Lombok and the rice field of dreams


 

“He's fishing for eels”, our guide Bot tells me as we walk carefully on the narrow grass banks which run along the perimeter of the rice fields. We have been watching a man pulling a line and bringing up his furiously-wriggling prey, waving to us with one hand while reeling in his catch deftly with the other. “They are used for medicine" he tells me. "When the doctor tells someone they need more blood, they go out and eat an eel; it contains more than 90% blood.”

The logic leaves me unconvinced, but this is just one of many such cheerful encounters in the foothills of Mount Rinjani, the volcano which dominates the landscape of Lombok. The village of Tetebatu is directly to the south of the mountain and is a popular starting point for hikes to the summit and the crater lake. Bot is a former leader of the kampung (village) and as we walk through the rice fields he is stopped by a succession of people. Some ask him for help with matters of local administration, while others just want to catch up on local gossip. On top of his distractions, we are something of a novelty, and children in particular are keen to shout out to us. One gang insists on high-fiving us one by one, while others try out their limited repertoire of English words.

Bot leads us along the dirt tracks beside the mud houses of the village. We stop to watch a lady who is busy roasting coffee in her tiny hut; she smiles and waves to us before returning to her beans. At the neighbouring house two men are in serious discussion around their flock of racing pigeons. There’s a strong stench of cow dung, with single cows kept in the tiny yards in front of the huts. "Not for milk,” Bot tells us. “Only for meat.”

 

The kampung looks dirt poor, but what it lacks in basic amenities it more than makes for in dreams. Bot explains to me that plans are under way to make the kampung the centre of homestay tourism in Lombok. Visitors will stay in the village houses, some of which are already being adapted to accommodate guests. Residents will open their doors to tourists, providing coffee and snacks and inviting them to get a glimpse of village life. Central to the plans is the philosophy that the profits from the enterprise will be shared among the whole community. According to Bram, another young man I meet when we stop for a drink, tourists’ interests will be central to everything. Even the mosque will be a silent one, such is the concern that the 4am call to prayer may prove a deterrent to western visitors.

We take a walk up to the forest above the village with Hir, a likeable young lad who is also keen to talk about the grand scheme. He leads us through the thick grass, pointing out jack fruit and papaya trees along the way. Eventually we spy a group of black monkeys in the distance, and staying still and quiet we watch these typically nervous creatures as they swing and crash through the forest canopy.

On the way back we stop for a cooling swim at a pair of waterfalls just outside the village, before the young lads offer us a ride back to our guesthouse on their motorbikes.

That night I'm woken at 4am by a particularly loud call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque. I lie awake and wonder how Tetebatu will look if the grand dreams come to pass – and whether a quiet mosque is really the best way to offer visitors what they’re likely to come all this way to experience.

 

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