Saturday, December 17, 2011

Michael Bublé -Christmas (Album Review)

Although Michael Bublé built his career by singing mainly Big band covers and Jazz standards by artists like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet, what sets him apart from other cover singers is the quality of his tone. Bublé is not just a singer but an artist who magically can turn these standards into his very own. He is in fact the king of Jazz Pop and so far he is peerless in the game.

Big Band, Traditional pop and Jazz sounds dominate his full-length Christmas album simply titled “Christmas”. His distinctive baritone is once again sexy, charismatic and full of swagger here. Although I must admit the entire set is filled with stunners, these are a few of my favorite things from this set.

“Jingles Bells” featuring “The incredible Puppini Sisters” stole my heart right away at the first listen. Hearing them sing takes us back to the Boogie-Woogie era of “The Andrew Sisters”. Their close harmony and Buble’s swinging not only complement each other also successfully revitalize one of the iconic Christmas carols ever. A lot of artists are doing retro nowadays that even doing retro has become such a retro thing but only a few manage to do retro proper. (Wow-that’s too many ‘retro’ in a sentence) The Puppini Sisters and Bublé reunite on another track, Frosty The Snowman”, which I find equally breathtaking.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You”, Mariah Carey’s super-festive modern Christmas classic, is sprinkled with Bublé-ness and completely transformed into a tear-jerking ballad. Who would have thought… but it works.

What a treat to hear the two Canadian song birds singing together on “White Christmas”, a beautiful duet with Shania Twain. They both have this unique nasal tone in their voices and they sound great together. It also marks the return of Shania Twain, one of the most remarkable voices in country music. We have not heard from since 2002’s “Up!”

“Mis Deseos/Feliz Navidad” , a rousing duet with the Mexican singer, Thalia, manage to capture the true Christmas spirit. Thalia’s Spanish singing not only provides a beautiful ethnic touch to this song also a nice little break from all that jazzing and swinging going on. Of Course, there are songs that I could do without such as “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. It is the arrangement that makes both songs a bit of a yawn.

I believe this album, like Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas (1994), will become one of those classic Christmas albums that people want to buy and play at every Christmas because of its timeless quality and sound.  It is a smart decision for Bublé because whatever current trend or popular sound there is in music, music-buying public usually want their Christmas music to be traditional, familiar and something that they can cozy up to. This festive season, two of the biggest names in modern music, Justin Beiber and Michael Bublé, both ironically Canadians, released their holiday sets and it would be interesting to see whose album will stand the test of time. For me, the answer is clear. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Grammys 2012~ Charlie's Predictions

The 2012 Grammy nominations are out but I must say it is not that exciting this year. There have been a number of monster releases in 2011 but most of them do not make the list or end up being nominated for major awards.  Beyonce’s  “4”, Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now”, to name a few. Britney Spears’s hugely successful “Femme Fatale” is completely shut out as well.

A few major changes in award categories can be witnessed this year. The usual “Best Male and Female Vocal Performance” categories in Pop, Rock, Rn’B and Country have been cut and instead The Grammys have come up with new categories in those genres where all solo acts, regardless of gender, are nominated together. And these newly formed categories are called “Best Solo Performance”

There are all together 78 award categories this year with genres ranging from Rock, Pop, and Country to New Age, Classical, Gospel and more. Here are the categories that I am particularly interested in this year. The nominees who I think should win are highlighted in red and the nominees who could win, in blue.

Album of the Year
·         21, Adele
·         Wasting Light, Foo Fighters
·         Born This Way, Lady Gaga
·         Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Bruno Mars
·         LoudRihanna

Previously, this award has gone to so many undeserving winners just for The Grammys to prove the point that they do not award popularity. Well, let’s not ignore the fact that some records are hugely popular because they are good and people actually like them. Personally, this year’s award belongs to “21” by Adele. Period! Her first album “19” which won her two Grammys in 2009 is excellent but her sophomore record “21”that sold millions breaking records around the world is way much better. “21” showcases her artistic growth, maturity and most importantly her superb songwriting and singing skills.  Not only has it featured two of this year’s most-blogged about songs “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You”, the album, from start to finish, is one solid cohesive effort. Having said that, she is not safe.  Foo Fighters could steal her thunder and join the notorious list of previously undeserved AOTY winners. Adele’s biggest competition, music wise though, is Bruno Mars who keeps delivering hit after hit. Rihanna’s record, living up to its title, called “Loud” dominated the airwaves of the entire 2011 and Lady GaGa as well had a good year with “Born This Way” but Bubblegum Pop music doesn’t stand a chance here.

