It’s holiday time, and once again, people everywhere are talking about miracles. So, gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a truly rare wonder. An occurrence of such extraordinary unlikeliness and infrequency that seeing a giant octopus piloting Halley’s Comet like a chariot across the Golden Gate Bridge would seem banal by comparison.
I’m talking about me getting out of bed before dawn to see the sunrise. Not to compare this to the big, faith-based marvels that inspire our various winter festivities, but anyone who knows me, has worked with me, or tried to get me on the phone, much less up and dressed, before double-digit hours in the morning, will confirm that, for me to voluntarily haul my carcass upright and into motion while it’s still dark out, when the building isn’t even on fire…well, it’s gonna take nothing short of a forklift miracle.
But, such miracles do occur now and then. Usually as a result of peer pressure. And, to be honest, I always feel like I’ve been tricked; defrauded out of my early morning snuggle time by the promise of beholding tangerine magic that never quite delivers. But, I keep falling for it.
It all started years ago in India, when my friends Rajendra and Bhawani told me it would be simply inexcusable to miss seeing the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I was pretty sure the Taj Mahal would look amazing at any time of day, so I politely declined. They were so persistent, though, that I started to worry that I might actually miss something astonishing if I didn’t make the effort. Accordingly, I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, grumbled resentfully through the dark streets of Agra, and followed Rajendra and Bhawani to the foggy marble terrace behind the Taj Mahal, where Rajendra said the view of the sun bursting over the horizon would be most awe inspiring. And we waited.
There’s a river winding through the sands behind the Taj Mahal, and as dawn approached, daylight started to illuminate the land, and nearby villagers came out to the bank of the river…and squatted down. From above on the terrace, I had to squint to get a good look at them. It was getting lighter and lighter out, but we still hadn’t seen the sun come up. But, the lighter it got, the more villagers came to the river and copped a squat, and the clearer it became what they were doing.
I turned to Rajendra and said, “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?” My friend Jennifer tried to lighten the mood, knowing well how much of a morning person I’m not. “No, I think they are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal! They are getting down low to frame the shot!” Bless her. She’s such an optimist. I looked at Rajendra, the arch of my eyebrows demanding an answer. “Please tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed in the middle of the night just to come watch people poop on the river bank!” Rajendra laughed nervously, and said the people were, indeed, relieving themselves. I turned away in exasperation, and in the opposite direction, saw…the sun! It had come up on the other side!
“LOOK!” I shrieked and pointed, and Jennifer and Rajendra and Bhawani and I ran around to the front of the main tomb building, just in time to see the fat, amber yolk of the sun climb into the Indian sky over the tip of the red marble monuments on the, yes, east side of the complex.
“Why were we back there watching people go to the bathroom in the river when the sunrise is over here!” I whined. Rajendra looked positively nonplussed. “I don’t understand, it usually comes up over there, I don’t know what happened this time,” he said. Well, that could happen to anybody. You know how unpredictable the sun can be.
After that, I swore I wasn’t getting up to see any more damned sunrises. Sunsets are just as good—no, better, because no one has to get up earlier than they want to, and they virtually demand to be accompanied by a relaxing cocktail. That’s definitely more my speed.
Fast forward to last year. I was on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. For some reason that made perfect sense to me at the time, I booked a hotel on the east coast, on the opposite side of the island from the main town. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel also happened to be next to a large, volcanic tuff cone named Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak.” You can see where this is headed.
It was off-season, and when I arrived, it looked like I might be the only guest in the place. So, when the English-speaking gentleman the owner had dispatched to meet me upon check-in (that’s Korean hospitality for you) told me that they had set up a special sunrise viewing terrace just for me on the side of the building facing Seongsan Ilchulbong, and would be waiting for me at 5:15 a.m. with coffee and pastries and blankets for snuggling…well…it would have been rude to say no.
So, up I got. At least, this time, I didn’t have to go very far, and I didn’t have to watch anyone at their morning toilet. And there was coffee and pastry. That made it much more bearable. But, the sunrise still failed to deliver the advertised spiritual epiphany-inducing chills. In fact, as if sensing my bad attitude, it failed to show at all.
This is what it looked like just before dawn:
And this is what it looked like just after:
Pfft. I shoulda stood in bed. I renewed my vow that the only sunrise I would ever see would be one on the end of a long and festive night of carousing, not one I had to crawl out of bed for.
Then came Anton. Anton is a professional driver (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004371273617&sk=about), and when he doesn’t have a client booked, he kills time doing airport runs from the Yogyakarta airport in Java. That’s how we met. We hit it off like a house fire, so I hired him to drive me around and show me the sights.
