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.
38 responses to “MY JAVAN DREAM”
Gorgeous. Speechless. Thanks.
I thought of you while I was there. You would have loved much of what we experienced, I am sure.
Will be giving out Villa Domba beans at Perfume Lovers London!
I am sure I would have adored it. One day…
Looking forward to London!!!!
How fantastical. And great to ‘walk slow, watch flower grow’ as they say in Asia.
Seriously. I think I was made for that philosophy.
O! The wayang kulit shadow puppets are like vanilla pod people!
So many new and strong sensory experiences for a sensitive can be quite dissociative. How to return to a world that requires you to engage with it in other ways than being led by the nose?
and thankyou for understanding why it has taken me so long to emerge!
Utterly brilliant to read. Beautiful. It’s good to have you back. xxx
Thanks babe. I just had to take the plunge and try to tackle it.
How lovely. I think sometimes a place gets inside of you and haunts you for the rest of your life. Big Sur, Yosemite, I dream of these places still and have not physically seen them in over 40 years. We all crave a wild place. It is a need as profound as the desire for love, food and shelter.
A lovely way of putting it, truly.
I read this while just waking with coffee this morning. Somehow you transported me to that place of awe and reverence that can’t be described. And yet you did describe this feeling that I understand, that is so rare, when our spirit is surprised by the unexplainable magic of a place. Your words got to me Neil, in a very good way. Thank you for this glimpse into your heart.
What you write here is exactly what I hope to achieve in many ways, but don’t imagine possible. Thank you. I do feel slightly embarrassed sometimes exposing myself in this way, but what you say makes it deeply worthwhile.
Mesmerizing…I felt like I was experiencing your adventure while reading your post. Thank you for sharing.
I would have actually liked to have spent longer perfecting it all, the pictures and the words, but it felt somehow essential to just post SOMETHING, to get the ball rolling…I am very pleased it at least elicited a feeling!
I’m so delighted to see you back, and love hearing, at least beginning to hear, about the change that this trip brought about for you. I’m intensely curious about where it will lead you. I was mesmerized into a trance myself by the photos of those exquisite yellow plumerias. I would give I-don’t-know-what to be sitting under them right now.
I saved some of the aforementioned jasmine for you. It will be coming your way when I can get my act together.
Some kind of essential oil burned in the lobby, but stunning. I have been wearing it ever since. Full, replete, indeed feral.
How very lovely. I can’t wait.
I know how you feel about Java, I take home with me the memory of the flowers and the Hindu offerings with ylang ylang and Michelia flowers. Perhaps you are feeling drugged by the effects of the vanilla and flowers there?
What is that little black animal?
an actual civet!
and its cage literally did smell like the base notes of the classics like Joy and No 5 .
F A S C I N A T I N G
I totally understand wanting to live in the experience itself for as long as possible before writing and labeling, which separates us from our experiences, from the “is-ness” of them. I’m so glad that you had the feeling of being at home in Java – not just at home there, but deeply at home in your own soul. It sounds like you two found your Shangri-la. Thank you for sharing your experience. I think I can understand what you must be feeling. What incredibly beautiful, pristine photos! Perhaps just let the reviews come as they will. 🙂
THank you. I think that is the way it is going to happen.
Ultimately, I always have to go with my instincts, even if it means being absent for such long periods of time…..
Seriously, it has felt very strange. I knew I wanted to share things, eventually, else I would never have started the black narcissus in the first place. And yet….
Exactly. You must not feel pressured to *perform*, you know. The urge to write about it will come in its own way and time. Which, given your tendency, it will. And if it doesn’t, there are plenty of other things you’ll want to write about. 🙂
I do hope so.
It is hateful to feel blocked though, and writing this yesterday has released me in some way.
How very nice indeed to have you back. i was telling my host at dinner last week that I had finally surmised you’d been sold into white slavery and now crafted perfume critiques for javanese mobsters.
That would be a cool book.
I was thinking you had given up the whole teaching thing, and started your own vanilla farm. Glad you are back.
You know, we actually did smuggle some vanilla plants into the country and are attempting to grow them upstairs!
How amazing it must be to witness the process of creating exotic natural raw materials first hand. And Java has so many. Some things need time to sink in. So glad you’re back!
Seriously, having spent so many years using essential oils, and looking at pictures in books of plants like ylang ylang, to see them in the flesh and smell them up close was unbelievably thrilling.
please tell more, in any way you choose, too too brief, tantalizing and wonderful. somehow it seems obvious that java would be the perfect fit, I say that knowing almost nothing about the place of course. BEAUTIFUL PICTURES! a civet, I can’t believe it.
I know. A civet!
Just as we were leaving one particular plantation and I had been swooning at the beauteousness of one area which was swimming in papaya trees and lemongrass, they happened to mention the civet, which is used in Java for the ‘most expensive coffee in the world’. As you may know, the beans are picked up off the floor after they have been digested and pooped out by the creatures, which apparently imparts a deliciousness that I can’t quite bring myself to sample, even though I have a small bag in the cupboard. (naturally, they are washed first….!!)
The people on that plantation weren’t even aware of the civet’s secretions in perfumery. I did find myself then sniffing its cage like a total pervert, because I was looking for that particular smell, and THERE IT WAS. The base of all those perfumes. For a perfume geek, ludicrously interesting.
I would pay money for a picture of you sniffing around the floor of the civet cage. Speaking of animalics, could you check out my post today on the Aussie Junkies? I am eager to discuss ambergris with you, and hesitate to go that far off topic here.
Your words remind one of what a neglected art travel writing is and what a pleasure it is to read well crafted paragraphs recounting the fact that journeys are as much things of the mind and soul as of the body.
I can only a hazard a guess as to why the adventure proved so fulfilling.. perhaps if (as the somewhat worn out English saying goes) ‘a change is as good as a rest’ then a change added to rest, multiplied by excitement of the voyage and squared by sensory overlord might go some way to explaining your near transcendental experience.
Poor you on the malaise that follows, but every up must have it’s down, every silver lining its cloud.
It’s so very good to have you back and back in form.
The Perfumed Dandy
Isn’t it, Dandy? Everybody needs a break from what they do, but I admit that I kept checking my email for a new post, eagerly at first, then frantically.
WOW! You certainly know how to fuel the fires of holiday desire too.
Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:
Last of the hospital travel series, but in reality, no travel adventure or holiday has ever come close to our time spent in Indonesia.
It was like magic.
The last? I’m thinking my very first blacknarcissus experience was something about walking around the grounds — Java? — early in the morning . . . and the accompanying photos . . . Duncan still asleep . . . a mishap as well? Foggy memory of it . . .