the nothing whatever...

Chilli Crab

So, where I left you on the edge of your seat last week was whether or not we were going to go out for chilli mud-crab at Lombok Lounge…oh, the suspense. Well, we did, and it was, for lack of a better descriptor, an interesting sequence of events. I think its a good story to tell, as it might give you some idea about the difference between Kuta Lombok and the other destinations we have been.

The sign for Lombok Lounge has a giant illuminated “Bintang” logo neighboring it (which is nothing new, every single place we have been for a meal in all of Indonesia has sold Bintang), and the name of the place sounds as though it would be a venue that has a live band playing on Friday nights, happy hour around 7pm with an assortment of both local and foreign beers on tap, and tourists and Lombokians alike vibing on their respective couch or beanbag. Well, without wanting to draw too vivid a picture, its ambiance is that of a schools auditorium on the weekend at around dusk; dead silent, a little creepy, and carrying the feeling that nobody, not even the staff, are expecting you to be there.

When we arrived, there was another couple sitting at a table on the decrepit floorboards of the balcony, and although we didn’t acknowledge one another, I could almost sense that they were also slightly on edge, unsure of what they had walked into and contemplating how they could leave without awkwardly drawing attention to their own discomfort. We had already become locked in such a mode, as the waiter (who looked slightly androgynous, just to add to the obscurity) emerged from the entrance at the back with a beaming smile when we walked up the stairs. We sat down at a table near theirs, and the waiter preceded to take both table’s orders. I don’t usually need an excuse when it comes to beer, but, aside from the friendliness of the waiter, this was an environment that lacked everything you would deem to be hospitable, familiar and welcoming. As a means of escapism, Bintang seemed to be the only logical option.

“Awwww…so sorry, no Bintang.” he said with an apologetic look.

“OK, I’ll just have a coke.” I said politely, thinking “but the sign out the front says…and the name of this place is…and you’re telling me that…NO BINTANG? What the hell have we stumbled into?”

We ordered the chilli mud-crab and the waiter disappeared back behind the doors that lead to the kitchen, leaving the other couple and Nic and I in the stark silence of the night.

A half-hour passed, in which time I noticed a scooter motor down the side alley next to the property, exiting out the car park. Five minutes later, another different scooter entered the car park, and two shaggy-haired European men climbed off it and eventually sat at the table next to ours. I could tell that they also noticed the profound and eerie silence that the place had as the root of its lacking atmosphere, but they sat anyway, and they briefly spoke with each other, and they waited.

And waited.

And waited.

But, unlike upon our arrival, nobody emerged from the door leading to the kitchen. Finally, one of them raised himself from his chair and went to investigate, pushing his way through the door in which the waiter had vanished what seemed like an hour ago, and then reemerging with a confused look on his face and asking us “is there anybody here, because nobody is in the kitchen?”

I can only imagine how bizarre it must have seemed to him; two couples eagerly awaiting their meals on a dimly lit balcony, their tables completely set with condiments and place-mats and cutlery and serviettes, the noticeable absence of any sort of musical accompaniment or even the clattering of pots and pans. And there is nobody in the kitchen. I probably would have thought it was some sort of trap and speedily made my exit.

His confused expression was reciprocated, but we all assured him that once upon a time, somebody had taken our order. Extremely patiently, and maybe not wanting to show any distrust, they both sat back down and waited, and thankfully, a short while later a scooter motored back through the alley down the side of the building. Three waiters burst through the doors with a flurry of apologies, with the androgynous waiter now having two others to help him. I may be mistaken, but it seems that these waiters were on-call, only needed during the peak periods of 6 or more customers. It was flat out.

Both the European’s orders were taken, and then the head waiter, once again, disappeared through the doors, while the other two waiters fiddled around with some cords and a laptop. For the next fifteen minutes, sporadic noises came out through the speakers that sounded like they were plugging them into the microphone jack, loud and droning and irritating. They eventually gave up on the sound system, and we then had Bruno Mars and J-Lo playing from their small laptop while both of them unashamedly sung the lyrics, skipping the tracks they didn’t like and repeating to ones they did. By this stage, we were approaching an hour since we had been seated, there were 6 people in the restaurant, and it didn’t look as though they had even started our meal. If either one of us was Gordon Ramsey (although Nic is just as formidable) then the place probably would already have been burnt to the ground by the heat of our rage. But we are not, so Nic and I swallowed our hunger, and, along with the other four, waited patiently.

