(File under: solo travel in Indonesia; quiet places in Indonesia; off-the-beaten-track in Indonesia; loner travel in Indonesia)
And so, as happens with such things, the conversation assumed a theme; like settling dust, the group’s focus turned to a single place: Indonesia. But, such is the size of this archipelago, comprising as it does many thousands of islands, one would not be wrong in declaring that Indonesia wears many different faces. So it goes. A place that affords chances to breathe.
But the group ventured upon an interesting point: namely, the notion of ‘escape’. They agreed that the traditional view of going to a quiet place with few people and even fewer distractions remains the optimum definition. But they also conjectured that escaping could mean removing oneself from their circumstances. In short, behaving differently or observing the world from a fresh perspective, such as that enjoyed by a disembodied spirit roaming about the place with no real connections to the land.
This approach proved viable. One thing the group valued above all else was variety. But as much as they tried, they became concerned lest their choices centre upon the usual tropes: a body of water; a lack of human contact; the removal of artificial light; a reset of the senses; a move towards the spiritual; and questions about why this didn’t happen sooner. An island, in other words.
Thankfully, for reasons that the narrator may expand upon one day, not one speaker used ‘paradise’ to describe their choices. Not a single one of them. It would take too long to explain why they found ‘paradise’ to have become diluted. But suffice it to say, the word, or notion, or concept, is a loaded term too often used for reasons other than its intended purpose, and its meaning has lost its former power.
And so, happy with the parameters of their talk, the group honed in upon the gargantuan archipelago. They fully realised that for all their travels, they had covered but a tiny fraction of its expanse. But they nevertheless had found places where the world had receded slightly: certainly, enough for the loner or introvert to fully embrace a sympathetic environment.
The fifth speaker ventured their choice to the group. In so doing, they centred their fellows’ attention on the archipelago’s centre, to Java: the giant’s heart.
They recalled a trip into the region’s eastern highlands where they found a circular lake, bordered on one side by a thick rainforest, from which emanated the piercing calls of verminous apes, and on the other by a terraced village. A winding, deep valley ran behind the forest and stabbed the belly of Gunung Lawu, a lumbering mountain that passively overlooked its domain.
This lake, which they called Sarangan, was beset by a constant fog that would form, become impenetrably thick and smother the entire area. Even Lawu could not escape the element’s reach, for the mountain would become swallowed by the weather until it too disappeared. But then the swirl would dissipate as quickly as it formed as if it had never existed at all. Thus befuddled, the viewer questioned whether their senses were deranged. Under such a cloud may they trek through the valley, amongst villages and terraced rice fields, to the waterfall called Tirtosari, beneath a canopy of cloud that, as if powered by a jester, would expel heavy rainfall as it saw fit.
But Sarangan, the fifth opined, worked for this very reason. The gloom of stillness haunted the area. It created a reticence quite unlike anywhere else in the archipelago; the inhabitants and visitors buzzed with the same energy so often felt in Java but tempered by a kind of reserve that reflected the mist that so often descended upon them. And for those who seek solitude, where better to wander than into the fog so they may become lost and withdrawn?
‘But,’ the fifth spoke out, ‘remember that Sarangan is a removed place and that you cannot predict passage there or away. The seasoned traveller will know to make their own plans and that Grab may prove its use here more than anywhere else.’ A certain vagueness clouded the fifth’s eyes as they spoke, like a person haunted by confronting a series of dead ends before finally finding the answer they sought.
A counterpoint may be in order, spake the sixth. This speaker had found a kindred spirit in their predecessor; for their choice lay on the other side of Lawu, away from the shrouded lake.
This place they called Tawangangu, on the threshold of Java’s central region. It resides at the same height as Sarangan, but whereas the village on the lake so often becomes the victim of fogs and mist and vapour, its sibling at least allows the sun an occasional glimpse of the land. And thus can one see that Tawangmangu is a verdant place: its rice terraces betray the same healthiness as Sarangan’s but with a richer colour; these deep shades of green stretch down into the valley below, across the flatlands of Java until they encounter Solo in the distance. Beyond that, the entirety of the enormous island lies in wait.
