Mathis: the Wise Frenchman
Indonesia: East Java
I met Mathis in a small Indonesian village in East Java. I’d wangled a ride in a jangly tuktuk from Probolinggo train station which took me to the homestay where we met. It was the first one I’d been in that really lived up to its name; it was like living in someone’s house. The minuscule bungalow belonged to a beautiful Indonesian family of 4 and I truly don’t know how they fit in there along with 3 of the main bedrooms dedicated to travellers. I barely saw the wife or children but whenever they popped their cheeky heads through the kitchen curtains they were as happy as Indonesians generally are known to be. The homestay was very basic and the front room or reception had a giant TV from the 90s, a Persian-style rug and old mismatching sofas.
The host greeted me warmly in perfect English and we immediately sat down to discuss the trek up Ijen, what most travellers came to this town for, to scale the epic Sulphur mine in one day. I got my tickets for the following night and I got settled in my double room. It had a plastic fan whirring in the corner which didn’t do much for the thick humidity. There was a small narrow window in the corner and I think the walls were painted an off-teal shade. The bed was varnished pine and the sheets were a marbled explosion of wacky colours.
I met Mathis later in the kitchen where the wife had provided a small buffet of foods. I helped myself to some vegetables and joined him on one of the benches that was on either side of the long table, covered with a linoleum sheet. He seemed a little shy at first but then the conversation started flowing, gradually. He told me about where in France he was from and where he’d been travelling – the usual. We were both going up Ijen on the same night, so it was nice to get to know someone.
I caught up with Mathis recently and reminisced on our memories of our brief encounter:
“I was arriving from Bali, you were at the end of your trip on Java Island. [We had] a short encounter, less than a day, but it was one of the experiences I enjoyed the most on my trip, because of the trip organised to Mount Ijen.
“On the evening the local manager came to see us and asked if we were willing to join him for dinner at one of his friend’s house and, because it’s kind of the spirit of travelling, we accepted this invitation. Once there, we didn’t really blend in with them, especially because of the language barrier, but it was a cool and relaxed experience, which gave you and I the opportunity to get to know each other a bit and do some chit chat.”
It was one of the most authentic experiences I’ve had while travelling. All of his friends welcomed us into their home once again with open arms, with food served on plates on the floor in typical Indonesian style. It was delicious. Mathis and I helped ourselves to tempeh, green beans, rice and sampled other vegetable dishes.
As Mathis puts it: “The real experience which we exprienced was more the next day or, to be more specific, a couple of hours after, on the Mount Ijen trip.”
It was important for us to get adequate sleep that night because we’d be up again at midnight to start the trek, to make it for sunrise, so we decided to go home earlier and said goodnight around 9pm. Little did I know I’d not only struggle to sleep at all, but be fighting off a huntsman spider that had crawled into my room through the open window! It was giant. I’m still shocked no one heard me shriek. But lo and behold, after very nearly going into cardiac arrest, I managed to chase the motherfucker out. And then of course, I didn’t even have a chance at sleeping.
We all – including some extra travellers who’d booked the wrong night and had to sleep on the couches/floor of the reception – bundled into the car to make our way to the bottom of the mighty Ijen.
Once we arrived, it was cold. We hadn’t even started ascending and you could feel that thin chill – drastically different to that thick heat of the everyday in May on this hemisphere. Mathis, bless him, had not come prepared. He was wearing a three-quarter length cotton shirt and had shorts on and then a thin hoody and scarf and I warned him that would not be enough.
“I realising that is was cold, and the fact I was wearing a T-shirt and light scarf wouldn’t be of much help to beat the cold. So I purchased, in emergency, the only thing I could find up there, a wooly hat. On reflection today, my outfit was maybe a bit of a French cliché, whatever, I was finally ready to go on.”
Before we ascended, we sat in one of the huts lit by a single lightbulb and drank some tea that was kindly offered to us by the stall owner, trying to perk up.
