26: Bali-Closing the Loop
The newborn street pup, eyes still closed, fit neatly in my hand and nuzzled into my chest. She was a little ball of warmth. The utter vulnerability of such a cuddly creature, paradoxically, may be the single strongest card they have to play in the fight for survival at that stage in life. How could I leave her to die? “Yeah, we’ll take her,” I said to the matriarch of my homestay wondering how on earth this was going to work out. An orphaned street pup who had already lost a few siblings after the mother had disappeared, she was weak from malnourishment and clinging to life by a thread. With my shirt tucked into my board shorts, I lowered young Lola, as she came to be known, into my makeshift tank top hammock and headed to the store to pick up some baby formula.
“Yeah, we’ll take her,” I said to the matriarch of my homestay wondering how on earth this was going to work out.
Feeding young Lola
Nate and Zak, two British chefs from the swanky La Brisa restaurant, a Bali mainstay, had graciously agreed to adopt Lola. Their fenced-in bungalow compound had a large grass yard and pool, doggo heaven. Lola may have had a rough start to life but things were looking up for her in a big way. After a few failed attempts to get her to nurse from a tiny bottle she got a second wind. Her instinct to nurse turned on like a light switch and she put away an entire bottle with the reckless abandon of a frat bro, tiny tail vigorously wagging the entire time. By the time my Indonesian visa ran out she was strong, healthy, and swimming in the pool. At the time of writing her interests include barking at monkeys and gnawing on choice cut steak bones brought home by her dads.
Settling into Bali again
Several weeks had passed since I arrived in Bali, where my trip had begun almost a year ago. I arrived a different type of traveler than last time. After parting ways with Luke in the Philippines it had become clear that I was road weary. The urgency to see and do everything had been replaced by a longing for routine, continuity, a sense of belonging. I paid in full for a month-long rental of a bungalow, moped, and surfboard. Not only was the monthly rate cheaper, it also meant I was committing to staying put, which sounded delightfully simple.
The surf break in front of Finns Beach Club was a stone's throw from my bungalow so after applying zinc warpaint to my face I’d walk down barefoot at first light to try my luck.
To get the lay of the land the first week was spent scoping out the Canggu hostels and coffee shops to figure out where I would become a regular. The Farm Hostel, with its hip pool and tropical gardens, became my go-to social spot while Camp 338 and the Quince were my favorite coffee shops to blog and take care of administrative issues. Westerners who had the same plan of posting up for a longer stint, often funded by their ability to work remotely as “digital nomads”, provided a core group of friends for me to settle in with for my stay.
My days consisted of an oatmeal breakfast, morning surf, gym, coffee shop, and poolside socializing before an early bedtime. The surf break in front of Finns Beach Club was a stone's throw from my bungalow so after applying zinc warpaint to my face I’d walk down barefoot at first light to try my luck.
The Berawa beach break, as it’s known, has a sandy bottom and thumping swells but the peaks of the waves are far less consistent than a reef break. This is both good and bad because there is some luck involved in getting the right location to catch a wave. On the positive side this also spreads out the line up as people paddle around to try to position themselves. At popular reef breaks everyone clusters in one location but here I could find a choice piece of real estate all to myself.
Racing along the right breaking wave with a frothy, white barrel smashing behind me I let my right hand brush the wall of water rushing up before me.
On my first morning, the “magic seaweed” app informed me that an 8-12ft swell was coming in with the favorable mid-tide conditions at 6:30am. That was pretty big for me but this is what I came here for. As I stretched and observed the surf from the shore, I said a little atheist’s prayer for safe passage to any deity that may have been listening. My paddle muscles needed a bit of work but the lactic acid that had plagued me at the beginning of my travels was absent. After several duck dives on my 5’10” “Fish” I was perched in what I figured was as good a spot as any. Squinting at the horizon I saw the rolling swell of a big incoming set.
Better the board than me
As the sun glistened along the face of the rising wave behind me I paddled and flutter kicked as if my life depended on it. The telltale sensation of being propelled by the cresting swell let me know it was time to get up. “Don’t fuck this up,” I thought. Falling now would almost certainly result in a trip “over the falls” in which the wave’s raw power takes a surfer up the face of the wave, hurls them forward, and then smashes them down to the bottom with no regard for human life or discomfort. In one fluid motion I pushed the board down with my arms and hopped both feet up into a wide fighting stance. “Holy Shit! This feels right!” With feet firmly planted I carved into the overhead wave and rose up to the middle, pumping to maintain speed. The exhilaration washed over me and ran tingling down the length of my spine. I was riding the same type of powerful wave that had pummeled and rolled me so many times before! Racing along the right breaking wave with a frothy, white barrel smashing behind me I let my right hand brush the wall of water rushing up before me.
Sunset Surf at Berawa Beach Break, Canggu, Bali
As the wave began to lose steam I saw another beginning to take shape 15 feet further in front of me. Bobbing the nose of the board to keep moving I managed to get inside just in time. The new wave broke clean down the line and I accelerated into another ride all the way to the beach. Although I went out most mornings for the rest of my stay I never got another wave that could hold a candle to that one. In the following weeks, the ocean saw fit to snap my board and give me a few hairy washing machines that sent me paddling back in, sputtering and cursing. My surfing is like my golf game. Sometimes I’ll get a birdie but I never finish with a good score. Clearly I still have a lot to learn. The universe has a way of humbling you when you need it I suppose.
The weeks flew by. A visit from August, the professional mermaid I had dated in China, and a cohort of long-term Bali travelers provided some much needed social stability. Sitting poolside at the Farm Hostel I met Alex, a Wisconsin transplant, who started “The Travel is Real” podcast, a compilation of traveler stories. With midwestern charm he invited me on the show with a casual, “You’ve been traveling for a while. Got any good stories?” I thought for a minute. “Yeah, this is a throwback from my time in Egypt in 2009. A buddy and I snuck in and climbed the Great Pyramid.”
