“The particulars of new places grabbed me and held me, the sweep of new coasts, cold, lovely, dawns. The world was incomprehensibly large, and there was still so much to see. Yes, I got sick sometimes of being an expatriate, always ignorant, on the outside of things, but I didn't feel ready for domestic life, for seeing the same people, the same places, thinking more or less the same thoughts, each day. I liked surrendering to the onrush, the uncertainty, the serendipity of the road.”
― William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
“Questions arose. Like, what in the f--k was going on here, basically.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Buy the ticket, take the ride
You step back for a moment. The shoulders fall. Kaleidoscopes flash off the shimmering waters. The lines come into focus: the verticals of the porch supports, the smooth curves of the bar counter, the sharp horizon separating the two shades of blue. Shapes and spaces. You can see yourself Tony Montana-ing in a chair, one leg moving to some unknown subconscious rhythm. The smell of fresh bread, orange juice, rum and the sea. The ocean swell under the afternoon sun like an ambient record on loop.
You won't call it an out-of-body experience, but for a minute you can pinpoint yourself in the larger scheme of things. X marks the spot. And you know. You know that you will remember this. The sights, the sounds, what it felt like. What it feels like right now. A vivid image in your head to be revisited on slow wishful days or in restless dreams years from now.
Ages could slip by without registering a single such memory. And at times, a week of free-falling burns into your memory enough moments to drift through for a lifetime. The surrealness and sadness of it all. Is a life well lived anything other than the depth of such a repository, of the times you found yourself breathlessly still, almost elevated, in time and circumstances?
Someday I will find the right answers, and they will be simple.
Or so I have been told.
Surfers line up as the waves pick up. An airplane glides down ever so smoothly towards an out-of-sight landing strip in the distance, disappearing behind the seaside cliffs. In time I will forget the finer details, but imagination will seamlessly fill in those blanks. Soon it will all be nothing but fragments of fiction. The colours a bit brighter, the wind a little cooler. Maybe it already is as I write this. A glorified retelling of ordinary days and experiences — a true travel story.
"Those are party shoes, not trekking shoes," said the man into whose presumably capable hands I was about to entrust my life for five long hours. He was not wrong though. I'm not sure what qualifies as 'party shoes' but what I had on was definitely, not remotely, designed for trekking. Neither was what I was wearing otherwise. I had been looking around nervously at the dozens of people gathered around at the base where the trek kicked off dressed to the teeth in pro sports gear. Most looked like walking billboards for North Face, complete with backpacks and that godawful smugness which comes with above-average physical fitness. You know what I'm talking about. In fact, I bet you can see the kind in your head as you complete reading this sentence.
All I had on me was my camera, a phone that didn't work and a pair of lungs which barely did. In fact, I was actually coming straight from a party. Dressed up in what would have passed for most occasions in life, but not trekking up a volcano. I hadn't slept for over 24 hours and was genuinely surprised that I could even see and walk straight at the moment.
Also, I think it's important to note that it was just before 3 am.
The premise was pretty straightforward: We start in the middle of the night. Make it to the top before sunrise. Flip out looking at the sun come up.
Fifteen minutes in, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it. Not only not make it, but die. Not only die, but die a horrible, horrible death.
Imagine walk-climbing on sharp, slippery, twisted, cursed rocks in your party-best sneakers (which, by the way, are taking the beating of a lifetime with every step), in pitch darkness, with only a small flashlight to illuminate your path, which in turn keeps slipping out of your hand because you are a disoriented sweaty pig. And just to spice things up, one side of the trek, of course, is a descent straight to the pits of hell. One wrong step, a thought of a wrong step, away from an embarrassing obituary.
Soon enough, it was also quite clear that, in case of an emergency, the person guiding us on this profound spiritual journey would be of no use. Every time anyone slipped a bit (oh that nightmarish sound of a shoe sole skidding on gravel) or missed half a step, all we got was a voice from a million miles ahead, "All good?"
