May 19, 2011

Fire Mountain

Posted in Friends, Travel, Writing at 9:58 PM by moxiemuse

Mount Merapi, Indonesia

The seats are thin and the rough parts are keenly felt as the bus rumbles its way along the multi-potholed road to the monument park. Even through the dust and grime of the unwashed windows, we can see Borobodur in the distance and it grows more imposing as our rag tag group of intrepid travelers approaches it. Chrissy turns to me, her eyes full of anticipation and wonder. We smile and giggle and, as is our routine, she links her pinky finger with mine and whispers, “Hey Boo, we’re almost there.” Today is our last Tuesday together before we part ways on Friday; Chrissy heading for a week of silent journal writing on the tranquil island of Lombok and me, reconnecting with Rory, an old lover, for a weekend tryst in a tucked away hotel in the city by the bay.

It’s our last hoorah in an adventure-soaked 7 weeks, backpacking through the various nations that make up the land we know as Asia. A pilgrimage to this 8th century Buddhist shrine was a highlight when we planned our journey back in August. As a lapsed Catholic (sometimes I even refer to myself as ‘recovering’) and Chrissy, an avowed atheist, we’re as far removed from the practice of Buddhism as you can get, yet Borobodur tugged at us, making sure we secured a day for it in our packed itinerary. No other site we’d planned to tour elicited as many oohs and aahs amongst all the pictures we scanned in our travel guides as Borobodur did.

I pull at Chrissy’s linen shirt at the crook of her elbow, signaling her to hold back; the tour guide’s canned chatter about the place grating on my nerves when all I long for is to approach it in reverent silence. She follows my lead and slows her pace, falling in next to me. Too late, I begin to feel that sense of overwhelm when I’m in the midst of sacred space, where my voice catches in my throat and I feel tears forming all too readily. I let the teary streaks strip my sunscreen and I send myself a quick reminder to reapply when we stop in the shade. We stop and give the guide his due as we listen to the history of the monument at the threshold of the entrance. He explains it is a monument to Lord Buddha and the Buddhist cosmology. It is composed of six terraces reaching 9 stories high, with 3 levels representing the stages of growth between the 1st level Earth to the 3rd level known as Nirvana, each level lined with Buddha statues, 504 in total, signifying the many incarnations of Siddhartha before he becomes enlightened, the being we know as Buddha.

Borobodur, Buddhist monument, Indonesia

The guide, reminding us to follow close so we won’t get lost through the monument, waves us in. I hang back, taking a long, slow walk around one side of the first level, Earth. Chrissy pulls an orange from her daypack, telling me she wants to drop the peel into the trash can before we ascend. I wait for her, walking over to the wall of the first terrace, running my hand over hundreds of bas relief panels lining the bottom level, scenes depicting the Buddhist doctrines and stories from Javanese life. Chrissy finishes and we quickly catch up with our group, happy to be the caboose. We soon fall into a steady rhythm. We pause frequently along the way, everyone making good use of their Canons and Nikons. Wanting to respect the majority of Muslims we knew we’d encounter, we wore long everything and even though it’s still early morning, we’ve already drenched our long-sleeved shirts, sarongs, and hats with sweat. The much-needed shade offered by the plethora of stupas and statues lining the 5 KM ascent to the top is of small comfort as our pace picks up, the group desperate to reach the top and back before high, blistering noon.

I stumble, and quick-as-a-wink to steady me, Chrissy holds my hand as we clear the last step together at the top level. We lean together against a large statue, catching our breath and waving our paper fans at one another. Our guide natters away, performing his duties to a T, the Westerners among us hanging on his every word. I turn to look at what we’re leaning against and am surprised to see a Buddha statue with the hand position of a peculiar mudra. Puzzled, I call over our guide who identifies the mudra as dharmachakra, and explains Buddha is turning the Wheel of Law or Wheel of Dharma. He starts to drone on and in the 40+ Celsius degree heat, I soon lose interest. Without appearing too conspicuous, I look around the terrace for Chrissy and notice a very worried expression on her face as she comes running over. She turns and points to the darkening sky, the clouds more ominous than we’ve seen during the many tropical storms we’ve encountered since we’ve been here.

