Sunday, September 19, 2010

late stories: indonesia: bromo

"how many on your side?"
"37.  you?"
we are counting 4wd jeeps on the way down from gunung bromo, and the count ends up well past 250.  so, not including ojek (motorbike taxis) and assuming tourist capacity of four per jeep (which is, in fact, six) we shared the mystical experience of sunrise over the gunung bromo crater with at least a thousand other folk.  and it felt that way too!  sunrise is at around 5:15, so we woke up at 3:30 and piled into our jeep with a parents-aged dutch couple (who, based on a combination of factors (e.g., van dyke moustache (him), designer trekking gear, and subtle but intriguingly-placed piercings), probably have a fairly interesting private life) and a rumply french dude. in our caravan of 250, we roared up to the lookout point of mt. pananjakan.  "jacketjacketjacket" a running stream of syllables to the left and right, as local tinggal men wrapped in sarongs like blankets hold out armsful of fur-lined jackets for the ill-prepared.  a line of men are roasting corn, and the soft pop of kernels on the charcoal brasziers is like punctuation to the thousand conversations swirling around -- it is astonishing that everyone is so talkative at this hour.  a group of thirty men are standing in rows just next to the toilets (coincidentally, i think), chanting, facing north.

"does someone have a campfire out there?" i ask, seeing a plume of smoke and a faint orange light in the distance.  um, no.  that's the volcano.  smoldering mt. bromo, spewing sulfurous fumes nonstop, and his taller, sleeker, greener brother, mt. batok, looks on calmly, fumeless.  "be back at 6" our driver tells us, and we are, and so join the caravan down to the floor of the crater.  its about a 30 minute walk from the jeep park to the top of mt. bromo, but if i were to suddenly lose the will to move or feel like wearing high heels to the wilderness or just need to take the time to make a few business calls on the way, plenty of horses were on offer and, indeed, were offered to me.

after the official tour and breakfast, we hiked back down into the crater for a bit more personal man/nature encounter, without quite so much man/man dilution.  it's massive -- on one side, the landscape softens into savannah and grasses, and over by the bases of the edges of the crater, farmers attend to their crops and give us barely a glance.   on the other side, covered completely by the lootiapesir sand sea, and some areas with stranger superheated crusts of shiny rock that look solid but that break like sharp peanut brittle.  its starkly beautiful, and when the mists start rolling in, the blank sand slate is swallowed by a sea of billowing white.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


on our way home ...

don't worry; there are plenty of late stories left to go around.

Monday, August 23, 2010

you are responsible for your own safety

gua telinga, the sign reads, and then: you are responsible for your own safety. 

all around, the forest is thick with life: dripping, rustling, looming life.  nailpolish-red flowers bloom straight up from black loam.  ropey vines sneak up tree trunks, spill down in thick snakey coils, surge and twine together with roots above the surface of the soil.  sky and earth in a fine network, connected. an electric neon caterpillar as thick as my thumb swings the soft spikes of its head and tail from side to side, like an 80s dance move.  the sounds of birds: like water droplets, like the pow-pow-pow! laser guns of an x-wing fighter.  the air is a fertile soup, scented with loam and the weight of a hundred million years of decomposition and rebirth. i saw only one other human: an orang asli woman, pink hibiscus tucked behind one ear, equally as surprised to see me as i was to see her.

there is no gaping maw of a cavemouth, just a fissure between two jagged rocks and a little painted arrow pointing down.  i peer inside, and a cool draft of air lifts up to greet me.  no sound but that of my breath, whistling, my heart hammering. there is that instinctive primitive feeling of cave:  that oppressive sense of the air being full all around you, too full for sky.  i am not great with enclosed spaces.

inside, the air is cool and moist, not completely still, but quiet enough that each breath of air is a distinct touch on the skin.  each rock is a different kind of slippery: the smoothly worn; the murky damp, slick with moss, slick with bat guano.   i can feel the giant toads watching me with their submerged golden eyeballs, watching me haul myself up, hand over hand, ropes tied to roots. there is a fine rustling, like someone shaking out a sheet, like sheets flapping on a clothes line.  bats bats bats.

i brace my feet, angled ankles against the smooth stone.  the rope doesn’t reach, quite, to the bottom of this rock and it feels too loosely attached up above – a guiderope only, not strong enough to lever me back up if i chose to go back.  my fingers skitter over the thin strand of the next rope and i let myself slide down towards it, pulling the rope a bit for balance.  it gives.  a closer look with the headlamp: not a rope at all, but a root.  and the rope before it, also suspiciously loose?  also a root.  i have still just enough balance remaining to haul myself back up the rock i’ve just slid down.  status: location of rope to guide me forward – unknown.  location of rope to guide me backwards: unknown.  