Lucky for me, he also knows all the good local places to eat, and introduced me to a bunch of Indonesian dishes I might never have discovered otherwise, like “bakso,” a wonderful meatball soup with noodles. And a popular local tofu brand, called “Poo.” No river bank required.
One of the most notable sights near Jogja is a massive, 9th century Buddhist temple called Borobudur. When I told Anton I wanted to go see it, he said we needed to set out at 4 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Oh no, I told him, nothing doing. I don’t care about the sunrise. We can just go around noon. He said okay, but knitted his eyebrows and looked down into his bakso. After a couple bites, he said, “Quin, if you want to go later, we can, but it will be very hot and very crowded. I don’t think you will like it.”
If there’s anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s oppressive heat and crushing crowds. He had my attention. I proposed we go at, like, 8 a.m., and avoid the heat. Now, we were negotiating. He argued that we would still have to set out at 6:30 to get there by 8, and it would still be hot, and with all that discomfort, we wouldn’t even be rewarded with the sight of the sunrise. So, why not go a couple hours earlier, see the magical sunrise over the temple, with the Merapi volcano in the distance, and then get in and out of the temple before the bus tour groups show up and the heat gets too bad. He knew a secret, special place up on a hill over the temple where we could watch the sunrise, and it wouldn’t be crowded, and we wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee the hotel near the temple charges to let people watch the sunset on their terrace. I reluctantly agreed.
That’s right. Anton talked me not only into getting up, but into climbing a mountain before dawn! He really is a wizard. And this was my reward (if the video below does not show, click here):
I have to admit, it was pretty cool. And we got in to Borobudur in time to see the giant bumblebees perching on the Buddha’s head–Buddhabees–before the stone got too hot in the sun for them to land. Point: Anton.
A week later, I asked Anton if he would take me to Mount Bromo, the big, active volcano in east Java. It was a couple days’ drive away, but he was willing. On the second day, Anton started preparing me for the idea that I would have to get up and trek up the mountain before dawn.
“Why,” I asked. “It’s a volcano, it’s open all day. We can go in the afternoon.”
“No, we can only drive up so far in my car, and then you have to take a jeep, and the jeep drivers only work in the morning.”
“I bet we can find one who would be willing to go later,” I said confidently.
When we got up to the lodge at the edge of the ash plane surrounding the cone, Anton checked with his contact, who confirmed that it had to be a pre-dawn run. I was so annoyed. Anton assured me that, once again, the heat would be so ghastly in the afternoon, that the trade off of getting up early would be worth it.
Now, Mount Bromo is up at almost 8,000 feet, and it was really cold that night. It was the only time I broke out my packable down jacket in the entire year I have been on the road, so I was especially skeptical about this heat avoidance claim. But, there was nothing to be done. Anton–who ordinarily stays in bed while his clients meet the jeep driver for the trek up the mountain—after advocating so hard to make me go early, had to get up and go with me. We froze our assets off in the dark in the back of the jeep, as it lumbered off-road across the moonscape to the side of the volcano, and began to climb. About two-thirds of the way up, the path was so jammed with jeeps and motorbikes, that we had to stop and hike the rest of the way on foot. This did not improve my mood.
Anton walked along a few paces ahead of me through the crowd, cheerfully offering falsehoods of encouragement, like “just a few more meters and we are there, Quin!” when we were clearly nowhere close. Finally, at the top, there was a big, curved amphitheater carved into the hillside, from which you can look down onto the active, smoking cones of the volcano. And that is a truly remarkable view. But, once again, the sun came up on the opposite side! Tricked again. You would have to climb over the back side of the viewing platform and look out across the plains in the other direction to see the stupid sunrise. So, all that effort, and the sun came up in the wrong place.
Within a half hour after the sunrise, 99% of the people and the jeeps they came in were all gone. So, if we had waited, we could have driven right up to the top and hopped out of the jeep right at the amphitheater steps. And it wasn’t that hot. And I refuse to believe there isn’t a jeep driver willing to make a few extra bucks after the sunrise run is over. But, it sure was a marvelous, otherworldly sight. I’m just fairly sure it would be equally marvelous at noon. Or, even 9 a.m. Whatever. I’m not bitter.
In the meantime, I am back to my commitment to a “sunset only” policy for 2015. Sunsets are just more glamorous. And I’m more likely to be glamorous at the hour that they occur. I think we can all agree that’s an important factor. So, for me to get up voluntarily just for another sunrise, well…it would take a miracle.