Mushrooms with The Mad Hatter of Meno

Indonesia, April 2019

God, was I glad to get off mainland Bali. As a first time explorer to Indonesia, I found myself listless and stuck in the holidaymaker ghettos of Seminyak and Legion: the atmosphere thick with Australian accents, and beachside boulevards infested with sports bars and lads with bad tattoos. Rookie mistake. I made a bee line out of there towards the port.

On the fast boat I could make out the land mass behind the fountains of ocean spray. There they were. The three Gili islands, perched seductively in an archipelago in the gulf between Bali and Lombok. On reflection, they each reminded me of a different ex. Trawangan - dizzy, furious and alluring - with dazzling promises of escapade and the exotic: until you find yourself lost in his mindless hedonism, left broke and with nothing else to your name but a raging hangover. Gili Air coos as a restorative, bohemian beauty, with a bounty full of yoga classes and zen-inducing smoothies, along with evergreen promises of helping you ‘find yourself’ together on a secluded beach. Until you discover a hidden underbelly of mayhem with as many lost souls at a moonlit rave as his student-heavy cousin. Then you get oft-forgotten and overlooked Meno. Sold as purely a honeymooners retreat, I was tempted to skip over this gem seeing as I’m very much a single man and didn’t fancy sitting with jealousy, watching enamoured couples tread barefoot hand-in-hand. But oh boy am I glad I didn’t! Turns out very weird and wonderful things happen on this very local slice of Balinese island life.

Wading out from the local taxi-boat into the bathwater-warm Balinese sea - Meno has no official dock - my eyes cry relief to see completely empty swathes of sand unspoilt by the hawkers and hostel carts of the nearby islands. Within a two minute stroll, I found myself on a welcomingly tiny mud track, winding it’s solitary way through quiet jungle and farmland, past a smokey family run warung barbequing fish, and a dilapidated bookshop still rebuilding itself after the devastating 2018 Earthquake.

No signs, no maps, no people. God I love this rare feeling of being completely lost. Though my vest was soaked with sweat and condensation from the humid atmosphere, it wasn’t an unpleasant heat - and my mind drifted to imagining daily life here tilling the soil and tending to cattle. I discovered a hewed wooden sign pointing me towards my digs and arrived at a rabbit-warren styled entrance into a small, three tiered structure, which was built almost entirely out of bamboo, straw and wood. I wasn’t quite sure I had ended up in the right place.

Almost as soon as I knocked, an animated fellow, wearing nothing but a baggy pair of black boardshorts, bellowed: “Welcome!” in a warm, hispanic accent.

This master of ceremonies was called Bastien, and he ushered me into his abode with open arms and familial excitement. He was the type of person who’d treated the hostel he’d built from the ground up with utmost pride. The scene was a trippy hybrid between Peter Pan’s Neverland and the Mad Hatter’s tea house: fantastical murals adorned what few walls there were; an imposing, timber table floated across the sea-blue floor, with what appeared to be a paddling pool carved out underneath; and there was a tropical garden and structure made entirely of jungle bush instead of a wall on the east side. You didn’t know if you were outdoors, inside or on the water. This was pure theatre... I liked Bastien’s style.

As I dumped my backpack, I soon found out I was the only guest tonight. While I held a hope to cross paths with some impossibly beautiful strangers during my stay here, I had to embrace letting go of my Romantic expectations and welcome whatever the night would bring. Seeing a flash of my disappointment cross my face, Bastien exclaimed: “Let me take you on a tour!”.

We ran up a small, twisty flight of stairs concealed in a secret entrance through a cupboard on the north side of the communal area. One set of stairs led to a hutch you crawled through on all fours to a tiny viewing platform looking out to the sea and a carved sign saying ‘Nowhere’. The other staircase led to a secret room with a bed under a giant net which when triggered releases fifty zebra-striped pillows. Amongst other wonders is a bedroom in a ball pit and corridors which start out large and get progressively smaller. Bastien - the architect of this place, was either brilliant or insane.

