“After I’m done traveling this year, I’ll be ready to settle down and, you know, grow flowers,” he said to me and the Dutch student on the bus. There was a pregnant pause where none of us so much as nodded. “Or not,” he laughed. Oli is a 30-year-old French Canadian prosecutor from Quebec who is taking the year to travel while his girlfriend works in Thailand. Not only will I be practicing law in a similar field as Oli, but in 2008 we both worked in DC on labor policies related to the North American Free Trade Agreement — he for the Canadian government and I, for a human rights organization. Another coincidence is that I happen to be doing the same trek as Oli and his girlfriend in early October.
Neither of us was in the mood for Kuta, Bali when we arrived — so our paths crossed on the first bus out of there. My plan was to climb Mount Rinjani on the neighboring island of Lombok, and I needed a partner in order to book a guide — which the government requires since deaths are not unheard of (caused largely by falling off cliffs or hypothermia). Oli wanted training for the October trek so his interest was piqued. I had my doubts initially because he was in a more talkative mood than I, but when we got off the bus in Padangbai and he asked me to hold his guidebook while he turned to blow a snot rocket, I knew he was the one!
Two days later at 5 a.m., we were on our way to Mount Rinjani.
Rinjani is Indonesia’s second largest volcano whose most recent eruption was in May 2010. Within its 50 km² caldera sits the crater lake Segara Anak (Child of the Sea), believed to be sacred by many Lombok natives who do pilgrimages there. Eruptions within the caldera have formed a new small cone called Gunung Baru (New Mountain). The trek ascends up to Rinjani’s summit, which sits on the outer rim at 12,224 feet (3,726 meters).
Before the climb, with Rinjani’s peak in the background to the left:
We were paired with a group of four other people — from Germany, Switzerland, and France. Several other groups started at the same time, however, so it initially felt a bit like a cattle call to see who could make it to the first camp the fastest. We wound our way through densely-packed trees whose roots wove steep, church-like steps up one of the volcano’s saddles. A canopy of palms and vines protected us from the heat until the late afternoon clouds began to roll in.
The next people to introduce on this journey are the porters, whose steadfastness is matched only by the volcano they traverse daily. They also have a sneaky sense of humor that catches you by surprise. I asked one porter whether rain was expected, to which he responded, “Yes . . . When you reach top, rain from your eyes.” And when one porter tripped near the edge of a cliff and I said, concerned, “Careful, don’t fall,” he smiled and said, “Don’t fall down, fall in love!”
Late in the afternoon, we summited the crater rim of the volcano. Here we are looking at the inner volcano (Rinjani’s peak is on the left):
Have I mentioned how terrified I am of heights?
After setting up camp precariously on the volcano’s slope, Oli said, “I love carrying my life on my back, setting out my home in my tent; my shoes go here, clothes over there, and light up there.”
You can spot the peak of Mount Agung (9,994 feet) on Bali, to the right of the setting sun:
This trek is polar opposite of New Zealand’s pristine landscape, marked instead by ash, grit, trash, and shit. Grime covers everything, from the rocks we scaled to the plates and forks from which we ate. And people use the volcano as a giant dump, littering its sides with garbage, excrement, and toilet paper. The mountain has a rawness that I strangely appreciate, but when we crawled into our heavily-used sleeping bags provided by the porters, Oli scared me into thinking that they were lined with crabs.
That night, the wind whipped furiously at our tent as we froze our butts off despite wearing every article of clothing we brought. I must have slept all of two hours, but somewhere in that time frame I awoke from my fetal position to what I thought was an avalanche of volcanic rock and molten lava tumbling down the mountain. Indeed, it was only the wind — offering a foreshadow of what was to come. I yanked the sleeping bag over my head to warm myself up with my breath, settling back into my nightmare of crabs spreading across my face.
At dawn, everyone emerged from their tents laughing about how they had to spoon each other to prevent from freezing to death overnight — most of us didn’t know one another let alone have the same mother tongue. Needless to say, we all bonded rather quickly.
Early morning descent to the crater lake:
Before lunch by the lake, we swam in the hot springs:
This is the moment I will remember when I’m pulling 80+ hour weeks at my next job:
The ascent up to our second campsite involved, to our surprise, rock climbing. In the mountains, you must have confidence in your footing. I had none. The film of volcanic dust made me unsure of every step so I put to use the “three hands rule” that my dad taught us as kids when we climbed anything (and we climbed everything). With my butt up in the air for the last two hours of the ascent, I imagine I looked like I did when I was first starting to crawl (I refused to let my knees touch the ground like a normal toddler).
Oli greeted me at our campsite with cookies — shortbread with jam filling. He has a hilarious grandma taste in food, loving also, of all things, cabbage. Fortunately for him, that worthless vegetable managed to find its way into every meal.
We camped among other groups of trekkers smack dab on the volcano’s saddle (who does that??):
Rinjani’s peak, and a preview of the next day’s climb:
Another spectacular sunset:
Because we were camping on a ridge, the wind’s ferocity intensified that night. Although the sun had just set, we all huddled in our tents for protection. Oli and I stayed up talking as the wind howled and slashed at our paper-thin walls, sounding like we were on a ship sailing into a squall.
“My goal is happiness,” said Oli, referencing how he would never do a job that made him unhappy. We discussed how being happy is a higher priority for our generation than it is for our parents’ generation. I spoke of how the mountains in my life that are my grandfather and father, however, root me more so in the older generation when it comes to postponing happiness for the sake of my belief in a greater vision. But I know there must be a balance, and I appreciate the influence of others like Oli.
