"He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
- almost empty or vacant in some unfamiliar capacity. And its only upon rediscovering the missing element that one finally identifies the source of this craving.
The Indonesia Trip
Part 1: Resa and the Bataks
Part 2: Satu, Dua, Tiga...
Part 3: Happiness Is Within
Part 4: Las Buenas Duran Poco
It's that sense of touch.
We - us solitary explorers - we've seen things so beautiful it brings tears to eyes. Sunsets and sunrises, buildings modern and ancient, beaches and mountains, dense cities and empty expanses, stars, bodies, faces, and life - we've gazed upon it all. We've eaten our way through the riotous markets of the world's second and third classes, led only by our overloaded senses of smell and taste. The beating music of clubs and bars, the screeching wheels and screaming horns, the twisted linguistic knots of yet another new language totally distinct from all the others - these things constantly assault us.
It's a full-on, nonstop, sensory extravaganza that becomes our normal daily existence. Every moment bursts with the thrill of relentless stimulation. There is truly never a dull or boring second.
After weeks and months of enduring this lifestyle, however, one begins to realize that something is missing. The body begins to feel deficient in something
It's the sense of touch.
It's that one of the five that gets so unfairly neglected in the solitary traveler's daily life. Somehow it gets forgotten in the blinding whirlwind rush from place to place, day to day. And isn't it always the case that you don't truly miss something until you realize you don't have it?
To be clear, the sense I'm speaking of is not the cheap trick, one-and-done, walk of shame kind of touch. No, assuredly Bangkok is the right place for that. I'm speaking of touch in the sense of closeness - sharing time and experiences with another significant soul. Deriving satisfaction from another person's happiness. These, I've realized, are the things that I sacrificed to lead this life.
There is no time and no place for them here. I work six days a week - nights and weekends. Any time off is spent traveling in another far away land. I've got so many projects and endeavors stacked up I literally don't have time for them all. And it's all of my own doing. This is exactly what I wanted. This was my time, and I don't regret taking this road. But, that doesn't mean it's perfect.
As much as I value occasional solitude, having too much of it makes loneliness unavoidable. The nomadic travelers' lifestyle creates a barrier between us and the stationary ones. Everyone is interested in you, but no one touches you. I've lived it and I've seen it. After so much time behind that wall we lose control, craving even the slightest hint of a meaningful relationship, until eventually we fly around blindly and crash into each other just so we can feel something.
I left the Gilis the morning of January 1st, heading back to Bali then up into Ubud. It was raining when I arrived in Ubud, but this was not the sinister, condemning rain of Medan. It was more of an atmospheric, charming drizzle that just seemed a necessary compliment to the outstanding greenery of Ubud. Almost pleasant in its gentle touch, it seemed to pat you on the head and say, "Breathe deep, friend, and be happy - You're in Bali now."
I found a quiet homestay nestled away on a small side street just off Monkey Forest Road. The only sounds in this peaceful haven came from the patter of the rain on shutters and rooftops and the running water of the sculpted fountains. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and reading. I hadn't really slept at all the previous night, so I didn't have the energy for any sort of strenuous activity.
Rested and renewed, the next day I vowed to do some exploration. That morning, after breakfast, I set out onto the jungle trails that wind through the terraced rice fields surrounding Ubud. It was a gorgeous walk. Up and down, twisting and turning, I hiked through a green heaven. The farmers were out minding their fields, and hordes of ducks were congregated here and there. These beings were my only company. The trail eventually merged into a road and turned back towards Ubud.
It was past midday before I finally returned to town and enjoyed a delicious lunch of famous Balinese spit-roasted pig accompanied by the ubiquitous rice and sambal. Fresh mangosteens sat in the center of the table, offered freely in much the same fashion as the complimentary loaf of bread at an Italian restaurant. And of course sitting on the ground and not wearing shoes is the only way to enjoy a meal such as this.
After lunch, I left Ubud on another long walk towards the towns of Pejeng and Bedulu. The afternoon sun was beating and the walk was tough at times, but I eventually made my way through each destination, enjoying the scenery all the while. The rice fields here were such a bursting, vivid shade of green - almost to the point of appearing neon. When the wind rippled the stalks, it created the illusion of a tossing green sea, violent for a moment, then settling back into its electric glow. I rounded off my trek, turning back in the direction of Ubud, and decided to take a break at the ancient site called Goa Gajah.
