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A Volcano Eruption Taught Me Something Unexpected About Travel

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In 2017, a volcanic eruption closed the airport in Bali. It was one of the most unpredictable trips of my life—but also the most defining.

“A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what they are built for.”

—John A. Shedd

Who would you want next to you when your face is buried in your hands as you try to figure out how to get out of a country? A couple of years ago, it would have been such a far-fetched question, a scenario unlikely to transpire. Now that we’ve faced two years of bizarre, out-of-control situations, it doesn’t seem unreal at all. The first page of my Bali trip actually starts with a TV show in my youth.

I was a restless teenager who loved to watch a Hindi medical drama, Dill Mill Gaye. Those days, I would be glued in front of the screen, unlike my peers; binge-watching didn’t come with the awesome societal acceptance it does now. But on social media network Orkut, I found a tribe of like-minded faithfuls who appreciated the dramatic, unrealistic, cheesy show and I went from the margins of the pages to the very center.

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Many years later, after twists and turns not fitting a soap opera, I became a travel writer and there was wind beneath my wings. Now the escape was found in unfamiliar cities, not on the TV screen, but I was still as wide-eyed as I was back then, taking in all experiences greedily. 

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I was collecting pieces of my life that would become tales I’d narrate. As a writer, this part was indelible, not something I could forget (even if I tried to). Words became my medium of choice. And then in 2016, I had a brief encounter in Sydney with someone who knew me when I was writing odes to a TV show. It was unexpectedly lovely! She and I offlined our friendship and the following year made plans to travel together.

I arrived in Bali with no backup plan, no travel insurance, and non-refundable bookings. On top of it all, I was traveling with someone I had only met once. 

It was August 2017 when I paid for my tickets from Delhi to Bali via Singapore. My friend was going to attend a destination wedding but decided to fly early to explore the islands with me. We first heard of an active volcano not very far from Bali in September. I was nervous about my flight getting canceled, but not overly concerned. Ah, the naivety of youth. I arrived in Bali with no backup plan, no travel insurance, and non-refundable bookings. On top of it all, I was traveling with someone I had only met once. 

As planned, I landed in Bali on November 25th, 2017—suffering from a cold I caught on the flight. It was opportune timing because the next day, the airport closed. The volcano was still sputtering and the ash from the eruptions made it unsafe for flying conditions. People were being asked to stay away from the lahars, or volcanic mudflow, and all flights in and out were canceled. News stories carried photos of the spewing Mount Agung and the furious black clouds of its eruptions. My mind, however, was on Alila Ubud’s beautiful infinity pool with the views of verdant paddy fields and peppermint tea, the only thing that made me feel better during those two days of sneezing and sniffling.

Here’s a bit of wisdom from someone who has traveled with strangers and acquaintances on media trips and personally: pick a kind travel companion who wouldn’t mind being stuck with you in a hotel room while you recover from a cold (and vice versa). I hadn’t considered any such things and I got lucky! We ordered room service, watched uninspired Christmas movies, talked about our lives and ambitions, and stayed in the hotel for two days straight (yoga, swimming, massage, dining—all in place). If you’re familiar with Ubud, it’s a dream destination: artist studios, rice terraces, forest excursions, spiritual activities, and incredible food. We didn’t get to experience any of that, but we did enjoy the rains and greenery from our balcony.

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Two days later when we checked out, I was all recovered and excited to see Bali in all its glory: beaches, secret islands, temples, and lots of good food. At Anantara, our next hotel, the reality finally hit us: the airport was still closed. My flight was a few days away, but thousands of tourists were stranded all around us and looking for convoluted ways out of the country. 

POP! That was the bubble that burst when my friend realized the wedding party couldn’t make it into the country. The wedding may not happen. Worse, we may not be able to get out as scheduled, or have a place to stay indefinitely.

Fun fact about me: anything that can go wrong during my trips, will go wrong. Missed flights, delayed flights, luggage left behind, dehydration, sickness, and shoulder injury—I’ve gone through the wringer. So of course, I’ve stayed home for the past two years (barring two cautious Goa trips) because I didn’t want to add a positive COVID test to the list. But even for me, a volcanic eruption was a little too much.

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Let me clarify that we were absolutely safe. Mount Agung, a hiking spot for travelers, is 70 kilometers (about 45 miles) from Bali. People living within the exclusion zone were evacuated when it first rumbled in September 2017. Indonesia is in the Pacific Ring of Fire, so its islands frequently witness volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. I can’t imagine how devastating it must be to leave your home behind when nature breathes fire in your backyard. It was our privilege as travelers who could take flights out and turn it into a travel story to revisit five years later. 

When will it end? When can we get out? What will we do after our time at this hotel is over? How much is it going to cost us?

The day before I was scheduled to depart, the airport was still shut. The grey skies were mimicking the sober mood inside. Like two deflated balloons, we moped around the room because it was still raining outside. It was a beautiful room with a nice Jacuzzi outside and views of the beach, in a hotel that had restaurants and bars, a swimming pool, a spa, and direct access to the beach. We weren’t slumming it, that’s for sure, and we made the most of our hotel (again).

Despite all the reassurances and jokes we made, at one moment, plopped on the bed, I was scared. The alternative was to travel by road to an airport eight hours away where I might or might not be able to exit the country. The not-knowing, as we have discovered during the pandemic, is a bone-chilling feeling. There were hundreds of needles in my mind, pricking pain points: When will it end? When can we get out? What will we do after our time at this hotel is over? How much is it going to cost us?

It doesn’t feel that drastic—tourists were still partying and making the most of their trips—but I was in a state of absolute panic. It felt like after all the Excel sheets and planning and organizing, the firm control I had was slipping like sand. A sobering reality of life. 

As luck would have it, the airport opened on the day of my flight. It was chaotic and my nerves were shot, but I boarded and made it home. My friend was not far behind—she rescheduled her flights after hours of trying tirelessly and found a route to Sydney.

All’s well that ends well, and all that…

If I could go to tell my younger self to turn down the volume of my thoughts and enjoy Bali (more than I did), I would. I squandered away my time because I was stuck in the quicksand in my own head. But one good thing came out of a slightly unexpected trip: a friendship of a lifetime. 

In 2020, just before the world shuttered close, I was strutting on the streets of Melbourne with my friend. I have an album of more than 500 photos from that trip, and despite the bushfires and her apologies for their non-regular blue sky, there is joy on our faces.

Travel requires us to be brave. Take a chance on someone, step out of your comfort zone, open your heart to new experiences, lose yourself to find yourself, and such. I’m remembering these lessons now as I gingerly make a map of my first international trip after the pandemic, envious of those who have risen above travel unpredictability. The situation now is much more unsettling and there are many more variables in the equation. 

Yet, I want to fasten my seatbelt, open the window shades, salute the sun, and wiggle in my seat until touchdown to use the airport washroom. I want to struggle with my room’s shower fixtures every morning to find the perfect temperature. I want to click photos of my coffee, my eggs, my desserts, and pretend to read a book on the beach while my brain powers off. I want to wake up with a different view and find a new perspective that I gain after asking strangers a million questions. So, in a very dramatic TV show fashion, I’m telling myself: Be fierce, Apeksha. 

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