Ten years ago I was going through a thing – I was working at an awesome weekly newspaper in my college town, waiting tables, living the dream. I danced downtown Tuesday through Saturday and in drum circles and at sunsets on the beach. I spent the night at my best friends and they spent the night at mine, and we ate 7-11 dinners and spent hours picking out movies at Blockbuster and drank cheap wine and painted what we thought were very profound paintings. I had no idea what I was doing but I was having fun.
I thought I was dating this guy and that my life was amazing, and it turned out he had a girlfriend, my five roomies had been secretly charging me three times the rent they were each paying at our house, and I had a wee quarter-life crisis. I can remember sitting on my favorite beach (Hendry’s) and journaling and writing very clearly – “I studied Spanish and Latin America in college, but I haven’t been past Mexico. I think I should go.”
I threw a new status update out on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to join, and two girls who knew me but not each other decided we’d go for it. I sold my Santa Barbara life, bought a second-hand backpack, some Tevas, and pants that zipped off oh-so-sexily into shorts and a map and a copy of Lonely Planet and off we went. It was an adventure of a lifetime. Everything changed in me and for me on those months spent traveling from Guatemala to Peru.
In all those countries, I saw and did and felt things that changed the rest of my life, and part of that was meeting some really cool people. One of those people was Jeanie, who I met on Bocas del Toro, where we kind of accidentally got stranded for a few weeks during Panamanian Independence celebrations and entering ourselves into a beer drinking contest (for AMERICA so it was IMPORTANT). We laughed and danced and we all told each other everything with the heartfelt sincerity that only people in their early twenties can, and Facebook was pretty new but after streaming the election results in an attic we all added each other as friends and have been able to follow each other’s travels around the world since then. And as luck would have it, she’s now living in Indonesia with a spare room. And as luck would have it, I’m living in Hong Kong with two weeks vacation in April and itchy-about-to-turn-34 feet.
I flew into Denpasar, spent a night in Kuta, waited through several delays to fly to Lombok, then bargained a taxi to Montong, where Jeanie calls home. It was about 24 hours of travel, but I’d already realized it was my first time traveling to a Muslim/Hindu country, Indonesians were the friendliest people I’d ever met, and it was hot.
It was insane to reunite with someone I hadn’t seen or really even spoken to in a decade, but we got on like a house on fire, quickly catching up, meeting her boyfriend, discussing her pregnancy, filling each other in on the happenings that status updates and instagram can’t quite cover.
It was late but we were all hungry and so hopped on motorbikes to head to a little street cafe nearby. It was my first time on a motorcycle and I felt free and brave and fast until we saw the flashing lights in the distance. As we pulled closer, through the crowds you could make out the mangled bikes and two bodies bleeding on the ground from head wounds, limbs twisted in ways bodies shouldn’t. Further on an SUV was turned on its side.
I clutched Jeanie’s shoulders a little tighter and she reached back a reassuring hand. And I’ve thought about that a lot since that moment. The next day on the beach I met two guys who were cousins and neighbors with the boys killed. They were both 19 and 20, just starting university. They told me they’d been to the first of three services that morning – in their tradition, you bury the dead immediately, and have multiple funerals spaced out for times of grieving. The driver was drunk, and after he hit them, he got out of the car and ran to the police to turn himself in before a crowd could rise up and beat him to death.
My first meal was Nasi Goreng – fried rice (including some veg and some SPICY chili) and a fried egg on top. First of many times I would have this. We talked about life and death and choices and journeys.
The next day I trekked into Sengiggi – what might be a happening beach town in high season but was instead a beach full of guys desperate to sell something. I was offered massages, braids, drugs, sarongs, jewelry. Despite no makeup and zero interest, even showing them my empty wallet, I somehow attracted a crowd of about ten, holding court and helping with English phrases and buying rounds of beer for everyone and signing myself up for a waterfall hike the next day.
I told them I was a teacher – Indonesians are incredibly friendly and curious about your life – and they were all so impressed. “Here a teacher is very respected – she is a second mom. You are very important.” Andy educated me on Indonesian philosophy and the idea of living just one day to the next, feeling your feet in the sand and your hand on a tree as often as possible.
Every single person asked where I was from and burst into “Hotel California” when I told them. We chorused Bob Marley and reggaefied versions of Ed Sheeran songs and watched the sunset. They touched my dimples, telling me “when you have dimples you are wearing Heaven on your face,” which I quite liked.
