When traveling, especially for long periods of time, I think the goal, even if it goes unspoken, is to find a place that makes you feel more like yourself. A place that allows you to drop the habits and expectations of your everyday life and blossom into a version of yourself that feels complete and natural. A “home away from home” as these places are often called, speaks to your values and strips away the unnecessary to give you opportunities to seek happiness/fulfillment/relaxation/whatever you need.
Fortunately for those of us who value and seek calmness, there’s not a recipe for a dream spot that will appeal to everyone. While I’d heard wonderful things about Ubud, and found it to be charming in some ways, it was a place I’d like to visit again for a few weeks, not uproot and move to. Similarly, Singapore was amazing and rich and so darn comfortable, and I could even see us happily living there for a year, but I wouldn’t call it a place that feels like me. Too much city, too little nature.
Before coming to Nusa Penida, we’d heard that it was a place where you’d probably get lost (guidebook) and a place that was mostly uninhabited (Balinese). There were approximately 3 paragraphs in our guidebook about the entire island, and 17 accommodation options listed on Booking.com. While I was immediately enticed, I also worried that the lack of facilities meant we’d be struggling to find the basics for survival. Looking back, it almost seems silly. We took a small fishing boat over from the busy but small island of Nusa Lembongan, where we’d been blowing our hard earned money on a fancy micro-resort (max capacity of 8 people) with a clifftop infinity pool in which to watch the ocean all day long. A quick ride later, we were on the shore at Toyapakeh, one of 2 towns on the island. As we drove to our bungalows, the driver pointed out some decent restaurants and gave us a bit more background on the island. Apparently, barely populated means 35,000 people. The beach is lined with shanties, shacks, and detritus from decades of seaweed farming along the coast. There are cows and pigs everywhere, tied with thin blue lines to palm trees, happily munching away on the nearby vegetation. Chickens run everywhere, as do dogs, cats, and the occasional goat and duck.
We checked into our bungalow ($28/night for 3 with AC), rented scooters, snorkel gear, and set off to explore. We ate at the warung (cafe) across the street, where the owner’s little boy dumped out his whole bucket of toys on our table, then proceeded to “cook” us a really nice plate of mie goreng, before we got the real stuff from his dad. We bought fuel from the same family, then headed for the often-Instagrammed Angel’s Billabong (sad to report it is mainly just a large but glorified rock pool- the adjacent Broken Beach was WAY cooler). We knew the road was rough, but we had no idea what was in store. Had we checked the maps before leaving, we would have known to counter-intuitively head inland first, but we naively decided to stick to the coast and after a few kms of fresh pavement, ended up on a “road” that’s really a 4WD track. It reminded us of the drive out to Mattole Beach on the California coast- constant ups, downs, and hairpins, all at angles that seem illogical. It took over an hour to go about 20 km.
At one point we got stuck on a steep hill that was an obnoxious mix of loose gravel and big chunks of pavement laid down probably 20 years ago. We had just passed some children walking home from school, who ran up behind us and eagerly pushed us up the hill as they showed off all the English they knew (Hello! How are you? What is your name?) before waving us goodbye. A few minutes later, we stopped to check the status of our tires, and a father and son from a nearby home came out to help us, adjusting a few things here and there before sending us safely on our way. On the way back, the same family insisted that we come take shelter from a monsoon shower in their garage. Everyone we passed smiled and waved, yelled “Hello!!” or was otherwise extremely warm and friendly. We finally reached the beach, and it was all crystal blue water, stunning limestone cliffs, and rolling farmland- so similar to the coasts near Kiama and in California that it almost felt like home.
Driving back, we were caught in a heavy monsoon shower, but the elation from our adventure kept us from getting too down about it. Plus, the laughs of all the locals as our parade of soaking wet foreigners passed by helped to lift our moods and let us laugh at ourselves a little bit as well. After stopping by for a snack at the same little hut we’d had lunch at, we unpacked and did some research on the island. Later on, we found dinner at a beachfront warung, where we played with a kitten, joked with the owner, and then headed home for a few rounds of cards and a beer on the front porch of our bungalows. Apart from the noise of the geckos (no, really, they are LOUD) and the ubiquitous roosters, we slept soundly and woke up to a charmingly sunny morning. There’s a little English/Indonesian coffee shop and gallery situated right in front of our bungalows and we headed there for a decidedly Western breakfast and a big cup of Bali coffee.
I could continue on with the various adventures to be had: snorkeling off the beach, scrambling down cliffsides to fresh springs along the ocean, exploring cave temples, driving the stunning coastal roads, eating at all the local warungs and restaurants, chatting with the multitude of friendly school kids, but I think I’ve given enough examples to make a point. After one month of traveling (exactly one month, as if it was scripted for a movie), we’ve found a place that feels genuinely warm, offers ample adventures, and happens to be affordable as well. So we’re staying. Not forever, just a week, but long enough to absorb a little more of this place, see the hills and hidden beaches, read some books, learn some Bahasa Indonesian, and focus on what makes us feel complete: the right balance between adventure and relaxation, good food and good conversations, meeting and learning from new people.