Past Post: The Mighty Bromo

After yesterday saying I wanted to keep past posts to a minimum, I am today beset with lurgy and unable to find time to write a new post, so here’s one I wrote earlier, in the form of a Bea article from last September about my travels to Indonesia (apologies to those who may have read it at the time)…..

Waking up at 3am to climb a mountain is not something I would normally care to do, but when the mountain in question was the mighty Gunung Bromo – one of Indonesian Java’s most impressive active volcanoes – I was prepared to make an exception. And what an exception it was. To get there, we had to spend twelve hours in a minivan from Yogyakarta (in itself a challenge), then spend a night at a guest house high up in the mountains from where we would leave at 4am the following morning to drive up to a view point for sunrise and then onto Bromo itself.

When the alarm clock went off we were less than enthusiastic about climbing out of our cosy beds into the frosty air outside, but no sooner had we walked outside the hotel than our spirits were lifted by the sight of a shiny pink Jeep. It took about half an hour to reach the car park for the view point, from where we walked up a further half hour to reach the summit. Soon after we arrived, the sun began its steady ascent into the sky, lighting up the mountain range with the most beautiful array of colours; blue, amber, gold and pink to name but a few. When the night finally succumbed to the day, the stars disappeared and an eerie pink mist in the valley beneath us began to creep like a thief around the mountains. Above it, a layer of fluffy white clouds hovered unobtrusively. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed.

After the sun rose, we picked our way carefully back down the volcanic ash-covered mountain to the Jeep, stopping to take pictures of Bromo in the distance and pat some of the gorgeous little mountain ponies who give lazy tourists a ride up from the car park. We then drove to Bromo itself, parking in a vast expanse of desert-like plains where we succumbed to the lure of three ponies and agreed to ride them to the bottom of the steps leading up to the crater. The mountain cut an impressive figure rising up out of the sand dunes, and as we approached we could see the thousands of other tourists snaking their way to the top like ants on an anthill. We dismounted our trusty steeds and began to walk up the 253 steps to the crater lip. By the time we reached the top I was painfully aware of how much my fitness had slipped in the previous few months of travelling, and had to take a moment to catch my breath. It was only then that I realised how incredibly high up we were, and struggled to keep my fear of heights in check. As I teetered precariously on the edge, I took in the awesome sight of the deep crater below us, sporadically puffing white clouds of steam like an old man lazily smoking a pipe. It was hard to believe only four months previously this apparently benign natural wonder was on the verge of eruption, spewing great swathes of grey smoke and ash into the air and prompting evacuation from the local villages.

We walked back down to the car park in awestruck silence, hardly believing what we had witnessed in just a few hours and feeling so far removed from the reality of our lives we were akin to Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole and emerged into Wonderland. I really believe that it’s moments like that we should seek out and treasure in this too short life, through which most of us sleepwalk. Because it’s only in moments like that we can be truly present, and experience what it is to be fully and completely alive.

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Putting theory into practice

Tonight I unintentionally put Professor Daniel Gilbert’s theory (which I mentioned in yesterday’s Bea article about happiness) into practice. Having woken up with a sore throat I spent the whole day feeling increasingly less keen to go to my first running club session after work. As the day progressed I thought of every excuse under the sun to not have to go. The front runner (if you’ll excuse the pun) was the fact I felt worse after running 3k at the gym last night, so running 8k outside would almost certainly make me more ill. Fortunately my sensible Twitter followers coerced me by citing the ‘below the neck’ rule, and as my lurgy was most definitely above the neck I decided I had run out of excuses and would give the run a try (I can’t deny the scone and slice of cake consumed at a colleague’s leaving do in the afternoon was also a contributing factor to my need to exercise).

I digress. So how did I put Professor Gilbert’s theory into practice, exactly? Well, I did the run, and at the end of it I thought how much I had enjoyed it and how glad I was to have done it. I even wondered why I’d made such a big deal of it and spent so long trying to talk myself out of going. What Professor Gilbert would no doubt say about this is that when imagining the run – in what was then my present – I was feeling unwell, and was only able to imagine doing the run whilst feeling unwell, which led to me overestimating how bad I would feel whilst actually doing it. As it turned out I felt much better by the time I started the run anyway, and so when the run became my present I was able to enjoy it far more than I had imagined.