Some sense of comfort was drawn from the fact that although my sweat could have been rain-harvested at that point, I was far from the worst-case scenario around. There were people in their 60s and 70s who couldn't even take a step right and had to be practically walked all the way up. Furious teenagers arguing with parents for picking this activity in place of whatever teenagers do these days (though to be honest, they seemed more embarrassed to be doing this with their over-enthusiastic parents than anything else.) A couple of people on the verge of tears, saying they 'can't do it', in the middle of the trek with no option of turning around. In comparison, my only true problem was my brain not settling on if any this was actually happening or not.
[For the legend that was Bodhi, my first true inspiration to ever be near a body of water (or in a bank). The great adventurer, forever swimming in the Australian waters, who made a generation understand that life sure has a sick sense of humour. Also, basic dog psychology.]
So, on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being dying while doing what you do not love and 10 being always willing to pay the ultimate price — let's examine some chance, yet critical, life encounters in foreign lands.
— A theme-park-type restaurant specialising in duck, where live ducks just roam around quacking, with kids chasing after them while making horrible quacking sounds themselves. 5.7
— A horror-themed restaurant/bar/cabaret. People with makeup on their faces — slashes, skin peeling off, slit throats, whatnot. Drinks served in IV solution bags (which the server promises to inject directly into one's system via tubes and needles). The host invites to the stage whoever is celebrating their birthday. Of course, one of every five people present is. Now we have a stage full of people aged between mid-20s to mid-65-ish. The figure dominating the scene is of a good-natured heavyset man in his 60s, with a few drinks in him. Two options. Either each one buys the entire place drinks or everyone twerks in unison. The latter it is. Our man ready to go. Now we have a stage full of people aged between mid-20s to mid-65-ish "twerking" to the roaring support of friends and family, and the utter horror of kids. A weekday. 8.3
— Green-bubble-gum-coloured coffee. 6.2
— Day clubs. The epitome of the worst capitalist instincts intertwined with tourism and gentrification. Hordes of people packed on tiny pathetic patches of grass, sunbathing. Oh, there's a pool overlooking the ocean that blocks the view for everyone but can only be accessed if we are staying in your hotel? Oh, one can have the obnoxiously overpriced food and drinks here, but will have to move within an hour? Oh, but look at how beautiful the club is! Crawling with all your favourite influencers! And you can walk five feet in any direction before you bump into someone! Fourteen rounds unloaded in the air
— Temple grounds. 9.4
— Watching someone jump in a pool with a pocket full of paper money. 8.9
— A cab driver, who could barely speak Hindi, having a conversation using only the most dramatic lines from TV show Mahabaratha and playing Punjabi songs for the entirety of the trip just so everyone felt at home. 8.8
— Place serving cheap 1+1 sour margaritas with a one-man-band lip-syncing '80s rock ballads on the stage. 4.2
— Outskirts of a town. Though it's not too late, getting a cab is no longer an option. An employee of the place we are leaving, on his way home, will drop us to our destination in his car. The car in question turns out to be something right out of an older Fast and the Furious franchise. Neon lights, purple interiors, dashboard covered in white fur, racing seats, and a sound to match it all. I compliment the efforts and the man is genuinely surprised, sitting up a bit straighter and making sure the accelerator is in service a bit more than required during the trip. Sailing through deserted, pitch dark rural landscape and small towns. 8.1
— Sitting at a bar by yourself taking in the psychedelic sky in the aftermath of a sunset. Smooth translucent green waves crash over at the beach below. Silhouettes of surfers chasing the last waves before dark. Faint ambient sounds. Rougher edges blurring under the soft lights. Nothing to do but to be here. 9.5
— Nasi goreng. 9.9
Clouds engulf the final, and the quietest, leg of the trek. The light pouring out of the flashlight takes on a ghostly quality, hanging like an orb in the air. It is hard to see much of anything now, but in the brief moments when the clouds give way, the most spectacular night sky comes into view. Everything seems to settle down. Out of awe or tiredness, an unspoken mutual contract or perhaps with the end in sight, no one makes a sound. "Is there not / A tongue in every star that talks with man / And wooe him to be wise?" Down below, one can now trace the route of the trek in its entirety, lit up sporadically by ever-moving flashlights. A trail of fireflies.
