“Don’t you ever get lonely traveling like this all by yourself?” “How do you handle being all by yourself?” “I need someone to travel with. I don’t know how you manage to be alone all the time.” “Do you actually like to be alone?” “Were you always like this?” These are some of the most frequently asked questions faced by solo travelers. Being lonely is one of the biggest challenges of human beings and not everybody can be happy in their own company. Despite being a solo traveler for more than a decade, I have had my share of struggling with loneliness and learning to be comfortable in my own company was not easy. I remember there was a point in my life when I disliked being alone so much, that every evening after work or on weekends, I felt compelled to go out and be with friends or acquaintances until sheer exhaustion forced me to go home. When I started going on longer missions and staying away from home for longer periods, my abhorrence to solitude caused a lot of problems and I struggled with insomnia, depression, and the likes. In such a scenario, my first Iran trip taught me to be by myself and a long hospitalization in Singapore made me learn to handle solitude better. Still, I faced problems in being comfortable with my own company and at times craved for the comforting presence of another human being. My trip to Lombok happened at that juncture and it was a tough learning experience for me.
Where is Lombok, the “unspoilt Bali” of Indonesia?
Laidback Lombok was my first mission station in Indonesia. I flew there from Bali and it was a distinctly different place from the much famous, glitzier neighbouring island. Lombok was larger, quieter, easier paced and much less crowded than its Hindu neighbour. Part of the West Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia, it is often referred to as “an unspoilt Bali” and I personally find this comparison to be very apt. Separated from Bali by the thin Lombok Strait and from Sumbawa island by Alas Strait, Lombok is delightfully pristine. A fairly large island, it is what tropical dreams are made of and also has the gorgeous Gili islands surrounding it like a necklace. Famous for dazzling white sand beaches, stunning tropical hikes, and the looming Mount/Gunung Rinjani, Lombok is a popular base for those wanting to explore Flores and Komodo islands by boat. Surfers throng to Lombok by hordes and its awesome surf breaks around Kuta makes it a world-class surfing destination.
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A world apart from its next-door neighbour, Bali
My first impression of Indonesia was of the Denpasar Airport in Bali, where I arrived from India. It was like any other airport of a popular global destination. The crowded, humming place was filled with taxi drivers, hotel touts, scantily dressed tourists, and airport staff. A sweet, sticky tropical breeze blew languorously through Denpasar and everybody seemed to be in a holiday mood. That impression stayed with me until my Garuda airlines flight dropped me off at Lombok International Airport. There, a very different scene met my eyes. I immediately knew that I was away from the touristy part of Indonesia. A smaller, quiet aerodrome, Lombok airport was strangely deserted at the time of my arrival. It was in the middle of the Ramadan month and a strange lull seemed to have overpowered the island. Only a few traditional Muslim men in sarongs loitered around the arrival hall and their ladies in burqas grouped together outside in the shade. Everybody seemed to move slowly, speak softly and even their children were a sedate bunch. Little girls in bright headscarves played quietly with their dolls, while the boys in skull caps and sarongs sat silently next to their mothers.
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My first impressions of Lombok
That first sight clearly gave away the religious mindset of Lombok and the drive from the airport was also very different from Bali’s car-choked streets. Lush paddy fields stretched endlessly along the main road and skinny palm trees silhouetted against a cloud-filled sky. Bright golden sunshine lit up everything in a pleasant halo of light and the broad street was empty. Onion domed mosques peeped from everywhere and Lombok looked very clean and untouched. Upon first arriving at Lombok, I stayed at Mataram for a few weeks. Mataram is the largest city of this island and it is a bustling, uncouthly developing town. After my initial stay at a hotel there, I eventually shifted to a small cottage on the flower-filled slopes of Sengiggi. Mataram, being the capital of Lombok, had the island’s only malls, and there were lots of restaurants, cafes, government buildings, and busy local life. Traffic flowed thickly through its streets and warungs (roadside eateries) served hungry diners day and night. Sengiggi in comparison was more peaceful and it hardly had any of Mataram’s local charms. It spread in a strange ribbon-like manner along the slopes of lush hills and was a tourism centric town. Though, ill-defined by urban standards, Sengiggi had charming pockets of tranquil kampungs (villages), bays, coves, forested winding patches amidst hotels, resorts, beach cottages, and occasional shopping areas.
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Experiencing Ramadan at a far-flung Indonesian island
My best memories of Lombok are of the magical aura of its Ramadan celebrations in Mataram. The hushed fasting, the tangible anticipation of the evening and the post-sunset explosion of life: experiencing Ramadan in Mataram was a very interesting experience. I remember Mataram’s hauntingly empty streets in the afternoons. They used to be so unnervingly quiet that I often looked out of the window for any sight of movement or life. However, the heat coupled with the Ramadan fasting kept everyone indoors and there were moments when I was sure that I would be able to hear a pin drop. During my stay there, I developed the funny body clock faculty with which I could somehow foretell the time without looking at the watch. It started one day when I guessed the time by hearing murmurs of daily life on the streets of Mataram. Lombok was slowly starting to come alive and I guessed that it must be around 4 in the evening when people are going out to shop for last-minute breakfast items. It turned out to be true and after that, I could sense the time by listening intently to the rapidity of the motions of daily life.