Record of the Year
·         "Rolling in the Deep," Adele
·         "Holocene," Bon Iver
·         "Grenade," Bruno Mars
·         "The Cave," Mumford & Sons
·         "Firework," Katy Perry

There is usually one song that no one knows or has ever heard of in this category which also has the potential to ironically and eventually become the winner upsetting the other hotly-tipped contenders. This year, that song is “Holocene” by Bon Iver. What’s missing and should have been here is Lady GaGa’s “Born This Way”, an epic freedom anthem for women and LGBT community. Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” are both hugely popular songs that deserve to get nominated but I am going to go again with Adele. “Rolling In The Deep” is the strongest contender among all five.

Song of the Year
·          "All of the Lights," Kanye West, Rihanna, Kid Cudi and Fergie (Writer: Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter and Kanye West)
·         "The Cave," Mumford & Sons (Writers: Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford and Country Winston)
·         "Grenade," Bruno Mars (Writers: Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars and Andrew Wyatt)
·         "Holocene," Bon Iver (Writer: Justin Vernon)
·         "Rolling in the Deep," Adele (Writers: Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth)

“Rolling In The Deep” may be the most famous song form the album “21” but for me “Someone Like You” is the ultimate song of the year. The simple yet powerful lyrics capable of slicing your heart with each word sung and the tear-jerking vocal delivery that makes you stop, drop and wonder regardless of how many times you hear it played. I am surprised and saddened to not see this song nominated in this category.  However, since “Song of the Year” is a writer’s award, it does make sense that “Rolling In The Deep”, where she displays her master class wise-beyond-her-years songwriting skills, instead received the nomination.  RITD’s got it all- clever lyrics, catchy soaring chorus, retro-soul vibe, rousing harmony and a vengeful boy-you-did-me-wrong message that millions can relate to.  

Best New Artist
·         Nicki Minaj
·         Bon Iver
·         The Band Perry
·         J. Cole
·         Skrillex

I want Nicki Minaj to win because she is fun, interesting, and original. Also she is an artist we will be talking about and paying attention to in the years to come.  However it looks like the award is going to Bon Iver, a critically-acclaimed folk band. Nicki Minaj is too popular to win this type of award and not many hip-hop artists do well in this category. And it's America and The Band Perry sings good country songs and is fronted by a strong female singer with a big mouth. I wouldn't be surprised if they won as well. Jessie J should have been nominated though. Maybe The Grammys have had it with the British female imports? There have been too many.

Best Pop Solo Performance
·         "Someone Like You," Adele
·         "You and I," Lady Gaga
·         "Grenade," Bruno Mars
·         "Firework," Katy Perry
·         "F--kin' Perfect," Pink

With “You and I”, featuring her best vocals to date, Lady GaGa proves she is more than just electronic beats.  Pink, one of my favorite artists, as well delivers brilliant heartfelt singing with F-word laced “F—kin’Perfect” . And then there is Mr.Bruno Mars, sole male nominee in the category. Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” has become a new standard for singing competitions like Idol and X factor. Many try but fail to match his soaring vocals but it is him who makes it seem so effortless and sincere. Katy Perry makes mindless but super-cool pop records but the day a song like “Firework” wins “ THE BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE” (Yes, the capital letters!) is the day I will lose my faith in The Grammys.

