Volcano

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.

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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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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