Lovina, Bajar Hot Springs

Lovina: Impressions of a town trying to catch up

The immediate impression the visitor receives upon arrival at Banjar Hot Springs is its otherworldliness.

Such is the effect of its delicate combination of heat and surrounding kaleidoscopic swirl of flowers in bloom that it propels you from a pool in northern Bali into a secret garden a million miles away from the rest of the world. It is, you sense, how living in a bubble would feel.

In a state of transcendental bliss, I dipped my head beneath the water and thought about nearby Lovina.

The Australian property developer I met on the bus from Ubud voiced his conviction that this small collection of villages represented the next big thing in terms of tourism. ‘You mark my words,’ he told me over a bowl of nasi goreng, the subtle hint of fried oil emanating from its rim, ‘this place is on the verge of something special.’

On the surface, it looked like he was right. I saw much in Lovina that would appeal to the discerning traveller. Long, open black sand beaches bled into the surrounding hills begging for exploration, while out to sea lay a glistening realm ripe for diving and home to pods of dolphins.

The numerous bars, restaurants, warung cafes and decent travel links all hinted at a town geared towards abundant tourism.

And yet, something was lacking. A dusk walk along Kalibukbuk’s beach crystallised Lovina’s apparent malaise. After being asked for the fifth time in as many minutes if I had any laundry, I asked a friendly masseuse why she was so desperate for money.

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‘No-one comes here. I have no money. My sons have no money,’ she told me.

‘I just figured it was the quiet season.’

‘It used to have more people!’ she exclaimed, ‘But after what happened – the bombs and the tsunami – people stay away. Maybe next month they come.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yes, people will come, but we still need to eat. Anyway – massage – laundry – you come and find me, okay? I do it cheap for you. Dadah.’ With that, she strode off into the early evening.

Further investigation showed a town struggling to make ends meet. The fishermen slept on the beach to have more time on the ocean; the vendors, outnumbering the tourists, gathered in the town square to try and sell their wares.

I watched again and again as one of the town’s chefs offering genuine home cookery classes was turned down; in the face of repeated disappointment his smile remained, but the rest of his body sagged.

Gamely grinning, he continued down the beach looking for potential customers. ‘Maybe next month.’

As my head resurfaced from beneath the spring’s surface, I became caught in the beatific glow of the late-afternoon sun shining through gaps in the jungle.

It was hard to reconcile this sublime feeling with the melancholy, caused by acts of terrorism and natural disasters, of the adjacent villages.

When Japanese colonists first built the pools at Banjar, they were mindful of the healing properties of the Brimstone in the water; in the case of Lovina, I hope the effects make themselves known a few miles down the road.

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