Many people, including me, raved about how great Adele  sounded when singing “Someone Like You” live, most notably at the Brit awards but it is the studio version that features the line “Don’t forget me I begged, I remember you said” sung in higher nasal register furnishing the song with a melancholy effect while strategically tearing the listeners’ hearts into pieces. (She usually avoids hitting the notes she sings in the studio version and instead goes for lower notes when singing "SLY" live) As much as I hate to make this a yet another Adele post, for me, this is the best solo performance not just for this year but in recent years.

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance
·         "Body and Soul," Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse
·         "Dearest," The Black Keys
·         "Paradise," Coldplay
·         "Pumped Up Kicks," Foster The People
·         "Moves Like Jagger," Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera

It’s a fight between “Moves Like Jagger” and “Body and Soul”. The Grammys will find a way to honor the departed soul, Winehouse. Deservingly of course, for her last recording which sadly is also one of her finest vocal performances. Her voice, that captivating voice, not only holds her own against the legendary Tony Bennett’s also makes you wonder why “good things don’t ever last”. A posthumous Grammy for Amy please.

Best Pop Vocal Album
·         21, Adele
·         The Lady Killer, Cee Lo Green
·         Born This Way, Lady Gaga
·         Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Bruno Mars
·         Loud, Rihanna

The singles releases from “Loud” kept Rihanna atop in the music charts worldwide in the year 2011.  Cee Lo, GaGa and Bruno Mars are all key players in shifting millions of record sales with their respective pop records. This is the only category this year with all deserving nominees.  But as the title of this category says “Best Pop Vocal Album”, this award should go to the nominees who display remarkable vocals like Adele or Bruno Mars.  Both are such great young artists who not only have golden pipes but also possess killer songwriting skills. I’d be happy to see any of them win but I think, if Adele wins Album of the year, this award is Bruno Mars’s.  A little bit of sharing makes sense.  

Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album
·         Duets II, Tony Bennett and Various Artists
·         The Gift, Susan Boyle
·         In Concert on Broadway, Harry Connick Jr.
·         Music Is Better Than Words, Seth MacFarlane
·         What Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Barbra Streisand

Two of my favorite album releases of the year go to Barbra’s “What Matters Most” and Tony Bennett’s “Duets II”. Seeing that Tony’s album draws strength from 17 high-profile artists who lend their voices to the set, it would be a bit unfair if the Grammy goes to the Jazz Master only. Or if Duets II wins, will the Grammys hand 17 other awards to all artists involved too? Doubtful! C’mon they even tried to cut costs by eliminating solo performance categories. So it ain’t happening!  Barbra’s hauntingly beautiful version of “Windmills Of Your Mind” alone makes her album a worthy winner. Plus they did not give her this award last year for “Love Is The Answer” album and Michael Buble won instead. What an insult! The Grammys must make up this year!

Best Rap/Sung Collaboration
·         "Party," Beyoncè and Andrè 3000
·         "I'm on One," DJ Khaled, Drake, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne
·         "I Need a Doctor," Dr. Dre, Eminem and Skylar Grey
·         "What's My Name," Rihanna and Drake
·         "Motivation," Kelly Rowland and Lil Wayne
·         "All of the Lights," Kanye West, Rihanna, Kid Cudi and Fergie

The former band mates Kelly and Beyonce from Destiny’s Child vying for the same award but my bet is on “I Need A Doctor” that teams up Dr. Dre and Eminem featuring the catchy chorus sung by Skylar Grey. The Grammys love Eminem and they will once again find a way to award him this year. Plus the other nominated songs are somewhat forgettable although I love the uber-sexy “Motivation”. Kanye's "All Of The Lights" as usual is ambitious but frankly, a bit overrated. He has done better stuff before. 

