Comfort/Not Comfort

The things we fear will come to pass.

The thing I fear most, is, of course, losing my beautiful children.  May they live long and beautiful lives.  But I will lose them.  My most profound hope is that my children grow up and away – that they grow adventurous and curious about the world around them, and then step out into it.  It is a dark world they’ll venture into.  It is also a world filled with kind hearts and warm light.

I am like Oliver.  I hate change.  My natural impulse is to seek the comfort of familiar things around me.  Oliver has a coat that is so heinously disgustingly stained and frayed and holey that I don’t let him wear it to school.  Anyone who knew me when I was a sophomore in high school would be able to report that I have absolutely no business telling any of my children what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear to school.  But this coat.  For real.  It’s super gross.  Filthy.  

Still, he loves it.  He loves it so much.  It’s like a warm blanket of comfort that wraps him in a familiar hug when he puts it on.  I would never throw that out, but still, I make him not wear it to school.  I do this mostly for the same reason I would not let him go to school with snot running down his face.  It’s just gross.  But a part of me does it also because I want him to learn how to move away from comfort.  I want him to learn how to change gears and pivot to something else.  I don’t know if I can teach him the value of setting comfort aside, but I can require him to wear a different coat to school.  It took a few days, but he gravitated to a different coat, one which is much cleaner, but also one that brings him comfort.  Not the same comfort, but a kind of tolerable comfort.

When my parents lost me, I allowed the part of me that fights comfort to win over.  It was a battle then, and in some ways, it has been since leaving home to become an exchange student when I was 17.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was it for my childhood.  There wasn’t a home to go home to, life didn’t pick up where it left off as I had been expecting.  My parents rented their house out and left for a year abroad a few weeks after I got back.  A few months later I was in college.  I had given up any extra time with the comfort zones of being a kid. 

I have always done this.  I have always battled my internal desire – the true character of the flame that is my heart – to grasp onto comfort.  It’s not something I talk about very much, but it’s a very defining characteristic of what makes me, me.  I’m not sure if everyone experiences this internal battle or not, but I think it’s a common enough human experience to set aside something safe for something that promises adventure, growth, greater reward.  It’s why entrepreneurs take great financial leaps.  It’s why writers publish writing.  It’s why we travel and why we struggle to speak broken French in foreign places.  

It’s why, when I was 17, on exchange in Indonesia, I found myself sitting alongside two fellow teenager exchange students from Germany and Belgium on the worlds smallest commercial flight over the jungle of Borneo.  There were other passengers, I suppose, but the plane maxxed out at a dozen or so, tops.  That plane ride was memorable.  I distinctly remember leaving my stomach perched precariously in the sky behind us at various and sundry altitudes.

On the ground, we staggered into the little hanger, where we collected ourselves.  There was a plan.  Greg, the Belgian, was our de facto leader, as he was the oldest.  Kjell, from Germany, was our junior teammate.  I was somewhere in the middle.  We found and reclaimed our equilibrium and were disembarking when an old man who had apparently been on the flight caught our attention and did the thing that is customary in Indonesia – he asked us where we were going.   This translates the same as ‘how are you?’ in English.  You can either answer truthfully, or just politely say, ‘we’re going places’ the way you might say, ‘I’m fine,’ in the US.  I never once saw Greg do anything other than answer truthfully, and engage.  This drove me crazy.  His excessive friendliness with every Indonesian we met inflamed my anxieties about not knowing things like where we were going to sleep that night.   But it was also endearing – even my 17 year old self could see that.  He was a people person, and loved the innate friendliness of the vast majority of Indonsians.  

Having just reconnected with my innards after the flight, I wasn’t in a place to protest.  “Oh,” said the old man, “you’re going to Derawan islands.”  Yes, we nod and smile.  “Well,” he says, “I’m going there too.  You should stay at my house.”

This might seem a little forward, but was also super common.  Sure, we said, that sounds nice, knowing that this man was probably not going the same way as we were, that he, too, was just being polite.  Eventually we made our way from the airport to the little river-side village.  I don’t remember how we got there – probably a taxi.  In any case, by the afternoon, I distinctly remember walking on the side of the road, my inner comfort-seeking meter going crazy because we still hadn’t figured out where to stay that night.  

There was a plan.  The plan was to get on a boat in the morning.  This boat would take us a few hours down river to the coast of Borneo.  East Kalimantan.  From there, we would hire some local fishermen to take us out to the Derawan islands, at which point there would, no doubt, be some adventures.  We had snorkeling gear.  

But where to stay the night?  Greg was upbeat, sure something would come along.  I was sick with worry.  Kjell was solid.  I was a year or two younger than Greg, and Kjell was a year or two younger than me.  Even so, that German didn’t seem perturbable.  My desire for comfort and safety always lost, two to one.  

