At this present moment, I am a meromictic lake. My face is awash with saltwater sweat, indistinguishable to the naked eye from the fresh spring water I have just doused myself in. I am hiking through the jungle of Penang National Park; this particular trail will lead us to Pentai Kerachut beach as well as Penang’s very own meromictic lake. The layers of a meromictic lake do not mix, the depths often the most salty, and the upper layers more composed of freshwater. The layers in a meromictic lake may not mix for decades, or centuries. I am struck by this, and the opportunity it offers for different life forms and organisms to exist in different layers of the same lake — in a layer other than their own, they would not survive. The mixture of layers can have catastrophic consequences for the life forms that exist within them. I consider what this means. The lake is composed of distinct parts: monimolimnion, chemocline, mixolimnion. This lake can only exist as a meromictic lake by virtue of it having these distinct parts, which exist alongside each other but do not, ought not, mix.
The trip that I am on is distinctly different than the trip that I had planned to be on. The trip that I had planned to be on had been one with my partner of five years. We were going to meet in Malaysia, after he had spent a few months in Indonesia, and then travel together to Indonesia before going to see his family in New Zealand. Six days before I left London to meet him, he broke up with me. I was suddenly faced with the decision of leaving the country anyway and travelling alone or staying put. The decision in many ways was made for me, I had left my job and given up my home. I was mentally unprepared for travelling alone but decided to throw caution to the wind and go regardless.
Eight days later I found myself at a bar in George Town, Penang, with my now ex-boyfriend— the prefix ‘ex’ still feels alien on my tongue, despite practicing saying it over and over in my head. The meeting was at first awkward and uncomfortable but we slipped into familiarity with ease and confusion. I got drunk and I cried. Later, we hugged and friendship seemed possible.
And now, I am hiking with my ex-boyfriend through the jungle at Penang National Park where I find myself making the comparison between my sweaty face and the meromictic lake. As we hike, it occurs to me that our relationship reflects a meromictic lake, and the analogy feels more apt.
Perhaps, I think, he and I were like a meromictic lake. We are perfectly good at existing alongside each other and allowing one another to flourish within its own life forms, but attempting to mix our layers, to mix ourselves will not enable us to survive. In short, we want different things, we can’t flourish independently if we try to cohabitate. We part ways and decide to remain friends.
Prior to his leaving, we had created a couples account on Workaway, a website for travellers to exchange time and work for accommodation and new experiences, thinking that we might do some volunteering at eco-lodges or permaculture farms or something else equally as alluring. In the immediate days after the break up I went into a zombie like mode of pragmatism, dealing with the practicalities of unfortunate events rather than the emotional which is messy, unpredictable, uncontrollable. I log into Workaway and go through our profile editing the previous answers. Each ‘we’ changed to an ‘I’, each ‘us’ to ‘me’, each ‘ours’ to ‘mine’. This felt like the most literal dismemberment from the symbiotic existence we had created. Written on paper there is no denying that what was once very recently a collective is now a singular. It was painful but satisfying, the neatness of the edited words, a new form traced onto paper. I, not we. As if the messiness of a split at the seams could be undone and re-stitched with a mere rehashing of the language used in relation to one’s self. Perhaps it can be — we’ll see, I’ll see.
And so, I trudge on, through Malaysia and on to Indonesia. I think I feel positive about this newfound independence and the multitude of experiences I can choose to embark on. I look at a map of Indonesia and its 14,752 islands. My head is dizzy with possibility. I have never been very good at making decisions. When this trip had been originally planned, I had mostly left the organisation to my partner. His destinations only had to fit one criteria — the opportunity to surf. I’m not a surfer, I have tried and will try again. But for now, I can choose to go anywhere. I have 14,752 possible islands to explore in one country alone and no criteria to fulfill. I begin with Bali, because this seems the easiest and I had recently met a Chilean woman in George Town who was going to be there, we booked the same hostel in Canggu and off I set.
Arriving in Bali, I feel strong willed and positive. I am making my own decisions, I am independent, I do not need anyone. Canggu is filled with beautiful people taking beautiful photos of beautiful food that is not at all Indonesian. It is smoothie bowls and avocado on toast, yoga and surfing — it is a place to imagine you have no problems. I do things I would not normally do, like get a manicure and contemplate a massage. I feel guilty for my indulgence and ashamed for engaging with a culture so far from the Balinese culture which has persisted for centuries. When I am fed up of the Instagram Influencers flaunting their picture-perfect lives in picture-perfect cafes, I retreat to the local warungs for Indonesian food, which is much cheaper and much better than avocado on toast. It feels as though everything is fine, and then it feels as though everything is not.
Loss involves a reconfiguration of the self and a reformulation of language. When I was 18, my mother died and she went from being someone who is to someone who was. My 19th birthday took place two weeks later and my father made me a card, which signed off with “we love you, mum and dad”. I was angry but I couldn’t find the words to express why. His sign off was inconsistent with the truth. She doesn’t love me. She loved me, and now she never will again. The past tense is final and foreboding, I can look back at the things I have lost but I cannot bring them forward to here, to now. And the language changes too when a relationship ends; ‘ex’ lingers on my tongue, bittersweet.
When I am travelling and people ask about my plans or where I live when I am in London, I am forced to use this new terminology. It is unavoidable, just as the truth is unavoidable. You cannot hide from language that depicts the truth, the past is brought into the present when we use these terms, but only in passing, the past cannot materialise and remain with us. And so, we must move on.
I think I find freedom on Nusa Penida, an island off the coast of Bali. I volunteer at a wildlife conservation centre and for the first time in my life I am made aware of the patterns of birds, the fragility of their small lives and the enormous importance of their preservation. I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and climb down a rugged path in the dry, arid heat with a pair of binoculars and a clipboard, ready to observe the Bali Starling whose numbers had dwindled to four just a few years ago, a consequence of both poaching and the loss of the woodpeckers which had inhabited the island until the end of the Second World War and who had provided the holes in the trees which the starlings would nest in.
In the evening I go for a beer in the village with my Chilean friend, after dark our route home takes us through the forest and up the steep rugged walk back to the conservation centre and our beds. The forest is like an adventure quest video game, the reward for which is a night of deep sleep and wild dreams. We enter the path with a head-torch and are immediately confronted by a group of Bali cattle with their calves, their eyes glow hauntingly as they stand ahead of us amongst the dry trees and dust. We bow our heads in respect, a silent request for permission to pass, and proceed ahead. As we turn the corner, attempting to tread quietly, we are faced with howls and barks as three dogs lurch out of the confines of the property they live on with a man we have been told is ‘completely crazy but totally harmless’ we ignore the dogs as they run around our feet barking and howling with the ferocious zealour of territorial protection. As we get further ahead, their howls lessen to eventual silence.
We clamber upwards, tripping over rocks and sticks and our own feet before we come to a dusty clearing. We look up and see the stars blinking down at us. Blink, blink. Blink, blink. Blink, blink. We pause as we consider the sheer enormity of the universe, the possibility of life beyond us and our insignificance amongst it all. We remind ourselves that the stars we are seeing now are not stars as they are now, but a vision into the past; the lightyears the light from the stars have travelled to reach earth mean that we will never see a star as it is in this very moment. So, perhaps you can bring the past into the present, if only as an illusion, and only for a moment.
Rosalind Reynolds-Grey is a writer based in Dorset, England. She is one of the editors of Ache magazine, an intersectional feminist magazine exploring themes of illness, health, bodies and pain. Aside from writing, Rosalind is involved in mental health peer support projects and is often thinking about the role of the arts in health.