I find it hard and emotional tearing myself away from Wamena, New Guinea. The plane is over an hour late and Olfied waits with us until he is sure we are on board and no longer in his care, clearly above and beyond the bounds of his duty. Yeskeel also meets us at the airstrip and in addition to his new cell phone, Yeskeel has also replaced the traditional hand woven net bag he had been using to carry his minimum traveling possessions in - thread, extra gourds, a bone needle, the craft project he is working on, some cash – and still naked as the day he was born except for his penis sheath, feathered headband, and wristwatch, is now carrying a mid size backpack like a schoolboy. Who says I am not an agent of social change?
We fly from Wamena into Sinesta, Papua, and then drive an hour into Jayapura, the Papua capital, making touristy stops along the way, including at the hilltop former army HQ of Douglas MacArthur where MacArthur and his staff planned retaking the Philippines from the Japanese in 1944. The view is magnificent. We also travel by motorized “canoe” to a small island paradise in the middle of a series of three spectacular Papuan mountain lakes where we buy paintings on canvas made of pounded bark. Lastly we stop at a very modest anthropology museum, at a very modest university, where I buy a surprisingly beautiful museum quality Asmat carving, not more than fifty years old probably, but very moving and authentic in design and expression – male and female figures holding hands atop another squatting male and female hand holding couple crafted in the classic coastal Asmat tribal style.
We spend the night on the tenth floor of the fanciest hotel in Jayapura with a commanding view of Jayapura’s spectacular deep-water harbor. In the morning, before heading to the airport I experience intense chest pain right at my heart, pain so significant and persistent I am forced to lay down. It is sharp pain, which I take comfort in, classic heart attack pain being described more often as “crushing,” but the pain really hurts (5 on a scale of 1 to 10), and doesn’t abate. I take a muscle relaxant and chew some aspirin. I have no other symptoms and am clear that unless things get considerably worse I will not seek medical care or alter any of our travel plans until we reach Jakarta, at which point we can reassess before Joy and I separate as planned and she heads home while I travel on to the Philippines.
It is fascinating and rewarding for me to observe my own calm demeanor. I am mostly hoping this is not a heart attack, or even angina pain, although I am indeed seventy three years old and have in the past decade had one LAD balloon angioplasty and two coronary stents placed inside the blood vessels which nourish my heart. I am also in persistent atrial fibrillation, which I take three or four meds for each day, and have a “benign” leakage in one of my heart valves. (I have a hard time associating the word benign with any heart defect, but I do trust and genuinely admire my cardiologist.) What I’m hoping is that this is just gas inspired pain, which is what it feels like, although unusually intense and persistent.
Joy is obviously concerned, but whether by nature or respect for how much I resent and resist being physically “mothered,” cared for, nursed, or “babied,” she maintains a balanced combination of engagement and distance that I appreciate. It is also pretty clear that if I were home I would be headed for the hospital, or at least a medical appointment, but given that I’m in New Guinea, with a flight scheduled to depart in a few hours, I’m not intending to alter my plans if I don’t absolutely have to. And if I’ve had a small heart attack, I “reason,” I’ve survived, the damage is done, and there isn’t anything much I can do about it now anyhow. And if it’s symptomatic of a severe blockage I’m just hoping it will remain partially open until I can get home and be treated. Is this denial? I’m thinking it must be, but also trusting my behavior and the choices I am making are a reflection of good coping skills. I often say that the deepest gift I received from my yoga ashram training in India is a deeply increased sense of acceptance and, although I mostly don’t want to die, I am a reasonably mature person who knows he must and shall die, and I feel I’ve been graced with a rich and full life for which I am grateful.
So we hang around the hotel for a spell and after about forty minutes, whether “on its own” or in association with the medications I’ve taken or both, the pain has abated and we are on our way to the airport and Jakarta. And because our plane is late taking off from Jayapura Joy and I do not have the time together we’d anticipated in Jakarta and after busily making sure she is checked in - without a word of reference to my heart - we take our leave of one another. “See you at home,” I say. “I’ll be in touch,” Joy says. “Wha. Wha. Wha,” we say nuzzling together like Dani warriors, and Joy is gone and my heart and I are again alone.
My flight to Manila is uneventful and comfortable. I reflect that I have no idea who I really am any more, if I ever did, or how I’ve become who I am, but the man I see in the mirror appears as an older anonymous traveler, an interesting looking stranger dressed in beads and head dress flying comfortably close to the end of his journey five miles above his home planet in a tin can.
Manila has a unique feel and look to it, mostly because of the famous Jeepney buses that just say “Philippines” and are everywhere … as ubiquitous as overloaded tricycles - motorcycles with the little sidecars attached - that you also see everywhere. And more than that there is the prominence of the food focus and the food scene. I mean I have never been anywhere where there were more restaurants, food chains, street vendors, and people eating … everywhere! Continuously. Hotdogs, skewers of pork, ice cream cones, ears of corn, shumai, sweet rolls, pizza, sweets and pastries beyond belief, all of which are being actively consumed by young and old on the street. Plus the people on the street are all comfortably and casually dressed and seem to have a nice, casual air about them.
