the ocean, the unceasing rhythm of life rolling on unbounded since the creation of this planet.

 

Fastboats? Yes, the obnoxious and hyper-quick smashing across the waves is possible here. But there you have nothing but the speed, barely enough time to catch your breath before swarming back out into the surf and the spending and the pop music playing the soundtrack of yet another tourist hotspot. Give me the slowboat anytime, thank you. Give me the moment to meditate with my maker and his waves.

 

“Take another one! The light is perfect” Andy is calling me now, her smile bright enough to make me reconsider why I wanted to be alone in my thoughts. “Can you get the mountains in the back?”

 

_____

 

A Beach Fire

 

stands sentinel outside our guesthouse. The Frenchman has made it, and crouches there beside a local girl who also likes the flames. The sun has sunk behind the distant wall of ocean haze, and the sky stands dark and still and somber while our tiny flames flicker toward it.

 

“What’s it for?” I ask him, thinking it’s some sort of Bali offering, or maybe a local tradition, or maybe just for ridding the shores of waste leaves and scrap wood.

 

But he only shrugs. “Because it’s a beach, and the night is beautiful.”

 

Because it's a beach, and because it's beautiful
Because it’s a beach, and because it’s beautiful

Inevitably we gather at the flames—and not merely because the sun has taken its warmth away with its light. There’s something about the dance of the orange and the crackling death of the wood, something that speaks to us, in the face of the endless ocean, of our own impermanence, of our own living limbs destined to die and shrivel, to dry and harden and waste away back into the minerals of the earth. Or perhaps it’s an ancient rite borne out from within us—centuries distant from the fire and the chant and the ancient song of the gathered peoples before it, we still are conjured by flames in ways we cannot explain.

 

Or maybe it’s just because a fire on the beach is a cool thing.

 

There I meet Mr. Mah-dey, the resident reflexologist. He must be sixty, judging by his sagging eyes and his coarse, rumbling voice. In broken English, he tries to explain to Andy and to me how nerves connected through the body can be touched, manipulated, coaxed into healing and peace, how a foot massage is not a foot massage, but an aligning of spirit and flesh; not just an easy hour to relax, but a meditation to draw a soul and a body to the truth of the self.

 

We think it’s bunk and probably a sales pitch, but still we listen—it’s no fireside chant or ancient hero journey, but at least it is the resonance of a voice from a wizened chest, a heart that’s thumped through so many sunset moments, and eyes now failing in the firelight.

 

Or maybe the sales pitch is the new narrative of this place, of this generation.

 

Like so many locals I’ll meet here, Mah-dey used to farm the seaweed. Now he’s a masseuse for the tourists.

 

He tried to take his reflexology to Australia—made a go of it in Perth for a half-year—but came back to the island life of his youth. “Australia people nice on vacation,” he rumbles to us, “but when you come their home, they so snow-bee.”

 

“Snow-bee?” Andy asks.

 

“Yes. Yes you know, when they don’t like the others. When they think they better. When they arrogant.”

 

“Ah. Snobby.”

 

“Yes, yes. The snow-bee.”

 

The three of us crouch on our haunches: soles in the sand and arms clutching our knees, as the darkness deepens and the flames crackle on. We decide some sunflower seeds would be perfect here, and I go to fetch a bag.

 

Farmers at work
Farmers at work

 

_____

 

Ready to Jump

 

I stand on a square meter of rough timber wire-tied to the edge of a cliff. Below, waves as tall as horses whip surfers roaring toward the shore. The crash and pull all but drown out my wife’s calls to wait—that she’s adjusting the camera. Sun slams down on another wave imploding on itself, collapsing into a vicious stretch of foam and bubbles. Luiza steadies the video camera.

 

I ready to jump.

 

It’s not the fall that has us on edge—it’s the climb back out. Waves this big carry gusts of current stronger than any mortal can swim against—they fling you here and there just like the speck of weakness you are in the midst of raw power that it is. The jump requires good timing and strong swimming just to make it to the rocky shore.

 

And then the fun begins.

 

The jump -- not quite as scary from the photos
The jump — not quite as scary from the photos

The ladder out is a scrabble of rusted iron and tattered nylon rope, and it’s mounted to a shelf of volcanic rock more suited to lacerations, deep-tissue scarring, and chipped teeth than any sort of life saving.