Suddenly, the guide from the other tour comes toward me and our guide, raises his hands heavenward, and shouts “Merapi” and a lot of incomprehensible words. Not understanding a word of Indonesian in this heated exchange, I lean past Chrissy to have a better look at all the fuss. Despite the copious clouds obscuring some of the park, I can still make out Prambanan, the 9th century Hindu temple, and other landmarks. I spot a few ruminants grazing diagonally on the nearby hills, and make a slow sweep over the lush vegetation of the ever-present jungle. I notice the clouds are getting ever nearer, more rapidly than I’ve ever seen clouds move. I make out a growing red zone, gauging the distance about 5 or 6 kilometers away. Meanwhile, I hear Chrissy ask the guides why they keep using the English phrase, “shaggy goats”. I hear them tell her it means, “hot ash clouds”. In a voice I know is calm on the outside and sheer terror on the inside, Chrissy asks if the volcano is erupting. Both guides are silent for a very long moment, then without warning, they spin on their heels and tear off the terrace like banshees. Stunned, Chrissy and I remain motionless, realizing we’ve just been abandoned.

In the 5 or 10 minutes that have passed while we’ve been talking to the guides, we turn to our right and just then, catch the tail-end of the pandemonium that has ensued; the two tour groups scrambling over stupas, frantically trailing behind their freaked out guides. We turn to one another, the panic seen but unspoken. I smell the smell of an awful type of burning matter. I pull my long ponytail in front of my face and see many singed ends. My eyes are burning and I rub them, noticing the many eyelashes which have come off onto my knuckles; the falling ash, the cruel culprit. I touch the crucifix at my neck, un piccolo ricordo from my baptismal, revived as a talisman for this trip. Chrissy tucks her hair behind her neck and into her shirt then yanks the bodice up and over her face, covering her nose. I follow suit. As if time has stopped for us and I’ve been given a split second to act, I feel for Chrissy’s right pinky and pull her next to me then, and, as one, we sprint.

We hit hard surfaces and pointy ones as we head down, navigating the massive shrine which feels more like a maze in the ink that now passes for our 10 AM sky. We bump and grind into some humans, too; even accidentally stepping on some anonymous limbs in our haste to reach terra firma.

Screams echo in my ears as we pass strange bodies now lining the terrace walls as we continue our descent. The same walls I admired what seemed like mere minutes ago. Through muffled breath, I come to understand that Chrissy wants to put her hat on. I don’t ask why. Unbeknownst to her, I lean slightly into her and the stench of singed hair makes me want to vomit. Back in our B&B this morning, I had begged Chrissy to put her hat on and protect her fair, albeit now-tanned skin and blond curls from the hot sun. But she laughed when she stood up from the breakfast table, daring me instead to beat her to the window seat on the rickety bus. Damn her! If she’s not playing the rebel, she’s fine-tuning her tease.

I feel Chrissy’s familiar pinky now hooked back in mine as we continue our trek. I’d grabbed a quick sip from my water bottle when we stopped, trying to stem the coughing spasms despite the almost full-face cover of my cotton V-neck. A corner of my brain tells me I’ll always remember what hot ash on my nostrils, lips, tongue, and down my throat feel like.

I catch a glimpse of the oozing lava spewing from Mt. Merapi. A bloody, angry gash in the flesh of the Being the locals call “the mountain of fire”. The raging river of molten rock is the only spot of color I see. It happens to be red. Until then, my favorite hue in Mother Nature’s palette.

