The other side of the mountain was shrouded in clouds that hugged the earth as close as they could, mist kissing ground. On the other side of the cave, I found myself somewhere else; somewhere otherworldly. Kickstand opening automatically, the bike parked itself below the last lip of rock because it could not follow me here. Our journeys were no longer intertwined.
I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I seated myself on the temple steps. Mysterious forces had pulled me along at an unreasonable pace all morning and now that my adventure was on a break, exhaustion smothered every muscle. I wobbled over to the old man, who waited with infinite patience.
He smiled and indicated that I sit beside him and drink. Steam poured out of the cup he placed before me but it was unable to add heat or humidity to the already torpid atmosphere.
It was too hot out here. My skin had been leaking a constant stream of sweat since I’d arrived in this country and I glistened, almost salamander-like. Nothing was ever dry here. Between the water that poured out of me and that which had been deposited by the breath of the jungle I was swimming my way through Indonesia.
I gazed into the tea cup but my will did not make it lemonade. It’s hard to imagine enjoying a steamy cup of tea in such a climate. It seems that tea is better enjoyed in cool, foggy regions where the chill from the air creeps all the way into the center of your bones. Nevertheless, I lifted my tea cup (so hot it left a red ring between my hands) and drank.
Though the temperature of the beverage was surprisingly agreeable, the medicinal flavor nearly forced me to spit it all over my host. Out! shouted my brain and tongue in unison, but I kept my teeth firmly clenched around the offensively bitter drink and forced it down. There was something chemical about the flavor; something dangerous.
I sipped while the old man and I did not speak to one another. In the West, we were having what would have been called a long and very awkward silence, but here I was learning to let the quiet happen. The spaces between words are not danger zones where accidents happen. There was no need to rush words out; they would come when they were necessary and important.
While I sat sipping quietly on my horrid drink I tried to guess what might be in it. Lemongrass? Citronelle? Tree bark? Dirt?
Once, a boyfriend brought home a white paper bag filled with tea he’d received from the acupuncturist. It was medicinal, he’d told me and so I dumped the contents out on the counter to see what it was made of. There were chunks of mushrooms, sticks, spongy flowers, small stones and curly bits of bark that had been stripped off tropical trees. I also found inch long pieces of something familiar that I couldn’t identify. The pieces were round, like a long, thin cylinder, and were covered with circular ridges that were spaced equally apart. I slid these pieces out of the pile of forest tea and put together the puzzle. When it was complete, I could see that these sections had once been an earthworm.
On the temple steps, I tried to forget this story as I gagged, but you try not thinking about earthworm tea while you’re drinking tea that tastes like dirt. I forced myself to swallow.
When I finished my cup, the old man did not pour me another. It was the first time I’d ever seen a cup run dry in this part of the world.
“You are looking for something; that’s why you have come to me.”
I wished that he knew because of some mystical force. I wanted him to have heard of my arrival from the gods; I wanted him to have had a vision of me riding up to his temple while he was lost in meditation. Nowadays, I knew, even mystics carried cell phones. The concierge at my hotel was likely the one who had notified him that I was coming, not, alas, a messenger from the spirit world.
“I am looking for something.”
Definitely the concierge.
It sounded so ridiculous now that he said it. I laughed but nodded, “Yes.”
“When you are ready, continue down the path.”
He disappeared back into the temple, leaving me alone on the steps. The water from the air pooled into drops that slid down my skin. Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel like I was raining.
When I finally pulled my attention away from my newfound cloudlike superpowers, the sky had shifted into indigo twilight: bottomless and bright.
But that wasn’t right. I’d left early in the morning. It couldn’t have been much later than two in the afternoon. My gaze sunk onto the dirt path in front of me, where the colors of evening had also spilled. The ground rolled in purples and deep reds, like the sea when it robs the sunset out of the sky. It moved like the sea, too, in shallow waves that undulated in rhythm with my breath. Or had I adjusted my breathing to match the spacing between the waves of blue soil?
It occurred to me, for a moment, that I ought to panic, but I’d used up my adrenaline in the cave and though the frightened thoughts were there, the chemicals had run dry. I thought of fear and did not feel it. This was probably a good thing; there was no way to rid myself of what I’d taken. What’s done is done.
So, I let go. I let the fear slip beneath my conscious thought; I let the expectation evaporate into the clouds. I released my close association with my own body, and allowed the line between me and the world to blur. I let the magic back in; I forgot about cell phones and the loss of mysticism.
And then I walked further into the jungle.
Read the last installment of the Indonesia series: Indonesia: Getting Back
Photos courtesy of Connie Freeland