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The simplicity of Ramadan celebrations in Lombok
Every day during Ramadan, the entire island of Lombok exploded with life around 4 in the evening. Warungs sprung up at every corner and all kinds of food prep started at a frenetic pace. Vegetables, meat, seafood, and herbs got chopped, diced, fried, smoked, baked as people started counting the last few minutes of fasting by grouping together for gossip, flirting or zipping around the streets on their motorcycles. Finally, the muezzin prayer calls were ensued by a hushed silence after which the whole city would burst out with joy. Celebration greetings, happy communal dinners, and fireworks filled Mataram evenings and those were my favourite moments of people watching in the capital city of Lombok.
Desperately lonely times in Sengiggi
After shifting to my cottage in Sengiggi, I found myself missing Mataram a lot. My Sengiggi days were spent pretty much by myself. At that time, I was learning to deal with solitude and loneliness in a constructive way and Sengiggi turned out to be a tough taskmaster. While my days were spent with my colleagues, I found my evenings to be extremely lonesome and I absolutely hate eating alone. That is why, I frequented the mediocre, but famously expensive Bumbu Cafe which was right across my accommodation and ended up spending more than I could afford. Sengiggi being a touristy town, the food found there were uninspiring and bland at best and I missed the delicious local grub served at the lively warungs of Mataram.
The feeling of being alone in a crowd
Ironically, despite the waves of tourists pouring into Sengiggi, I often struggled to pass my off duty times there. In those days, I had not yet learned to enjoy the lovely view from my balcony alone and was always restless in the evenings. I listened to my favourite songs in a loop, never quite really enjoying them and failed to read a book with a sundowner on my balcony. I remember watching many stunning sunsets from there, my mind taking in all the glorious beauty. Yet those beautiful moments did not quite touch me since I longed to have the presence of another human being to share them with. There was an emptiness inside me which caused a lot of restlessness and my nights were torturously long. I used to sleep very light, have many bouts of sleeplessness and struggled to pass the silent night. Sengiggi, at night, is silent and dead and the darkness is thick. With no distractions, I slowly trained myself to get accustomed to the sights and sounds of the night and spent my waking hours trying to decipher constellations in the sky. I started developing a sharp ear and soon could differentiate the sounds of various night animals of Lombok. Once, I even got lucky and saw the stupendous sight of a giant thunder cracking into the huge ocean below. Strangely enough, I felt less restless on a stormy night and slept better under the pealing rolls of thunder. It was this mind-numbing boredom which slowly drew me out of Sengiggi and I started exploring Lombok in parts.
Exploring Kuta in southern Lombok
My first foray beyond Mataram and Sengiggi was into Kuta and I fell in love with postcard-perfect beauty. Located in the southern part of Lombok, Kuta was not easy to reach. The roads in most parts, during those days, were in poor condition and one had to drive very slowly over the endless potholes. It was, however, a beautiful drive and I found the southern part of Lombok to be drier than the rest of the island. It was also considerably poorer and the area was riddled with illegal gold mines, rugged landscape, and a stunning long coastline. Tobacco fields, tangles of lush banana plantations and ramshackle hamlets bordered both sides of the dusty, pebbly road and I reached the Kuta village after a nearly 2 hours drive from Sengiggi.
The stunning white sand beach of Tanjung Aan
Considered to be a surfer’s den, Kuta was an extremely small village. It consisted of a handful of homes, which also doubled up as homestays, and there were a few rickety beach shops and stores. A sprinkling of nice restaurants and coffee shops completed the village and I left it after a quick lunch stop. The best part about Kuta is the Tanjung Aan Beach and it is a short drive away from the surfers’ village. In fact, the beach reveals itself gloriously to anyone who goes a bit further south from Kuta and the first sight is guaranteed to take the breath away. Resplendent with snow-white sand, crescent-shaped turquoise sapphire water, and endless blue sky, Tanjung Aan is what tropical dreams are made of and its broad span of clean sand was inviting.
My first lesson on coping with loneliness
Absolutely devoid of anybody else, the huge football-field-sized beach seemed like my private slice of paradise and I ran to the water like a happy child. The warm clean water was like an elixir of life and the pleasure was heightened by the complete solitude of the beach. There were no shouts, shrieks, prying eyes, or suspicious people lurking around the beach and for the first time, I started getting comfortable with solitude. I swam in the warm blue ocean for a long time that day and soaked up the bliss of being alone. The lapping waves made it impossible to get lonely and I did not once feel the need to share the moment with someone. That was a turning point in my life and I got glimpses of the joy of solitude. Although I continued to struggle with loneliness for many weeks, even after that wonderful day, I realized that I could fight the compulsion which made me seek the company of others. It was a big life lesson and just the realization that I could manage being alone and be even happy in that state changed my perspective of loneliness. Over the years, that special day paved the road to me being comfortable in my own company and that is why Lombok retains a special corner in my heart.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE