Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ego check 1,2...1,2...

As it turns out, I'm a lousy planner. And, being that I'm not so hot at being spontaneous either, I may be the world's worst travel partner. Luckily for me, Indonesia is very forgiving, always making up for even my worst laid plans with some unexpected charms. Thankfully, the country proved itself again last week when my friend, Tim, of UA Ballroom Club fame, came from the states for a week long visit in Indonesia....even if it did nearly kill us and our egos in the process.

Tim requested that our trip take on more of an adventure-feel than a beach lounger-feel, so I booked us a 3 day/2 night trek to Mt. Rinjani, Indonesia's second largest volcano. The package seemed innocent enough, peppered with hot springs and a sunrise view from the summit. We were filled with explorer spirit as we began our first morning with a spectacular sunrise. 

It's only four kilometers...straight up
We met our guide, a happy Sasak man named Pak Pahi. Pahi has lived in the shadow of Rinjani his whole life and started working as a porter for treks when he was about 18. For nearly ten years, he carried camping equipment up the mountain, balanced on a pole across his shoulder, for tourists from around the world. He taught himself English from books and practiced on the tourists during the trips until he could speak enough to become a guide. Now he makes a trip to the summit at least twice a week - a fact that made our admiration for him grow the longer we hiked.
The closer we got, the taller it grew

The first part, while hot, was not so bad. We hiked swiftly through rolling hills to the first post. There we met a slightly-more-than-middle-aged woman from Canada. She was already having a hard time with the trek, but was determined to see us again at the crater rim. Tim and I were doubtful that we'd see her again, but we wished her luck. We reached post two shortly thereafter and were instructed to sit back while the porters whipped up a spectacular lunch of nasi goreng (fried rice). There we met two more Canadians with whom we shared our enclosure and conversation. So far, the trip was just the right brand of adventure we were looking for.

And then things got really steep, really fast. Soon we were willing our legs to follow the sure footsteps of Pahi as we ascended into the clouds. Our breaks became more frequent, and our porters - in their sandel cepit (flip flops) - took off in front of us carrying twice our load and smoking while we caught up.

Once we were well on our way up to the crater rim, we could watch the clouds roll up the mountain at our heels and finally submerse us. I remember reflecting on how there must be levels of silence just as there are various levels of noise because the silence of these clouds offered a deep peace.
 I have experienced it before in Ohio just after a large snow fall at night before anyone can disturb it. I drank it in, willing my own racing heart beat to slow down to its rhythm. I think those moments were my favorite of the entire trip.

At some point, when the trail became, as Tim said, "an endless stepper machine on the hardest setting," we could hear shouts of motivation from somewhere in the clouds above us. Soon, we met up with a gaggle of university forestry students who were taking a rest. They cheered us on until we joined them for a brief chat. We couldn't sit long because the temperature was dropping, but we were grateful for their energy. The students invited us to join them at 1am to start climbing to the summit, but we decided to stick to our guide's plan to leave at a much more reasonable 3am.

We finally reached the crater rim just before 5 pm (we started around 8am). The summit still loomed ahead of us, but everything was still covered in the clouds so there wasn't much to see. We barely made it through dinner before we collapsed into our tent. At 2:30 am, Pahi's gentle voice pulled us outside of the tent into the frigid air. I cupped some hot tea with both hands and choked down a small breakfast while watching an intimidating snake of flashlights that had already begun the ascent to the summit. Those flashlights seemed impossibly high. At that point, Tim decided the best course of action was to crawl back inside the tent and go to sleep, so Pahi and I started of on our own, the last to join the chain of flashlights.

This is what the climb looked like in daylight. I did not have the luxury of daylight.
Two hours into the hike and the summit didn't seem any closer. Pahi and I were moving at a fast pace, though. We had already passed the university students and the two Canadians. At that point we joined a group of Europeans who were steadily climbing up the loose, volcanic glass. Eventually, we passed that group and silently continued on. Thirty minutes to the top, we caught up with a French man and his guide resting near some big rocks. The path had become so narrow at this point, with steep drop-offs on either side of the path, that I was terrified to look anywhere but at my feet. We followed the French man the last 30 minutes to the top. I admit that I tried to catch up and pass him, but he was very fast, so I settled with being the second person to arrive at the summit. I was rewarded with the promised sunrise and a view of all of the surrounding islands. 

To the east was the spectacular sunrise, and the the west we could watch as Rinjani cast its shadow across its own crater lake and the neighboring island of Bali.

I didn't stay long at the top because it was so cold that I couldn't control my fingers enough to take pictures. Pahi and I started the descent, a terrifying type of rock surfing that was more falling than walking. What took us two hours to climb up, we surfed down in about 20 minutes. We stopped long enough to shake the mountain out of our shoes and take pictures of the now visible crater lake. In the center of the lake another, much smaller volcano sat smouldering.

Back at the crater rim camp, I joined Tim for a large breakfast of banana pancakes while looking out over the rim. We were soon joined by one, then two, then an invasion of monkeys who were very interested in our breakfast. We may have annoyed our porters when we were too distracted by taking pictures of the monkeys to stop one of them from stealing our cup full of sugar for our tea. The little bandit ran down the hill with his prize, fighting off anyone who tried to share his bounty. We were amused, but we could tell our porters were not when they had to chase the monkey down the hill to retrieve the cup. Oops.

It was while we were on the rim, that Tim and I quickly agreed to cut our trip one day short. His feet were covered in blisters and my legs had turned into jello. So, we smiled for one more picture at the rim, and started the still 5 hour descent back the way we came. It turns out, going down was much harder than going up. Tim and I tripped and slipped along until our guide finally took pity on our shaky legs and fashioned us some walking sticks. These helped a bit, but they couldn't undo the damage to our egos. This was the down could it be so hard? We feebly clung to our sticks, though, with the thought of sipping Bintang on the beach overpowering our fear of tumbling down the mountain.

A smiling happy to be down the mountain

We spent the last few days of Tim's visit bumming around the beach area. Honestly, we couldn't do much else. We were a pitiful pair, hobbling around and covering ourselves in tiger balm and band aids. It wasn't all bad, though. We were able to salvage the week with some excellent Indonesian food and some wonderful - yet painfully slow - strolls on the beach. Not exactly what I imagined when I planned our trip, and I'm certain it wasn't what Tim had in mind either, but he still left with a smile on his face...or was that a grimace...