Indonesia

Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

The Sliding Doors of a Storm

The wind was as strong as Indonesia’s equatorial sun, the day Mother Nature blew in that tempestuous storm. The darkness threatened overhead, then broke around me.  I had no obligation to sail, but in those bitter-sweet final days, time was of the essence.  I feared that wild, untamed ocean like a criminal fears a judge.  It was a “Sliding Doors” moment: instinct said stay, pride said go.  The ocean taunted me, rising angrily against anything in its path.  Tears blinded me as I stepped onto the inadequate boat.  The sea drew me into its violent clutches, and swept me away.

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The Journey Within

A year ago today I landed on foreign ground to begin an adventure that would not only take me across continents, but into unknown territory in my life in general.  It was the start of an inner journey, a personal tour through unexpected experiences and unforeseen realities. On the road, as within, there was triumph and tragedy.  I crossed the world, and then part of my world collapsed.

365 days have now passed since the glittering lights of Jakarta embraced me into the city’s chaos.  I have returned, reclaimed, rediscovered, rebuilt, restrengthened and redefined who I am.  Perhaps I have met myself properly for the first time.

Tonight, a year on, I see only the twinkling lights of my Christmas tree and a wealth of possibility for the year ahead.  Whatever 2014 may bring, it’s my inner journey that I’m most excited to explore – and who knows which exciting corners of the world that will steer me towards along the way…

The Root of All Evil

When I travel in developing countries I’m reminded of the pitiful state of the global economy, and of our sad attitudes surrounding money.  We live in a world of financial abundance – there is enough for all humanity if only we learned to resist greed – yet somehow man has created dramatic inequality.  The monetary system is such that whilst the elite minority thrive on their riches, millions of others languish in life-threatening poverty.  We have all the tools to fix the problems of the world’s poorest countries but we, the rich countries, choose to keep them in debt, eternally dependant on us.

On the global wealth scale, Indonesia does not rank high.  Within minutes of your plane landing or your boat docking you will see financial scarcity in evidence all around.  I’m not talking about “poverty” we see in the West which somehow still allows for the purchase of expensive electronics, designer trainers and cigarettes.  I’m referring to an extreme level of destitution, where malnutrition is commonplace and starvation is a threat.  Millions of Indonesians, of all ages, work long hours in physically demanding, dirty or undesirable jobs for little remuneration, simply to survive.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recoil at the sobering statistics of third world hunger and disease, yet it’s often wrongly assumed that one person alone cannot help the gravity of the situation.  One of the many reasons I travel in Asia is to spread my relative wealth amongst poorer communities; perhaps on a subconscious level it eases my guilt over being born to more fortunate circumstances, but primarily it is because I believe with great conviction that whilst governments continue doing little to help the world’s poorest nations, we should each do what we can.

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And yes, from my perspective we are talking about very little money.  Think about thirty pence or the equivalent in your currency: what can that buy you in the western world?  In England it won’t even buy chewing gum, but in Asia it equals lunch from a street cart or half a tank of petrol for a moped.  Add an extra thirty pence to your accommodation budget and you get a swimming pool.  Leaving my pocket that amount is unnoticeable but, for the Indonesian whose pocket it lands in, thirty pence can mean the difference between a full belly and an empty one.

A recent encounter in Bali reaffirmed my belief that individuals can make a difference.  At the end of a hot day exploring rice paddies and villages we passed a roadside display of colourful hammocks.  Buying a double hammock had been high on our agenda, although we had not yet agreed our budget or considered whether we had space within our backpacks.  The hammocks were perfect – recycled from vibrant parachute silk, thus also ticking the eco box – but our tiredness, hunger and thirst felt more of a priority at that particular time and we began to walk away.  So what turned us on our heels?  Compassion and guilt; the shopkeeper begged us for the sale.  She clasped her hands together, and she simply pleaded.  She expressed her own tiredness, hunger and thirst, and it put ours to shame.  Her face conveyed years of struggle.  She did not need to labour the point about feeding her many children, because when we looked into her eyes we saw genuine fear.  How many family members relied on that sale for food, health, education?  In that moment, our deliberation ceased and the hammock was sold.  The relief that rushed through her was visible, and a lump formed in my throat as she hurriedly wrapped our purchase, including extra rope to show her gratitude.