this is your life, says my internal monologue.  this is your life and you are inside a cave full of bats and you don’t know how to get out.  don’t freak out.  and then there comes at once the realization that i have started climbing up, towards a faint light from the roof of the cave, without any actual moment of decision to climb.  the hole is big enough for me: i lift myself out of the cave and into the sweet air of freedom.  i examine the kidney-shape of the cave in my mind to orient myself: i will walk over the top of the cave, mirroring what would have been my interior progress, as if the cave were a prison-maze from which one may only escape by refusing to play by the rules of the man.  confidently, i strike out towards the exit-mouth of the cave.  hm, impenetrable jungle.  i realize abruptly that (1) my mental cave-schematic is pure fabrication and (2) if i lose the actual cave, i will have even less idea of where to go than i did inside the cave.  i breathe the last breath of sweet freedom air and lower myself back in.  

the internal monologue is back: you are trapped in a bat cave, it says again.  shut up, i say, i’m trying to think. i systematically survey possible routes.  that crevice looks too small.  i try it anyhow: it is.  this three-dimensional situation requires a lot of creative surveying.  the mouth of another likely-looking crevice is fanged with the hairy, teardrop-shaped bundles of sleeping bat, each wrapped in her transparent blanket of fleshy wings.  not that way.   o, but maybe this way?  yes.  yes, yes, yes.

do you know what is an underrated emotion?   sweet relief.

here there be dragyns

the stick is obviously to protect us from marauding dragons, and we need it.  "show me what you'd do with that stick if a dragon attacks," i demand.  our guide holds the stick out to his side with flaccid wrist; i'd like to see a little more vim and vigor from my designated protector, but really, the dragons don't seem too threatening.  they're all flopped out around the ranger station, some spread-eagled and solo, others sort of semi-stacked on top of each other, exchanging the occasional forked-tongue kiss. 

i guess the big guns can afford to seem so casual after enduring the harrowing dragon childhood: emerging from the egg, then immediately scampering up a tree for two years to avoid being chomped on by bigger versions of themselves.  a hungry dragon will attack a buffalo, bite it once or twice on the legs, then linger around, following it for the two weeks it takes for a buffalo to succumb to the salivary poison.  it's macabre, but hey, it's reptiles.  we nine fleshy westerners, all scaltily clad in shortshorts, tanktops and flipflops (one barefooter), would make for a fine dragon feast.  we're smaller than buffalo, smaller still than deer, so a quick poisonous strike to the kneecap would down any one of us in well less than two weeks or even the deer's two days.  fast food.

or maybe we're not quite as helpless as we look. 

the pampers project

the girl at the counter looks askance at my pile of items-to-be-purchased.  most of it is unremarkable -- broad beans, malkist crackers, little bottles of vinegar and alcohol (for anti-ear infection wash), big waters, the odd bit of chocolate.  but:  "miss.  pampers, miss."  the girl says it with equal parts emphasis and disbelief.  (translation:  "um, foreign girl.  what the hell are you doing????")  i beam at her.  i have been looking for adult-sized diapers for a while now, and it is excellent luck to have found some, just days before a long bus trip.  "ya, pampers!"  i exclaim.  "saya perlu untuk bis!"  (translation: "yes, pampers!  i need for the bus!")

so many bus rides spent worrying i might end up humiliating myself by getting up from a damp seat.  so many bus rides spent chewing at my chapped lips, feeling my tissues shrivel for lack of moisture, yet not daring to risk more than a throat-wetting sip of water.  so many mornings debating whether to drink the delicious chai/teh tarik/kopi in front of me, or to let my fear of caffeine's diuretic effects take control.

with the adult diaper, now i have control.  at least, in the sense that i have created a safe place for me to lose control.  strapping it on gives me a warm, safe feeling.  like strapping on a set of plate armor.  

um, a set of plate armor for a man thrice my size ...  

Friday, July 30, 2010

late stories: malaysia part 2: cameron highlands

the cameron highlands are a british-style hill station with gorgeous cool weather, incomprehensibly (un)marked hiking trails, and hilarious intermingling between the trickle of gringo tourists and the thick stream of locals.

ch is billed as a great place to self-hike, but all the malaysian tourists ignore the hills and drive from sight to sight.  it can get sort of trafficky, actually.  unlike us, the malaysian tourists are here only for shopping, eating, and kitschy events.   they cruise around by the bus- and car-load, bouncing from tea plantation to strawberry farm to honey bee farm and back … they tour tea plantations, pick strawberries, buy ridiculous strawberry-themed trash (e.g., pillows, umbrellas, dolls, pencils, earmuffs), sip tea, pretend to get lost in the bee-maze, eat royal jelly, buy tea sachets and tea t-shirts, and eat and eat strawberry ice cream, belgian waffles, chocolate-covered strawberries, strawberry shakes … 
of course we get in on this.

but for gringo tourists, since almost all of malaysia’s rugged mountains and forests require a professional guide, ch’s network of mapped, signposted hiking trails to nearby peaks and waterfalls and villages is a welcome change for the diy set.  slight problem: although the trails are beautiful, it’s generally impossible to figure out which one you’re on until (a) you show up where you were trying to go or (b) you end up someplace totally different and puzzle out where you must have been or  (c) you can’t tell whether you’re on a 5k trail or a 30k trail, and you end up turning around.  (c) was pretty frequent … there are all sorts of reasons why it makes sense to avoid allowing your 2-hour pre-breakfast jaunt to morph into an all-day, hoovering-up-the-peanut-crumbs-from-your-pants-pockets extravaganza. 

