Sometimes, I don’t take out my camera.
It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s usually for the same reason, and happens in moments where I might be learning to sauté spices in the middle of a rice terrace, or riding on the back of a motorcycle chasing the evening light through winding mountain roads, or watching clownfish swim through my fingers in unfathomably clear water.
I think to myself that, to be honest, my entire life revolves around sharing experiences and photographs with thousands of people around the world. Most of the time when I see a spectacular view or find myself in a captivating situation, it feels instinctual to take out my camera to capture it, to show others what it looked like. Maybe what it felt like. I live for photography. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of photographs, and the role they play in inspiring others to care about the planet.
But sometimes, it doesn’t feel right. Take these past few weeks in Indonesia, for example. I've taken photos here and there, of course, but maybe only one or two in a given situation that I want “the world” to see. I’ve found that while I may capture the view accurately, it’s missing everything else that I associate so strongly with my time here; the smells (of garlic, daun suji, sweet sea air, an oncoming thunderstorm), the sounds (crickets chirping outside my bedroom window, music that had us dancing before we even know what’s happening, rain on the bamboo roof of the verandah), but mostly, the connections with other travelers, and their voices, their stories, the happenstance of their journeys intertwined with mine. When I take a photo of a hidden bay where we surfed in Lombok or of an evening storm rolling in over the sea from where we sat drinking Bintangs and listening to a band play an acoustic Led Zeppelin cover, I realize that after taking one picture, then two pictures, that no one will ever be able to feel what I feel in that moment, except for those who are sautéing spices or chasing light or diving beneath the ocean’s surface beside me.
I saw. I felt. I felt on a deeply moving scale.
And that’s been Indonesia.
When I planned to go to Indonesia weeks ago, I decided to start with the islands of Lombok, Gili, and Bali, a small chain of islands in the south. Each one of them are seemingly defined by specific characteristics: Lombok was for mountain climbing and hidden, pristine points to surf off of. Gili was for relative quiet (no cars or roads are on the island), and epic scuba diving and snorkeling. And, of course, Bali was for the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy: high-end shops, yoga studios, and swanky restaurants lining the crowded, resort-toting beaches. While I had a fairly rigid schedule that I wanted to stick to in Indonesia to be sure that I’d see all I wanted to see in such a short amount of time in such a massive country, I quickly realized — about two hours after arriving in Indonesia, to be exact — that my plans were about to change.
What’s interesting about Indonesia, more so that most other places I’ve ever traveled, is that there's this tight sense of camaraderie amongst the backpackers. From the first evening that I arrived in Bali to this very moment (as I write this in the back of a bus, on my way to the Bali harbor to take a boat to Java), my journey has felt like a nonstop collection of new faces, new friends, new stories.
I was worried that perhaps I’d only run into the classic gap-year types of backpackers who are traveling to the party islands to take advantage their first time being away from home without supervision — similar to the other classic "party" places I've visited, such as Mykonos or Ibiza. But instead, I found an enclave of individuals with some of the most wonderful, humbling stories and diverse backgrounds who have found themselves coming from all walks of life to end up in the jungles of northern Bali or at a small fishing village at the base of the Lombok mountains. The openness of everyone I’ve encountered has been, to be honest, fairly surprising; there has not been a moment until now when I haven’t been in the company of someone — whether it’s the French girl whom I shared sandwiches with while we waited for our 4-hour-delayed ferry in the shade of a palm tree, or the retired Australian doctor with whom I chatted with about animal rights while sharing a tuktuk to the beach. Or the few who have sincerely become close, lifelong friends. I think they know who they are.
Even in the moments when I felt like I should be frustrated or uncomfortable — such as during the ten hours it took to travel 80 km because of ferry delays and storms and bus breakdowns, or the insane heat and humidity, or the overwhelmingly touristy and disappointing coasline of Bali which felt more like Miami Beach than anything else — they were handled simply by the uplifting presence of those I shared it with. Joy feels effortless here. With these people, in this place, with the smell of incense on the wind and the comfort of a shoulder to lean on while bouncing in the back of a rickety bus, I’ve been given a gift that this road keeps on giving.
You never know what’s waiting for you out there. You just have to take the step to get on that plane.
But, it’s not over yet.
In about two hours, I’ll be arriving at the harbor, and will make my way through more boats and buses and maybe a train or two to reach a village nestled high in the Javanese mountains, cradled between two volcanoes I intend to summit over the next week.
Still, I already feel nostalgic for everyone I’ve met so far, as we’ve traversed trails that snake along rice paddies, or discovered vine-draped temples, or had some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life (ginger tofu and stir-fried vegetables in small warungs, or freshly-cut sweet watermelon after six hours of surfing to get rid of the salt water on my lips, or spicy roasted street corn on a sunset walk through the village). Sometimes it really is all about the people you encounter.
Thank you all for showing me so much light.
The world is small when we want it to be.