Story last updated at 1:39 p.m. Thursday, December 5, 2002

Ramadan recipe: Hot bus rides, white sand beaches
Micah Ess
Editor's note: Homer resident Micah Ess, a 1997 graduate of Homer High School, recently departed on an extended trip to Indonesia and Southeast Asia. He will be submitting essays about his travel periodically. This is his second installment, from a November trip to Lombok, a mainly Muslim island of uncrowded beaches and tranquil countryside off the coast of Indonesia.

Unlike the more commercial neighboring Bali, Lombok has not yet fallen victim to the sloganized T-shirt, beer and bikini set, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide, which describes Lombok like this:

"In some places there's a refreshing indifference to tourists, but that's all set to change as those who've 'done Bali' strike out for fresh fields.

Some Indonesian anger and civil unrest boiled over into Lombok, although by and large the island remained relatively unscathed. However, the political situation remains uncertain and the economic situation dire."

If Bali is a green tea with a hint of lemon, then Lombok is a shot of hot espresso. Only just recently, the cultures of the Hindu people on Bali and the Muslim people of Lombok have mixed. The attitudes of both people are nice and accommodating. Yet there seems to be an undertone of urgency with the Muslim people, a hint of seriousness in every action.

In Bali, the air is perfumed perpetually with sweet Plumbaria and incense. On Lombok, the air smells of animal musk and rice paddy brine.

Tourists in this place are much harder to spot. On top of the bomb scare, Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, has just started. The Muslim people around the world are now forbidden to eat, smoke, drink or have sex during the daytime.

Many travelers assume that fasting Muslims are short of temper, but I've never been able to really notice. Sometimes it is hard to find an open place to get food, but everyone usually understands when travelers wish to eat.

As my traveling companions -- Chris and Eivin -- and I bused our way through the island, we stuck our heads out the back window for some much needed fresh air. Why was the back row completely empty on the microbus when the rest of the seats were packed with locals? Because they know that the engine is right under those seats, and the floor warms up to around a million degrees when it starts its uphill climb to the top of Mount Rinjani.

I could have sworn our already thinning sandals were smoldering underfoot as we panted and sweated our way though 100 kilometers of narrow, winding mountain road.

The northern port of Bangsal was our dropoff point. This town is the quintessential Indonesian port town. There are hawkers all along the waterfront, persistently trying to get tourists to buy mosquito repellant or hammocks. They say that it is either impossible or very expensive to buy these things on the small island of Gili Trawangan, where we planned to spend our first week or so.

Gili Trawangan is a great place to sit back, relax, acclimate and snorkel. Eivin and I were eager to get our Open Water Dive Certificates, and this place has some of the best dive shops in Indonesia. The island is all white sand and coconuts -- nothing more.

The original village of fishermen and coconut farmers is still intact along the north shore. During the first light of the morning they paddle offshore in their little canoes and jig up snappers, groupers, tuna and cuttlefish.

We got to our small room, threw our things down and immediately got an appointment to dive the next day. For the next week, we began our days by waking up and going to dive class. Now this is what school should be like -- a bikini-clad dive instructor demonstrating the proper way to breathe through a respirator.

The first dive site is famous for blue coral and manta rays. We dropped off into about 40 feet of water and drifted along underwater ridgelines of coral. Immediately, we drifted into schools of fish and rays.

The coral has been damaged in places by dynamite fishing, which stopped about seven years ago when the Gili Island Eco Trust was put in action to help prevent damaging the reefs further.

After spending the day diving and getting sunburned, we normally would indulge our beer craving. Dance parties generally need lots of people and drinks to be any fun, but because it was a bit hard to find anyone on the island other than us, (let alone people who wanted to dance with the likes of us) we had to rely on just the three of us for fun.

There actually was another guy on the island from America. I met him one night after watching his solo performance on the dance floor to hard-core techno-trance music.

This guy, Gene, was a wild one. He expressed to me one night after a few beers that he was tired of Ramadan. The chanting in the microphone atop the mosque near his place was keeping him up at night, so he apparently went to the head chief of the village and asked if he would turn down the volume of the prayer microphone.

This man was the reason why Eivin and I had to watch our American butts.

We got up early one day and went diving with our instructor down to a sunken World War II Japanese boat. At about 80 feet, Eivin and I were staring into one of the biggest gun barrels we had ever seen. Beautiful blooms of soft coral encrusted the boat, and as we peeked inside, huge reef sharks sped away from our noisy exhalations of air.

Unexploded depth charges laid half-embedded in the sand bottom all around the wreck. I was examining an old bullet casing when I looked over and saw Eivin trying to lift a depth charge into his arms. He successfully got the round drum out of the sand and was rolling it along the bottom when the instructor came over and started waving her arms frantically at him.

I swam for cover and waited, but thankfully the crusty sub sinker didn't blow.

After a week of sunshine and sandy beds, we've decided to take a trip back to Bali. I need to get a shipment of imported goods into a container and sent back to Homer for the Christmas season, and Eivin seems to be on a mission to go bungee-jumping and jet-skiing.

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