eyewitness Limbo:

the Reign of the Yoke Stops Here

First and foremost ф am an eyeball carriage. My eyes carry the reins to the yoke on my own shoulders— lifting myself by my bootstraps with each step. Ф have evolved these useful appendages of mobility strictly to navigate these eyes to see around the next corner. My internal organs have evolved to extract and mine nourishment from my environment to support my external limb function … not that my strength and physique is anything to write home about, but my endurance is enough to keep me in perpetual motion. There is no home to write to anyway … my dad is dead. Why else would ф have the resources to be globetrotting like this? His body lived long enough to pass the baton on to me and now ф must find what he was looking for—like the myth of Sisyphus condemned to roll the rock up and down the mountain. Not that my eyes will allow my body to slip into the vanity of the fatherhood cycle … these eyes will stop at the summit.

The corner of the globe ф am currently moving through is the strait between Bali and Java. ф have been traveling non-stop for nine months now and my body is battered and fatigued. It can’t keep up with my eyes— they must keep looking— it is their destiny to see … even though ф have long since forsaken destination to keep from getting lost.

ф have no concept of time— the last date ф know for certain was a Swedish Christmas in Ubud where my body replenished itself on ginger bread and sour cream and herring … but now it is depleted once again and in need of rest. My eyes need closure. ф am pregnant with experience and need to roost and hatch something.

ф am riding in a bemo— a small shuttle bus whose seats all face inward towards other pairs of eyeballs whose supporting mouths speak another language. The other eyes stare at me in the darkness, protective of what their bodies carry inside. The bemo is idling on the platform of a ferry that moves quietly in the night. The engine idles the time and ф cannot detect the motion, which is unsettling to me. My eyeballs prod my weary body up to verify our surroundings. My body holds on to the railing of the ferry so my eyes can gaze into the dark swirling currents in the wake of the boat— a cornucopia of eye-candy abounds in the depths— phosphorescent plankton, krill and jellyfish— the sea is a liquid starry sky on which ф am suspended.

The corner of my eye notices a flip-flash on the deck. A fish. Self-centered as they are, these eyes occasionally get sympathetic and compassionate towards other living beings— especially ones shrewd enough to evolve stream-lined vessels to propel their eyes through the seas. The sight of the flip-flapping fish is a reminder of the vulnerability of my own body. Call me a bleeding heart, but ф pick up the fish and throw it back in the water to the heckling laughs of the clove-smoking ferrymen. Instantly ф feel a thud across my chest. The fish bounces off me and flaps on the deck again! My eyes cannot believe it. Then there is more … the air is full of flying fish. At closer inspection, they have wings. ф cannot trust my overwhelmed eyes— my body bids a hasty retreat to the bemo to the amusement of the laughing ferrymen who throw their clove butts into the sea.

This was not the first time this had happened— where my body got so fatigued it made my eyes lie to me. My eyes are not into hallucinations or things unreal. If this were the case, my body would stay back at home and take drugs and not have to go anywhere … or look through the bottom of a glass full of amber whiskey like my father. Not these eyes— these eyes yearn strictly for raw reality. And they are compromising enough to know that compensations had to be made— ф had to take care of my pregnant body and let it rest. ф attempt to close the lids over my eyes, but ф cannot drift into sleep. ф open my eyes to see the other eyes looking back from the darkness of the bemo.

There’s this basket full of clucking and squirming chickens under the seat. Every time the chickens get agitated and start squawking, an old woman who presumably owns the chickens looks at me and laughs … as if ф am the brunt of the joke. The man across from me cradles his baby girl in his arms, comforting her even when she puked all over his shirt. Such affection and nurturing he demonstrates towards his yearling eyeball carrier that will, in a sense, continue to propagate his vision. The set of eyes next to me belongs to a sophisticated Indonesian woman. She can’t keep her sleepy head from bobbing onto my shoulder. Every once in a while, her eyes notice and jerk her head upright. Then sleep prevails and her head teeters back onto my shoulder. When she finally notices that ф don’t care, she rests her head on my shoulder and commits herself to sleep. This makes my body tingle with a brotherly compassion towards mankind that ф almost mistake for lust. It also makes me envious that she is able to leave reality so readily to rest. Why can’t ф?