The ascent itself was tough. It was long and physically quite challenging. But Mathis stayed with my the whole time and championed me along with the occasional “Come on Alice, you can do it!” Which genuinely helped. I wasn’t the fittest person on earth and the unrelenting steep slopes in pitch black darkness and the cold weren’t open to compromising. I had so much respect for our guide who must do this several times a week, who never flinched once and had the patience of a saint.
“We made a certain number of breaks, and the journey takes us hours, well, maybe two hours. Local people were even proposing the whole way “tempting offers” of rides to the top on wheelbarrows. But at the end we made it and arrived at the top, to finally go down to the bottom of the crater with on our mind the fact that we would have to climb it all the way back again, like Chamois on the Mountain during the night.
“Challenge accepted! We’d been down, fighting the sulphur smoke, with a mask of course, to see the famous blue flames. The local mine workers were extracting sulphur with their tools and climbing the crater up and down with the, not in any way light, sulphur on their back. In hindsight, it was kind of weird when I think about it; us looking them, taking pictures of the blue flames and sulphur and them hard working with tourists everywhere. I don’t know what to think about it.”
I agree. At the time, you accept it as a kind of touristic experience, but learning that the life expectancies of these mine workers was a grim 40 years old, you definitely leave the crater feeling differently than when you did when you first entered.
“After this, we went back to the top of Ijen in time to see the sunrise, a welcome break to also contemplate the beauty of the place, the crater and, of course, the fact I was continuing to freeze to death. This day was quite a thing and one of the greatest experiences of my trip, even if it was only for a couple of hours: all good things have an end and this trip was it.”
Mathis and I continued to climb the mountain past various bushes to find a good spot to sit and take it all in and we found a decent patch. We took a few photos of the burning orange coming over the east side setting alight everything it touched. It felt like we were on a completely different planet. Then you followed the light to the west and the top of the sulphur mine was this brilliant blue gaping pool among this vast Martian-looking landscape. The sky on this side was tinged a marbled colour of pinks and blues. We were speechless as we sat quietly absorbing the beauty. Mathis was warming up at this point. I think we shared a cereal bar between us in the silence. It was quite a special moment to share with someone.
After taking at least 72 more photos up there, we descended. We were taken back to the homestay and the next day I was heading back to Bali for the second time, so we said goodbye and that was it!
“At noon the same day, we both left the hostel, each other in our own direction and we never saw each other again. I think this is encounter can be a perfect description of the travelling life, moving from place to place, meeting people, chatting, sharing experiences and maybe leave having shared amazing experience before saying good-bye and moving on to one’s next adventure. It’s what it makes it interesting: you’ll never what could happen the next day!”
I knew that Mathis had been over a pretty impressive range of countries, so I asked him about his memories in more detail:
“My trip in south-east Asia took me four months, across five countries, starting with Thailand then Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and finally Indonesia, ordered, in this way, to try enjoy of the best weather in each country. It was my second experience of travelling, I’ll had already been to Africa for eight months and through fifteen countries, enough time to stay on each country for fifteen days, apart for the first and last where I spent one month. In order, that was: Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea (Conakry), Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Gabon, Congo (Brazzaville), Zambia, Namibia and lastly, South Africa. I moved from country to country by local transportation, except for three times, when I chose to fly, to avoid unsafe area or conflict zone.
“Both of my trips had a different purpose: the first one was about challenging myself and the second was to explore more the traveller life and enjoy even more beautiful landscape.”
He told me stories about his experiences in the continent of Africa:
“I had some expectations initially, but I was surprised. I discovered that in some of the sub-Saharan countries, they weren’t divided by rich or poor districts, but the neighbourhoods were mixed, as that same land was passed down through many generations. The families that had settled there were ancestors. And so, you would see nice brick houses alongside metal sheet houses.”
