It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment that the germ of this wild notion sprouted in my brain – or more likely, within my longing spirit. But in late November, over a delicious vegan lunch shared with a dog-loving acquaintance whom I didn’t know well enough to worry about how she would react when I shared the idea, it took hold. “What a wonderful idea,” she exclaimed. Making me feel, at once, buoyed, encouraged – and terrified. It’s one thing to imaginatively toy with the hypothesis of walking across Bali for ten days, from one coast to another, to raise money for the island’s people (who’ve suffered dearly since the onset of the pandemic) while eating a hearty and nutritious salad, and looking out to the horizon, where Mt Agung’s peak is partially visible in the distance; but it’s another thing altogether to declare that you will make happen. Which is what I did. I called it the BaliCore (Covid Relief) Expedition, 2021.*
Little did I know what I was getting into, the sheer breadth of tasks, deadlines, and unexpected obstacles that popped up every day. I pulled a small group of volunteers together, and invited five local, prominent NGOs to sign on (they were well-placed to distribute funds and supplies to villages around Bali). I was then introduced to an expedition leader experienced in the science of trail development, who works directly with community-based authorities and trekking guides to set walking routes. We joined forces, then set to work – she on the trails, camping and accommodations, and I on everything else.
One early morning, earlier this month, a small group of early-risers met under a rising sun at a little cafe near the world-famous Tanah Lot temple. From there, we spent the next 10 days, trekking and hiking and strolling and climbing and ambling along. We traversed vast rice paddy fields, and thickly dense jungles, remote villages where locals would stop in their tracks when catching sight of us walking through; mountainside ridges and bamboo bridges across rushing streams – some shaky and hastily built, while others were more securely attached to the firmament. There were a few days of deep descents, which meant we tottered down sharp inclines with slippery slopes (some wet from overnight downpours) only to embark on a steep ascent as soon as we reached the gorge’s base.
Masking up whenever we reached concrete, we met locals along the way, shopkeepers and farmers, kids on scooters, women placing offerings, young men gathered for a smoke, shaded from the sun. But mostly, our expedition was immersed in the leafy swaths of nature, extending far across the skyline and towards the horizon.
We followed trails once used exclusively by locals who, in the distant past, would walk for hours to their fields or to surrounding villages, sometimes carrying heavy sacks of rice or cow-feed; other times, visiting family or seeking a spouse. Following in their footsteps, we climbed hundreds of steep, Balinese-style, stairs at a time, each of them dug out of hillsides and demanding a fair dose of uphill exertion and stamina.
Most nights we camped out, each of us bunking down in our respective (and colourfully) designated tents; unpacking gear upon arrival, then showering and washing sweat-laden clothes in the hopes that they just might dry overnight (never fully, of course, as it was still rainy season!) The following morning, the routine reversed itself, and we would pack up our sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, thermal groundsheet and normally still-damp clothes. Sure, there were nights that we made do, falling asleep to the feel of craggy terrain underneath, and yes, on at least a couple of occasions, our tents were set on inclined slopes (generating a bit of sleep deprivation among the troops). But mostly (and this does not include the last night of total ant-infestation inside my tent) camping under the stars was a wonderfully rustic experience.
We had it good: staff with support vehicles were always one step ahead of us, setting up and taking down tents, ensuring we had sufficient water supply along the trail, equipping us with trekking poles. Friendships were formed, assistance and guidance offered along the way. We were also fed well, by two women whose singular task it was to keep us cheerfully sated and fueled with coffee, tea, fruit and… popcorn.
Yes, we camped in style. But for two nights, we were given a reprieve from slippery sleeping bags, long middle-of-the-night treks to a toilet and shower (mostly the hand-held kind, a bucketful of chill) and mosquitoes: we were blessed to find sponsors who booked us into two accommodations. Which translated into a treat of the coziest kind – a proper bed. A private toilet and shower. But one only needs one to appreciate the other; because, after a night’s repose ensconced in high-count cotton sheets and relative quiet, I was again ready to dose closer to the ground.
With all the anticipation, last-minute details, and hoopla surrounding an expedition of this magnitude, I’d almost forgotten that life continues to happen even as you meander through nature, or the world in general – sometimes interfering quite rudely and suddenly, upending our best-made plans with the most undesirable twists, turns and concerns. Which, naturally, is what happened during this microcosm of a walking retreat that I’d molded.
The setback was my own (damn) fault: Carrying a too-heavy load of water over a few long days of walking meant that my body, as expected, was eventually going to rebel. It did so, and loudly; hitting the left heel of my foot at first, by the next day, stubbornly disregarding bright red flags, the ache and burn had already crept up the back of my left leg to my sacrum. Jeez!
Why did I conveniently choose to forget that my body could not, should not, even 12 years post-accident, bear such weight? Until the end of the trek, I rotated between limping along at a self-effacing slug’s pace, and being ferried (saved is more like it) from a water-fillup-stop to that night’s campsite.
Painful.. and foolish. (Adding to my own physical challenges and anguish along the way, I received news one morning via WhatsApp, from the other side of the world, that my 88 year old father had fallen, broken his hip, undergone surgery and was hospitalized in pain).
Now, nearly 3 weeks after our return, I wonder how I could have imagined that, for the duration of the expedition, I might possibly place a whole pile of worries on the backburner and walk undeterred, undisturbed. My mind had wished: Can’t I just have a break for these 10 days? The answer came back loud and clear: Uhh, no. Because even when we withdraw to the wilds and wilderness, we remain tethered; not only to ourselves, but to the lives of those around us, near and (as proven) very far indeed.