We talked law, why he was interested in prosecution and I, defense. His law and MBA degrees made him well-suited for the world of white collar crime. Given his five years of experience heading up his own trials, which at times involved upwards of 30 witnesses, I could understand his frustration with defendants and their lawyers. I explained that my pull to defense was rooted in my desire to strengthen nascent legal systems. Good defense attorneys are especially needed in international criminal law, a relatively new field, in order to improve the legitimacy — and thus sustainability — of its foundational institutions and laws. Having had experience at both international and domestic courts, I have seen just how far we have to go — which makes me eager to sink my teeth in.
Oli and I exhausted ourselves discussing law and laughed about the irony — part of the reason we were traveling was to take a break from lawyers.
I slept even less this night than the previous one. Apparently it is indeed possible to look forward to waking up at 2 a.m. to climb over 3,000 feet, just for the sake of getting one’s blood moving. Thank you, you cold, sleepless night you?
After a handful of cookies and tea, five of us strapped on our packs and joined the throngs of other trekkers from all over the world — we guessed over 50, excluding guides — who were attempting what I soon discovered was a stupidly steep ascent to the top. Within ten minutes you could feel the altitude. “It feels like we partied SO hard last night,” Oli huffed. My lungs were also burning, as well as my calves. Despite trying my best to lodge my feet into the mountain, the loose volcanic rubble came out from under me. With each step, I took half a step back.
Half an hour down, three more hours to go.
Eventually I peeled ahead of the clumps of trekkers, feeling the wind intensify the higher I climbed. Every so often I’d find refuge from the gusts that tore at my raw fingers and face as I wound through mazes of volcanic rock that reminded me of the movie, Labyrinth (I’m dating myself aren’t I?). After about an hour, I found myself alone. On the ridge of an active volcano. With nearly vertical drop-offs ten feet to my right and ten feet to my left. In pitch black darkness with only my weak headlamp to guide me.
Terrified, having just looked over the cliff for the first time:
Three times I passed a few folks who were huddled beneath a rock. Two guides who had turned around told me to do the same because the winds made the climb unsafe. Although intense, New Zealand’s Kepler Track had been worse, and because my pack was smaller I wasn’t being whipped around as much. So, onward and upward I plowed.
Finally, rays of light began to glow softly on the horizon, revealing what I was scrambling up:
Even more terrified, now that I can see:
Sunrise, 200 feet or so from the top:
Made it! Apparently under ten of us summited. While Rinjani is not the highest I’ve climbed, it was certainly one of the toughest.
I mentioned wearing every article of clothing I brought. This included a tank, thermals, long sleeve shirt, fleece, jacket, hat, gloves, two pairs of socks, and Forever 21 shorts, haha.
Below, you can see the outer volcano casting its shadow on the inner volcano:
Marguerite is a French ophthalmologist who is taking a few weeks off from residency. When she shared a chocolate cookie with me at the top, I nearly died and went to heaven. P.S. How amazing are my Kiwi socks??
As I skated down the ridge, filling my shoes with pebbles and lumps of dirt, a tall French guy caught up to me. “I’m just so proud of myself!” he began gleefully. He chatted away about how he was doing an around-the-world trip with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, this was the first fellow RTW-er I’ve met.
Early morning view of the peak, further down Rinjani:
After returning to camp (I don’t know why the guide told us we had to carry our packs), our group wolfed down some banana pancakes before continuing our descent down the other side of the volcano.
Our shy guide offered cookies to lift my spirits after Oli ran out. I’m filthy and smelly, but at least my nails still look good, haha.
Peaceful lunch spot beneath the coolest tree:
Oli and I finished the trek together, spending the last hour discussing the institution of marriage and how dramatically different people in Quebec view it than in the States (or the rest of Canada for that matter). Although Oli refers to his girlfriend’s mother as his mother-in-law, there is no pressure, nor even expectation, that he propose. He explained that his parents’ generation distanced themselves from the institution of marriage as a protest against religion, the result being that the next generation doesn’t even consider it to be a right of passage. Interestingly, in the States, those who have taken a stand against the church have for the most part opted to instead preserve and redefine the institution of marriage.
The way in which Canada’s constitution has shaped the institution of marriage there I find fascinating (my understanding of the following is based on my conversation with Oli and limited study of international constitutional law). Canada’s constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of marital status. Consequently, (in addition to gay marriage being legally protected), the government can’t give tax breaks to married couples. What makes Quebec unique is that its laws also take care of people when they separate, regardless of whether they were married. So if a woman (or man of course) drops her professional career to raise children, and then gets separated from her partner, Quebec’s laws ensure that her partner not only financially helps out the children, but also pays due compensation to the woman. People in Quebec therefore lack the legal incentives to tie the knot.
I wondered aloud to Oli the degree to which our countries’ respective laws shape our generation’s perspectives on marriage and whether our laws in the U.S. are partly responsible for the pressure my friends now feel to marry and have children when some of them freely admit they are not yet ready. When I asked whether there is a way couples from Quebec demonstrate their long-term commitment to one another, he just shrugged. My girlfriend is my partner now, he said, just as her mother has been my mother-in-law from day one. She feels the same way. We will remain each other’s committed partners until, if ever, we decide otherwise.
Again, there are so many ways to live and love in this world.
Back at home base, a little worse for the wear: