I love the mountains… the same way a great warrior loves a formidable adversary. I find them forever humbling and terribly difficult, and for those reasons, spending time with them is always painfully, blissfully, transformative.
Sitting in a damp bed under a leaky roof of cold, monsoon rain, in the Indian Himalayas, 13 years ago, was where I had my first big travel-induced, mind-crippling breakdown… which gave way to one of my most profoundly indescribable transcendent experiences to date.
Trekking in the Peruvian Andes, I watched my brain become a foreign object, who’s thoughts uncomfortably longed for home, while my body suffered with disorienting and nauseating altitude sickness. After having to swallow enough pride to accept a donkey ride through much of one day’s ascent, I learned that strength of will isn’t about being able to force the body to push through struggle, but rather about still being able to crack a joke with your trailmates when you finally catch up, and sing a song of joy for life, even when the body aches down to its lungs and bone.
At the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, I spent two days huddled in my aging, windowless concrete-walled guest room, eating white bread to soothe my out of control nervous and digestive systems. I left only to sit in the church across the street, hoping for divine inspiration what what to do next with my life. The seeds that would later circuitously grow into my current business were planted in that dark room and that Central American church.
And so, I’m back. I’m currently nestled with my laptop between Mt. Batur and Mt Abong, in the Balinese highland village of Kintamani. Today’s bubur (traditional Balinese rice porridge) sits beside me uneaten, for something in it this morning tastes too much like the smell of mold that has become my personal nemesis these last 5 days. My traveling water bottle is filled with hot water and sliced ginger, to warm the rumbling cough out of my lungs. I was supposed to check out today, but I’ve extended my stay. Despite my body’s pervasive discomfort in cold, damp, musty mountains, (or maybe because of that discomfort), tightly woven bonds within my newfound friendships here are making it difficult to leave.
This hasn’t been an easy stay for me.
I panicked when my iPhone stopped charging on my last night in Sanur. iPhones are a rare luxury commodity up in the mountains, so little local advice was available. My only camera for this trip, my primary connection to the outside world, my alarm clock, my means to book future accommodation, essentially my electronic life-line, was slated for imminent death.
I kept a fearful distance from the showers. With strangely designed drains that left constant petri dish puddles, paint-peeled concrete walls that hadn’t seen loving care in years, and corner spiders making museums of insect carcass collections, I stayed away for 4 days.
I had two restless nights of tossing in bed: a bit of synaesthesia kicked in, in the sleep-deprived wee hours, where I swear I could see the smell of mold spores clawing their way into my nose and throat. What I couldn’t see were the mourung (tiny bugs nearly invisible to the naked eye), that left me frantically scratching until dawn, as they left pimple-like bites over pretty much my whole body.
One of those sleepless nights was leading up to the planned 2:45 am wakeup, to trek to sunrise at the top of nearby Mt. Batur. I was exhausted, and itchy, and feeling some serious respiratory irritation, and was off to climb a mountain in the dark.
(Where do I get it that these are good ideas?)
Our tour group climbed and climbed, and somehow it seemed like dawn would never break. It felt like hours that we were pushing against the darkness. When we finally reached the summit, we had our own chance to witness the legendary views that summon throngs of tourists: completely socked in. We had chilling damp air, and “magnificent” views in all directions, of nothing but fog.
The environment is difficult. But from the rough, the people are diamonds.
Our guide on the mountain trek was a charming young man with bright eyes and a huge smile, named Soma. A natural cheerleader, he kept spirits high with chipper jokes, and constant check ins to make sure everyone was alright. He’d stand at the tricky parts, and take each of us by the hand to pull us up over steep ledges, like a laughing human conveyor belt. I was reminded of my own “play-your-way-through-struggle” lessons of Peru, and inspired to joke along, chase through the easier parts, and find the fun, despite my body’s complaints. I guess Soma took a bit of a liking to me, because when we reached a stopping point and the group split into those hanging out there, and the group charging ahead to the top, he grabbed me by the hand, smiled, and dragged me all the way to the summit.
