Shedding skin in Java |

Shedding skin in Java

Rick Gunn
The ancient Javanese temple of Prambanan--located on the outskirts of the Central Javan city of Yogjakarta was first dedicated to Vishnu, then to Bhudda.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to

This is not going to be pretty, I said to myself after scouring a map of Java. Straining my eyes in the dank light of my tumble-down hotel room, I’d studied that map for an hour trying to link a decent cycling route across the island.

After coming up empty-handed, I began to recognize the ride ahead of me for what it was: a steaming mountain of manure I’d have to climb — a 600-mile turd between me and my destiny.

Taking another sip from my cold Bintang beer, I put on the Rolling Stones, then continued assembling my bike from the second-hand refrigerator-box I’d used to fly it from Borneo’s Kalimantan.

“It’s alive!” I shouted when I was done.

A handful of cockroaches scuttled beneath the bed.

Perhaps I should have been disgusted, but I no longer cared.

After two years, I’d traveled 18,000 miles, through 29 countries, under entirely unimagineable conditions — all self-propelled on a simple machine of rubber and steel.

The truth was — if I was still breathing — there was certainly more right with me than wrong.

I turned my attention from my new insect posse to an ailing pile of equipment beside the bed. If it wasn’t broken, it was well on its way. Among the dead and dying were my camera, a lens, my laptop, my shifters, my rear wheel and hub, two broken rack eyelets, my fifth cyclo-computer, 12th set of tires, 10th set of brake pads, seventh tail-light and my 20th set of headphones.

Begrudgingly, I reached into the pile and round-filed my last pair of underwear.

I had holes in my shoes, holes in my shorts, holes in my teeth, and holes in my soul.

And even though there were still those times when I felt lost, lonely or completely insane, somehow I remained mezmerized by it all. Enamored by each new landscape, captured by the shifting cultural shapes of this extraordinary human tribe.

And so, there I was that first morning, throwing my leg over my bike on one of Jakarta’s leafy side streets, preparing to do it all again.

The first 15 seconds of riding were pleasant.

Two minutes later — after turning onto one of Jakarta’s main thoroughfares — I’d cycled into a war-zone, a place where any sense of well-being was instantly disemboweled by the thorny claws of Jakarta’s inner-city traffic.

I held my course, pedaling straight down the throat of this volcanic cauldron as it ceaselessly spewed smoke and metal from the center of the city. I gritted my teeth, lowered my chin, and picked up speed. Traffic flew at me like nails out of a nail-bomb.

“Holy Shybah!” I shouted after nearly being crushed by a truck, then ducked, dodged, sprinted and swore.

Anything it took to keep my head above water within the vehicular undertow, a place where any slip-up meant tea for two with the grim reaper.

I’d been warned.

Under the “Getting Around” section of my guidebook, the author described long-distance cycling on Java in two words: “extremely unpleasant.”

I could describe it with one: “imbecilic.”

Luckily, I was just the imbecile for the job.

Three days later, nothing had changed, and I remained locked in, punching my way through the mayhem, elbowing my way through traffic, grinding my jaws upon the chewable clouds of exhaust. That’s when that ancient and eternal question welled from within. The one that asked, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Bicycle-touring here was like trying to surf a landslide. Like opening an umbrella in a downpour of bowling balls. Like trying to fend off a herd of mammoths with a rubber chicken.

“But why would you put yourself through that?” A Belgian man asked after he’d watched me struggle through traffic.

The answer to his question came several days later, after I’d climbed Puncak Pass, then flashed down the backside of a sweeping volcano.

The road dipped and roller-coastered, twisting 3,000 feet down a bottomless swoop of tarmac.

When it leveled, I was delivered into a valley of such eye-shattering beauty that it nearly made me cry.

Suddenly, the smog lifted and my vision sharpened, as if someone were rubbing clear spots on a smoke-stained window. Colors appeared, then whirled before my eyes. Sky blue. Pastel pink. Sunflower yellow. All of it dancing upon a vast living-canvas of electric green.

In the center of it all stood a Javanese farmer — clothed in traditional sarong and headdress — performing sacred ablutions among the richly sculpted rice fields.

I pulled to the side for a moment, then observed as he extended his arms, turned his palms skyward, and cast his prayers to the four corners of the earth.

It was at that moment, without words, that the Belgian man’s question was answered.

Two days later, I detoured from the main road, hooked through the countryside, then took a small hiatus in the red-hot surf spot of Pangandaran.

