Below is an excerpt from A Vagagond World, a global travel book describing an around-the-world journey that touched on over twenty countries. This global travel book conveys the poignance, import, and changing dynamics of a long-term solo circumnavigation of the globe.
For more information on this global travel book, click here.
In the long shadows of the late afternoon the bus from Kupang climbed from the lowland forests and into the lush mountains. It was dusk by the time I reached Soe. The Portuguese and the Dutch adobe and tile colonial architecture foretold the town's historic popularity.
The driver found the losmen, or guesthouse, on a darkened street. On the porch, beyond the cube of light cast from the door, was a man playing a guitar. With the exception of a sandaled foot, I could see no features, only a silhouette, its head angled toward the rafters. The rhythm was slow and melancholy. As I approached him, I saw he was a man of nearly seventy. He introduced himself as Papa Yohanneson, the proprietor, and told me in eloquent English that he was playing Hawaiian folk music. I did not recognize it as such. In the half-light of lanterns from other rooms he took me through the house, introduced me to his daughter, and then onto my quarters. Except for a few paintings, the rooms were bare and sparsely furnished.
In the morning I found Papa Yohanneson in the parlor oblivious to lingering guests as he strummed his mournful tunes. Neither expressions of happiness, nor conversation, came to him easily. He was reticent to speak of the past and would only tell me of his college studies in social work. Under a program sponsored by the government and the United Nations, he lived in Holland for three years where he learned to speak English, Dutch, and French fluently. I knew that this had to be prior to WWII for the ensuing decades were turbulent ones for Indonesia. The Japanese occupation during the war was followed closely by an independence movement challenging the Dutch. The 1950's and early 1960's were characterized by tumultuous political infighting, militant and authoritarian ideologies, elaborate and wasteful spending projects, and hostility towards it neighbors and the West. Development did not become a priority until General Suharto took power in the military coup of 1965. Today, with close to 180 million people, Indonesia was the fourth most populous nation in the world, Papa Yohanneson told me. Through education and birth control the government hoped to encourage only single-child families and cut population growth in half. This would not be so easy in outlying areas, such as Nusa Tenggara, where people were more widely dispersed and independent. Most couples desired children of both sexes. The days of large families were gone, Papa Yohanneson told me. He and his wife had raised eight children.
For awhile, I sat and quietly listened to him play. I found myself reticent to venture out and combat the staring eyes, the eager students of English, and the language barrier. Six months of travel through the Pacific had not made initiative come any easier and, now, on Timor I was feeling spent. My fatigue made me homesick for things I normally didn't care about, like beef jerky and mowing the lawn.
"Where are you going today?" Papa Yohanneson asked me.
"I'm not sure. I thought I might read for a while," I said.
"Kapan is very beautiful," he suggested. "Many foreigners enjoy it."
I knew the best prescription for the blues was to get out and so I went to find the bus to Kapan. At the station I purchased my ticket from a man at a worn, wooden table who pointed to a bus in the yard. Except for two boys, it was empty. With the aid of my dictionary I asked them what time the bus would be leaving. They would not give me a specific time and left me with the impression that it would leave when the driver was ready. That turned out to be an hour later. In the meantime we occupied ourselves by searching through the dictionary. This deteriorated into silliness, each of us finding nouns and adjectives to describe the other and ourselves. I told them I was from America. They told me they were from Soe. I told them I had brown hair. They told me theirs was black. I told them I had a big nose. They agreed.
Upon the driver's arrival, the boys took up their positions at the doors, where they hollered, "Kapan! Kapan!" as we sped through the streets. In the yards of adobe homes, husbands fetched goods collected at the market. Mothers collected children. Passenger by passenger the seats filled. We diverted to the maintenance yard where we retrieved a tire dropped earlier for repair. At the station it was returned to its wheel and the spare stowed underneath. My young friends continued collecting patrons. A second pass through town yielded more passengers. Three hours after my arrival at the station only a few seats remained and we departed.
Kapan was a two street town of wood, tin, and grass buildings nestled in a narrow valley hemmed in by jungle. At the late hour of our arrival much was closed. The passengers dispersed into the dusty streets. Before the driver pulled away to make his rounds, I arranged to rendezvous with him on the ridge above town. There was less than an hour to catch him before his final return to Soe.