I decided, for reasons unexplained, to stay in the ball pit, and on returning to the main area, find out that I'm not here alone. Tending bar and dicing up coconuts was a raven-haired, graceful Hawaiian called Helena, with a tie-dyed sarong and star-bright smile. Helena had been volunteering at the treehouse for a month, running Bastien’s social media and entertaining guests with her wild stories of being on the road and volunteering for two years. She was mesmerising.

We took a seat at the ship table, and I shared my last two remaining tablets of the Valium I’d obtained in Laos with my two hosts. I needed it. That familiar and anxiety-inducing question immediately comes to haunt me:

“So what brings you to Bali?”

Recently my answers are sounding less convincing to me than ever before… “I’m a singer… well I was a singer but before then I studied law… the music industry wasn’t going very well… I’m trying to figure out what I actually want to do with my life now..”... I didn’t want to admit it. I’m running away: wanting to be anywhere other than home. Bali wasn’t planned but i’d started out in Vietnam and wasn’t ready to return yet.

I’m not sure whether Bastien took sympathy on me, recognising my need to get out of my head, or just needed to change topic quickly at the weight of my heavy, existential-laden story:

“Hey… Do you want to go pick some mushrooms?”

“Uhh - what?” I replied... already knowing what the architect was suggesting.

“Come. They’re growing just outside.”

“No way.”

I’d taken a mushroom shake years ago in Thailand, but never had the pleasure of picking the poison itself - following the process from field to mouth. I follow Bastian’s lead and we rush outside. On the doorstep is a rolling meadow, home to a couple of cows looking fed-up with the crowding flies, and lo and behold: dozens of tiny, white mushrooms. To my amazement, this treehouse paradise was located on an actual mushroom field! Suddenly, the surreal bedrooms and bizzare decor all made sense - we were living in a psychedelic, adult playground. Go figure.

As a typical city-dwelling millennial, I am poorly equipped to notice the details in nature. Bastien gave me a few tips, search for poo - most psilocybin-containing mushrooms (the chemical responsible for creating those magic visuals) grow in cow pats, and often spring up together in tiny trip-inducing families. The trick was to find one, search the area nearby to find other baby mushrooms that may be hiding, then to return to Bastian so he could sort through our treasure and discard anything that didn’t look safe to consume. I can't state enough that if you want to try this adventure at home - please go with someone who knows what they are doing and can correctly identify mushrooms that are safe to eat!

Off I trotted, playing hunter-gatherer for the hallowed ingredients for our magical potion, training my eye to meditatively scour the meadow. My first sighting felt like hitting a gold rush. I decidedly removed the delicate stalk from the pat, cutting the end that was immersed in the dung off with my thumbnail, making sure the head and the rest of the body stayed in tact. When I gleefully spotted smaller siblings growing nearby, I reaped the bounty and excitedly returned to Bastien, a small fist full of magic. Helena came to join, and we spent an hour slowly but surely playing mushroom detectives, scouting up and down the green meadow.

With a half full plastic bag of mushrooms, we unloaded our cargo to Bastien, and Helena and I decided to explore a bit more of the island before returning to prepare our mushroom cocktails.

I got the impression that Meno is a broken paradise. We arrived at a splintered wooden bridge, another sad relic of the recent Earthquake, which carries us halfway to unspoiled vistas of an inland lake at the heart of the island, entrenched by thick bush. It’s completely isolated. Helena and I hoist ourselves down to a temporary pier built of floating plastic blocks and lay on our backs, searching the sky. Pastel purples and pinks are pierced by an almost blinding atomic tangerine.

“I wish I could talk to other boys like I talk to you” Helena says, dreamily.

“Same”, I reply.

On our stroll back to the treehouse, we pick up a jumbo pineapple from a local warung, and collect a couple of fallen coconuts from the tree in the hostel backyard.

Helena carefully chops off the ends of the shrooms that were covered in patty, and when she turns to the sink to give them a good wash, Bastien yells:

“No! Don’t do that… it will wash off all the good stuff! You gotta eat them raw and unwashed to get the full effect.”

