I never realized how loud frogs could be. The first night I slept in Penestanan — a small village near Ubud, Bali where there are no roads, no cars, no street lights — I thought war had broken out. An army of frogs was bellowing and booming endlessly with their rapturous croaking in the rice paddy that surrounded my little three-walled house. I soon realized this aural invasion would happen every night, usually starting around 2am. Having one side of the house completely open to the paddy certainly didn’t help the volume, but that missing wall — that absence, that openness — would prove instrumental to a trip that changed my life.
The fact that the frogs already had me up at 3am made getting ready for my adventure to Mount Batur slightly easier, if not more exhausting. I’d spent the past few days in my little corner of Ubud doing essentially nothing. Some yoga, some reading, lots of just being.
When I landed in Bali, it all felt like a bit of divine intervention. Bali would be the first stop on a several week trip in Southeast Asia. My original plan had been to meet my friend Jo in Singapore, and then we’d travel on to Malaysia and Thailand; but another friend suggested that she and I go to Bali first. Unfortunately, that friend wasn’t able to go in the end, but rather than deferring for another time, I became irrationally obsessed with still visiting this Indonesian island — even though it meant going on my own, and even though I was unemployed at the time and paranoid about every dollar. Something, or someone, was pulling me there (and it wasn’t fantasies of Javier Bardem in Eat, Pray, Love, although I wouldn’t have minded if it was).
Having accomplished very little over the first few days in Bali, I decided that I had to do something notable and big. The sales pitch for Mount Batur was great: hike a volcano to watch the sunrise over a far away mountain and Lombok. When I asked the local telling me about it if my little French tennis shoes (the only non-sandals I had) would be sufficient for this “hike,” he didn’t hesitate: “Yes, no problem!” I so desperately wanted to believe him that I signed up immediately.
A couple of days later, a driver picked me up at an ungodly hour amidst the frog chorus, and we drove for about two hours, leaving my village, the frogs, and heading straight to the base of an epic volcano. To hike it. In the dark.
When we got to the parking lot and tour group meeting area, my driver promptly hired a guide to take me up. I barely understood what was happening, perhaps naively going along for the ride and signing various waivers I was failing to read by flashlight.
The driver introduced me to my guide, Jero, and I was instructed to get on the back his moped. We then rode off to one of the access points for what I’m now going to call the “climb.” As we buzzed along the dusty dirt road in near absolute darkness, all that was going through my mind was, “Well, this is it. No one knows where I am. I have no idea who this guy is or even where he’s taking me. I’m all alone… I have no self-defense skills… I’m an idiot.”
We didn’t ride for long before we parked and started our way up. At the first taste of the incline, Jero told me to take his hand. Cue: eyes bugging out of my head. I thought: “Oh, God. What is this?” Sensing my apprehension, he said, “For safety.” Right, safety, ok, fine. I do like safety very much. With every step and wobbly little rock under my feet — each one of them nearly piercing through my insufficient French tennis shoes — I decided, “Ah, fuck it, I’m here… let’s just go with it.” I took Jero’s hand and up we went.
About fifteen minutes later, near tears and at least an hour from the top, I was ready to go back down.
I couldn’t see where to put my feet. I was slipping on the rocks. I felt totally off balance and out of control. I stammered, “I can’t, I can’t do this!” I insisted, “We have to stop!” I was seriously freaking out.
Jero would stop with me in these moments, especially as my full-on panic attack set in, but then he’d wisely encourage me on by telling me how special the view will be. He’d hold my hand even tighter and show me that he would not let me fall. Cautiously, we’d resume.
Every part of me was uncomfortable. My feet hurt, my mind was racing, my heart had already stopped, I think. And my hand, connected to this other person, felt unfamiliar with such support.
Thinking back on this climb, I wonder if I was more afraid of slipping or of being so desperately in need of another person’s help. I couldn’t stand on my own here, which was the opposite of how I lived my regular life — fiercely independent and terrified of the word “help.” I felt, rationally or not, that my life was truly in this other person’s hands, and that reality shook me more than slipping down any volcano could.
My fear of the word “help” and its very concept was something my mother had instilled in me early on. In the last few years of her life especially, every other word out of her mouth was “help.” “Help me.” “I need help.” “Please help.” Her need for help was not illegitimate, far from it — she was living with borderline personality disorder and was mostly unable to take care of herself. But for me as a teenager then a young adult, these demands for help became a heavy emotional burden. Ultimately, she wouldn’t accept the kind of help she actually needed. And I was living with the fact that I couldn’t help her — or save her — and that hardened me more than I ever wanted to admit.
As we continued to slowly make our way up, Jero told me how he’s done this climb every day for over ten years and how he supports his family with the money he earns here. We talked about Hinduism and his deep faith, all of it wonderfully taking my mind off the matter at hand. He was such a gentle soul that just the sound of his voice calmed me — at least until German and French tourists would zoom past us in their Tevas as if they were in some kind of Euro race for world dominance. Jero and I did not race (obviously), but he did move us along a bit faster now. He wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the sunrise. First light was starting to peak through.
We finally made it up, each of us all in one piece, and positioned ourselves to watch the daily miracle of sunrise. Triumph! Kindly I was offered a small box breakfast and coffee, which helped temper the debilitating fear I felt all the way up to this point.
Jero had been right, of course, this was not something I wanted to miss. The light started to change so dramatically and quickly, revealing different parts of the sky and the earth… I’ve never had such a feeling of watching pure magic before. Pinks, oranges, golds, blues… all amidst rolling clouds and new light.
It was humbling to watch the day begin so beautifully, and suddenly my fear felt childish. I would never want to be so scared that I’d miss something this special. I was able to hold onto that feeling for a few precious minutes; then it was time to head back down.
Impossible to imagine, but I hadn’t really thought about the down part before. It was unbearably worse than the up because now, in all that magnificent sunshine, I could see where I’d fall. I had nonstop news reports running through my mind: “American Woman Falls Off Side of Mountain in Indonesia!” Even holding sweet Jero’s hand, the fear was back and bigger than ever.
At one point, I stopped and sat down on a large boulder. I couldn’t go on. I was having another panic attack. Jero, presumably at the end of his rope with me, said nonchalantly and with complete confidence, “I’ll carry you.”
My body went completely stiff, my head started shaking adamantly from left to right, and I responded without thinking: “Jero, this is probably something I’ll spend a great deal of time exploring in therapy, but the idea of you carrying me is MUCH more terrifying than me having my feet on this wobbly, slippery ground.”
I don’t know if he truly understood what I was saying, but the message was clear (to both of us). From there, we went very slowly, step by step, inch by inch, hand in hand. Trusting, breathing. And no more breaks. Amazingly at that snail’s pace, we were not the last people to the base. Were the last ones down twice or three times my age? Maybe, but we all made it there alive.
I was in such a haze of complete exhaustion when our climb was done, I didn’t want to let go of Jero’s hand — it had become such a powerful, guiding support over the last few hours, and I’d grown so comfortable holding on. But it was time. I thanked him profusely for his patience and his strength until my driver finally directed me to our car. We were now setting off to spend the rest of the day exploring temples, coffee fields, and elaborate, terraced rice paddies. Easy.
I had set out to do something notable and big while I was in Bali, and it’s safe to say I accomplished that mission on Mount Batur. Physically this was the most adventurous and taxing thing I would do here, without question, but emotionally it would prove to be just one small part of a larger awakening I never saw coming. Luckily insufficient French tennis shoes would no longer part of the equation.
To be continued…