I’m laying face down, naked, on a sandstone bench. I’m in a room with no door while an agile young Indonesian woman crouches over me. She alternates scrubbing and washing my skin with pouring large dippers of warm water across me to rinse. You can tell she’s used to Westerners because she asks permission to wash my breasts. And when I don’t even think twice, laying there while another woman washes me (and later scrubs my hair – something I NEVER allow), it’s that I realize my standards of body shyness and privacy have massively shifted. True, I confirmed in advance that my first Turkish spa experience would be taking place in a gender-segregated spa, but I am generally self conscious enough about my body that even other women’s judgment is enough to send me burrowing into towels and robes.
But here I am, on a coffee plantation and resort in the middle of Central Java, a 20 minute walk to the nearest local village (and I do mean village) realizing that all this travel has affected even my own intrinsic cultural norms. I’m starting to give up on that Puritan discomfort.
That’s not the strangest thing about this trip, though. I voluntarily schedule a sunrise tour one morning, knowing that sleep-deprived Kate is a very unhappy – and clumsy – Kate. And then follow it up the next day with a mountain climb. It’s my first mountain climb for fun rather than to see a tourist attraction in years. (You’ll be relieved to know the camera survives both experiences. Not from a lack of trying however.) I’m not sure I recognize my travel style entirely anymore.
The hike becomes one of my favorite experiences that weekend. Most of my fellow hikers (and there are many of them) are local Indonesian university students who hiked up on Saturday, camped at the summit with friends, and are now on their way down and back to their studies before classes restart on Monday. The women are mostly wearing headscarves, since Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country nowadays, and therefore I expect reticence towards me. But instead they are clearly tickled to see me and want to chat.
Unfortunately, I can barely breathe enough to respond. Did I mention the trek was almost vertical until we reached the summit at 1800 meters? (That’s nearly 6,000 feet.)
My photo is requested multiple times so I ask my guide why I am so popular. I had heard that a number of Asians were tickled by the idea of naturally blond hair (apparently light brown is close enough) or perhaps it is my curly hair? But he explains it is something else: a photograph with me is proof to their English teachers at university that they have met a native speaker.
Every time I stop during the trek I focus entirely on trying to breathe. But the students don’t mind. They happily pile around me like puppies while I try to not smile like a maniac who can’t breathe. I don’t want to scare their teachers or whoever sees the pictures. After the tenth encounter I acclimate further to the closer boundaries of personal space from Asia. We develop a pattern. The students snuggle in for the photo, then repeat the word ‘strong,’ pat me on the shoulder, and head on their way. I’m not sure if they are encouraging me, or pitying me.
Central Java marks a new year of travel destinations. I begin to depart from the most common destinations and now seek the less traveled. Actually, I mostly had Borobudur and Central Java on my travel list due to recommendations and it’s proximity to Singapore. But I wasn’t all that excited. I had booked tickets, in fact, because I was battling insomnia from jetlag at the time and wasn’t fully awake at 3am one morning. The flights and hotel were less expensive because of monsoon season (which made trekking that much more of a joy.) And the low price made it that much easier to press “Pay” on the devilish little flight booking app on my phone.
Thank goodness for insomnia.