Mysteries In The Mist

A wise man recently gave me sage advice: before visiting a place of natural beauty, avoid all images of it.  Postcards are idealistic portrayals, taken from impossible angles in optimal conditions, and colour-manipulated to “perfection”.  After seeing these images your mind will cling to expectations of visual greatness, and in reality you will most likely be met with the bitter taste of disappointment.  This concept is new to me, but since visiting Mount Bromo it’s a philosophy I will whole-heartedly adopt in the future.

If staring into the earth’s bubbling core is on your bucket list, Indonesia is the place.  Beneath this endless string of islands, two colossally large crustal plates are forced together causing huge magma eruptions from 100km below the surface.  It’s all science to me, but essentially this energetic and perpetual tectonic activity is the reason Indonesia is peppered with so many living, breathing volcanoes.  Frequently they huff, spit, erupt and flow, which certainly gets the world’s geologists and lava enthusiasts excited.

Mount Bromo is by no means Indonesia’s largest or most explosive volcano, but its appeal lies in its positioning.  Sitting cosily beside two neighbouring volcanoes, Bromo rises up from a vast crater of grey ash.  Just outside the crater edge stands a fourth peak, watching over its three little sisters and across the eerie, lunaresque backdrop – a popular spot for welcoming the first rays of a new day.  It is a place of deep religious significance for Hindus and a site of great mythical intrigue.  Because of the dramatic, moon-like setting and the high concentration of active volcanoes in the area, this National Park is hailed to be one of the most beautiful sights in the world.  Unfortunately, I cannot corroborate this; my experience was far from picture-perfect.

It’s not a walk in the park accessing Mount Bromo.  It took 18 uncomfortable hours of broken buses and failed connections to reach the entry point; a small village with only one passable option for accommodation, and even that turned out to be a disappointment.  At that altitude it’s common for the clouds to close in around you and obscure the views, but as we arrived light precipitation intensified into heavy rainfall and we could only cling to the misguided hope that by the next morning it would clear, allowing us a spectacular sunrise over the peaks (note from my previous blog our poor track record with such things).  We paid triple our budget for a damp, stinking room in which even the bed was not dry. Being enormously unprepared for these wet, cold conditions we had only a handful of useful garments, so we layered up and spent a miserable night shivering between clammy sheets, until 3.30am when the alarm woke us.

Piling into a jeep with a few other tired faces, we ascended the steep volcanic slopes.  It was treacherous weather for off-road driving.  In darkness we bounced along rough tracks, the driver skilfully circumnavigating floods and small landslides.  For some time at the viewing platform we huddled under a small shelter, without a single glimpse of Bromo and its sisters puffing away.  This wasn’t just rain; it was an all-encompassing fog of a density that would put San Francisco to shame.  Friends have shared with us stories of ethereal beauty and spiritual serenity watching the sun rise over spectacular Bromo, but our own experience was an epic failure.

With disappointment we admitted defeat, clambered back into the jeep and were driven into the basin of the crater, at which point the experience became surprisingly more enjoyable.  With nothing but grey ash for as far as the eye could see, we set foot onto a spooky panorama, reminiscent of images of the moon.  In the colourless, empty expanse of volcanic desert a single Hindu temple stood proud; the only sign of human life.  The previous day’s misguided optimism about the elements was replaced by acceptance – if we still wanted to hike to the summit, it meant doing so in pelting rain.  And so, dressed in fluorescent green head-to-toe ponchos, we scrambled up the side of the ash mountain to peer into the smouldering guts of the volcano itself – an incredible moment.  Ironically, it wasn’t until we were soaked to the bone that we appreciated the experience for what it was, not what we hoped it would be.  And that’s when we began to laugh at ourselves; two bright green plastic figures, exhausted at the top of a much-anticipated volcano, gripping onto each other for support in the violent wind, getting slapped hard in the face by nature and loving every drenching second of it.

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The Soul of a Nation

Like many parts of the world, Indonesia is a melting pot of opposing faiths.  Occasionally, and very sadly, there exists conflict generated by extremist groups, and the world’s media has – perhaps understandably – largely focused its attention on the tragic bombings of this nation’s recent history.  But in doing so I believe it has overlooked something remarkable: that in pockets of this vast country there are communities breaking down the religious barriers, climbing inside each other’s contrasting ideologies and meditating together, as one, in the hope that by better understanding each other’s differing spiritual approaches they can live side by side in harmony, and without discord.  Borobudur is one such place.