Realising this has been a revelation. I’m actually rather stunned!

By the way, in case you’re wondering, I’m thinking of amending the ‘past post’ rule of this blog so that I occasionally post something I’ve written before, but it doesn’t have to be every week. I’m delighted to say I’m enjoying writing something new every day so much I’m finding I don’t want to post old pieces of work (most of which I’m now viewing with a more critical eye anyway and deciding they’re not up to scratch for publication).

Tomorrow’s the last day of January – one month done and still going strong! Who says New Year’s Resolutions are hard to keep?

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Here’s the image that comes to mind when I think about things that weren’t as bad as I imagined. I’d built myself up into a frenzy of worry when I did my first triathlon in 2009, but on the day of the event (as you can see in this pic) I quite enjoyed it! Bar the swimming. I bloody hated that part.

Challenging perceptions, one feel-good programme at a time…

In recent years the time I’ve spent watching television has diminished considerably. In (large) part this can be attributed to the fact I have become busier (with increased responsibility at work comes long hours, and both fitness and writing are at the more time consuming end of the hobby scale), but the other reason is it feels to me there are fewer ‘feel-good’ programmes to watch.

By ‘feel-good’ I don’t mean comedy, sitcoms or shows featuring cuddly-looking but rip-your-head-off-dangerous animals trekking across vast ice plains with their babies in tow (though I’m rather partial to the last example, David Attenborough being my absolute hero). I mean programmes that make you see your fellow men and women in a different way, helping you to better understand their motivations, strengths and weaknesses.

Such programmes challenge stereotypes and prejudices, providing insight into others’ lives that might not be possible any other way. They are also, in my opinion, a valuable medium through which to foster empathy, an emotion many people in today’s ‘me-first’ society struggle to connect with.

Examples of programmes I would include in this category are Secret Millionaire and Undercover Boss-both versions of the same premise, where rich senior level executives step out of their lives and into the lives of ‘ordinary people,’ enabling them to get a better understanding of the challenges they face before deciding how they can best offer help.

Two different but no less relevant examples are my current favourite programmes, Supersize vs. Superskinny and The Undateables, which happen to run concurrently on Tuesday nights. Being a psychology graduate I’m fascinated by the way people perceive one another, and these programmes bring to the fore the many facets of the human spirit.

In Supersize vs. Superskinny overweight and underweight people are paired up and taught to overcome their problems with food by swapping diets. It’s amazing to see how much their attitudes change over the course of their ‘treatment,’ and truly heartening to see the strength of the bonds they form as a result of stepping into one another’s shoes.

The Undateables shows that everyone not only deserves to but can find love if they look in the right places. All too often people with disabilities are written off as not being capable of having meaningful relationships, but for me this programme has successfully challenged that misperception and shown there’s someone out there for all of us if we simply try.

To the critics I’ll admit that to some extent these programmes are contrived, some may even say patronising, but they reach the masses in a way that other media may not always manage. Maybe I’m taking it a tad too far by saying this, but I believe that if we really let the messages of such programmes sink in, they can provide a platform from which we can better ourselves.

Right, that’s quite enough time spent discussing feel-good programmes. Time to get back to the petition to bring back Spooks…

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After twenty minutes struggling to find a relevant image for today’s post I’ve given up and chosen this, which was taken on a day trip to Borabadour in Indonesia and bears no similarity to my post other than maybe the fact it doesn’t look like a normal tree….?

Canggu

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track, a mere fifteen minute taxi ride out of the heaving metropolis that was Kuta. But it was far enough to feel cleansed of the inherent grime that everything in Kuta seemed somehow steeped in, not least the throngs of intoxicated teenagers who lined the street each night after dark, preparing their drink-addled bodies for round after relentless round of vile neon shots. She was far from being a prude or a bore, but something about Kuta had unsettled her, made her feel unsafe and ill at ease. It was as if the town itself was intent on self-destruction and, as such, was taking all who resided there along for the downward spiral of a ride.