Best Compilation Sountrack For Visual Media
·         Boardwalk Empire: Volume 1, Varous Artists
·         Burlesque, Christina Aguilera
·         Glee: The Music, Volume 4Glee cast
·         Tangled, Various Artists
·         True Blood: Volume 3, Various Artists

Although the movie, “Burlesque” is embarrassingly cheesy, the glittering musical numbers featuring songs like “Bound To You”, “Tough Lover” and “Show Me How You Burlesque” allow Christina Aguilera’s glorious pipes to shine. Celebrated by many as the voice of our generation, Aguilera also is a Grammy darling winning awards every now and then. So that means she might take home the award plus the other four nominees are not that strong anyway. (Anyone own “True Blood: Volume 3” soundtrack? Anyone?) Unless the voters become Glee-ed out and give the award to Glee: Vol 4. Nah…I  don’t see it happening. (But I wonder what Cher might think if Christina eventually wins as she as well contributed two songs to the soundtrack? It is like when Whitney Houston won Grammy for “The Bodyguard” soundtrack and the other featured artists were totally ignored.  Really, there are other songs on that soundtrack. )

Best Song Written For Visual Media
·         "Born to Be Somebody," from Never Say Never, Justin Bieber (Writer: Diane Warren)
·         "Christmastime Is Killing Us," from Family Guy, Danny Smith, Ron Jones and Seth MacFarlane (Writers: Danny Smith, Ron Jones and Seth MacFarlane)
·         "I See the Light," from Tangled, Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi (Writers: Alan Menken and Glenn Slater)
·         "So Long," from Winnie The PoohZooey Deschanel and M. Ward (Writer: Zooey Deschanel)
·         "Where the River Goes," from Footloose, Zac Brown (Writers: Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Drew Pearson and Anne Preven)
·         "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," from Burlesque, Cher (Writer: Diane Warren)

What does poor Diane Warren have to do to win a Grammy? Her knack for poignant melody and often times, inspirational lyrics has been shown in many of iconic songs in modern music but she has not been so lucky with her Grammy wins.  Warren is up with two nods this year, one of them sung by Justin Bieber.  And the other, “You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me” from the movie “Burlesque”, already a Golden Globe winner, sung by the beautiful Cher, is memorable and so fitting not only for Cher’s character in the movie also for Cher as a person and her career so far. “I've been brought down to my knees. And I've been pushed way past the point of breaking. But I can take it. I'll be back. Back on my feet. This is far from over. You haven't seen the last of me

The music’s biggest night will be held on the 12th of February and we shall see who eventually will become winners. Till then...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Homecoming Reflection

22, October, 2007. I bought myself a one-way ticket and I left the country I called home for 23 years. That year 2007, an extremely unkind year, put me through so much personally and professionally that I was a bit surprised to see myself still intact and in one piece. My heart was chipped... so badly. That for sure but miraculously, it was still beating. Well, it had to for I had made the choice to keep on living. I knew I must keep going even though I felt the weakest I had ever been.  

I can still vividly remember that day and how overwhelming it was for me. Although I had travelled overseas many times in the region, this time was different. I was leaving everything that I knew and I had no idea when I would return.

I was the last person to board the plane because I had some issues with the airport police. Just as I expected, the police went through my luggage taking everything out for search. Finally he found the US dollars I carefully hid in one of the pockets of my luggage. (In a country where there is no international banking, many students have to smuggle out thousands of dollars to be able to pay for their school fees, living expenses while studying abroad etc.) He told me that the money was exceeding the limit that one could take out when leaving the country. I had to come clean finally and explained to him that the money was the fees I needed to pay to the university and I was a student. And that there was no way I could make the payment if I did not carry the money that way. Clearly, all he wanted was some bribe money. Unfortunately, I did not have money in my currency. He was being very difficult and threatening that my money would be confiscated.  My heart was racing for I feared that I would not make it to the flight or, even worse, that to leave the country would become impossible and that my hard-earned money would get taken away.

This cannot be happening to me! Not when I am feeling so emotional and fragile” It truly was more than enough to break me but I just could not show it. The police let me go in the end, because I pleaded him to go and ask money from my friend who was there nervously watching the scene from the glass window outside. I quickly packed up my baggage, signaled my friend to deal with the situation on my behalf (which he thoroughly understood) and ran towards the check-in counter. When I got there, the lady in charge told me that it was too late and she had already closed the counter. There I begged again with my already-breaking voice asking her to help.  She looked annoyed but reluctantly checked my bag in. There was yet another problem, excess baggage situation. She demanded $125 dollars which, believe me, was a lot of money in my country. I knew my bag was heavy but I honestly assumed I would be able to get away with it using my usual charm and of course the mercy of the person in charge.  After all, our people are known for their courteous manner and peaceful nature.  No- not with her! She would not have it and kept asking for the fine. I appealed her to at least reduce the amount while explaining I was merely a student and I packed a lot because I would be gone from home for a long time. She simply said she could not do it. I had no choice but to settle the amount in cash as the plane was leaving.  And… you could imagine how I as well just could not wait to leave, leaving all this behind.

