Mountains are restorative in more than one way. For instance, I love how they can connect us with strangers. Each encounter on a mountain path becomes significant enough to be at least blessed with a ritual of a greeting.
Mountains of steel and concrete (read: human-made apartment blocks) almost train us to be on our own. The closer we live to one another, the bigger strangers we become.
When I lived in a skyscraper in Zagreb, my fellow residents wouldn’t greet back in an elevator. Even in my current abode, a four-floor building, tenants often prefer to live unbothered by courtesy. I know my first neighbor’s name is Milka because I optimistically introduced myself when moving in. Since then, I never heard a ‘hello’ back.
The magic of the mountain is in making us connect
But in the mountains, where population density drops, every passer-by becomes the friendliest person one could hope to meet.
This past Saturday, I went hiking Zagreb’s Medvednica mountain, loosely translated as the mountain of bears. I was pleasantly taken aback. Despite the arduous climbing on a warm day, hikers managed to summon smiles between puffs and pants. Such is the magic of the mountain – we relate to each other.
Much like other transformative experiences, the hike up the Croatian capital’s mountain begins with a tunnel. You step into the darkness of the tube, but soon a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel assures you that more life awaits beyond. On one side, the towering human-made mountains, and on the other, the grand architecture of nature. Who wouldn’t want to pass through?
The dance of the fern
Many Saturdays ago (exactly 329, I counted), I was hiking in the Southern Hemisphere, a world away from Zagreb. Separated by an entire alphabet of mountains and seas, there was the city of Bandung, the capital of West Java, Indonesia. Overlooking the town, the highest peak was called Bukit Moko.
On that particular Saturday, I wasn’t hiking alone through the enchanting pine forest. There was me, equipped with my Canon, and Fathin Naufal, armed with his Polaroid camera. I had met him just a day before, through Couchsurfing, another platform that quickly connects mountains of strangers.
He had this dense hair and a thin mustache, wore glasses with a chain, and his wide smile, framed by braces, exuded boyish charm. Although he had circled the Sun just 23 times, he seemed mature, with well-defined visions and beliefs. On the other hand, Fathin was still playful like a child. It didn’t need much to pull me into playing fools for his Polaroid camera, as he liked to document life with instant photographs that adorned his tiny room.
At the same time, there was me, serious and ambitious, with a travel blogging agenda, lugging around a heavy camera bag to the top of Bandung’s highest hill I would never even report about. Until now.
I noticed a delicate fern swaying in the wind, between sunlight and shade, just calling for a photograph. It was challenging to capture that tiny fragile thing with its dancy groove, evading my intention to freeze the moment of beauty for… Well, for forever.
Fathin couldn’t contain his laughter as he watched my futile attempts to trap nature in my memory card. Kneeling on the forest floor, in front of that vivid, attention-eluding fern, I had to laugh as well.
A silent storm within me
While I was, 329 Saturdays later, following the winding trail toward Puntijarka, one of Zagreb’s mountain huts, my thoughts swirled around the fragility of life.
Unlike the dancing fern in the Bandung breeze, much sturdier Medvednica trees couldn’t withstand the ferocity of the July storm. It didn’t matter how rooted they were, or how strong they were; many just snapped in an instant. It was a powerful lesson about the unpredictable nature of existence; we cannot know when we will break.
Now, I may not have been the most prepared for this hike. While I was less broken than those toppled trees, there was still a storm of anger and confusion raging in my head, while I tried to put my best face forward when greeting fellow hikers, those nameless ambassadors of people who care. I was hiking up with that dancing Bandung fern etched in my mind, my tired eyes hidden behind sunglasses.
My smartwatch monitor usually scolds me for not getting enough sleep, urging me to improve my bedtime habits. Yet, this Saturday, after a restless night, the smartwatch had no objections. In fact, it commended my mere 4 hours and 58 minutes of sleep, calling it “not bad”.
“Napping boosts your energy and performance”, it said. That’s right, with such numerous awakenings that night, the smartwatch concluded my fractured dreams were a series of strategic power naps.
“Hello? You alive?”
Fathin wasn’t posting much on social media recently. Ever since he had updated his profile picture in November 2022, featuring him confidently dressed in a sleek all-black outfit, complete with high heels and a stylish purse that resembled a vintage camera, he seemed to have retreated from the online spotlight.
Nonetheless, we chatted in January. He shared his enthusiasm for “cool and huge” interior design projects he was about to do – exciting ventures ranging from new bars to an entire treehouse village. By March, he was reporting back as being super busy with work, with massive projects going on. “Super exciting, yet super exhausting”, he told me.