The taxi pulled up outside a delicate set of wrought iron gates. She climbed out and paid the fare, hoisting her rucksack onto her back as the taxi pulled away. Set into the lemon-washed wall was a buzzer, which she duly pushed. Moments later a man in a white linen uniform appeared to unlock the gate. He apologised that the owner of the property would not be back until later, and took her to her room. It was a decent size, with flagstone flooring that was cool under foot and a beautiful handmade patchwork quilt on the bed. But it wasn’t the room she had been promised – the room above the swimming pool, which looked out across the paddy fields. This was what she had come for.

The room – her room – would be occupied for a further night, she was told at reception, where two western tourists lounged on oversized cushions beside the small yet beautifully maintained swimming pool. She had felt a stab of disappointment to find other westerners in residence, having naively believed that she alone had found this calm oasis. This was not what she had expected, and a knot of anxiety formed in the pit of her stomach which she repeatedly tried – and failed – to ignore. She asked after food, was told she would have to venture out or order takeaway as they didn’t prepare food on site.

There was nothing else for it. She would go for a walk, explore the local area. Find food. After twenty minutes she realised she was walking in a big circle. She had not passed a single food vending establishment and was beginning to feel tearful when she saw a sign further down the road from where she stood. On closer inspection she saw it was a café. Relief flooded through her as she sat on a red plastic chair and waited to be served. But there was no sign of the owner. Instead, a curtain behind the counter twitched and two high pitched giggles could be clearly heard from the other side.

First one face, then the other, came into view. Two little girls peered out at her. She smiled and they disappeared in a fit of hysteria behind the curtain. The curtain moved again, this time revealing a man with a broad smile. He served her as the children ran around the table, occasionally stopping to sing her a song or involve her in their game. They shared no language but it didn’t matter. The girls were such absorbing company that she was lost in the moment, unselfconscious and somewhere near happy.

Once she had eaten, she regretfully took her leave, the girls waving sadly until she was out of view. When she returned to the homestay the owner had arrived. She too was a westerner, though she made a point of stressing she had been here for many years. She was apologetic about the room mix up, promising to get things sorted as soon as the current inhabitant checked out the following day. In the meantime she suggested her new guest might like to hire a scooter and head down to the beach.

In the absence of a better plan she did as the owner had suggested, and as the wind whipped through her hair and the sun beat down on her tanned skin she had to admit it was a good idea. After ten minutes she arrived at the beach. She parked the scooter and kicked off her sandals, stooping to pick them up from the golden sand. In front of the beach was a restaurant. She took a seat on one of the wooden benches outside and ordered herself a Coke. The beach was long and virtually deserted, save for a handful of surfers frolicking in the shallows and a couple of ponies trotting up and down, their owners on their backs.

Feeling restless, she drained the Coke as soon as it arrived, left a note under the bottle and walked down to the beach itself, covering a fair amount of ground before allowing herself to sit down near the shore. She wiggled her toes in the sand, took a deep breath and lay back with her arms flayed out either side of her. The sky was completely devoid of clouds, and she had to squint to prevent the sun from blinding her. What a ride this past few months had been. She could hardly believe it was almost over.

By the time she returned the late afternoon sun was beginning to set, reflected in the perfectly still surface of the pool. The man in the white uniform appeared with a key, handed it to her and pointed to the room above the pool – her room. The occupant had left not long after she had gone to the beach, he explained in broken English. She beamed at him and ran back to her other room to pack. Ten minutes later she was installed in her own private paradise. She flung open the shutters to catch the final rays of sun as they took one last careful caress of the green shoots of the paddy field. Then, quite overcome, she sank to her knees and wept tears of pure joy.

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track. But it was far enough. 

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This was that place. I remember it still.

 

My earliest memory

If memory serves it was a summer’s day, the kind that has us Brits rushing for the strawberries and cream and slathering on the high factor sun lotion. My recollection doesn’t stretch to what I was wearing at the time but common sense would suggest it was some form of seasonally appropriate attire. For the purpose of adding colour to this story let’s say it was a yellow dress with white trim, matching white socks and shiny red shoes with gold buckles.

We were standing in front of a big grey house, my mother and I. As I looked up at it in wonder I thought I had never seen anything so gigantic in all my life. It had creepers growing up its walls, and large, foreboding windows which, despite their size, revealed nothing of what was within. We walked down the gravel drive and followed the path around the side of the house until we reached the garden at the back.