As I learned that the plane had taken off and started disappearing into the clouds above, I noticed that there was something pressing in my chest making me uneasy to breathe. My body was shaking as if I had fever. My heart was dealing with a wide array of emotions: anguish, sadness, disappointment, tension, aggravation and helplessness.  I needed to do something to get it all out. So I tried crying first but I simply just could not this time. I felt numb all over and my heart, my poor, poor heart, was in such a state that I could not even describe. One thing for sure though, it was working harder than ever before. I decided to write. I took out my little note book and things started pouring out all over the pages. One of them was a vow that I made to myself to not go back to my country as long as I could. I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. Within a few hours, I had left my country, my family, my career, my dear friends and my two most important relationships: one that I will always hold close to my heart and the other where I failed miserably and lost a great deal.

Kuala Lumpur became my new home for the next two years. The beginning was rough. Adjusting was not easy and uncertainty scared me. Studying and also working fulltime, I had very little time for myself. Growing up, money was never a problem in my family. Also, when I was striving out on my own, from my late teens to my early twenties, I had a good job that paid very well by our national standard so I never really had to worry about money running out …until that point. Surviving on the little salary I made from a teaching job I found, there were times that I prayed for the month to come to a quick end.

Things got better with time and I was no longer alone. I had someone and it was truly a happy time. He helped me get through my painful heartbreak by giving me something beautiful to look at every day.  Gradually, I was able to leave my tumultuous 2007 behind.  It, however, was a confusing time for both of us and I did not believe what we had was enough. I kept on searching. Searching for what? I wondered too. Maybe ..Safety? Assurance? Protection? Guidance? Or all of them? And, of course…Love? Yes, big love: the kind of love that I had not yet experienced.  Is that even possible?  Yes, it is because I found it. Unexpectedly and it eventually led me to my next move, the island.

In Malaysia, I did not make many friends as I had hoped but I did meet two important men who will therefore be very much part of my life until I die. I survived two accidents- a minor gas explosion that left me with some second to third degree burns on my legs and a hit-and-run motorbike accident that gave me a souvenir scar under my right eyebrow. My life in Malaysia was colorful indeed. No regrets and no complaints. Most importantly, I successfully finished my study in the field where my passion lies.  It did not come easy so the victory was bittersweet.  

Since my departure from my homeland, I have lived in a metropolis as well as on an island. I have learned to cook and become good at it. Two years ago, I had no idea (nor did I ever ponder?) how a raw chicken from a supermarket came to an edible stage on the dinner plate. Now I am baking lemon polenta cakes and I have mastered at least 50 dishes that make people go “wow” at the dining table.  (Thanks to TLC, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson) I have picked up three new languages. Although they are still in developing stage, I hope to be fluent in all three in a few years time. Three years ago, I could count the times that I had been on airplanes but now I have lost count of the cities and towns that I visited.  I have cruised the Mediterranean, swum in the Caribbean and witnessed The Carnival in Rio, among so many other unforgettable worldly highlights that I have been lucky enough to soak in.

