Lembongan has the best Indonesian food I’ve ever had. The warungs aren’t flashy. Theres’s no costumed waitstaff or gimmicks to attract the western tourist trade. Far from it. The place that the diving crew introduced me to has a dirt floor, at least three or four prostrate dogs and a single waist-high L shaped bench nailed to bamboo posts. Despite the lack on tinsel, this is obviously the place to be. Australians, Swiss, Canadians, English and more European accents than I can sort through pack in cheek to jowl on rickety stools along the bench over the three or four hours of lunch. Maria, the cook, and her ancient mother weave unerringly between the catatonic dogs, bringing food and taking orders. They stand shoulder to the bench, and each meal is delivered with a smile like a split watermelon. Their food has a reputation on the island, and after my first meal there I can see why. They have has since served me up all sorts of things that I wouldn’t be seen in the same room with in Australia; fried bean curd dumplings stuffed with vegetables, grilled eggplant with tofu, vegetable pancakes. To be honest, I’m not even sure what bean curd is. And tofu looks like it should be able to rub out pencil from paper. But, in their hands, in their little tin-roofed, shack restaurant, it’s cuisine. Maria stands at the kitchen door drying her hands on her apron watching me eat. Perhaps she’s not used to seeing double helpings inhaled. It definitely makes a pleasant change from tinned tuna and ham/ cheese/mustard toasties for lunch. In the time left I’ve vowed to do good digestive service to what remains of the mains menu.
The past days have been consumed by scuba diving. Learning the gear, the theory, the skills, the control. Getting kitted out has been the challenge I expected. The wet suit wardrobe doesn’t easily cater to those built like a late afternoon shadow. Getting one on has been like folding a resistant metal coat hanger into a stubby holder- all angles and sharp bits and a dangerous amount of stretch. The length between shoulders and crotch ensures everything is squeezed into an uncomfortable, gender-neutral lump. A bit like a Ken doll with his trousers off. Catur and the rest of the diving crew pretend not to notice. Once mostly stashed away, they quickly stuff the rest of me inside and zip up for safety before something gets flung into a tree. Until I’m in the water arms stay by sides, legs stay together and there are definitely no star jumps. It’s likely to be the only cut lunch I’ll have in SE Asia.
Personal comfort and aesthetics aside, all of the theory and pool diving is complete. The other qualified divers I’ve met, and eaten with, here all tell me that this is one of the best places in Indonesia to get qualified. My first open water dive yesterday put me eye to eye with a moray eel and a handful of lionfish. Against the kaleidoscope of variety and colour, I think that those opinions might be right. The final theory exam was just after lunch, and I passed with muted colours – the side effect of studying on a poolside couch within staggering distance of a bar full of bintang. So, two full depth open water dives tomorrow before I can be released, within limits, onto the ocean.
I was grateful the early finish since it was searing hot. I sit writing this on the balcony of my little villa, comfortable and freshly showered, with the air-conditioning funneled directly onto my back. Less than five paces away, in an area of the compound still under construction, an elderly woman mixes cement with a shovel, before lugging it to her equally ancient husband in a wheelbarrow. They gabble good-naturedly before he sends her off for an armload of clay tiles. I wince as she staggers back bow-legged under the weight and call out to her offering help. She pauses, gives me a brown, gappy grin and shakes her head. I’m quietly relieved as I don’t think that I could lift what she carries and I don’t need my masculinity challenged again today. Still carrying her load she asks me about my day, the quality of my room and if I’d like any water. Her husband calls for her and she totters off, handing the tiles up to where he teeters on a makeshift bamboo ladder with nailed, split rungs. Her job completed, she looks back at me and smiles, looks up at the sun, and goes back to start again with her cement.