When I spent an hour on the phone with my cellular company a few weeks ago to ensure that my phone would work while in Lombok, a small island east of Bali, the woman assured me that it would. Of course, she warned, I would incur steep fees. “Indonesia is a very long way away,” she said. As if I didn’t know this. As if, somehow, I’d miss this fact.
I’m not really sure why I’d bothered with the phone. At that point, I had still planned on bringing along my computer. I would bring my computer and my phone and maybe my own wireless internet connection. Or perhaps a refrigerator. I had thought I could lug it all with me to this small village in Southeast Lombok, without water or power, with a perfect, lonely surf break lapping at its shore and get some work done.
In the end I didn’t bring my computer. Instead, I brought a notebook and pens, and figured I could work on my book in long hand. I never even turned my phone on.
There are monkeys in Lombok. Macaq monkeys the size of small dogs. I’m not sure if macaqs steal things, if they like to finger smooth ballpoint pens in their hands, imagining what they could do with their thumbs, but I’m pretty sure they took most of my pens.
“You should write about my husband.” We are sitting at the bar, drinking our who-knows-how-many-th Bintang Beer (my new favorite saying: “its Bingtang Time!”). I can still hear the faint keening sound of the afternoon call to prayer. Lombok, unlike its busy neighbor to the west, is Muslim.
“He’s a risk taker.” The new couple hadn’t event checked into their room yet. After only a few days at Heaven on the Planet (that’s the actual name of the resort) my husband and I were part of the welcoming committee. This new couple would join us for dinner around the communal table that night. I had just told the wife about my new book project on risk taking. She asked me if I was getting much work done while on vacation.
“No,” I smiled. “Not at all.” That wasn’t entirely true. Writing a book is like searching through the cushions of a very frilly sofa, fingering the piping and reaching way down behind for stray coins. It doesn’t all happen on the page. There’s an investigation that goes along with it. Call it research. I want to examine why people take risks–namely in the thrill seeking realm–and try to figure out my own fascination with risk taking. You could call this trip research. I’m not a good surfer, and yet here we are halfway across the world to surf this break that most people have never heard of.
We talked about the coming swell. How it was supposed to rise; rumors of big surf circled around the open bar/restaurant/library like sharks. Now that the waves were coming, more surfers arrived. Not that the waves weren’t already plentiful. But the really big ones, the pushy barrels, those would arrive tomorrow. Everyone was sure of it.
The next morning, I arose early and sat in front of the bungalow, watching the swell wrap around the headland onto the beach. I couldn’t find a pen. Hadn’t I brought, like, ten pens? I wanted to write about taking risks and how I was about to do just that in a few hours when I went surfing. Surfing was risky, no question about it. I’m not really a water person, that is unless the water is in the form of snow. Still, we were here, and I planned to surf.
Monkeys surrounded the bungalow. One, a large male, climbed a nearby tree and tried to stare me down. The hotel staff recommended that you avoid eye contact with the macaqs, especially the large males. But I couldn’t help it. This one lifted his eyebrows to make his eyes look bigger. It was creepy. I wondered if he had my pens.
There is a point at which you realize the futility of your actions. A point at which you just give up looking for a pen. Pick up your surfboard and test out your theories. Before my husband and I left for this surfing-and-diving-and-dipping-my-toe-back-into-risk-taking trip in Indonesia, I was cranking on my book. He was cranking at the ski area. Getting pre-season projects finished. Making sure all the details were in place before the snow started to fall. My plan was to finish a book proposal before ski patrol duties took most of my time.
October wouldn’t have seemed an ideal time to get off the grid and chill. But it never is. Not until you are there, sitting on a porch overlooking Ekas Bay, a long, shallow bay, known to some of the locals for its fishing, surrounded by monkeys and a rising swell, that you truly appreciate the importance of it. For your soul.
The boat deposited us in the water, a few paddle strokes from Outside Ekas. The swell was rising, but still small by local standards. That was fine enough with me. A few other surfers bobbed in the water, raising their hands in hello. In just a few short days, I’d already met everyone here: we’d drank Bintangs together and swapped stories of how we’d found out about this place. John and I waited our turn, watching the swell rise and break. The waves were inconsistent.
Am I a risk taker? I paddled into the lineup and watched a wave rise behind me. I turned and swam. This was a big wave, and I was in the prime spot to catch it. I hardly had to paddle and I was up, riding the glassy curve, my surfboard firm and solid beneath me. I was surfing. I was really surfing. In the water, Jason, one of the really great surfers at the break, smiled. He raised his fist in solidarity. That was another strange thing about this place: everyone cheered each other on.
This would be the wave by which all others were judged. I knew this before it was even over. I was on it, cutting back and forth, working the wave like a ski slope. My smile cracked my face, and the wave petered out below me. A rush of adrenaline flowed out of me and the dopamine flowed in. I was high on brain chemicals: blissed out and happy. I’m not sure if I’d call myself a risk taker. Sure, I take calculated risks, but the true thrill seekers never consider their actions risky. Paddling into a big wave is not a gamble; they know they can surf it. The trick is to tamp down the adrenaline while in the moment. Give into it and you might panic or choke. People think thrill seekers are adrenaline junkies. But that isn’t true. Most thrill seekers I’ve known work hard to keep the adrenaline in check. It’s the after-effect, the dopamine, that offers the big rewards.
As I paddled back to the waiting boat a few hours later, I had to remember to stop smiling to keep myself from swallowing water. Bliss still coursed through my veins. I caught several more waves, but none quite as good or as long or as glassy as that first. My arms and shoulders felt heavy as I pulled myself into the boat. Being off the grid in Indonesia was certainly heaven on the planet. It was Bintang time.