Big little things on a tropical island

Some observations made during my six weeks in Lombok, Indonesia, a tropical island – my first stay there.  I arrived at the end of August 2012 and left in the middle of October:

  • Lombok has about 4 m people on an area about the size of the Sydney wider metropolitan area
  • “villa’ is perhaps the most abused word in Lombok and Bali, especially when used in ads, the Web and promotion – don’t be confident of something out of Italy – such villas exist but until you enter the place cross your fingers and hope what you get matches your expectations, and that things work and, unlike most, it’s clean and there are no rats and so on . . .
  • at my villa the young groundsman’s wife had died of an infection in  her leg
  • two sisters in their twenties live in the one tiny room about 2m x 2m, he in another, all jammed together in a shed outside my villa
  • the sisters’ mother had gone to Saudie Arabia for work where her employer threw boiling water over her but she can’t escape and endures a brutal existence
  • a young child had died in the sisters’ family and another in the groundsman’s
  • the sisters earn about $60 Au a month and each has a scooter which costs $20 a month to pay off – it’s really a case of no bike, no job
  • On the beach in front of a café in Senggigi is a warung.  In this bamboo structure, both shop and home, about 3 metres square lives a man and his family who sell t shirts and local things.  He once owned all the land on which the small town of Senggigi is now built.  His story is the story of many traditional landowners in Lombok.  To finance their trip to Mecca – which they believe will guarantee them a place in heaven, or for some other transitory reason, they sell their land, often for very little money, to expats or in many cases to Chinese or Indonesian or overseas hotel businesses.  Much of Lombok’s coastal land is now owned by hotel chains which have either built hotels or are land-banking for future hotels.  Beads and mirrors and trinkets . . . it’s always been thus when locals get done over, whether in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, these United States of America, South America, the South Pacific . . . It takes some pleasure out of the air con when I turn it on in my villa, tho, or listen to the waves on the beach just over the wall.
  • some days when I sat for hours outside little shops in huts (warungs), and shops (cafes, hair salons, restaurants) in towns I did not see one customer buy a thing or walk by; it was like being an extra on a movie set with no cameras and no one to shout, “Action”, and, thankfully, no script!
  • Lombok has few tourists – it was the ‘off’ season which begins through September to around November
  • a word of mouth account from a local expat business person was that over the last ten years a business which has kept its building, menu and day to day affairs static during the period (no advertising, etc) had at the same time experienced a 40 per cent increase in business, and that trend was fairly common
  • most fittings and buildings – taps, footpaths (rare anyway), showers, roofs, walls, cars, light fittings, fans, floorboards, tiles, crockery, blinds, furniture and, of course, the roads, are cracked, or broken, leak, lack natural light and ventilation, have faulty water and electricity plumbing and wiring
  • every local, from road labourer to child to leather-skinned very old people, with the exception mostly of public officials, smiled with open warmth at me without hesitation and would say, ‘Good morning’ (in Bahasa that’s, ‘Salamat pagi pak”)
  • locals love it when you try to speak Bahasa and warm to you immediately
  • the lack of aggression and the ready courtesy  on the crowded roads was a continual delight and shows up the aggression that pervades Australian roads where drivers add avoidable stress and danger to western city living – I felt safe and relaxed on Lombok roads all the time and loved being on scooters among the locals
  • there may be a relationship between wealth and human warmth; the Lombokian is far warmer, more open than the wealthier people from where I come from, Australia, and far warmer than the self-obsessed tourists I saw in Lombok
  • the most broken things in Lombok were some of the wealthy expats some of whom do these things to the locals; under pay, exploit, buy their land, don’t pay Australian or local tax, build shonkily, overcharge their local compatriots, do things they couldn’t get away with in their home countries – they may be here because they didn’t get away with their behaviour back home so had to escape the law, they build buildings which discharge sewage to the creeks, oceans and groundwater, do not install solar hot water heating or solar electricity or rain water tanks, pump local wells empty for their tourist businesses, talk mostly about money and buying things  . . .
  • the government has been carting water to villages in the eastern area of the island for most of this year
  • water for the beautiful resorts on the tiny Gili islands is shipped over most days on water boats from wells on Lombok, several of which have run dry or turned saline; the water is used for pools, showers but only a couple of resorts recycle water and have rain tanks
  • over the last 20 years more than 400 wells have run dry in the most rained on part of the island – that’s 400 well-using villages or households that have lost their water in one catchment
  • mains water in some places only runs at night . . . and where that’s happening in enclaves of westerners there are still no rain tanks being installed there  . . . go figure
  • energy from oil drives much on the island and even now when prices are much the same as they’ve been for a while there’s an underlying edge to its availability:  recently, at the request of the fuel supplier, police escorts were given to tankers carrying fuel to the western and southern side of the island after two tankers were held up and their fuel stolen by locals – speculation in the Lombok Times was that the theft may have been by local tobacco farmers
  • I did not see one building designed to reduce the heat load (except the villa going green) by changing the colour of the roof or using good insulation; just painting the traditional red tile roofs with the heat reflective paint widely available in tropical countries would cut air con by over 40% – so, here are two useful places to begin your research if you’re interested in saving air con costs in the tropics and getting cooler buildings in summer and warmer ones in winter, or……
  • a confronting daily thing for me was to know my sewage and water waste and the garbage from my villa – my waste – was being discharged or thrown into the creek which runs beside the villa and this was accepted practice by the owners and managers, and is common
  • the many ex pats who don’t do these things set examples of attention to detail, respect and invest in local culture, skills and the economy.  And seem to have the most profitable, happy businesses and have beautiful villas, cafes and food
  • wells, dams and groundwater are emptying in both Lombok and Bali as ever more water is used to bath and spoil tourists and locals without replenishment by the changing weather and with no self-renewing water systems
  • most rainfall is wasted in both Lombok and Bali
  • Lombok is far, far poorer financially than Bali – poverty’s in the air
  • both Lombok and Bali depend for every aspect of their comfort on oil and presently, as one of the region’s major producers, Indonesia has plenty of it.


