20 January 2015

Holding On

In a hundred days I’ll be on Koh Tao, swinging in a hammock that overlooks the sea, already in disbelief that I used to live in Saudi Arabia.

So before I forget...

5:15am

My alarm chimes—a needless noise. I am already awake thanks to the wailing outside my window. “Allah is the greatest. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah. Hasten to worship. Hasten to success. Prayer is better than sleep…” The call to prayer can be beautiful but in the moments before dawn it rarely is. I stand on creaky knees and open the only window in my apartment. The glass is an impenetrable shade of yellow reminiscent of 70’s shag carpet or bile. Outside the black sky is brightening and the air is cool. The prayer assaults me from all sides. I close the window and shuffle into the kitchen to begin another day.

Coffee grounds flushed down the toilet, oatmeal with blueberries cooking on the stove and Al-Jazeera flickering on screen; the war in Syria, ISIL advancing, the false imprisonment of Al-Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy, and Peter Greste for their coverage of the Egyptian uprising; the news is the same every day and every day I watch.

My room has a half-burnt glow like a cardboard box lit by dying Christmas lights. I cinch my tie and swallow distastefully. I am, and always will be, convinced that ties were invented by an asphyxiation perv.

Outside the bus is waiting. It is three shades of brown smeared in a dusty fourth. The women's bus is just behind it, a different bus to a different campus, as always we are separate.

Our driver’s name is Yaseen. He is from Morocco and like everyone else he came here for the money. There are 28 million people in Saudi Arabia, only 18 million of which are Saudi nationals. A very small percentage of the foreign population is comprised of professionals recruited to fill positions at universities, hospitals, and big oil companies. I am amongst the recruited, a privileged immigrant. Yaseen is not. He is a migrant worker and like the millions who flock here from North Africa, Bangladesh and the Philippines he lives beneath the Saudi boot for a job that hardly seems worth it—for money that hardly seems worth it.

The bus pulls away. Yaseen waves to the cops who are always on guard and weaves around the barriers set up to defend us against who knows what. I listen to familiar music and watch the familiar suburban sprawl. Yaseen bullies his way through traffic, his antics a daily source of amusement. Nothing is open, and nothing will be until 4pm. I don’t know where the cars are going. I’ve never been able to figure that out. Throughout history the people in this region have stayed away from the harsh weather during the day, prayed often, and conducted commerce mostly at night. The modern world sprung up late and quick but they didn’t change to accommodate it, they just stuffed it into their millennia tested routine.

The university recently moved to a new campus and they’re still working out the kinks; the toilets overflow, there are never enough garbage cans and the thermostats in the classrooms are nothing more than 3D art. By higher learning standards it’s on par with a big community college, by ESL standards it’s downright swanky.

I walk into the classroom where a few of my students are already waiting. They are all adorned in traditional Saudi dress: white thobe, red and white shumagh and a black coiled igal. They don’t see me. They are hypnotized by their smart phones and they should be; they're nineteen and the first generation with access to the big world. Amused, I greet them loud enough to scare, “Good morning, gentlemen!” They look up startled and mumble, "Good morning," before returning to their phones. Class doesn't start for another ten minutes. I uncap a red marker and begin outlining our day.  

I have been unable to find contentment in Saudi. I am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my perceptions.

It’s a great job and ya know life isn’t so bad here!

I enjoy the work, but am I wasting what’s left of my youth?

 I’d be crazy not to cash in as much as possible, this’ll set up the future. 

Fu#% this

The conversations I have with my friends are always about the future. What are you doing over the break? Are you coming back next year? Are you working the summer? Do you even want to work the summer? The present is a joke about surviving. The past expresses gratitude for time past quickly. I often wonder what it would be like if I could live with this group of people anywhere else. Imagine the times we'd have if we weren't just killing time.

I ask one of the Ahmeds to close the door. I have five Ahmeds in a class of fourteen. I do a quick head count to make sure everyone is present.

"Gentlemen..."

Khalid smiles. He knows where this is going because it goes the same place every day. He beats me to it, "Put your cell phones aaa-wayyy."

The students have been my one constant in Saudi Arabia. They are good kids; polite, respectful, quick to laugh. No matter how up or down I feel about Saudi, I am always happy to walk into the classroom. My current crop of students are going into the medical college, Saudi's future doctors. For most of them it is not a path they chose. They had the highest grades in the region coming out of high school and as such it is expected that they go into medicine--with engineering being an acceptable rebellion.

I don't have Saudi friends. If I did maybe I would know more about the future of this country. I have heard that in the bigger cities it is possible to have a social life beyond the compound, to sit in shisha lounges and listen to liberal whispers. That doesn't happen here. It's too small, too country. Aside from occasional walks to the supermarket I never leave the track between school and home. My students are the only indicator I've got and they're pointing in fourteen different directions.

Besides, this is a story about my Saudi, a story that ends in a hundred days. It would be conceited and unwanted to start flinging prognostications from behind the compound walls. They would be no more accurate than a future with flying cars. I will say this: some of what confounds outsiders doesn't need to change at all, it falls into the category of different isn't wrong. But, there are obvious human rights issues as well and I think that many of those issues could be reconciled without sacrificing ideology or tradition. If the big world has any impact at all, I hope it's that.

11:00am

I'm sitting at my desk eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I look up because there is a kid hovering in the doorway. He is skinny with dark wavy hair and a starter-kit mustache. I've never seen him before, he belongs to another teacher. Something is up. This little dude looks like he is about to pull apart at the molecules. His teacher finally sees him and ushers him in. The kid makes half-hidden eye contact with every teacher in the room. This is big. He wants us all to hear.

"Teacher something very bad happened yesterday. Did you hear about this?"

His teacher knowing full well what the kid is talking about says, "No, what happened?"

The kid takes a cellphone out of his pocket. He is a rabbit on alert, twitchy, ready to dart. But, he's got this grin too; a wolfish gash that doesn't fit his scared little face. He knows it. He pulls it back between twitching lips. We all know what happened yesterday. We've been whispering about it all morning--whispering as if violence can be lured. I am out of my seat. Everyone is. Does the fucking kid have pictures?

He waits until we draw near. He starts the slide show. People gathered in a semi-circle around a pedestrian looking mosque. Police lights flashing. A woman covered in black, hands hiding her already hidden face. The images close in; blurred shots of an agitated crowd, yellow barriers surrounding the entrance to the mosque. A body. An Arab man in western clothing. The last body to be moved. There are five pools of blood.