 

And that’s exactly what I’m jumping into.

 

“Ready!” Andy’s shout rings in at a whisper over the wave.

 

“Don’t do it!” Luiza shrinks behind the camera.

 

Too late: The next wave crescendos its thunder as my foot launches from the platform, and for the moment, I’m suspended in a snapshot: the harsh glint of sun, the violent water and rock beneath, my silhouette’s flailing arms and legs frozen for a silent moment above.

 

Why?

 

Well, in case you aren’t aware, sometimes a man has to be little reckless, a little bit audacious, a little bit foolhardy and yes, a little bit foolish, for the sake of feeling a little bit masculine—particularly if his vacation has been spent with the girls and their shopping and photo-shoots and nail-painting. Guys need that fear and that risk and that moment of uncertainty, and quite possibly injury, boiling in their gut from time to time. Maybe girls need it to—but maybe for them it’s more like changing their hairstyle than throwing themselves off a cliff.

 

I think we thrive on risks. All of us. We shrivel when coddled, and we shrink when denied danger. It’s something primordial, perhaps, and something urgent wired into us.

 

Those waves are meant for surfing
Those waves are meant for surfing

Or maybe we just get a bit stupid sometimes.

 

What’s the truth? Was it a caveman frenzy letting itself lose there on Lembongan? Was it a day spent bouncing that motorbike over those roads that made me think, “Well, if this goes badly, at least I can’t be expected to drive back”? Was it that I wanted—or needed—to prove some warrior impulse to my little lady behind the lens? Was I just stupid?

 

I’m not sure.

 

But when we pulled up the spot—a risky little warung hung on the outskirts of the sleepy island with terrible roads—I knew I was going to do it. I came here expressly for this purpose. Inside the gate, a wiry fifteen-year-old with a starter mustache and a little English told me, “Sure, you jump—you swim strong no problem.” And then he stopped. “But maybe you want drink beer first?”

 

A practiced salesman: get your hands on their money before they jump to their death. But I was focused and already shimmying out of my sweaty T-shirt: “No thanks. The jump’s enough.”

 

He shrugged and sauntered back to the warung. I climbed the stairs to my destiny.

 

Andy readied the camera.

 

I stepped to the splintered edge.

 

And this is part of the charm of Nusa Ceningan, Lembongan’s bridge-connected brother—the opportunity to nearly kill yourself on a cliff. Yes, Bali has its neck-crunching waves over skin-rasping coral for the surf crowd, but mostly, you find placid cafés and stoic temples amid glowing rainbow colors and pleasant gamelan gongs. It’s a place where the most danger for the normal tourist is a jellyfish tingle or a half-domesticated monkey’s paw or overspending your credit limit. Bike tours even make you wear helmets.

 

But Lembongan can send you packing over roads built to blast a suspension, throw you into snorkel currents fitter for a dolphin than a human, and invite you to try your luck off a murderous cliff.

 

By now you might be curious about that snapshot—the one where I hang helpless over the crashing waves with my wife clicking photos and sister-in-law screaming with a hand over her mouth and the sun glaring down and my limbs are flailing in a crazy silhouette above it all.

 

Well, if you scroll through our photo roll, you’ll see a crazy guy plunging seaward, you’ll see his splash lost in the wave, and you’ll see his goofy saltwater grin when he finally re-surfaces and starts his freestyle struggle against the current, toward the shore.

 

Yes, I’m still here to write about it.

 

Lived to write about it
Lived to write about it

I’m still here after four such jumps, actually, because you can’t stop at one—not after feeling yourself spun every which way in the churning surf before popping back into the light, gasping for another breath in the bright sunshine of the tropic life. Not after plunging yourself into something much grander and much more uncontrollable than you may ever imagine.

 

Andy smiled and held my face in her soft hands as I climbed up from the ladder, feet and knees bleeding and hands scraped and bruised from the rocks. “I’m glad you liked it,” she told me. “But you scare me sometimes.”

 

_____

 

It’s Like Killing the Death Star

 

The alley is narrow, scarcely a meter wide. And it’s dark as the cosmos, save a spot of light bouncing between the tall gray walls. My engine speeds us on past the cracks and chunks and over dusty ruts. Too close to the wall! I jerk at the handles, but that overcorrects us dangerously toward the opposite side. Brakes! I barely get a foot down in time to keep from spilling.