I pull my hat down a little tighter on my head, a small semblance of protection from what is raging all around us. Down, down, down the spiraled terraces we go, time having stopped again and I can’t tell how long we’ve been trying to get off of this temple. Someone jostles me and my left breast makes contact with some kind of hand. It must be Lord Buddha, his hand outstretched, some mudra captured immobile for eternity. I begin to wonder if anyone will ever see this hand again. Its then that I release the 18 KT gold Jesus I’d been gripping under my shirt and choose a new savior. Does Lord Buddha hear, and more importantly, answer the prayers of non-Buddhists or former Catholics even? I don’t know and I don’t care. I mean, I do, but the itchy-burny feeling on my toes and ankles and calves move front and center for my attention now.

I no longer feel the decorated walls pressing in on me, my first-ever claustrophobia quickly fading. I wiggle my toes. The familiar river stone under my feet is replaced by ash atop dirt, almost touching the bottom of my knee caps. We’re outside the temple.

I think my pinky is about to be torn off as Chrissy decides to make a run for it, knee-deep in ash or not. Now my shout is muffled as I cry, Where are we going? I can’t see. This time, her impatience overtakes mine. We’re trudging, one leaden foot in front of the other. Endless trudging. That’s the best I can describe what we’re doing. Like in snow, except burning heat in place of freezing cold. Why, oh why, hadn’t we worn pants, or socks even? I’d said, at the breakfast table no less, that it was too hot for pants today. Touche, I think, squeezing Chrissy’s pinky just a little tighter.

I feel it. I’m sure Chrissy does, too. I squeeze her pinky again, as if to remind myself she’s still there. And then, she isn’t. She must have slipped, her knees wobbling as much as mine. That was definitely an earthquake and now she’s gone. I lost my balance and I let her go. I know she’s close but the terror-yells of the tourist hoards are drowning out any possibility of hearing Chrissy’s voice. The same voice that used to sing to me in the pool as I swam laps after my surgery. The same one that sang Edelweiss when my heart was in pieces and surely unmendable. I flail. Arms, feet, knapsack swinging, hoping she’ll catch a corner of me.

Her nails dig into the toes on my right foot, bare in open-toed Teva sandals. Then, her forearm brushes my ankle. Oh, she’s down. Wait. She’s really down. Down there. Gaia opened and swallowed Chrissy.


They say mothers can lift the back of cars if their child happens to be under a wheel. That same strength came my way in that moment. 124 pounds of friend, hoisted with ease. With the amount of ash on her, it seems the crevice is as deep as she is tall, all 4 feet 11 of her. I shake the ash from her clothes and hair and face. She’s limping. She’ll be OK. She’s a trooper. I put my arm around her and hers around me. The scalding ash had all the unprotected real estate of our faces now. It didn’t matter. We were together again.

An eternity passes. We run into the picnic table. We put our packs on it, knowing we didn’t have much time and that the buses might leave without us. The sky seems lighter now and silently, Chrissy pulls her camera from her pack. Always one for the Kodak moment, she snaps a few. Wordlessly, I think she feels what I feel: this might be our last.

Another eternity passes. We find our bus. The last one in the lot. He’s careening out of the exit. The driver refuses to stop until a strong Oklahoman forces him to.

The staff at the Yogyjakarta B&B know our truth. Merapi’s mark is all over us. They rush over, fussing, and taking our packs to our room. I ask for a Tensor bandage for Chrissy’s ankle. I bandage it while she lies back, exhausted and in pain. I give her 3 Extra-Strength Tylenol and some water. She strips naked and rolls under the covers.

We’re awake but we don’t yet know we slept 19 hours without waking. A miracle from my bladder if there ever was one. We shower. We dress. We walk out to the grand lanai, famished. If I remember correctly, I think Chrissy’s diary looked as undisturbed as mine, glancing at it as I headed out for breakfast. We sit down, opening the menus. I’m ready to order.

I follow Chrissy’s gaze now. She’s looking at the TV as breaking news appears in graphic detail. Her face contorts. 27 dead. Untold numbers missing. Hundreds of cattle, mutilated, dead, and some missing, too. Farms and homes and lives, devastated. The most active volcano in the Indonesian archipelago has come alive and destroyed all manner of beings and things in her wake.