The sixth had little further to add. Only this, they explained, should the visitor remember: that the quietness stems from the hutan hujan and its absorption of the surrounding hubbub. Thus can one become beset by daydreams in the highlands walking from this temple to that, trekking ‘twixt waterfalls as they go.
‘But,’ so said the sixth, ‘although the visitor may consider a pilgrimage to Candi Sukuh and its Mayan-inflected triangular construct, and rightly so, they should prepare themselves. The walk invigorates the explorer, who may benefit from the fresh air and cooling climes and the excitement of passing via villages, green fields and gurgling brooks. But remember this. Parts of the climb can be steep and the air thin and muggy, and there are few places to hydrate oneself.’ So speaking, the sixth became suddenly short of breath and felt blindly for a mug of water; perhaps they had befallen such a predicament and wished not to relive it.
Gili Iyang (Java)
It would seem many of the group had extensive knowledge of Java, for when the seventh spake, they became only the latest in a long line to defer to the giant island. In this case, they praised one of its outliers: a place known as Gili Iyang, on the eastern reaches of Madura.
The seventh spoke fervently of the island’s higher-than-average oxygen levels, which conferred a unique feeling of freshness and vitality upon all who encountered it. Thus, it came as no shock when the speaker revealed that the island has become known by a different name that reflects its very singular trait: Pulau Oksigen. No code needs to decipher the meaning behind such a title.
And such a feeling of calm extends to the visitor who, in finding people fit and healthy well above their prescribed lifespan, may too find themselves energised and recharged. There exists on Iyang something in the air that conveys the energy of a fountain of youth, a blessed and happy afterlife where peace reigns above all. The speaker joked that the ferryman from Dungkuk in Kalianget called himself Charon.
‘But,’ continued the seventh, ‘it pays to remember the teachings of lore. Legend states that the spirits that reside in the clouds of Kelimutu wait for their chosen destination in the afterlife. Who’s to say that Iyang does not play such a role?’ Sated, the seventh stumbled and became lost in thought, wondering which parts of Pulau Oksigen extend into realms beyond the naked eye.
Away from Java did the next speaker, the eighth, direct attention. Gazes turned to the northern tip of Sulawesi and the city of Manado. From there, they watched as a cramped, wooden passenger vessel floated to Bunaken. An outpost of an outpost, shaped like a boomerang and hovering off the coast.
Nobody can deny that Bunaken is an island. It resides in the Celebes Sea and is of sufficient size that one can explore it on foot. But Bunaken is also covered in thick forest, which adds a touch of danger. What would happen if the wanderer became lost and, as night fell, encountered something that lives on the island that a visitor did not expect to meet?
It is not beyond the realm of possibility, spake the eighth. They told of Bunaken’s Minahasan traditions, the safety engendered by a tight community bond, and the protection stemming from the incursions of island spirits. Locks are not compulsory here, for a bubble-like forcefield, powered by the fear of reciprocal vengeance, averts wrongdoing.
Thus, so goes the cliche, Bunaken exists out of sync with most other places. The visitor may find their behaviour changes as they adapt to a pace far removed from the mores of mainland life. This is the gateway to an oceanic world with stretches of beach and a barrier of mangroves that affords a pleasing sense of seclusion.
‘But,’ so sayeth the eighth, ‘visitors should factor this into their thinking: Indonesia has an underground system of communication, invisible to the unattuned. Thus, apparent strangers will know the visitor’s name and their connection to the island. Because behind the silence, somebody watches, observes, pays attention.’ A look of guilt formed on the eighth’s features, perhaps telling of the failure to respond in kind when a stranger took an interest in the life of a newcomer. A chance lost forever to bond.
The conversation floated heavily in the air, but an end remained in sight. Who knows where the next choices may lay?