Sitting serenely on a plane of rice paddies amidst soaring volcanic peaks, Borobudur is a town in search of Nirvana – via a multitude of spiritual routes. Buddhist monasteries, Islamic mosques and Hindu temples share the surrounding land amicably; whatever your religion or belief system, here you are accepted.

Arriving late afternoon on a laughably over-crowded public bus, we were at once smitten.  Transferring onto rickshaws and meandering through the town’s bumpy back roads we found the air to be clean and undisturbed by traffic; a welcome change from the mayhem of noisy, suffocating cities.  The countryside was instantly breath taking, and the pace of life pleasingly slow.  We settled into a palatial guest house – the perfect antidote to the stuffy, windowless, back alley rooms we had become accustomed to – with a four-poster bed, a stone bathroom fit for a sultan and majestic views from our private balcony overhanging some spectacular flooded rice paddies.

What draws most visitors to this part of Java is Borobudur’s colossal Buddhist temple, a 1200 year old monument which has survived the wrath of Mother Nature in several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the wrath of man in a 1985 terrorist attack.  Having risen at 4am and journeyed up into the hills for sunrise overlooking this famous stone structure, we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed when the wet season’s finest rain clouds engulfed us, preventing even the briefest glimpse of the temple, or of the sun’s ascent.  What we should have seen from our mountainous look-out was a sweeping vista of sun-tinted beauty, and what we in fact saw were half a dozen trees shrouded in mist.   We descended for breakfast, muddy and disappointed.

Our next attempt to connect with the famous monument saw us traipsing around the site itself in punishing midday heat, clad in ridiculous sarongs which I’m positive are only compulsory attire for foreigners in order to satisfy the local people’s amusement.  Up close, the large stone Buddha heads and narrative carvings embedded in the walls of the structure were certainly impressive, and the views across the region from the temple’s hill top position were definitely worth the steep climb, but it was hard to appreciate the enigma of this World Heritage Site when every Asian tourist present was queuing up for a photo with us white folk.  Posing awkwardly before their lenses was becoming something of a daily occurrence for us and whilst it was amusing, I’m pleased to report this little town had something more authentic up its spiritual sleeve for us.

Nestled in the centre of town is Mendut temple; small and insignificant in comparison to its mighty neighbour, but hiding within its walls lives a truly striking statue of the Buddha, towering overhead and sitting unconventionally in a Western-style posture, with both feet on the ground.  Visiting after dusk, we were grateful to be the temple’s only visitors.  As we climbed up the steps towards the narrow door, gold light flooded out from within the internal chamber, projecting an enchanting glow into the night’s encroaching darkness, and drawing our eyes immediately to three immense statues within.  The interior was exquisite, its high walls and ceiling adorned with Hindu-Javanese carvings, mesmerising to the eye.  Amidst the beauty there was also a tranquillity I haven’t experienced in other temples, mostly due to crowds.  It would be an easy place to lose oneself in prayer or quiet reflection.

But for our own inward-focus that evening we were especially privileged: for a small back-hander the guards allowed us into the neighbouring monastery where we sat in a vast, empty room behind a single chanting monk, and meditated to the sound of his voice and the insects outside.  Once the monk’s incantations had finished, we walked the grounds.  A number of simple buildings were dotted around a lovingly designed garden of lotus flowers, trickling water features, Buddha statues and benches for quiet contemplation.  The monastery was gently lit, and beautifully still, but I took no photos.  A feeling of complete serenity will be my only souvenir.

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New Year’s Eve: best night of the year??

The first two nights in Jakarta passed in a vague blur of climate adjustment, jet lag and psychotic dreams, induced by anti-malarial medication.  Hair raising rickshaw rides on 8-lane highways aside, the city held little intrigue.  In the backpacker district of Jaksa we got a taste for Bintang (local beer) and delicious Indian-inspired snacks, but generally we were unenamoured.  Our one attempt at sightseeing found us stood at the base of a tall, architecturally dull monument, in a swarming sea of short Asian people pointing timeworn camera phones in our faces, giggling and shuffling around us as they each awaited their turn to pose alongside the strange white couple.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie themselves couldn’t have drawn more attention.

We escaped the polluted sprawling mass of the capital (population: ten million) as fast as the train would take us, moving out of the city’s traffic-plagued centre and crawling leisurely through a vast area of slums, flanking the filthy river banks.  Sighting such poverty from within the train was heart breaking, and I wondered how it would feel to be amongst it.  Maybe one day I’ll find out.