Fathin also spoke about the “fucked-up weather” in Bali, where he had been building his career in recent years. “Mostly super hot and humid, then crazy rain out of nowhere”, he said. “Hahahaha, all about the balance, hey.”
I was reaching out to him in July and August, when crazy rains were long forgotten, but received no response. It was not typical for him to ghost me. I figured he must’ve changed his phone number again, something he had done a couple of times before.
Facebook’s Messenger still displayed him as “connected”, yet my messages refused to go through.
My last WhatsApp message said “Hello? You alive?”
The wall of silence
On Friday, I attempted once again to fathom Fathin’s reasons for ignoring me. And then, on his Facebook wall, my gaze fell upon someone’s post – a photograph capturing his recognizable silhouette, flashing the victorious V sign. The message said: “Fly high and dance forever.”
The earlier post was even clearer for a sinking heart: “I will miss you so much, my darling. Rest in peace, Fathin. You’ve always space in my heart and will always complete my soul. Lots of love always.”
Fathin and I didn’t really have common friends. Our friendship was intensely one-on-one. Springboarded from just two in-person encounters, one in Java and the other in Bali, we felt strangely connected. I was looking forward to staying with him upon my return to the Island of Gods.
But Fathin has not been around since April 15, and it took me five months to find out. As I heard, he had just suddenly fallen ill, gasping for breath. His heart had stopped beating before he could reach hospital.
Saying goodbyes never comes easy, but this one was particularly brutal. He was just 29, always generous and listening, a wellspring of talent and ambition, brimming with realized and future potential. He had that youthful energy of a fern dancing in the wind, always smiling with his braces, showing off his radical haircuts, piercings, tattoos, and a personal style that boldly challenged the conventions of traditional Indonesian society.
I broke down in tears this Friday, learning that my dear friend was gone. It was a loss that defied comprehension.
From strangers to family
Back in Bandung, 329 Fridays earlier, I stepped off a train from Jakarta. He was there, waiting as promised. I was doubtful if a stranger, who had offered me a place to stay for free, would actually show up. I was new to the Couchsurfing platform. Fathin was my second host, I was his second couch surfer.
He loaded me and my bag on his scooter, and off we went to meet his family. It was a traditional Muslim household, and I was warmly welcomed by a chorus of women and children. Nobody spoke English except for Fathin. They extended offerings of food purchased outside, all the while apologizing for not being better hosts.
None of it made sense to me. Only later, I learned that, on the very day I arrived, the grandmother’s sister had passed away. Devastated by sorrow, these kind-hearted people wore the warmest of smiles, like some mountain hikers, prioritizing my comfort while their internal world was falling apart.
I completely understand where Fathin got his warm and positive spirit from. He was so obviously a black sheep of the family, and yet, instead of being a complete rebel, he had absorbed kindness and empathy.
Encounters with local families are what makes global traveling truly valuable. I met another modest, yet incredibly empowering family at Bete Giyorgis, one of the most impressive world churches.
That same evening, Fathin took me to a local street market and introduced me to pandan rice balls and martabak, thick, buttery pancakes, with peanuts and chocolate. I was bought.
Our original plan had been to ascend the Tangkuban Perahu volcano the following morning. But discouraged by the steep price for foreigners, we decided to visit a more affordable local attraction instead – Bukit Moko. After all, unlike people, volcanoes would always be there.
The road to Bandung’s hills was quite steep. I had to dismount from the motorbike at certain sections, so Fathin could drive through. Taking those asses uphill required effort.
The woodpecker’s tap-tap
Some sport bikes whizzed downhill, as I ascended the slopes of Zagreb’s mountain, with a lost friend in my mind. No friendly ‘hellos’ this time. Life’s too quick for that.
I’d stop only briefly, to take a sip of water, so my back could continue sweating, leaving a giant wet mark on my shirt.
“Super exciting, yet super exhausting”, rang in my ears. “Super hot and humid”, it all mixed up.
Mountains are restorative in more than one way. Even amid all those broken, seemingly strong trees, the rhythmic sound of a persistent woodpecker echoed through the forest. There was life beyond what you could see.
You pass the tunnel and disconnect from the civilization’s frantic rush.
Reflection in the stars
Bukit Moko forest was different. It was a hill where civilization and nature grew into each other. Streetlights emerged directly from the trees, and even charging stations were installed. After all, those selfies drain mobile phone batteries.
Among the most sought-after selfie spots were the colossal reflective stars of Puncak Bintang. Fathin and I, naturally, posed for some reflection.
