Thanksgiving 2019 is over: I just finished a week in an ashram practicing hatha yoga and meditation in Southern India and am resting in Sri Lanka. Knowing how far I’ve traveled, I can’t help but reminisce upon the trip that surreptitiously led me here. As I continue my endeavors, I would be remiss not to give an ode to the journey that took place two years ago (almost to the day).
Previously, I narrated a spontaneous trip to swim with Whale Sharks and a modified travel plan to Run with the Bulls. This tale required flexibility, and not just because of all the yoga we did. This is a story about how fate led me to unwittingly take on a Balinese volcano and make it back alive… perhaps more alive than I’d ever been.
Joe Fischer has been my proverbial partner-in-crime for over a decade. There’s more than meets the eye with Joe: his dirty blonde hair and lean athletic build align with the California surfer mentality he embodies. But despite his sometimes serious and oft-solitary external manner, the truth is he has a terrifically goofy sense of humor and playful side as well.
Joe and I went to the same elementary, middle, and high schools, played the same sports, went to the same University where we had the same major, both played lacrosse there, ended up getting jobs at the same company after graduation, lived together for a couple of years, and even dated two sisters at one point. To say we shared some similarities would be a gross understatement.
Once travel became one of my great passions, he was a natural confidant.
However, in March of 2017, Joe accepted a job on the west coast in his dreamland: San Francisco. It was the first time in 18 years that we’d be living more than twenty miles apart. We both agreed to go on an adventure together. I made a trip out west to visit him for a long weekend and we solidified our plans: an eleven-day trip around Thanksgiving to Southeast Asia. And it was going to be a hectic schedule: four days in northern Vietnam, one day in Cambodia, and four days in Bali (with a day of travel bookending the trip).
Everything was in order with our trip despite an earlier scare from Mount Agung (a volcano on Bali that was threatening to erupt), which climaxed as nothing more than a false alarm.
But in planning every detail of this trip, we were incredibly careless to overlook the Visa requirements. I simply read Vietnam and Cambodia as “visa upon arrival” entries for Americans. I assumed it was like our past experience in Egypt where you exit your plane, flash your passport, pay a fee, and receive your “visa upon arrival.”
However, once I arrived at my gate, I immediately realized the laughable error I had committed: the airline simply would not let me board without the pre-approved visa paperwork. I tried to talk my way onto the plane, but it wasn’t happening: our trip was over before it started. In front of the poor airline worker, I went through all five stages of grief in a matter of seconds.
To throw a little salt in the wound, it is standard policy that when an individual is turned back at the gate, they must be escorted out of the airport by airline staff. Once I noticed the short, old Korean woman attempting to walk me out, I speed-walked my way out the security entrance, drastically outpacing her to at least save myself that embarrassment. And the little humor I was able to ascertain came in handy because there was no time to sulk. It was undoubtedly a trying moment, but hurdles are meant to be jumped, and I wasn’t going to let my week-and-a-half go to waste.
On my way home, I quickly got on the phone with Joe and his roommate Enrique, who provided unremitting assistance while we pivoted our travel plans. Luckily, Joe was able to cancel his flight and get a refund, so at least only one of us had to eat that unpalatable cost.
Then it was back to the drawing board: we had eleven free days, and the world was completely open to our whims.
Auspiciously, after searching the entire globe for a new destination at a reasonable price, Joe and I both landed on the same location: back to Bali! With just ten hours’ notice, we booked flights to Bali and at least had a destination ahead of us. One small, yet essential detail: though Bali was still the end (read: entirety) of our trip, the new flights had me leaving the island Sunday morning while Joe was still scheduled to head out on Saturday.
(One other bonus, which admittedly seemed extraneous to me at the time, was that Joe had a friend who might meet up with us during her extended travels.)
Once bookings were made, I took a quick nap, hopped on the fifteen-hour flight to Hong Kong, and prepped for my extended layover there. Lodging choices were extremely limited due to both price and immediacy, so I inadvertently booked a stay at an Evangelical-Christian Resort called Noah’s Ark. I saw downtown Hong Kong, marveled at the apex of modernity it showcased, and earmarked Victoria Peak for a potential future visit. The next morning, I caught my flight to Bali. And while in line for customs, Joe caught up to me and we were ready to make the most of our trip.