Late at night we reached Cirebon, a small city on Java’s north coast, known for masked dance, a thriving batik industry, and an abundance of walled palaces where sultans luxuriate in wealth.  Yet these are not the elements of Cirebon’s character now etched to memory; the experience of welcoming 2013 in the presence of 200 robed men chanting Islamic prayers before their Imam is unforgettable.  Whilst we’d been keen to experience a different kind of New Year’s Eve, neither of us could have imagined what would come.

With much of Indonesia being predominantly Muslim, alcohol is scarce.  In anticipation of the presumed forthcoming party, our evening started in the city’s sole watering hole – a smoked filled, caricaturised Westernised bar where 90s music and onion rings were coveted novelties.  We sank a few beers, played some pool and tolerated the fact that we were (temporarily) completely devoid of culture.  Before making our exit I got chatting to some local girls who couldn’t comprehend our intention to leave the ridiculously clichéd bar.  They looked at me sombrely and warned of “many traffic” and madness on the streets outside.  I was undeterred.  What did they know?  They were clearly only staying in the bar because it allowed them to dress minimally and dance drunkenly for the night – behaviour not tolerated in their everyday lives.

Strolling out onto the street, tipsy and eager for celebration, we found the sobering reason for their warnings: motorbikes, covering every possible inch of road and pavement, from here to eternity.  The width and length of the main street was rammed, with barely an inch between each.  On each bike sat three, sometimes four passengers, all at standstill.  Engines revved aggressively, horns honked relentlessly.  Believing we could cut through to find an alternative route, we submerged ourselves amongst the petrol heads, soon realising it was too late to make an escape.  The bikes closed in around us and we were trapped in the throng.  The fumes were hot and suffocating.  Every bike pointed towards a large park a mile further, which housed a huge stage (the location of the free public event we so keenly anticipated) but nobody was moving.  It was total gridlock.  As we attempted to weave a passage through the mayhem without losing a layer of skin on the burning exhaust pipes, I pondered whether these people expected to make any progress or whether they were content to sit amongst the pollution and searing engine heat all night.

Through the haze of my beer-buzz I observed something about the crowd I hadn’t seen at first: it was formed of gangs.  There didn’t appear to be any trouble yet but the vibe was menacing.  Each gang we passed eye-balled us, the only white faces in town, and there was an air of intimidation.  I know little about biker culture, but Ben’s ardent wish to escape said enough.

Over the course of an hour we made little progress, the gargantuan traffic jam had not eased and we were barely closer to our goal.  A dirty piece of metal cut into Ben’s foot, protruding up from a pile of putrid rubbish which occupied the only small parcel of land not already claimed by a revving engine.  Morale was dipping.

Sometime later we entered the park, bleeding, sweating and nerve-wracked.  At least now we were out of the chaos we could enjoy a beer and some live music.  Correction: we could enjoy a serious and sober night of Muslim prayers.  I don’t think either of us spoke for a few minutes while we tried to take in the scene before us.  On the stage sat a swarm of men in traditional robes, chanting what sounded like the same prayer repeatedly and monotonously (although I’m willing to accept that my lack of religious knowledge could render me completely mistaken).  As far as the eye could see, multi-generation families gathered to pray before them.  There was no song, no dance, no jubilation and no countdown.  At the stroke of midnight nothing happened to signify the start of a fresh year.  Nobody embraced, and even amongst the younger couples nobody kissed.  Now it was obvious why those girls stayed in the bar drinking mojitos.

Unsure how to conduct ourselves in this situation – we could neither participate nor celebrate – we simply observed from the shadows, our pale skin a beacon to inquisitive eyes.    The community of Cirebon does not see many tourists; I imagine our presence at such an event was beyond unusual.

At around 12.06, as the prayers were winding down and families were filtering out of the park, we beat a hasty retreat down a quiet side alley, unable to face the main street and its Hell’s Angels wannabes.   Sitting on the pavement to compose ourselves we shared our first discreet kiss of 2013 and contemplated the night’s atypical events.  Within moments a surge of bikers tore through the silence, shrieking as they sped past.  On foot, huge crowds of youths swarmed around us in a 360 degree frenzy of excitement, shouting and high-fiving us, demanding to know our names and touching our white skin, departing as rapidly as they arrived, making room for the next group.

New Year’s Eve: best night of the year?  Certainly the strangest.

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Blog 1: A Stranger Called Sam

There comes a critical moment as I find my seat on any long haul flight which I call Meeting My New Temporary Best Friend. I size this person up quickly, because if I’m travelling alone, then for the next 12-24 hours they must tick many boxes. My preferred criteria: 1) Friendly but not overbearing. 2) Physically fit, in case of emergency. 3) Healthy – I don’t want to catch anything. 4) Respectful of personal space. 5) Willing to have bones broken in a vice grip during turbulence. 6) Sense of humour added advantage.
On the 27th December 2012, as I left London for a two month Asian adventure, I struck in-flight gold; my jet plane buddy Sam fitted the description perfectly and made what was to be a dreadful Kuwait Airways experience distinctly more tolerable.

