Medan to Lombok; In which my luggage makes it to Borneo before I do

Sumatra hadn’t been kind to us. Misfortune had followed us closely, but I hoped that after jellyfish stings, broken computers, Sheryl’s hospitalization and an earthquake, the run of bad luck might be broken when we left. Alas, it wasn’t to be. The flights to Jakarta and from Jakarta to Mataram on the island of Lombok were both uneventful, but my pack never arrived. Sheryl’s showed up, but not mine. Mataram’s airport is tiny and it would have been impossible to overlook my pack if it had made it there.

I tried to stay calm - losing your temper scores no points anywhere in Asia - but I was really worried. It’s not that there’s anything valuable in my pack - the computer and my camera always go in my carry-on - but that pack contains my whole life. And even though there’s nothing in it that anyone would want to steal, there are things like medicine, my tent, and hiking shoes that would be too expensive to replace. Even small things like clothes and toiletries add up. The pack itself wasn’t cheap, when I bought it years ago. If it was lost I’d have some tough decisions to make about how - or if - I’d continue to travel. Of course I’d thought about what would happen if everything got stolen or lost, but it was always firmly in the worst-case-scenario.

There was nothing to do but fill out the charmingly euphemistic Property Irregularity Report and surrender myself to the airline bureaucracy. That was a frightening prospect. The tiny, cramped office where I sat at a desk was filled to the ceiling with a dusty mountain of unclaimed luggage, and as I sat writing there were three irate airport baggage handlers screaming furiously and purple-faced at each other, the supervisor, the walls and the floor. None of this inspired any kind of confidence and I left the airport with the grim conviction that my pack was gone forever. After the initial burst of anger had faded, I found that I wasn’t as upset as I would have expected. There’s freedom in the lack of possessions - the process of preparing for the trip had taught me that. I’d given away or sold nearly everything I owned back then, and it had been liberating. And during the trip itself, I’d felt that same satisfaction every time I’d managed to lighten my pack a little. To have it all vanish at once was a very mixed blessing indeed. It would be horrible not to have a proper pack, not to have the right clothes and equipment for any climate, and to have to replace all the things that were truly necessary. But I’d finally be truly free from the tyranny of objects. I’d be perfectly mobile. I wouldn’t have the weight of the big pack, I wouldn’t have to worry about theft or trying to find a place for it on a crowded local bus. I’d have it just as easy as all the people we meet on their carefree spendthrift two-week vacations, carrying their little bags with a couple of kilos of clothes and a fistful of credit cards. I had thought, over the last couple of years, that I’d been living a life that was stripped down, flensed to the bone. But now with the loss of my pack, I saw just how much farther there was to go. There’s no end to that road, really. Even wandering Buddhist monks and Hindu sadhu holy men have their robes and begging bowls.

Thoughts like these occupied me over the next few days. I didn’t say much about it, and I daresay Sheryl just thought I was concerned about my things. I was, of course, but my feelings were very mixed. We’d made our way up the west coast of Lombok to a tiny town called Senggigi, which offered very little in the way of distractions. Lombok is just one island over from Bali, and it shows in the prices and in the feeding frenzy for the tourist rupiah. Our guidebook described Senggigi as a laid-back travellers’ haven, but I found that, as it almost always does, it viewed the place through money-coloured glasses.

Senggigi was, to my mind, an incessant pain in the ass. It’s a more expensive version of the tourist ghettos found in all corners of the world. It was impossible to walk down the (only) street without constant hustling. Transport, accommodation, trekking, massage, food, tacky souvenirs - and all of it absurdly overpriced. You couldn’t even eat in peace without bracelet-sellers and trekking touts approaching the table. For a lot of people, this is the sort of travelling they enjoy some place filled with Westerners, obsequious locals and too many swish restaurants to count. But it’s antithetical to the way Sheryl and I travel. The vast distorting weight of tourist money deadens any place it touches, and makes every place the same as every other place. Even if we had the money to travel this way (which we emphatically don’t) I just can’t see the point. There’s nothing genuine about places like Senggigi. They’re like theme parks, machines to extract money while providing a prepackaged Indonesia Lite experience. “It’s just like home, only warmer!” - a phrase I’ve heard many pudgy, sunburnt, moneyed tourists exclaim with delight. Why bother? If we hadn’t been stuck there waiting for word from the airline I’d have shown the place my heels.