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Bali started smoothly in the beach town of Canggu. Joe’s aforementioned friend (Charlotte) met us on our first day. With enthusiasm displayed in her piercing eyes, Charlotte brought palpable energy with her that livened up the atmosphere. And a surprise was in store for us as Charlotte convinced her friend Brittany and her travel companion Mike to join us the next day spontaneously. Brittany, much like Charlotte, has a certain aura of liveliness about her that you can’t help but feed off. Mike, a former professor who was now traveling after some time as a practicing monk, is thin with short dark hair and a well-trimmed goatee to match. But more noticeable than any physical traits, his presence provides a sense of serene calmness that is both comforting and engaging.
Our group of five was complete, and we spent the next eight days bouncing around locations on the island. Our first destination in Canggu brought with its beaches, parties, and attempts at surfing. After a couple days, we moved north to Ubud, where we did some [sweaty] yoga and chased waterfalls – despite TLC’s advisories.
We even spent a night in a treehouse, imbibing the spirit of the jungle while discussing life’s greatest mysteries. That night, some exciting news did come our way – remember that volcano that was threatening to erupt? Despite its return to dormancy, it started to show signs of volcanic activity… but that was just an afterthought as we continued along our merry way.
Our final destination on the island was south, in Uluwatu. We rented scooters and zipped around the region, taking in the beautiful temples and hidden beaches it provides. For Thanksgiving, we put together our own home-cooked feast of teriyaki chicken, roasted beans, potatoes, and a dessert of Oreos and peanut butter with some wine to boot. It was a special moment, all giving thanks as a makeshift family.
Mike’s words stick with me to this day: he was most thankful not just for our ability to see the world but to do so from the perspective we can. Those words resonate daily with me on my current journey, and I will always be thankful for it.
Saturday night approached, and it was Joe’s time to leave. After sending him on his way, we poured a couple out for our homebound friend before bed. The next morning, I readied myself for my flight home, or so I thought. Turns out, the airport had closed. The volcano had started erupting, scattering ash in flight paths.
I’d have to spend another couple of days in Bali… oh darn.
With our extra time, we headed back up to Ubud for some more yoga and jungle therapy, and I was finally able to try durian on that commute. Though I’ve since warmed to it, at that time, it was the first food I had ever encountered that I couldn’t finish. I believe I described the taste as though rotten onions had been thrown up only to be re-ingested. And despite that raving review, the smell is much worse even than the taste (In fact, due to its noxious odor, it is banned on public transit in Singapore.)
But once we were back in Ubud after another set of canceled flights, we realized that to leave Bali, we may have to be more proactive. Mike, Charlotte, Brittany, and I all rerouted flights out of Bali to Surabaya on the neighboring island of Java. The purpose in their cases was to continue travels, and mine was to make it home.
Mike and Brittany were the guinea pigs: they took a taxi to the Balinese port city of Gillimanuk (five hours), a ferry across to the Javan port city of Batyuwangi (one hour) and a long bus ride to Surabaya (~nine hours).
Easy, right? Charlotte and I had the same plan, but a day later.
Now let me ask you a question: you have a whole day on an island that is blowing up (literally) with a fellow voyager who can keep up with your thirst for adventure and then some… what do you do?
For us, it was a no-brainer: If that volcano was keeping us there, we needed to see it. The plan was to wake up at two AM, hike the neighboring Mount Batur, and take in the sight for ourselves. I had some nerves going into it, though I made sure to keep them to myself – we would be hiking conspicuously close to the evacuation zone after all. We tried to retire early for the night, but I was anxious with anticipation, adrenaline, and a little fear. I barely slept, though I think that’s to be expected of anyone waking up that early. We were prepped and ready when the shuttle picked us up, though I don’t really remember the two-hour ride up to the trailhead. I think there was a breakfast involved, who knows? The drive flew by as I dozed in and out of consciousness.
The Mount Batur hike is advertised as a breathtaking sunrise view, and most locals warned us of the unlikelihood to see it during the rainy season. Unbeknownst to them, the sunrise was the least of our concerns – we wanted to see Mother Nature in all her destructive magnificence.
Still, I maintained the same attitude I’ve echoed in past posts: expect nothing but hope for the best. It would be a unique experience regardless of whether the clouds cleared sufficiently to see the erupting Mount Agung in the distance.