The bus jerks into reverse, stirring the baskets full of chickens into a chorus of disgruntled clucks. We drive off the ferry and enter Java. Even in the blurred moonlight, Java is noticeably different then Bali— ф can make out the blue shadows of huge Jurassic palms intertwined with prehistoric vines. The driver drives like a maniac, blaring his horn at anything moving on the roadside— a family on a moped, a bulging load of sugarcane pulled by mules, a construction worker on a bicycle carrying a pane of glass, two water buffalo returning from the fields with their yoke still resting on their shoulders.

We pull into a city that ф isn’t on my map. ф have the slightest idea where we are … not that ф really know where ф am going. My immediate destination is Probolinggo just because ф like the name. We pull into a bus station. All these kids approach me to practice their English … this was typical procedure— it always started out with the same series of questions … “excuse me sir, I would like to introduce myself” and then “where are you from?” and “where are you going?” ф always answered “saya maka angin” to the latter, a saying that ф picked up in Bali that meant “I am eating air”. This always got a good laugh, but encouraged them to continue with their routine interrogation when all ф wanted to know was how to get to Probolinggo. Finally one of the kids tells me that ф have to take a taxi to the train station.

When ф get to the train station ф am accosted by another group of kids. “Why do you travel?” –they ask me. It is mind boggling to them that ф had been traveling for nine months with no particular destination and for no particular reason. Then of course they ask me how ф can afford to travel and ф tell them my father died … as if this answers everything. My dad left me a nest-egg for my education and rather then go to college ф chose to travel around the world.

The Javanese kids want to see what American money and passports looks like so I show them. Next thing ф know, all my worldly possessions are displayed for the world to see— my travelers cheques, cash, passport, visa and driver’s license are being passed around amongst them. My possessions are as foreign to them as Indonesia is to me. This doesn’t strike me as weird until some Canadians with their backpacks wrapped in chicken wire look at me like ф am nuts— “watch out for these kids, they’ll steal everything you own.” My answer is “if you don’t risk anything you won’t gain anything”.

Finally the train comes. ф gather up my belongings and stuff them into my pack— everything accounted for. They don’t have seats in first or second class, and even “ekonomi” is standing room only, so ф prop myself in the stairwell between cars. The rails screech and scream, grinding metal on metal— a deafening, but hypnotic soundtrack to the scenery unfolding before my eyes. The ground is a blur a couple of feet below my feet, while in the distance terraced rice fields and mountains flash by with immense clarity and depth of field, interspersed with clusterings of dwellings with the train in their backyard. Each passing shack has eyeballs who think the world revolves around them. But to me, the rest of the world is a treadmill spun by the train and ф am at the helm. Every Javanese ф see stops what they are doing and waves at the American hanging off the train. For a split second our realities converge. ф am eating their air.

ф manage to fall asleep for a few minutes but awake to the pungent smell of fruit and people trampling all over me. Somebody has cut open a 40-kilo jackfruit and it’s a free for all. They placed the fruit between cars because the smell is so strung. People attacked it, cutting off chunks. It was enough to feed the whole train. ф cut a piece off but it tasted like Elmer’s glue to me. A porter tells me the train will get to Probolinggo at 11 p.m. At 1:30 a.m. ф am swept off the train, suddenly ф am in a dirty and dark train station bustling with people. What the hell am ф doing here? Some man says “Bromo?” and my eyes tell my body to say “sure.” He throws my backpack into the front of a becak.

The becak! A glorious means of transportation— a decorated carriage with a one-speed bike pushing from behind. The becak driver is a scrawny guy with flip-flops and the standard clove-cigarette perpetually dangling from his lip. He pushes me along at high speeds through the bustling streets of Probolinggo. If ф was growing tired, forget it now. ф am exposed and at risk, the warm wind is flipping my hair in my face and ripping tears from my eyes. The becak driver keeps saying “Bromo” and “full moon” over and over. Bromo is a volcano that other travelers told me ф “had to see”.

