Five Life Lessons I Learnt At 2,329m Amidst Blue Flames and Sulfur Fumes

Although I’ve been a Boy Scout in my growing up years and spent 2 good years of my teenage life as a military conscript in Singapore, being in the great outdoors has never really been my choice of a “getaway”.

I always believe you must have a certain appetite not just for adventure and Mother Nature. But also, for the unrelenting tropical weather (here in Southeast Asia) and the stubborn layer of grime that envelopes your entire body. The dirt clogged nails. How your body gets battered slowly but surely by the elements…

Okay, you get my drift.

So when we decided on a Mount Bromo expedition in Java, Indonesia, for our Thousand Network Singapore / Asia retreat, I’ll be honest to say that there was truly that bit of apprehension and hesitation.

But I was sure of two things — one, I’ll return home to my comfy life feeling a deep(er) sense of appreciation and two, the company I was to spend the good 60+ hours with, will be one that I’d truly enjoy and treasure.

And I was right.

But honestly, I took away more than that.

Before I share with you some brief lessons I’ve brought home, here are some photos of our trip so you can live vicariously through our experiences :)

1) The beauty of life comes down to the perspectives you frame

Frames, frames, all around…

I’ve always admired photographers because it’s the science to know which equipment and lenses to use and at when. But quite the art to appreciate the nuances of life. And to do so, you cannot be in a hurry nor impatient. You have to slow down and literally… pause. The stillness is what gives you lenses for those additional perspectives. And being in the moment allows you to quietly but snugly see and appreciate the different frames that life can offer.

On this trip, one of our common intentions was “disconnect to connect”. But it was difficult to me as I was almost always the first one to ask for the WIFI password at any restaurants or hotels we head to. And it dawned upon me that my high-octane race in life was clearly manifested in my back-to-back calendars on my Google calendar and my noisy mind. It made me wonder how many of such “frames” of my already-beautiful life, I have missed out on in my harried footsteps?

2. When you fall forward with your fear, you get ahead faster (and easier)

Which seems to be conveniently ignored.

Admittedly, the most treacherous part of the journey was scaling down from the highest part of the Mount Ijen to the Ijen Crater itself to witness the magnificent “blue flames”. A description of Ijen goes,

“Kawah Ijen volcano (2386m) is an active stratovolcano located on the eastern part of Java Island. The top of Ijen volcano is characterized by a very acidic crater lake containing 27.5 million m³ of turquoise-colored water. This lake is the biggest reservoir of hot and acidic water on Earth. On the southern part of the lake, fumaroles are ejecting tons of sulfur every day. At night, this site is one of the only spot on Earth where it is possible to see blue fires. This is due to very hot gas coming from the volcanic conduits burning the sulfur, which leads to an extremely beautiful scenery. On the western part of the crater, a dam was build hundred years ago upstream of the Banyu Pahit river.”

Without any safety harness, railings or proper walking pathways, we were asked to descent down from the peak of 2,300+m in the wee hours of the morning. Many times, my worn out running shoes almost gave way and one could literally fall down the cliff if you weren’t careful enough. Granted I should have gotten a proper pair of hiking shoes with better traction, it didn’t take away that sheer element of danger. And it was also in those moments you feel an intense sense of awareness and would hold on to anything for your dear life.

Yet, it was also in those moments that I realize the more I was afraid to fall, the more hesitation built up in my foot steps. Until a certain point, I land flat on my buttocks. And I told myself, maybe it’d be better to just “fall forward” with the terrain… not totally and in an unfettered fashion, but just take bigger and bolder strides down and trust enough. And it worked all the wonders for me. The descent was so much smoother and while it was terrifying at the start, it just puts less pressure on my ankles and got me to my destination faster.

3. Life is difficult… but a lot more so, for some others

Img: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01410/sores-back_1410048i.jpg

While we were descending down to the Ijen crater, we had to often pause and give way not to fellow hikers, but to a group of locals.

And I later realize that while we were on an “adventure trip” to witness the “wonders of nature” with our mobile phones and digital cameras, a quiet group of locals were also on the same path. But they had on their backs heavy loads of sulfur that weighed anywhere from 70 to 90kg pressed stubbornly on their backs, cushioned only with a worn out cloth.