Out of all of those countries he’d been to, I asked where the most special place for him was:
“It’s hard to choose, but it would be definitely a place of pure nature, places that show the greatness of the strength and long-term work of mother Nature, taking time to shape unreal places like the Paradise Cave (Phong Nha) in Vietnam, discovered only sixteen years ago. I had never been this amazed by a place, seeing through my eyes the result of a natural art piece which took millions of years to be shaped, I couldn’t believe the pure beauty of this place, which left me speechless. It made me take a step back and reflect on our place in this world.
“Like a big fan of nature’s beauty that I am, I cannot forget the waterfalls, everywhere around the world, like the Kuang Si falls close to Luang Prabang in Laos or the Victoria falls at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. But the one which has special place for me is the Kambadaga Waterfalls in Guinea Conakry. I only found out about this through chance by my couchsurfing host – and this one was not so easy to get to. Due to the absence of tourism in this country nothing was clearly indicated, but with the locals’ knowledge, anything is possible! Once there, you can really enjoy the beauty of the scene, unfolding before your eyes, this untouched place, or almost.”
And if he had any particularly special memories of people he’d met along the way:
“When I first think about this question I immediately am reminded of nice old German guy, in Guinea, who hosted me for a week, and learning about his life story of being a missionary around the world. But when I was thinking about this question in more detail, I realised that the person who really changed my perspective a lot was just a simple man met in hostel in Marrakesh.
“This person saw me only able to participate in the conversation by speaking in French, and therefore struggling to integrate into conversation with people from other nationalities. I had no problem to understand most of the exchange between people in English but I had no capability of expressing myself to really enter in discussions. This man, seeing that, just told me a simple thing: “Lance-toi… ” – go for it.
“Maybe not in these exact following terms, but he told me that I had to try and it was no big deal if I made mistakes; I’d have to express myself and make mistakes in order to progress. Because just listening would not improve my abilities. This is something than can be seen terribly obvious for some people, but for me to be able to get the strength and actually participate in my first English conversation was quite a big moment for me. And, without me really noticing, this advice followed me during my trips through Africa and then Asia. It turned out his simple advice made it possible today that I am fully writing this Interview in English, still with some mistakes which still follow me no doubt, but there are fewer than yesterday, more than tomorrow. And I am no longer ashamed of it.”
I think everyone could take a piece of that advice. Just go for it. Feel the fear and do the thing anyway. It’s better to have tried than to always wonder what may have happened.
Finally, I asked if he had 3 lessons he learned while travelling:
- Don’t trust stereotypes. “Before travelling I had a lot of ideas about what my trip would be like. But when I arrived little by little I saw people were not living how I expected. Some of the stereotypes was about the advancement of the uses of technologies in Africa. I believed I was being respectful in using a basic phone as to not show off my smartphone, but quickly I saw that a lot of people had smartphone, that they had 4G, or at least 3G in cities. It sure I felt a bit ashamed of the assumption I had at one point.”
- Kindness is everything. “I have seen the kindness of people, ready to share the little they have and offering me a place to sleep, which meant so much.”
- Travelling changes you for the better. “On the personal side, I know that travelling changed me, how much, I couldn’t tell you, but during these trips my mind opened so much and I was more acutely aware of the world around me. Something I will always remember is when I came back from my first trip, my best friend told me that I returned with “spark in the eyes” he had never seen before in me. This filled me with an indescribable sensation: like the dawn of a new day. Lights, camera, action!”
Like any major life experience, travelling does change you – but I’ve never thought to describe in such a beautiful way. In Mathis’s own words:
“Travelling allowed me to face myself see my faults and changed my opinion on a lot of things. Of course, when I was travelling, I did miss the comfort of my bed but that’s what it’s all about – leaving your comfort zone and routine of your life to open yourself to the rest of the world and grow up, to the next level, the key word being Humility!”
I hope to see Mathis again one day, but hopefully in a context where we aren’t freezing to death at the top of a volcanic crater. Thank you, Mathis, for your words of wisdom that every person, let alone traveller, could use in their lives: live kindly, be humble and push yourself to do the things you fear the most.