23 September 2014

As above, so below

We'd spent the last three weeks on buses. First, it was the beaten and battered one that we'd had to fight to get on to. We'd claimed our places on the long bench at the very back, next to one of the two open doors that passengers would use to clamber aboard, hands reaching down to pull them on. Or that the sellers would use to swing in, proffering baskets of fruit, cold drinks, and lighters. All of them were fascinated by how pale my skin was and it wasn't long until hands were touching my legs or stroking my hair - had I not been with my friend, I think it may have been difficult to get them to stop. We bounced on this broken bus for the next six hours through jungle roads and rivers, misguidedly destined for a small village on the west coast of Java.

Our stay lasted just one night; we hotfooted back to Jakarta on the same uncomfortable and unbearably hot bus the next day, but it felt different this time. We'd survived the storms on the beach, a few miles from seeing Krakatoa, that lit up the night with purple fronds of lightning, rocking the fishing boats on the horizon; we'd made friends with a volunteer at our hostel and later left her to her book; and we then made friends with a family who offered us their best room if we needed somewhere to stay in Bandarang. They even took to pushing away prying hands and eyes becoming our personal guardians as we all wilted on the sticky leather seats.

The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth buses were a little more comfortable; the sleeper coaches ever popular with us backpackers that wound their way across Vietnam this time, up hills and corners so tight you gripped onto whatever you could, hoping you wouldn't be plunged to your death. Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi - each journey was different from the one before, whether they had midnight stops, were party buses or took on locals and their chickens who slept on the spaces between beds on the floor. I always chose the upper bunks because I felt I could see more of the jungles, the clouds, the towns, the sea.

After three weeks of buses, we were finally here. We'd then spent our first night in the bay on the traditional Vietnamese junk boats. Ornate, almost luxurious, we'd been lashed to two others and we danced on the roofs until morning and then dived off the side into the cool, green water. A few days before, a typhoon had hit and the boat we were supposed to have been on was lost; sunk to the bottom of Ha Long Bay amidst the lost floating villages were fishermen built their livelihood on crates and discarded driftwood.

But here, here we were. Our night on the deserted island and it was beautiful; a small stretch of sand with a few bamboo platforms for us all to sleep. They towed a small pontoon a little way off the shore and we flipped lazily to and from it until the sun went down. The evening was spent with alcohol, packs of cards and exchanging the tamest and bawdiest stories we could think of, until there came a natural lull and everyone beatifically split up onto the beach. A few of us took one look at the water, and another at each other, and plunged into the silkily cool sea. There were no clouds - just endless miles of perfect stars where we'd already identified our very own Orion, a reassuring wordless presence above.

But it was what was below rather than above that sticks with me today. As we slipped through the water towards the small pontoon that we were ready to claim, the sea came alive with light. Thousands of iridescent sparkles shone, phosphorescence shaken up by the very typhoon that had claimed so much of what was above to the sea's depths, and as my hands pushed through the water it was like sheets of glittered satin, whole constellations, were flowing through my fingers. We reached the pontoon and hauled ourselves onto it, lying back to catch our breath, to smile, to take this ridiculous situation in. How were we all here? A world away from lives back home; the jobs, the partners, the friends, the family and all those minutes we'd lived before this place. Quiet contemplation took over and it was almost as if we'd lost our voices for a second.

For what could ever beat this moment? What could ever beat swimming with stars above and stars below.

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