In my travel journal, I would note that we paused for some juice refreshments before heading to the Babakan Siliwangi forest walk. The youngsters of Bandung were shooting urban fashion editorials there.
After savoring a cup of tea at a cozy coffee shop where Fathin’s friend worked, he took me for lunch to a place called The Volcano. Since I had missed out on visiting Tangkuban Perahu, Fathin thought we could at least eat some chicken at this eatery that promoted itself with “The Ultimate Experience” banner.
Fathin ordered an entire chicken, but it arrived at our table half-raw. We sent it back, and after an additional 15 minutes of baking, it returned equally undercooked. We requested a take-out, and later that evening my host would over-bake the hell out of that roast chicken.
Back to the chicken
Fathin’s Couchsurfing profile today says he was a vegetarian. I assume this dietary choice evolved after 2017. We shape our identities gradually.
I haven’t eaten much chicken in the last six years either. Yet, this Saturday, at Puntijarka mountain hut, in the absence of martabak, I ordered chicken for lunch. I wasn’t at the top of the volcano again. But this one was baked well.
Fathin Naufal – from ‘om’ to freedom
Those 329 Saturdays ago, I caught just a brief glimpse into the extraordinary life this unique artsy soul led in his hometown.
Fathin Naufal was the one who introduced me to NuArt Sculpture Park, where his friend smuggled us in, and I managed to snap a pic of the biggest Vishnu statue in the world while it was still a work in progress.
My friend was well-connected, especially within art circles. His talents knew no bounds: he was a performer, a storyteller, a dancer, a singer, a guitar and a piano player.
When I first met him, he proudly displayed his henna tattoo, an ohm symbol on his wrist. “I can’t have real tattoos”, he texted me earlier. “I’m a Muslim, lol. My parents would be angry.”
That changed when he moved away. Bali liberated him, and Fathin expressed himself through a handpoke tattoo. His fashion style also blossomed. He never seemed afraid of being judged as different, or eccentric.
When it comes to imagining new interiors, he was designing everything from toy stores and apartments to teenage gyms and contemporary dance centers.
This clearly perspective young man could hold deep conversations but also liked to laugh. I loved making him laugh.
During a quick tour of Bandung, he even took me on a journey back in time, to his student years. Villa Isola, an art-deco building on the campus of the University of Education, has an aura of mystery, with tales of apparition sightings.
Fathin recalled a peculiar experience there himself. He told me that he was with his friends when they heard the distinct sound of horse bells. That night, all three of them were haunted by the same chilling nightmare – a horse-drawn carriage running over them.
Bearing with the pain
When that May Sunday in 2017 arrived, and it was time for me to depart, Fathin accompanied me to the bus station. He was standing there long, refusing to leave before the bus’s tires began to roll.
“It’s a bit teary but I can handle it lol”, he texted me, just meters away, separated by the bus’s glass windows.
“Don’t forget about us”, he added. “My mom has bought chicken and everything to cook something for you. She feels guilty because she hasn’t even cooked anything for you.”
In that moment of familial grief, that generous woman had room for the feelings of guilt, toward a perfect stranger.
Perhaps I’m not naming things right. True, I had only met Fathin twice. Those 48 hours in Bandung in 2017, and then one evening in Bali in 2019. But our long-distance connection that kept on going was quite strong. I couldn’t just call him an acquaintance. There were too many tears in my eyes when I learned what happened. That vibrant 29-year-old, overflowing with love, was gone? It made no sense.
Our moment in time was like a casual passing-by on some mountain trail. But our “Hello” was far from an empty ritual
Before I left his hometown, Fathin gifted me a necklace adorned with a ceramic polar bear, bearing the word “chill” on its side. It was a profound reminder message, and I wonder if I should have worn it more often, as I undoubtedly will now.
Without anything of equal significance to offer in return, I presented him with a simple bracelet I had received in Kuala Lumpur on Vesak Day. He accepted it with gratitude and called it a lucky bracelet. Now I know bracelets aren’t miraculous.
It’s remarkable how brief encounters with strangers can connect us so deeply. Our moment in time may not have appeared different from a casual passing-by on some mountain trail. But our mutual greeting, though insignificant in the grand scheme of history, was far from an empty ritual.
It was an honor to be able to say “Hello” to you, my dear friend. Your presence has left an indelible imprint on my Polaroid heart.
Have you ever met anyone as briefly as I met Fathin Naufal? Did that person leave a mark on you? Reach out to them today!
And pin this in memoriam piece for later!