© 2019 Drew T. Noll

Friday, January 4, 2019

Flying into the Sunrise (Part 1)


Traveling across the planet through the atmosphere above is only a recent phenomenon, like toothpaste tubes and hotdog factories, yet we’ve built our presence overhead like the progeny of our own creation, making us all proud, and, to ourselves, forever increasing our own importance and potential. In our Jetstream wake we inevitably leave behind for future generations to ponder — not only our collective lacking, but our piles of refuse — we create, once again, our world, but this time in our own image. Indonesia does that to you, looking back now, it beats raw the edges of living, of understanding our place in life, only to birth a mad questioning that spawns forth from a place deep inside. After over a month of a new pillow on a new bed in new lodgings arrived at in the dark, I find myself trying to write something coherent about the perfect chaos I perceived during my travels there. I’ve just begun to grapple with a land and sea filled tight, right up next to the world’s lid, with myriad creatures, peoples and my inflections on their own perceived realities.

Sitting on a plane after leaving Jakarta, Doha, Amman, we flew west, towards Tel Aviv, towards home. I looked out the window regularly while the oceans and deserts passed below the clouds we were flying over. The sun began to set at some point on our journey, but it hung in the sky near the horizon for a long time, too long. It eventually dropped out of sight, sunlight glowing into the air like Sol couldn’t make up its mind whether to call it a day, or a night; exactly like that. We flew west, towards home, and somehow our plane kept track with the rotation of the earth on its access, and our orbit around the sun. The light hovered in place all around us, glowing with a promise and a memory, and inside that perpetual dusk, that new day’s eventual dawn, I imagined fierce battles, and I opened a window into my mind to wrestle with demons. As if from the heavens above, time stopped and cheered as I wove in and out of scuffle after skirmish. We were on our way home, out of a place of terrible beauty, where we traveled though foreign ideologies and forgotten lands, and we were heading home to a place of wonder, a place of family, and a place where water builds life from the desert of our world’s being.

Fast reversing from our flight into perpetual dusk, our trip began in a place we had been before, and loved, but no more. Unless I spend time exploring the highlands and mountain villages, away from the known crossroads as much as is possible, I plan to stay away from Bali. The Hindu people are magnificent, no doubt, but the world has infected the once terrible-paradise island with pure commercialization. It’s still a necessary flight hub, and therefore tempting to explore, I do understand, and you should if you’ve never been. If you visit, contact me here, I know a couple of good driver/guides. Other than that, and this post I made during the earthquakes I experienced there, we flew to Labuan Bajo on Flores Island, a ramshackle little port town with dive shops and tourist kiosks lining one street, the main street. Evidently, the entire reason for being in Labuan Bajo is to get out, somehow, to the Komodo Islands. In my mind, Labuan Bajo is a typical port town, full of stories and legends, full of dreams and experience, and with a very healthy sampling of some of the earth’s lost and found souls –

There was a young woman from Michigan that ran a restaurant with great tacos, and more-than loud muezzin speakers piping Islamic prayers directly at eco-tourist patrons as they took in, from a significant height, the ship-dotted port below. She sat with her laptop in a corner, strange tattoos staining tanned skin and want-to-be native origins, and when another earthquake shook the ground 3 stories below us, she calmly looked up the Richter scale and announced her findings to her patrons. The locals at her restaurant served the guests, and seemed nervous, even before the earthquake, but the fish tacos were really good, and the native servers’ smiles were intoxicating –

There was a young man, a native that had a smile and a laugh that made the world giggle. He jumped into every selfie we tried to take, smiling with delight. He took selfies with his friends, barefoot, with a tiny smartphone, as they guided us to a sacred waterfall deep in the jungle, far from cell service and civilization, along a path that was being built with an infusion of cash from the government to build tourism in the region. Giggling and laughing, even singing karaoke in the backseat of the car, our teen guide was excited by and proud of the smallest details during our adventure. Next to every brand new wooden trail sign we came across: BEWARE SLIPPERY, or PICK UP TRASH, he posed with his buddies, laughing … as if that was the entire world, his laugh, the look he got, the endorphins he produced and consumed –

