In 2012, I traveled through parts of Southeast Asia and visited Bali. I trekked up Mount Batur, a volcano, to watch the sunrise. It’s still one of my most treasured travel experiences to date. I remember it like it was yesterday.
It’s 1:30 in the morning and I’m standing outside in the courtyard at my homestay in Ubud, Bali. It’s dark and the air is cool. The sun hasn’t yet sunk into everything it touches. The dim lighting the courtyard casts shadows in the dark corners. I can’t see the birds perched in their cages, but I can hear them whistling, their eyes watching me as I circle the courtyard.
Is it going to be just me driving with a stranger to a volcano in the middle of the night? What did I sign up for?
I’m weighing the possible negative outcomes of going on this excursion alone when a couple make their way around the corner. My apprehensions and fears are instantly allayed. A Danish couple; they’re the friendliest companions I could have asked for. Sigh. Relief.
We all load into the tour company’s van and soon enough we’re on a dark, one lane road. The driver is really taking advantage of having the entire road to himself. It takes more energy to try to stay in one place in the back seat of the van, so I give in to being jostled around. It’s just your average, run-of-the-mill car ride in the middle of the night in Southeast Asia. By now I’ve grown accustomed to it. Think of the minibus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. You’ve experienced worse, I remind myself as I close my eyes, silently wondering if we would arrive in one piece.
We stop for a modest breakfast and after another short drive, we are at the base of Mount Batur, a live volcano. Wait, we’re not even there yet, we’re in what faintly looks like a plain. It’s sometime around 3:30 in the morning and I can barely make out the silhouette of the volcano in the distance. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in the next few hours if we want to make it to the top by sunrise.
I can’t see anything except for the tiny flickering flashlights of those who began their ascent before us. Our Balinese tour guide hands us flashlights; I grin as I tell him I won’t be needing it. I’ve got my cousin’s headlamp and I can’t wait to use it. It’ll be easier for me to see where I’m going and I can use both hands to steady myself as I hike. This is going to be fun.
The moon is full, it illuminates the entire sky. I’ve never seen so many stars. Pure, unadulterated sky. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen and I’m in awe, tripping over myself as I gaze above me. The world is asleep. But I’m awake. It’s the most awake I’ve felt in a long time. My point-and-shoot camera can’t do this sky any justice. That’s okay though; I’ll keep this memory for me and me alone.
And we hike. We talk as we hike, sharing stories of our travels, our lives, our future. We assist each other when we need it, encourage one another when it’s tiring, and push ourselves onward and upward. With each step I’m feeling more triumphant, like I’m about to witness something much bigger than I bargained for. Slowly an orange haze starts to appear. It’s getting warmer, easier to see, and we are getting closer to our stopping point on the volcano.
Oh crap. It’s almost sunrise. We are racing to the top of the volcano at this point. Beads of sweat are dripping down my face, stinging my eyes as I use both hands to hoist myself past some rocks. I’ve already thrown caution to the wind and my jacket and headlamp in my backpack. Must. Make. It. Before. Sunrise. We are hiking up the volcano like there’s no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow. I’m trying to chase tomorrow down and beat it to the finish line.
Huffing and puffing, we make it to the top. The sun is just about to make it’s daily debut, bringing with it promise of warmth and endless possibilities. It’s glowing behind Mount Agung, another volcano. It’s going to stretch out its arms overhead and make its big reveal, over the volcano and straight into my eyes. Your move, Sun.
Here it comes. Is it the elevation that’s getting to my head or am I really just this happy? It’s a sunrise unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The best part is that I worked for it. I earned the opportunity to watch the sun wake up the world. The sunlight is brightening me from the inside out, piercing into my soul and filling me with a feeling of purpose and tranquility.
I enjoy the view, pleasant conversation, and hot tea and eggs prepared in a hut on the volcano. The sun is up, but the clouds are taking the stage. Sweeping the sunlight up in its clutches, it’s foggy and before I know it, I can’t see a thing. The cold swallows me and I can no longer feel the warmth of the day. My sweat is dry; only a gritty, salty feeling is left on my skin. It’s so cold that it’s time to pull out the jacket again.
We are about to make our descent when the sun wins the fight with the clouds and finally returns. It’s much easier to hike down the volcano and I can see the countryside around me. The scene looks completely different during the day. I see now that nestled between the two volcanoes is a lake and vibrant crops of tomatoes and red chillies. It’s fulfilling to finally see where I trekked just hours before.
We pile back into the van and pull over for one final look at Mount Batur. It’s incredible, I’m in disbelief that we actually climbed that volcano.
I feel changed from the person I was only six hours before when I hadn’t taken my first steps on the trek. I’m lighter, as if the sun lifted a weight off of my body as it rose above me. A weight that I’ve been carrying for years, telling me that I have to stay on the straight and narrow, not to follow the winding paths of my dreams. I think I’ll go ahead and jump off the beaten path.
I drift off to sleep as we drive back to Ubud, imagining the next time I’ll see those volcanoes and wondering if I’ll ever experience a sunrise like this again. And even if I don’t, I’ll carry this piece of happiness in my heart forever.