So, as mentioned, there are a couple things that Lombok seems to have that have been absent (or less prominent) in our last couple of destinations.

The place is dense with culture, and it doesn’t take long to extract oneself from the “tourist hub” and start seeing things at their rawest. Everlasting rice fields, forestation with shades of green I haven’t seen before, poverty and happiness inclusive of one another. But I think one of the symptoms of this is that there are many young children who have been put to work in order to earn money for their family, offering bracelets, sarongs, T-shirts and singlets while you sit down for a meal, and doing their utmost to appeal to your sense of compassion and empathy, even if it is at the expense of truth. So, a portion of our nights entertainment while we were waiting for this meal was a young girl playfully asking everybody their name and where they were from, then engaging them in colloquial conversation to gain familiarity, then pleading desperately with them to purchase a bracelet from her and claiming that she needs books for school, that her family is very poor, and that we are very lucky. With steadfast resilience we politely refused…well, it wasn’t an outright refusal, our response was “maybe later”, but I think that the kids have heard that saying enough to assume its meaning. But she wasn’t the only entertainment, and she wasn’t they only one pleading.

In Kuta Lombok, there is a high tolerance for the canine life that resides there. We either were not subjected to this tolerance in the other parts of Indonesia (as mentioned, Gili T didn’t allow dogs on the island), or the tolerance need not be had because the dogs were not as abundant. Most eating spots come with about four or five dogs that live around the area in their own little soap opera, and by all accounts, seem happier than pigs in mud. When you receive your food, it is not uncommon to have three other sets of eyes quietly looking on in hope and admiration. But, in its recurring theme of differing taste, Lombok Lounge was home to the cats. Even before our food had arrived, there were two at the base of our table, saucer eyed and loudly meowing, sometimes even jumping up on the back of Nic’s chair. Another source of guilt for us to stuff our faces in front of.

That wasn’t the only section of the animal kingdom that had joined us for dinner. There seemed to be an entire ants nest within our table, and although we sprayed ourselves thoroughly with repellant, hero mosquitoes attracted to a challenge were inflicting 20-cent-piece bites on my ankles and feet. But I don’t think Nic noticed any of them as much as she did the hand-sized bats that were flying around the ceiling lights. Every now and then she would wince and duck at a shadow, swearing on her life that one of them is seconds away from hitting her in the head. I laughed and told her that they might be blind, but their sonar is as good as any 20-20 vision and there is no chance of them hitting her (just something I assumed after watching Batman and probably holds no truth whatsoever).

It seems that the entire war on tobacco that has been waged by the Australian government is being actively countered by Indonesia. Cigarettes are not just cheap here, but can be obtained almost anywhere, and it is safe to assume upon meeting somebody older than 13 that they are nursing a solid nicotine addiction. A short time later, we watched a hunched elderly lady coughing and spluttering her way through the alley down the side of the building, I can only assume on her way to the kitchen. Every few steps would set off her resounding death-rattle, and its heaving and popping sound made me feel a little sick to the stomach. It looked like the cook had finally arrived.

It wasn’t for another hour that we finally got what we came for, one kilogram of chilli mud-crab. I can imagine that up until now, you have read with your nose crinkled in distaste, wondering why in the name of all that is sacred we were eating at the Lombok Lounge in the first place, and why we ended up subjecting ourselves to that kind of discomfort for two straight hours. Well, I can honestly say the meal that ensued made me forget about where we were, what was flying and crawling and begging around us, and who was cooking. Our fingers were bright orange from delving our hands into the deliciously spicy sauce that coated the 4 or 5 crabs in the bowl. We drowned out the Bruno Mars wannabe’s with our cracking and slurping that was only interrupted every now and then by us pausing, looking at each other with raised eyebrows, and saying “you gonna eat that claw?”. We barely even noticed the hunched old lady hacking her way back down the alley and out of the car park, the source of the holy recipe fading into the night. Her work was done.

By the time we finished every last morsel of crab it was about three hours since we arrived, and it looked like we had just played a game of paintball. We washed out hands, our faces, our arms and our legs, paid the $15 AU, thanked all the waiters (particularly the androgynous one as he seemed to be doing all the work), and made our way to exit. But before we did, in fitting fashion, a stray bat flew itself right across Nic’s face, so close that I thought it hit her, and before she could manage a yelp I grabbed her and lightly pressed her face into my shoulder as we waved goodbye. A fitting farewell to what had been one of the more baffling places we have eaten in Indonesia.