I take the a cab from the airport to the bus terminal and ride directly to Baguio, a famous mountain summer destination and town/city six hours north of Manila where I have the name of a woman with roots in the Philippine tribal traditions of the area. Once we leave the flatlands of Luzon and head up into the Cordilleras the temperature changes notably and the scenery is fantastic, a bit like mountainous Bali. And like Wamena, which is only a degree or two off the equator, but at a mountain high elevation, so the climate of Baguio is comfortable and quite pleasant, maybe even a bit chilly.
It’s hard to find a room in Baguio – it is that popular a Filipino tourist destination – and ultimately end up in the Baguio “Condohotel,” a kind of rooming house with full kitchen facilities that is mostly populated by Filipino families seeking inexpensive quarters and the possibility of being able to prepare their own food rather than eating out, which although quite inexpensive by US standards, can still be a burden for a Filipino family on the road.
My email connection has been failing since somewhere in Bali, which is disconcerting and frustrating to me. The room is dirty and I have to keep a towel by my bed to wipe off my feet before getting into it. And although the room doesn’t compare in pathos to some quarters I’ve slept in in India … and there are no bugs or mice … I’m not completely comfortable and feel a deep uncertainty as to what I am doing here. And despite my efforts to contact the native woman I’ve been anticipating would serve as some sort of guide for me in the area, I’ve had no response from her. Indeed, truth be told, I’ve come to the Philippines for reasons that no longer seem very valid … the possibility of scouting out basketball options for Sam, the draw of seeing the homeland that was so formative to an old, fully faded, but once influential love of mine, and some fantasy about offering something to the typhoon ravaged areas … carpentry, painting, daycare, sports coaching.
As for basketball let me just note it is everywhere in the Philippines … vendors in the street hawking NBA official balls and team shorts, on the tube almost twenty four hours a day – NBA games, European League games, games of the Philippine League teams, which I believe Sam could have made (and there is no question of my objectivity in this regard). And on the NBA All Star weekend I watch some old Filipino guys at a bar watching the three point shooting contest as Stephen Curry is shooting and they are shouting, loudly, at the TV, “Come on Steph! Come on!!”
Plus it was Valentines Day, and I was recently separated from Joy, and the streets of Baguio are filled to overflowing with people carrying flowers, and holding hands, and kissing, and begging. And when I say overflowing I mean just that. The streets are teeming with people, like Times Square on a busy day … and there are lines everywhere: lines to reach the ATM machines (guarded by men with machine guns), lines to order pizza at Pizza Hut, lines to get into the SM Mall passed security - one line for women, one line for men, lines at the checkout counter in the supermarket. And the longest lines of all, this is really quite amazing, two lines at least seventy people long – yes, I counted – at each of the main entrances to the mall waiting for taxi cabs to pull up to the mall and take them home. And although cabs did appear during the time I watched they came quite slowly and only sporadically and the lines grew and grew.
On my second morning in Baguio I have pain in my left arm and a distinct facial tingle – both signs of restricted blood flow to the heart, but I remain in significant denial, only conceding that I will not travel five or six hours further north to Sagada, even further from medical help if needed. Instead I keep trying to make plans, although nothing is working for me. There are no rooms at other hotels. I can find no tours of real interest other than to old forts, churches, and strawberry farms. The Internet and computer repair shop I found is not opened and the phone number I call listed on the shop door does not respond. Even the Starbucks Internet is down.
And then the light bulb finally goes on … aren’t all these difficulties also interpretable as having the significance of “signs from the guides?” And isn’t it true that if I’m significantly occluded but haven’t had a heart attack that I want to avoid a 100% occlusion and possible heart muscle damage? I mean isn’t it true that an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure? And here my friends my South Seas journey ends, just that fast and just as suddenly as my journey to Africa ended in Dakar, Senegal last year, nothing any longer working, the mojo of the voyage exhausted and spent ... and by afternoon I’m back on the bus to Manila and at the airport trying to change my ticket.
Paul Theroux, whose “Dark Star Safari” book I finally finish on the bus from Baguio to Manila, writes of journey’s end that the concluding of the travel narrative appears to fix a place forever in time, but that that “is a meaningless conceit … because all you do as a note-taking traveler is nail down your own vagrant mood on a particular trip.” I think that is a fair and accurate commentary. I try to write of the places I visit with enthusiasm and from the heart. I write trying to capture images, to convey realities, to share excitement and occasionally despair, to entertain. I say it is immensely important to listen to one’s heart … and my heart has been speaking to me as forcefully as it can without actually harming me lately, and I have been stubborn and selective in my listening. And far more than the possibility I am having some medically significant heart vessel event is the certainty that my heart is no longer happily into this trip, that I don’t want to be on this specific voyage any longer, and that I don’t have to be. I am not a prisoner, not in the U.S. Army, not in the middle of a trial I might not want to be stuck in, not a kid in a classroom, not an infant sent unwisely to a camp from which there is no escape, not a claustrophobe despairing of his apparent failure to find comfort in ordinary circumstances. I am a wise elder I dare say, a man on walkabout, a spirit seeker. And as I do yoga on my last morning of this voyage my mind turns unavoidably to the world I will soon inhabit back home, and I am witness to the serious struggle taking place in my mind (and in my heart) between my desire for refuge, hermitage, silence, and the quiet simple self acceptance of trees, and my perception of a “need” to “do” as well as to “be,” to engage, to be seen as an interesting and sociable person, a desirable person, a person of value, a useful member of the species, the family, and the community. And I do feel deeply torn. And in such a moment I realize that my true earthly and spiritual work is thus well laid out before me.