Some folks say that creativity shines most in dance, music, and the arts.
Judging by my creative achievements thus far, namely, my underwhelming salsa skills, a ukulele sound that even I wince at, and a tree full of colorfully-painted cicada shells somewhere on the now-distant island of Flores, Indonesia, perhaps I am not an authority on the topic. But please stay with me, those folks are missing a vital component in the creativity recipe. They forget about experiments.
I am far more interested in play and experiments than I am in work.
I believe that life should be lived as a game, going from one experiment to the next. And in this sphere, I think the opportunities are far more plentiful. Some years ago, around mid-2015, I began living in a bus in Indonesia with my then new girlfriend and her child, almost strangers to me at the time. We traveled from Bali to the east, crossing many beautiful islands all the way to the eastern edge of Flores – as far as one could go in a vehicle. It was quite the experiment. We even referred to it as such at the time. It was an experiment in being nomadic, living simply, living wild, and sharing this with the idea of family.
Thinking back to that experiment, perhaps you shouldn’t be listening to me because after six months in that mobile laboratory, around Christmas 2015, the cracks were starting to show in more than just the bus’s paintwork. The experiment results were not yet conclusive, but it had to be shut down regardless, citing the potential for animal cruelty – to the three animals, that is, who were inside the bus. I loved the lifestyle, but as had become apparent, I was alone in that. We returned to the Bali.
At the start of 2016, I found myself idle, pondering new experiments.
It was then that I embarked upon The Consumption Cleanse, a year researching and self-experimentation with diet, stripping down to the bare healthy essentials and then writing a book about my findings and the results. However, being on a diet was hardly a full-time occupation. I was unfulfilled and needed something more significant, more worthwhile.
Around the middle of 2016, I bought a former food bus off a Indonesian government repossession agent. This bus was called Rosie.
I would say good bye to the old bus and to the girls and travel the other way from that which I had gone with them. The plan was to go west, through Java and to Sumatra. I knew the autonomy of transport meant I could go almost anywhere. I planned to live as simply, cheaply, and close to nature as I knew how. Becoming self-reliant was the goal. That was the basis of the experiment.
Before all of that, the first act of creativity was to customize the interior of a food bus. The bus needed some minor bodywork and I needed somewhere to sleep. I’d eat street food initially while foraging for a stove. I had no master plan. This build would be incremental and freestyle by building bits as I needed them from what was available to me as I drifted along.
I found some body workers on the outskirts of Ubud; their workshop was slowly being consumed by the surrounding forest. I struck a deal whereby I would pay them to do the necessary bodywork, and I would use their workshop, electricity, and tools to make myself somewhere to sleep.
It took me about two weeks to gut the bus, build the bed and storage, and give the old girl a few test drives. It took the jungle brothers the same time to fulfill their side of the bargain, but most of that time was spent idly watching the odd foreigner build his new home inside his car. The concept was incomprehensible to them.
Leaving Bali, Indonesia after I had completed the initial bare essentials fit-out was a glorious day; it was day one of the next experiment.
This was the start of my simple life on the road. It was a long-time dream exploding into reality. The other thing that exploded in reality a mere two days after the ferry crossing from Bali to Java was a couple of decaying seals that served some enigmatic purpose within the engine. They did serve to render my home and transport immovable. I knew that much. At this rate, I would be seeing 183 mechanics each year. Luckily, while I would see my fair share of repairs, this weighty ratio would not hold.
A farmer who saw me stranded on the side of the road in the pouring rain applying mathematics to my likely future breakdown frequency gave me a ride on his Flintstones-esque scooter about a kilometer down the road to a scooter workshop.
Unable to replace or even know what these seals did other than cause a noisy geyser of steam to drain the radiator, the motorbike mechanic went to work fashioning new seals from spare bits and pieces found around the workshop’s earthen floor. The result was impressive and would last at least another year. Hopefully beyond. Creativity is everywhere in Indonesia.
I drove through Java and most of Sumatra eventually arriving in Medan, the heavily polluted capital of Indonesia. The building work was continuous as I added ever more utility to the bus.
A Dutch girl joined me in those first few months, and it was with her that I built the kitchen, a pivotal expansion in the self-reliance stakes. We drove through regions of Northern Sumatra and Aceh where the ethnic Batak people live. There they practice many varieties of religion characterized mainly by Christian and Animist dogma and rituals.
Along the way, we met a remarkable mechanic. Rosie was not happy with the rapid low-gear changes required to handle a route that was more pothole than tarmac. Sometimes we would be in one pothole long enough to go through more than one gear. Rosie was having none of it and blew a seal somewhere on her underbelly in protest. We were able to get her to a nearby town’s mechanic’s house while a mob of local people followed us there.
I could tell by their excited yapping that this man was something of a local legend.
This short, quiet man worked closely with his son. Both of them lay in the mud under Rosie examining the complaint. He would ask his son questions in local dialect so I could not understand and his son would answer. He seemed to only work when his son was under the car as well. Almost an hour into the repair about 20 people had gathered, and those who spoke Indonesian told me short stories about the vehicular guru who was under my bus. Eventually, after having his son modify a spare part at his detailed instruction, they fitted it and declared the problem resolved. It was another example of Sumatran creativity. But it was only when he slipped out from under the car and stood up to face us, that we realized their pride was mostly because this man was almost completely blind.
Two days later we arrived in Bukit Lawang. It wasn’t possible to get Rosie down to the river, so we left her secure a few blocks away and set off along the river that defines the shape of the one-path town. The path hugs the river for about half a kilometer and is dotted with guesthouses, cafes, souvenir shops, and woodcarving workshops. As you walk along it, the jungle dominates the view on the other side. After the initial stretch of side-by-side tourist establishments, the buildings thin out and seem to blend in more with the forest.
It would be this jungle and a little bolt-hole by the river that would call me back again and again.
It would be the pitstop that both Rosie and I would need every few months – a break from the road, a break from each other, a pause in the great experiment. My shack here was not what one would ordinarily call comfortable, but it felt like home, and I would not be long away from it over the next 18 months of my life in the bus in Sumatra. It was here that I would spend days gazing at the jungle, reflecting on my experiment and philosophizing about what it means to live a good life. It’s where I would determine what it means to be happy, healthy and prosperous, largely away from consumer society, and eventually file those words away into another book, The Anatomy of Escape.
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