"Did you take these pictures?"

"My friend. This is very near. Maybe twenty kilometers from the University."

1:00pm

It's the last class of the day and I'm in Teacher Michael mode. I'm telling jokes and winging board markers around the room. I'm correcting b's that should be p's. I'm helping these kids (who came up through a system of rote memorization) learn to think for themselves and to do it in a language they are learning. I often feel atrophied outside the classroom, but inside I'm (almost) always switched on.

This quarter has been challenging because my students know me too well. Most of them were in my class last quarter and they aren't intimidated anymore. They're always trying to get me off topic. They think they're sly. Picture a bull with a bell around its neck walking on twinkle hooves.

"Teacher. In California how is the weather?"

"California is big, so it depends on where you are. It's warm by the beach, cold in the mountains and hot in the desert. As hot as Saudi in some places."

"What your job in California?"
     "Were you a teacher?"
          "What kind of car you drive?"

"What was your job. No I wasn't a teacher. And don't worry about what kind of car I drove. Open your Reading and Writing books to page 136."

"Teacher! Why? You are our teacher we want to know you!"

"No you don't. You want to waste time. Page 136."

The rabble rousers laugh because they know they're busted. Everyone starts to open their books, everyone except this kid Zuhair who is just sitting there with his face all scrunched up. He looks like a Sultan's kid, not the idealized movie version, the oh... reality version. He blasts air from his nostrils. He can't take it. He has to know.

"Teacher. Why you live here?"

I walk to the window and pull back the blinds. Outside is a nearly empty parking lot with dust devils swirling.

"Because it's so beautiful."

Now everyone is laughing.

2:45pm

The bus drops me off at our local mall. It's a ten minute walk from the compound and the closest thing we've got to a social destination. As I approach the grocery store, I see the metal gates closing. Prayer'd out as usual. I make a quick right and book it for Costa Coffee hoping to sneak in an order before they turn out the lights. I make it just in time. As a single man I am not allowed inside the coffee shop, but I am allowed to wait out the prayer in the singles section near the front entrance.

And there is that familiar wail blasting from every speaker in the mall.

This particular prayer is called Asr and it begins when the shadow of...well nowadays it begins when the App says so. I would have a lot more respect for prayer stoppage if anyone else did. There are hundreds of people in the mall and none of them are scurrying for the mosque on the 2nd floor. They are sitting on benches waiting out the pause just like me. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that stalls completely five times a day. It's pious grandstanding that in my opinion offers no positive benefit. Mosques are everywhere and people use them. The prayer room at school is well trod. I have almost been run over by people rushing to the mosque near the compound. Worship is alive and well. It's deeply ingrained into routine. There is no need to muck-up every trip to the bank, mall, grocery store, kebab shop...

Different isn't wrong. 

I'm sitting here sipping my cappuccino, watching the uneasy collision of old Arabia and new income. Most of the mall patrons are women. As intended they are a mystery floating around in black. I have never spoken to a Saudi woman and I never will. Women are not allowed to drive nor are they allowed to leave the house without an escort so there are plenty of figures in white as well; husbands, brothers, eldest sons keeping watch. There is a flood of prosperity these days and this mall, which emptied out could pass for a mall in suburban America, has all the brands, all the fast food joints, its a regular orgy of consumerism. Ascending the escalators, moving in and out of shops, chasing after their kids; people who perfectly match the sepia-toned pictures of their ancestors wandering through the worst parts of the West. It's like being witness to a bizarro field trip. Welcome to Sin World! Damned if you do!

7:00pm

I'm in the clubhouse and I'm in a shitty mood. Management called a big secret meeting and it must be important because they've got all the teachers here. I don't know what the meeting is about but I'm pretty sure we are about to get a collective wrist-slap for over-socializing. Here they come. Their faces are set. They look grim. Someone just handed me an agenda and the rundown is not what I was expecting. The big boss launches in. My shoulders relax and my arms uncross. My scowl turns curious. This meeting is not about our behavior, it's about our safety.

The neighbors don't want the female teachers out in the community without a guardian. We knew that. The incident yesterday--violence of faith not far from the compound and shocking enough to warrant a bungled report on Al-Jazeera. We knew that too. A Canadian man attacked in a big city not far from here. He was shopping with his family. He was stabbed without provocation. That we did not know.

The managers are telling us about all the new safety procedures and the teachers are raising their hands. They have so many questions, mostly about our own community. What's being said? What's being thought? This rush of discontent, these new procedures, none of it jives with my experiences in Saudi. I've never felt threatened. Occasionally men approach me with friendly curiosity, but for the most part I'm treated with passive disregard. I don't want what ifs to start affecting the way I live my life. I want to see this meeting as HR paperwork more so than genuine concern. I want to carry on. Still... I locked the door when I left. It's open now.

8:30pm

I'm lying on a plastic lawn chair covered in couch cushions, in an apartment that passes for our local movie theater. There are eight other people in the room and despite the heaviness of the meeting no one is talking about it. We have a break coming up and everyone is jabbering about where they are going; Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malaysia, Vietnam, Egypt, Jordan. In this room I don't feel like a foreigner in the most foreign of places. I feel a sense of home. This is the best part of Saudi; the friends I've made.

None of us fit in. We are indescribably cuckoo. The normal people are shouting, telling us that we are going the wrong way, but we aren't. We are trying to get to the Island of Misfit Toys because we think it would be a cool place to check out. We are travelers and this is no phase. Saudi isn't always easy, but it is fueling a future of indefinite adventure. For me the next stop is a perfect little island in Thailand. For my friends...well it's a big world.

For now we are here, together, holding on.










03 October 2014

Mount Rinjani: C'est Magnifique!

I bent over and grabbed my toes letting my hammies loosen and burn. I gave trekkers and the gods and the volcano a face full of butt. I didn't care. No fucks given. I had Rinjani to climb. No summit! 3726 meters of volcanic mean. I hit the groin too. Let'em see!

Unbeknownst to me a handful of Frenchies were leaning over their banana pancakes trying to ascertain my deal.

"He looks serious," Thomas said. (Translation: "What a dick.") 

"Do you think he's with us?" Julie asked.

