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Shedding skin on Java

by Rick Gunn
Special to the Appeal
A Pangandaran girl whose spirit the photographer said he watched ascend, "from the depths of that disease, over the garbage, the sewage, the corruption, the poverty."
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“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 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 destination.

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 unimaginable conditions.

All self-propelled on a simple machine of rubber and steel.

I turned my attention from my new insect posse to an ailing pile of equipment lying 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 trashed 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 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.

“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.

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.

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 amongst 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 surfside 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 amongst the raging barrels. I repeated this process for three days, until the water had rinsed the soot from my smog-soaked soul.

I can say with some honesty that my last week of riding in Java consisted entirely of good days that included crumbling roads, dense, life-threatening traffic, dozens of near misses, and smog so thick 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 on 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 on Java as it shrunk into the distance.

A handful of memories began to wash over me. Things I’d seen along the way like 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, 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 itched 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 to had she helped me to shed mine.

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHERE: Jakarta, Bogor, Puncak Pass, Bandung, Tasik Malaya, Pangandaran, Kroya, Yogjakarta, Tawangunangu, Sarangan, Jombang, Probolinggo, Situbondo, Banyuwangi

WHEN: July 3-31, 2007

MILEAGE LOG: 17,266-18,043

ELEVATION: Sea level-5,000 feet