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DSCF2445Lying in that parachute silk I always think of that woman and it comforts me that, if only for one day, we made a difference in her world.

Of course, not all of our monetary exchanges were as heart-warming.  We frequently got ripped off by Rupiah-hungry locals using underhand tactics to scrounge profit, and I admit some situations bothered me.  I have noticed that in Asian countries capitalist values are taken to extremes and, sadly, somewhere in the rat-race to wealth the original value and meaning of life, of honesty and connection to other human beings is getting lost.  Poverty is debilitating and stifles the progression of developing nations, but it’s a shame when lives become utterly consumed by the constant drive to increase material wealth.

Yet it’s worth remembering that it is the Western world that has bred this commercial ideology of aspiring to greater wealth.  If we ourselves demonstrate that “more” is never “enough”, how can we feign surprise when greed, dishonesty and ruthlessness become commonplace in poorer countries which are simply trying to better themselves financially, just as we have done?  If a Hollywood sit-com actor can demand six-figure-sums per episode, what example does that set to the rest of the world?  What if, instead of indulging our selfish appetites in a continual quest for more money than we could possibly know what to do with, we found a happy medium where nobody had too little, nobody had too much?

One afternoon in the Gili Islands, sitting on a cushioned bamboo beruga, we watched as a local man knelt down on a board and paddled out to sea with his fishing rod, where he remained for some time, patiently awaiting his catch.  Seeing this, we recalled a story which epitomises the message the West sends the rest of the world about money.  In the interests of my word-count I’ll condense this tale, but you’ll get the idea:

A wealthy American businessman meets a fisherman in a small Mexican fishing village.  The businessman learns that the fisherman leads a simple life, catching only enough tuna to feed his family, and spending his spare time laughing with his children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with friends.  The businessman scoffs: “Why don’t you spend longer fishing, sell your catch and with the revenue buy several boats.  As your business grows you could open a cannery, and eventually a global enterprise.  You could move to New York City and sell your company shares on the stock market.  In 15 years you could become a rich man!  Then you could retire and move to a small Mexican fishing village where you would spend your days fishing, laughing with your children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with your friends”.  The fisherman simply smiles and asks, “Isn’t that what I’m already doing?”

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I’m certain most financiers would recoil at my suggestion that we – the rich West – do more to help struggling nations free themselves from deprivation, and whilst I don’t claim to have the answers to the world’s economic problems, I do believe this: as inhabitants of this extraordinary planet we have a responsibility towards each other.  If we are to see any improvement to poverty, we must first see a change in attitudes.  What if the current emphasis on personal wealth gave way to the importance of sharing?  What if the message we teach our children became this: “It’s not about what you own; it’s about who you are”.  What could that wealthy businessman learn from the poor fisherman about life’s true riches?

As a wise man in my life recently said, “I would pay any amount of money to see the monetary system fall” but until then I’ll continue to turn my Sterling into Rupiah, Ringgit and Rufiyaa in the knowledge that individually I can make a difference, however small.

Searching for The Place with No Name

There’s a common perception that in paradise all is perfect.  DSCF2377Yet many fail to appreciate that to find utopia, and furthermore deserve it, you must often overcome great obstacles.  It can be a test of endurance, tolerance and desire.  Never was this more impeccably illustrated than during our exploration of the Gili Islands. These three tiny droplets of white sand are nestled amongst some of Indonesia’s finest living coral reef, and are so remote they barely register on the map.  Each famously promises a plethora of exotic experiences, but can be stubbornly unyielding with their treasures until you have earned them.

Arriving in Gili, some ground work was required to manifest our shared vision of simple island life.  Suffering from bad guts and hindered by heavy backpacks we traipsed along miles of rough sand tracks, scouring the coastline for the perfect beach hut.  We viewed dozens of theoretically viable bamboo shacks but each presented deal-breakers (the dead animal mounted on the wall was a particular low point).  Our bodies ached and our patience thinned in the heat.  Misguided by sweaty exhaustion, we stopped at a shabby collection of huts called Lucky’s, and quickly regretted it. IMG_6850 But it brought to light an important issue of life on the road: hygiene.

