The Start of a Journey (Day 1): Resistance, Goodbyes, & Following a Dream
08 January, 2023 ~ Selong
The new year has just kicked off. It’s set to be the biggest, yet, personally. Three overland expeditions across thousands of miles traversing historic, ancient routes in Asia — including the one which set-off yesterday.
Together, with professional documentary photographer, Lola Delabays, we’re crossing the Lesser Sunda islands of Indonesia by foot. Having just roadtripped around the entirety of Bali on some of its lesser traveled routes and roads, we’ve decided to taxi from our home in Uluwatu up to Padang Bai in the north, where we caught the public ferry to Lombok.
All went better than planned. The strong ocean current turned what would be a 6-hour jaunt into four hours. The Indonesian ferry system is something less romantic than what one would imagine while island hopping the Indo archipelago. While there is limited room in the air conditioned cabin on-board each vessel, we found ourselves seated at the rear of the boat, on unforgiving metal seats warmed by the sun.
To say we were uncomfortable, though, would be an overstatement. We each took turns napping with our legs stretched across the bench. With a subtle ocean breeze and the setting sun touching our faces just right, I imagined this would be the easiest of our journeys across the Indian Ocean.
Our route will place us on long-haul sea navigations such as the one from Alor Island to western Timor Leste, some 19 hours on-board. This is to say that, even when not rubber-tramping across lush, tropical environments in the middle of the rain season and under the hot sun all at once, we’ll be far removed from a state of relaxed travel.
However, this is what we’ve chosen to do. It’s what I love — and I’m fortunate enough to have a partner such as Lola Delabays who is brave (and crazy) enough to support me in my endeavors. She will be at my side for at least a fraction of our daunting and ambitious journey to Papua New Guinea. Her ability to capture people and places through the lens of her camera is second-to-none. She’s a world-class photographer who joins the expedition to challenge her abilities with her craft and tell stories from a far-removed corner of the Asian continent. Not only that, her will to see every moment with fresh perspective brings me immense inspiration. Already, I’ve made several observations and preliminary conclusions I wouldn’t have arrived at without her. As far as I’m concerned, she’s an irreplaceable asset on our small expedition team.
We received a grand send-off on our last night in the southern surf town of Uluwatu. All of our friends gathered to say goodbye to us for what could be the last time. As is mostly the case in friendships formed between expatriates, you never know if and when those people will leave for new beginnings. We intend on returning to Bali following the trek, but it will never be the same as when we left.
Indeed, it was difficult for us to leave the comfort of our home and friends in Bali to pursuit a journey which remains so unknown to us. We’ve spent countless hours doing our due diligence on what lays ahead, but one can only know so much before he goes.
The islands east of the ‘Island of the Gods’ don’t have the same level of ease and convenience. As a matter of fact, as we tread east, we’ll get more and more remote. Conveniences will all but disappear, we’ll lose almost all food options, and we’ll likely have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable where we sleep.
“I don’t think he understands the struggle they face to find a place to rest their head in the Lesser Sunda’s,” my French friend, Nico, spoke amongst our Uluwatu family.
It could be that we find the odd guest house in some of the strategically-located towns and cities, but even those will slowly vanish. Which means we’ll be leaning on the kindness of strangers to put a roof over our heads.
As well, to make sure we get the nutrients we need to keep us healthy, we’ve packed several large ziplock bags full of key sources of nutrients such as moringa, spirulina, and protein powders. We’ll also rely heavily on coconuts and the optimal minerals its water holds.
I awoke to the call for prayer on the loud speakers of the ferry. When I popped my head up, there was land on both sides of the ship.
“We must be getting close,” I spoke to Lola who had already mapped where she estimated we were.
“Probably around an hour left,” she said. “I’ve already contacted our driver.”
He was to meet us at the Lembar port and drive us the hour-and-a-half to the fishing village of Selong Belanak in south western Lombok — just east of the beginning of the western panhandle of the island.
