Java & Sumatra

Picture this.

In five days of insanity, you traveled to the mountainous interior of Java, Indonesia. You summited three active volcanos, scaled a thousand meters, twice, into two bubbling calderas, woke up at midnight for each summit push (and therefore are running collectively on 9 hours of sleep for those five days), got caught in rainstorms and lost your vision in a sulfur storm, haven’t eaten anything besides questionable coconut biscuits and roasted corn from some locals at small villages, developed a terrible sore throat from a toxic gas cloud, saw a tornado of blue fire that made you question whether you were dreaming or hallucinating (but no, it really happened), felt an eruption rumble at your feet, and are now cramped in a smoky bus, 12 hours into what was supposed to be a 5 hour journey to the coast to get in one last minute of surfing before flying to the jungles of northern Sumatra to search for the last remaining wild orangutans.

You're hungry. You're exhausted. You smell intensely of sulfur and cigarette smoke.

Tell me, what could be lovelier?

The transition from the tourist-packed islands of Bali, Lombok, and the Gilis to Java was stark; even though the transition merely consisted of a ferry ride across a small channel, getting off in Java felt like entering a new country, where the Call to Prayer bellowed from every direction and Westerners seemed to vanish, leaving me sitting solo and cross-legged on a sidewalk, having photos taken of me by curious, passing locals.

For the first time during my entire time in Indonesia thus far, I felt completely alone. I went to Java specifically to climb three remote volcanos in the interior, and though they're relatively popular climbs, I was still surprised by just how alone I was. In Bali, I was constantly bumping shoulders with Western tourists, but in Java, I only ever saw those crowds on the mountains themselves, and even then it was surprisingly sparse. Besides that, I was often the only non-Indonesian on buses, on trains, even at guesthouses. It finally felt like less like a vacation, more like an adventure, and I was finally off the map.

However, it didn't take long for me to realize that this part of my journey was going to be difficult. During my time in Java and Sumatra, I physically pushed myself beyond what I'd anticipated ever doing in Indonesia. It was not necessarily my intention to be so aggressive in terms of climbing, hiking, trekking, camping, but I was there, and after dealing with the difficulties of reaching Indonesia in the first place, I wasn't intending on letting a single opportunity slip by; the mental images of volcano summit views were the original reason why I decided on Indonesia months ago anyway. So despite my better judgment and my glaring desire for a good night's sleep, I traversed the mountains of Java, sleeping a couple hours here and there in dank guesthouses in the misty highlands, rising at midnight to summit peaks and gaze downwards from caldera rims, then losing track of time while sitting on the next humid, crowded bus as it rocked towards the next village, the next peak, the next highland. The climbs were significantly more challenging than I expected as well, with steep, slippery slogs that consistently reached 60 degree inclines for miles, upwards of nine hours of scrambling up-and-down rock faces or snaking up trails of volcanic sand and scree (one step up, two steps back). The benefit of spending so much time on the volcanoes, though, was the incredible relief from the excruciating heat of sea level — it was even chilly enough on the peaks where I needed my down jacket, which I hadn't worn since the Peruvian Andes months ago —  but there was still the humidity, thick and damp, which left me perpetually feeling like I was covered in wet mud that wouldn't dry, with clothes and gear moist and pungent with sulfur and dust. As well, most of the climbs were in the rain — torrential downpour-type rain — where I resigned to the weather, accepted it, and climbed anyway. Most summits were so shrouded with fog and heavy storm clouds that the spectacular vistas I'd originally come to Indonesia for were null; 14 hours of climbing to reach a view I'd dreamed about for years, just to be greeted by a somber screen of gray.

But even though I may not have gotten my spectacular, picturesque volcano sunrises, I got to experience the mountains in ways that few others do. Because of the horrible weather of the week that I was there, apparently many travelers avoided the mountains, which seemed to explain my apparent isolation. Even though I was consistently caught in rainstorms and didn't see the views that I came to Indonesia for, I was fortunate to feel almost alone, to spend time solo in the mountains, and to experience their remoteness as I originally dreamed. And when there were moments of awe-inspiring beauty — such as the blue fires of Volcano Ijen, or the tumbling plumes of ash and smoke from Volcano Bromo, or the vibration through my whole body as the volcano roared and rumbled beneath my feet — it felt like Java was opening itself up, even just a little bit, for me.

And yet, after I left the mountains and ended up in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, exhausted and sore in ways I didn't think was possible, I felt, for the first time during my entire round-the-world, burnt out.

The pollution, crowds, heat, dust, and overwhelmingly noisy streets of Yogyakarta were difficult to stomach after having spent so much time in the remote, picturesque seaside villages of Lombok and the clean mountains of Java. Yet as my plane from Yogyakarta descended into the island of Sumatra, I was instantly enamored again with the possibilities of Indonesia.

From the Sumatran city of Medan I immediately jumped in a bus to go to the interior, to a rainforest where the last remaining wild Sumatran orangutans hide. From the minute I stepped into the village where I'd be based, I was greeted by the beauty I'd been missing while in Java: gloriously green forests and sparkling rice terraces, a tumbling river that lapped up on the front steps of my porch where I swung in a hammock all evening listening to a thunderstorm, total quiet (no roads and no traffic for miles) with the exception of monkeys playing with coconuts in the trees above my roof, and a smattering of travelers who'd come to be the lively group I'd trek into the jungle with in search of orangutans.

So we trekked for days, for hours, only stopping to camp on the shore of the river (which was just a tarp propped up on bamboo poles with some flimsy mats for us to lay on), then woke to keep walking, hiking up steep muddy cliffs for hours at a time then down through treacherous, slippery ravines, pausing to cut open a watermelon in a clearing of ferns or to jump into the river when we had a free moment and there were no signs of rhino or tiger around. Sumatra was about eating curries and sharing stories around candlelight during the thunderstorms, laughing as we attempt to sleep while trying to keep monitor lizards from taking our boots. And, of course, the moment of unexplainable joy, of sweeping awe-inspiration, the first moment we spotted the movement of red fur of our endangered cousin sitting high in the branches, curiously and passively watching us.

The bus ride from the jungle back to the coast was long and unbelievably hot, and after having rushed and unsatisfying goodbyes in the middle of the humid, crowded chaos of Medan’s bus station, one moment passed and these people I had spent every hour with for the past however-many-days were gone and I was, for the final time, alone.

I walked for an hour until I found a small warung where I ate rice and curry for a few cents until I arrived at a guesthouse, where I was already inundated with emails and facebook messages from people I met across Indonesia over the past month, all asking me, “so, when are we going to meet again?” 

The question breaks my heart, but more than anything, makes me feel extraordinarily lucky. It has been years since I've been anywhere that has shown me as much beauty, adventure, and incredible people as Indonesia has. The miss and nostalgia I have for every soul I came across, the deep connections made, the midnight swims in the sea, the rice terraces and tangled jungles, the profound sense of possibility, is something I haven't experienced to this degree and magnitude in such a condensed amount of time in... well, I sincerely can't remember. And while I'm extraordinarily grateful for everyone I've met and the things I experienced in Indonesia, it's mostly put a fire in me to keep pursuing this life, to keep finding these people, to keep drawing closer. I promise I will. 

"But also I say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness, when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive."


- Mary Oliver, from 'Blue Iris'