Flashbacks of Vietnam flicker behind my eyes with every step I take; litter toppling over the sidewalks, chaotic drivers blasting their scooter horns, the taxi from the airport smashing his car mirror off a parked car and cursing in Indonesian but driving on. The cold showers, the toilets you cant put paper down, the mosquito bites, the monsoon rain as it tumults down…
I find myself once again, alone in a hostel, hauling myself up a ladder to my bunk, tired and agitated with my head pressed against the hard mattress in an attempt to drown out the onslaught of beats pulsing through the wall from the common room next door. I vow to escape Kuta the moment the sun rises, to an island that is more my scene Gili Trawangan.
I am whipped away on a boat to the remote haven, but I feel no thrill as we skate across the sea. I have become a weary traveller with empty pockets and a heavy heart, staying in absolute dumps. This time the dorm room has one single and one double bed. The young locals in charge try to convince two complete strangers to share the same bed, devoid of the knowledge of how our western society works. As I am the only girl I am permitted the single bed, how honoured I am. How do I get myself into these situations I wonder time and time again…
The rain pisses down and the electricity goes. I sit in the darkness, sipping coffee listening to a local strum the ukulele and sing softly. Eventually the generator kicks in like a strimmers cutting hedges beside my head. What you learn about yourself in these situations says it all, to try not to fall into a pit of despair is the key but to embrace the madness that ensues around you. Thunder and lightning clap down around me. The loudspeakers lining the streets call the locals to prayer as I sit in the room with only the bed bugs for company and I sigh. This is hard, how much easier would my life be if I were satisfied to just stay at home. I eventually succumb to sleep against a backdrop of thunder and lightning and Middle Eastern sounding music seeping through the pane less windows.
I venture out for food alone, sitting on a plastic bench in silence chewing slowly, sipping my coffee, and counting the ants crawling around in the sugar jar. There are twelve. I offer to take a picture of a group of adult Indonesians on their holiday. They cannot thank me enough and insist I get in a photo with them for I am and I quote “like a model to them because I am so white…”I laugh and agree in defeat knowing full well I couldn’t look less like a model, greasy hair, smelling of BO, no make up and drenched but I am indeed rather white… I guess I’ll be tucked away in some random photo album forever more.
The everyday life of the locals is beautiful in its rawness and simplicity. The little sacrifice to the Hindu gods of flowers and incense folded in a leaf box left outside their doorstep noon and night. Bicycles and pony drawn carts rattle down the mucky streets, swerving around the puddles or pummeling straight through them. Kids play on their hand built rafts, mischievously tipping it over in the clear turquoise waters of the Pacific and howling with laughter as they melt into its shallow waters. Outside my door boys gather around a guitar strumming youth. Kids cry, mothers bark orders, roosters crow. The sad thing is I know I would love this place normally, it is exactly my cup of tea, the simple life, hard work, engaging your whole body in a task, the wildness, the roughness, the kindness… but I am an outsider and have lost my spark. I am not one of them, a local nor do I fit in amongst the party going tourists blazing a trail of destruction through this solemn piece of paradise. I have succumbed to loneliness, hating the thought of eating another dinner alone. But what are my choices go it alone or don’t go at all?
I long to belong to a community once more. Travelling solo is exhausting. You can’t even go to the toilet without bringing all your bags with you, just in case someone steals them. But you learn so much about yourself as there is no one else to lean on. Everyone should try it at least once in his or her lifetime. But when all you do is travel alone the novelty wears off. I now dread the inevitable times I will spend waiting around for boats, buses, trains, planes with no one to talk to. When you’ve finished your book, taken your pictures, refreshed your newsfeed for the fiftieth time, had a coffee, had a think. It just gets boring. I find myself people watching, envious of others camaraderie, young love or pals having a rant… meanwhile I haven’t spoken to a single human the whole day except for the waiter to order some food. It’s hard, its really fucking hard, no one tells you this in the mountains of inspirational posts online. I know I am lucky, I know I am surrounded by beauty, and wondrous things but sometimes I just wish I had someone to share it with. Plus I burnt my back on the boat back to Bali… just one of the disadvantages of solo travelling, you cant reach your own back to lather some suncream on.
