Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Those Special Unplanned Days

     Serendipity will likely overtake the traveler in the Third World especially if he or she travels independently. There is no guarantee, of course, that something remarkable will happen on any given day and, as a matter of fact, there is always a possibility that disaster could catch up with the tourist. Nonetheless, wonderful unplanned experiences are part of the Third World traveler's regular menu. Several such moments come to mind as I write this. Perhaps the most mundane of these occurred to me, not in the Third World but on a cruise ship on which I was lecturing. I encountered B.J. Habibie, then recently the president of Indonesia because his brother came to one of my lectures and was interested in what I had to say. That evening, Habibie, his brother and their wives joined me and my wife for dinner. The invitation was formally tendered by the fancy cruise ship and Habibie was grateful for the special attention. He brought a couple of his books as gifts for us and we had a fascinating conversation. We talked about his interests, my experiences and his interactions with various heads of governments. We found that photography was a common interest for us. It was quite a memorable evening culminating with what seemed to be a very sincere invitation to stay with him in Jakarta. I tried not to ask him any embarrassing questions about his government.

     A second very memorable day occurred in the countryside of the island of Sulawesi, the octopus shaped isle not far from Bali in Indonesia. We were exploring the territory where the Toraja tribal peoples live and hoping to witness one of their colorful traditional happenings. We had very good luck locating a funeral which we quickly made our way toward. It was a spectacular sight. There were dozens of tents set up designated for specific groups of visitors-close family, neighbors, visitors, etc. We found a place in one of these and were served food and drink as honored guests while we sat on cloths laid on the ground. We then got to witness the sacrifice of a pig in honor of the deceased- not a pretty site but extremely unique and unforgettable. A wooden carving of the deceased looked on, her spirit probably reveling in the wonderful event held in her honor. What a fascinating example of a traditional ceremony.

      On another day in Indonesia, this time in a small town in Sumatra, we were able to see a bullfight like no other I ever imagined. I had attended bullfights previously in Spain and Mexico although I am no admirer of the sport but this was not to be missed. When we got there, they were just beginning to bring the bulls out onto a field in front of us. We and most of the other spectators stood on a small hill watching the ceremonies below us. There were scores of townspeople below and we realized that they were betting on the two bulls that were brought to the field. They examined the bulls, decided which one looked tougher and places bets with each other about which would win the fight. The fight itself consisted of the bulls looking at each other as they were urged on by the crowd that circled them and shouted for action. Usually, they fight over the territory and the winner is the one who causes the other to withdraw. Sometimes there is actually fighting but often one of the bulls just walks off. The betting is furious and the shouting fills the field. Most of the spectators are within dangerous proximity of the bulls. We did see one actual fight. That was a different kind of day.

     There have been other such opportunities that stick in our minds but the most surreal and amazing was the night we arrived at the Karawari Lodge in the heart of the jungle in Papua New Guinea. We were guests at the small jungle lodge that night along with the Prime Minister of the country and his parliamentary entourage. We knew nothing about his presence until mid-afternoon when he arrived by helicopter and was transported like an African Emperor on a palanquin carried down the hill by several of the local residents. We heard him deliver his speech in Pidgin English (We did not understand a word but neither did most of the crowd) to an assemblage of half naked local citizens sitting on the ground on a hill. Many of them had traipsed countless miles over the hills and through the jungle to hear him. Their faces were painted from ear to ear, their heads were covered with colorful feathers and they brought their entire families with them. It was a scene from National Geographic but we were there.
     But that was not the end of the experience. Back at the lodge that evening, we (a total of six Westerners) sat at a table in the middle of the small dining room. On one side of us were a group of Japanese birders who were shouting "Hai" each time their leader read out the name of a bird they had seen that day. At the next table on the other side of us sat the Prime Minister with a few other politicians while at the head of the room a local band was playing Papua music dressed in straw skirts and penis gourds. Except for the prime minister, we all wound up dancing to the music after dinner. It was the most incredible moment of travel we have ever had. It is hard to imagine anything quite this dramatic happening on a trip to Chicago or Berlin. The Third World is indeed a potentially serendipitous, rewarding place to travel.

Road Repair, Tribal India

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