 

Guiding us down that narrow lane in the Lembongan night reminded me of nothing more than Luke dropping into the Death Star trench for a final stab at that murderous station. Apparently, killing the Death Star is harder than it looks.

 

“Maybe I better walk,” Andy offers.

 

“Yeah,” I sigh. “Maybe that’s better.”

 

So much for my Jedi motorbike skills.

 

Indonesians make it look easy, you know—they’ll speed up and down these tiny, tall-walled lanes with crates of chickens and sacks of papayas and a handful of children to boot. Twelve-year-old girls with wet hair streaming from their morning showers will zip to and fro, back and forth, running the morning errands on the motorbike hair-dryer.

 

future motorbike all-stars
future motorbike all-stars

But me—well, you already got a glimpse of that. With the thick dust and deep holes and imposing borders, my motorbike trips down our hotel’s alley seem more like a galactic quest to save the universe.

 

That’s the difference between me and the locals, though: Indonesians can ride three deep easily enough—or four, or five, if babies are involved. These guys grow up on motorbikes. They drive them up steep mountain passes and around the harrowing edges of cliffs. They stack infants in their arms and on their bikes and speed off into traffic. They squeeze eight in a lane fit for a Mini Cooper and cruise on stoically ahead, as if the narrow streets were meant to hold so many of them, as it that scooter were an extension of themselves, as if lost in the effortless moment of using the force.

 

Yes, Indonesians make motorbikes look easy.

 

And they are easy, I guess, if you’re alone. But toss a couple of beach-crazy Romanians on the back, and it’s a different story: “Look bird!” one shouts. “Look palm tree!” “Look waves!” and they swivel and shift and keep me wobbling and twisting. On smooth roads, that would be a challenge, but Lembongan specializes in off-road madness: potholes big enough to sink a house in, jagged bricks jutting like fingers of the pavement, entire globs of the road chomped out by some strange species of pavement-chewing lizards. Lembongan has it all.

 

And the citified scooter we rented for these roads was… well, like taking a lapdog out for a duck hunt: a lot of anxious moments when that poor guy gets in over his head.

 

In my defense, though, a motorbike was never in the plan. The original idea, when Andy and I planned, was to grab some bicycles and pedal down to some of the dreamy beaches. But Luiza strolled in and cut that idea in two with her glowing light saber of revelation.

 

The farm scene--nice, but not quite the beaches we were hoping for
The farm scene–nice, but not quite the beaches we were hoping for

“No,” she snaps at the shiny red ten-speed, complete with a basket and horn. “I haven’t ridden a bike since I was ten. That was in Grandma’s village.” She is wide-eyed and adamant.

 

“C’mon,” Andy coaxes. “It’s not that hard.”

 

“We can walk them up the hills,” I add.

 

“No.” Luiza crosses her arms. “I’m scared. I don’t like it.”

 

The owner—a middle-aged lady with a giant turban and a worried smile—struggles to understand our conversation.

 

“I’ll stay here,” Luiza sighs.

 

“At the seaweed farm? No—we didn’t bring you here to see seaweed.”

 

I guess we’d have to ride three-deep on a motorbike: my turn to be the hero. Gulp.

 

Hip Cafes
Hip cafe with a nifty view

I struggle and stumble along at speeds close to walking, while those twelve-year-old locals dance their bikes in and out of the treacherous pitfalls with adroitness normally seen only in violin prodigies and F-1 drivers. Bicycles pass us. I scrape our flip-flopped feet over curbs and roadside plants. Our engine whines up and over beachside tors, barely reaching the stunning peak before plunging into the tortuous path winding back down.

 

When we finally reach the famed beaches we’d come for, the sun is high in the island sky and the dust baking underfoot. The girls scamper off, giggling in the tropic breeze and floating palm leaves.

 

Me? I collapse in the dust of the parking lot.

 

But wait—that’s not quite true: it isn’t quite the giggling and scampering I made it out to be. It’s more like trudging and groaning, because the beach is hidden. It lies behind a trek through weeds and reeds, rocks and roots and crumbling dirt path, construction sites and jagged cliffs lining rocky inlets.

