He cut through his beef with ragout sauce while I dug into my salmon drizzled with beurre blanc truffle sauce. We chatted up a storm about our lives: him shuttling from state to state to film and my days of teaching and marking. It was good to see him again. Actually, it is always good to see him, to gaze at his face with that aquiline nose and infectious smile that reached up to his greenish eyes. Dinner was at one of my favourite restaurants, Garcon, which was packed to the rafters. Each table was a cornucopia of culinary creations by head chef, Camille Benedetto-Flosse. Valentine’s dinner started with a divine amuse bouche of tortellini porcini with pumpkin custard followed by a starter of nuptial nest of green bean, strawberry, Hokkaido scallop and shrimp.
I woke up with a start lurching forward as the bus suddenly braked. ZE and I were finalizing our plans to fly to Bali, but before me was a stretch of highway with cars zipping past me on the opposite direction. Where was he?
“Miss, can I please have a bottle of water?” asked a young, skinny boy pointing to a box of Aqua mineral.
Boxes of bottled water, fruit tea, and mini cups of instant Indomie noodles were stacked nearly where I sat. Shaking of my grogginess, I gave him one and then it dawned on me. I was on chaperone duty for the annual English Camp over Valentine’s Day weekend. This time we were heading to a jerkwater town called Nagrak, Sukabumi. It is quite a drive from Bekasi and, to beat the Friday traffic, departure time was at 6am. Down Jalan Cipanggulan the bus trundled, whizzing past trees, cars and trucks. A quick pit stop at petrol station and in an hour or so we made a left on Nagrak from the main thoroughfare. That was when the scenery changed drastically from city to rustic where the roads were narrower and the shops more localised; gone were the big, ubiquitous convenience stores and fast food joints. The pacing seemed slower judging from the folks seated outside of their homes and little shops, who gawked at each vehicle that drove up until it disappeared from sight.
Calvary Heights Resort was at the end of a winding, uneven road at the bottom of Mt Salak. Acting upon the recommendation of colleague Budiyana Tiara, it was selected as this year’s venue because, one, it was ringed in by walls to keep interlopers out. Second, the view was a welcome break from the concrete landscape of Bekasi. Greenery welcomed visitors to the resort. Third, the rooms were capacious and clean. Amenities were far from luxury hotel standard but they were more than satisfactory for a brief weekend stay.
Seated on the balcony overlooking the Japanese garden and playground, I took in the verdant scenery dotted by Japanese- inspired garden leading to a gazebo and a playground with childhood “toys” – slide, see-saw and swing. I mistook the fishpond circling the Japanese garden to be a koi pond. It is filled with fish, but not koi; it is teeming with ikan nila for visitors to fish and grill for lunch.
ZE looked at me intently as I waxed lyrical of Bali. He has never been to Bali and his curiosity rose each time I raved about the gorgeous sun emblazoned against the clear blue sky and how time walked at the pace of lovers. Kuta Beach, its sandy turf seething with vendors of native jewellery, sarong, and services of henna tattoo and massages, is still a beach to go to, I told him, despite tourists being dogged by sellers. Sitting by the shore was meditative; each wave peeled off layers of jadedness until nothing was left but a clean slate.
Bags deposited in the rooms, it was time to get the camp in full swing. Testing their creativity and teamwork, everyone was to brainstorm on their group name and group cheer. Names run the gamut of the mundane – Eagles Eyes, Blue Hawks and English Warriors – to the eyebrow-raising English People Complicated Union or EPCU/It is Complicated. Cheers were a mixed bag of exciting and pedestrian. Some students have the personality of a Greek philosopher given to contemplation, not theatrics.
I listened keenly to his story of the strength he found to get himself out of the abyss he had plunged into. A stint in a rehab helped him to refocus on the direction he failed to take. Completely severing ties with his sybaritic friends, he has remained sober for several months now.
Sportsmanship was being tested with parlour games on the second day. Separated from their gadgets, students took a while to get the games that didn’t have them staring at a screen. “A Minute to Win It” was scream-inducing particularly when group reps had to transport soda cans from end to end with pasta clamped between their teeth. Stacking cups was comparatively easy-peasy than the first game. Teachers participated in the balloon juggling, which, modesty aside, I did with panache. “Dictionary Relay” was difficult for some, proving my theory that reading is an alien concept to today’s generation. Some were unsure about the alphabet! “Spelling Bee” was riotous: it was an epiphany for most that embarrassment was spelled with double r and double s.
ZE had successfully fought the demons resolute in making him lead a life of debauchery. He now exuded calmness, determination and confidence. I thought to myself, “It takes a man of strength to admit he’s fallen and greater strength in not backsliding.”
“Miss, what time is lunch?” asked a member of the EPCU/It is complicated, jolting me back to reality.
My stare of incredulity had him grinning sheepishly. Snack time had just finished and he was already thinking of lunch. A mini cup of Indo Mie noodles wasn’t enough for him. I suppose I should pitied Little Buddha, as I’ve taken to call him, because hiking does work up a ravenous appetite. Everyone – except me – went on a hike outside the parameters of the resort, which had them crossing a river under the relentless sun.
Third day of camp had worked the students to the bone: a two-hour hike and an hour+ of fishing. I enjoyed the fishing despite not touching a bamboo rod. Seated in the gazebo, the mid-morning breeze sashaying through the air, I applauded every now and then the successful ones.
He wanted to surf while I wanted to read on the beach. The compromise: I’ll watch him surf and he’ll laze on the beach with me after.
It was wishful thinking that we’d avoid traffic on the way back to Bekasi. It was snail pace out of the winding road from Calvary Heights Resort, which no one seemed to mind, as silence blanketed the bus. Some were strapped to their gadgets while others had dozed off. Camping time was over. What happened to ZE?
Calvary Heights Resort (Villa Kaca)
Desa Pawenang, Nagrak – Sukabumi
Tel: +62 853 1300 6060 (Budiyana Tiara)
Additional photos by Rico Falcunitin and Budiyana Tiara