We leave our table, breakfasts untouched. I pack. Chrissy packs. We have 4 more days. It’s understood we need to go now. I hold her with all my might. Her face is a blur, the tears unstoppable. It is November 24th, 1994, two days after Mt. Merapi blew her top. We take separate buses to the airport.

Our last conversation about Indonesia was with the tour guides. We never talked about what happened or showed each other pictures of that fateful day. We left our story, buried in the ash. San Francisco and Lombok beckoned.


May 18, 2011

Have Lipstick, Will Ride

Posted in Motorcycle, Spirit, Travel, Writing at 6:47 PM by moxiemuse

There was never a why, just a when. It always came down to time and desire. For me, it was both, simultaneously. Not a chicken or egg-type deal. The right time and the right amount of desire had come together at last. What am I talking about? Why, riding solo, of course! 

First, it was riding back of boyfriend’s bikes. They loved the look of me in red lipstick and black leather. So did I but it was not meant to be. Then it was a pack of friends renting mopeds on the Greek isle of Paros for our 30th birthdays. No sooner was I on the moped than I was off again, unfortunately, not upright. I accelerated too quickly, hit a curb, and fell heavily on my bare shoulder. A big ouch and lots of loud, colorful language didn’t deter me from riding with the Viper Queens, as we called ourselves. I knew someday I had to master this mechanical horse and learn to ride with confidence. The wind in my hair, bugs in my teeth, and the feeling of freedom never left me.

Years passed and the longing returned. Tired of sighing over a beautiful BMW ad and after many attempts to convince my husband to ride, I figured it was my turn. I did my research diligently – using sales brochures, browsing the Internet, chatting up sales associates, and listening intently to the stories of other riders and their bikes. Then, I signed up for the safety course in October and passed with (almost) flying colors. It was time; I was ready to roll.

In the spring of 2001, I placed my order with the happy salesman, sight unseen, and threw caution to the wind. I’ll never forget the day I picked “her” up. I stared in bewilderment as the salesman rolled her out toward me. Sparkling in the noonday sun, her shiny red and black coat made my heart skip a beat. The great mass of chrome and leather loomed so large and ungainly that I felt sure I’d drop her the minute I mounted. Alas, she held steady for me as I revved the engine loudly for all those within earshot to hear. Ah, her pipe noise was music to my ears. Wow, I thought, she’s truly mine.

My husband Jason beamed as he stood next to our friends who had come down to the dealership to witness my excitement. “She’s a beauty,” exclaimed Sandra, who was thrilled I had chosen a Suzuki similar to her cruiser. I christened her, “Vixen the Volusia”. Suzuki’s latest model was named after Volusia County in Florida near Daytona Beach where all the new models are introduced every spring. As for “Vixen”, the name brought me back to those carefree days in Greece and my virgin solo ride.

Enough posturing, it was time to take my iron steed for a spin around the parking lot. My hands were clammy, my forehead dripped from the beads of perspiration that had formed, and my ever present lipstick was starting to chap. She seemed too heavy to turn and awkward to steer at first but soon, she was like putty in my hands. She responded to my every whim. I looked at my husband as I approached the turn and mouthed, “She’s a keeper!”

Now the true test: out on the open road. Leaving the dealership in the dust, I lead the pack down rural West Valley Highway. Fortunately, the spring rains and blustery winds had died down the night before and brought sunshine for my inaugural ride. It was thrilling to feel the cold bite my cheeks. The more I rode, the more I felt Vixen and I getting into the groove.

I did not ride far that day. I didn’t need to. I had allowed pure bliss to permeate under my skin and take hold. It was a good feeling to finally feel my own bike beneath me. The sensation of freedom was indescribable yet evident on my face. Pulling up to an intersection, the driver in the next lane took a long slow look at Vixen and nodded his approval. Giddy, I smiled broadly so that he could see I was a girl with bright red lipstick. Surprised, he grinned back and waved as I sped away.