When I was back home in my country, the mobile phone, popularly known as “The GSM”, was a luxury and something that only the rich and famous could afford. All you could do with it, really, was making phone calls, not even inclusive of other services like texting, facebook or going online. Nevertheless, our people took pride in being able to hold GSM flaunting it by talking so loudly on the streets so that other GSM-less people like me could see and admire. I started using mobile phone when I moved to Malaysia. My very first mobile was an old-fashioned Nokia, I still remember. My best friend, a beautiful Chinese girl, taught me how to text, save contacts, download ringtones and stuff. Coming from a land where mobile phones were considered precious, it was truly thrilling to be able to hold one of my own in my hand. From that to a much better Nokia with games and a built-in camera that took grainy pictures later on and then onto a Blackberry when I moved to Indonesia (A national favorite!) and… now my iPhone 4, I have come a long way. This boy who learned how to send text messages 4 years ago now can’t live without his iPhone. He has in fact become so dependent on this gadget. Once I was on a short daytrip out and forgot to bring my phone, I remember how lost and empty I felt the entire day. It felt like missing someone, just like that song “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. I was a mess!

My life has changed.  It has changed for the better.  Although most people would argue that four years is not really a long time, a lot has happened in my life. Fortunately, for me, so many great things happened. Now, I am in a place where I feel protected, respected and loved. Most importantly, I can truly be myself and not be afraid. I live a fairly comfortable life without having to worry so much or get stressed.  I believe that happiness is one of the most overrated virtues but I can confidently say right now that I am doing alright. And that is good enough. Not to sound cliché but it is true that we all have to make choices in life and go through many changes. Only through these changes and choices, we grow. I have grown a hell lot. Leaving my country was the best decision I have ever made and only I know where I would have been if I had chosen “the otherwise”.  I am now glad that I was able to press the restart button instead of the shut down when things got complicated.

Lately, there has been a lot of positive news coming out of my country. I have heard that the country is moving towards a better direction and some progress has been made. That makes me very happy and hopeful. Besides, the dark episode that I was going through when I left home seems a little too distant from where I am now. I have been trying so hard not to think about home so that I do not have to miss it. I rarely call home. I never write to my family or anyone else.  But now I feel that it is about time. It is about time to go back to the place where I belong for the first time since I left. After all, what am I made of? I do miss home. I can’t lie. I do miss speaking my language and eating my food. Besides, I am curious to see how things have changed or rather remained unchanged. Dear old friends, the streets that I walked, my old apartment in the city, the places I used to frequent, oh...all of it. It’s funny! Who would have thought, definitely not I, that going back to such a familiar place like home would feel as if I were unwrapping a mysterious gift? I am filled with questions. Will it delight me or disappoint me?  Will this homecoming be nostalgic and weepy like in the movies? Would I cry once the familiar warm breeze of my motherland wraps me up and sweeps me off as I land? How will my people back home react to this brand new me? Or am I still their jolly boy with a pointy nose who causes troubles? … I am indeed anxious but very excited to find out. 

And…I guess I am ready to embrace what I had left behind four years ago all over again. I am coming home.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Little Bit of Lombok

Lombok, Indonesia

This was the shortest time I ever spent on an airplane. From take off to landing the flight took less than 30 minutes. Jade, an Australian girl I befriended on the plane, had lived on the island of Lombok for the last two years and was therefore a useful source of tourist information. 

Do you want to share a cab? I’m going to Sangigi beach as well. It’s about 2 hours away from the new airport,” she said. 

Two Hours???”  

After spending 2 hours at Bali airport, and with two more hours on the road to go, I somehow wished I’d taken the fast catamaran instead of such a brief flight.

Bali is a destination that keeps the visitors coming back for more; the Balinese way of life, alluring landscape, charming customs and fascinating rituals captivate tourists of all stripes.  However, many returnees, who are either on their second or third visit, need new adventures and alternatives; a little more than just Bali. Thus, the island hopping begins. One of the popular options of course is the next island to the east – Lombok.