 

With a little determination and a few dusty scrapes, though, the beach reveals itself: sands spread as smooth as velvet and golden as sunsets, waves lap lightly in playful foam, and reefs burst fireworks of color and life just a dozen meters out. The water is as clear as a swimming pool and probably quite cleaner.

 

And the best part: since no one else wanted to make the trek, we have it to ourselves.

 

Then, of course, come the giggles and scampers.

 

A beach to ourselves
A beach to ourselves

That’s something of the story of Lembongan, though—it ain’t easy to get to, like, say Kuta or Legian or Sanur. It takes some scrapes and some bouncing—both in the boat and on the bike. You may have to scramble over rocks and down some rutted trails in your flip-flops. But when you do, you’re likely to find a beach free of trash and stray dogs. You’re not going to be hassled to buy trinkets or massages. You’re able to swim out to the surfing swells or snorkel to you’re heart’s contentment right there. When you need a break, step back to a warung where an old man can carve up a giant coconut—from his very own garden—for you to sip.

 

Yes, it’s a step off the beaten path, but that path isn’t too far away either: Lembongan’s seafront is already lined with hostels and nifty cafes. They’re clean and a bit hip, small and not likely to take credit cards. More are coming, though, and more are growing bigger. Some even have wi-fi.

 

But… the vibe is different. It’s something in the aura of the place, even before you step from the boat: something about the air smelling fresher and the seas feeling cooler and the locals not being convinced that the Balinese habit of pandering to tourist whims is the best way to live.

 

The monster machine
The monster machine

They’re still deciding between seaweed and tourists.

 

After capping the morning with a sunny lunch of salads and fruits, we set out for more—more bouncing and more bumbling and more of those dreamy beaches at the end of the rocky rainbows.

 

Eventually we find ourselves clacking across a rickety old suspension bridge, onto an even bumpier set of roads on the little-brother island of Ceningan. We wind our way past bamboo-and-thatch pavilions full of locals content to smoke and chat and never do anything at all about the Jurassic road conditions.

 

My chattering teeth and bouncing digestion want to curse their laziness and tell them to get to work and patch their pavement. But then, in a cinematic blaze of blue, the ghost of Thoreau hovers beside the bike, his bearded wisdom drowning out the chattering drones at my back, and inquires, in a voice of disembodied authority, what they would gain from sweating for better roads? Money? Stress? Swarms of picky brats like you ready to shell out sweaty bills and treat them like second-class servants on their own island?

 

No, I decide, let them smile their homely smiles and chat their indolent chats in the waning daylight. Let them leave their roads to crumble into oblivion. I’ll be gone in a few a days, but if these Lembonganians can live in smiles and free time with their rough roads, why not let them?

 

Another sunset, courtesy of that motorbike
Another sunset, courtesy of that motorbike

______

 

Ketut’s Change of Business

 

“Here. Here. And one more over there.” Mr. Ketut’s round finger points to three weedy lots at the back of his ocean-view bungalows. “I’ll put them in when I can get a little more money.”

 

I nod and follow his palm around the panorama to the wide sweep of sea. We’re at the wooden tables scattered through the shade between Ketut’s existing bungalows, waiting on breakfast to be served.

 

In the turquoise before us, the forest-green patches of sea-weed gardens dot the seascape. Low boats poled by men wet from the surf and covered from the sun drift in and out of the plots. The tide is out, and a dozen others stand waist-deep in the warm bay, lifting the harvested crops up to the waiting mini-barges.

 

“Do you still farm,” I asked him, “the seaweed out there?”

 

Seaweed harvest
Seaweed harvest

Ketut shakes his head. “No. Not for several years. Now I own the bungalows.”

 

He doesn’t say it, but I guess that he’s sold any rights he had to these fields. His English is good, his sense of polite responsibility intact, and years ago he learned that with a few simple, clean huts along the beach, he can earn more than wading into the salty currents each low-tide, plucking the spongy, plasticy, rubbery antlers of seaweed.

 

The locals get something like eighty cents for a kilo of the stuff, dried and cut and tied. They sell it to a distributor on the next island, who in turn peddles it to a guy on Bali, who ships it off to France and Britain, the States and Canada and Japan, to fill out the fibery springs of cosmetic creams, and round out the flavor in Asian chips and seasoning. It’s a strange product, but the staple of Lembongan’s economy for more than a generation.

