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indonesia

INDEPENDENCE DAY

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INDEPENDENCE DAY

“Meet at 7. Bring swim trunks for the boat trip and a jacket for the volcano. We’ll buy beer, dogs and burgers on the way and I’ll supply the gas-masks. I have 11 of them.”

This was the WhatsApp text we received from our half-Javanese, half-American comrade named Chris the night before the Fourth of July in Bali, Indonesia. Raised both in Texas and Jakarta (with some schooling in Santa Barbara) Chris looks quite Indonesian but sounds a little-to-a-lot like Owen Wilson. He’s also a real pill too, and while the Fourth of July should mean absolutely nothing within the Islamic Republic of Indonesia — Chris was out to change that.

We’ll get to the gas-masks…

The following morning Chris (pretty much our trip ring-leader) shows up to the meeting spot with his girlfriend an hour late and severely hung-over from the night before. A few other couples show up too — mostly young Americans living in Bali that wanted a piece of this patriot-party — plus a Russian girl…and Chris’s mom (also a real firecracker, no pun intended.)

After driving four hours across the island to the other side of Bali, we arrive at a boat (Chris’s mom’s boat), hop in and do the Fourth of July-abroad proper. It is a proven scientific fact that a successful Fourth requires a boat, a body of water and a BBQ and we had all of the above, plus another couple from Texas (the most ‘Merican of Americans) who had the audacity (genius) to start an authentic Texas-style smokehouse BBQ restaurant here in Bali which is killing it, by the way.

So we motor into a small island between Bali and Java, turn up some American tunes at a culturally-respectful level (definitely no louder than the Muslim call-to-prayers blaring from the Java-side), fire up the grill, start crushing beers, do a couple backflips off the boat and stuff our face with hot dogs until we feel sick.

That evening, we dock at a hotel on the edge of East Java at the foot of Mt. Ijen volcano and Chris orders us all to be up and ready to trek by 3am. And that, again, he had ample gas-masks for all.

“Why…3am, Chris?” I ask.

“So we can see the blue-flame in the crater,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“And why…gas-masks?” I also ask.

“Because of the sulfuric gas,” he says even more matter-of-factly.

It wasn’t easy but we hit the trail at the designated (psychotic) pre-dawn-hour, and march up a path at the base of the semi-active Mt. Ijen volcano. Other volcanoes rumble violently in the distance, one of which (to this day) is diverting, delaying, and plain cancelling flights on Bali. Something about volcanic ash in the air that can suck into planes’ jet-engines and convert into molten glass.

After a grueling couple of hours, all up-hill, the sun-rises quicker than we’d anticipated, thus glimpsing that ubiquitous “blue flame” in the crater was out of the question. We opt to take the trail down toward it anyway to see the magnificent, electric blue crater-lake up close. Suddenly, the wind shifts and yellow sulfuric-smoke billowing from one corner of the crater consumes us. This was what the gas-masks were for and we slip them on like it’s a Cuban-missile-crisis-era bomb-drill.

And then we see a sight that has us dumbfounded. Trudging through the yellow gas, dozens and dozens of small, wiry local men lug buckets of sulfur rock from the crater, the weight bending the bamboo that counterbalances each pail on their shoulders. They’re literally heaving these rocks up the slippery volcanic trails, through the thick sulfuric smoke and then all the way down the volcano to the base — mask-less. It’s a humbling spectacle, especially since 10 hours earlier we were literally booze-cruising a few miles from this slice of human suffering. The wind shifts, the smoke clears, and we gladly leave our 11 gas-masks and goggles with gracious new owners.

as seen on Fjallraven.com

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MONKEY BUSINESS

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MONKEY BUSINESS

“Should we be worried about the volcano?” I ask our guide Ren, reaching down to give Rachel a hand as we climb up a slippery mountain trail. Texts and emails had been flooding our inboxes with subject lines like, “R U OK??” or “Sumatra Volcano??” Apparently it’s been all over the world news, with tens of thousands of Sumatran residents being evacuated from their homes. Falling ash, impending doom, death from above…with no one round here saying a word about it. 