occasionally, we got lucky, found the right way by accident, and perfect pictures of peaceful hill-station life popped out of the woodwork … like this house, surrounded by fields of a feathery green spice with red flowers …
… or this one, with a household garden and household dog taking his guard-duties very seriously …

… or this little shrine, seeking good fortune  and a strong growing season from the tea-gods … 

sometimes, i really thought we were following a legit trail!  but what initially looked like a trail subtly and gradually changed into another beast entirely, until all of a sudden i’m in the jungle bushwhacking scene from “romancing the stone,” complete with mudslides and blame and eeeks! and emeralds and crocodiles and true love.   see how clean i look here?  this does not last.  

sometimes we spent most of the hike just praying for some signage – which, when we were lucky enough to find it, often looked something like this:   
 is this trail 10 or trail 11?  there’s only one way to find out.   here, there was no real difference … both of these trails lead to mountains of similar orientation,  trail-length, steepness, and sweeping panoramic vistas.  

however you choose to do it, you can’t really go wrong.


a man in standing next to tom, beaming up at him in undisguised admiration.  "uh, i’m not sure in meters, but i’m 73 inches tall," tom is saying to the man as i backtrack a few batik-stalls to check in on the scene.  they strike up a little conversation: he is from yogya, we’ve just arrived from malaysia, this is our first stroll down malioboro road, he thinks tom is so splendidly tall and handsome.  "do you like art?" he asks.  yes, of course.*  "have you seen the art exhibition honoring the sultan’s birthday?"  no, not yet.  "o, you should see it before it moves to solo tomorrow! and" (here his voice deepens with conspiratorial pride) "my wife is part of the exhibition."  sounds lovely.  what time does it close?  "5:30.  here, it’s just down that street, take a right and then follow the signs…" he waves his hand about a half-block down, trots alongside use for a bit, then melts away.  i peer down the street: no signs.  "hallo?" another man emerges from behind a bakso stall.  "yes please?  where are you going? exhibition please?  follow me …" he motions to the left, an even smaller alleyway.  hm.   maybe later.  i turn away, wary.  “but today is the last day!” he protests.  what time does it close?  "4:30" is the confident reply (it is 4:15 now).  double hm.  a peanut gallery of women stares at us from behind their storefront counters, impassive as sergio leone’s saloon onlookers just before the big shootout.  yet another man materializes from behind a concrete slab. "yes hallo please?  art exhibition?"  um, not anymore.  i can see what’s going on now. "but it is last day.  close at 5:00."  we skedaddle, having survived the infamous batik-touts of yogyakarta, who lure cultured travelers to their overpriced batik-lairs with sweet promises of last-chance art shows. 

the next gauntlet is the sultan’s palace, set in the middle of a massive public square dotted with trinket-stalls and (sadly, less frequently) warungs selling snacks.  the entrance is suspiciously easy to locate – the guidebook warns that the non-legit entrance charges less to see a tiny portion of the palace, and the real thing charges more to see the whole thing – and yes, the entrance price is an unrealistic 5000 rupiah.  "why don’t you want to see the palace?" the ticket seller asks plaintively.  "because this is the fake palace," i call back.  safely inside, the palace grounds are spacious and chilled-out: low, open-walled, intricately carved buildings hold musical instruments, beautiful old crystal lamps and tableware, and the random personal effects of various sultans past.  my favorite is a cool, echoing tiled gallery filled with stylized portraits of the royal family.  apparently yogya’s sultans are vulcans, or maybe elves.  

yogya is an awesome jumping-off point for the nearby temples.  we motorbiked to borobudur and to candi prambanan, both stunning destinations and incredibly fun (albeit hairy) bike rides.  but yogya is also a super-charming place to explore in its own right … in the mornings, the little alleyways (“gang”) around our guesthouse are alive with bustling energy.  men sweep the gang with bristly homemade brooms, and ladies squat on the cobblestones, selling fresh breakfast in brown paper cones – to date, my favorite meal in indonesia came from this gang: for thirty cents, a smokey-flavored white mass of gooey/fluffy cassava, topped with savory young jackfruit curry, chopped long beans and crispy bits of fried tempe; the whole mass eaten messily and with gusto by hand. nearby, at tami sari (the old sultan’s water garden and bathing pools), tourists snap photos of the pools while older kids play soccer in the courtyard between the carved walls.  in the evenings, kids scurry up and down the gang, flying colorful paper-and-bamboo kites, while their parents lounge around the central square, playing badminton and snacking on fried tofu, fried banana, and soft triangles of spiced omelette.  and every home boasts at least one little bird in an elaborate little cage, trilling pretty notes and dreaming of freedom. 

*who says no to that question?  "no, i hate the stuff.  i’m a cross between an uncultured hun and a philistine and i like to sack and burn villages."