As a traveller you become at one with dirt.  Daily, you contend with unwashed hair, sea salt, chlorine, sweat, road dust and other unidentified grime.  You pass an acceptable level of filth and simply stop caring.  The question “Do I stink?” is met with the response “To what degree?” and you wear rancid smelling clothes which under normal circumstances you would throw away.  Contrary to my reputation amongst friends as a neat-freak, as a backpacker I’m reasonably resilient to muck, but Lucky’s certainly tested my tolerance.  Forget the thick coating of dust on every surface, the gritty layer of sand covering the rotting floorboards, the stained sheets or the musty mosquito net suspended from the cobwebbed ceiling – what I most objected to was the stench of sewage.  As I cowered in the bathroom doorway with a sarong covering my airways, Ben located the source: a huge, festering crap blocking the toilet.   Human faeces: in abundance.  It also transpired there was no functioning plumbing, no running water to abate the problem.  What use was there in alerting the owner?  He was stoned, had been napping on our bed when we arrived and I suspected was also the perpetrator of the crime.  My skin crawled.

To escape, we wandered to the sea.  But low tide exposed a bed of razor-sharp coral thwarting any ideas of a cleansing swim, and we learned that on this southern tip swimming was only possible during a short window each morning. IMG_7090 Was this really what we had travelled 8,000 miles for?  We felt disheartened that having planned to spend a significant portion of our trip there, paradise had shown us such hostility.  Crestfallen, we killed some time in a dicey café where the food was coated in warm, salmonella-inducing mayonnaise, and where I helped some locals revive a woman who appeared to have died at her table (incidentally, she had merely drunk herself into a shallow coma, no doubt to numb the disappointment of her surroundings).

When we could avoid our festering hut no longer, we surrendered to Lucky’s and endured one night in that disgusting room, lying fully clothed, trying not to inhale too often, both promising that at first light we would bolt. IMG_6822

A few hours later we rose to watch the sun bleaching the full moon from sight against a backdrop of a magnificent volcano.

IMG_6834The rays of this new day cast a different light on the island as it awoke and opened its arms to us.  We had survived Gili’s ugly side.  We had passed the test.  Later that day, our search for seventh-heaven ended at The Place with No Name: a beautiful, hand-carved wooden hut overlooking azure, swimmable waters.  A large veranda hugged the exterior, housing a hammock and a day bed.  Relieved, we relaxed and became absorbed by an uncomplicated lifestyle.  We showered outdoors in a stone-walled bathroom under stars, or rain, or shine.  In the mornings, shards of sunlight seeped in and filtered softly through the mosquito drapes onto our four-poster bed.

IMG_6896Time slowed down, and the surrounding paradise gently unveiled all its promised joys.  Life became a string of simple pleasures, of sensations shared and savoured.  From life at The Place with No Name, here is what my senses recall:

The sliding, silky coolness of the sea against my sun-parched skin.  The itch of a mosquito bite.  The constant roughness of sand between my toes and sheets.  The breeze on my face as I slept.  The brightness of the moon and stars.  The daily shock of colours before my eyes: blood-orange sunsets, sapphire waters. IMG_7410Snippets of conversation and laughter from women transporting concrete blocks on their heads.  The squeals of joy from a boy, jumping from his father’s fishing boat.  The sweet scent of frangipani flowers, fallen from a tree.  The faint waft of diesel around the jetty, or pungent manure from clip-clopping horses.  The silvery sheen of an overcast day.  The sound of geckos late at night, of thunder and hammering rain.  The fiery shock of chilli hitting the back of my throat.  IMG_6930 The jagged edge of a distant volcano silhouetted against the sun’s morning display of colour.  The sticky feeling of aloe vera smoothed over burnt skin at dusk.  The peacefulness of an island with no cars.  The shimmer of a school of fish flying clear out of the water.  My head submerged in crystal waters, the buzz of a motorboat all around me.  Glimpsing sunrise through my open bedroom doors.  Never wanting to leave.