There was a woman in a hijab dancing next to the fish barbecue, and a man next to her that was not happy about my photograph. I wondered if it was religious in nature, his displeasure with her, or if his displeasure was with me for taking a picture that included her dancing, enjoying the live music coming from the other side of the night market. There was another woman in a hijab serving fresh barbecued fish, but wouldn’t talk to her neighbor in order to sell us tourists Bintang, a really nice Indonesian Pilsner beer. I wondered if it was personal between them, or if it was principle, with religious origins. Each fish market stall set up a deal with its neighbors to supply customers, but at this one stall there was a resolute, “No.” No matter, we ate dinner at the fish market every night we dined in Labuan Bajo, four nights in all, four stalls in all, ensuring plenty of Bintang –

And, then there was the little Muslim boy in a Balinese priest outfit sporting wraparound sunglasses, dressed up for Indonesian Independence Day, and cheered on by his hijab-wearing mom from the sidelines to ham it up for the western tourists. He wouldn’t smile, no matter how hard we tried to tickle his fancy. He posed with a straight face for our pictures, as serious as I remember my own son being while posing for Halloween trick-or-treat pics back living in the USA, our very own old country.

Labuan Bajo is one tiny town on the western edge of the island of Flores, mostly Catholic/Animist fusion, in the archipelago nation of Indonesia, which currently boasts the largest population of Muslims on the planet. The archipelago of Indonesia is a vast sea peppered with dark, lush islands, 17,508 of them. We visited seven, altogether, if you count a pink sand bar in Komodo that emerges during low tide, where we vacationed for a few hours with other eco-tourists from other western countries. The country of Israel, my very own ancestral homeland, is a tiny, tumultuous  sea, less than half the size of the fifth largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, and is totally surrounded by a vast desert filled to the lid with complex/hostile ideologies, very few friends, and a plethora of ulterior motives to govern the world with, like anywhere. Because it’s confusing for the best of us, I’ll explain it like this: Indonesia isn’t what you’ve read or seen in the Media, like any other geopolitical hotspot on the planet, and its complexity is not something that I feel particularly comfortable describing; it is vast, and, to me, almost entirely unknown. This is my attempt to describe what I experienced during our month of travels in this dark and luminous land, and how, after which, I feel, just, changed.

We left Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores in a flurry as soon as our driver/guide arrived. Having met over email, we quickly put name to face and jumped into his car. We collected water in bottles to drink and brush teeth with, stopped at a cash machine that perched on the side of the road, and then drove up the winding jungle hill past the hospital where my beloved had a near death experience … just the day before. It’s not my place to say, but, in an effort to illuminate, the event was all smoke and mirrors caused by my motion sickness medicine and a somewhat hasty departure from Labuan Bajo on our first day to kill, almost a week prior. While sitting in the front seat (because of my severe motion-sickness), my beloved slapped a new patch on my neck from the backseat. So, with karaoke filling the car and smiling teen guides piled-in tight to lead the way to the (prior mentioned) sacred waterfall, we were on our way. Scopolamine is expensive and hard to come by these days, but trying to ration it with multiple reapplications is a bad idea, and it doesn’t work. Maybe … it’s because the dosage gets messed up, causing nausea and more, at one point even providing minor hallucinations to keep my mind busy and off the rest of the toxic symptoms.The last I will say of the ‘almost’ horrific experience: is that leaving residue on fingers and thumbs, unwashed, ultimately led to my beloved’s really bad day in a foreign hospital. We had thought that our trip to Indonesia, mostly our trip to Komodo (and later Sumatra) would be ruined, along with the rest of our short lives; but, as we joked with the doctors and nurses at the reception desk, on our way out of the hospital to find a taxi-ride home to our temporary bed, elation took over and the world became, once again, our eco-tourist playground.