Overlaying all this are two larger truths about Indonesia.

Firstly, it’s economy is far stronger and is expected to have a higher turnover value than Australia’s soon. It’s wealth is consumption, not export, based. There are 35 m middle class people in its 240 m people compared to a total Australian population of 22 m .  It will rank higher in gross domestic product than the members of the OECD except Germany if things go on as they are.  Presently it has the second highest growth rate of the G20 members, after China, and its GDP is 16th in the world.

Most of that wealth, however, is confined to middle class pockets with the bulk of it held by the ruling politicians and the army.  Most people are poor and their daily life is tough, their lives often short and typically hard.

The physical poverty of Lombok is pervasive, insistent.  My memories of dusty feet, rubbish, face-wide smiles, genuine warmth and curiosity, gentleness, the call to prayer so beauteous in the dark, and the thin line between having no water, food or shelter and bare survival are deep in me now.  They tell me how fragile our existence is on Earth no matter our circumstances.

But things will not go on as they are falling apart.  Which brings me to the other larger truth.

Secondly, climate change seeps out of every well gone saline from over use, every groundwater pump run dry.  It has turned major dams into empty, cracked dry mud plains where boys fossick for crickets they sell for food, is killing the marine and land-born animals, insects, flora and fishes  and all that’s living.  For this catastrophe of disappearing water the media reports quote government agencies offering only three solutions; prayer, digging deeper wells and seeding clouds to make them rain.  If this is accurate the water future of those islands is bleak and getting bleaker.  I’m sure there are wonderful exceptions not reported.  But this ‘mainstream’ government response, different not at all in substance from Australia’s, is akin to a drug addict holding his hand out for more soporific delusions.

No matter the predictions being published in Indonesian papers about it’s bright economic future, climate change is overtaking and is collapsing its water, energy and soil resources.  Population growth is speeding up these trends; UN reports and others make this clear.

Climate change is the great leveller of these islands and the levelling is gaining momentum.  Out of sight is data on the real level of oil reserves in Indonesia.  Most data on oil reserves here, and in many other countries, lacks credibility and numerous energy sites on the Net explore the range of figures which may be accurate but they’re mostly well-informed guesses.

Whether its the lost predictability of the monsoon rains, the trade winds, the ocean currents that sustained fish populations, the decline of oil reserves . . . all that’s physical here is changing faster than the expats to whom climate change is irrelevant.  They, and the politicians and the military seem to see climate change as a Western problem not affecting folks who stake a claim in a poor country.  It’s as tho, without being believers, or even  knowing of the biblical legend of Adam and Eve, these folk think Earth’s going to be a nonstop Garden of Eden.

It will be difficult for the rich and the poor in Lombok and Bali when oil becomes expensive, very difficult.

And when growing food and paying for energy  turns harder, and surviving becomes more difficult, I would not like to be an expat here, whether I had been fair or unfair to the locals.

I’d rather compete for food in a country of 22 m people in Australia than with 240 m; we’ll be competing in the large island of Australia, too.  Australia’s resources are collapsing, too (as the reports above show), and are even more vulnerable to food shortages and high energy prices because we import most of our oil.  Climate change stalks every country now, it’s pace picking up with every freak weather moment, every failed crop, every food price rise.

The times of unaffordable energy and no food will be a “here’s a how-de-do” far more challenging than the dramas faced by the actors in the comic opera, The Mikado.  It won’t be a comic opera like that.  With the dramatically changing – worsening – weather and the declining energy reserve the harder life coming here for all from higher food and energy costs looks likely within the next five to ten years.  Predicting the weather is a fool’s errand but it happens daily in the media and we fly planes and sail boats on such.  Among  some specialist weather predictors the idea of collapse within a decade is feasible.

Good luck, then, investors, expats and middle classes in Lombok.

And big hug to the poor – you’ll soon have lots of company.

For all this, this one last thing; thanks, you spirits of travel,  for the opportunity to sit alone in an empty square in Senggigi with a Lombok coffee, to observe the quiet dignity of the Lombokian waiter or waitress who stands silently, patiently, looking out through the tropical blaze without prejudice to the distance, to listen to Lombokians whom I met in all circumstances and savour their immediate warmth and friendliness – these and other gifts may be treasured by the curious traveller who would get lucky to be there, and for those I’m grateful to you, Lombok  . . .  salamat malam. [Good evening.]

And, thank you, my friend, J,  for introducing me to this part of the world.



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  • Michael Mobbs

    Michael is a former Environmental Lawyer who is uniquely placed to consult in four main areas:

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