A palm-fringed island may be exquisite to the eye, but I have found its true beauty lies in the slowing of the clock, the calming of the mind and the peace that comes with simplicity.  Give it time and a small island can teach you so much.  It teaches you to pause, to breathe, to appreciate and to reflect.  It offers you the chance to daydream, the space to discover.  It permits you to be still, silent.  It encourages you to explore – the land around you, yourself and each other. IMG_7027

And it teaches you this: Sometimes paradise is a rough diamond, a jewel whose sparkle is hidden until earned.  But polish it gently and exercise patience, then you will see it shine like a thousand stars.

No waves, no glory

Around the world, and around the clock, surfers are riding the waves.  For some it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to connect with nature and disconnect from technology.  For others it’s a drug so addictive they devote their lives to hunting the perfect wave, the perfect high.  Big waves, small waves, fat waves, messy waves, reef breaks, beach breaks, lefts, rights, barrels and tubes; the winds and tides work mysteriously together to create an aquatic playground for the world’s adrenalin junkies.

Until now, and despite the Australian component of my upbringing, learning to surf has remained an elusive dream, with timing and circumstance never quite working in my favour.  Consequently, I’m two years behind Ben who already has some impressive moves (he’ll deny this in typical modesty, but I’ve witnessed it).  In Indonesia the surf is world-class.  In other words: bloody terrifying.  The epic waves are for big-timers, and if you’re inexperienced you’ll be out of your depth, metaphorically and literally.  Broken boards and broken limbs are commonplace.  Given this, you might consider it an insane place to learn, but challenge and opportunity lured me in with their sweet vice grip.

Our search for a learner’s wave was frustrating, with lacerating coral and dangerous currents often standing in the way.  A West Lombok beach eventually delivered the mellow waves we sought and with tremendous patience Ben coaxed the surfer out of his English-Aussie girl.  Exhilaration shot through my veins, and being taught by someone so close made it all the more special.

I soon learnt that dedicated board riders spend hours, days – even weeks – patiently waiting for the right conditions.  When the water goes flat it comes down to this: watching the ocean, eating banana pancakes, checking swell forecasts, moaning about money wasted on board hire and, in my case, whimpering about the physically punishing effects of such a hobby.  I also learnt that surfers are generally only capable of conversing about one subject – you guessed it.  It’s a common joke that there’s nothing more boring than an accountant talking shop (no offence meant to any accountants reading; many of us mathematically challenged idiots would be lost without you) but I beg to differ, because talking about surfing to the exclusion of all other topics can be equally dull.

Our quest for surf perfection next lead us to South Lombok, a magical and empty land untouched by commercial development.  Impossibly green rolling hills stretch across a vast and remote landscape, densely covered in trees and thick grass, dotted with cattle.  The landscape is visually reminiscent of England or Scotland, except these hills and knolls tumble down into tropical bays of palm-fringed white sand, vivid turquoise waters and – crucially for us – flawless waves.  Whether you’re a pro or novice, happy days await you in those waters.  Learners are promised first-day-success from bored locals who offer lessons and it’s common to hear foreigners exclaiming in thick accents “Yesterday I had never seen a surf board in my life and today I can ride one!”

In a bid to join them in their elation, I signed up.  A gruff man with poor manners took me 45 minutes west on his bike to a dazzling cove where the beach was peppered with cows, children and the colourful buzz of daily life.  A few shacks lined the sand serving street food from make-shift kitchens while old men sat around spitting.  Whilst I could happily have indulged in a morning of cultural observation, I was there to surf – but evidently my teacher had missed that memo.  It’s no exaggeration to say that he spent the majority of my lesson eating, smoking and waving knives at screaming children.  When he wasn’t being a total disappointment he dutifully pushed me onto waves, but he taught me zilch; no praise, no criticism and no tips on technique    Time after time I emerged from the white foam, hastily re-arranged my bikini under the watchful eyes of school boys gawping from the shallows, and turned around expecting encouragement.  But he wasn’t watching; he simply didn’t care.  Feeling financially cheated, after three hours I pulled the plug.