I have come here with a purpose though to tick an item off my bucket list, to do my PADI open water scuba diving course. The amount of bloody theory to wade through before they let us free is not a good omen. I get to the pool part finally but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the goggles on not been able to breath through my nose. But I persist…. And then finally something clicks and we fall off a boat into the open ocean and my mind erupts in awe. The vastness of its crystal waters, the coral reef, all these creatures you’ve seen a million times on TV just chilling before your very eyes. We float through a shipwreck covered in coral, moray eels and puffer fish glide around us. I am weightless; I am wrapped in my own little bubble and this time it’s a good bubble. It really is just you and your thoughts while around you majestic turtles, reef sharks, eagle rays and every fish you’ve seen in Finding Nemo just go on about their daily lives. It is incredible. We must conserve this. We must do something! I emerge elated and finally things begin to take a turn for the better.
From Gili T, I make my way to Ubud and I instantly fall in love. The houses are treehouses built on stilts and nestled amongst the treetops of a jungle, winding streets curve up and down, inclining and declining steeply. I get lost in the graffiti, the painted murals on the walls, the vegetation intertwining with the art, nature and humans colliding… coexisting. Too soon I must leave the place I should have came from day one, and back I go to Denpasar, for a night to catch an early flight.
I convince a fat taxi man to drive me there and quickly discover that he is a beautiful being of a driver. We talk politics, Indonesia’s democratic government, how the people have so little but are so happy with what they have. He tells me about Hinduism, about the upcoming festival of evil spirits which is followed by a day of peace where no one works and everyone stays inside and rests. I can’t help but compare it to our festivals, the partying of our western world. He lectures me like he is my Dad about the dangers of traveling alone as a girl but then slips in that he thinks I’m very brave to ease the rebuff. I asked him has he ever eaten in the restaurant he sits outside of all day everyday waiting for customers. He laughs in my face, “ahaha no, no Indonesians cannot afford to eat in there.” He works three jobs, he runs a Credit Union from seven am to eleven, then is a taxi driver from eleven onwards and in his free time he helps his brother farm the paddy fields. After an hour we arrive in the city it is late and darkness has fallen. The satnav tells him we are here, but I look up and only see a dodgy alleyway, oh god don’t leave me here I beg. “Don’t worry Orla if you don’t like the look of it I wont leave you here, we’ll find you somewhere else…” We continue to search and eventually we find the place, he walks me to the door and asks are you ok here… I smile in gratitude.
As I walk in to the plush hotel (my treat for the night) and the kind taxi man drives away, a young boy holding a balloon approaches me and gestures his hand to his mouth signaling for food. His mother carries a little girl dressed in rags half starved on her hip behind him. I have no cash on me, I have no food. I am momentarily stunned. Who is this poor family? What is there story? How have things gotten so bad that they are reduced to this? I have nothing to offer, I can only apologize and walk away with my head sagging in anger and sadness, while he stares after me hating me, judging me as I hang my head and walk into a place of luxury that he in his lifetime will never experience.
The image haunts my mind that night. I vow to never forget it, to do something, to appreciate my world, what I have but as I step foot back in Australia the next day, back to a world of comfort, back to my reality… the memories start to fade and my worries snap back to the trivial things; back to appearance, back to money, back to gossip and every time my memory is jogged I groan in defeat. I berate myself that I once again was weak and succumbed to a lifetime spent worrying about things that in the grand scheme of things do not matter. I am alive, I am healthy, I can do anything. But already knowing that this is a vicious circle that I have experienced hundreds of times, by this afternoon as the sun sets I will be lying on a couch with a bag of crisps perched on my stomach, watching Made In Chelsea or some other shite and wishing I could be like the people on the screen in front of me…