We arrived at the port in Lembar on the west side of Lombok, nearing sundown. The bridge between boat and land jostled up and down as trucks carrying imports drove across. We took our first steps onto Lombok — a place we were already familiar with and one which made for a comfortable place to start our journey.
Everybody seemed to race out of the port. Not Lola and I, though.
What makes the relationship Lola and I share so easy is what makes me confident in us as a duo on this expedition. Without putting any specific words to it, we just work. The combination is perfectly balanced in every aspect.
What she brings to the table is exactly what I don’t have, and vice versa. Not only that, but our chemistry is unrivaled. Our blood runs warm with the same explorative DNA. The desire in each of us to introduce new perspectives on the places we travel will never subside.
Our life together will always be light-weight and susceptible to big gusts of wind which sweep us in every-which direction. And, yet, we’re never in a rush. Such is the case when you have found your passion and who you want to do it with, with your entire life ahead of you.
This feeling made me feel invincible. After all, I’m not blind to what a luxury it is to have time at your disposal.
So, as tourists and locals, alike, zoomed into Lombok with their surfboards racked up to their scooter’s side or boxes stacked and strapped to the back, Lola and I watched and waited. Patiently. Breathing in the moment as the sun went down.
Such is the way we had the pleasure of meeting Mahn.
“Hi, guys,” he said, finding a place to stand directly opposite us. It was a courtesy greeting, unclear whether or not he had anything else to say.
Coincidentally, Lola and I were on the look-out for our driver. His white goatee hung from his chin down to the first button on his shirt. His eyes were inviting — not always the case in Lombok. He wore a brimless, rounded kufi — as did most Muslim men after prayer in Lombok.
“Excuse me, are you looking for Lola and Adam?” I asked.
“No, I’m waiting for my daughter. She’s arriving from Bali later this evening,” he said with a warm smile.
“I apologize,” I said. “We’re waiting for our driver and thought maybe you were him.”
He turned his body now in our direction and shook his head in disapproval.
“You should talk with your driver once he arrives. This is unacceptable and a bad impression of our island. He is wasting your valuable vacation time,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I assured him. “We’re not in a hurry and we are not on vacation.”
“Well, what are you doing in Lombok?”
I shared our ambitions with him.
“No,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“. . . Yes!” Lola said, now.
“Oh, so it is a joke — surely you’re not walking across Lombok,” Mahn insisted.
“It’s not a joke — and neither is the rest of the trip,” I said.
“In 26 years working with tourists, I’ve never heard something so ludicrous,” he said.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I used to be a tour guide. That is, until 2016 when I retired to start my own farm. I had been leading tourists around the island since the 90s. I had to get used to staying in my home of Lembar.”
“How much do you know about the islands east of here?” I asked, already sizing Mahn up as an excellent guide-to-be for our journey.
“Nothing,” he said confidently. “I never left Lombok. Besides to go to Bali once and I said I would never do it again.”
I was surprised. He seemed like a well-educated, well-traveled man. One which would make an excellent leader of visitors spanning the islands.
“I’m a family man. In Lombok, family is most important. Trust me, many foreigners have asked me to organize their trip and guide them to Sumbawa and Flores — mostly Flores — it is a truly beautiful place. But I told them all ‘no’. They offer a lot of money, but it isn’t about that. In the west, you guys all have entrepreneurial mindsets. You’re business-first people. Here, we must consult our family on everything first. I had three small children in those years; my wife could not manage them if I was gone for weeks at a time. So, I stayed. Now, my children are all grown, but I’m too old. I don’t have regrets.”
We rode south, with windows rolled down and taking in the sights and smells of our surroundings. For the first time since we left, I felt inspired rather than apprehensive.
“Remember this feeling,” Lola told me. “When you’re struggling, like we inevitably will at some points, remember this feeling. When you’re asking yourself why the hell we decided to put ourselves through hell, remember this feeling.”
