It has been over five weeks since I wrote anything new on the Black Narcissus, and three since we returned from Java.
This is not intentional. Rather than lassitude, a paucity of ideas, or some kind of general slump leading me to take a break from my usual flow of writing, it’s more a case of the reverse: so flushed, inundated with sensory overload, olfactory and otherwise, that despite the rush of ideas that I was having for this blog the whole time I was in Indonesia, with words rising up in me constantly, they were always instantaneously crushed, almost pleasingly so, by the sheer living vividness of the experience, my brain and senses wanting to just be and imbibe, smell and listen, rather than translate or transcribe each moment in my usual extravagant manner into language. I ended up writing not a word.
I am only now starting to feel back to my usual self. The last time I wrote, exhausted from the end of the malingering school term in the sweltering August heat (record temperatures and humidity this year), I then wound up with an ear infection after going swimming at the beach one day that saw me half deaf in the classroom, listless and morbid on my futon, depleted and spaced out beyond measure, apathetic and immobile right up until the day before our flight from Tokyo to Jakarta.
There I got better, quickly: we both did: bloomed, stimulated and excited by this new environment we found ourselves in, a city of spice, choked chaos and crazed motorbike-clogged mayhem, but also a strange, preternatural calm; a serenity, ease of eye; feline elegance and a strange, magnetically positive, deepness of spirit that had us bewildered and in love with its naturalness.
Why did we feel so relaxed and home here? Why, when the culture of Java is so unlike that of Europe or Japan, did we feel so right in this ‘exotic’, ‘developing’ environment? It is a question whose answer continues to elude us. We have not had this feeling anywhere else.
Admittedly, at the end of the holiday, despite my best efforts with water avoidance, I did in fact succumb to the tourist’s predictable gastric horrors and spent the last couple of days and the first week back in Japan ill (but still dreaming): back in that heat, no energy again, depressed at the thought that it was all over and that I had to work again and at my utter incapacity to write, or even express, even to myself, what it was that I was feeling, what I can only now think of as some kind of beautiful, hypnotizing spell.
Duncan was the same. Where usually we would be sharing our photos and facebooking left right and centre about our travels to a new country, on this occasion we inexplicably couldn’t even look at the videos or photos we took on the holiday for three weeks (some of which I have put up here). We couldn’t even vocalize anything about the trip at first, days passing with us merely looking at each other, acknowledging the fact that something had happened that was very special, that it went quite deep, and that we emphatically didn’t feel like being back in Japan.
So what did ‘happen’? Why am I seemingly overreacting in this manner to what was, basically, just a holiday?
I don’t know. Nothing really. There was no epiphany, or ‘spiritual understanding’ or anything like that (unless there was, and it is still winding its way through me, some kind of slow, profound, alchemical process….)
We found the geological metaphor the best way of attempting to clarify the feeling though: of deep sediments that hadn’t been filled before in the other cultures we have known; geographical strata that lay further down in our souls/psyche, in spaces that we hadn’t even known existed to be filled. An uncanny, wide-eyed, homeful realness.
There is something about going to a place you have never been especially interested in before, or felt merely neutral about; you go without prejudice or preconceptions, or set images in your brain. Where reading about Madagascar, the originally intended vanilla adventure, had let its fascinations (and dangers) seep woozily into my head long before we even had to cancel the flight, with Java we didn’t even have a guidebook. We just knew that Mr Ramada Agus’ driver was picking us up outside the Hotel De Java in Bandung (Indonesia’s second city: did you know? I had never even heard of it) at 8am on the 17th of August. Other than than, and the hotels we had quickly picked online, we knew nothing.
I can’t recommend this unorthodox method of choosing an adventure highly enough, this being beset by a place, like stepping through a magic window into a new realm, without prior knowledge clouding up the mirror. All is new; all is fresh; everything is to be discovered. Time is slow. The new reality etches itself into your retina, more vividly and purely; experience, colour seared onto your consciousness.
Thus awakened, we rambled happily about Jakarta for a few days, took a four hour train journey to Bandung, and from there were taken to Ciang Kwang, the most beautiful rice-paddied village with a backdrop of classical Javan mountains in the landscape; banana trees; the beautiful, filigreed elegance of balletic-leaved papaya trees, deliciously coloured houses (the architectural sensibility was one of the biggest surprises of the holiday, actually): friendly neighbourhood mosques, children playing along the roadside, all nestling restfully up against the bruised, palm-laden sky, and, then, up to the wonderful Villa Domba, where the five day vanilla course was set to begin.
It was such a deeply enjoyable experience for numerous reasons. The vanilla was sublime – you should have smelled the curing room in the upstairs room of the family house – but I am still not entirely sure how I should approach all that here: whether as an extended, full-length article, in small pieces, or chronologically mixed- up with flowers, leading, eventually to the heart of the story – as I had so many other non-vanillic, gorgeous sensory experiences as well: ylang ylang in Yogyakarta; tuberose in Malang; the cardamom groves; frangipani; the coffee trees, durian fruit; coconut; even civet:
: possibly the best jasmine I have ever smelled in a five star air-conditioned hotel lobby; delicious culinary discoveries (we had Sundanese home cooking three meals a day while on the plantation), all of it sensuous and flooding my soul, but the whole of the trip post-Bandung deeply permeated with the aroma of the vanilla beans from the estate that I carried about with me every day; slept with; ate, drank, infused: inhaled constantly, used as my book markers – on the gorgeous train trips across Java where we sat back and relaxed and watched villages and mountains go by – the vanilla that perfumed the family house, that grew all around us, that we studied in great detail and could really feel the real love for.
The family and people who work at Villa Domba spend so much time and energy growing, tending to, harvesting, treating and curing these vanilla beans (one vanilla orchid produces only one bean a year) that seeing it first hand was truly inspiring; thought-changing.
In fact it was this, the people, that has caused our uncharacteristic descent (if you like) into dream state. They were so lovely. And it has somehow affected us in some profound way that I don’t think is merely ‘holiday blues’. It felt almost preordained, predestined, as if something completely new, and yet already there, were just waiting to be revealed. What it was I still don’t fully understand. Or know how, here, if I can fully do it justice.