It was almost 3 months ago that I was boarding a plane for Bali. Yes, you read that sentence right. Bali. As in Eat, Pray, Love, Bali. I lucked into the trip, having been selected at work as a secret shopper, and recruited to take a competitor’s trip and gather intel.
Per usual, I did zero planning. And the day before my departure was, for the first time, checking out the packing list and looking at the itinerary, while I was at work trying to cover off a million little details that needed to be organized before I left. It was sometime mid-morning when I realized that the itinerary for the trip read: “Day 4, Rise at 3:30am to climb to the top of Mt. Batur, a volcano, in time for the sunrise and breathtaking views.”
OK. I’m in marketing. I know the language. I can read between the lines. “Climbing” anything for “breathtaking views” should never be taken lightly. You don’t get breathtaking views by climbing the equivalent of a couple flights of stairs, which is where my fitness level was at. You climb, big, steep things for breathtaking views. I immediately googled “climbing Mt Batur” and discovered 2 posts that threw me into a panic. One read “the climb takes 2 hours and is STRAIGHT UP!! Not for the unfit!” The other was a story about how a Swiss tourist had fallen into the volcano and died the year before. What?! It’s freaking Bali!! That wasn’t in the book, Love was the Bali part. Not death defying climbs that could launch you into a pit filled with red, hot lava and certain death! What the hell?!
I think I said something like “Oh my God. I’m going to die.” And of course I said it quite loudly. This caused my team at work to inquire as to my obvious distress. Unlike myself, they did not find it alarming but instead were quite amused. There was much teasing and guffawing. “You’ll be fine,” said all the spry, active 20 somethings I work with. No part of me thought I would be fine. Every part of me knew I was unfit and about to die.
But less than a week later, there I was in the middle of Bali, in a parking lot at 3:30am, in the pitch dark, with my fancy headlight on my head like I was about to go into the mines, feeling quite anxious as we found our trekking guides and set off at an aggressive pace. All I could think of was how embarrassing it was going to be when work got the news that I had in fact fallen into the volcano in the pitch dark. That was if I even made it that far.
I am proud to say that I was aces for the first 15 minutes, totally great and hiking along in the middle of the pack. But then the straight up part kicked in and I started to lag. Suddenly, I was more concerned about having a heart attack than falling into a volcano which would be even more embarrassing as it would mean I never even made the summit.
It was about this time, as our group started to stretch out on the trail, that I felt a small hand slip into mine. An 11-year-old girl was suddenly beside me, the daughter of one of our guides, and she looked up at me and said, “No worry. You get to top. I will help.” And then she turned forward and led the way.
We stopped often but never for long and I learned that she and her 9-year-old brother do the climb every morning, she carrying a backpack filled with Cokes to sell at the top, before rushing back down to make it to school. She never faltered, she never let me stop for long and she instinctively knew her way in the total darkness, carrying only a small, plastic flashlight. We climbed steep inclines cut into the sharp lava rock face until the last half hour where we slogged through lava sand that kept pulling us back down. But then, just when I thought I was done and couldn’t take another step, we were there, at the top of the volcano.
“You made it!” said my little guide, and indeed I had. I was on top of the volcano, above the clouds. And the faintest line of light was just starting to become visible on the eastern horizon. I turned to her and hugged her and then I gave her enough money to cover the cost of all her cokes (the equivalent of $5) and choked up a little as I thanked her. She squeezed my hand and then ran off to try and sell her drinks.
As I stood there, waiting for the sun to come up, I didn’t know there was a tumor growing in my body, but I did think about the girl I was at 18, who the first time I had cancer, became so weak I could not pull myself off the bathroom floor. I thought about the woman I was less than 4 years before who lay clutching a bare mattress, too feeble to put on the sheets, unable to move because of the pain, sobbing as the chemo ripped me apart from the inside. And I looked around and saw were I had come from, what I had climbed, and the tears just rolled down my cheeks, hidden by the darkness.
The climb reminded me that I am so much stronger than I think I am. It reminded me that in our darkest times we must never give up hope. It reminded me that the body has an unbelievable, truly magical way of healing itself. It reminded me that when I set a goal and am determined to reach it, you just better get out of the way. I had no idea then how much I would soon need reminding of those things.
As I stood on the top of that volcano, far from the edge of the crater, (I mean, why tempt fate?) and watched the sun rise, I was so proud of myself, I was elated, I felt hopeful and optimistic and I felt invincible. I laughed and I danced with my friends and I savored every magnificent, fabulous, mind blowing, incredibly beautiful moment. And I felt so totally and completely in my skin and so grounded in myself and who I am and so grateful, blessed and lucky to be totally, truly, vibrantly alive.
In a way, I’m back in that dark parking lot, anxious, nervous, afraid, wishing I did not have to climb that volcano again and could instead go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. It’s amazing how quickly we sometimes forget what life teaches us and instead let the fear crawl in and plant seeds of doubt, insecurity and despair that grow and start to obscure what we truly know about ourselves.
Well, not this time. The memories of Bali, and the lessons relearned, are still fresh. I can still feel that cool air, I can still feel the hand of my 11-year-old guide in mine, pulling me forward, I can still see the sunrise and I can still feel the elation of getting to the top of that volcano. So fair warning, cancer. I going to climb right on top of you and toss every bad cell you can muster right into that crater, bubbling with hot lava, incinerating them all. And then, I am going to turn my back on you and watch the sun come up again, and laugh, cry and dance as I feel the fresh breeze of a new day blow all your ashes away.