Kretek smoke filled the air, as my husband and the guesthouse owner in Nusa Lembongan shared a couple of cigarettes. I tried not to make a face. I don’t smoke (or drink), and while that’s good for the health, it’s admittedly not so good for getting people to chill with you.
We were chilling in the tiny lobby of the guesthouse on this island, about 45 minutes by boat from Bali, as we waited for our food delivery. We had ordered take-out food after our plans to dine at a seaside café was thwarted by a fall from a motorbike earlier. Nusa Lembongan’s narrow streets are awfully sandy, and it’s easy to skid – and so, we did. A sprained foot made walking difficult, and we were about to resort to Pop Mie in a cup for dinner when the owner offered to call out for food delivery.
Food ordered, we settle down for a chat (and more cigarettes).
He told us that he had never left Indonesia. Bali, a 45-minute boat ride away from tiny Nusa Lembongan, was the furthest he had ever travelled.
“Bali-Lembongan-Bali-Lembongan,” he said.
Wow. But then again, I don’t think that that’s unusual. It just feels like it because we are constantly besieged by travel images on social media.
Maybe I was surprised because he seems such a worldly guy, and open to people. That’s what travel is supposed to do, right? At least, that’s what we are told. He told us that he grew up in a seaweed farming family when seaweed farming was the main livelihood for the people of this island.
But gradually, as more money was to be made from tourism and as seaweed farming faded, he moved into this business. He worked for foreign-owned restaurants and bars while his wife ran a small homestay on this piece of land owned by his family. His wife’s business grew, and he left his job to set up this guesthouse with her. Now, they run it as a family, and it’s rarely ever empty.
It has a good reputation among foreigners.
If we are to compare it with the swish AirBNBs where we stayed in Canggu and Sanur, it wasn’t half as sleek. The facilities are more worn, less sleek and the design didn’t have that professional ID feel. None of that mattered to us, and in fact, that was what we liked. Not because it was less polished or more worn, but because we could see that it was made by a local with the best knowledge and ability that he had, run by locals, and benefited the locals.
That made us happy because tourism wasn’t by-passing the locals. It honestly felt like that to us when we were out and about in Bali the week before. Probably it was our fault because we stayed in AirBNBs owned by foreigners, and ate mostly in restaurants that also appeared to be owned by foreigners. These were the most convenient ones, and honestly, we chose convenience over authenticity because we were on holiday. Farm work and writing work throughout the year had left me so exhausted that I didn’t want to make any extra effort when on holiday. I felt a little dismayed (and ashamed), and maybe that’s because it also came close to home for us.
Ba’ Kelalan is a little bit touristy as well although nowhere near as touristy as Bali, of course. But tourists do come, and they stay in homestays, hire locals as guides and drivers, and do some tourist stuff. Tourism has brought some economic benefits, for sure, but it isn’t perfect, by any means. The tourist income distribution is very unequal, with only a few getting a lion’s share of it. Sometimes, that creates resentment especially among people who feel that they had contributed towards maintaining the beauty of the place that draws tourists – but the income flows in another direction to those who perhaps may not have contributed as much to activities that enhance its beauty. This is something to think about. We aren’t in this business, and don’t have many strong feelings about it. But what if Ba’ Kelalan’s tourist facilities are owned by outsiders or foreigners, and locals are merely hired as service staff or to put it crudely, servants? That would be devastating. It’s something that hasn’t happened, and I hope it never will.
Anyhow, that was why I sometimes feel that tourism isn’t the best economic model for a community which is lucky enough to live in a beauty spot.
But this guesthouse owner, with all his work paying off with a nearly full guesthouse almost every night, it showed me that it can be done.
I suddenly felt happier as we chatted with him that evening, as the sun set and lights yet to come on. He told us his story, simply, without feeling sorry for himself or boasting. It was a story that made me feel a little hopeful, it made me cherish the lobby’s clumsy bamboo lampshades that looked handmade but far from master craftsman standard. The breakfast of overcooked sausages and eggs made me happy too, not because it was delicious. It actually wasn’t but it reminded me of the many Malaysian ‘Western’ breakfasts that I’ve had; it told me the story of a cook who have had some exposure to Western meals but not access to gourmet ingredients or knowledge of culinary techniques. It told me the story of someone who is trying, and may someday get there. And that’s why I never sneer at such breakfasts; it tells me of grit and a willingness to try.
It also reminded of a story of an acquaintance who had first learnt about fish and chips from an English guest in his backpacker’s hostel in Terengganu. He had no idea how to make it but gamely attempted to. He offered up fried kembung (a whole fish!) and fries. Today, he owns a fine boutique guesthouse, and yes, he has learnt how to make proper fish and chips.