First days are the worst.
It is May 2017, and I have just landed in Denpasar, Bali after an early morning flight from Changi Airport. Because I was too much of a cheapskate to pay for an exorbitant early morning taxi all the way to the airport, I had spent the night (quite snugly) being a homeless person in the cosy couches of one of the world’s best air terminals.
And because I was simply too excited for this adventure to start, I’d caught very little sleep, whether at Changi, or on the flig ht south.
I am on that self-indulgent, narcissistic vacation that undergraduates who have recently completed their four years in the university seem to all feel entitled to these days. Not wanting to miss out, I had also jumped onto the Grad-Trip Bandwagon. Not wanting to be appear insufferably dull, however, I had elected to do my Grad-Trip solo: striking eastward from the Indonesian tourist purgatory that is Bali across the islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores, before heading south to Timor. My final destination was to be the southernmost inhabited island of Indonesia, PULAU ROTE.
It was a simple enough plan, right? Right. Except that i’d booked no accommodation, nor transport of any sort. I was going to figure it out as I went along, using only the trail a former ODAC teacher had left behind. Bob Dylan sang that his brash, youthful self stormed through life “using ideas as my map”; likewise, I was using a cloud atlas of dreams.
And this is why at 9.05am, I step blearily out of the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, bumped out by a horde of
white international tourists rabid for their #eatpraylove Voyages of Self-Discovery. Oh yes, I was looking for my own Voyage too, except mine would be operated on a far grubbier budget, and a thumping soundtrack managed only by whoever happened to be driving the minibus/ojek/ferry/angkot/shuttle I was on for that particular leg…and of course, i wasn’t a depressed white woman looking for love or Fulfilment. Not at this point in time anyway.
At 9.05am, I hop onto the Trans-Sarbagita public bus that will take me to the Batubulan Bus Terminal. The plan today is simple: get as far eastward as you can before night falls.
And then, after night falls, if you can find transport taking you even further eastward, then keep going. This was to be a campaign of relentless movement, at least until I’d reached the island of Flores (more on this magical, amazing place another time).
And so, here was the plan in my head, for you to follow:
Airport >>> [Public Bus] >>> Batubulan Bus Terminal >>> [Minibus] >>> Padangbai Harbour, Bali >>> [Ferry] >>> Lembar Harbour, Lombok >>> ….???
And so, I was headed on the Trans-Sarbagita Bus to the Bus Terminal, where I would hopefully be able to find a bus that would take me to the Padangbai Ferry Terminal. I was taking a bus to take a bus to catch a ferry, yes.
A peek at the rates advertised at the airport indicated that a direct taxi ride from the Airport to the Harbour would set me back by a princely sum of around Rp250,000 to 350,000, which works out to about 25-35SGD. This early in my journey, I was reluctant to throw so much money away. And so I spent forty cents instead of thirty dollars, taking the air-conditioned public bus.
But as I was to learn, what you save in money, you often end up trading for in time.
After giving me a very generous peek at the beautiful streets of Denpasar City, I am deposited 1.5 hours later at Batubulan Bus Terminal, a scruffy, semi-deserted concrete building drowsing in the mid-morning heat.
Batubulan Bus Terminal
In Bali, my experience has been that everyone is out to take a nibble, if not a bite, from you. If you are rich enough to come to Bali, the reasoning probably goes, you’re rich enough to pay tourist rates. And because so many Westerners are like Singaporeans on a weekend to Johor Baru or Bangkok, yelling HWAAAAA EVERYTHING HERE IS SO DAMN CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP due to the exchange rates and costs of living, tourist operators here think nothing of marking up the rates significantly.
Unless you’re a miserly backpacker like me, chances are you’ll fork out whatever that salivating tout is quoting you with his toothy grin.
Unfortunately, I was a miserly backpacker, and I wasn’t going to fork out whatever that salivating tout was quoting me with his toothy grin. They got to work fast. Almost before the bus had stopped, and we were getting out unsteadily, the bus operators were yelling out locations into our faces.
Ubud, Ubud, Ubud, they crowed, because usually that’s where the #eatpraylove horde went. I wanted to go to Padangbai, but the motley crew of passengers who’d dripped out of the public bus had either scurried off busily (if they were locals), or had been charmed by the most aggressive tout in the pack.
Batubulan was deserted.
