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Beleaguered in Bali

The airplane sat on the runway, air conditioning at a halt, in the +90 degree weather. An hour. More. Inside we were sweltering. Kids began screaming, not without good cause, but as I had a vicious migraine the effect was like an ice pick going through my left eye. I was crammed into a window seat next to a man with a deodorant deficit problem. The young man behind me, who was also coming on the same trip, at 6’5” had his knees jammed into my lower back. He was immobilized and miserable just as much as I was.

At last the flight took off, and with it came the much-needed cool air. An hour later we landed in Denpasar, Bali, where we again sat on the steaming hot runway for an hour waiting for buses to take us to the terminal. By this time my throat was on fire for lack of water (these flights have no in flight service and many of their planes have- oddly- soap but no running water in the toilets) and my head banged like a call to war.

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I had begun that morning at 3 am in Palangkaraya, Borneo, where a local tourist outfit had failed to include me on the pickup drive to the airport. My hosts, who got up at 4:30 to bid me goodbye from their hotel, called and got me another ride just in time. Inside the airport people jostled the line, pushed in front of me, and checked in entire household’s worth of stuff in cardboard boxes wrapped in clear tape.

To add to this I’m recovering after nearly seven days in bed with a super flu courtesy of a passenger from SFO to Taipei, who guaranteed the cancellation of my entire itinerary in Borneo. Cared for with great courtesy at a local’s hotel, that kind family ferried me to the ER, picked up groceries. Then on the very last day, the entire family loaded me up and took me to a local boatman who, for pennies on the dollar, took me out on the river all by myself to see the orangutans I had missed. They saved my entire trip. On top of that, these good people became part of my extended family. We exchanged gifts before I left. You can’t put a price on such experiences.

As I sat on the floor of the midway airport stop to avoid the throngs who were loading onto the flight, I considered. International travel ain’t so glamorous as people might think. Planes are late and hot. People can be rude and inconsiderate. You can get sick. You can get lost.

Yes, and so much more. These things can happen to you anywhere. It’s just life.

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But had I not ended up at that small local hotel, I’d not have met that family, who took such good care of me. Their daughter Jesika is a Fulbright Scholar who is coming to the US this fall and she has my card to call or visit.

As I was to find out later from the two young men, the trip I missed out on was, for them, a bust. Based on their comments it would have been for me, too. They wished they’d been where I was. Funny how that all works out.

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If nothing else travel has taught me to be patient. I recall standing at attention on a very cold, wintry South Carolina morning, 1974, in formation. My Army issue fatigue jacket was woefully inadequate against the cold for this native born Floridian, but I had no choice. You learn to deal: make friends with your discomfort, make it your ally, learn from it. Being uncomfortable teaches you a great deal about patience. In the Army, of course, I chose to allow the Feds to impose these discomforts on me in exchange for my college education. It was a fair trade, and a lot more.

Each time I step on a jet to let myself be whisked off to some remote part of the world, I understand that there may be times I’m not happy, entertained, at ease or in any way delighted. That’s part of the smorgasbord. However as I sit here in the open air restaurant of the villa which is our temporary stop before heading out to sea, I am reminded over and over that I get to see what many never will. The sun sends pink and orange tendrils up over the far forested hills. Dogs jog the beach. Birds populate the bushes next to my table. Vast millions will never experience what I am feeling right now.

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Which is deeply grateful.

Perhaps it helps to know that no matter where we are in the world- Borneo or Bali or Boston, we have aches and pains and hurts and heartache. We get sick and angry and irritated and frustrated. We experience love and loss and lingering longing. There is no perfect “there” anywhere, despite what some of my friends believe. While I am willing to give up a lot of things in order to explore, I can’t say that after having traveling fairly extensively there is some paradise where all is well. Paradise has its snakes, its biting insects, its poisonous spiders. Each place, as well as the journey there, is what we make of it.

Two people I met just a moment ago, Joan and Irwin, told me that during their honeymoon in Greece some 44 years ago there was an attempted coup. One moment they were strolling the streets, the next tanks were rolling in and they were choked with tear gas. Suddenly a local family whisked them inside to safety. The family, but for the daughter, barely spoke English. Yet there they stayed for three days, until Joan and Irwin were able to safely leave. Such things teach us about the fundamental goodness of people everywhere.

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What the journey does, however, is open our eyes to life elsewhere, teach us forbearance and how to have a sense of humor. And to find, just as we can find anywhere, those moments of perfect peace that are available to us no matter where we are: whether sitting on the floor of an airport or in the brilliant blessed sunshine delivering yet another day on my doorstep.

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