Their group was 100% French...so far. They worried privately while I got loose. They must have known I was coming. They must have known I was American. Who but an American would rush a perfectly good meal just to moon the mountain?

Poor Frenchies...

The island of Lombok in Southern Indonesia is made up entirely of the stuff Rinjani spit out. Warm ocean waters crash onto black volcanic sand, jungles flourish atop lava beds hardened and buried, and in the center ending at some unknown point beyond a ring of clouds is the monster itself.

Lombok was my escape from Bali, and Rinjani was meant to cleanse me of its taint. I booked a three day, two night trek in Senggigi. I liked what I saw in pictures. I liked the idea of going from sea level to summit and back. I ignored the warnings.

In Senggigi I met several sets of trekkers limping away from the mountain. To a person they warned me that it would be a difficult climb. I dismissed them all. I decided that Senggigi had become infested with roving packs of weenies.

The trek started in a village called Senaru. The Frenchies finished their pancakes and we took a short ride to the trail head. We were an odd six-pack; Thomas, Julie and Oliver knew each other from University in Bordeaux. Thomas and Oliver having matriculated there from the French Antilles. Their French speaking allies were Anthony, a boxing/MMA coach and Ludivine a nice girl from I can't remember where--a lovely group of European travelers doomed to trek with a dude from California.

Our guide's name was A-sound + jibberish. He was a nice, somewhat quiet guy wearing worn out shoes and a Charlie Brown yellow t-shirt. He spoke with a rising inflection as if the volume was cranking itself.

The day was hot and humid, but both were nicely dimmed by the jungle canopy. Following the Charlie Brown beacon we climbed up and over steps carved from dirt and creeping roots. There were no flat sections to give moments of reprieve, it was all up up up, and we had six hours of up on the agenda.

Midway through we stopped for lunch. Everyone else stopped. I saw a sign that read "Waterfall 100 meters" and kept right on going. I do this. Ask anyone who has ever gone trekking with me. I'm the guy who goes pointlessly farther. I'm the guy who charges into the jungle with an imagined pith helmet and imagined machete. I stop just short of doing one-armed push-ups, because I'm faintly aware that my asshole vibe doesn't need any sprinkles of asshole.

In this case I got what I deserved. The waterfall was a rock wall ending in a pit full of garbage and the entire trail was littered with landmines--human poop landmines. The sign should have read "Deuce Drop Zone - Enter at your Own Risk." Stepping in a dog bomb is one thing, but the squish and stink of human doo doo that's just...that's just. I tried to avoid it. I really did. But no amount of dexterity could save me from poop spackled shoes.

Rinjani has a poop and garbage problem. There are no toilet facilities along the trail aside from a couple of unusable metal shacks with murder scene insides. And worse there is no plan in place to deal with the garbage generated by the thousands of tourists who visit every year. The long stretches of trail between porter camps are pristine, but the places people stop to rest have become mini landfills. The tourists, most of whom come from eco-conscious Western nations, are generally appalled by the situation and can be seen stuffing garbage into their backpacks to dispose of later. However, most of the garbage they generate is handled by the porters and the porters often add to the heap. Garbage with nowhere to go is a major problem in (from what I've seen) every corner of the developing world. And it is always an issue of education + simple solutions. The people paid to lug your gear up the mountain don't even have basic education, let alone environmental education. And even if environmentalism had been drilled into them since childhood, what are they supposed to do with all that trash? Give people (tourist or porter) the option to act responsibly and generally they will.

The Indonesian government collects millions of dollars a year in park fees, a few plastic bins marked "Recycle" wouldn't cost much. And they could get the tourists to clean up the mountain for them. I paid $140 for my three days, two nights package. If someone had said, "The guide, the food, everything is free, but you have to lug as much garbage as you can off the mountain." I would have said, "Done!" What traveler wouldn't? If the government sponsored one eco-trek per month the mountain would be clean.

Update: According to the internet, "62% of park entrance fees go to the Rinjani Ecotourism Trekking Program." Apparently I failed to notice that 62% of the garbage was red tape. 

Anyway, enough with the rant...

Up up up we went until the jungle canopy thinned out into nothing. With only dust and scrub brush to protect us it felt like the sun had a vendetta. I wanted to get the hike over with as quickly as possible, so I walked butt-sniffingly close to the guide until he got tired of my prodding and ushered me into the lead. I wrapped a silly scarf around my head not caring that I looked like a sexually ambiguous pirate and started moving fast; no breaks, no breathers. The view behind me was gorgeous, but I didn't give it much time. I stomped-up dust cloud after dust cloud until I reached the rim, and GOD DAMN!!

There was the caldera. I hadn't seen it coming. I had forgotten it was waiting. The image washed over me and took my weariness and intensity with it. I floated over to a rock and sat down to appreciate the splendor.




We set up camp with our backs to the caldera and watched the sun sink beneath an ocean of clouds. We imagined it setting farther still; beyond the dust and scrub brush, beyond the jungle canopy and rough cut steps, beyond Senaru and the black sand beaches of Sengigi, beyond the sea--shimmering its way around the curve.

The temperature dropped with the sun. We asked our guide if we could have a campfire and he said that we didn't need one because we were cooking with gas. We were too exhausted to explain that we wanted a fire because fires are awesome...and warm. So instead we inhaled plates of Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and hit the tents in pairs. Thomas and Julie (being a couple) had obvious first dibs. Ludivine chose me because I was the only boy who didn't admit to snoring. That left Anthony and Oliver, the two biggest dudes to share a tent. Poor guys. We might as well have wrapped the leftovers in plastic wrap.

Sunrise at the caldera. 5am. That was the plan. I woke up an hour before and stumbled out of the tent to find a sky gone mad with stars. It was freezing so I snagged my sleeping bag and bundled up. Our neighbors on either side were cooking breakfast over gorgeous flickering campfires. Envy prickled through me and I edged closer. I wanted to join them, but I couldn't find the gumption, so I sat in the shadows leering like a perv at a peepshow.

Day two was supposed to be the "easy" day; six hours of vertical V--down to the crater lake, past the hot springs and up to Camp Two, high above the caldera--our launching point for the summit.

The crater lake is called Segara Anak (Child of the Sea) and it is really something. The high walls of the caldera reflect off its shimmering surface; drawing you in, inviting you closer. After more than two hours of steep rocky trails we were all too happy to accept that invitation. We stripped down and waded into its icy waters. We whooped with joy and floated lazily with the blue sky stretching away. What peace! What serenity!