It was a large garden, with neatly kept flower beds containing multi-hued sprays of chrysanthemums, roses, bougainvillea and clematis (am I overdoing my artistic license here?). The air was thick with the scent of lavender, and busy little insects tended to the flowers like nurses to the sick. Dotted around the garden were other visitors like us, drawn by the fine weather and the prospect of tea and cake.

But there was another reason why they came – why we had come. Inside the house, on the upper floor, was a long landing. It wasn’t just any landing, it was also a gallery. Lining its walls were portraits of long dead ancestors of the house’s owners, the kind whose eyes follow your every movement, waiting.

We stood on this landing, my mother and I, and I felt a sudden stab of fear. I clutched her hand tightly as we began to walk, the floorboards squeaking underneath our feet. Slow and tentative steps I took, conscious that I was pulling back, not wanting to proceed – but she didn’t notice, or at least seemed not to. I remember trying not to look at their eyes, those soulless black holes that demanded attention but offered nothing but sinister stares in return.

Halfway down the corridor I stopped dead. A chill ran right through me as I looked up into the eyes of one of the paintings. Nothing happened, per se, but to this day I can remember that sensation of abject fear.

I know it sounds far-fetched and I imagine those who don’t believe in ghosts and such like will be scoffing as they read this. All I will say is that when I recounted this story to my mum a year or so ago she couldn’t believe I remembered our visit to that country house – because I couldn’t have been much more than two years old at the time. Now how’s THAT for spooky?

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I took this photo whilst walking around the beautiful gardens surrounding Sydney Harbour. It’s blurry background seems quite fitting for this mysterious and slightly chilling (but true!!) story.

Simple things

I’ve no plans for this blog to stray too far into my personal life (I’ve made that mistake before) but I feel today is worthy of note, because it’s been the kind of day that makes you feel that everything is just the way it’s meant to be. You know the ones. You wake up next to someone special, the sun is shining and you’ve got plans with good friends whose company make you feel positive and happy. In my case those plans involved two friends, their new baby and a pleasant stroll around Brockwell Park. This was followed by an impromptu brunch with my boyfriend’s friends and a slightly random excursion to purchase wheelie suitcases. Upon our return we donned our running gear and went for a five kilometre jog around Clapham Common. I’m now curled up on the sofa in my slipper socks writing this post and allowing myself the odd moment’s distraction in Location, Location, Location, before changing into my glad rags for a posh (but cheap – you’ve got to love toptable deals) meal at the National Portrait Gallery’s restaurant, Portrait, which I’ve read has rather spectacular views across London.

What I’m trying to illustrate by sharing the finer details of my day is that sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make it so worth living; spending time with people who mean a lot to you, eating good food, being good to your body by exercising and getting fresh air, even allowing yourself time to veg out in front of a favourite programme. We live in such a fast-paced world. It’s easy to get swept along without ever taking time to appreciate the things that seem so simple but are, in fact, the most important things of all.

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Talking of appreciating the simple things in life reminded me of this photo I took in Manali in northern India. I was walking by myself when I turned around and saw, perfectly positioned between two tall trees, a cow. I love the way this photo came out, with a romantic haze. It’s one of my favourites from my travels.

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How can I describe you?

Your beauty and your ugliness go hand in hand, they cannot be separated. You have many faces. Like a kaleidoscope you dazzle all who look upon you. Some see truth, some see excitement, others see only sadness and despair-but all have strong reactions.

You are the opposite of bland.

You are a mirage, ever-shifting and changing. You offer life, yet you bring death. You are never quiet, never still. You suffocate, intoxicate, annihilate. You provoke debate.

Like a boa constrictor you wrap yourself around your prey while they are unaware and squeeze the life from them, bit by bit. Like a Venus Fly Trap you lure your victims in with sweet nectar before drowning them in toxic secretions.

You twist and turn, you ebb and flow. You smoke and burn, you shrink and grow.

You breathe the collective sighs of thousands.

You build up and you break down. You belong to everyone and no one.

You are the sweetest of scents and the foulest of odours. You are music, you are movement. You are passion.

Your light may, at times, diminish. But it will never be extinguished.

You are a multitude of things.

London: How I love you.

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This is my favourite view of London, it signifies everything that’s great about this crazy City in which I live.