The becak driver takes me to this street lined with old jeeps and passes me off to some guy named Nyoman who speaks perfect English. Undoubtedly the becak driver is getting kickback. Nyoman looks like an Indonesian version of my father when he was younger. His hair and skin tone are darker, but his bone structure is familiar. Every time ф look at him it freaks me out. He was sleeping in the front seat of his jeep but perked awake when ф got there. Nyoman says he can take my body up to the top of Bromo for 100,000 rupees— a high price to pay, but ф was free to sub-charter the jeep out.

Nyoman has a nice stereo and a playboy air-freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. ф give him an REM tape and crawl in back to sleep. Not a chance. Nyoman is flying around the hairpin corners through steep terrain, fumes pouring through the car, and REM singing:

Here’s a scene

You’re in the backseat laying down

The windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engines

And all you hear is time stand still in travel …

My ears don’t believe it. ф pass the coincidence off as hunger and sleep deprivation. Time is taking on a new dimension— flying through the mountains of Java with the full moon and the stars out the window … and this is all for me. Selfish as it sounds, none of this would exist if it weren’t for my eyes seeing it. It’s easy to slip into the frame of mind where ф am going to Bromo for the sake of Bromo— a sort of obligation, a payment of respects— “if you go to Java you have to see Bromo” … but hell, it’s a free world. ф am free to do what ф please. ф am the one carrying these eyeballs up Bromo for the sake of I. ф am in full control. Everything is magnificent even though my body is toiling and fatigued. My body hasn’t eaten anything since a roadside bowl of Gado Gado in Lovina the afternoon before. It suffers from a minor case of “Bali Belly”, probably from too much passion fruit or the pineapple juice with cockroach legs back at Batur. Not a good idea to have the shits on a bemo or a train where you can go for a day between toilet stops. So ф figure it is best to just not eat— no input, no output.

The town of Bromo is a podunk hodge-podge of structures hugging a steep cobblestone road that winds up the mountain. Even though it is 3 a.m. everybody is awake, wrapped in sarongs. The air is significantly thinner and colder. Red-eyed Javanese and Malaysian tourists wander aimlessly or are placed on the backs of horses or crammed into jeeps. We find a group of 8 Singaporean tourists who pay me 15,000 rupees a piece to go roundtrip up Bromo. Do the math— ф am getting paid to climb Bromo! Not that it is much of a profit, but the principle of it makes me feel light and free. ф am the co-pilot. We merge into the convoy of jeeps filing up the mountain. The Singaporeans jabber in a language unknown to me, lulling me into a trance. The roads are pretty bad and it is now obvious why only 4-wheel drives are attempting the trip. We switch back and forth up the grade and then drop into the crater.

Bromo is actually an active volcano within the dormant crater of another volcano. Think about that. A volcano within a volcano. ф don’t know about the others, but ф am hell-bent on climbing the inner volcano and looking into this exposed eye of the earth. We speed across the black sandy plane of ash towards the inner cone. We park at the base. Some kids sell coca-colas for 200 rupees, but ф am not thirsty … yet. This is another pet peeve of Indonesians. Whenever you answer a question like “are you married?” in the negative, you shouldn’t say “no” but “not yet”. If you say “no” it implies that you are never planning on getting married. If ф say “no” to their offering of Coke, it would mean ф never want a Coke for the rest of my life. So ф respond “not yet”.  The Singaporeans buy Cokes and want to stay and watch the sunset from there. Nyoman wants to go with me, but he feels compelled to stay with the Singaporeans. ф want to climb the volcano within the volcano. ф have to.

ф start the trek up by myself. It is a steep cone of ash, and few make the trip. Most stay at the base to watch the sunrise, but this doesn’t make sense to me. My body pushes my eyes up the 45-degree crumbling slope. For every step ф take it seems like ф am slipping back two steps. ф am Sisyphus. When twilight sets in ф can see that the ash isn’t black but is actually gray. ф am following some fresh tracks and can hear other voices. Ahead of me ф see a trail of flashlights winding up the mountain. A few more come up behind me. It is difficult to even walk— ф am scrambling on my hands and knees at times, crawling up the cone.