Before our Flores overland trip began we boated around the islands of Komodo, my beloved diving into the deep sea after, in Bali, achieving her advanced diving degree, and me, because of a claustrophobia-informed fear of diving, snorkeling across the seas' surface. We slept and ate at Pirate Camp, but spent our days out on the waters. We’ve heard stories of a world gone by, times that don’t necessarily exist with our modern understandings, but a world does actually exist beneath our – whirling madly to stay afloat – feet. While briefly swimming the line between the waters above and below, I saw a visual-smorgasbord of wild and winsome beasties living in their natural habitat: a handful of dragons on the land, thousands of flying foxes in the sky above, and an implausible diversity of tropical fish under the sea's surface. We saw dozens of giant sea turtles, one of which I had the privilege of following as it surfaced for air right in front of me. I followed it up, removed my mask to peer into the air above, and watched its head extend over the waves, much farther than I imagined realistic. Quickly, I then replaced my mask in time to submerge and watch the turtle, a guest into our air above, descend beneath the waves into a universe untouched. I watched multiple giant manta-rays glide in procession, like parade floats, straight into the current with ease, wings with a span of 14 feet flipping with the flowing waters around them, all beneath my flailing form sprawled and twitching upon the sea's surface above. And, at a tiny island reef, surrounded by vast tumultuous ocean currents that pulled at my fins when I got too close, I came face to face with an obscenely fat six foot grey reef shark before it stopped its trajectory towards me from the murk of the current behind, only to turn, showing off its length and girth, then slowly disappearing back into the current’s vibrating gloom. I understood by the end of our adventures in Komodo that ‘we’ were the only pirates populating the land and sea. And I also understood that the vast universe I floated above was in eminent danger, even from the plastic bottles that I drank water from, and used to brush my teeth.

Then we landed late at night, once again, back in Labuan Bajo; and, the boat we’d ridden on through another universe cut through another boat’s shoreline, which had been strung hundreds of meters across the entire harbor, eliciting the docks to erupt into cursing and shouts. We motored away, our keel hung low in shame, in the dead of night, with our Spanish captain politely cursing his Indonesian wife’s country of origin. We disembarked at another dock and checked back into our hotel after a 10 minute joy ride around town on a black-light lit-up bus, actually more of a truck with a camper-shell on the back, which we all had to climb and squat into. It dropped us back where we started … because our hotel was only a block away from the dock … and then we ate fish at the night market across the street and crashed onto the same side of the same bed we slept in a few days prior. In the morning we had another day to kill. Indonesia’s like that (I know you’ve heard this before), there are days punctuated regularly with obtuse realizations and experiences, and then there are days that seem to stop completely, leaving questions looming into a kind of beautiful grotesquerie. I guess it was the price we had to pay for being tourists, eco-tourists, with limited time and maximum accumulated possibilities, maybe even supernatural in a world full from almost any inevitability. So … we snuck into a luxury hotel (with some western-world boat people’s assistance) and went swimming in their seaside pool for the day. It was grand.

Back in Bali we understood the problems that plagued our land, our earth. There were no landfills, but there were dumps. Trash piled up in back alleys, in corners of living. Construction debris filled empty lots, with bulldozers smoking to plow it all into glorious tourist high-rises with a view unto the sea. The Island of Flores was still pure, almost untouched. The locals waved when we drove past, and we waved back. The people were beautiful, as if straight out of some off-the-shelf historical-fiction novel … waving to you as you passed. And, their land, the only place left to live, was being consumed by a power seemingly beyond all of our control. When we left Labuan Bajo, our guide drove us up the jungle dotted hill past the hospital, past the sacred waterfall, and ended the day in his hometown, Ruteng … where we stayed, a last minute change, in a Catholic convent. The nuns there were strict, but nice. A school under our room woke us in the morning with looks and giggles. Then the chickens made themselves known, as is usual throughout Indonesia. We were picked up by our guide and driven for coffee, since the local nun food was cafeteria in nature. Our favorite place for Nasi Goren (Indonesian Fried Rice) was closed when we arrived for breakfast. The day before, with pictures of Christian holy sites plastering the walls, we tried to make quick friends with the establishment’s proprietors. They had made a pilgrimage to Israel and their wall-size selfies in front of Galilee Christian holy sites were a prominent feature of their tiny restaurant. While sitting in the restaurant, I sent our proprietor a friend request on Facebook, and then anxiously awaited a new participant from Flores Island on my feed.