Stupid ass lobsters is what we were...
Rinjani doing its thing in '95

Rinjani is an active...no scratch that...VERY ACTIVE volcano. In 2010 it sent rock and ash nearly 20,000 feet into the sky. In 1995 it went into lava spewing nightmare mode. We should have been concerned that the ground might rumble and the water might boil, that the sky might darken and burn. We had no such concerns. We floated and frolicked, careless and unperturbed that we were in Mother Nature's crock pot and that she could turn up the heat at any moment. Fortunately, she didn't. So, we crawled out of that cauldron and straight into another.

The nearby hot springs are slimy primordial pools trimmed with enough stunning nature to seem beautiful. Our legs were sore and our feet were throbbing so we paid no mind to the dinosaur pee colored water and let it soothe what ailed us.

Afterward we pulled dusty socks over damp feet and laced up dusty shoes. We groaned at the sight of the up up up and began to ascend the backside of the V in a familiar formation; Thomas and myself up front with Julie and Anthony not far behind. Ludivine, still visible in the distance, making her way. And bringing up the rear, from a near but separate dimension called Island Time, was Oliver. Oliver who thought the porters were going to carry his backpack for him. Oh, Oliver.

We set up camp on a high plateau. Clouds packed the valley and then blew away just in time to reveal a bright yellow sun setting over the lake. A very smart Indonesian man had set up a tent at the top of the trail selling beer and snacks. We bought a bit of both and relaxed as best we could, but the shadow of the summit was both literally and figuratively upon us. We knew that we had to be up at 3am. We knew that we had to climb toward sunrise in the blackness of night. It didn't matter if we were ready. It was coming.

That night we finally got our campfire--a small but glorious thing. Trekkers from various groups gathered around to tell stories and crack jokes. A few of the porters joined in on the fun, including one of our own, a kid named Andy, whose catch phrase was, "Ketchup! Mayonnaise!" Thankfully, the celebration played louder than the horrendous Indonesian music crackling from a Hip-Hop Barbie speaker box. It was a grand time for a short while, but soon we settled into restless sleep. We had to.

You may be wondering how I was able to communicate with so many Frenchies around. The answer is good people. My companions went out of their way to speak English and in most cases fluently so. At times the conversations went French on me, and when they did (Thomas and Julie especially) were there to translate. I never felt left out, I got it, I understood, with one very important exception: Anthony's stories.

Anthony spoke English, but only at a conversational level, which was a great loss for me because he is obviously a seriously funny dude. I watched him tell stories with his entire body, all forty-two facial muscles playing their part, and his words, French words, were clearly delivered with perfect emphasis and perfect timing.

At one point I watched Anthony pull Oliver aside and tell him a story that had Oliver doubled-over with laughter. I asked Oliver about it later and he explained that Anthony saw an amazing balancing act by one of the porters. He was a little guy loaded down with 40 lbs of camping supplies and those supplies started to slide off. Most people would have thrown the supplies aside or crumbled to the ground beneath them. But, not our little porter. He simply jutted out the pinky toe on his left foot and shazaam, balance restored!

The translated version of this story is funny, but I didn't watch Anthony tell the story, I watched him perform it, so I imagine the original was much funnier. Nuance (French word btw) often gets lost in translation, especially the nuance of humor.

The summit...

I drew the zipper down and crawled out of the tent already feeling cold. I walked to the edge of a cliff and peed into obscurity. Across the plateau orange tents glowed like jack-o'-lanterns. I stuffed my sleeping bag into my backpack in preparation for the summit where temperatures were often below freezing, where my windbreaker would not keep me warm. I turned my back to the mountain and stretched out. Let Rinjani see!

The summit trail is no more than a few paces wide with 1000 meter drops on either side. We moved forward with slow careful steps. The stars were dim and we had only headlamps to light our way. I stayed close to A-sound + Jibberish; falling behind in all that darkness was a freakiness I didn't want to face. We were one of the first groups to set out, a few headlamps danced like fireflies ahead of us, but mostly it was nothing but dark and doom.

The higher we got the longer the line of lights behind us grew--a swishing phosphorescent tentacle. The ground beneath us was a mixture of lava rock and powdery soft ash. With every step our feet sank and slid backward. It took three steps to cover the distance it should have taken one. And with so much darkness there was no way to tell how far we had come or how far we had to go. This was by far the hardest part of the trek. My legs were weary and my patience cracking. More than a few, "Motherf----er!" shouts rang out.

Nearing the summit A-sound + Jibberish and I stopped to wait for the others. I was covered in sweat that was quickly hardening to beaded ice. I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag and leaned against a rock at the edge of the plummeting cliff. I ate chocolate cookies by the handful watching fireflies pass and the sun bring purpose to the pain.


We made our way to the summit without Ludivine and Oliver. It was too cold to wait any longer, and the end was so near, another 10 minutes of rock and sliding ash.

The sun rose higher and the fireflies became people overjoyed at their accomplishment. We crowded together, dozens of us, patient, exhausted and happy. Lombok lay below us in a 360 degree panorama. We could see how far we had come. We could see the Gili Islands leading away like giant black stepping stones. And in the distance Bali piercing the clouds with its own volcanic peak.

Ludivine and Oliver made it. I was so happy to see them, and so proud. We were all together, standing as close to the heavens as Indonesia gets.



From there we hiked straight to the bottom of the mountain; 3am - 3pm with a dead tired finish in Sembalun. We crammed into the back of a pick-up truck and whizzed away cramping and dehydrated. We were down from the mountain and still rolling forward. There were no goodbyes, no farewells. Ludivine changed her plans to keep us together. Anthony changed his plans to keep us together. And together we sailed for the Gili Islands.

We kept going. And someday we will go again.

Because the best travel stories have bookmarks not ends.

 Vous me manquez, Frenchies! Et je pense souvent a vous. Voyageons bientot!



11 August 2014

Bali Belly

In that moment between wake and sleep I felt the hot fire and I was wicked confused. Hangover? How? Then reality arrived and I realized it was so much worse. I duck-walked to the toilet with one hand on my belly and the other hovering over my already clenched butt—just in case. The steak sandwich I had put in the night before had become a frothing pot of black tar with only one way to go. I might have cried a little. Not because of the pain you understand, but because my iron gut, an eat anything from anywhere machine, had suffered a most heinous defeat at the hands of Bali Belly. And to think, I was excited to visit The Island of the Gods.