A small group of old men stared at me from a porch beneath a banner advertising the country's largest cigarette manufacturer. Being alone made me an oddity. It was more than the Western notion that to be part of a couple was preferable to being single. To not belong to a group, whether it be a family or a village, was unnatural. This, I was learning, was the greatest mystery surrounding the traveler. Why would anyone go off to a foreign land alone? Was I a cast-off? Surely I wanted company.
A teenager approached.
"Where you going, Mister?"
At least I would never have to chase anyone down for directions.
"Rumah makan?" I said, hoping to find a restaurant. My head was throbbing from too much sun and too little nourishment.
"Ahh," he said knowingly, pretending that my appearance in Kapan to utilize the cafe made perfect sense.
He pointed toward the end of the street, to a steel lean-to attached to a larger building. Inside I found three tables. A small boy sat alone eating a bowl of rice. A curtained doorway hid the kitchen. On the adjacent wall was a cardboard sign depicting my choices: meatballs or rice.
A young man with tired eyes appeared.
As it was evident that the age of refrigeration had yet to reach Kapan, I ordered the rice. The young man shook his head and suggested the meatballs. I pointed to the boy's bowl and asked again for the rice. Again he suggested the meatballs. I ordered a glass of tea.
Soon I went in search of my bus and at the base of the hill encountered two smiling young boys.
"Where you going, Mister?" The older of the two was not more than eight years.
"I go up the hill." I said, weary of rhetorical questions.
"Bus no come. You going to walk to Soe?"
I stumbled. His concise and complete response startled me. I tested him further.
"What's your name?"
"How ‘bout your brother?" I asked.
There were more important matters. "Bus no come. You going to walk to Soe?"
"The bus will come. What's your brother's name?" I insisted.
"Bus no come. You walk to Soe."
"The bus will come. What's your brother's name?"
"You walk to Soe?"
"What's your brother's name?" I pleaded.
"Tis. Why you go up hill?"
"Hello, Tis." I smiled at the boy. "The bus is at the top of the hill. Also, I meet some of your neighbors and take some pictures." I waved to a woman standing in front of a grass hut.
"What picture," Mos asked with a hint of skepticism.
"Oh, I don't know. Let's see what's there."
"You going to walk to Soe?"
"I hope not."
"Bus no come."
"Keep it up."
More children joined us. With happy curiosity they paused when I paused and dallied to watch my next move when I continued. Giggles and chatter erupted at my choice of photo subjects. Eyes grew wide with wonder when given a peek through the camera's viewfinder. Their spontaneous interest and understanding filled me with a sweet pleasure.
Mos took charge, holding back the entourage as I went about my business. In my viewfinder I framed a woman and child on the stoop of their home, then an overview of the village — mountains overlaying one another into the distance. At the crest of the hill I encountered a family. With little encouragement they posed. I motioned for the boys to join them. Mos, my official handler by this point, stood to my left supervising. I waved him into the group. Proudly he stepped to the center.
The bus was parked, idling, 30 feet further, beside a grove of oranges. The driver and conductor stood at the door waiting. I hurriedly said my good-byes to the crowd full of smiles and laughter. I paused to shake Mos' hand and thank him for his kindness. I realized that in the course of a quarter mile I had become attached to this child and his neighbors.
Strange, I thought as we drove towards Soe, this colliding and connecting with people, seemingly at random. It was as if angels were placed along our journey. Time only allowed us to assimilate such change into our lives — convince ourselves of it, become comfortable with it. To the traveler there was no such luxury; life's transience was all-pervasive. There was no time to fashion inside jokes, solidify memories, or build intimate friendships. Farewells were my burden. I would grieve briefly for the loss of what might have been, and, then, with renewed optimism in the human spirit, look forward to the next chance encounter.
Before I departed for Atambua, Papa Yohanneson offered to read my palm. In the half light of the doorway he held my open hand in his and with a bent and calloused index finger, traced its lines as if they were rivers on a map. He told me I would live well into my 70's and fall in love twice.
That evening in Atambua, three boys kept me constant company as if it would be rude to leave me alone. I entertained them with pictures of home, maps, card tricks, and secret handshakes.
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