Finding an alternative teacher was labour intensive.  Every contender seemed unlikeable or untrustworthy, and I’d all but given up when along came Yo-Yo, a skinny 19 year old with a charming grasp of the English language.  Physically he resembled a whippet, so slender and light, and in comparison I felt like the water buffalo that roamed the surrounding hills.  But through Yo-Yo I discovered the buzz that all surfers speak of.  The drill was this: negotiate a price to secure his time, hire a boat in the village to access the ocean breaks, surf for three hours then collapse into the wooden longboat, burnt, dehydrated, exhausted, but on top of the world.

Surfers are famously territorial, but out on the water with Yo-Yo at my side I was part of the club.  It goes without saying my paddling technique was appalling and I spent most of my time floundering in the fury of the white water, but I also improved.  Sometimes the waves towered overhead and I felt inadequate in comparison to the big boys, but Yo-Yo gave me guidance and I felt safe.  His friends would joke with me and whoop with delight at each wave I caught.  Ben and I developed a routine: mornings were for surfing, afternoons for recovering.  A week passed very quickly in this way.  We began to recognise faces and learn names.  It felt like a community.

At sunrise on Valentine’s Day we rose at 5am and joined this community for one last session.  The water was like a sheet of glass as our boat motored through the bay.  Wisps of cloud caught the rising sun, and the fins of our surfboards silhouetted against a backdrop of pink and orange.  The air was completely still and for a long time we surfed alone, in peace, until the sun climbed higher and others came for their share of the fun.  After my final ride I retreated to the boat.  My kidneys ached from the previous day when a rogue wave had driven the point of Ben’s board hard into my lower back, and I was physically broken from head-to-toe, but I felt so alive.

With the cruel clock of our 60 day visas ticking by, it was time to move on.  As the boat took us back to the village I surveyed the seascape around me and felt a huge sense of achievement.  Surfing is a testing sport, demanding and often brutal, and I had faced everything the Indonesian surf churned up, not only surviving the experience, but delighting in it too.

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Barefoot Blister

In the West we’re quick to berate hospitals in the developing world for their inferior hygiene standards and dubious methods; I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  Some of the time our criticism is justified, born out of bad personal experiences, but as I lay on a Balinese doctor’s couch one day in late January, wincing as a nurse tenderly cleansed and dressed my wounded foot I could only express gratitude for the service I received.  Let’s re-wind and I’ll walk you through what happened, step by painful step…

Rising with the sun for banana pancakes by the ocean we started the day in buoyant spirits, excited about riding off on the motorbike to a remote, palm-fringed crescent of white sand that welcomes only the most intrepid beach-worshippers on account of its isolated position down an inaccessible mountainous track.  Since much of Bali has volcanic black sand beaches, it felt worth the extra effort.  All we needed was a tank of petrol before we hit the tropical, winding coast roads.

Normally we filled the bike with watered-down fuel sold cheaply in old vodka bottles by the side of the road; it is by far our preference to support local people over global corporations.  But on this occasion our only option was a chain petrol station.  We pulled in at the pumps and I dismounted in my normal way – for the sake of my dignity let’s pretend this was with grace and elegance.  With my peripheral vision obscured by my helmet, I failed to see another bike pulling in alongside us and as I swung my leg over, the clash happened.  If ever there is a moment when vulgar expletives are necessary, it’s the moment you sear your bare skin on a burning motorbike exhaust.  I am admittedly clumsy and accident prone so minor mishaps are common in my daily life, but that didn’t lessen the shock.  The pain was instant and piercing, accompanied by hot adrenalin pumping through my body.  Slumped against a railing, breathing shakily through the agony, I recalled Ben’s warnings about the dangers of motorbike exhausts in a previous conversation I’ll refer to as “Teaching Rosie How to Be a Good Passenger and Avoid Injury” (a lesson that clearly requires repeating).

I closed my eyes while waves of burning pain shot through my big toe, semi aware of Ben running off to buy toothpaste which he smeared over my damaged skin.  It seemed bizarre treatment to me, but he’d once seen a Thai guy do it and believed it would soothe the inferno.  While we sat on the concrete forecourt in the beating sun he calmly explained that in his broad experience of such injuries, the next step was hospital.  At this horrific thought my lower lip trembled and internally I gave myself a stern warning not to cry.  But, inevitably, tears started rolling – proof that I’m not as brave as I aspire to be – and continued throughout the ordeal of having the burn treated by medics.  My foot was so sensitive it took some time before I could even allow the nurse to touch it.  She was tender and caring; I was a whimpering mess.  The moment when she opened up the burn with scissors and a syringe was a particularly low point.  Ben held my hand throughout and tried not to laugh at his hysterical girlfriend.