Sumatra had been one of the better travel experiences of my life; chilling on the shores of Lake Toba, adventures on Bawa, surfing in Sorake, an absolute all-timer. But I was starting to miss the backpacker crowd, I wanted to tip back a few and tell travel stories with my people. I chose Kuta Beach because that’s where the party is. I wish I could unchoose it.

Kuta Beach is the worst place I’ve ever visited, and that ain’t the hot poop talkin. When tourists find a place they like and locals start liking the tourist money there is always a chance that rot will set in. Kuta is rotten to the core. It is an absolute tragedy of tourism. The beach is unimpressive and littered with hawkers; hawkers renting surfboards, hawkers selling beer, hawkers selling bracelets. Go ahead and lay down on your towel little bunny, I’m sure they won’t notice. The rest of Kuta is cleverly designed as a labyrinth of stupid shit for sale. You can buy a t-shirt that says, “Sex burns as many calories as jogging. But, who the fuck jogs for 30 seconds!?” Or if that isn’t to your liking there are many art galleries selling gorgeous portraits of Biggie Smalls, Jordan and Scarface. If you work up an appetite you can always grab lunch at Subway, McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, etc. And if your feet get tired, don’t worry, the unleashed beehive of motorbike taxis will take care of you. I’m not kidding about this tourism splooge being a labyrinth. There are no straight lines in Kuta, everything is a weave. I kept expecting David Bowie to pop out and fuck with me.

Now imagine how this place would look, smell, feel with a stomach full of hot tar. I was afraid that anything I ate would slide straight out, but I needed sustenance so I shuffled out looking for fresh fruit. I stopped at a corner stall selling rubbery pizza to ask for directions.

"Fruit? Far from here. Maybe forty minutes by walking."

"Forty minutes!? There must be something closer."

"Mmmm. No. You can take a taxi."

At this point a guy on a motorbike appeared out of nowhere. I looked at him like he was a wet fart.

"Taxi?"

"No, man. I'm just trying to buy some fruit."

"Come on. I take you. Too far."

"No. This is... There has to be..."

"Where you from? America? Barrack Obama!"

I waved them off with a hand that clenched into a fist and retreated. I bought some yogurt and laid in bed sweating out the evil. As soon as I was sure I wouldn't soil the minivan, I got the hell out of there. Ubud was supposed to be better; rumor told me so, Facebook comments told me so.

I didn't like Ubud either. It has its virtues. The guesthouses are gorgeous and the surrounding countryside is beautiful, but it's still a hot mess of tourism. It is basically Kuta Beach designed by someone with a lot more aesthetic flare.

I gave it a go, I really did. My Bali Belly had died down to molten heartburn, so I hit the streets and did touristy stuff. I looked in shops I had no intention of buying anything from. I went to the Monkey Forest and almost got attacked for videotaping a momma and her baby. I took a bike tour through the countryside. I went to bars and started conversations with random strangers from several continents. I tried. But, I couldn't get over the crowds, the cost, and the sell, sell, sell.

I realize now that I had reverse culture shock. In Sumatra I was the only tourist. All of my interaction with the locals was genuine and interesting; they wanted to know me, they taught me about their culture and introduced me to their families because although we were strangers we were also friends. They never tried to sell me a forty minute taxi ride to a pineapple.

I got out of Ubud as quickly as I got out of Kuta. I am well aware that I didn't give Bali a proper chance and I'm sure you Bali-ites could send me an itinerary that would change my mind. I don't care. As far as I'm concerned the Bali box has been checked. I will forever remember the Island of the Gods as a wonderful place...



04 August 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part Three

Through the Keyhole


Nylon sacks crammed with coconuts—a mountain of fabric and husk. The mountain needs to move and we aren’t going anywhere until it does. Small framed men heft the sacks over their shoulders in no particular hurry. I briefly consider jumping out and putting the damn things on board myself but I’m all jammed up, it’s wall-to-wall strangers and everyone thinks I’m strange.

The little girl to my right won’t stop staring. Staring and giggling. She is wearing a pink head-wrap and Velcro shoes. She probably wants to say hi, she probably wants me to go first. I don’t care. I’m in no mood to entertain. The dude in front of me is staring too. He's a seriously weather baked individual—mostly toothless—bone skinny. He’s got a mouth full of betel nut and he’s letting the blood red juice drip unchecked from the corners of his mouth.

Every direction seems worse and I’m out of directions so I put on my sunglasses and close my eyes. I hide in plain sight. Bye bye Bawa. 
--
Admittedly I was a little pissy that morning. I had tossed and turned, dwelling on unknowable surf dilemmas and woke up in need of a nap. I wasn’t worried about surfing well, I knew that was a long way off. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to surf at all.

Sumatra is for big boy surfers, daydreamers. Me, I'm just a fan boy who got in over his head. I knew that if I couldn't find manageable waves, my surf fantasy would end in tragedy. I don't like tragedies, I like happy endings, and I wanted the chance to will one into existence.

I began to loosen up when we reached Si Rumbo. Bawa was behind me and the conclusion to The Surf Chronicles, good or bad, was a motobike ride away. To Sorake!

But first an oil change.

Unlike my super awesome chain smoking bus driver, Arman was nice enough to warn me, thus I avoided sweating balls on the back of a jacked up motobike during "service" time. While that was happening, Arman and I got coffee at a place that seemed to specialize in little kid backpacks and deflated soccer balls. The things locals know...

The road to Sorake was in ruins but beautiful too; dense jungle that occasionally fell away revealing expansive ocean views. We pulled into town just ahead of the setting sun and snagged a room at place called Johnnie's owned by a man named Eddy.

"Eddy, I need to rent a board. A big one."

"Something like this. Not something like that," Eddy replied with one hand over his head and the other waist high.

"Exactly."

"I'll call my friend Anton. Don't worry."

Chatty Eddy had all sorts of questions and an odd sense of costumer service.

"You want pushy-pushy?"

"Pushy-push... Boom boom? Um...no. I'm good."

Unsure if I was grasping his offer Eddy gave the air a good humping. "For sex. My neighbor. A nice girl from Nias."

"Yeah yeah, I get it. No thank you. I don't want to pay for pushy-pushy, ya know?