We left town, but not after spending all morning high-fiving local children celebrating Indonesian Independence Day by dressing up in traditional costumes and parading down the main street in droves. Once getting our fill of the once-in-a-lifetime parade of people, and after a day of torturous turns, waving locals, and periodic road stops to ease my scopolamine madness, we arrived at Mbalata Beach, a private eco-tourist paradise with black sands, a large smoky-looking volcano silhouetted on the seaside horizon, and one guy to barbecue fresh fish that he had acquired that very afternoon, along with choice veggies and cold Bintang. We stayed in a traditional dwelling built for westerners, with full-scale facilities out the back door and down the stairs. The stairs were steep, at the front and at the back, and the walls of our dwelling only imitated their namesakes, leaving massive openings for myriad critters conceivably to enter. But, no matter, we had mosquito nets, one for him and one for her. This wasn’t a romantic getaway, as you may have guessed, but a getaway for the stretching of the soul-that-unites us sort of thing. My beloved was so tickled upon arriving that she slept like death that night. I, on the other hand, began to shiver under the sheet I used as a blanket. Sweating uncontrollably, shivering and shaking, I had contracted something along the way. Maybe it was after-effects of the scopolamine, maybe it was something transmitted high-fiving the wide variety of parade-kids on the way, or maybe it was just me … sociologically sponging and sucking up my environment until I puked (which I didn’t).

I woke in the morning feeling better, but kept my night tremors to myself during breakfast. My beloved was having just too great a time to spoil it for her. Not one soul meandered down the beach. The only sound was a rooster rooting around the kitchen’s yard, maybe the occasional rustle of mangrove forest leaves, and possibly a tiny background sound of the gentle wash of blue waves lapping over black sand. It was paradise. We left late that day on our overland Flores expedition, and I fell back into a deep sleep after breakfast, entangling myself once again under mosquito netting, dreaming my usual, oft-repeated childhood dreams of hammering nails and traveling through drainage pipes under the earth with neighborhood friends. After awakening, I quickly stuffed my pack, and then dragged it through black sands to the car. All I can remember now is arriving in the late afternoon in Bajawa, and our next bed to sleep in. I sat on a bench overlooking the city, animal stalls and slums first, gambling lean-tos second, church third, mosque fourth, and a giant volcano surrounded by moody clouds on the horizon, fifth. My chills returned as I sat there taking in the view. I shivered almost imperceptibly, looking imploringly at my beloved to wrap up the arrangements in full haste. Then … violently shaking, I showered and jumped under the single sheet of our bed, drying off as I sweated the illness I had acquired out.

Waking in the night, my beloved having vanished with our guide on a mission to scavenge the restaurant scene for food, I realized that I was in a very foreign and hostile land. I was a Jew, an Israeli, traveling with a US passport that wasn’t intellectually mine anymore. All it would take would be one person tipping the local Gestapo for money, or for recognition and favors.  A Chinese Catholic governor was jailed for five years for saying political rivals were deceiving people by using a verse in the Koran to say Muslims should not be led by a non-Muslim, followed by an incorrectly subtitled video of his comments going viral on social media, sparking massive demonstrations, and then resulting in his trial and ultimate incarceration. A Buddhist woman was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy; she complained that the mosque speakers were too loud, five times a day/night, something that, as a visiting western eco-tourist I concur with, having been woken about 4:00 am almost every night in Indonesia to a prayer starting with: Allah Akhbar… and finishing at least 20 to 40 minutes later with various Koranic sayings. Shivering in sweat under the sheet, the only light in the world coming from my glowing phone, I opened Facebook and deleted every reference I could find to Israel. It took me about 20 minutes. The friend request I’d sent to the Christian pilgrimage restaurant proprietor had gone unanswered. I realized that I had put him and his family in great danger by sending it in the first place. Of course he wouldn’t accept, what was I thinking…? I changed my profile pic to a typical eco-tourist image of me and my beloved in traditional Flores garb … and deleted the picture of me in front of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a Jew from a rooftop in the Old City. I was legitimately freaked out that there would be a knocking at the door, and that I would be hauled off to a local police station, sweating and shivering in my underwear, to answer questions of ideology veiled loosely beneath waterboarding diplomacy. Then my beloved arrived, finally, with fresh soup and rice to wash down my night tremors, and in the morning all was well and right with the world. I had erased my baggage, eliminated my fears, and my fever had dropped back to normal again.

