Pain jolts down my back, yet I make it down the next tree root. We passed three groups of tourists so far, and they’ve all turned around. Not us.
A young Australian couple greets us as we near the next bend of the footpath through the jungle.
“Are you coming from Yeh Pulu?” I ask, smiling through my exhaustion.
“Yeah,” says the young guy. “It’s really small, not worth it at all.”
They pass us, and we set about descending a steep path. Helene keeps an eye out for critters and bugs.
A lesser man would have turned around. Me, I’m on a vision quest.
It started a long, long time ago, in a country far, far away.
In February 2009, I still had a steady job, an apartment with plenty of stuff in it, and a growing disquiet at the back of my mind. When my good friend John suggested we participate in a Lakota sweat lodge ceremony together, I jumped on the first plane from Edmonton to Vancouver.
I went to the ceremony out of intellectual curiosity, but I got a genuine epiphany out of it. On that day, I admitted to myself that I had already decided to quit my job and travel. In the steam and darkness, I saw spirits dance at the edge of my vision.
I saw something else: a relief carving of the Buddha reclining.
A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away, I set about fulfilling my vision. Eight months, a job, and an apartment full of stuff later, I might just accomplish that task, if I don’t stumble down a cliff to my death.
Ubud Out of the Rain
Ubud has grown on Helene and I. It came at us with nonstop rain and an earthquake, so left us no choice but to relax a little. We still resent the yoga crowd and the uninterrupted flow of pariwisata (Indonesian for tourists.) But we’re learning to relax, and sure enough, days turn into two weeks. We watch the rain fall, and wonder if the sun will ever return. Explained a tour operator, “In the rainy season, not even the holy men of Bali can keep the rain away.”
Yet one of the holy men must have worked overtime. One morning, the sun comes back, and we’re stunned with the possibility of actually doing stuff. Helene mentions Goa Gajah and nearby Yeh Pulu, and says the words ‘buddhist relief carvings’. The quest is on.
Getting to Goa Gajah is a matter of chartering one of the many drivers looking for work along any major street in Ubud. We recruit a guy with a pleasant smile and ear piercings the size of espresso cup saucers. When Helene walked past him the first time, he asked her the usual “Transport?” Then he added, with a touch of desperation, “Please?!” Helene was charmed.
Without an expensive guide to make it worth our while, Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, is over in a few minutes. We see the cave, take a few pictures, and linger around the stall of a middle-aged woman selling fresh coconuts. When we finish ours she opens it in half, then chops a piece of the shell to scoop the flesh. We exchange a few words, then set about finding Yeh Pulu. Helene read it can be reached from Goa Gajah, so we circumvent the place searching for a footpath.
We find the path lingering along a rice field. We ask a few souvenir merchants: “Yeh Pulu?” They point onward.
When we come across a young French couple and their Balinese guide, we ask again. The guide has a different answer for us.
“You want to go to Yeh Pulu?” he answers in flawless French. “You should go back up to the main road. You can reach Yeh Pulu this way, but it’s two kilometers through the jungle.”
I don’t know why we didn’t turn around right then.
Our first encounter along the path is with an old man wearing Bali religious garb. We ask him about Yeh Pulu, but he insists that we approach a small altar.
“Bali gods, elsewhere, all the same,” he tells us, his hands joined in prayer above his head. He burns a little incense, then splashes our faces with holy water. I can barely see through my glasses now. Then he points to a 20,000 Rupiahs note ($2 USD) on the altar, and his intent becomes clear. Yet his act is so simple and fresh, we don’t have the heart to shoot down his scam. Helene puts 5,000 Rupiahs on the altar. The old man hides his disappointment. He pockets the note hastily, lest the next group gets the same idea to leave the equivalent of fifty cents. He motions vaguely. “Yeh Pulu.” He readjusts his smile, and turns to the next tourists.
We have passed the guardian of the threshold; Joseph Campbell would be proud.
The path cuts through a beautiful landscape of lush jungle, filled with giant bamboo, coconut trees, and species of fruits we can barely recognize. We even spot a pineapple growing in the wild. The flora comes with a hearty side of fauna, and Helene soon becomes suspicious of omnipresent giant red spiders.
