Sep 9, 2016
By Madeline List
The Power of Unique Experiences in Indonesia
Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk.
I felt as if someone had sunk a fistful of fear into my heart and let it pound it into the rest of my body. My stomach felt like it was trying to retreat behind my ribs, my eyes were wide. Reason told me I shouldn’t have been so phobic. But I was staring down my nemeses, and reason was quickly losing its place in my repertoire.
Actually, “nemeses” might be a strong word for something the size of a pin head. These were a couple of bugs so small that one could easily mistake them for a floating piece of white lint, especially in the flickering shadows of the Balinese evening. They were bed bug nymphs, and their presence meant I needed to leave before they could scurry their way into my belongings.
My mind flashed back to a bitter night far away from the hostel on the quaint Indonesian road. I was back in my apartment in Massachusetts, back to the shock of finding an infestation of biting little bugs that snuck through the folds of my sofa and cracks in the hardwood floors. I retreated to the bathtub at two in the morning, saturated in dread.
Bed bugs aren’t dangerous, but eradicating them is an awful and laborious process. I had been in physical therapy for years for a bad back. My nearest family member was hundreds of miles away. I couldn’t imagine how to pack all my belongings away with my unstable bones. I cringed in anticipation of the pain that could come from rounds of laundering everything I owned, spraying things down with isopropyl, and moving furniture for exterminators.
The predicted injury and accompanying pain led to my first visit to Indonesia. I questioned if other people with physical disadvantages could get caught in similarly horrendous situations throughout the world, and secured a grant to research the topic in several countries. Come spring, I set off on a great multinational adventure in which I fervently chased answers and lines of longitude.
During that journey, I took a ferry from Singapore to spend a couple days in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Between the driftwood and palm fronds on an empty stretch of beach, I stopped to see an eroding message written in the sand: “LIFE ALWAYS FINDS A WAY”. I felt like some vanished scribe had written it there as part of my story, like the universe had left the words there just for me.
I bought a ticket to Bali during a turbulent period a couple years later. I wanted to head back to the country where clairvoyants roamed the islands and messages were hidden in the sand.
In the place where I expected to find order and inner peace, I was being gripped by memories of injured sleepless nights and unresolved past fears. I hauled my backpack to the safety of the front porch and dove into my phone, searching furiously for new accommodations, comfort from friends, and ways to clean old demons out of potentially contaminated belongings.
I sat on the ground for so long that the stones had imprinted their shapes on my legs, so I headed to the roof terrace to obsess over my problems in privacy. I looked out to see a brilliant sunset, a scattering of stringy blue clouds hanging on a backdrop of potent pinks and oranges. Beyond the edge of the peninsula, the ocean was mirroring the colorful banners of the sunset, making it seem almost endless.
I wasn’t sure how many sunsets I’d missed while my phobias were running amok, but I didn’t want to miss that one. In the last journey I hadn’t learned to compartmentalize my thoughts, to stop a bout of fear from tainting all of the glory around me. I turned the phone on its face to gaze at the sunset, to listen to the ensemble of cicadas and monkeys and the chattering and clinking of bottles from guests downstairs.
Travel has power to put you out in the caprices of the unknown and onto the stoops of old haunts. But sometimes, it also offers you a chance at redemption.
I was myself again, watching silently as the ocean was swallowed by the night. I was free from those harrowing and pervasive fears, unshackled from the tunnel vision of anxiety.
I found no more messages in the sand, no phantoms to leave signs that I had gotten things right. I was left with open road, a painted sky, and gorgeous wildlife; all that I sought and all that I needed.
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About the Author
Madeline is a circumnavigator, researcher and chronic travel addict. She's always looking for a new adventure, whether it's across lines of latitude or in the backyard. When she isn't on the move you can find her jamming on acoustic guitar or climbing rock walls and aerial silks.