As if dropped into the middle of a foreign dream, I find myself in a row of bobbing headlamps jogging single file through dark fields. The drizzling rain flashes in the beam of my headlamp and runners reflect off rice paddies on each side. We run with small, calculated steps, balancing on a thin piece of terraced earth. The Javanese night is cool and soon we begin an ascent into thick, soggy forest.
Java is the 13th largest island in the world and even with the rugged mountains and volcanoes in the island’s center it’s home to over 50% of Indonesia’s population and over 141 million people. Often described as the heart of Indonesian culture, Java is an elegant mixture of language and religion with historical and contemporary Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. You’ll also see smatterings of colonial Dutch architecture. Yogyakarta, commonly called Jogja, brings tourists from around the world to witness the world’s largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur) and the large 9th century Hindu complex called Prambanan. Moving slowing up Mt. Andong (1726m), the first climb of the 65km route, I catch fleeting views of the lights of the small town/city of Salatiga below. I feel far removed from the World Heritage Sites and tourists of Jogja and Jakarta’s 10 million residents (30 million in the metro area!). The temperature begins to drop. With my hands on the tops of my thighs I ascend a muddy track, propelling myself further and further away from my dry, warm bed at Mesastila Resort.
Coming off the first major climb I descend into the first aid station near 15 kilometers after winding through cobblestone paths, brick houses with corrugated tin roofs, and slope-defying agricultural fields. I crunch to a halt in a gravel area just off the street. Even in the middle of the rainy night I’m greeted shyly by a gathering of mostly young Indonesians. They sit under a shed as if waiting specifically for me, eyes wide despite the time. One records my bib number while a few others offer water, bananas, dates, smiles. Most abundant are the smiles, and there is much laughter when I offer good evening salutations of selamat malam in Bahasa Indonesia. Feeling somewhat recharged (it’s ok to be tired at 15km in a 65km race….right?) I trudge back into the dark street while floating terimah kasih! terimah kasih! thank you! thank you! over my shoulder like a bouquet at a wedding. And then, quickly, I’m alone again. I begin munching one of the dates, or kurma, from the aid station and relish the sugars. I run through the small town as silently as I entered, imagining the many people who have been asleep in their beds for hours already. I imagine myself asleep. But there are three more volcanoes to climb, and I exit the collection of streets and houses the same way I entered, like a spectre, silent and shrouded in darkness. My small light and pack bounce slightly as the cobblestone road again becomes earth.
Nearing the race’s halfway point I slowly climb toward the seeming elusive summit of Mt. Merbabu (3145m). At 10,318 feet, the volcano usually offers views of nearby peaks, green forests, and farmland extending into the distance. At 3:30am, however, I’m hiking through an alpine world experienced through dulled senses. My limbs are heavy and weighted by traveling nearly 30 kilometers over rock, root, mud, and mountain. My clothing is rain-soaked and easily penetrated by the increasingly strong winds. My hands begin to numb in the cold mountain temperatures, without a doubt the coldest I’ve ever experienced in Southeast Asia so far. Dense clouds have swallowed me along with the top of the volcano, and the light still on my head reaches only a few meters in front of my face. Outside of this minimal visibility in each direction my world becomes limited to the auditory and olfactory. To sound and smell. Earlier when passing through a small group of houses I was surprised to hear deep drumming and jubilant voices from an unseen location. As I’ve climbed Merbabu the voices have melted far away into the valley that I can no longer see. But the drums follow me upward. They continue late into the night and now early morning. The drumbeat accompanies me up into a dark that had seemed impenetrable to everything else. My heart matches the rhythm. Heart and drum. I carry them both. Or more truthfully, they carry me. I ascend even higher. I begin to smell sulfur. Ash. Leftovers from the earth-making volcano. The ground under my feet periodically takes on an ashy grey hue. Finally the wind pulls back a curtain of cloud to reveal twinkling village lights far below and clusters of stars impossibly above, as if this I the only place that this remains in darkness between two places of shimmering lights.
Over the second half of the race I lose myself and find myself. During segments there are times when I lose my confidence and my footing. There is a point when I lose myself for nearly 30 minutes, wandering back and forth on a frigid peak trying to find a small marker that would guide me down through the rocks and bushes. Eventually, over the next two volcano summits, countless rice paddies, and idyllic Indonesian towns, I also lost all the doubt that inevitably crawls into one’s being during an overnight run into unknown territory. When I lost that, I was able to find something much more elusive than the race route. A bit of Self.
I stopped worrying about time, place, speed, location. I was a foot-traveler, wanderer, observer, smiler, eater, and sometimes cusser (here I’m reminded that finding Self is ephemeral, nothing lasts!). It may be that everything in the universe is constantly interacting with everything in the universe. Self is not necessarily carried around with me as much as it’s a reaction between my mind and stimulus.
While I ran, walked, hiked, trudged, rolled, fell, and slipped forward for over 14 hours through the volcanoes of Central Java, I experienced a lot of stimulus, a growing awareness of my own character, and an appreciation for that particular, beautiful place.