Ren looks back at me blankly like, “Which volcano, again?” 

“Mt. Cinnabun,” I say, informatively.”

“Oh, Mt. Sinabung?” he corrects. He mulls it over for a second and shrugs it off like, “What-evs.” Then he puts his finger to his mouth to quiet us and glares up at the rainforest’s canopy. “I think Julie is here,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “…but I hope not Mina.” The twinkle vanishes.

We are hiking through the thick and steamy Gunung Leuser National Park near Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra tracking wild orangutans, by the way, and only a couple hours in. We follow narrow, sometimes unrecognizable footpaths that weave through the lush rainforest, loud and alive with cliché-like jungle sounds. Apparently there are even Sumatran tiger sightings now and then, a critically endangered predator on the verge of extinction. Our guide, Ren, and his young son sandwich Rachel and I, pausing every so often, both to catch their own breaths and to listen to the trees that might shake with a heavy, redheaded primate.

Ren looooves orangutans. Ren’s also the kinda guy that eats his fried rice lunch with his fingers, then snaps a photo of you with his ipad and seconds later, smugly says, “Already uploaded to Facebook,” with a look on his face like, how easy was that? He licks the remaining sauce off his fingers. Ren has also named quite a few of the orangutans we’re tracking too. He speaks fondly of Julie and Sandy, smiles and shakes his head when talking about Jackie and her child, but Mina — not so much.“Mina is mean. Very aggressive,” he says with a frown. “I hope we don’t see her…Mina bite.”

“Like, Mina bites often?” we ask, a little concerned. 

“Maybe once a month, once a week in high-season,” Ren says, scanning the forest cautiously. “She has bitten me before.” He rolls down his sock and shows us a nasty scar. So, it’s personal. Also I’m pretty sure it’s the high-season.

Suddenly there’s a rumble directly above us. We crane our necks straight up and an orange-haired mass descends toward us at an alarming pace. There’s a tense moment where I can tell Ren is glaring at the creature in the tree to get an I.D. and then bursts into a smile, “It’s…Sandy! With her baby!” He glows, proudly. He reaches into his backpack and hands Rachel a banana. “Share with them.” 

Rachel takes a piece of the fruit, moves a couple of steps forward and the two women reach out to one another, Sandy with a small child clinging to her chest. The orangutan’s hand grazes Rachel’s softly, taking the banana. One of those beautifully wild and pure moments in life. 

We continue on for a few more hours and eventually see Jackie, a nameless large alpha male, a man getting attacked by a swarm of bees, and, luckily, not Mina. We also find out that Mt. Cinnabun is less than 50 miles away from the park. C’mon, Ren!?

as seen on Fjallraven.com

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ILLUMINATI COWABUNGA!

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ILLUMINATI COWABUNGA!

A total of eight guests at a time cycle through the joint over here at the Telo Island Lodge in 10-day stints and we were told that the next group would be eight Kiwis (New Zealanders). We were not told, however, that the Kiwis would be eight 50-year-old, highly successful family men of poor-to-novice surfing ability on their yearly let-it-all-hang-out Boys Trip blowout. Both the group and the surf before them was a lot tamer, to say the least. It was like these men literally stirred up a swell as they drifted into the lagoon, already 24-Bintangs-deep in the speedboat.

They called themselves “The Muppets” and god dammit, the Muppets came in HOT. An Aussie surf guide at the lodge whispered to us disbelievingly, “I can’t believe they call themselves that — being called a ‘muppet’ in Australia or NZ is worse than being called a f--king idiot!” The Muppets, however, gave zero shits about that. In fact, they reveled in the self-deprecation — which for a group of self-made millionaires (and billionaires) is pretty amazing. And the Muppets are full-on. Like G-6 owning, lunch with pro-rugby coaches, private island-owning, investment banker-type dudes. New Zealand’s Illuminati. OK…maybe not that influential, but the Muppets sure had some stories and over the next week, we’d get to know each other quite well.