I’m slightly hesitant to put unwashed local goods that have been growing in excrement into my body, worrying about my stomach - delicate at the best of times - but at this point in the trip, little scares me much anymore so I just succumb to the moment.

We toss our gatherings into a blender, along with the juice-drenched pineapple, milky water from the coconuts and a squeeze of lime, which apparently heightens the psychoactive chemical in the shrooms.

As the blender emits a deafening buzz, an unexpected third guest enters the hostel. Tall, lean and laden with scuba equipment, Lex sits down and introduces himself as the island’s divemaster, in what I later discovered to be an Egyptian accent.

Helena brings us three bottle-cut tumblers, and pours the cocktail out. The concoction sat somewhere between a goop and a sorbet in texture. It was a bluey-grey colour, and though the citrus notes of the pineapple oft-times cut through, on the palate the taste was extremely mushroomy. Not the roast dinner gravy sort of mushroom, but wild, powdery, pungent mushrooms with a bitter tang. It definitely tasted medicinal - hopes were pinned on this elixir actually doing something.

We passed an hour playing card games and we thought our experiment had been in vain, when suddenly I noticed strange little details. The realisation dawned that our conversation had become noticeably louder, and we were all giggling at increasingly regular intervals.

Lex was turning into a shamanic entity before my own dazzled eyes: features on his face changed slightly as if they each had a life of their own. A halo seemed to glow around him and alternately brightened or diminished with the changing emotive inflections of his voice. The floating table we were at was at once growing longer and larger, then suddenly shrinking. Helena, propping herself against the nearest wall appeared miles away.

I was sweating profusely and had to take off my t-shirt. Bastien chuckled:

“That means it’s working, mate!” he advised.

The bamboo on the forest wall in front of us appeared to be growing ever so slowly and the grain in the wood looked as if it were breathing. We spent hours catching each other out staring into space, or uncontrollably laughing at the conversation veering into the nonsensical.

“Ah - it’s so funny isn’t it. We all forget that we choose what game we want to play in life” Bastien remarked. I remembered… that was something I forgot a long time ago.

Helena and Bastien disappeared together into the ether, whilst I unloaded my heart's contents onto Lex. Something about his demeanor hinted at some hard life experiences, as well as revealing a cutting intellect. Whether it's the magic from the mushrooms, or the inhibitions of solo travel - I manage to say things on my mind that I’ve never been able to vocalise before. Even uttering words that I’ve kept bottled up inside me since birth are slowly coaxed out of me - almost in an unfamiliar voice, a strange register, that I’ve not heard before. I feel my body shake as I start to reveal my innermost fears and secrets, then feel steadfastly stronger and lighter once my troubles are evaporated out of me.

A pause comes into the conversation and I feel nauseous - the room is spinning and I see spirals within spirals. I’m uncomfortably overwhelmed but also in awe of being so overwhelmed.

“You know, the mind is like a radio…” Lex advised. “If you don’t like the music that the station is playing - you can change it.”

I don’t know why, but at the time it felt of paramount importance to hear that.

I climbed up to my ball pit bed - my head a mad kaleidoscope of ideas and new possibilities, but since it’s pretty much 5am by this point I managed to shut out the chatter of my brain and blackout. I awoke with great difficulty, and in between my worries that the events of last night were all a dream, I speedily reached into my backpack and scribbled down as much as I could recollect. Next to my hazy words, I scrawled a picture of a spiral.

Gingerly traipsing down the staircase, I saw Lex in the kitchen and thanked him for his illuminations from the previous night’s conversation, and he winked at me saying: “Sometimes we all just need a little reassurance that we’re going the right way.”

Somehow, as it always does, the day beats on as if nothing unusual ever happened. I hugged Helena and kissed Bastien on the cheek, making my way down to the ocean, allowing myself more than a moment to be hypnotised by the wave patterns.

I sat for maybe an hour, maybe two. Thinking about the little adventures people were having on this island. And all the complicated lives people were having on the other. Then just this great, endlessly changing expanse of water and space between us all. Maybe I should learn to swim again, I thought to myself. It’s funny. Treading the water takes just as much effort.