Indonesia is the land of pizza. Or at least it is when you travel with my dad.
For our first week together, pretty much any time I asked him what he wanted to eat, he replied with “pizza” (or gave me a particularly forlorn look and whispered “Chik-fil-a”). My dad is open to new experiences, but he’s also self-admittedly high maintenance and considers A/C, cable TV, and sanitary cooking conditions non-negotiable. So, when he offered to meet me in Indonesia for two weeks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He’d never been to a developing country, but promised he was ready to get outside of his comfort zone — or at least take a closer look at its edge.
As our trip progressed, it became clear that his coping strategy when things got overwhelming was to hunt down pizza. So, on our first day on the island of Lombok, I wasn’t at all surprised to find us wandering down the streets of a tiny village looking for somewhere with a vaguely Italian name. Coming to Lombok had taken us miles outside my dad’s comfort zone and had subsequently fast-tracked us to the nearest cheese covered bread dish calling itself pizza.
We’d spent the previous three days in beautiful Ubud, Bali, of Eat, Pray, Love fame —
— and then the manicured tourist trap of Kuta, Bali: think American chain restaurants and overly aggressive Ray-Bali sunglass vendors. (I have no photographs of Kuta. It wasn’t worth photographing.)
I convinced my dad we should head one island over to the city of Kuta on Lombok, which touts the same name but with more beautiful beaches and less people in lounge chairs blocking your view.
We went to Bali’s eastern port and boarded the local ferry for the four-hour ride to Lombok. Women walked down the ship’s aisles with baskets of chips and tubes of rice balanced on their heads. People who weren’t able to snag seats curled up on blue foam mats on the floor.
For me, the ferry ride was a welcome breath of fresh air (metaphorical fresh air – there were a lot of diesel fumes) compared to tourist-packed Bali. But, I could tell my dad was a little overwhelmed.
When he got back from the bathroom, he whispered in my ear:
“There’s just a hole in the ground … I thought you should know.”
“Are you ok?”
Deep breath. ” I think so.”
By the time our ferry arrived in Lombok, it was after 10pm, very dark and very raining. We were the only foreigners leaving the boat and there wasn’t a taxi anywhere in the dimly lit parking lot.
There was, however, a man with a car who said he’d be more than happy to drive us into town. He wanted double what the price should have been, but the longer we stood in the rain, the more apparent it became we had no other option — and he kept repeating to us, “You have no other option.”
So we paid our ransom, got in the car with a stranger in the middle of the night, and set off toward town. We arrived safely at our hotel and immediately headed for bed, but I could sense my dad’s skepticism growing.
I woke up the next day excited to start exploring the little beach town. My dad woke up with untempered uncertainty and in urgent need of a caffeine fix.
After getting directions to a coffee shop from the woman running our guesthouse, we made our way down the street, into the heart of Kuta – which turned out to be just a single intersection of poorly paved roads.
We passed local restaurants called warungs — bamboo huts with a few plastic chairs — and a sprinkling of surf shops and general stores. Kuta still seemed its own town, with locals overwhelmingly outnumbering sunburnt Westerners.
We walked through a crossroad and the street abruptly ended at an open air market. Women sat on the ground selling fish, fruit, and vegetables.
There were thatched vendor stands lined along the back, offering everything from tin pots to children’s toys. A donkey pulling a cart nearly ran us over as we stepped off the sidewalk.
Bright-eyed that this was an actual market – not the trinket stuffed gimmick for tourists SE Asia loves to call a market- I looked back at my dad and asked excitedly if he wanted to buy anything.
“I think we passed the coffee shop,” was all he replied.
As it turned out, my dad didn’t quite share my enthusiasm. Before he ran screaming for the safety of the hotel room (or possibly the next plane home) I pulled him toward the town’s main beach.
Indonesian families were picnicking in a circle of trees and a group of schoolkids sat talking in the sand.
We eventually decided to grab lunch. I asked what my dad wanted, but the lost look in his eye betrayed the answer would be pizza. We finally came across a small bamboo hut advertising fried rice, noodles, and, remarkably, pizza.
We sat down on the plastic stools, ordered, and began to battle to the hundreds of flies swarming the tables courtesy of the herd of cows next door. Our food arrived (the pizza was great considering it had been rolled out with an empty beer bottle) and we ate in a somewhat tenuous silence. I was quickly falling in love with Kuta, but my dad couldn’t open up.
After heading back to the hotel to unpack, mope, and wait out a rain storm, I asked my dad what he wanted to do for the evening. Without missing a beat, he replied he wanted a drink. If markets and beaches couldn’t whet his curiosity, maybe a cocktail would.
We ended up at a combination dive shop/restaurant and pulled up seats at the bar. And suddenly my dad’s comfort zone made room for Indonesia.
While he might not enjoy the challenge of hectic markets or overcrowded ferries, making new friends is probably the thing he does best. Immediately, he’d bought both of the Indonesian bartenders beers. Within ten minutes, we’d been invited to one man’s house for lunch and were whispered stories about his multiple wives and the multiple problems that was causing. Within thirty minutes, my dad renamed the man Scottie in honor of his own brother and they were hugging in the middle of the restaurant.
I guess with travel companions, like anything, you just have to learn how to play to their strengths.
After several more hugs and making plans to all meet tomorrow morning, we left the bar to track down dinner. I asked my dad what he wanted to eat.
He replied, “I don’t know. I’m kind of in the mood for fried rice.”