I’d come to this oceanside village for a single reason: Waves.

Bunkering my things within a surf-side ghetto, I made quickly for the beach. Racing past the weighty stares and glistening nets of the local fishermen, I punctured the surf, then bobbed like a cork in the Indian Ocean. I waded and watched, choosing selectively among the raging barrels.

Never satisfied with mediocrity, I waited for that wave that screamed “certain suicide,” then dug deeply at its base. Snapping my arms and kicking my feet, it wasn’t long before I was picking up speed, as if clutched within the grips of some huge liquid hand.

Then, in one of those millisecond eternities, I was hucked like a javelin into a moment of clean air. Nano-seconds later, my free-fall ended, and I rejoined the liquid earth. There I was crush-tumbled — shorts at my knees — spinning like an infinitesimal pair of micro-briefs within some vast cosmic washing machine.

Fifteen seconds after that, I popped back to the surface, where I sucked at the atmosphere like an industrial-strength air pump.

Happy with that experience, I repeated this process for three days, until the water had rinsed the soot from my smog-soaked soul.

I finished my tour across Java cycling over volcanoes, rambling through temples and wandering through a bustle of open-air markets.

As I did, I overheard a tourist mention the Tour de France. This sparked a memory of Lance Armstrong, or moreover, something he’d said after he’d beaten cancer. “I don’t have bad days anymore,” he told a group of journalists, only “good days” or “great days.”

In that light, I can say with some honesty, that my last week of riding in Java consisted entirely of good days. Non-great days that included crumbling roads, dense, life-threatening traffic, dozens of near misses, and smog so thick, that it brought tears (of joy) to my eyes.

The truth was, I suffered like a dog. That suffering continued until I rounded my last corner and spotted something beautiful upon the horizon. It was the Island of Bali.

“Hello old friend.” I whispered, having not seen the island for 10 years.

Then, before I knew it, I was standing on a ferry, looking back upon Java as it shrunk into the distance.

A handful of memories began to wash over me. Things I’d seen along the way: a beautiful young woman collecting tamarind pods off the floor of a graveyard; a handful of children playing joyously in Jakarta’s slums, an elderly woman with bare feet, on sharp rocks, carrying an impossibly heavy bundle of thatch.

Then I remembered the girl. A toddler I’d happened upon in the poverty-stricken outskirts of Pangandaran. Watching her from afar, I noticed she had scabs on her legs, welts on her arms, itchy-open soars on her face.

She was surrounded by her family, a smallish bamboo hut, piles of rubbish, and a small plot of land divided by open sewers.

I watched that child for a moment as she scratched compulsively, tearing at her skin rife with disease. When I made myself apparent, and raised my camera to take her picture, her mother smiled, then gently pushed her forward.

When I knelt and pointed my lens, it seemed to trigger something deep within the child. The recognition of her own beauty.

Looking through the barrel of my lens, I watched her spirit ascend, from the depths of that disease, over the garbage, the sewage, the corruption, the poverty. She leapt and danced, then raced at me with an indescribable happiness.

As she did, I fired the shutter again and again, capturing forever that soaring expression of happiness.

And while many will look upon that photo as just another snapshot when I return, it will forever be an image that will remain in my heart — a testament to that child’s spirit — a moment when the wonder of this beautiful life came pouring through.

For as that child shed her skin of suffering that day, so too she’d helped me to shed mine.

July 3-31 2007

Mileage log: 17,266-18,043

Elevation: Sea level to 5,000 feet

Jakarta, Bogor, Puncak Pass, Bandung, Tasik Malaya,

Pangandaran, Kroya, Yogjakarta, Tawangunangu,

Sarangan, Jombang, Probolinggo, Situbondo, Banyuwangi.

“Everyone talks about freedom. All around the world different people, different races, different countries are fighting for freedom. But what is freedom? In America we speak of living in a free country, but are we really free? Are we free to be who we really are?

The answer is no. True freedom has to do with the human spirit. Who stops us from being free? We stop ourselves.

What does it really mean to be free? We have memories of long ago when used to be free, and we loved being free. But we have forgotten what freedom really means.

If we see a child who is 2 or 3, perhaps 4-years-old, we find a free human. Why is this human free? Because this human does whatever he or she wants to do. This human is completely wild, like a flower, a tree, or an animal …”

— Don Miguel Ruiz, from the book “The Four Agreements”

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