No journey is without obstacles, and when you travel it’s far better to embrace adversity, roll with the logistical punches, resist nothing and accept change; a philosophy which needed speedy adoption when I arrived in Kuwait expecting a short connection and found myself stuck there for 12 hours without any local currency or language. Bleary eyed and dehydrated, I dived into the chaos of an angry crowd at the “information” desk where it took an army of incompetent airport workers three hours to inform me of nothing more than Kuwait is a dry state (imagine my horror), I might need a visa to enter even for 12 hours and that process is guaranteed to be lengthy and confusing, I might be given a hotel room, I might have to collect my baggage (or more likely it will continue on to the wrong destination), the onward flight might also stop in Malaysia en route, the flight number might change and there is no predictable departure or arrival date/time. As our passports disappeared into the hands of a man of questionable honour, the angry crowd’s temper was fuelled further, and I contemplated my lack of appropriate attire for an unexpected overnight stay in this Middle Eastern mayhem. The situation was far from ideal but I felt alive, being on the road again, having the Virgo control freak beaten out of me by change and disruption.

And so I spent a sleepless night in a soul-less, sickly green hotel room, listening to my neighbour blasting the Arabic Top Ten Countdown through paper mâché walls, with just a cigarette butt to keep me company, and no trustworthy source of drinking water. Silver lining: the courtesy buffet didn’t give me food poisoning, unlike my My New Temporary Best Friend.

During the onward flights the pandemonium lessened and I was soothed by the gentle tones of a father and son singing melodic Indonesian folk music behind me. They appeared to know only one song, which they harmonised in unison repeatedly over many hours, so thankfully it was soft and exceptionally beautiful to my foreign ears. It was with this as my soundtrack that I caught my first breath-taking glimpse of Indonesia, the land I would call my home for the coming months. As the island of Sumatra crept into view, the sun burned orange to red on its graceful descent behind storm clouds. Volcanic peaks rose through low mist as menacing reminders of their constant threat to the land that geologists call The Ring of Fire. This part of the world remains a scientifically recognised hot spot for natural disasters, but flying over the Andaman Sea on such a calm night it felt impossible to comprehend that this body of gently rippled water could wreak such devastation as it did on Boxing Day 2004.

With a 33 hour journey behind me, I landed in Jakarta for what should have been a Love-Actually-style airport reunion scene with Ben, but fate would have it otherwise. Scanning the crowd for his face I paced up and down arrivals, carrying 23kg on my increasingly sweaty back, ignoring offers of taxis or help, and maintaining with great conviction that he would be there. Some time passed. Anger crept in; how could he leave me stranded? Some more time passed. Then worry; had there been an accident? After 90 minutes I became the sole traveller in the empty arrivals hall, and with my mobile out of action, I conceded it was time for a taxi. I confess that my mood was hanging precariously in the balance, and by the point I reached the hotel lobby and was informed there was no record of my booking or of Ben Reason, that balance was tipped. Cue tears of panic and desperation. There was a huge language barrier; all I could do was keep repeating my myself (with increasing levels of mime and hand gestures) which I did for some 20 minutes until the manager finally realised I was referring to the Ben Reason that was staying in room 511, the Ben Reason who had been in the room all day waiting for me. Embarrassed, he swiftly dialled room 511. The conversation went something like this…
Me, through gritted teeth: “I’m here.”
Ben, buoyant: “Hey!! Baby you’re here at last!! Woohoo!! Amazing! Hell yeah!!”
Me, seething: “Come downstairs. Now.”
Ben, quiet: “Oh”.
With patience, compassion and profuse apologies Ben collected his sweaty, tearful, fuming, she-devil girl from the lobby and within minutes I was calm. In short, Kuwait Airways had outdone themselves in astounding incompetence and failed to publish the day/time of my delayed arrival, leaving Ben to assume the best course of action was to remain at the hotel, our “If-All-Else-Fails-Meeting-Point”. Because my phone wasn’t working I didn’t get his messages. Add into the mix some IT failures and a couple of confused Indonesians, and you have the root of the problem.

So I had spent the first 24 hours of my trip with a stranger called Sam, but what did it matter? Such twists and turns are the heart and soul of travelling, and there would surely be many more…

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