At long last, made it. With the atrocities behind us, no one seems quite sure what we are supposed to do now. But the spell is broken swiftly and in the worst possible manner (perhaps someone falling off would have been worse. Well, come to think of it, maybe not): the most make-your-ears-bleed music blaring; people shouting and screaming. Some college-age Warchilds thought it would be a swell idea, the greatest idea ever, the best they could come up in their lives, to have a party here. My toes curl just as I write this. Our guide looks around, half sad, half embarrassed, shrugs, 'Let's find a quieter spot'.
And we do find one, far away from the screechers. It was still dark but the clouds have parted for good. A faint glow marks the horizon. As the day breaks, ever so reluctantly, and eyes adjust in the now fading blackness, the vast expanse of the ocean lays bare below, beyond the edges of the island. Colossal; in motion. The expanse of it is difficult to absorb, and then what to make of it? Every speck of light that filters over the horizon, which is now fiery red with shades of orange, brings into sharp contrast the insignificance of most things. A golden glow lingers over the red, fading ever so lightly into white and then blue as it moves up swallowing the stars and the night.
At long last, the sun — the headlining act of the morning — makes an appearance, dazzling the audience with flashy moves and unparalleled lighting arrangements. No expenses spared. The spectators are in awe, though some prefer to see the whole act unfolding on their phones. All the previous performances of the night are forgotten in that moment. Only one true star out here.
The morning light hangs heavy over the landscape. The fields, the hills, the small town below. Mist and pink clouds. After a considerable time of sitting about, thinking of everything and nothing, it's time for the "journey" back down. Although not quite as exhausting, the trek down requires the finesse of a ballet dancer. The path so smooth now and covered in fine rubble, it's impossible not to slip every other step or control one's speed. Hence, a wrong step at a wrong speed at a wrong place, and a slide. Bruised and bloody hands. I ask our man, not that the fear of jinxing anything is gone, if many people get hurt on this trek. A lot apparently. All the time. Some quite badly. I'll spare you the details.
The rest of the walk is un-major-eventful (apart from some anxiety-inducing mountain bikers zooming past), and rather scenic. A good part of the trail cuts through what felt like a reasonably dense forest. The sound of rustling trees, morning light dancing through them. The climb up feels like distant past, already slipping away.
What remains is a sense of nothingness. The tiredness, the lightheadedness, the exhilaration, the relief, the beauty. The effortlessness of just being there. For a moment, the centre holds. So do my party shoes.
The vivid colours of rain. The drenched landscape. The rapidly shifting topography. The hills. The plains. The road winding through sleepy villages and neon-lit towns. The orangish-yellow halo around streetlights next to the ocean. The restlessness outside the clubs. The stillness outside convenience stores at midnight. The glow of cigarettes. The distant howls and chatter.
The hallowed temples. The vacant cockfighting rings and earthy volleyball courts. The carefully designed houses. Courtyards with idols. The moss-covered walls. Dogs dozing by storefronts. Fishing docks and seaside settlements. Ducks.
The changing light outside the window. The curves and bends. Water channels and fuzzy radio signals. Half-empty parking lots. Motel balconies and swimming pools. Palm trees. Live music pouring out of cosy restaurants. The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Surfboards bound for sea. Sand and shores. Disoriented tourists on the sidewalk. Lonely explorers.
Celebrations and last rites. Later years' reminisces and first backpacking adventures. The comfort of company and the teary-eyed, angry slamming of cab doors. Long roads and dead ends.
Bali. Summer, 2019
— All photographs by the author