I was given a cocktail of painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, along with a burns cream and a 1,400,000.00 Rupiah bill.  Shock quickly gave way to frustration – at my own clumsiness, at the reality of the situation.  I was warned sternly against getting the foot wet because of the high risk of infection, so for two weeks in stifling island humidity I could only stare longingly at the aqua dreamland surrounding me, unable to swim.  Nor could I shower normally; I devised a system that involved wrapping my foot in several plastic bags and holding it in a gravity-defying position by my ear to prevent droplets getting to the bandage.  Monsoon downpours didn’t help – the plastic bags became permanent accessories as I hobbled around like an old lady, with my younger man propping me up.  There were two elderly women at our guesthouse sprightlier than me, who shot me looks of empathy and I hated the attention it drew; the locals fussed around me with good intentions, but it got tiring.  When we could no longer bear to stay in one spot we wrapped me in plastic and braved the seas, arriving ninety minutes later at a small cluster of paradise islands where Ben lifted me off the boat fireman-style, he himself wading knee deep in water.

Eventually, once the skin had sealed over the wound and an alarmingly young doctor had given me his nod of approval, I was allowed back in the water.  After weeks of aquatic deprivation, the relief of the cool water surrounding my body was indescribable.  But of the whole experience, it was Ben’s handling of the situation that will stay with me.  Whilst I don’t want to encourage his ego too much, I will say this: without him I would have been lost.  For weeks he dealt singlehandedly with our luggage (three backpacks and a guitar), he sterilised and re-dressed my wound twice-daily with diligence and care, never once complaining, and he kept my spirits up: hero status unquestionably earned.

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In the Hands of the Elements

When the rain falls in Asia it plummets from the sky with purpose and drive.  Perpendicular daggers strike the earth with great ferocity, saturating everything in their path.  The sizzling equatorial sun can very quickly be replaced by monsoon downpours, and just as quickly re-appear an hour later to set beyond waters so calm that a storm then seems inconceivable.  You can be cycling through impossibly beautiful countryside, getting sunburnt and dehydrated, oblivious to the black clouds building overhead, until minutes later those clouds tear apart with an angry roar, soaking you to the bone, and a torrent of muddy water floods down the track, forcing you to take shelter.  This type of rain can last many unrelenting days, seemingly with the same speed and force with which it began.  The noise is deafening against the tin roofs and whole towns can grind to a habitual halt as communities sit, watch and wait for it to pass.  Water, here, is both friend and enemy; a vital ingredient for the flourishing rice industry and yet the cause of so many fatal floods.  In this land you are in the hands of the elements.

A foolish traveller sets foot in Asia expecting eternal sunshine.  A wise traveller sees the rain’s fortune and opportunity; perhaps a friendly shopkeeper offers you shelter in his home or a lady teaches you to weave baskets used for spiritual offerings, maybe you share a laugh with a child amused by your drenched clothes, or you discover that although the croak of a hundred frogs outside your window keeps you awake well into the night, it is also unexpectedly pacifying.

At the particular point I write this, the tides have turned on our small island.  We have watched the most spectacular display of forked electrical drama in the distant sky, creeping ever-closer, and we’re now at the centre of a ferocious storm, with thunder booming directly overhead and vibrating through the soles of our feet.  Vertical rain pounds the paradise around us.  The charge of energy that runs through our bodies with each clap of thunder ignites a child-like excitement and an instinct to run outside and play in the wild weather, but our beloved beach front terrace is no longer elevated enough for us to observe the bay from because the gathering wind has generated waves so high they threaten to sweep us off the platform and into the blackness of the night sea.  Walking a very short stretch of the sea wall tonight we were hit by a mass of foaming water, a drenching upsurge trying to suck us from solid ground. This small land mass offers such minimal protection in the high swell that surrounds it and I’m all too aware of our vulnerable position.