"Something like this. Not something like that."

"Riiiight."

My room at Eddy's overlooked Keyhole, Sorake's dream wave. The break was "discovered" in 1975 when three adventurous Aussies came machete whacking through the jungle with surf boards in hand. They found surf heaven, nirvana, shangri-la, etc and so on. They sucked at keeping secrets. Keyhole is famous now, a wave forever fixed on the surf destinations leader board.

In true kook fashion I looked at the waves cranking right and said, "It doesn't look that big."

Arman smirked and gave me a condescending pat on the back. "Wait until someone catches one," he replied.

So I did, and when I saw the first speck paddle in, I realized how off my sense of perspective had been. "Oh..OOOH...oh shiiit."

"This is okay for me," Arman said. "For you, I think the beach break is better."

This description from Action Guide: Surfing Indonesia sums up Keyhole nicely:

The next morning, Eddy's friend Anton brought over a board that was 7'3, thin and light. I figured it was big enough and paid him for three days. He gave me a ride to a wide sandy beach where I saw not a ripple. He introduced me to the brothers Antonio and Irman, local surf guides and all around good dudes.

After I had waited around doing nothing for twenty minutes, Antonio said, "Michael. Are you going to surf?"

"Where?"

"There," he replied pointing to some pansy looking shore break. I gave him a dubious look, but both Arman and Irman were looking at me like, "Yeah rook, that's where you belong."

I paddled where they had pointed oozing a slick trail of irrational ego behind me. I missed a couple and awkwardly caught a couple more. Mostly I trolled around pretending I was too good for the babies.

Arman left that afternoon. I said goodbye in the simple way you say goodbye to a friend. I doubt he knows how appreciative I am, but I hope that I can make up for that by passing Mr. Yoghurt's map on to the worthy.

The next morning, all alone and susceptible to my own delusions, I once again looked out at Keyhole and underestimated its brawn. I saw a group of surfers huddled together and figured I would paddle out, take a closer look, and turn back if it was too big.

Getting out wasn't easy. I had to stumble over sharp coral until I reached a deep water channel and then paddle for a good distance to reach the daydreamers circle. That's what it was--a bunch people who obviously knew what they were doing; slim dudes with dreads, shredded Aussie meats, blond girls with thick sunscreen smeared across their pretty faces and Indonesian kids who were probably birthed right there--momma floating on a longboard.

I immediately felt like an impostor. I let myself drift inside, away from the crowd, and watched them pluck off waves in awe of their ease. I knew I needed to retreat, but I decided to try one wave, just one.


A set rolled in and I took the first wave. It picked me up and threw me down the face. I came up sputtering and saw the second wave coming in fast; twice as high and starting to crest. I paddled hard and barely made it over the top. The next wave, the next set, dive dive dive.

I was scared. When I had gotten caught in the sets in Si Rumbo it was frustrating, but I never felt any real sense of danger. This was different. My Spidey sense was spazzing the f--- out. These were big, dangerous waves and the entire coastline was a coral shelf. If the waves threw me across that I'd end up in the hospital looking like Hamburger Helper.

The coral shelf has a sharp 90 degree turn. My exit point was through the waves and around the bend. Imagine being around the corner from your house but stuck in hurricane force winds. Every time you take a step the winds push you back three. You're exhausted and you want to give up, but you continue to fight and fight hard because your inching closer to a hedge with thorns the size of daggers.

There was no way I was going to make it through the waves, and I needed to get as far from the coral shelf as possible. I should have paddled right, past the point where the waves die out and looped around. Instead I turned and let the whitewash push me to safety, assuming the shelf would end and I would be able to reach the shore.

I probed and probed but the shelf went on ceaselessly. Way off in the distance I saw blue specks in the center of a wide bay, longboards leaning against Antonio and Irman's surf shack. I paddled toward the baby waves with no slick of ego to leave behind.

Allow me to clarify just how out of my depth I was.

The guy Anton who I rented the board from is a local legend. Anton could have gone pro. Anton should have gone pro. But, Anton fell in love and so Anton stayed. Now he is the fixer anytime the pros come to town.

A few days before I arrived Anton was surfing Keyhole with Mick Fanning.

Around the same time Shane Dorian was tow in surfing at an even bigger break nearby.

And once upon a time Antonio and Irman saw the king himself, Kelly Slater. He flew in on a helicopter, straight up abused Keyhole and flew away like royalty should.

Paddle paddle ya big dummy.

This was not the first time I'd been left floating because of my ego.

I learned how to water ski when I was 11-12 years old. You are supposed to start with double skis and progress up to a single ski when you're ready. I didn't want anything to do with those lame-ass double skis. I had seen my dad and his buddies ripping across the wake on a single. I had watched ski competitions on ESPN. I was going to start good and get great.

That summer we spent two weeks camping at New Hogan Reservoir in California. For ten days I tried and failed to master the single ski. I was a young buck. I had the stamina of a twenty-two year old Mick Jagger partying in Vegas with a feedbag of cocaine strapped to his face. My dad was supernaturally patient. He kept telling me to try the doubles and kept letting me learn the hard way.

Finally on the eleventh day he'd had enough. When the boat came by I handed him my single ski. He snatched it and pulled away.

"Dad! Stop messin around," I whined.

"You're not getting back in the boat until you try doubles."

"I don't want to learn doubles! I want to single ski. I can do it!"

He circled me in silence like a shark with an inboard-outboard motor. I think the boat actually had a dolphin sticker on it, but whatever, like a shark! My teeth were chattering, the life vest was digging into my arm pits, but I could see that Pops wasn't gonna budge.

"Fine! Give me the stupid doubles."

I strapped on the stupid doubles and waited for the rope to pull taut. I wanted to fail so badly. I wanted to be the last kid picked on his worst day so I could show my dad how wrong he was. With a pouty little wimp face that imagined to be hard I yelled, "Hit it!"

Before I new what happened, or how it happened I was humming across the surface of the water. I forgot all about flipping my dad a told ya so and aimed for the outside of the wake with crooked teeth flashing and crazy eyes shining.

As I paddled toward the baby waves, I realized that I couldn't let myself back in the boat. It was time to double ski.

There is about 1.5 kilometers between Keyhole and the baby waves. It took me a long time to reach Antonio and Irman's surf shack, and I knew that they had probably gotten a good laugh out of my dumb and dogged approach, but I didn't care. I was amused by my own ridiculous. And I had a plan.