Goa Gajah is basically a small cave carved into the visage of an elephant. The grounds around the cave has some ancient fountains and bathing pools - all of which were carefully sculpted and designed. Branching away from Goa Gajah is a short trail that ends at a temple constructed in the jungle, set against the side of a steep ravine. After spending some time wandering through the area, I realized it was getting late and soon the light would be fading, so I decided to head back to Ubud.
The next morning I met up with Ellen, who had just arrived in Ubud. I had rented a motorbike for the day because I wanted to explore the farther reaching areas outside of Ubud, but first I promised to take Ellen site-seeing around the places I had been the day before. The exploration went much faster with the motorbike. We were able to seek out some trails that I had missed the previous day and were able to visit some other sites in the vicinity of Ubud including the Monkey Forest and the large jungle river which was apparently one of the filming locations for "Eat, Pray, Love."
Around lunch time we were riding back into town when a downpour started. I stashed the bike at the first side street, and we bolted into the nearest cafe, already soaked through. Despite the wet hair and clothes, we had a pleasant meal. It must be said about Ubud that there is certainly no shortage of trendy restaurants and delicious food.
When the meal and the rain were done I said goodbye to Ellen and struck out into the country. I went north out of town and continued up the main road for about an hour and a half, making a few stops along the way at temples and viewpoints. The weather began to get bad again around the time that I would've had to turn back anyway, so I reset my course for home and prayed that my little scooter could outrun the dark clouds on my tail.
That evening, back in town, I checked my email and saw that Lucia, the Argentinean girl who I had met in Gili T on New Year's Eve, was now in Ubud as well with her friend Melina. They wanted to meet up again and invited me to dinner that night. So quickly notifying Ellen, we changed our plans and set out in search of the restaurant Lucia had specified in her email. We found it easily enough and sat down to await the Argentinean duo.
And so at a streetside Ubud cafe, I again encountered the angel named Melina and was again floored by her entrancing beauty. It was a dejavu of the best kind. The feeling was familiar and totally welcome, but perplexing nonetheless.
"How can this be?" I thought. Once-in-a-lifetime occurrences are not supposed to happen twice.
We exchanged greetings and, as is the custom in Argentina, light kisses on each cheek. It was the most bittersweet of meetings. I knew - I was instantly aware that as so blessed as I was to cross paths with this girl a second time - I knew that I was also doomed. At that infinitesimal utterance of the word "Hello", I was then fated to repeat the word "Goodbye."
Dinner continued joyfully. Some other Spanish-speaking friends joined us. It was a wonderful reunion. I never expected to see Mel and Lucy again after New Year's Eve, but life on the road continually proves to be unpredictable. As the meal was concluding I mentioned that I was leaving Ubud for Uluwatu the next day and was delighted to discover that the Argentineans had identical plans.
Serendipity was with me. Uluwatu would be the last destination of my Indonesian trip and I was so happy to spend that time with these fun-loving travel partners. We made plans to meet at the same guesthouse in Uluwatu the following day.
Ellen would be staying in Ubud for a couple more days then returning to Bangkok, so I said my goodbyes to her and went back to my room to prepare to leave the next morning.
The phrase, "All good things must come to an end" seems so pessimistic. But I think it would take a person who has seen a great number of good things to truly understand its meaning. Well, I have seen a great number of good things, and yes indeed, they all end. But so too do all bad things end. Everything ends. It does no good, I think, to focus only on the discontinuation of something pleasant. So enjoy the good and endure the bad while they last, because neither will for very long. And with all the certainty of death and surcease you may also be certain of rebirth and renewal. Thereby I offer an amended expression: "All things must come to an end, but all things will come again."
I left Ubud the morning of January 3rd and made it down to Uluwatu just after noon. Uluwatu is a tiny town with a famous cliffside temple on the southwestern tip of Bali's southern peninsula. It also serves as the generic name for this whole area which is properly called the Bukit Peninsula. This distinction is somewhat important because while I spent my last three days in Bali in the 'Uluwatu' region, the guesthouse where I met the Argentineans was actually in the town of Padang Padang.
They arrived before me, so when I got there I threw my bags down in the room they had reserved for me and walked out to meet them on the beach. All the beaches of the Bukit Peninsula are known for world class surfing breaks, but they are also some of the most picturesque beaches in all of Bali - and that is really saying something.
I rendezvoused with las chicas and we spent a couple hours lounging on the small but naturally beautiful Padang Padang beach. Lucia told us that she actually had to leave the following day to return to school in Bandung, but before she left she had her heart set on doing one thing. She wanted to see the famous Kecak dance held nightly at the Uluwatu temple. At the time I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded interesting, and I had no better plans, so I agreed to tag along.