 

But times are changing.

 

Ketut's new cash-cow
Ketut’s cash-cows

Ketut’s harvest now comes in at the tourist season, and the market price for a night’s stay in his bungalow rings up less than that of a dinner for a two at Applebee’s back home. Eventually, as he indicated, he wants to grow.

 

“But for now,” he says, “I’ll go and get your breakfast.”

 

Ketut is the Lembongan of change. Though the beach before us still farms the precious seaweed, the land-borne side of the beach clear around the harbor is now a solid wall of café’s, hotels, dive shops, and warungs. Further around, the pricier lodgings are stacked up the steep hillsides, or nestled along the cliff on the next beach over. By mid-morning, the turquoise sweep before us will be brimming with surfers catching the three separate breaks spilling across the wide bay, and day-trip pleasure cruises from Bali will anchor and ferry tourists ashore, feed them buffets, and sell them time on jet-skis, banana-boats, and the ever-growing water-pump levitation shoes.

 

A fifteen-minute stroll down the beach will land you in the middle of that scene. Three minutes in the other direction will have you in the gaggle of old women picking up the bits of seaweed washed ashore and laying them carefully out to dry in their blankets in the sun. Ketut’s place lies at the undefined border between the two worlds of Lembongan.

 

Flipping from farming to tourism
Flipping from farming to tourism

 

His relatives live near—his cousin Mah-dey will captain our tiny boat for a snorkel tour; his friend, also named Mah-dey, has set up shop, as a masseuse, in a hut in the corner of the property; his extended family run reception and housekeeping and kitchen. Ketut’s bungalows bring income for them all. But it means more time manning the lazy waits between guests, less time in the sun and the waves of the farm.

 

But before I can finish weighing the advantages of each, before I can finish weighing the impact of my own visit to the island, before I can finish wondering about the future of Lembongan, Ketut returns with a thick omelet and very buttery toast. He bows and wishes me a pleasant stay.

 

_____

 

Life within the Current

 

Here fishy fishy...
Here fishy fishy…

Luiza is wide-eyed and clawing for something, for anything to hold on to. The water is climbing toward her face, and her muffled screams spill out across the morning air. I reached up to pry her last fingers from the boat and pull her into the sea.

 

It’s not supposed to be like this. Actually, it’s supposed to be bliss—sunshine and color and the soft lifts and dips of the magic waves on your surrendered body. It’s supposed to be a gentle perusing of a vibrant universe unseen, a wondrous dimension all around us, yet completely inaccessible, except with the miracle of the plastic mask and goggles.

 

OK, I admit it: I’m addicted to snorkeling.

 

I know the mask and fins have long marked the comedic caricature of the vacationing buffoon, but I can’t get enough of the simplicity and the wonder of it. You don’t need expensive equipment and divemasters and launches full of other customers. There’s no heavy scuba gear to lug around, no science to bother yourself with. You just fit the mask to your face, the fins to your feet, and you go. You swim and you explore where you like. And the vistas are more glorious than I ever imagined.

 

Views under the waves
Views under the waves

It’s cheap and easy, and in this simple act, a world you never suspected materializes before your eyes. What you thought was a simple blue plain of lolling ocean is, when you lay facedown in it, a galaxy of life and beauty and glory; it’s violence and wonder and danger in each new reef and every species clawing for a few more moments of life in a cutthroat ecosystem of wonder.

 

Like I said, it’s supposed to be bliss.

 

But Captain Mah-dey has other plans.

 

Coral variety below the boat
Coral variety below the boat

You wouldn’t suspect it of him, this unassuming ox of a man. His shoulders are broad and sinewy from a lifetime of fighting tides, and his gaze complacent and wise—a habit of deep thought and little talk from long, lone hours in the boat, squinting across the waves that house so much life so unseen so close beneath his feet. He sits in the stern, calm and deep as a mountain lake.

 

We never suspected when we chartered his boat that he would cruise us out the narrow gorge between two fierce islands and throw us into the swirling current, and then laugh maniacally at our struggles to survive.

 

Luiza fighting the current
Luiza fighting the current

It was probably an honest mistake. He probably didn’t realize we were just normal tourists and not X-men mutants with supernatural swimming propensities.