After arriving at the trailhead, our trek group was off on our way, adorned with ponchos and flashlights in-hand. It was rainy and dark, and we were exhausted – but the two-hour hike to the viewpoint seemed almost instantaneous. Once we made it there, we were greeted by other groups who had made the trek, as well as some scavenging monkeys looking for free snacks. It was cold and windy, and the view was underwhelming, to say the least.
While it was still dark out, it seemed visibility would be at a premium; we couldn’t even see the lights from the town below us. It was clear we would not get to see the sunrise, but that wasn’t why we made the trek, rendering it virtually a moot point. I made sure to keep expectations tempered, so after a quick bite to eat, I laid down for a quick nap.
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Charlotte woke me up, and there it was.
At first, it was vague, nearly impossible to see – the fog and clouds were translucent-at-best. But in a few short minutes, the cloud cover dispersed, and we saw it: Mount Agung and its billowing plume of ash.
I’d say the power of that moment rendered me speechless, but that’s a lie. In reality, I couldn’t stop talking about it. Describing the awe-inspiring site can only do it so much justice, but it’s worth a shot: the calm lake below was in deep contrast to the volcano behind it. As the thick cloud of ash slowly rose from Mount Agung, we watched in admiration of nature’s display of grandeur.
Once we claimed the picturesque photo opportunities, took in the site with some furry friends, and even acted as engagement photographers for a newly betrothed couple, we made sure to take our time just enjoying the moment. Nature can be a majestic force, and being so close to such a powerful phenomenon instilled simultaneous feelings of humility and pride. I wanted to etch every part of that moment deep into my memory because I knew that while moments may be fleeting, memories can last a lifetime. Lo and behold, shortly after that, the cloud cover returned, obscuring the view of Mount Agung in the distance.
At that point, we began prepping to leave the site, but only after a quick detour to the top of the crater. During some photo opportunities, a monkey even jumped on my back in an attempt to find some treats. But after some shameless selfies with my long-lost relative, it was time to hike down and head back to our homestay.
However, the airport on Bali was still closed, and I had to get to Surabaya to fly to Hong Kong and eventually return home. We knew the way, but it wasn’t going to be as easy as hoped…
Once we were on our way back to Ubud, it was time to plan our island-hopping to the nearest international airport in Surabaya. But after a long day already (we’d been up since 2 am remember), I decided that first I needed to treat myself to a Balinese massage. Let me tell you, eight dollars could not have been spent better. I met up with Charlotte at a café after, and we plotted our path to escape the island.
Same outline as before: five hours in a cab to the far West end of Bali, an hour-long ferry across to Java, and then a nine-hour bus ride to Surabaya. Since we were starting a little later in the day, we elected to split the travel in two, spending the night in Batyuwangi on Java after the ferry ride.
We had a driver to take us to the Balinese port city Gillimanuk; that much was simple. Once that portion was over, I was excited for a unique experience of crossing the islands on a massive ferry. We often hear of international incidents with these boats sinking, so authenticity certainly wasn’t forsaken on this ride. Charlotte and I were quite popular amongst the locals riding the ferry, and we made cameos in many a photo taken.
It was late once we arrived in Batyuwangi, but we still had a half-hour cab ride to our hostel. We ended up in a taxi with no doors cruising through the East end of Java, because why not? And when we finally arrived and checked-in around 10, I promptly passed out. I’m not too proud to admit that Charlotte was my savior that night, running out to grab some unique Javan street food while I could barely function due to pure exhaustion. We briefly flirted with the idea of a midnight hike to Ijen Crater, but it simply wasn’t in the cards.
And that decision would pay its dividends the next day, which ended up being a lot more complicated than we thought. After waking up, we had the choice of waiting until three PM to catch a direct bus or leaving at ten AM with a few “quick” transfers. Desiring a night in a hotel with showers and an ability to relax, we chose the latter option to try to get into Surabaya a little earlier.
Alas, an “earlier” arrival ended up being no more than a pipe dream. The tally from that day: three transfers, thirteen hours on buses, countless Javan schoolchildren, a couple English speakers, and one specific unventilated bus that happened to be shipping durian – YUCK!!! To note all of that, you could guess that the day was not exactly relaxing. At one point in Jemper, our bus began departure while Charlotte was still at the rest stop. I quickly sprinted up to the front of the bus and sat on the dashboard, shaking my head at the driver hoping he would understand my plea to wait.