Soon, Vixen and I bonded as we travelled wherever my heart and her sturdy frame could carry us. After a few long weekend rides, I planned some week-long rides. From 2002 to 2004, I rode around the Olympic Peninsula and into the Hoh Rainforest, down to Mt. Shasta and the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, took a few ferry rides and sped along some good twisties to hang out in Tofino relaxing at the Wickaninnish Inn, and a tour through Washington and Idaho’s enchanting lakes. 2005 was coming up fast and with it, my 40th birthday. It was my husband’s 50th that year, too, and he surprised me with a two-week 4-star trip to Egypt. Wow, that was hard to top but I decided I still wanted to do something on my own. Well, not truly alone because I knew Vixen would want to be by my side. I wanted to taste the fun—just  me, my red lipstick, and the open road.

I planned to attend a conference in Salt Lake City so what better way to travel than to ride? It was my first cross-country ride–a 2500 mile loop through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Oregon. I left during a downpour in mid-July. The rain and hail (yes, hail) continued unabated for three straight days. Each morning, the hotel guests marveled how I could gear up and head out in monsoon-like weather. I would always smile, apply some red lipstick, gear up with my Gore-Tex clothing, and head out. I have to admit that even I got tired at the end of Day 3 and at one point near the Montana/Wyoming state line, I swerved off the highway, dismounted Vixen, lifted my arms skyward, and shouted, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

After getting that frustration off my chest, I endured 300 more miles of thunder, lightning, and yes, more hail. Days 4 and 5 turned me into a lounge rat, sitting in Jackson Hole drinking as much lemonade as I could get my hands on, writing postcards to disbelieving friends, and drying out. Having made it thus far, I needed a treat and the town delivered in spades. My AMEX became friends with a charming piece of bling for my right index finger, a large turtle shell Indian rattle, and a travelogue about the Navajos of the Southwest. Day 6, I arrived in Salt Lake in 110 degree heat. Talk about climate change. This called for shopping in an air-conditioned mall hunting for a new coral-colored lipstick with SPF of at least 15 that would soon make itself into my oh-so-fashionable tank bag. That’s “purse” in motorcycle lingo.

Four days in cooled conference rooms made the learning part easy so when we wrapped up, I was ready to roll home. I left at 8 PM and it was still 90 degrees. Coming from the Pacific NorthWET, that was new for me. The temperature hovered near there until I reached Twin Falls. Fortunately, I had made reservations at the Super 8 otherwise; I would have been in big trouble. Massive forest fires forced State troopers to close the main highways and everyone was forced to hole up in hotels which were booked solid. I was one of the lucky few who didn’t have to sleep in their cars that night. Vixen and I rode in companionable silence all the way to Walla Walla and our favorite grand hotel there, The Marcus Whitman. Wanting another treat but not needing more lipstick, I meandered through the town’s boutiques, partook of some local winery tours, and later, enjoyed a relaxing massage. That day was a perfect end to my first cross-country tour.

Fast forward to spring 2011, where I finally had some spare time and decided that my long-planned tour to and through the Southwest—18 days and 3400 miles—would finally become a reality. The scenery ranged from bucolic stretches of Oregon farm country, snowy Wasatch Mountains, kitschy Four Corners, tumbleweed-infested New Mexico, windy Colorado, culture-soaked Hopiland, the stunning red rocks of Sedona, and unremarkable northeastern Nevada. Vixen weathered a few lost parts on the way down and on the way up, I endured a large rock flying into my face (long story), cracking the visor in half. A requisite amount of blood and tears were the norm that day but since I had only 250 miles left, I cleaned up, applied a fresh coat of lipstick, and set Vixen’s compass for home sweet home. The last leg was uneventful and just what I needed to complete my trip of a lifetime.

The trials of the open road are ever-present yet I know when it beckons, Vixen and I are ready.