Then all of a sudden a cloud envelops me and ф can’t see squat. ф can only see my own limbs trudging up the ash cone, slipping my way up a slanted plane. ф lose all perspective of gravity. Just my luck, ф figure. Rushing in vain to see the sunrise from the top of the volcano, only to have it socked in with fog … what’s the point of continuing if ф won’t be able to see anything from the top? For all ф know ф could be back on a beach in California. But ф keep plodding along, figuring that eventually something will come of it.

Suddenly a figure is right next to me in my periphery— a woman with a large basket balanced precariously on her head and a baby wrapped in a shawl hanging off her back. Here ф am, desperate and sweaty, out of breath, scrambling on my hands and knees and ф carry nothing … and this mother casually saunters by toting a heavy load balanced on her head, not even breathing hard. And to top it off she is only wearing flip-flops. Incredulous, ф rest on my hands and knees as she passes. The baby wrapped in the shawl looks down at me— a serene look, passing no judgment. ф try to keep up with them, but they disappear into the fog. At this point ф am not even sure ф am getting anywhere. It feels like ф am clinging to the earth just to keep from falling off. But ф can smell sulfur and the air feels thinner … ф sense that ф am near the summit.

The fog clears just as ф reach the rim of the crater. A pale orb bursts through the clouds momentarily, the rays refract every which way. ф can’t see down to the base or the surroundings, but ф can see down into the inner crater. Everything is diffused in a surreal tangerine light. ф witness the bubbling mire and hissing steam deep in the crater. There is a dark lake at the bottom. It is like looking into the vulva of earth. Was it Nietzsche that said that if you stare into the abyss long enough, it will gaze back at you?

There are a few dozen Japanese and Javanese tourists taking pictures of themselves on the edge of the crater. The same kids that were at the base are now selling Cokes, and up here they are 500 rupees— translating the increased potential energy of the weight of the Coke into a 300-rupee increase in price. The other tourists pay the difference. But ф am more interested in the Madonna and child who passed me on the way up. She is setting up shop on a picnic table that was already here. ф go over to see what she has cooking. Her basket is full of drinks, fruit and other foods. If there is a fabled restaurant at the end of the universe, this is it. She even has a little radio that she sets up. She fiddles around with antenna and asks me in English what ф want. “Whatever you got” –ф say.

She pulls two eggs out of the basket and holds them up to me.

“Sure” –ф say. ф don’t see a stove anywhere so ф am not sure what she is going to do with them. Unless they are already hard-boiled.

Then she does a peculiar thing— she holds the eggs in front of her eyes and says—“watch”. She smiles at me then disappears into the crater. ф follow. She places the two eggs on a ledge in a vagina-shaped fissure that issues steam. She sets a timer on her watch and holds 10 fingers up to me. Returning to the table, she dishes some warm rice out of a basket and sets some chili and peanut sauce out. As she leans over, she exposes her cleavage to me. Meanwhile, her baby crawls around in the ash drawing circles.

The clouds clear enough so ф can see to the base. ф try to find Nyoman’s jeep and spot it just as it is pulling away. ф can’t believe my eyes. ф track the jeep for a while as it traverses across the plane then disappears. There is nothing ф can do from here anyway, even if what my eyes are telling me is true. It doesn’t seem important. ф can think of worse places to be abandoned. All that matters is the here and now. ф am not about to waste all the potential energy ф gained climbing up here to chase Nyoman and my backpack full of clothes. ф am Sisyphus with foresight, with the knowledge that all is vain and it is futile to worry. ф am on top of Mt. Bromo and a woman with straight black hair is cooking me a hard-boiled egg. What more could ф want? She tells me to sit at the table and disappears into the crater. She reappears carrying the two eggs on a plate of rice. When she leans over to place the plate in front of me, a lock of hair falls over her shoulder.

ф peel the shell off the egg. Then ф break apart the whites to get at the crumbling and bruised yellow yolk.  



(c) 2003 by Derek White