The island of Lombok is roughly circular in shape and slightly smaller than its better-known neighbor, Bali.  Although separated by only a narrow 35-kilometre stretch of water, the difference between the two islands is palpable. Despite their proximity, Bali and Lombok belong to different ecological regions (for those of you who might want to know more, look up the “Wallace Line”, named after the famous British natural historian, which runs between the two islands). Lombok is much dryer and less humid than ever-wet, steamy Bali – and the plants and animals found on Lombok owe more to their Australasian cousins as apposed to the more strongly Asian influenced flora and fauna of Bali. 
Charming rural life on Lombok, Indonesia

These differences extend to the culture of the two islands, with 95%  percent of Lombok’s residents following the Islamic faith (the Balinese are mostly Hindu), so instead of temples, you will see mosques here. In place of the big name resorts and hotels of Bali, lush green open spaces and rolling, forests hills dominate in less-developed Lombok. There is a quieter atmosphere here, fewer tourists and much less hectic traffic. Oh, there’s one more thing: instead of the ubiquitous Absolut vodka bottles, which are recycled and used to sell gasoline to the huge number of moped riders on Bali, on Lombok, fuel is sold in plane bottles which contained less intoxicating liquids. Perhaps you can take a guess why!

Gasoline in bottles

I was dropped off at Puri Mas Spa resort, a Dutch-owned and operated hotel with verdant tropical gardens that included a mini zoo (interesting to see the kangaroos and cockatoos in a nod to the Australian-influenced animal life of the island). Soon after arrival I discovered that Puri Mas has another property (under the same name) but right on the Mangsit beach, otherwise known as the hotel strip. As I preferred to be closer to the sea, I opted for a transfer, which the staff politely arranged. Just 20 minutes later, I found myself sitting on a deck chair by the hotel’s infinity pool, under a parasol that shielded me from the hot sun. Three fishermen in the distance were hard at work, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat, plying their trade in the waist-deep water. Just occasional warm sea breezes blew across the bay – but there was little relief from the heat. In front of me was the silver sea, seemingly endless, flickering under the bright afternoon sun and sluggishly preparing itself for what promised to me a glorious sunset show later on.  
The infinity pool at Puri Mas resort, Lombok

Sukadi, the taxi driver I made friends with on my way to dinner, volunteered to take me around the island for a flat fee. Half a million rupiah for the one-day use of his service that included the narration of facts and information of the island, gratuit! I bargained it down to 400,000 rupiah (about US$45). Senggigi beach is Lombok’s equivalent to Bali’s Kuta, and is the happening place. Of course, the night scene on Senggigi cannot compete with ever-bustling Kuta . Few people were on the streets, the restaurants were empty and the selection of food was limited. I walked into one roadside restaurant and decided to have dinner there, based on three things; a tourist-friendly menu, cleanliness and the chatty, friendly headwaiter – though I was so hungry he, admittedly, could have sold me just about anything at that point. A four-piece live band was playing “Hotel California” to five diners (including me!) seated at three separate tables and under the dim lights. Isn’t it funny how we try our best to avoid all things touristy when travelling? Yet sometimes we have no choice but to play along; tonight was one of those nights. Due to recent reports about how a methanol-contaminated cocktail caused an Australian tourist brain damage and kidney failure, I decided to not touch any mixed alcoholic drinks on this island. Apparently, 25 people, including 4 tourists, in the region had died after having cocktails mixed with local methanol-laced Arak recently. It is such a shame these beautiful islands are marred by greed acts like this.

Pelan-pelan, pak!” I asked Sukadi to slow down a bit in Indonesian, only to receive his cheeky grin in response. Despite the hour – it was still only 10am – even the morning sun kept the atmosphere stuffy and sizzling and I rolled down the window to draw in some cool air. I was now looking down at the scenic coastline dotted with countless palm trees that punctuated the sweeping expanse of white sandy beaches. Piercing blue and numerous shades of green suffused the scene. 
Our driver with the jack fruits

Driving through the island’s idyllic villages allowed me to observe the way of life. Lombokans lead a simple idyllic lifestyle. A woman was seen putting freshly caught fishes on the grill while the men smoked and shared chitchat. Some men nearby were loading coconuts into a truck. Obviously there is so much to be done with the insane number of coconuts on this island. Frequently we passed by women wearing conical hats either picking up vegetables or working in the paddy fields. As soon as they saw me pointing my camera at them, they shyly turned away but never failed to say “Hello”, flashing their megawatt smiles.