Even with our excitement, I was having a hard time accepting that we’d be on this journey of relative discomfort for the next several months. Rotting food that isn’t always safe to eat; toilets which are nothing more than a hole in the floor; a general hygienic standard lower than its Hindu neighbors — it’s like staring down a barrel of a shotgun, looking at the next four months of hardship.
“I know this apprehension will subside as soon as we get on our way,” I said. How couldn’t it — this expedition is something I’ve dreamed up for four years.
Ever since I read the insane stories of Levison Wood’s experience walking the length of the Nile River, I’ve been mesmerized by the romance surrounding long overland journeys.
It is exactly what I told my Russian friend, Alex, who asked why we would put ourselves through such hardship as walking thousands of miles across the tropics.
“It’s the most genuine way to travel from A to B,” I told him. “You, us, local people — even animals; we are all able to relate to the notion of putting one foot in front of the other and experiencing life as it passes by on our own two feet. On a bus or train or plane, we’re nothing more than just passing by. Locals feel that and disregard the interactions with tourists just like anyone does short interactions in passing. I believe a person who is walking, witnessing the same things, breathing the same air, suffering through the same environment, and — at least for the length of the expedition — living the same life gets treated more like one of their own. It puts me on the same level as them, so-to-speak.”
“I’m scared for you,” he said with a tear in his eye. “This is not normal. It takes real courage. Remember, you have nothing to prove to anyone. If it becomes too much, just come back to Bali. You have people here who care about you. Even if we only met a year ago, we’re family. I hope that stays with you as you battle your determination the next few months. We are always here, waiting.”
“I would be remiss to say I haven’t questioned the decision to take on this journey,” I told him. “I feel so welcomed and a part of something here. It feels wrong to leave it — not knowing if I’ll ever get to be a part of it again.”
“This is what your heart is telling you to do, and it’s what makes you, you. Whatever happens — whoever is here or not here when you return — it doesn’t change what we shared here. So, don’t let anything here cloud what your heart is telling you. This is your big adventure, and you’ll be so glad you faced it when it’s all over,” Alex reassured me.
It’s too easy to get comfortable in Bali. This thought haunted me for three years as I settled into a life there. Over the course of three long years, I felt myself growing roots for the first time in my adult life. My soul felt conflicted. For nearly a decade, I grew my reputation as the one who never stopped — who never slowed — a rolling stone who jumped from home to home without ever having one.
Then, something changed. One day, I woke up with a desire for stability. For a community. For roots. All of a sudden, Uluwatu was exactly what I craved. And, so, I plotted exactly what that would look like and built it.
But this was happening in direct opposition to my ambitious dreams of becoming a well-known ‘expeditionist’ who, for better or worse, spent a life on foot, at all times, always. With nothing more than a backpack of gear to his name.
The contradiction of where my dreams were pointing and what my heart was telling me was what led me to how I had felt to that point.
However, like I’ve learned many times over, a sunset can change everything. The scene around us came alive at dusk.
Road side fires, burning paper and garbage — surely plastic and rubber — smothered the road in smoke. The further the sun fell, the more ambient the scene got with headlights fighting through smoke.
Men, mostly, seemingly all with motorbikes outfitted with noisy engines, zoomed by us on their way home from work. Women in hijabs carried baskets atop their heads, dodging traffic and watching for holes and cracks in the asphalt — a fine balancing act if I’ve ever seen one. Young children, and I mean all young children, outside and entertaining themselves with what seemed to be the toy-of-the-month in Lombok — clackers.
Horizons painted with mountains as far as the eyes can see; the occasional view of the ocean, showing itself between lines of trees along the road, and, of course, the magnificent colors in the sky.
Suddenly, all my feelings of regret faded. We were in Selong Belanak, finally, after a 13-hour journey and the first time being there in two years. It felt familiar and, for the moment, I felt energized.
“This will all be worth it — for moments like this,” Lola said. “A true adventure never starts until you’ve faced resistance amongst yourself and hardship from the external environment.”