35 - Future World… sort of (Surabaya, Java, Indonesia)

“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.”

William Gibson


SURABAYA CAUGHT ME OFF BALANCE. I’d just spent almost two months journeying east from Bali (Bali-Lombok-Sumbawa-Flores) and was unprepared for the stark disparity between island life in the “countryside” to the vim and vigor of Indonesia’s second largest city. It blew my balls off a little and left me somewhat stupefied. Culture shock…sort of. The transition was hard to reconcile. I went from small villages, farmland, shabby beachside warungs (food stalls), long stretches of deserted highway, twisted mountain roads, harbor towns, fish farms, and all the accoutrements of rural Third Worldishness. Then, I was in a thriving metropolis bustling with activity and stocked with all the trimmings of the developed world. 

Tired and grimy, I deemed this an excellent opportunity for a recharge splurge, so I reserved a room at Tunjungan Hotel right next door to the Tunjungan Plaza Shopping Center. I felt like I’d time-traveled betwixt Indonesian historical epochs. The difference between sitting on a wooden boat chugging along at a snail’s pace in Komodo National Park and standing in front of a mall boutique selling surfing exercise machines was a reality distortion I couldn’t quite grasp. That’s right, a contraption that simulates a surfboard and requires you to maintain your balance while the platform mimics surfing in the comfort of your living room. Seriously? Did he who made the lamb make thee? Little did I know something similar (The SurfSet Board) would appear on Shark Tank a few years later. I guess it really was the future. 

I hate malls. I hate shopping. But this was like wandering the halls of Future World. I spent over three hours exploring tomorrow awestruck by the contrast. Just outside the mall were humble rural reminders, three-wheeled bicycle taxis engulfed by modern chaos. Part of me considered getting back on the ferry to Maumere and returning to the past. I’m not against modernization but is there not something indescribably perverse about runaway capitalism?…I think. Or not? Is. Isn’t. Dunno. Ever been to Chicken, Alaska? Me neither. Imagine a direct flight from there to MOA (Mall of America) in Minnesota.

I’ve mentioned the “In Between” in earlier posts and will probably continue to do so ad nauseam. Lots and lots of thinky time on a three-day ferry…from Maumere. Point “A” to Point “B”. Is that not the point? I think not. I appreciated this at the time but I wonder if it is ever possible to appreciate the present with enough, well, appreciation…or maybe even too much? Dunno, but even then it was the detours and metours like my ferryganza that made it all what it was, and what it needed to be. This was the whole point. I might remember the view from my fifth volcano, but I will definitely remember the three days I spent marinating in my own grease, playing “bombs away” on a squat toilet, and enjoying borderline celebrity-status from passengers on a train bound for nowhere (or, um, on a boat bound for Surabaya as it were). Not such a bad way to pass the days. Not such a bad way at all. 

Every single day abroad brought the unexpected. Something new. Something different. Maybe it was an undiscovered misery, a hidden reward, or just a new insight or way of perceiving reality, whatever the hell that is. Existencia dinámica. No better description. You’re not just in the world, you’re being in the goddamned world. A verb, not a noun. Sure, it’s not all peaches and sunshine. In fact, it took almost three months before I resettled into the familiar calm brought on by exotic travel and a life floating from one cultural ether to another. There was a nagging uneasiness I couldn’t shake…have never been able to shake.

Not all peaches and sunshine. True then. True now. The uncertainty surrounding my future back then was a slight fester of a worry perpetually bubbling beneath the surface. It never went away. It continues to fester and has become somewhat of a suppurating existential ulcer. That time led to this time. And here I am. Was it worth it? What would or could I change? I don’t know. So I reread and rewrite in search of answers, answers that might be moot in the final roundup. 

David (the aforementioned freelance photographer traveling through Flores in a rented jeep) made a comment that stuck with me. He said he was constantly worried about the possibility of a breakdown even though he spoke fluent Indonesian, was intimately acquainted with the culture, and had a friend on standby to send parts in an emergency. Remarkable. That coming from a man who made two trips to Vietnam during the height of the conflict as a tourist/photographer.

Is this a normal (immutable?) fact of aging? Does your experience mandate consideration of all possible outcomes/setbacks fostering a heightened self-awareness forcing one to pause, to hesitate, to reconsider? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Is it age or something else? A byproduct of lone wolf metabolism? Was it happening to me then? And now?

My lifestyle choices nibbled relentlessly on my liver. I was thirty-four years old. No house. No car. No wife. No children…I know of. No obligations to speak of…or so I let myself believe. Did it get lonely on the road? How could it not? Loneliness knows no borders, no boundaries. And though it was similar to the loneliness of home, it was also unique. Was this not a self-imposed exile? A contrived escape? In one sense this gave me dominance over melancholy, however illusory. Every day I could find something to break the spell of monotony and encroaching despair…at least for a while. Still, you can’t outrun your shadow. You can only hide it in the corner for a spell.


At that point in the journey, I was immune from regret. It wasn’t as if I’d run away from convention. It’s just the life I’d gravitated towards, the only life that made me feel alive, a life—whether real or imagined—which felt like some small part of whatever underlying energy pervades the universe channeled its way through me, if only for brief moments. But, oh, what moments they were.

Did I want to fall in love? Spend the rest of my life with someone? Settle down and read the paper on Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and a bagel (assuming it’s a cheat day)? I think so. Maybe. Probably. But you can’t force it. You either meet that person or you don’t. And even if you do, it still has to sink into place, to coalesce into an agreeable state where it just feels, well, right. How many people believe they’ve found it? How many people have actually found it?

While scouring the mall for items I never knew I needed, I discovered the two products particularly indispensable to modern existence. The “Essence of Chicken”? I found this in the vitamin aisle. I was taken with the illustration. What the hell is that? Take these pills and you’ll feel good enough to have a picnic. I’m in. “Crush ‘em. Snort ‘em. You’ll feel like a million clucks,” would’ve been my tagline. And how about a Rechargeable Mosquito-hitting Swatter? Electrified for maximum causalities. Vanquish mosquitoes and strengthen your forehand. You’d be an asshole not to buy one…so I did…years later. Can’t keep a lid on progress. Pick one up at your nearest Walmart and let the massacre ensue. Happy hunting.