In the end, weighing my limited options quickly, I decided not to wait. I had no intention of spending my first evening in Indonesia on this tourist island, mobbed by toothy grins and marked-up rates. There’s something about Bali that itches at my miser sixth-sense.
That kind of Edenic, Island-Paradise Fantasy with Island-Paradise Girls that party-goers and surferdudes from Europe and North America seem so obsessed by was, and is not, my idea of a fulfilling adventure or journey. And certainly not for the kind of extortionate prices advertised.
I nodded grudgingly to the toothy grin of a bus driver who was quoting me Rp 100,000 to Padangbai; later I would find out this was three times the going rate, despite the fact that he was making a detour to Ubud for another passenger, a Frenchman who was in Bali to learn surfing for the first time in his life. Well. You win some, you lose some. I like to think I was trading money for a little bit of time here…
In all, this ten-dollar journey, including the detour to Ubud, takes two hours. In this time, [as I review my notes from that day now], I realise that:
- By 11am, I haven’t eaten since an early breakfast at 4am.
- The little spirit-houses/shrines that adorn every Balinese residence resemble those of Thai buildings; then it strikes me that it isn’t really so surprising, seeing as the two traditions both share Hindu-/Buddhist heritages
- Terrifyingly, my driver nearly nods off several times, and I pass him a sweet to munch on
- I am worrying and worrying so much that I will miss the ferry to Lombok that I find it very hard to relax. It is the first time I have ever been so laissez-faire in my solo journeying, and I am still not used to riding the uncertainty.
Finally, the buzzing growl of the minibus dies away, and the driver slows, amidst an avenue of shops.
There, he points past his windscreen into the distance, the harbour’s just in front. At the edges of my vision, just outside the vehicle, the local touts have detected fresh meat. Already one sees them approaching. You can hear their barks, demanding to know where you want to go.
I waddle out of the minibus, blinking in the early noon glare. The Balinese sun is fierce, even at this hour. I wish him a forlorn selamat jalan, and he nods, grunts, and drives off.
I am at Padangbai Harbour, and the touts are already yelling at me.
Eventually, at Padangbai Harbour, I will finally eat lunch, and find a way to travel to the Lombok city of Mataram.
For the uninitiated:
- Lombok’s the island immediately to the east (the right-side, on a standard map) of wonderful, touristy Bali
- You can buy bus tickets to Lombok. What happens is then that you get on the bus, the bus gets on the ferry, you can get off the bus and wander around the ferry, and the ferry drives eastward five hours to Lombok, then you get back on the ferry, the bus drives off the ferry, and continues on its way. This is quite a standard mode of travel on the islands of the Nusa Tenggara Province. To a Singaporean whose idea of “ferry rides” involved adventures to Batam, Bintan, Pulau Ubin or the dreaded Pulau Tekong, this was an amazing and exciting thing to do. Everyone else around me casually got on like they did this everyday (which they probably did).
- Lembar Harbour is where you get off from the ferry in Lombok.
- The city of Mataram is the provincial capital of the province of West Nusa Tenggara, and also functions as the administrative, cultural and commercial hub of the island.
- Yes, Lombok is the island where, Gunung Rinjani that great mighty volcano that’s increasingly
infestedvisited by Singaporeans, is located.
And so my (re-)introduction to Padangbai Harbour begins with an intense, soul-searching deliberation on how to best proceed:
- Just buy a ferry ticket, don’t think so much. Think later when you get off at Lembar.
- Buy a bus ticket that will take you direct to Mataram, no need to fuss or
- [most exciting and crazy of all] Hitch a ride with container-truck drivers who will drive you immediately now all the way not just to Lombok, but even further east, until the island of Sumbawa.
Guess which option i took?
Ok, you may think cos I bolded the letters, that I took option 3, but you are wrong, my friend, because while I may be a solo backpacker, I am not that crazy yet.
Yea, yea, yea. You know what the Pinterest and the Instagram posts will tell you. Take the road less travelled, choose the choice that will make for the best story, take the path that will scare you most.
This can be irresponsible advice.
And so here’s my advice(s) to all would-be solo backpackers in search of a story, in search of a solo trip: start small. Trust your gut. And/but most importantly?
Be content knowing that you don’t always have to be choosing the craziest option. Don’t beat yourself up thinking “I should have done this”, “I’m not being cool enough”.