As I put down my hand on a tree trunk for support, it occurs to me I should check where I lay my fingers first. Sure enough, when I finally look, there’s a giant red scarab lying dead next to my fingertips, and he’s being torn to shreds by an army of ants. Lesson learned.
The further we go, the more perilous the path becomes, and the more determined we are not to turn around and face again all that we’ve already overcome. Soon, I’m sweating and aching, and wondering if my next step will take me down the cliff to the dirty water below.
Three groups of tourists have turned around, and warned us against going further. But we press on. I feel like a wushu student being turned away at the monastery to test my resolve. The sun is setting over the jungle. I try not to imagine myself tumbling down in the darkness, rolling over all those red spiders.
Yet somehow we make it.
We soon come upon a small Hindu temple rising from the jungle. A dark man as thin as his bones, is collecting bamboo rods. He smiles at us broadly.
“Yeh Pulu?” I ask, hopeful.
“Five minutes this way,” he answers in English. He waves at us and shoulders his burden.
As we climb the final steps out of the jungle, we feel we’ve just surfaced in another world. Gone are the tourists, the touts and the organic cafés of Ubud; the tourist buses only make it here by getting hopelessly lost. An old man, watching time crawl by, kindly chases away two growling dogs, then smiles at us. In the distance, we hear the loudspeaker chants of a local temple, accompanied by a clucking choir of chicken. Children beam at us on the streets, proud to practice their English with us. Each time, it goes something like this:
“Where are you going?” they ask with a smile.
Yet Yeh Pulu still eludes us, and we walk another fifteen minutes. I’m starting to ponder whether “Yeh Pulu” means ‘Over there’ in Balinese.
“Where’s over there?”
My sciatica is throbbing. I’m getting dizzy from dehydration. Yet somehow, ‘over there’ becomes ‘right here’. We enter the path that leads to Yeh Pulu at last.
I start to wonder how I’ll react when I see the relief carving from my vision.
We walk down further steps as the sun sets over rice fields. Men and boys stare at us as we pass a communal mandi (water basin used for washing).
And then here we are. All the way over there.
And the rock carvings look absolutely nothing like my vision.
We retreat from the path’s end, Helene already laughing at me. We stop for refreshments at Café Yeh Pulu, further up the path. I swallow a bottle of water whole. Then I set about drinking a fresh tangerine juice from the nearby orchard.
The juice tastes like summer in the shade. I feel better just by staring at it.
After we’re done, we chat with the owner, a smiling young woman whose husband owns a wood carving shop next door. She shows us the passion fruits growing in her backyard. She asks us where we’re from.
“Do you know how to catch the bemo (shared minibus) back to Ubud?” asks Helene.
“Oooh…” she shakes her head. “There are no bemo at this time. It’s too late.”
Fortunately for us, her husband drives tourists around from time to time, and he agrees to drive us back to our homestay in Ubud for his usual fee, despite having to put down his carving and put a shirt on. The alternative for us was a seven kilometer walk along a ravaged sidewalk, dodging motorcycles who can barely see us in the dark. I make sure to shake his hand when he drops us off back in familiar territory; it’s the least I can do to the man who saved my ass.
Of Visions and Journeys
Now, about that vision quest.
It’s possible my quest is much larger, and the reclining Buddha relief awaits me somewhere else, far from here. Or it’s possible my mind made it all up, and sent me on a meaningless chase without a goal.
But I think there’s another explanation.
Once I stepped out of the comfort of my life in Canada, and set out on this path through the jungle chasing an illusion, I had already fulfilled my quest. The journey is the destination.
What matters is that I got from Edmonton to Yeh Pulu following that dream, so I could sit down in a café and enjoy the taste of fresh tangerines.
All the way over there.
If you’re in central Bali and are curious to see either Goa Gajah or Yeh Pulu, they can be reached easily from Ubud.
The easiest way to reach them is by chartering a driver, which should cost you approximately 150,000 Rp ($15 USD) for the ride over, and the return. You can also get there by bemo, but as my tale illustrates, try and make it back before sundown.
The jungle footpath isn’t such a hard trek if you’re prepared for it. Make sure you have good shoes. If you want to just go to Yeh Pulu from Goa Gajah, you should make it back to the entrance; you will be able to access Yeh Pulu from the main road.
Entrance to Goa Gajah and Yeh Pulu each cost 600 Rp ($0.06 USD) per person.