When I saw them do, what was those “death-defying” acts scaling down into the volcano crater with the insane load on their shoulders and back, I couldn’t help but be welled up with deep sense of respect for them. It was their livelihoods, notwithstanding the scorching heat and the choking and stinging fumes. For 2 trips a day, they’d take home around 25,000 rupiahs (~ 18USD). When a few of them walk past me, I noticed their backs were hunched badly, almost to a state of deformation. Their only wish, according to this Times article, is to give their children their passports to a better life.

When I thought of their daily toils, my #firstworld struggles and concerns just seem so small and insignificant. And if you were there with me, you’ll probably walk away with that same sense of deep humility and respect for this group of miners. Life is difficult, but probably, a lot more so for many of such people in parts of the world we call “developing”.

4. Real people… Real conversations… They can uplift and change you

Our crew less Delane, Audrey and Esther who were still on their horses back. And Shuo Yan! Who was preparing brekkie for us back ‘home’

Perhaps the biggest highlight for me was with the 14 others who went on this expedition with me.

Our conversations were multifarious and we’d be talking about Boston Brahmin on one instant to Cultural Revolution one another. From the role that virality plays in scaling your regional business to bio-hacking and of course… Singapore politics and history? Avoiding the usual cliches, we exchanged questions like “What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now” and “What habits have you have started recently?”

And we shared many deep moments where we realized how to the outside world, we are “a global community of extraordinary young people” and over-achievers. But yet within ourselves, we were also capable and comfortable being ourselves sans the accolades, titles and achievements. Dancing awkwardly with the uncertainties of our work and life. Feeling inadequate and small. Being unsure and not always knowing enough.

All of these “sides” of ourselves, we probably shed and shared it with folks in this crew, we call family.

The FULL CREW

Myself? I went for the retreat feeling all wearied and doubtful about my work and life. But I returned back feeling “centered” (the word that I used to sum up my experience on the trip) and re-connecting back to the purpose of my life’s work.

In large part, this was because of the 60+ hours I spent with this family.

5. Good things, as they always say, are worth… waiting

On our final morning, we woke up early to watch the sunrise and also to hike up Mountain Bromo. Waking up at 2.30am feeling all groggy. Heading up yet another mountain to one of the most coveted viewing spots in a 4-wheel-drive on bumpy terrains. Freezing in the cold at 4+am.

But, this.

And this.

And is it any serendipity that we had this mounted right at our viewing spot? Because, TN = Thousand Network :)

Our shout-out —

Thousand Network is a global community of young people who live on the edge. We cook up molecular gastronomy, perform pop sonatas, build social empires, and craft radical policy. Scattered across 40 cities on 5 continents, we are bound by our curiosity and creativity. The world is our lab, and we were born to discover what’s possible. Altruism is our currency, and we prosper by aiding each other’s growth. Collectively we can do more with our time on (and off) this planet.

And our Class of 2016 is open for recruitment. If you feel inspired to be part of our bigger family, hit us up here.

Also, I’ll also be happy to answer any questions as the current Hub Ambassador of Thousand Network Singapore / Asia.

Photo Credits: Tomas Laboutka, Hendric Tay

About the Author: Benjamin Loh is an Executive Public Speaking Coach, TEDx Speaker, Author and Professional Speaker on Millennial Matters. As the youngest Associate Certified Coach in Singapore and possibly, Asia-Pacific, he has coached over 100 corporate executives and entrepreneurs individually with over 750 hours of direct coaching and trained over 3,000 clients in high impact mass trainings in public speaking, presentation skills and leading the multi-generational workforce and Millennials. His work in entrepreneurship and public speaking has been featured on over 60 occasions on both local and regional media platforms like Channel News Asia (CNA), Vietnam QKTV, BFM Malaysia, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), Straits Times (ST), Business Times (BT) and News938 Live.

Listen to what some of his clients have to say about working with Ben as their Public Speaking Coach or Millennial Professional Speaker.