Two steps out of the water with the leash still fastened around my ankle I said, "You guys rent rooms here, right?"

"Sure."

"How about big boards? I'm talkin humongous."

I walked barefoot along the side the road until I reached Eddy's place, crammed all my stuff into my backpack, checked out, and walked right back to the baby waves. I rented a board the size of Manhattan and started peppering everyone with how to questions. That afternoon I paddled out, and wouldn't you god damn double ski know it, I stood up and rode five out of the seven waves I tried for. Good rides. Clean rides. Surfing.


The brother's, party prepping
I learned to double-ski surf the day before America's birthday. I asked the brothers if there was anywhere to buy a bottle of booze, because I wanted to party on our nations b-day no matter where I was. The brothers loved the idea of a party and wanted to join. In fact they offered to host.

So on the 4th of July in faraway Indonesia, America's birthday was celebrated with cheer. Antonio and Irman brought their wives and children as well as an American couple who had been surfing the break earlier that week. They grilled fresh caught tuna right there on the beach, served with rice and dipping sauces. And they mixed up a wicked bucket full of fresh fruit and tuak--moonshine Sangria.

I stayed on the beach with the baby waves for nearly a week. Every morning I had fried bananas and coffee at a roadside stand. Every evening I ate dinner at a restaurant with a blue metal roof. And every day I surfed.

I paddled out when the sun was shining. I paddled out when rain was pinging and rippling all around. I watched Irman's seven year old son shredding waves on a surfboard the size of a skateboard looking for clues. I listened to the teenage kid who yelled, "Ooh la la" anytime he saw a wave I should chase.

I wish I could tell you that I got better. I wish this story could end with me dropping into a wave at Keyhole and riding it through. But, the truth is I struggled. I loved it and I wanted to quit. I felt pride and I felt loathing. It wasn't easy, but it was real.

And that is how The Surf Chronicles end; with me on the board but not on the shore, with me looking back at a golden bay in faraway Sumatra, slow riding baby waves, daydreaming about daydreaming.


Me and Manhattan


 





23 July 2014

The Surf Chronicles: Part Two

Daydreaming


You should see me in my daydreams. I am glory on the slide. I drop into waves that are well overhead and rip up the wall. I disappear beneath barrels and streak through with my hand tickling the swell. I watch myself from the shoreline, both surfer and observer. The me on the shore is enthralled. The me on the board is all cool nonchalance.

Lying on the roof of the public boat from Bawa to Si Rumbo, I let my daydreams reel. My eyes were closed and my smirk was fixed. The sun was being pleasant and the breeze was being nice. I was going surfing.

In Si Rumbo we left our boards at the harbor; food before surf. We went to a seafood shack on the beach and hand-picked a kilo worth of red snapper. While that was cooking over open-flame we watched the waves roll in. The burbling of anticipation was mostly stifled by a feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

After lunch, with greasy fingers and bloated bellies, we retrieved our boards and worked our way down to the shore. I took a half-stick of wax out of my back pocket and lathered up the board. Frames from the daydream dropped over reality like misplaced slides and my confidence flitted unconcerned--a happy little bird unaware of its place in the food chain.

I hadn’t paddled out since I moved abroad. That startled me when I thought of it, so I scanned through the years trying to disprove it, but I couldn’t. In those five years I had forgotten a very important truth: I am absolutely shit at surfing—I am not my daydreams.

Fearless because of forgotten failures and remembered fiction, I strapped on the leash and followed Arman down to the entry point. Three steps in the leash jammed between my toes and I almost did a header into the coral.

From there, it got worse.

Arman, who could probably walk barefoot across a set of steak knives, scampered across the coral, dove in and paddled into perfect position in like eight seconds. Meanwhile I was standing knee deep in breakwater trying to figure out where to step without putting a coral nail through my foot. The incoming shore break pushed me around, and the board kept slipping out of my hand thanks to the sweat pouring from my pits. I hissed and winced about the sharpness, then muttered recriminating curses about my namby-pambiness. When I had finally pussyfooted my way into deep enough water I dove in without waiting for a lull in the sets. Stupid.

I was on a 5’11 slip of fiberglass and from the second I glided into the water it didn’t feel right; my sternum was digging into the board, my balance was off, my paddling was getting me nowhere.

These were the smallest waves around but they were still overhead and fast. I tried to duck-dive a wave and felt it pull me back a good ten feet. I popped to the surface and paddled hard but the next wave pulled me back just as far. I whipped my head around, worried that I might be coral bound. By the time I fought through the rest of the set I was exhausted and my sternum was on fire, it felt like a pestle being mercilessly ground into mortar. I ignored the pain as best I could and dug in hard, but the next set came up quick and once again I was outmatched.

I let an F-Bomb fly like an angry flare. Arman spun around curiously confused and paddled my way. He caught a wave in route—just ripped that salt right over the wound.

“Follow me; it will be easier if we jump off the jetty.”

And so we did, and it was easier. We approached the waves from the back and took a quick breather. I rolled off the board and let the water cool my face. I ran my thumb across the inflamed circle on my sternum. My only emotion was disbelief.

But the daydreams…

The waves kept rolling in; breaking right—always right. And we were the only ones on them. I took a few deep breaths and forced my confidence back into place. If this was going to work I needed that filter.

Arman shouted, "Go! Go! Go!" at a wave I didn't see coming. It rolled up behind me beautiful and mean. I froze. The pretty lady had caught me looking and I knew I was about to get bitch-slapped for it. I made a half-ass attempt to pop-up, covered my face with my arms and cannonballed over the drop. I came up sputtering and laughing. Even getting bitch-slapped can be fun.

I kept missing and I kept making mistakes. I dragged my knee, I scooted too far forward on the board, I paddled too soon and looked back just in time to turtle. Name a mistake and I made it. My sternum still hurt, my balance was still off and my paddling was still getting me nowhere. So, with each miss, with each mistake, failure became less fun.

I tried to keep myself focused on the adventure of it all. "Look at this swell! You're in Sumatra, man! And these are the practice waves!" But I wasn't falling for my own pep talks. A new emotion had replaced disbelief: GUILT.

