It’s three in the morning and the jeep is kicking up dust from the desert behind us. As the driver nimbly navigates the twists and turns up the mountain, I look down at the valley below. I can make out a long line behind us, a convoy of hundreds making their way up the precipice in the dark, pilgrims seeking solace from their daily routine. The beams of the headlights, cutting through the dust, seem to mirror the skies above us.
We stop, and the driver gets out. “Milky way,” he says, matter-of-factly, pointing up. I step out and look up: an expansive black canvas freckled with white dots, speckled with millions of constellations I never knew existed.
As we continue along the bumpy road, I shuffle our belongings around in an attempt to give more space to my companions. Leg space is a treat here - there are nine of us packed into the jeep. Being the people that they are, my Indonesian friends have left me with the most, and the constant kindness and generosity on their behalf has left me with a perpetual sense of guilt. The women I am with are wearing bright orange and pink hijabs. Along with our bright blue jeep, it’s one of the few colors from the pitch-dark evening that stick out in my mind. I can’t help but wonder if they coordinated for the majestic sunrise that we anticipate. In any case, these warm colors hint at what is to come. We arrive at 4:00 am. It is freezing cold. All along the hill, there are hundreds of jeeps parked along the side of the road. Motorcycles, scooters, people are weaving through what has become a traffic jam. Some are sitting smoking cigarettes, others snacking or having drinks. Everyone is killing time in anticipation for the sunrise. The top of the hill is noisy - the jeeps rumble along, motorcyclists are honking, sellers are announcing the names of their sundries. You could impose the same scene upon a busy parking lot before a concert and nothing would look out of the ordinary. But on the side of this mountain, after a three-hour drive squeezed in a rickety old jeep, I know that today is no ordinary day.
After about an hour, we find a good spot above the throngs of tourists. We climb a steep ledge up a narrow path like awkward mountain goats, our ankles bent to accommodate the angle of the hill.
Sunrise. First, pitch black all around us, and only a fiery ball of red in the distance. The sun peaks out from the horizon, as if making sure it is safe to come out. It tosses lazy rays of light over the clouds, turning them a pinkish hue. Soon, the sun gains confidence and projects its power upon the world, rising high into the air. The landscape is saturated in warm hues of yellow and orange. Pinks and purples flirt where the sky meets the horizon. Inspired by the brightness, the clouds seem to breathe, and everything comes to life. Having built trust with our surroundings, the valley below us slowly reveals itself to us, like an intimate secret.
The panorama is stunning. We are above the clouds, which roll sleepily over the hills in the distance. To our left, mountains stretching out for eternity as if seeking to embrace the earth’s curve. To our right, the desert valley which we had traversed an hour before. Above the valley I can count four craters. In the distance, Mount Semeru, a hulking giant that dominates the entire horizon, putting its little brother Bromo in its shadow. It is one of those rare beauties where you are left speechless.
Later, we will descend back down the valley in a caravan of rumbling jeeps, leaving this beauty behind us. But for the rest of the day I will remember the warmth that this indelible experience left me with.