Sometimes, I don’t take out my camera.
It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s usually for the same reason, and happens in moments where I might be learning to sauté spices in the middle of a rice terrace, or riding on the back of a motorcycle chasing the evening light through the winding mountain roads, or watching a clownfish swim through my fingers in unfathomably clear turquoise water as I dive beneath the sun-dappled surface of the sea. I think to myself that, to be honest, my entire life revolves around sharing experiences and photographs with thousands of people around the world. Most of the time when I see a spectacular view or find myself in a captivating situation, it’s literally instinctual to take out my camera to capture it, to show others what it looked like. Maybe what it felt like. I live for photographs. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of photographs, and the role they can take on in inspiring others to care about the planet.
But sometimes, it doesn’t feel right. Take these past few weeks in Indonesia, for example. I've taken photos here, of course, but maybe only one or two in a given situation that I want “the world” to see. I’ve found that while I may capture the view accurately, it’s missing everything else that I associate so strongly with my time here; the smells (of garlic, daun suji, sweet sea air, an oncoming thunderstorm), the sounds (crickets chirping outside my bedroom window, music that has us dancing before we even know what’s happening, rain on the bamboo roof of the verandah, the startled laughter of friends following an eruption of fireworks in the sky during a spontaneous 3 AM swim in the ocean), but mostly, the connections with other travelers, and their voices, their stories, the happenstance of their journeys intertwined with mine. When I take a photo of a hidden bay where we surfed in Lombok or of an evening storm rolling in over the sea from where we sat drinking Bintangs and listening to a band play an acoustic Zeppelin cover, I realize that after taking one picture, then two pictures, that no one will ever be able to feel what I feel in that moment, except for those who are sautéing spices or chasing light or diving beneath the sea’s surface beside me.
I saw. I felt. I felt on an extraordinary, grand, deeply moving scale.
And that’s been Indonesia.
When I planned to go to Indonesia weeks ago, I decided to start with the islands of Lombok, Gili, and Bali, a small chain in the south, each seemingly defined by poignant characteristics: Lombok was for mountain climbing and hidden, pristine coves to surf without anyone else around for miles, Gili was for quiet (no cars or roads) and epic diving and snorkeling (just walk off shore and you’re in the kind of pink and red coral reef we’ve all dreamed of), and of course, Bali was for the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy: high-end shops, yoga studios, and swanky restaurants lining the crowded, resort-toting beaches. While I had a fairly rigid schedule that I wanted to stick to in Indonesia to be sure that I’d see all I wanted to see in such a short amount of time in such a massive country, I quickly realized — about two hours after arriving in Indonesia, to be exact — that my plans were about to change quite a bit.
What’s interesting about Indonesia, more so that most other places I’ve ever traveled, is this incredible sense of camaraderie amongst the backpackers. From the second hour that I arrived in Bali to this very moment (as I write this in the back of a bus, on my way to the Bali harbor to take a boat to Java), my journey has felt like a nonstop collection of new faces, new friends, new stories. To be clear, I tend to be a fairly outgoing person and I’ve made an uncountable amount of friends and connections over the years in my travels, but there is something so vastly different about the kinds of people that go to Indonesia. I was worried that perhaps I’d only run into the classic gap-year types who are traveling to the party islands to abuse their first time being away from home without supervision — such as how it was when I’ve traveled in the past to other classic "party" places such as the Greek islands or the coast of Costa Rica. But instead, I found an enclave of individuals with some of the most epic, humbling stories and backgrounds who have found themselves coming from all walks of life to end up in the jungles of northern Bali or at a small fishing village at the base of the Lombok mountains. The openness of everyone I’ve encountered has been, to be honest, fairly outstanding; there has literally not been a moment until now when I haven’t been in the company of someone — whether it’s the French girl whom I shared sandwiches and compared tattoos and scars with while we waited for our 4-hour-delayed ferry in the shade of a palm tree, or the 60-year-old Australian doctor whom I debated the existence of “free will” with while we split a taxi to the coast, or the French writer I drank coconuts with and dove with sea turtles beside. Or the few who have sincerely become close, lifelong friends; I think they know who they are.
Even in the moments when I felt like I should be frustrated or uncomfortable — such as the 10 hours it took to travel 60 km because of ferry delays and storms and bus breakdowns, or the insane heat and humidity, or the overwhelmingly touristy coast of Bali which felt more like Miami Beach than anywhere in Asia — it was overcome simply by being in the presence of those around me, the camaraderie and the joy and the unabashed excitement everyone I met had for their lives, for their journey, for every bump and delay that came along. Joy is effortless here. With these people, in this place, with the smell of incense on the wind and the comfort of a shoulder to lean on from someone who understands, I’ve been given a gift that this road keeps on giving. Above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for or possibly could have foreseen.
You never know what’s waiting for you out there.
You just have to be brave enough to step on that plane.
But, it’s not over yet.
In about two hours, I’ll be arriving at the harbor, and will make my way through more boats and buses and maybe a train or two to reach a village nestled high in the Javanese mountains, cradled between two volcanoes I intend to summit over the next week. Still, I already feel nostalgic for everyone I’ve met so far, as we’ve traversed trails that snake along rice paddies, or discovered vine-draped temples, or had some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life (ginger tofu and stir-fried vegetables in small warungs, or freshly-cut sweet watermelon after six hours of surfing to get rid of the salt water on my lips, or spicy roasted street corn on a sunset walk through the village). Sometimes it really is all about the people you encounter.
Thank you all for showing me so much light.
The world is small when we want it to be.