For instance, one Muppet is NZ’s leading real estate lawyer. Another is rumored to have made his fortune selling arms in Africa and commonly hunts big game there by crossbow. Another is an avid fisherman who’s been to Marlon Brando’s lost Tahitian island and fished, surfed and partied with Brando’s deranged half-Polynesian son, the sole resident in the overgrown, defunct resort there. That same Muppet came in from fishing the other day doing the haka (Maori warrior dance) on the top of the moving boat because of a successful catch and, well, eight Bintangs.

 

Indeed the Muppets give it hell. Each night they turn up The Who or The Rolling Stones or 3 Dog Night and dance and rage the night away. Rachel and I partake in the revelry, too, of course. It’d be disrespectful not to. Plus, when one of the Muppets breaks their indecipherable code of ethics, punishment is a gang beating called “Kick the Dog,” where the transgressor gets (thrown) on the ground and kicked in the fetal position for 5-10 seconds. This has happened a few times and they’ve made it clear to us that Americans aren’t exempt.

Out in the water they call their surfing performances “carnage.” There’s boards flying everywhere, Muppets getting sucked over the falls and every day they come in from sessions bloody from a new run-in with the reef. Which is actually kinda great for me and the guides because we can pretty much get any wave we want. I will say their level’s gotten increasingly better with each day. Just warming up, I suppose.

Our last day at the lodge is tomorrow though before we head to Bali and apparently they’re planning a themed night of debauchery (that they do every annual Muppet’s Trip) called Pirate Night. Every one of the Muppets is an A-plus human being and are practically family now; we will miss them dearly, that’s for sure. Thus, we will burn this f--king place down with them tomorrow. And hopefully…miss the plane out.

As seen on Fjallraven.com

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HUNK PILOTS

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HUNK PILOTS

The aircraft’s nose tips forward and suddenly we descend toward the Telo Islands off North Sumatra, Indonesia. The sky is a lovely pale blue and through the small windows cartoon-like desert islands litter a turquoise sea, but at the moment I’m kinda wondering: Who farted?

We’re in a 12-seater prop jet — a bold move, I must say — and I turn to Rachel, holding my nose and ask, “Baby, was that you?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head quickly like, of course not.

I look toward the cockpit suspiciously. Two handsome studs of the Bavarian stock. A couple of hunk pilots. It had to have been one of them. They boarded all 12 of us so smugly they didn’t even read us the in-case-of-emergency directions, which frankly had me wondering if that just meant, If something goes wrong, don’t worry, you’re f--ked. Rachel expressed that she was worried our bags were too heavy. “I don’t want another Aaliyah-situation,” she told me, the night prior. Surely one of those hunks must’ve let one slip. The co-pilot has been texting pretty much the entire flight from Sumatra. I wonder if he was on a group-chat like I am with my friends. Or, if he was just texting the pilot beside him. Had Mexican last nite, these passengers r bummedddd, LOLZ. I swear one them winked at Rachel as she climbed up the plane’s stairwell.

I will say they’ve gotten us to Telo island soundly where upon an Australian named Dave intercepted us, zipping us out to Telo Island Lodge, a short boat ride away. We drift into a lagoon framed by two pinnacle-like rocks and before us, the lodge sits on a sleepy patch of beach front paradise. In front of the lagoon, a perfect righthander peels with the dropping tide and apparently there’s half a dozen other amazing surf breaks not far from here.

Immediately three local boys swarm us smelling fresh meat. “Hello mis-tah! You buy shell? Neck-lace? Carving?” I tell them maybe but the leader of the pack, Adam, is a savvy young businessman and wants verbal confirmation in the form of a definitive “yes.” Adam is a true closer and I respect that but I tell Adam, “we’ll see.” Adam pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head, annoyed, and starts to work on Rachel. Adam and I might be off to a bad start but the boys are shooed away by the bartender/resident D.J. (Freddie) who hands us two Bintangs…at 10 o’clock in the morning. I suppose that does make it 8pm yesterday in California, though. We cheers beers and settle into lodge life.

As seen on Fjallraven.com


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