But, this is Asia: the morning will no doubt bring rays of ultra-violet promise for the day ahead, and this tempestuous weather will be a thing of distant dreams.

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Finding My Barefoot Bliss

Bali: once a far-off, exotic land we dreamed of from the gloom of the English winter, and then suddenly a real place, twinkling before our eyes in the dark, humid night.  As the ferry makes the short crossing, local men teach us Balinese phrases to revive our road-weary minds and help us shift cultural gears from Muslim Java to Hindu Bali.  Sighting that long-awaited land from the top deck makes every minute of the 15 hour bus journey worthwhile, and we’re full of anticipation for what is to come…

Our dream for Bali was to find a quiet coastal spot where we could settle and let the cogs of daily life slow down to a virtual halt.  In reality it seems we’re about two decades late.  Natural beauty has been swallowed up by resorts over spilling with sunburnt, singlet-wearing Aussies.  The worst offender is the infamous Kuta Beach – the island’s dreadfully tacky tourist hub.  Aside from being the birthplace of the Asian surf scene, it thrives on under-age hedonistic debauchery and all-night parties.  It is the complete antithesis of our Balinese fantasy: filthy, noisy, crowded, tacky, over-priced and unrelenting.  Sketchy looking characters hiss offers of drugs from dark doorways, and surly hawkers bully you to buy mass-produced, wooden penis key rings with such aggressive insistence it takes steel willpower to stand your ground.  You can of course haggle over knock-off DVDs, but you’ll later find they don’t work, and the overall experience is an exhausting test of tolerance.  Perhaps all inquisitive explorers should dip their toes in cess pits like Kuta, if only to then wash their feet and walk on to greener (and cleaner) pastures.  For us, however, it provides no answers in our quest for seventh-heaven.

Cut to two days and one fast-boat later: We’ve swapped the overcrowded mainland for a tiny patch of paradise on a quiet offshore island.  My bare, happy feet point west, back towards Bali as I sit perched on an elevated terrace overlooking insanely turquoise reef.  Brightly painted local fishing boats bob gently on the surface.  It’s late afternoon, the sun still strong, but a generous breeze keeps me comfortable – the same breeze which is guiding the rolling surf towards the reef edge, where it breaks neatly in a long, foaming line.  Ben is out there somewhere and as I squint to make out his silhouette amongst the other board riders, I’m aware of voices and laughter beneath the terrace.  Peering over the ledge I see women and children collecting seaweed from the shallows.  In all shades of green and brown, it is in abundance on this island, brought ashore by regular storms and strong tides.  It will be laid out to dry along the narrow, rocky footpath which lines this small bay.  Eventually it may turn up on my plate, a cheap and nutritious alternative to leafy greens used in many local dishes.

Behind me is a lush, well maintained garden, dotted with Hindu statues, intricately carved wooden archways, sweet smelling frangipani trees and colourful religious offerings to the gods, lovingly placed on stone shrines each morning.  It’s a tranquil place where the wind and waves make more noise than the softly speaking locals.  It is simply divine.

Cooling off in the swirling currents of this shallow, turquoise lagoon is about as refreshing and delightful as life gets, but it’s not my only option; behind me, centred in the gardens, lies the enticing infinity pool – a veritable luxury to a backpacker.  In a moment of disbelief I check my wallet.  Surely they haven’t really charged me £9 to stay here?

Maybe tomorrow I’ll explore the underwater world, or take a class at the yoga shack.  Perhaps I’ll accept a local woman’s offer to observe a ceremony at her temple.  I could venture to the organic eco cafe on the rugged, untamed back road that weaves through the village, or take the lazy option and indulge in cheap, spicy snacks overlooking the sea.

But one thing I know for sure is this: if I stay in this spot long enough with my bare, happy feet still pointing west towards Bali, Ben will return from the boisterous surf (potentially very sunburnt and physically ruined from the experience), a cold beer will be placed in my hands, the sun will sink in a magnificent display of orange and pink, bright stars will shine and one fine day in paradise will roll peacefully into another.

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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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