What’s life like in paradise?

What’s life like in paradise?

For visitors, a tropical island life is an idyll. Here, three Balinese describe the other side of paradise

A palm-fringed beach in the sun is an oft-cited picture of idyllic perfection.

But what’s it really like to live on a tropical island "paradise?"

I took a trip to Nusa Lembongan, a tiny curvaceous island southeast of Bali, to meet some of the locals and see what life is like.

It turns out, it is primarily focused on work. Here are three people, involved in the tourism trade on Lembongan, who battle with the ups and downs of life like the rest of us.


Made, beachside restaurant owner

food shack owner bali

When a visitor -- a Dutch woman seemingly on an Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love” mission -- slapped down a modest sum of start-up capital for a beachside restaurant and swiftly went on her way, Made thought her dreams had come true.

“I don’t know if she even knows this place exists,” says the single island native, whose brother helps her man the restaurant.

Made’s food shack, called Mimpi Warung (or restaurant), sits on a picture-perfect sunset spot, enjoys views of Mount Agung --  at 3,000 meters Bali’s highest volcano -- and has all the rough-edged quality that appeals to backpackers and anyone who wants to get back to basics.

A crude wooden sign with fuzzy, stenciled lettering stands like a trident on the beach and inside the thinly painted wooden structure, there’s nothing but a cramped, fly-infested kitchen.

The clapboard structure she lives in next to the restaurant is similarly basic, but it’s an improvement on her former residence.

“I lived in a simple house with a thatched roof and every time it rained it leaked,” says the former seaweed farmer who, tired of living a life of struggle, taught herself basic English and began inviting visitors to her house to eat home-cooked Balinese food.

Back then people would put down a deposit so Made could buy the ingredients. Now no one pays ahead, she says.

The money from her Dutch benefactor proved insufficient, so she has had to scrape by or rely on friends when customers are in short supply -– which they often are.

Many residents along this eastern strip of Nusa Lembongan have had similar ideas, setting up small beachside stalls to cater to tourists on their way to the surrounding mangroves.

Made has an affable demeanor that appeals to guests –- she is charming and laughs easily. If someone wants a cooking lesson, she’ll give it. Special orders are no problem.

Visitors who come here say they like it -- and more importantly, they like Made. Her beers are cold, and cheap.

But while Made's restaurant has an idyllic location, does a good trade in the local Bintang beer and has risen above the ranks of the seaweed farmers around her, she still struggles to make ends meet.

Get there: Mimpi’s Warung, down the main road in Jungutbatu near the seaweed farms.


I Wayan Diana, woodcarver

woodcarver bali

Wayan, another entrepreneur, runs a steadier business.

The 67-year-old artisan picked up his entire woodcarving operation and moved back to his home in Jungutbatu, Lembongan’s biggest village, in 2002, shortly after a terrorist bombing in a nightclub in Bali squeezed the flow of tourists to that island.

Most of his carvings are made of hibiscus wood, because it’s soft and light. Mahogany sells for a higher price, but it’s much more difficult to carve, says Wayan, whose left eye shows traces of a cataract.

Eclectic carvings gather dust. A 40-centimeter frog suited in a tuxedo jacket is flecked with dirt and slightly chipped. Wayan says it has been with him for nearly a decade.

Prices for Wayan’s carvings range from US$20-80, but his income is volatile. On days when boats deliver tourists to his shop, which is tucked down a narrow lane off the beach, he can sell as many as four or five pieces. During low season, he can go weeks without selling a carving. 

A cordial salesman, Wayan has stories about each of the items in his shop; some are not for sale, as they were brought back from remote Papuan tribes and given to him by friends.

The range of styles is astounding -- he’ll cater to customers' wishes, he says.

Beneath a typical Balinese shrine hides a mask used in traditional dances. Painted black with red polka dots, the face resembles a frog and is said to bring on rain.

“You can hang it in your garden or above your table -- it will help you enjoy your coffee,” says Wayan, who relishes recounting tales as much as using his hands.

“I like to work, I don’t like sitting. Besides, I have to work to earn money.”

He also enjoys passing on his skills to youths, most of whom would rather spend time on Facebook than studying traditional handicrafts. His business helped him put four children through school. Their educations and grasp of English have landed them jobs at bungalow complexes in Bali.

His biggest worry now is not knowing when he’ll make his next sale. So whenever he can he agrees to negotiate. “That one is US$40,” he says, pointing at the frog mask. “But I’ll give it to you for half.”

Get there: Utarayana Art Shop; Kangin, Desa Jungutbatu +62 813 533 12496


Ketut Sunarti, resort owner

resort owner bali

Ketut Sunarti hesitates when discussing the benefits tourism has brought to Nusa Lembongan. “It’s good to learn about other cultures,” he says, before explaining the importance of learning guests’ preferences and expectations.

Sunarti and his family opened their resort, Alam Nusa, in October 2010. “It was clear tourism was growing, so we decided to give it a try,” says Ketut Supira, Sunarti’s brother-in-law and co-manager. 

Using the land they owned, the family borrowed around US$100,000 from the bank to build the four traditional bungalows, spa and café. During high season, when the rooms are fully booked, they rake in around US$300 a night.

The work is harder than seaweed farming, says Supira, who comes from a family of farmers. “Running a hotel requires a lot of thought and skill. You have to know how to handle complaints and many of our staff don’t know English, so sometimes there are problems with the guests.”

Materially, the Sunarti family is middle class. They own several motorbikes, have plenty to eat and all the children can afford to go to school and later take for hospitality training.

But the family controls everything at Alam Nusa. They handle the maintenance and repairs and provide security.

On the nights Sunarti is on call he sleeps on the floor in a tiny plywood room behind the front desk. Some days he goes to Bali to sell the resort to incoming visitors and work on the speedboats for extra cash.

Those boats, loaded with middle-class Asian and Western tourists, storm Mushroom Bay, the beach nearest to Alam Nusa. Some holiday-makers splash about in the water, snorkel or ride inflatable banana boats.

Several times a day large groups head from Mushroom Bay to Lembongan Village to view the expansive seaweed farms off the island’s southern coast.

Resignation is implicit in Sunarti’s speech about tourism; the Balinese way of adapting to an economic force that is not necessarily one of their choosing.

The expectation of future benefits drives the people of Nusa Lembongan along. In the meantime, they keep working, smiling and working some more to prepare for all that is to come.

Get there: Alum Nusa Bungalows and Spa; Tanjung Sanghyang +62 819 166 26336, www.alamnusahuts.com


getting there

Speed boats leave almost hourly from Sanur on Bali, starting at 8 a.m. ($20 one way). The slower Perama tourist boat leaves at 10:15 a.m.  and again at noon ($10 one way).
Population: 5,000
Area: Eight square kilometers
Geography: Ringed by coral reefs, low limestone cliffs and pockets of white-sand beaches. Mangroves flank the northeast.
Main sources of income: Seaweed farming, tourism, fishing


Sara has lived in Thailand and Cambodia and currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She likes to keep moving and uses these pages to write about the exciting things she learns along the way.

Read more about Sara Schonhardt