IT'S AMAZING the crazy things you do on vacation. Duke woke me up before dawn. "It's time to climb the volcano," he said. I could hear the little voices pleading: "Stay in the hotel. Get a cold drink. Relax. Read a book." But I didn't want to miss The Experience.
We were on a small island in east Indonesia called Bandanaira, the fulfillment of my husband's yen to get off the beaten track. There are five cars on the island, no phones, no hot water and no innerspring mattresses. Across the lagoon, we could see Gunung Api, another tropical island, whose only amenity is a picturesque volcano, complete with fresh lava and a plume of smoke.
One night, we saw a film of the 1988 eruption. Highlights included a mushroom cloud, rivers of molten lava running into the sea and a mass evacuation to the nearest safe refuge--150 miles away. This was unsettling enough, but then the owner of our hotel asked, "Who wants to climb Gunung Api?" Anyone who makes it becomes an honorary citizen.
I had no desire to risk my life to become a member of a primitive island whose hazards included not only volcanoes but typhoons, tidal waves, earthquakes and, until recently, slave insurrections. But Duke thought that it would be "fun" to get a view. I should have let him go without me. I would have let him go without me. But then he uttered those fatal words: "You can't do it, honey. It's too hard." Immediately, my ego went into overdrive. There was no way I was going to let him be the star of our vacation slides.
The speedboat landed on the shores of Gunung Api at 5:30 a.m. Even though I've never had a positive experience at that hour in my life, I was optimistic. Three other guests were making the climb, along with two guides. I was relieved to see Martine, a cheerful Australian chain-smoker in penny loafers. "If she can do it, I can do it," I confidently told Duke.
I got a little nervous when her 18-year-old brother, Luke, turned out to be a mountain racer who was going for the speed record. He bounded into the thicket like a deer. Then, to my dismay, Martine ground out her cigarette and loped out of view. "She's only 23," Duke reminded me.
Still, I didn't worry until I realized that I was in for a 2,198-foot straight vertical ascent (666 meters, the number of the devil in the Bible.) There were no switchbacks, no convenient shoulders with gradual slopes, not even a clearly marked trail. The air temperature was 85 degrees and rising. Humidity: 95%.
Bruce, a soft-spoken third grade teacher transplanted from Santa Rosa to Java and the winner of the Thirty-Something Sensitive Guy Sweepstakes, suggested that I lead what was left of the pack. "Just set your own pace," he said reassuringly as I crawled along on all fours, clinging to vegetation that I prayed wouldn't be uprooted. Branches whipped back and lashed my face as I desperately struggled
to avoid the three sizes of loose rocks: the small ones that got into my shoes,the medium ones that bounced off my ankles, and the large ones, which threatened to snap off my ankle.
"You're doing fine," Bruce said.
"You're never going to make it," said Duke, barely 15 minutes into the climb. "I'll take you back." I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. But I didn't want to die either.
"Remember the story about the Little Engine That Could?" Bruce said. " 'I think I can. I think I can.' "
I didn't think I could, but suddenly Alden, the friendly Bandanese guide in the traditional Bandu mountain footwear--bright yellow flip-flops--scurried ahead of me and gave me a hand. With his help, I began to make steady progress.
"I'll get you a gold volcano if you get to the top," Duke said.
I got to the top. Luke was there, smiling triumphantly. He'd set a new record: 48 minutes. Martine was enjoying a cigarette. Me, I inhaled the reeking volcanic acids. I saw sulfur blooms on hot rocks. I felt no joy, wonder or pride, only a keen sense of imminent danger. "And you missed the 500-foot sheer drop into the caldera," said Duke, who'd viewed it precariously from the unstable lip.
I wish I'd missed the trip down, which was even more treacherous than the ascent. One false step would bring a 300-foot slide into a thorn bush--if you were lucky. When the ordeal was finally over, I embraced my mate. "Thanks for not saying, 'I told you so,' " I said.
"Thanks for helping me save face," Duke said. "If I'd had to keep up with Luke, I'd be in intensive care." Duke then suggested that we spend the rest of the day lying motionless on a secluded beach.
It's amazing the stupid things you do on vacation.