It’s just a nibble out of the jungle, this lodge, four guest cabins built Indonesian style with open eaves, a shelter that serves as the dining space and the housing for the TV and owners’ son’s toys, a roughed-in kitchen covered by a tarp set in a far away corner.
The owners and their young son sleep in a tiny hut just big enough for a mattress, the second hut built after the first one went up at half the specifications one week when he was away. It sits there, posing a question, a storage closet with a roof twice its size.
It’s a camp, really, muddy, rocky ground to tread between cabin, dining shelter, boat, thickened with the heavy rain that comes every afternoon and night. The girls who serve the food and clean the huts march full across the site for every forgotten pancake or egg, every missing part for the game of breakfast. Every day we ask for two hard cooked eggs and two pancakes, and get four eggs and one pancake.
Expressing mild frustration or bemusement is a mistake, an affront to the expat owner. “What do you expect when you hire local people and train them,” he grouses. Diplomatic, I try to say that breakfast is one of those times when people like to get what they ask for, that they’re least flexible before coffee. “Then they shouldn’t travel,” he says shortly.
Partly we are here so Finch can assess the place as a possible client destination, so the owner’s mulishness surprises me slightly. He’s been here in Indonesia a long time, has one successful lodge on another island, has already suffered from having to restart this one after a first site went wrong somehow. He’s married to a whipsmart Indonesian woman, and they seem to buy land all over, securing it for conservation. She has plans to start a kindergarten in the nearby village, trains local people to work for them, encourages them to plant more diverse fruits to sell for more money.
It all works, kind of, in a basic way, but there’s such a strange vacuum of accommodation at the centre, a kind of combination of directness and fatalism from decades of trying to create functioning space in the edge of resources. The button on the toaster needs to be held down with an elastic band and still the power floats in and out. He shrugs as he watches me struggle with it — “as soon as you buy anything in Indonesia, it breaks.”
The people who met us at the grotty, tiny stinking airport had nothing marking them as our contacts, didn’t have any English, and it wasn’t until we were transported to the dock for our boat ride across the harbor that we were certain we were in the right vehicle. The jetty was washed away in a monsoon months ago, and we have to wade through the water to get onto the dive boat. The marsh edges right up to our deck, harbor for what feels like dozens of stentorious frogs who start squeaking late afternoon and then thump an escalating drum beat from sundown to light. “Do you suppose they are actually IN the room,” sighs Finch, who never complains about conditions. “I think they’re in the eaves, poised to leap on us.” One night, one actually does.
The sheen of the place is supremely romantic, the mosquito net draped bed comfortable enough, wide enough, the room as breezy as steamy tropics get, the jungle held just at bay behind our bathroom wall. The hammock on each porch, the cake or banana fritters delivered each afternoon, feel like luxury. The solar panels and constant rain provide an abundance of hot water, so hot that on sunny days we have to resort to the traditional Indonesian method of washing with great scoops of water from a bucket to sluice our delicate sunburns. The mosquitos are mostly at bay, the room constantly simmering with burning coils, the net mostly effective, though I end up with dozens of tiny itchy bites up and down my arms and legs, from some moment of inattentiveness.
We lie under the net, brown and burnt and used up by diving, listening to the calls of the willie wagtails that nest off the dock, the prehistoric-looking hornbills overhead, the celebratory music for Christmas and new year thundering from the sound system in the nearby village. Present to now, glad to be with each other, dipped with adventure.