 

Here are the facts: by the time he cuts the engine alongside that sheer cliff and tells us to jump, saying that he will pick us up downstream, we are already eight hundred meters downstream and spinning in a current quite akin to a vortex.

 

I trust him. I jump.

 

I should know better.

 

What ensues is a melee of fins and bubbles and gasps. I cling to the outrigger, fighting like mad to stay on the side that isn’t about to get smashed against the rocks. Andy tries to jump over, but Mah-dey isn’t around to assist her descent—he’s back in the stern wrestling the motor wildly to keep us off the rocks. By the time Andy splashes in, we are nothing more than streamers on the back of the boat, drifting in the mad current.

 

Luiza, who has never swum in her life, whom we have coaxed along with promises of the tranquil wonderland beneath, is wide-eyed and panicking in her life jacket and snorkel mask. She squeals like a stuck pig in her snorkel gear, and as I reach to take her hand and help her down the ladder, she wigs out.

 

Lots of fishies too
Lots of fishies too

By that I mean she bear-hugs the rail and scrambles her bony legs to bruises on the ladder, flailing her awkward, ill-fitted fins in the churning water. She tries her best to scream, but it comes out the snorkel pipe in gurgles and moans.

 

Andy is losing patience—“Come on, girl. You have a life jacket! We’ll hold your hand. Just let go!”

 

Still Luiza flails helplessly, still clinging to the boat as Captain Mah-dey fights wildly with the outboard in the back.

 

It suddenly strikes me as the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen in my life, but my belly laugh sucks a gallon of saltwater through the snorkel tube into my lungs. The ensuing fit of coughing and tears drowns out even the outboard motor, and it convinces Luiza that I am in my death throes and that she ought to freak out even more.

 

It isn’t quite the bliss we had pictured.

 

When we finally sort the mess out, Andy and I are snorkeling in tandem, trying to help each other not get smashed to pieces as the waves crash the volcanic cliff face. Luiza sticks to the ladder but does manage to get her face in the water a few moments. Mah-dey pilots her along.

 

But as violent and confusing as everything is above the water, beneath lies the silent dance of the aquactic, in hues and richness that above-water life can’t hold a candle to.   Fish brighter than any flower garden drift in and out the waves, fold themselves calmly into the arms of the myriad corals, and suddenly burst into a ray of arrow action at the slightest hint of danger. Varieties of soft coral sway in the currents, as if fields of cotton candy are strung in all popsicle colors across all the fields of Nebraska. Fish as long as my legs and meaty as a hogs come meandering by to gaze a moment with their sad, lonely eyes—eyes big and black as eight-balls, eyes ancient in their wide view of the dancing colors of their ancient world.

 

That’s the wonderland. That’s what you’re supposed to see.

 

Addicted to the snorkel scene
Addicted to the snorkel scene

And the strange marriage of rip-tide current and coral-garden peace is something cool and something unique to Lembongan. Yes, there are tons of other sites—both dive and snorkel—ringing the island’s map in a confusing litany of attractions. Yes, many are the calmer, gentler variety that would have much better suited Luiza’s foray into the snorkel realm. But part of the charm of this particular island lies in having surf breaks rad enough to gather the ‘boarders round, but reefs lively enough to keep beaches buzzing in the tube-and-fin hallmarks of the snorkelers.

 

Lembongan’s got it all.

 

But back to our harrowing voyage with the fearless Captain Mah-dey: Eventually Andy and I learn to drift—in with the wave and out with the return suck. We follow the fishes beneath to keep the equilibrium—away from busted bones at the wall and the lost-at-sea cries to Captain Mah-dey of the channel’s current.

 

By the time we climb back aboard, Mah-dey looks twenty years older, Luiza is threatening to murder us, and Andy and I are somewhere between beaming in joy and wiping our brows in relief. It is some of the most exhilarating and reckless snorkeling we’d even seen.

 

And we still have two more stops to go.

 

Epilogue: Luiza did manage to finally forgive us for throwing her into those currents for her first time out, and she did manage to “swim” a bit more successfully at the calmer stops—albeit never releasing that poor ladder from her grip.

 

Saying goodbye to Lombongan landscapes
Saying goodbye to Lembongan landscapes

 

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