The last night I spent in Bajawa was in a different bed, as was usual for our Indonesian travels. We moved from the accepted eco-tourist lodging to the less-than-desired next-to-the-reception-and-garage accommodations. Just that day the overly friendly bellhop from the day before avoided me in the hallway. I knew that I had left the prior sheets yellow with fever, and even twisted off the mattress in places from tossing and turning throughout the night. The owner of the hotel was local, but had studied in Australia. He was very friendly and informative, and I wish I had had a chance to talk with him, but it was not to be; after being moved to the “garage” room, and investigating our new home for the night, I opened a tiny door that had a slide-lock on our side only. The plywood door creaked open and I peered into the darkness behind the reception area next to us. Someone was sleeping there on a mattress surrounded by a large room. Quickly I shut the door with some embarrassment, but only understood later that I had inadvertently woken the owner of our hotel from his afternoon nap. 

I had been feeling great, since we had done some amazing sightseeing that day, visiting a couple of traditional villages where Animist traditions had been fused with Catholicism. The villagers there seemed to reach out in a spiritual way, seemingly desiring a legitimate connection; then we finished the day by swimming in the healing waterfalls of one of Flores’s local hot springs. I, mistakenly, thought that I was healed from my affliction of sweats and shakes after our afternoon swim, but it was not to be…

Later that night I excused myself from our dinner early, trying to be alright with the world feeling off. I climbed into a new bed in our new room, and, listening to the hotel reception area and their family chatting behind the plywood door, began to dream. I noticed my beloved come in to the room at one point, but no matter. Late in the night, a small boy looked through a small pane of glass above our bed from the garage behind our room. He must have been standing on something, since it was a high window up tall on the wall. I watched and waved at him, then he at me, and I moved on to other matters that clouded my mind. 

Later, in the same night, the small boy came back. He creaked open the window, pushing it in on a pivot from above, and then slipped through the opening and down into the room. He crept about, around the bed, looking at our eco-travel things, all the while me attempting to tell him he shouldn’t be in our room, he should not be there, and the louder I yelled, the less my voice was able to vibrate out from my tongue and mouth. I realized that I was dreaming when I couldn't enunciate, and then my beloved beside me awoke and told me all would be okay, that the boy would go away. I didn’t believe her, or, I’m not sure, but maybe wanted to prove myself worthy; I began to yell, raising my voice even louder ... as far as I could. The boy shouldn’t be there, we both understood, and it was up to me to make it clear to the world. While yelling from the top of what my sleepy lungs could produce, the hotel’s owner, sleeping on the floor next-door, smashed through the tiny plywood hatch from before. He caught up to the small boy and chased him out through the front door, leaving it hinging wide open, then banging and bouncing about – and then my beloved shook me until I reemerged into the room next to the garage. I had been dreaming, and yelling out into the night.

The next day the bellhop avoided me completely in the halls, not just averting his eyes. The owner gave me a quick “how do you do” and vacated my presence in quick form. We left Bajawa with a sigh of relief and with a new scopolamine patch stuck to my neck for the torturous turns ahead. We were to visit volcano crater pools that changed colors with the day. Except for the obnoxious Chinese drone pilot, and the New York women's activist giving the drone double middle fingers for posterity, the crater pools were stunning. 

Click here for part 2

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