The dance began at 6 PM that night, so we got to the temple about an hour early to allow for some exploration time. The temple was set on the very edge of a high cliff hanging over the southern sea, but tourists couldn't actually get very close to it. There were walkable cliffside paths stretching out to both sides of the temple. And as is the norm at any South Asian temple that sees even a modest amount of tourists, there were hordes of bold and malicious kleptomaniacal monkeys.
Of all the marauding throngs of primates I've witnessed throughout my travels, these were by far the most troublesome. They had an uncanny cognizance that the humans actually feared them more than they feared the humans. In the matter of an hour, I witnessed the monkeys burglarize sandals right off the feet of two children, eyeglasses off a man's face, and at least three different hair ties plucked from women's heads.
We were all relieved when the dance finally began. The Kecak dance (pronounced Kachak) is a traditional Balinese dance that tells the classic love story of princess deceived and kidnapped by evil villain - princess rescued by horrific white monkey - white monkey captured by villain's minions and set on fire - monkey escapes fire and defeats evil villain. The reason for its fame though is that accompanying the story is the music of a hundred separate voices working in unison to provide an emotional soundtrack to the story. Although at times bizarre, I found the song and dance entrancing and incredible in its strangeness. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The dance ended just as the sun touched the western sea.
The next morning Lucia was preparing to leave. Mel moved her bags into my room, and it finally sunk in that for the last few days of this trip it would be just her and me here in paradise. We helped Lucy pack up her things and waved goodbye as the taxi pulled away heading for the airport.
After breakfast Mel and I walked down to a deserted Padang Padang beach and enjoyed about an hour totally alone on that beautiful shore.
Now that it was only she and I together, I began to absorb how stunningly attractive she really was. She was a professional dancer in Argentina and had the body to prove it - lean and fit, but still managing curves in all the right places. Her face was angular with the interacting planes that suggest overt exoticism, especially when matched with the rolling waves of dark Latin hair and perpetually tanned skin.
And then there were her eyes. My God, her eyes were a swirling galaxy of jade and mahoganey, hunter and honey. Each twitch and each blink held the self-contained brilliance of a supernova. When her eyes closed, I felt as though I had stumbled across an event horizon - passed that place from which there is no return, destined to fall eternally through the dark, empty void of something I couldn't understand. Each time her eyes closed my heart stopped and my breath caught in my chest. Each time I waited with nervous anticipation for them to open again, like a dog anxiously waiting for its master to walk back through the front door. "Please open. Please come back!" my mind would shout. And finally those eyes would open again and all the beauty, the reality of the universe would be restored, and impossible life would continue.
Snapping me out of my reverie, we discussed plans for the day and decided to branch away from Padang Padang and explore the other beaches around Bukit. So for the third time in Indonesia, I rented a motorbike. She hopped on the back, held on tight, and we motored off over the rollercoaster roads of southern Bali. Our destination was Dreamland.
Dreamland is the name of another famous surf beach in the Bukit Peninsula. We had a couple rough maps of the area, so we knew - in a general sense - where we were going. Eventually we turned off the main road onto a path fronted with a small sign announcing "Dreamland This Way!" The path dropped dramatically down towards the cliffs and snaked through undeveloped land.
As we descended on that ribboning path, things became decidedly more dream-like. At some point we missed a necessary turn, but you never would've known it. It certainly seemed like a dreamland. After about ten minutes the path dead-ended at a restaurant. This was clearly not where we had intended to go, but some little voice in the back of my head was saying, "Just check it out Trav. You never know what you might find. Fate has been good to you recently."
So I parked the bike, and Mel and I walked into this secret hideaway. We crossed that threshold into a cerulean heaven. It was an open-air restaurant built on the cliff. Instead of tables and chairs, there were beanbags and beds. In the center and at the very edge of the cliff was a perfectly blue infinity pool to compliment the clear sky and the sea stretching out to forever. The only other people around were the owner and a bartender. We ordered two beers and were instantly in the pool.
No, this was not where I had intended to go, for I never imagined a place like this could even exist. But being there now, how could I ever want to be anywhere else. This was sublime. This was flawless.
To look upon the horizon invited the sensation that we existed wholly on a floating, celestial oasis in the sky. Beyond swept a fantastical world of cliffs and waves, seas and skies - far, far away but vivid and real nonetheless. But here, in this place, there was only me and Melina swathed in the color blue. Everything I've ever wanted compiled into one brief moment.
Was I in dreamland? No, I was above it. We had transcended it.