Telling the Pyramid story to Alex for his podcast, "The Travel is Real"
Story Telling: Sneaking into the Pyramids
Lying flat on our stomachs in the cool sand we peered over the edge of the dune at the small guard shack. In the darkness we could see the door open as a sliver of light appeared and then vanished as it slammed shut. A lighter sparked and two dark silhouettes with slung rifles lit cigarettes. The men were almost invisible except for the embers of their smokes. Neither of us moved. After a few minutes flicked cigarettes flew end over end before extinguishing in a shower of sparks. The light appeared again as they walked back into the hut. The door slammed. “GO! GO! GO!”, I whispered.
Now the only thing between us and the pyramids were a few guards with AK-47s.
We lit out like kids at a track meet, kicking up sand as we sprinted for the side of the towering Great Pyramid. It felt like we were flying, feet barely touching the ground in an all-out stride. I could feel the audible thump of my heartbeat in my ears. We had a lot of ground to cover before the next cigarette break if we wanted to pull this off. The blocks were between chest and shoulder height. We planted our hands on the rough sand stone and threw our legs up, lept to our feet and kept going, over and over. The cool desert air stung as my chest heaved with adrenaline fueled exertion. Every stone ledge or two we would glance back at the guard shack. Soon we would be high enough that an observer from the ground would only be able to pick us out on the shadowy face if we were on the move.
The Great Pyramids of Egypt
An hour before, my buddy E and I had hopped out of a rickety 1980’s black and white cab at the front gates of the Pyramids. As is typical with the older taxis, the exhaust had wafted in during the entire ride leaving both of us a bit woozy from inhaling an unhealthy amount of carbon monoxide. Working off of a vague tip from a local, we walked along the 20 foot high perimeter fence through the narrow village corridors looking for a hole. At 2am it was remarkable how many kids were still running around. A few of them followed us for a bit, understandably curious about the two westerners in an Egyptian slum at that hour. Eventually, they headed back and we continued our search for an ingress point. After about 15 minutes we caught our break. There, on the other side of a makeshift donkey stall, was a five foot concrete wall with a hole in the 20 foot fence rising above it. Moving slowly so as not to disturb the farm animals, we climbed into the stall and through the fence to the sand dunes on the other side. Now the only thing between us and the pyramids were a few guards with AK-47s.
By the time we made it about halfway up, the climb had become downright dangerous. What we hadn’t realized is that the stones around the base of the pyramids and along the corners had been replaced for structural integrity. Where we were now was still the original sandstone from when they were built 4500 years ago. Unlike the first hundred feet or so, the stone ledges had largely worn down leaving brittle chunks that were covered in sliding sand build up. Our ascent had slowed to a rock climbers pace as we carefully selected our foot and hand holds.
Pausing to catch our breath and listen to the call to prayer
Five feet to my left I heard the distinct crack of stone breaking. E’s right arm swung back opening up his body like an opening door and his hand released a baseball size piece of rock that disappeared into the darkness. He sucked back into the wall, pressing his entire body flush against it. Far below us I heard the distant sound of the rock strike a ledge. Edging carefully over to him until I was inches from his face, I could see the paralyzing fear in his eyes. “Dude, I’m going to die. I’m never going to see Rebecca and Zachary again,” he rasped. The left side of his face was sweaty and caked in sand. “Breathe,” I said as calmly as I could. “Fuck, that was really close,” I thought to myself. The next ledge that was flat and a few feet wide was about 200 feet below us. We both stood there, chests pressed into the Pyramid, and took deep breaths. “Alright, let’s traverse across to the corner. Nice and slow.” I was shitting myself but I did my best to hide it. Remain calm, project calm.
During our descent we only had to stop once for a guard cigarette break before making our dash back to the hole in the fence.
Inching our way to the corner we began to see the same style of refurbished blocks we had climbed at the bottom. Relief washed over us as we stood on a perfectly flat, 3 foot ledge. We were safe! I could have kissed that big stone cube with its nice right angles. We smiled at each other as only two people who have shared a brush with death can. Without warning the silence was shattered by the reverberation of the near simultaneous calls to prayer from every mosque in Cairo. When the shock wore off we stood and listened. The wails from the minarets were hauntingly beautiful. But they were so loud, so much more intense than usual. As it turned out, our pyramid adventure happened to coincide with the first day of Ramadan. To celebrate the holiday, every imam had brought their A-game to the morning call to prayer.
On top of the Great Pyramid
A thousand acapella voices melted into one, surrounding us for our final push for the summit. Now that we were back on the wide blocks it was only a matter of minutes before we crested the top. From our vantage point, we could look out over the other two pyramids at eye level and see the archaeological sites of the great Egyptian civilization far below. After a few minutes reveling in our accomplishment we began bounding back down the corner. Going down was a breeze. Between gravity, solid footing, and the fact that we were now facing the guard shack, allowing us to monitor it on the move, we made great time. During our descent we only had to stop once for a guard cigarette break before making our dash back to the hole in the fence. The sunrise was warming the horizon as we climbed into bed back at my apartment in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo. We were both out as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
Sharing my story with Alex for his podcast brought me right back to that night. The next day I called E to catch up and reminisce about our adventures. Before I knew it my month in Bali was up. With little fanfare, I returned my moped and surfboard, said goodbye to friends, checked out of my cozy bungalow, and headed to my next stop, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Ben quit his job to travel the world. He intends to keep winging it as long as he can.