Apr 26 • 7M

Couchfish: East Java sojourn, day 3. The pointless beach

A chat on the sand, a bike prang and a pointless beach.

Stuart McDonald
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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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I’m on a daybed in the sand, it’s late afternoon and save a couple beside me the beach is near empty. Not a soul. It’s Monday you see, and the weekend hustle and bustle has packed up and blown out back home. Will is back in the room, and I’ve just a fresh coconut for company. The sun is setting. It is well pretty.

Arief* walks up and asks if he can sit down, I say sure, and he plonks down on the daybed beside me. He stares at my swollen, bloody knee and gashed leg, then, pointing at it, asks,

“What happened to your leg?”

Made it! Photo: Stuart McDonald.

At this point he’s a complete stranger, I’m yet to learn his name, or that he’s here for a month on vacation. That all comes later. I tell him I had a bike accident. “I hit a big rock and I crashed the bike.” He nods, then waving his hands, he asks why wasn’t I wearing pants, when I look at him funny, he clarifies himself, adding “jeans.”

I explain my son and I were riding to Muara Mbaduk for a swim, but I mispronounce the name, and he looks baffled. “The next bay,” I say, pointing towards the setting sun, “oh,” he replies, calling it something else that I miss. Then he sits waiting for an answer on my fashion choices, in the end, we agree I should have been better dressed.

The beach be for swimming. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He’s from Jakarta, with some military detachment of some sort or another, he’s vague on the details. He’s here with his family for the entirety of Ramadan, it’s a family tradition, something he’s done since a child, he tells me.

He likes Pantai Pulau Merah, it’s never too busy, he loves the beach, the relaxed vibe, and making a point of not meaning to offend me, he enjoys the fact there are very few foreigners. His English is excellent though, so I’m curious about the why on the last point.

His English is polished because his parents had him study it since childhood, he says, going on to explain dealing with English speakers is a large part of his day to day work back in Jakarta. It isn’t that he doesn't like foreigners, he does—to a point—he just doesn’t want to holiday with them.

A fitting location for a day off. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

So he’s no fan of Bali? I ask, half-joking. He smiles, his father is from the north, he says, not far from Singaraja. They go there regularly for family stuff, but he hates the south, and the more we talk, often agreeing, the more riled up he gets.

The sun is low now, its rays catch the crests of the waves rolling in. The beach and its smooth tan sand are close to immaculate. He waves his arm towards the beach, asking me if it is as beautiful a beach as Balis. I say it’s lovely and note how surprised I was at how clean it is.

“Ah the Balinese, they tell you our beaches are dirty but look at theirs! They should clean theirs before shit-talking [his words] ours.” I don't disagree with him but I recount how filthy Alas Purwo was, it’s a national disaster I say. He waves me off, he knows I’m right, and doesn’t need some Australian guy to tell him what he already knows.

The next bay. Just Will, me and a coconut. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We shift the conversation to other things. Family, kids, the usual meet and greet kind of stuff. We order more coconuts and keep chatting. It’s pleasant and all, but it’s obvious he wants to get back to what we were talking about earlier. I’m less keen, I know where it’s going. We dance a bit.

He asks me what I think of Bali. I hedge, saying I love some parts but loathe others, then go on to say it’s a big island, so hard to get black and white about it. “Overall I’d rather live elsewhere,” I say, “but I don’t. It’s complicated,” I pause, trying to get my words right, then, knowing it makes me sound like a complete wanker, I say, “I think there is something special about it, it is a different place, some places I’ve been in Bali, there is nowhere else on the planet like them. The island has something that touches you here,” I say, touching my heart, “but many who come either don’t understand or don’t want to.”

Kids fish as the sun sinks. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He nods. Looking at me, he asks will I stay there forever. The answer to that is a simple and very easy no, but then he asks why I stay there now if I don’t want to stay there forever.

I’m willing the sun to accelerate its descent at this point. My leg is killing me, and I’m not really up for a temper-y conversation on the meaning of life. Arief picks up on this and goes to leave, saying he’s stayed too long and must get back to his family. We shake hands and he wanders off.

Earlier in the day, before the accident and at the other beach, whatever it’s called, Will and I stood on the beach. It’s pretty in a deserted way—exactly how I like my beaches. Pandan trees and palms cluster the dunes far into the distance. The surf isn’t huge, but there is plenty of spray from the sea, giving it a wild appearance.

Why not? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There’s not a soul nor a roof to be seen.

At the western edge, there is a rocky outcrop, a peculiar stone formation I’ve seen before, but the name of the type of stone escapes me. We clamour out onto the point, as the surf rolls in, not big enough to smash but big enough to splash. There is a gap between two sections of the stone and the crystal waters surge in then withdraw, exposing scuttling shiny black-backed crabs and clefts in the charcoal stone of a deep emerald blue. With the foam pushing through and over, it’s hypnotic.

Later, back on the sand, I ask Will what he thinks. To be fair, he didn’t want to visit the bay in the first place, but he’s trying hard. Still he’s less than impressed.

“It’s pointless,” he says.

To my mind though, that is exactly the beauty of the place.

* Arief is a pseudonym.


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