Losing my Will

by Ant Stone on May 30, 2008

in Indonesia

The bench was narrow, worn and hard; an echo of the staunch, motionless policeman who sat opposite me. His face was blank, while mine was stained with two hours of anguish. NewsFlashTV flickered muted news on a small screen placed awkwardly high on its rusting bracket – forty police officers were booking two irate female street vendors.

I drew on a Marlborough Light as I watched them hurl chunks of ice, the size of rugby balls at the law. Inside, I was cheering them on.

I took another drag.

Who would I call first? His embassy, or mine? What would I tell his family?

Would I be honest and tell them the locals left him there to die or would I be gentle and tell them of the numerous conversations we’d had about our travels?

At sixty-five, he was too young to die. At any age, he, or I, or you, deserve someone to fight for us.

I pictured myself at his wake; a young wisp of truth sat in the corner, picking at pineapple and cheese sticks while whispers about my background cornered stray rumours. “No Margaret, that’s the boy that was staying at the same place as…”

But then the phone rang.

He was alive.

The events of that day were rapidly laced in bitter truths. A day that began with me realising what the human body is capable of, ended with the stark reality of the capability of the human mind.

The All American Traveller

I met Will — an American nomad — two days prior to this event. He was the only other guest in a Lake Maninjau guesthouse. My Lithuanian friends – Martynas and Juste – were staying at the neighbouring guesthouse. I told them of Will’s ambition to swim the full 8km width of the picturesque crater lake.

That Friday, the owner of my guesthouse, Arè (pron. ah-ray), arranged for a boatman to shadow Will across the lake for a modest Rp150,000 (£8). I saw Arè again early that afternoon while I was heaving my punctured scooter up another gentle hill to a distant mechanic. He looked concerned. It appeared Will had sent the boatman back, but hadn’t yet reached the far shore.

I was surprised, but we went our separate ways.

Danau Maninjau, Sumatra

Will had estimated a five-hour swim; he’d climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, swam regularly and kept healthy. He looked good for his age.

At 18.00 I returned from scooting around and enquired about him. Arè was squatted on the veranda of his house, surrounded by friends and their mainstay packets of cigarettes.

In a brief moment of nervous eye contact he told me, “He no return, he goooo… but he no return.” I told myself that he was joking; that he hadn’t ignored the disappearance of an old man; that he was a wisecracking Sumatran.

After five minutes of chipping questions, the movement in my eyes sloped from a rapid search for truth, to the dimming reflections of light on the far shore of the lake.

It took a thousand urgent pleas, a hundred harsh words and a dozen deep breaths to prise Arè away from his comfort zone and to the local police station, where a long, thoughtful hour preceded the breaking news.

Back at the house, I pierced the membrane of gawking, harassing locals and ushered the half-naked Will inside to wrap his shivering body in clothes.

My eyes feasted on the movements of a face I thought I’d never see again. His eyes seemed lost, somehow too small for their kennel. My sense of relief was incredible.

Will had swum for ten hours through wind and rain.

Less than halfway there his boatman gave up, but the stubborn American swam on.

After reaching his goal, he hitch-hiked 12km back to face Arè, telling him repeatedly, “He left me out there to die man. He left me out there to die.”

The following three hours after his return (ironically, longer than anyone had spent looking for him) were spent appeasing police corruption. This wasn’t a shocking conclusion for me, more a confirmation of where priorities lay.

Climbing Gunung Merapi

Only a “Life & Death” moment could supersede the intended spin of this post.

The fact that a few days previously, Juste, Martynas and myself had tagged a Dutchman named Yop and a local guide to our trio, and at 11pm left the comfort of a quasi-western café to ascend Gunung Merapi (Mountain of Fire); an active volcano just shy of 3000ft near Bukittinggi in West Sumatra’s Minangkabau heartland.

Aided by faultless moonlight and a faltering MagLite we headed up the steep pathway of the natural world, tripping over roots in an illusory event.

We were assured beforehand that the trek was easy, but this was tough to the end. A Class-A grind.

Sitting between the tree-line and the steep cap of loose rocks that’s screwed to Merapi at 4am; eating pot noodles; drinking weak whisky (partly celebrating Martynas’ birthday, partly keeping warm); surrounded by new friends in a country I barely knew was gratifying enough, but the moment I summitted, my mind erupted with elation.

The summit was exactly how I imagine the moon to be: a rolling grey landscape, where occasional small peaks tempt you further, bread-crumbed in rocks and surrounding not one, but four or more smoking abysses. When I dared stand on the brink, I instantly fantasised about the middle of the earth, about the beautiful face of destruction, about all the things I’ll never know.

Reaching the highest peak of a volcano at 6am, while fluffy white clouds separated me from my reality-based world was incredible. The backs of my heels were being clipped by a full moon strung above the distant volcano, Gunung Singgalang.

My fixated eyes snagged on the first rays of the new sun, as it punched in for the day with her suitably soft, warm and fiery colours. That moment is untouchable; it’s all the Arsenal’s goals, it’s all the pints with all my mates, and it’s all the kisses with all the girls.

In less than seven days, Sumatra has subtly influenced the rest of my life.

I’m not about to retreat into the jungle and live with my cuddly orang-utan girl, pick my teeth with bamboo and write The Trail through inventive caws and clicks.

By putting me back in my place, the moments find their definition.

As a traveller in Asia, you’re perceived as being privileged. Subsequently you’re treated like pseudo-royalty.

Some doors are opened so widely they almost lose their hinges, while some are discreetly shut so the devils of distaste are not reared.

This episode, allowed me to see that I am merely a strange foreign man, amongst locals.

I preached this, I believed this, I felt this and now, I know this.

That a man could be so easily disregarded — in front of my very eyes — was a powerful moment. That, I can stand on the threshold of the centre of the earth, and drink whisky with relative strangers without fear of the same trick, is another notch in a journey of interesting contrasts, powerful paradoxes and mystifying mystery.

My bagged and backpacked eyes have seen clashing cultures, dictating traditions and guiding wisdom. I don’t always fall for it, I don’t always respect it, but I’ll always learn from it.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Nomadic Matt June 2, 2008 at 1:26 am

woah. that’s a crazy story. why did the boatman turn back?

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Ant June 3, 2008 at 7:36 am

Will says he was just plain lazy, it turned out later the boatman had been paid upfront so he just took the opportunity and literally sailed off with the money.

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