Just then a jeep full of guys pull up.  “Hey white dudes (my translation),” they say, “where are you going?”  Remember, that just means hi.  Unless you’re Greg.  “We’re looking for a place to stay for the night,” he says, jovially.  “No problem,” says the guy in English, then he switches back to Indonesian.  “Come stay at my house.”

No, no, no.  This is not right.  Greg is accepting and Kjell is smiling.  They’re loading into the jeep.  I can either follow them or be left alone in a strange town in a strange village at the edge of the jungle in Borneo.  I follow. 

This is the same year a dozen international workers were taken hostage by separatists in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian side of Papua New Guinea. It was all over the news in Jakarta. The government didn’t miss a chance to point out how horrible the separatist rebels were.  The hostages were held for months.  Later, the Indonesian army would “rescue” them.  Two were hacked to pieces by rebels, nine were rescued.  The twelfth was the baby one of the Dutch women was seven months pregnant with.  (Imagine spending your second trimester as a hostage in the jungles of Irian Jaya…)  At the time of our trip, there was no resolution, they were still hostages.  And while Borneo is definitely distinct from Irian Jaya, I was pretty sure we were about to become hostages.  The guy took us to get some street food, then we went back to his cousin’s house.  We sat around and made small talk.  

Then the guy smiles and points to a wire running up the wall and outside.  “Satellite,” he says.  “I take it from my neighbor.”  A little TV is flipped on and a little box is fussed over.  On the TV a movie pops into focus.  It’s Caddyshack.  We’re in a stranger’s house, in a tiny village on the edge of the jungle in Borneo watching Bill Murray blow up a golf course on pirated satellite.  This would not be the most surreal part of the journey.  

Night falls.  We’re shown to a room, that by US standards would be pretty rough, but by Indonesian standards isn’t that weird.  There’s one big mattress on the floor, and it’s for all three of us.  Again, this is perfectly normal.  I once shared a mattress with five or six host cousins.  You grab yourself a little piece of the mattress for your head and that’s about it.  We did.  We slept.  When you sleep this way, you wake up stiff.  There’s no way around it.  But we woke up.  We weren’t killed in the night.  The guy welcomed us to the morning with a big smile, then drove us to the boat.  

Marveling that we weren’t the latest CNN headline, I gratefully took a chair on the top deck of the boat that would take us down river.  There weren’t many other travelers and my memory of this trip was that it was blissfully uneventful.  Red water underneath.  Jungle palms and greenery passed by lazily in the tropical sun.  

Not long into our trip, a voice said, “hello.  Where are you going?”  It was the old man.  Even though we had told him we were going to Derawan islands the day before, he asked again, and we told him again.  “Ah, yes, yes,” he said.  “Derawan,” he said.  “I am going there too.  You should stay at my house.”  

As we were all on the boat headed to the coast, we were less able to dismiss the offer, but we still assumed this was politeness.  “Yes, sure,” we said.  “That’s nice.  Thank you.”  It was the kind of thing that happened.  Indonesians were always making offers and saying yes when they really meant ‘no thank you.’  It was a part of the culture I never did fully get used to.  But even I could tell it was a time for politeness, not making overnight arrangements.  

The boat took us lazily to the coast.  The weather changed.  The ocean breeze felt amazing after the jungle heat.  It was still hot, but the breeze lifted all our spirits.  The old man helped us find a fisherman to take boats out to the main island of the Derawan group.   We split the ride with him, two to a boat.  He said, “I’m going there too, you should stay at my house.”

When we got to the island, the old man said again, “Here, follow me, you should stay at my house.”  So we did.  He didn’t really seem like a stranger at this point.  He took us into the little fishing village on the island, and sure enough, he had a pretty nice house with an extra bedroom that we would end up spending the rest of our trip in.  He was an incredible host, and was something of a head honcho in the village.  

He was actually building an addition to his house that he planned to rent out to tourists.  The other side of the island hosted a very high end resort, the kind of resort that you only get to find out about if you frequent restaurants that don’t have prices on the menus.  The typical way tourists got to this island was to fly into a different coastal city and be transported on giant speed boats with multiple outboard engines.  

As I said, the old man was an incredible host.  He fed us and housed us with a warm and genuine smile.  With giggles and laughter, his daughters and nieces woke us in the early morning to the sounds of karaoke – exclusively sad love ballads.  He commandeered his son to take us around the islands in a little fishing boat.  His son was a quiet and incredible tour guide.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but seemed pleased and content with our meager Indonesian.   

It was amazing.  In every way possible.  We swam with manta rays.  We watched the sun go down over the unfamiliar ocean.  We reeked of sunburn, salt and sand.  Our lives were so very very far away.  Nothing made sense for those couple of days.  One night we slept under the stars on the hull of the boat parked at an island where the four inhabitants’ job was to collect turtle eggs.  