This instant was glorious, but as all things and all times must, it had to end. We had to move on. We left heaven and set out for Balangan Beach, another far-flung Bukit enclave. It took the better part of an hour to find the place, but find it we did. Balangan was the third beach was had experienced in the region and it was no less stunning than the others. We spent a couple hours relaxing and taking in the sun, then enjoyed a late lunch at a ramshackle beach hut.
We decided to make Uluwatu Beach our last destination for the day, so we hopped on the bike and scooted back to the south. At some point during the drive, the motorbike started shaking and jerking. I quickly pulled over to find that the rear tire had been punctured and was now flat as a pancake. Rather than let our misfortune put a damper on this magnificent day, Mel and I immediately set out to solve the problem.
I pushed the bike up to a store front to find some help. Before long we had a group of Balinese men, who had previously been polishing off a bottle of Jose Cuervo, all trying to assist us. We suddenly found ourselves in a comical situation regarding the languages of the individuals involved. Melina spoke Spanish and a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia. The Balinese men spoke Bahasa and a little bit of English, and I speak English and a little bit of Spanish. The result was a ridiculous round-robin of botched translations. Finally a man offered to call his personal moto mechanic. We were very thankful for the assistance and soon the whole ordeal was resolved, and we were off again heading towards Uluwatu.
Because we had lost about an hour to the flat tire, and the sun was already well on its way down, we shifted our course from Uluwatu Beach to the cliffs where we had watched the dance the previous night. We made it to the cliffs just as the sun was setting. We scrambled along the ridge-line as far as we could go, shooing off the threatening monkeys as we went. Finally we arrived at the point - a jagged outcrop of primordial earth standing hundreds of feet above the violent waves crashing against naked rocks. The horizon seemed to encompass the whole world.
There was no one else. Mel and I stood there on the planet's precipice gazing west. The wind whipped our clothes. Her hair was wild. We embraced.
And there it was, the unavoidable sun. The day had been perfection entire, but now there was this, the end. A lesson so beautifully manifested in deep red and orange as the light sank away - clouds glowing like the coals of a dying bonfire. Her eyes glimmered in ways I thought impossible. Her face lit up in the brilliant hues of the golden hour.
What I would've given to stay in that moment forever. I didn't want it to end. I didn't want her eyes to ever close. But the horizon was telling me something... "Fear not the end, for ends are inevitable," it said. But each conclusion promises a subsequent beginning. Each sunset promises a new dawn.
We still had the motorbike - new tire and all - to use the next day. Mel and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and prepared for the hour journey up into Kuta and Legian. We made it into the busy and traffic-heavy tourist region of Bali around lunch time. We did some site-seeing and a little shopping. The plan was to find the beach at some point, but light rain was continually harrying the journey. We had to make frequent stops in restaurants and stores. Eventually we decided to give up on Kuta and just head home to relax around Padang Padang.
The majority of the return trip was trouble-free, but in the last five minutes the sky dumped on our heads. We pulled up to our guesthouse with every inch of clothing entirely saturated.
The rest of the day was taken easy. That night I returned the motorbike, and we went out to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant down the road from our guesthouse. The food was wonderful, but the mood at the table began to
turn bittersweet as a certain realization was slowly dawning on us.
The next day I was leaving, I told her. I was leaving to go back home - back to Bangkok, work, and that busy life that had never included her. These past few days had been so magical, so memorable, and now it was almost over. Ending as Fate had insured from the very beginning.
The whole affair felt like a movie. These things just aren't supposed to happen to normal people. But I suppose I'm not exactly a normal person, and mine is not exactly a normal life - not anymore, at least. Without a doubt, the same could be said for Mel. In retrospect I can now understand why the time we shared had been so utterly perfect.
Such is the nature of it when two headstrong, but affection-starved solo travelers meet. They collide with the power and intensity of two shooting stars, and the result is something incomprehensibly spectacular and profound. But unfortunately that vigorous conflagration only rages for the briefest of moments, and then as quickly as it exploded into existence, thus it succumbs to the inevitable power of the vacuum of empty space.
Even knowing this, it was still so hard to accept the certainty of it. Neither one of us wanted to face the inevitable, but I felt that I needed to try.
"In America we have an expression for times like this," I explained to her in Spanish. "All good things must come to an end."
She nodded in comprehension.
"Tenemos alguno similar" she replied. And suddenly her face reflected all the wretchedly passionate sorrow that was making my heart so heavy.
She paused and was still for a long moment, then finally said, "Las buenas duran poco."
And then her eyes closed.