“Alright, guys, I gotta pay for these beers and I gotta go,” I said. “This is bleeding my heart!” Andy answered. Andy, who earlier told me that we don’t need to know soldiers or guns on this earth if we just know each other, and that when he leads snorkeling tours he says “okay, if you don’t know how to swim, men – grab a life jacket, and women, grab me!”
Jeanie rents a four bedroom apartment – front yard, backyard, yoga studio, for pennies. She shares it with Rina, who works at a hotel and is beautiful. And we spent nights in the hammock, borrowing the neighbors guitar and the boys used an empty water jug as a drum as we sang John Denver (of all things) and Bob Marley (always). Jeanie tried to get me to meditate (I fell asleep), we watched our mutual favorite childhood movie while eating popcorn in bed (‘Anastasia’ still holds up, FYI) and everyone politely ignored how much this foreigner was sweating in the heat.
The next morning came quickly, but Ali picked me up on time, and politely let me snooze in the front seat for the two-something hour drive up to the volcano base where I’d begin my waterfall hike. I only had a few “why do I insist on traveling by myself and going in cars with strangers to far away places” moments as we dodged cows and chickens and dogs and people on the winding roads up to the small shack where a group of barefoot men silently drew straws to see who’d have to accompany me on the journey.
Luckily the victim was AMAZING even if he was a little handsy towards the end. I wasn’t worried – easily outweighed him by a hundred pounds, and he let me borrow his shoes, AND insisted on putting me through a photo shoot I’m grateful for in the end. One of the sucky things about traveling alone is you’re never in the pics, but Indonesians, like all Asians, I am discovering, are shameless about taking pictures, stopping for thirty minutes to pose over and over again, and coaching each other for the best shots. It’s great.
The waterfalls were beautiful and the rice terraces and rocky paths and little bits of scrambling and fording the river were good for the soul. Just as Andy the philosopher had predicted.
The last part of the ‘fun’ was being led through a “river picture hole” (I love the descriptions of things when there is limited English. So vivid.) which turned out to be a water tunnel full of BATS with HOLES in the ground that you couldn’t see because it was a rushing river and in a dark tunnel. Many a bad word might have been said as I clutched the hands of my 90 lbs guide, his flip flops on my feet, sweating for multiple reasons and screaming “WHERE ARE THE HOLES AND AM I GOING TO DROWN” more than once.
On the ride home we went to Monkey Forest, which was just a stop on the side of the road where I was handed some peanuts which I threw at monkeys because you were supposed to feed them one at a time but man are monkeys scary when you get close. Also, rabies?
And I also had the honor of being the first American an old Muslim winemaker had ever met. We pulled off on the side of the road, as my intrepid guide Ali had been promised a new batch of palm and rice wine, and walked into the jungle. Several men were lounging about on the raised bamboo benches that are everywhere for sitting and napping, and I was offered a sort of tour and explanation of how they tap the palm flowers and make the wine. I tasted both out of courtesy and possibly grew some chest hair from the tiny sips I took. We all shared the same cup. Through my translator I was offered either son in marriage (the first of many marriage proposals on this trip) and told I was a healthy looking girl. My birthing hips were eyed meaningfully. I politely declined.
I went back to the office with Ali, watched the boys drink, got a few more offers of marriage, heard a few more choruses of “Hotel California,” and then was escorted to Coco beach for sunset by Ei, who took sneaky pictures of me and got a little handsy during his clumsy attempts at sunset romance. But I was prepared – I had ordered garlic bread with extra garlic at dinner and made obnoxious yawning faces. It seemed to mostly work. He still texts me.
We rented a car the next day and took off to Kuta and some locals only beaches, feeling very self-conscious in our bikinis as Indonesian women are clothed head to toe, even when swimming. We took instaworthy pregnancy announcement photos of Jeanie at my insistence, and floated in the salt-heavy blues, climbing a hill to the edge of the world to watch the sun set. Which is all I ever want to do.
At a roadside stand I learned how to eat some of the spiciest food I’ve ever encountered with my hands. Even rice was eaten by hand! The stand put out little silver bowls of water for us to wash hands in, and you eat everything with your right hand. It was delish. Some of the best fried things there had ever been.
And now I’m on my own in the Gili islands, renting little bungalows and trying to not let the voices in my head get too loud and fending off all the Donald Trump jokes and trying not too feel too old or out of place among all the backpackers.
If you haven’t heard it yet today and you need to, you can talk to me about it. I’m alone and nearly lonely. And also you are worthy and valuable and important and I have listening skills and a heart for you.