Let us not forget: you were brave and resourceful and crazy and bold enough to strike out like that already. Whilst solo on the open road, the aim is not to go home with some stupid story to tell. The stupid, crazy stories will come, will fill up gradually. The great affair is to go, after all. Anything else is turned unnecessarily outward, anchored too deeply in what others out there will say.
So: trust your gut, and be content.
The man who had suggested I hitch a ride with container-truck drivers who will drive you immediately now all the way not just to Lombok, but even further east, until the island of Sumbawa was a tout. He was too eager and insistent. He kept pulling me over to see the trucks, to see the space I would sleep in, to make me climb the drivers’ cabin so I could see. He kept smiling and asking, “OKAY? OKAY? OKAY NOW YOU PAY??”
Be wary of people who keep asking you if you will pay now now now now now.
And besides, the poor container-truck drivers, who had poked their heads out wearily to look at me at the sound of my approach, had seemed less than willing to take me on. They had the air of the put-upon. I don’t think they would even have been paid very much for being forced to share a cabin with this strange new dude with his big yellow backpack.
I smiled and said, it’s okay.
Then i decided on Option (2): buy a bus ticket all the way to Mataram, and climbed on the bus uncertainly, after a hurried lunch at one of the Harbour’s little warungs.
After scarfing down lunch ravenously, I scurry back onto the bus, which is already laden with its cargo of indolent passengers. There are two ladies in hijabs with huge, 70-litre backpacks at the back of the bus. Later, they tell me that they are going to climb Rinjani from the Sembalun side.
The bus drives up the ferry. No, I’m not exaggerating. Look:
And we all walk up into the ferry, scrambling to find the most comfortable spots for the five-hour journey from Bali to Lombok, across the Lombok Straits, across the Wallace Line.
At 2.20pm, just 5 hours after I stepped out of the airport, with a beating, beating roar, the eastbound ferry for Lombok edges out of the Padangbai Harbour. I did not realize it at the time, but this 5-hour ferry crossing would only be the start of my acquaintance with many, many other ferries.
Many things happened on the ferry, and nothing happened too. But my opening line of this loooong post had been:
“First days are the worst”
And on the eastbound Ferry to Lombok, bored and left completely to my own thoughts, this was what struck me. First days are indeed the worst. It was the first time I’d travelled solo in a year, and transiting from near-complete sociality to near-complete isolation, even with a book to distract me, can be a very uncomfortable experience.
The Folly of First Days
Yeah, yeah, travelling solo has its own romance. That’s why I do it too. But travelling solo, as its label suggests, can and is incredibly lonely at times too. First Days are the worst, as the foolish vain traveller transits from being embedded in a warm, complex network of interdependence, of friends and family, to one of (seemingly) complete solitude, self-sufficiency and strangers, in a land where you don’t even speak the language.
On the five-hour ferry from Bali to Lombok, I must have witnessed the most spectacular sunset of my life, a brilliant, swirling corona that was first apricot, then fierce vermilion-saffron, then grand rose-crimson. It was as if some terrific celestial symphony had rendered itself visually in the heavens, an aurora unfurling in registers of firelight. Yes, you think I’m being poetic and dramatic…now look:
And yet, whilst all that celestial drama was taking place over my head, whilst the greatest show on earth played itself out, almost like a warm, beautiful welcome to this wide-eyed wanderer, all I could feel was a terrible lonelinesss.
Bruised from a whole day of fighting off touts yelling at me in half-English, and yelling back in half-Bahasa Indonesia, I was wracked by the (apparently) complete isolation of my situation, bobbing quite literally in the open blue ocean. Wallowing in a confused, embryonic mixture of fear, anxiety, despair, self-pity and homesickness (and missing J more than a little), I felt at that moment like the strangest stranger in a strange land. And so, vain “adventurer” and potential solo backpacker beware: First Days are the worst.
But after the First Days come the Second Days, the Third Days; the weeks ahead.
First Days First
First, you must be bathed in that amniotic, birth-fluid of fear and anxiety and despair of the utter unknown. Understand: this is part of the process, when one strives to strike out alone. To exult completely in the cleansing exhilaration of solitude, one first has to be pulled at by self-doubt, by uncertainty, by the unbearable ache of longing.
First days are the Worst.
But at 7.25pm on 12 May 2017, having broken past the strangling reach of Bali, as the Ferry finally edges into Lembar Harbour, I am about to discover that First Nights can actually be a little more scary.