The waves came at me like rippled mirrors and in the reflection I saw a dude who couldn't daydream. A poser. A kook. I was in a grand library reading pop-up books. I was in the finest of restaurants smashing Twinkies with the salad fork. My pretty little confidence had been minced and gnashed--reduced to gristle wedged between gum and tooth.  
.
We stayed in Si Rumbo that night with the intention of surfing again in the morning but it wasn't meant to be. Standing on the jetty, where the waves kicked my ass with perfect rights, we looked down at clear unperturbed water--snorkeling bullshit. Seriously, Chinese divers would have pushed more water than the tide did that morning. I know how stupid this sounds, but that felt like rejection.

Take your little rain cloud and crawl back to Bawa, kook.

The public boat took hours that felt like days. I laid on the roof, and put a wet shirt over my face to block the pissed off sun. I didn't daydream. I wouldn't allow it. That afternoon I wasted time rewatching TV shows. That evening I ate dinner and went straight to bed; no village, no tuak. Mentally I was throwing punches at my disappointment, but physically I was all punched out.

Arman went out with his fishing buddies and stayed out until 3am. The next morning, for different reasons, we were in a quiet kind of mood. U-ti made me a tomato and garlic omelet and I mixed myself a sugary coffee. Arman was fiddling with something under the table so I arched him an eyebrow. He pulled up a day-wrecker joint and a smile bloomed on my face. What an absolutely perfect surprise. I put on music to match the mood and we smoked while a playlist called, Chill did the talking for us. Other than the occasional, “Good song” we didn’t say much at all. It was a lovely Bawa morning.

---

Let's leave MB and Arman where they are for a moment. Trust me they won't notice we're gone.

Not everything that happened in Bawa fits into The Surf Chronicles narrative, but there are things just off the page that deserve to be brought into focus.

The Food...

I stayed out of the kitchen, but whatever U-ti was doing back there was damn close to magic. The staple meal was fish caught moments before served with mountains of rice and coleslaw lightly seasoned with salt and orange juice. Lunch was often the Indonesian staples, fried rice (nasi goreng) or fried noodles (mei goreng). And on a celebratory evening when U-ti's sister was in town a little piggy lost its life so that we could gorge ourselves on thick-cut chops served with rice and grilled eggplant. I expected to get skinny on Bawa and instead I blissfully fattened up like I would on a trip home to mom and dad's.

Poochu....  

If you were to look down during practically any Bawa scene you would see an adorable little puppy named, Poochu. In Indonesian his name means "ant" but he did not earn that name because of his diminutive size, he earned it because he fell asleep on an ant hill and yelped when they started munching on his little puppy pee-pee. Everyone on the island loves Poochu. Little kids ride by calling his name, grown women stop by just to baby talk him, “Aeye Poochu!!” Poochu has many friends.

The Characters...

Much of Bawa's charm is wrapped-up in the charm of its residents. One night we went to the village and found the evening crew bumming because the TV was busted. I had my laptop with me because it needed a charge so I set it up on the picnic table and put on an episode of Game of Thrones. No less than fifteen people eagerly gathered around my little computer and watched the images flash. Inside the shop I had a sudden thought, a concern: are there boobs in that episode? A collective gasp followed by shrieks of laughter gave me my answer. I darted outside. Fourteen people were leaning forward with eyes wide, and one old lady was pissing herself with laughter. I peeked at the screen and caught Grey Worm perving on Daenerys’ right hand lady. The camera pulled back and focused on her perfect booty. The old lady loved that ass. She was pointing at the screen and clapping. Just howling. Funniest damn butt she ever saw.

“Sorry,” I said with a shrug.

“Bagus! Bagus!” she replied catching her breath. Good! Good!

Let's get back to MB and Arman. Right now they are listening to, The Avett Brothers and leveling out. Arman is telling MB a story about how he once saved a man's life when the man's leash got caught in the rocks, and how that man wanted to bring him to America to work and earn money for his future, and finally about being rejected by U.S customs officials. MB is petting Poochu's belly with no excuses to give.

---

I tried to float along in the Bawa lifestyle. I relaxed on the beach and swam. I went running in the morning and found big thick vines to swing on. I chilled with new friends and ate stellar meals. And despite all that goodness, I felt the irresistible urge to move on. My failure in Si Rumbo was to blame. It was ruining my Bawa buzz. 

Sorake Beach is the most famous surf spot on the big island of Nias and that is where I wanted to go. I knew it would be an easy place to rent a board, and I hoped that somewhere along the shoreline there would be waves small enough for me.

Evening. Speckled rays of sun give a golden haze to the canopy above. I am sitting on a wooden bench under the eaves, rereading a page I turned without understanding, the words spliced by daydream frames. I watch Arman pull-up on a scooter made of neon and metal. He is carrying a bulging canvas sack.

"Young coconut?" he asks

I watch him pull bright green bulbs from the sack. He picks up a machete, a curved wicked looking thing, and hacks at the top of the coconut, spinning it in his palm as he goes. He hands it to me and I see that he has exposed a quarter-size hole where the stem used to be. I don't like coconut water; the store bought kind. I am unsure about this. I tilt it back and half the juice runs down my chin. It's warm and a little sweet. It tastes unwashed and wild. I drink again, greedily. It's good. Damn good.

Arman sits across from me and plugs my computer into speakers he borrowed from a neighbor. Music is a luxury and he plays it any chance he gets. I have to tell him, but I'm nervous, I'd promised I would stay longer.

“I have to leave early. I want to go to Sorake. Surfing, ya know?”

“Okay, man. “I’ll go with you. I need to go anyway.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, sure. We can take my motorbike.”

Settled. I run my hands across the coconut, it feels smooth and waxy, except at the top where the machete splayed its fibrous flesh. I want to remember the sensation. I want to remember everything, because this is my last real Bawa moment.

I watch a family of pigs edge toward the porch. I hear U-ti coming--she always knows. First the broom and then her. "Chu-chu-chu," she says. The piggies scurry off with squeals that sound like cries. In the distance a startled rooster crows. U-ti turns to go back inside. Surprise and disappointment color her face. She still believes they'll learn.

I hear my name. Arman is passing a joint across the table. I reach carefully avoiding its brightly burning tip. "Last one," he says. I pull deep and exhale with exaggerated languor. And again. I turn up the volume because I love this song, Leonard Cohen growling something pretty. Over the music and the muzzled effects of memory burning the hammock is playing its siren sweet and light.

One more sip and I’ll be there...