A Primer in Hospitality in Sembalun

After 18-hours of trans-Pacific flights, it is the dead of night in Jakarta, and I am sprawled out across the bright white linen sheets of the closest relatively higher-end resort style hotels I could find near the airport. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have stayed there but the alluring of a safe bet in an unknown city at midnight was the deciding factor to the tune of an additional $40. After stumbling, bleary-eyed, half awake, and starving, out from the terminal into the oppressively suffocating humidity and convincing the shuttle driver with generous hand motions that I had a reservation, I took a substantially hot shower and attempted to doze before leaving for my 5 am Lion Air flight to the island of Lombok just west of Java.

I laid down to sleep on the sinking, spongy mattress when my phone bleated at me, and I groggily read the words, stomaching sinking to toes:

I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to make it there. 

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By no fault of her own, my travel companion was stuck in South Africa, and I would be heading to the remote village beneath the mythical volcano wholly alone. Perhaps, in theory, I had grandiosely welcomed the idea of roaming Indonesian villages alone, of the wistful looks from people who commented on my bravery as a solo traveler across the ocean, but singularity in transportation was different than solitude in a place riddled with the unknown, substantiated only by my imagination. Visiting Indonesia on a whim to climb a 3,500 m volcano, flying the opposite direction of the countries I had grown accustomed to, was certainly a frightening endeavor even with the thought of companionship, the thought of completing these things alone was enough to let me allow the international phone number for United Airlines ring three times: I could turn around. I could fly back home if I wanted to. Tate’s name continually popped up on my messenger app, buzzing with confirmation: You have to go. You have to. We’ve mapped everything out. Get on the plane. The Socratic maxim, paradox, of traveling: “All I know is that I know nothing.” Revel, revelation, in the unknown.

I lugged my bags to the check in desk of Lion Air, in the balmy 3:30 AM smog, tongue-tied my way through the cross-cultural communication of tickets, and shouldered my red Osprey 60L through the thatched roofs of the Jakarta airport, thick bamboo beams covered with woven leaves and twine while colorful noodle vendors lined the mauve and taupe mosaic floors. I was not hungry.

Get on the plane, get on the plane, get on the plane – my mantra, meditation, charge, the swirling confirmation that this was the cusp of my desires. I herd my way through the barrage of on-boarding passengers, little regard given to safety checks and loading procedures. I am the only female passenger traveling alone, and I sink into the cracked, faded maroon leathered seats from the ’80’s and pray for sleep to come, or to at least be asleep in the event of a failed engine or mechanical issue.

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In venturing into the unknown, the “other,” it may be agreed upon that boarding the plane is the most difficult part – leaving comfort for uncertainty. I knew the tenor, rhythm, of life in Colorado; existence in Lombok was a vague, gauzy field of images researched on AirBnb and blips of email conversation with my hosts. Indonesia, quite literally, felt other-worldly: exiting the plane in the warm daylight, sweet humidity, and the float of palm trees. I am sweating and searching for a way through wifi to let Mo, my homestay host, know that I had arrived. Despite not knowing what Mo looked like, and desperately hoping he was there as my one ride to the remote village 2.5 hours through lush forest, I trudge past the throng of taxi drivers badgering me about my destination and look trustingly around the crowd; surely, Mo would recognize my hair.

Like clockwork, a lanky man with a kind face, gently approaches me: “Are you Haley?” Relief overwhelms – to be called by name in the heart of the uncertain. Mo is slightly older than I am, with a wife and children in Mataram, who acts as a local representative between homestays and a Lombok travel organization. As we wait for a separate travel group to continue on with his uncle, I slouch on the stoop and carefully peel contact lenses from their containers to my eyes. A little girl watches me with curiosity, darts and flits near me, with a shy smile, scurries behind her mother when I wave. This is the beginning of the immense kindness and hospitality I experienced while traversing the island.

I have learned that the best trait one can develop while on the road is flexibility; when you get to where you’re going is of little importance – your host drives you to the most remote beaches to climb rock formations to watch the turqoise-y teal water crash upon itself into explosions of foam like a cosmic, giant bubble bath, brings your to his family’s home in Mataram for a long nap and a spicy broth with homemade noodles, and purchases you a pineapple shaved and cut into the form of a popsicle before beginning the trek up the switchbacks to Sembalun, these are the important matters. The waves lapped the sand, lapped each other, exploded into a myriad of directions, like a field of foam that wove within itself, water shined blue like shimmering eyes from which I couldn’t look away. Here I stand, grasping for the descriptors. Feeling, feeling, feeling, viewing. How the hell did I get here?

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We wind up the mountain and lush overgrowth and speak about American politics, Colorado, and Geography. Mo studied geology at University and longingly thinks of the Rockies. “Where should I visit in the States?” he asks me. Nowhere right now, I want to respond. We pull over to the side of the pass, letting a large flatbed truck loaded with stone whip around us as we peer over the rail down towards Sembalun, which rests in the middle of a valley of velvety green formations. We descend into the village and towards the Rinjani Getaway. I am shown to my “room” by the family, which is actually a separate guest house where two large, relatively soft, beds are made up in bright pinks and greens on the cold, brown tile. A large Persian rug designates the meal area in an adjacent room and the low hum of water consistently pouring into the bucket shower area lulls me to sleep amongst crickets. I am briefly woken to the call to prayer, resounding resolutely, like a sure and certain faith, outside the lining of my window, but I drift back to sleep soundly. In the morning, I am awakened by Igaina. The rest of the family will venture to the beach (it is Idul Fitri, after all) but she will stay behind to make me breakfast and attend to the house. Ziki loads me onto the back of his motorbike and rides me through the hills of the small Indonesian mountain town, eager to tell the folklore and history of every lookout and structure.

That night, I wander along a single path road to the Rinjani Garden hostel only to find that because it is the holidays, there are no staff members around. I sit calculating how I will procure dinner in my head in a town seemingly devoid of restaurants before the matriarch of the family that fills the common spaces declares that I will eat dinner with them. Children scurry across the yard, run up to me with an eager how are you, and scurry away. Their mothers force them into the chairs next to me: Practice your English! I let them run away to play. I bounce around broken-English and Indonesian conversations with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The family is sweet, jovial, and the flow of Bintang indicates that they have accepted as one of their own. I crawl into bed hardly despondent of being “alone” but thankful for the immense amounts of hospitality I have stumbled my way into. Rinjani looms in the background, beckoning for the next day.

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Trust is that which propels you towards a hidden village in the shadow of volcanoes at the end of Ramadan, towards a family that accepts you as one of their own in a moment of celebration and who forces you onto the back of a motorbike to see these hidden treasures of locality. Eat what is placed before you without question. Revel in the unique hospitality. Never mind that you are called “Barbie” multiple times; never mind that the solitude closes in heavy in the evenings upon you. These are the steps to the edge of the world, edge of desire, edge of that which we have always known but never taken the steps to verify.

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