While travelling through Sukarara village, I was alerted by the noise and crowds on the street. Suddenly the traffic came to a standstill. Sukadi asked a child on the street and translated to me that there was a parade as part of a circumcision ceremony passing by. In Indonesia, according to the laws of Islam, this procedure is done when boys are somewhere between 6 to 11 years old. A little boy, aged around 6, was dolled up, costumed and being carried around on a multi-colored fake horse like a king, followed by three beautiful young girls as part of his entourage. The little boy looked quite bewildered by the hoopla but he seemed to be enjoying the attention (perhaps he didn’t know quite what was in store!). The girls were also on their respective thrones but they did not look so thrilled as they sat under the blazing sun with their makeup melting. A bullock cart piloted by two grown men was tailing close by and on it, a stereo blasting lively Indonesian songs through two large speakers. 
  On the way to circumcision ceremony, Lombok

An hour drive further took me to a village at the foot of Mount Rinjani, an active volcano that is proclaimed as “the second highest mountain in all of Indonesia”. At the tourism office I learned that two days trekking is required to get to the emerald green Crater Lake, Segara Anak (meaning “Child of the sea”) that I longed to photograph and a further one or two nights camping out in the wild in order to climb the extra 1,000 m to the summit. 

Why didn’t you tell me this?” I looked at Sukadi with puzzlement. Though to be honest it was not his fault but mine. I should have done my homework. Unequipped with mountain climbing gear and with only three days in hand, the volcano visit was now out of the question.

I consoled myself with a quick tour around the traditional Sasak village nearby. Sasaks are the indigenous people of Lombok and are related to the Balinese in terms of race and language – but are Muslim rather than Hindu. In addition to making distinctive basketry, earthenware and selling pearls, the tribe makes their living from “songket” handicraft. Songket is the weaving of fabric, which belongs to the brocade textile family that is common in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Apparently, the girl who cannot weave in the village cannot get married. 

Huts made out of cow dung, with thatched roofs lined the small lane on both sides. Children, some unclothed, were playing close by, unbridled and unattended. My presence had certainly brought them amusement. They tailed me around the village, giggling. The smell, the sight and even the air here felt different. The locals were friendly and accommodating but I felt that I was violating their privacy by taking pictures of their children and homes. While my thoughts were at it, the rain started pouring down as though it was a warning. So off we dashed, back to where we came from, but Sukadi, a man for all seasons, had a better idea - a late lunch at CoCo beach.

It was way past two in the afternoon when I arrived at this small warong (restaurant in Indonesian), nestled among a  forest of palm trees by the beach. Simply titled CoCo Beach Warong, here, patrons can enjoy scrumptious local cuisines in the bamboo gazebos while watching the mighty waves crashing onto the rocky shore. I lunched on a grilled fish prepared with local spices accompanied by fried rice with crispy fish crackers, snake beans and a fried egg on the side. It was a peaceful afternoon, spent listening to the soundtrack of nature on shuffle and doing absolutely nothing.

The Glorious Sunset on Lombok island, Indonesia

Later that day, Sengigi beach became crowded with local tourists. Unlike Kuta of Bali, international tourists are rare. The bathers, swimmers, kite flyers and sunset watchers were scattered all over like pebbles on the shore. The amber sun was now gently glowing, gorgeous and sentimental. The view of the mighty Mount Agung on Bali, in the far distance, was hazy and yet still just visible in the evening mist. Seeing the sun gradually go into hiding below the horizon, changing its hues by minutes is, as clichéd as it may sound, priceless. Although it is a daily event, how many of us can truly appreciate a simple thing like this when we are not travelling?

Be it lazing around in the sun, immersing one’s self in the rural lifestyle or savoring adventurous activities, Lombok is a perfect little getaway. Although some parts of the island have been developed to an international standard, very much is still unspoiled and, probably, in much the same state is it’s been for centuries. A pleasant surprise for me was that the hospitality and graciousness of the Lombokans, which is on par with the Balinese. I wish I had stayed longer - but I am definitely coming back here again in the near future, perhaps for a fitness challenge. The trekking of Mount Rinjani that is.  Till next time!