The immediate impression the visitor to Lovina 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 spoke of this small collection of villages as the next big thing. ‘You mark my words,’ he told me over nasi goreng, ‘this place is on the verge of something special.’
On the surface, it looked like he was right. I saw a lot in Lovina that had appealed to the discerning traveller: the long, open blacksand beaches; the surrounding hills aching for exploration; the glistening ocean ripe for diving and home to pods of dolphins.
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The myriad bars, restaurants, warung 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 5th time in as many minutes if I had any laundry, I asked a friendly masseuse why she was so desperate for money.
‘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.’
‘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, congregated in the town square to sell their wares.
I watched again and again as one of the town’s chefs offering genuine home cookery classes faced rejection; in the face of repeated refusal his smile remained but the rest of his body sagged.
Gamely grinning, he continued down the beach looking for potential customers. ‘Maybe next month.’
Back in the springs, as my head resurfaced from beneath the spring’s surface, I basked 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 distant 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 can be felt a few miles down the road.
(Editor’s note: It’s not all doom and gloom in Lovina. This story was written during a particularly quiet low season in 2008 and by all accounts it’s a lot busier around there these days.
It does pose a couple of fundamental questions though. Having been to a number of places where tourism is so barren as to not even be an issue – Sumba and Madura, for example – why is it some places feel the sting more than others? What constitutes ‘busy’? Do many places actually need tourism? Is tourism a corrupting influence? If anyone’s actually read this far, please give your comments below)