Senggigi had its good points. The small beach was clean, the water was warm and the views of Bali across the strait were magnificent at sunset. The local fleet of narrow, deep-drafted outrigger boats were all brightly painted, drawn up prettily in a row on the sand. The days somehow passed. I made a few calls to the airport, getting nowhere fast, and the landlady at our cheap guesthouse was nice enough to try too. Despite speaking the language she got no further than I had. My pack, we gathered, was either in Jakarta, or somewhere else. Since this covered the entire known universe I had no trouble believing it. There were two flights in from Jakarta each day - the afternoon flight we’d arrived on, and one that came in at 11pm. It was when they suggested that I go to the airport and look through the baggage that came off each flight that I began to suspect that the airline had no idea where the pack was, and - given their proposed solution - had no plans to try and find it either.

Clearly, Indonesia is not a country in which it would be possible to get anything done over the phone. Like most of Asia, face-to-face contact is paramount. Having realized this, it was obviously necessary to go to the airport after all. Senggigi is 20 or 25km from Mataram, Lombok’s main city. Shared truck-taxis called bemo run along the coast road in both directions. Locals hop on with their basket of fish or goats or whatever and pay 4000 or 5000 rupiah when they get off. This is the same system used all over Asia and Africa. The drivers on Lombok are used to tourists with too much money and little inclination to share a ride, though, so they all want you to hire the whole vehicle. You can’t walk through Senggigi without a hundred squawks of “charter! charter!”, often from across the street. Even the ones who already have passengers on board won’t hesitate to dump a whole load of locals on the side of the road if they spot a Western face walking. Their prices for a charter begin at 50,000 or 60,000 rupiah. I hardly need to mention that we aren’t rich or snobbish enough to charter a bemo whenever we want to go somewhere. I’m happy to share with a hundred locals, their kids, their crops and their livestock. In Senggigi it was always a struggle to find one of these share-taxis with a driver who was actually willing to let us share. In most of our travels everyone’s delighted when you show that you want to get down off your throne and mingle with the people, but on Lombok they prefer you to spend more money instead - it’s that kind of place. So getting back to the airport was a minor hassle. We’d settled with a bemo driver on 6000 each to take us there, since nobody else had flagged him down on the way, but he had apparently had second thoughts on the way, stopped a couple of kilometres short and tried to extort more money. It was a nice day for a walk so I told him to go to hell and shoe-leather took us the rest of the way. It felt good to walk, though we attracted a lot of curious stares, as usual. Hardly anyone walks anywhere in Asia if they have any alternative at all. Anyone walking is a rarity, and a Westerner walking is unheard-of.

We arrived at the airport and slipped in through the arrivals… room (it’s a very small airport). The guards stopping us all rolled their eyes and stepped aside when I said the word “baggage”, which tells you just how often stuff gets lost around here. Once inside it was a trivial matter of showing my copy of the lost-luggage report to a man with a nametag. He told me they’d found my pack and it would be on the 11pm flight and they’d deliver it to us in Senggigi in the morning. It had been mislabelled when we checked in at Medan and had gone somewhere in Borneo - one last attempt of Sumatra to screw us over. I had to shake away a sudden unjust mental picture of my pack sitting in the centre of a circle of painted and feathered headhunters all glaring at it suspiciously. I had to wonder, too, why they couldn’t have mentioned this over the phone. That’s just the way things work in Indonesia though - a physical presence and a handshake are necessary elements of any important conversation.

I wasn’t about to relax until I laid eyes on the pack, but they were as good as their word and it arrived in the morning even more battered but intact, missing only the waterproof cover that had been in one side-pocket. All my mixed feelings resolved into pure relief at having it back, though I did have one moment when carrying it back to the room, when I suddenly remembered just how heavy the damn thing is.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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