But he relented, Charlotte made it back on the bus, and eventually, after the long day, we were nearing Surabaya. Apparently, the day we elected was an Indonesian holiday, and the city of Surabaya (roughly the same size as Chicago) was at a standstill. For almost an hour, we were practically parked until the bus employees decided to take matters into their own hands. While the driver attempted to maneuver the bus, his sous chef in this hell’s kitchen helped navigate him off the crowded entrance ramp (yes, going the wrong way) and onto the exit ramp the opposite side of the highway (that’s also the wrong way for those scoring at home).
Somehow, at around 11 P.M., we had finally made it to the Surabaya bus stop unscathed. Things thereafter were more tranquil, and after some bartering, we took a cab to our hotel for the night. We reveled in our adventure, drinking and feasting on some celebratory room service before retiring for the night.
That morning, Charlotte and I shared our goodbyes, knowing we had found friends for life. It was a bittersweet moment saying goodbye to someone who I had so quickly become close to, but my journey still had one more “moment.”
One of the defining traits of Hong Kong is how the epitome of modern marvel can be so succinctly placed into the natural beauty that surrounds it. I consider it on par with Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town as the embodiments of this juxtaposition. The view of the skyline from Victoria Peak is supposed to be breathtaking, so I knew what it meant when I was granted an extended layover in Hong Kong on the way home; that viewpoint would be my terminus.
On the last day of my travels, I arrived in Hong Kong, checked into my hotel about five kilometers from Victoria Peak, had some lunch, then embarked on the hike to see the sunset from the peak. Most people elect to take the tram up, but friends know me as the guy who thinks any distance is walkable – so naturally, I legged it. It was a great choice despite some difficulty figuring out the trail because despite the relative ease of the hike, it made the reward at the top even more gratifying.
At the pinnacle, I was greeted by the famous view of downtown Hong Kong I hoped to see. It was stunning: as crowded as it was, you cannot pass up this view if you have the opportunity. I watched the sunset in the bay and reveled for over an hour in the splendor around me. After that, I went inside for a quick dim-sum dinner before starting the trek back. Of course, the nighttime skyline had to be absorbed at great lengths before hiking down: the sheer enormity of the city truly escalates upon nightfall.
I would never have guessed that the last “moment” of my trip was still ahead. What I learned that night is that apparently, very few people walk the trail down Victoria Peak after sunset. So, when I started the descent, I put on my headphones (I believe ‘Fitz and the Tantrums’ was my band of choice) and mostly danced my way down the path. But at one moment, I took a pause, realizing I was utterly alone. I wasn’t actually – the city was right there practically within arm’s reach – but not a single person was within earshot in the jungle-esque landscape I found myself in.
That ended up being the climax of my entire escapade: that aforesaid “moment” that overwhelmed me with emotion. The bright lights of Hong Kong were seemingly within grasp, yet I found myself enraptured in serenity. It was a contrast between humanity and nature, a beautiful paradox that literally floored me for a few minutes. I sat up against the façade of the hill, just listening to the silence while seeing the noise in the distance. My senses had never been as heightened as they were then; I still don’t know if it was due to that specific collocation of modernity and nature, a summation of my recent experience, some greater internal realization, or some combination of all those reasons… but I couldn’t have had a more pristine moment with which to end my adventure.
And thus, this chapter, and with it, my three-part series has reached its conclusion. In true Thanksgiving fashion, I must share what my Balinese adventure made me most thankful for: first, Joe, for being that guy I can always count on. But also, I must give thanks to my new friends; I met Brittany, Mike, and Charlotte while they were all amid their own journeys, traveling the world solo for months-on-end. And while people at home may consider me audacious, I was humbled upon our introduction, and even more so once truly getting to know them.
That trip in its entirety (and all the escapades therein) spurred me in a jarring new life path. It laid the groundwork for where I am now. Just two Thanksgivings ago, my mind was opened to the possibilities that could lie ahead. Now, as I undergo this journey on my own, I must give thanks to the people, places, and one particular pesky volcano that guided me down this path.