At the top, while we tourists shared commiseration of the futility of our photo safari, Soma disappeared to make us banana sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and hot chocolate to keep us warm against the blustering misty wind. We taught each other new English and Indonesian phrases, and joked at each other’s pronunciation difficulties. The whole way down, he and I ran and skipped hand in hand, howling with laughter and shouting our new mottos: “Luar Biasa!! Bersukur!” (Incredible! It’s all good!)
A day and a half later, Soma would come get me on his motorbike to personally take me to sunset on another caldera, with breathtaking views all around. All 3 nearby volcano peaks rose crisp and green there, wearing their skirts of village tin roofs and cabbage crops. The vast crystal lake beckoned below us on one side, and the even more vast shimmering ocean draped herself with scattered clouds on the other.
The cost of this view? Motorbike hugs. I was continually instructed to hold on tighter, ostensibly to avoid being bounced off the bike. With a welcome surge of oxytocin, and a healthy dose of trust in my new friend and in the Gods, the ride was exhilarating as hell. We pushed the low-powered scooter to it’s limits through puddles, around fallen mountain rubble, and along tiny footpaths cut in the brush. We laughed and hollered and willed ourselves over the challenging parts. I’m certain that bike was fueled half by petrol, half by 21 year old amorous Balinese testosterone.
Back at the hotel, the staff was caring and apologetic, for the mold troubles I’d battled for a couple days.
“Oh no… it’s like mushroom…” Ari commiserated with me, in adorable limited English, when I showed her the visible growth. “Thank you so much for telling me. I didn’t know this before now”. I was able to help the staff begin to attend to their mold problem, while they shifted me to a much more lung friendly room, and also helped me sort out the right cream to keep annoying itchy bug bites at bay.
Ari, her similarly sweet reception counterparts, and I would soon be sharing snacks and lovingly poking fun at each other, while conversing about everything from local restaurants, to different burial traditions, ghosts, and Gods. I even had the honor to be invited to one of their wedding receptions, in her fiancees village home. We all left in a rowdy motorcade from the hotel; me, the bonus rider in a biker gang of playful Balinese 20-somethings.
At the reception, tone shifted abruptly, and I sat with them in sadness. We learned the wedding had been cancelled, because the bride’s grandmother died that morning. They still dressed in their traditional wedding garb, and insisted on feeding me and the smaller-than-originally planned group of guests. With me in tow, the group of friends kept the mood light with their characteristic sibling-style teasing, and ongoing streams of selfies. Together, and transcending languages, we celebrated and we grieved.
The people around the hotel also brought hope for my iPhone. A fellow traveller, a Canadian named Danny, with eyes that made me glad I’d decided to travel with contraception, asked to borrow my cable one rainy afternoon. The cable wouldn’t work for him either. I told him I was sorry that my cable didn’t help him, but thrilled to discover that the problem wasn’t in my phone itself. My staff sisters loaned me a cable someone else had left behind, and several others have jumped to my aid, giving me lifts to cell shops and helping with negotiations to obtain a new one.
So many people looking out for me.
There’s Eddie, my new brother, who took me on my first Balinese temple trip, and has since looked out for me as I battle through this respiratory infection, bringing me ginger tea and orange juice, and making sure I stay warm.
There’s Made, who I originally met as part of the business team in Sanur, who after playing beautifully for the tourists yesterday, today taught be a simple song on the Rinik (traditional Balinese instrument, a bit like a xylophone), and hand-picked healing herbal tea for me, out of what grows in the garden.
There’s the ibu (literally “mother”, but also the polite way to address any woman in Balinese), near the caldera yesterday, who insisted my Soma and I come into her home for tea, and laughed with us as her 5 grandchildren rolled, played, and climbed each other like monkeys on the floor.
In fact, it’s the culture here to invite passers-by into your home for coffee or tea. Doors are open, and hearts are welcoming. As happens when people come together over food and drink, bonds are forged fast.
With a mindset shifted by the people of the mountain, even the shower didn’t seem so intimidating this morning. I was able to wash both my skin and my laundry, and let both dry and warm in the sun. She shines bright and warm today, but not as warm as the people who live here under her care.
My body is happy to head back down to the heat of the jungle. My facebook friends list holds an open line to this, my new mountain family. I’ll continue my journey onward tomorrow, but part of my heart will stay here.
Thank you for challenging me, changing me, and loving me, Kintamani.