When we pulled up to the island, we were surprised to see a cadre of guys walking around the beach past us carrying very large rifles.  Most were shirtless and all were wearing camo fatigues.  Our guide hopped off the boat and went ashore.  He chatted with them for a minute or two before the lead guy in fatigues smiled and waved at us.  We waved stupidly back.  

Needless to say, the sight of this group passing by was alarming and when our guide got back to the boat we looked to him for answers.  He looked out at the guys on the beach, who were headed around to the little hut where the turtle egg collectors lived.  Then he looked back at us and said the only word of English we would hear him speak during our entire trip:  “Pirates.”  

He didn’t laugh about it.  He wasn’t pulling our leg.  He wasn’t being dramatic.  He said it for informational purposes only.  “What?!” was our united response.  “Yes,” he said, “they are here to steal turtle eggs.  They are in the army.”  Okay, part-time army, part-time pirates.  We watched them go up to the house.  Then we watched them leave clutching large bags and continue around the island in the other direction.   

I couldn’t take it.  The part of me that screams for comfort, that begs for the familiar, the part of me that understands what Oliver feels when he sneaks his disgusting coat to school, that part of me took over.  No more going with the flow.  No more.  No more.  I got down off the boat and waded to the shore.  My companions followed at first, but I stalked off around the beach the other direction.  I wouldn’t be able to stay at this island if the pirates were camped out on the other side of the island.  I had to figure out if they were leaving after they had gotten their booty.  If they were staying, we were leaving.  There would be no vote.

I didn’t think it through.  I simply didn’t think.  I just walked in the other direction.  Walking leisurely, you could circumnavigate this island in five minutes.  Two and half minutes later I found myself walking around a bend and right into the group of pirates.  Nowhere to go.  No sneaking around in the vegetation, just oops, right up to them.  The lead pirate walks up to me, gun on shoulder.  “Hi,” he says, “where are you from?”  This is the same greeting I’ve met a thousand thousand times.  It’s the second most common greeting in Indonesia.  “Jakarta,” I say.  “Oh,” he says, “you speak Indonesian?” “Yes,” I say, “a little.”  His gun glints in the afternoon sunlight.  It’s hard not to just stare at it.  The fellow doesn’t seem to notice.  He’s smiling expectantly.  “I’m living in Jakarta,” I say, “but I’m from America.”  These seem to be magic words.  “Aaahh,” he says brightly and knowingly.  He leans on the hard ‘K’ sound and rolls the ‘R’ like he’s never said the letter before, “Amerrrika.”  I nod and smile.  He tries on his best English.  “New York,” he says.  “Yes, I say, that’s right, New York.”  All Americans come from either New York or Los Angeles.  Behind me, one of his lieutenants shoots a sea bird.  My conversation partner doesn’t seem to notice.  “Where are you going?” I say.  This is me being polite, but I really, really want to know.  “Ooh,” he says with a polite dismissal, “just here and there.”  “By boat?” I manage.  Also well within the realm of politeness to ask about mode of transport.  “Eiyah,” he says, “by boat.”  An awkward silent  moment passes between us.  Then he smiles and says goodbye.  Then he and his crew pile into a little boat that takes them out to a bigger boat.  Then the bigger boat pulls away.  I watch it until I can’t see it any longer.  I am relieved in a way I can’t remember ever having been before or since.

I walk back around the island the way I came.  Greg and Kjell run up to me when they see me and hug me and they are pale and look like they might throw up.  When they heard the shot, they imagined me on the receiving end of it.  They were in the throes of horrible imaginings when I walked up safe and sound.  I told them about the bird, and about the men leaving.  We could stay at the island after all.

In fact, it turned out that the reason we weren’t robbed or worse was that our guide was the son of the old man who was friends with the commanding officer of the pirates.  They recognized him immediately, and we were never in any danger.  That old man.

The rest of that night was all kinds of incredible.  We built a large fire on the beach.  We visited the super nice guys in the house who are apparently used to being robbed of their livelihood.  We saw an actual wild komodo dragon visiting the trash pile behind the house.  That night we quietly watched turtle mamas climb out of the sea and deposit their eggs in the sand.  We looked to the stars and imagined the same stars above our homes and families a million miles away.  We rolled up t-shirts for pillows and slept on the gently rocking boat.

I don’t hope my son has occasion to run into actual pirates.  But I do hope he finds adventure, and a little bit of good trouble.  I hope he has occasion to look at the stars and marvel how the same stars that rise above the places he calls home rise over strange and beautiful foreign lands.  Most importantly, I hope he meets light filled people – there are so many more out there than we can know.  I hope he becomes one of them.  

I hope that when I lose him, finally, it’s because he’s out there finding himself.

My fellow travelers Greg (in back) & Kjell (in front).
Turtle tracks.
Shy komodo.
This was our guide around Derawan. He was an exceptional human.
We spent many long hours on the open ocean on this little craft. It was magical.

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