Just a speck of dust in the universe

Just a speck of dust in the universe

The past 30 days have left me forever altered. It was a journey of critical self-discovery, intensive soul-searching, and finding THE most blissful serenity and meaning in a place which acutely reminded me of my insignificance (as the tiniest speck of dust in the universe) and my significance (for having been invited as a guest). My limits were stretched beyond imagination — physical, emotional, psychological — and I was astonished to have found a different kind of strength which I didn’t know I possessed.

It was most heart-wrenching to leave. I may be physically back in KL but I am certain, beyond any doubt, that I left my heart behind…

For years I have been haunted by images of places and people and things that I haven’t been able to take photos of, either because I didn’t have a camera at that time or because circumstances prevented me from taking them. Here is the list of the 10 photos I wish I’ve taken, arranged in chronological order.

1. The night sky, late 1980s, in the outskirts of General Santos City, Philippines. I grew up in a city originally called Dadiangas, later renamed to General Santos City or GenSan, for short. In the late 1980s, we lived briefly in a place called Tambler, located just outside GenSan (now close to the new aiport). In those days, GenSan was not so developed yet. There were not many buildings and not many lights, thus the night sky was always dark, providing the perfect backdrop for thousands of stars to shimmer and twinkle until dawn. That nightly star-studded canopy always seemed so bright and so vast, marking an indelible spot in my memory.

2. Mayon Volcano, early 1990s, from a Philtranco bus in Legazpi City, Philippines. My roommate Hazel and I were both impoverished college students who couldn’t afford plane fares to go back home for Christmas break. So we took the bus from Pasay City all the way to Davao City. What an unforgettable 48-hour bus ride it was! From Pasay City, the bus wound its way towards the south of Luzon, stopping briefly at Legazpi City to refuel, giving us, passengers, a chance to admire the world’s most perfect cone-shaped volcano, Mt. Mayon, while the bus driver’s assistant cranked away at an old manual petrol pump!

3. San Juanico Bridge, early 1990s, from the same Philtranco bus, but between the islands of Samar and Leyte. The ferry from Sorsogon, brought us to the island of Samar, joined to its neighbouring island, Leyte by the famous San Juanico Bridge. San Juanico Bridge, formerly known as Marcos Bridge (named after the ousted former President), is the longest bridge in the Philippines spanning a body of water with a length of 2.16 kilometers (1.34 miles). The Philippine government spent $21 million on that bridge just because Former First Lady Imelda Marcos hails from Leyte. The sheer length of the bridge was quite a sight. How I wish I had a camera back then!

4. A moonlight beach, early 1990′s, from the same Philtranco bus, somewhere in Samar or Leyte. We passed by Samar and Leyte at night and most everyone was asleep. Somewhere in those two islands, I woke up and glanced out the window and saw the most beautiful moonlight beach I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Its beauty haunts me to this day.

5. Waterfalls, late 1990s, near Interlaken, Switzerland. DH and I took the train from Geneva to the town of Interlaken. The train ride involved several stops. One stop just outside Interlaken was in a small town with a magnificent waterfall cascading from a rocky cliff in the distance. It literally look my breath away.

6. Great Ocean Road, late 1990s, Melbourne, Australia. DH and I were flying back to Malaysia only in the evening. Our hotel required check-out at 12 noon and rather than paying them for a late check-out, we decided to rent a car and drive as far as we can get along the Great Ocean Road, then drive directly to the airport where we could drop off the rented car and catch our flight. It was totally worth it! The view of the ocean pounding against the cliffs, set against a magnificent sky, stretching out along a winding road was a sight that can never be forgotten. I did take photographs but I didn’t back them up. The only copies I had were in my old laptop which got stolen from the house. Bummer!

7. Marine Park with two giant tadpoles, 1999, Pulau Redang (Redang Island), Malaysia. We were on holiday with our Omani friends. I was 5 months pregnant with OnlyGirl and had no plans of going into the water. When we reached the marine park, I was flabbergasted to see that one only has to go down a small flight of stairs from the jetty to get into the water and frolic with the fish. So I decided right there and then to go snorkelling, as well. I asked for a life jacket and went into the water with my equally pregnant friend (she was 7 months pregnant!). What a sight we must have made — two giant tadpoles swimming among and feeding by hand beautiful tropical fish of every colour of the rainbow!

8. Tribal headdress and laptop, early 2000s, Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. DH and I were practically running to catch our connecting flight to Geneva. On the way to our gate, we passed by one waiting area which was teeming with people waiting for their flights. One man easily stood out of the crowd — he was a tall black man wearing what seemed like African tribal headgear and he was sitting on his chair…typing away on his laptop! Who says tradition and technology can’t go together?

9. Piglets, 2005, ferry from Kapatagan to Ozamiz City, Philippines. In 2005, I went to the Philippines with Lola (my mum), MyEldest, OnlyGirl and RoundBoy. We went to several places and traveled several times by plane, by bus and by boat. The ferry ride from Kapatagan to Ozamiz was a short one but it was made unforgettable by the sight of several men carrying by hand banana trunks tied up with strings, with what looked like fat sticks jutting out. It turned out that they were carrying piglets! Each piglet was covered with the sliced banana trunk to keep it cool as well as immobilised, with just the snouts, tails and legs showing at both ends.

10. Good Samaritan, 2008, Russin, Switzerland. DH and I wanted to try something new and decided on staying in a farm in a little French-speaking town called Russin, just outside Geneva. The train ride was short and a direct trip from Geneva Central Station. What I didn’t count on was the walk from Russin train station to the farmhouse that we’d be staying in. It meant an uphill climb between grape vineyards, quite a formidable task for two out-of-towners wearing suits and dragging one Samsonite bag each. A kind stranger in a red car stopped and insisted on sending us to the farm. He turned out to be the mayor of the town!

Flight KL809, Kuala Lumpur-Jakarta

She was already seated in my assigned seat, 9A, as was printed on my boarding pass, when I arrived, rushing, into the cabin, being one of the last three passengers to board. After I stowed away all my hand luggage in the overhead compartment, she got up and gestured that we exchange places. I smiled and said “No problem”, as I settled into 9B and fastened my seatbelt.

She was dressed comfortably but immaculately, her auburn hair tied up loosely in a ponytail. She was clutching an Indonesian phrasebook and the French version of Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (Mille Soleils Splendides) in her hand, so I automatically assumed that she’s French. I wanted to strike up a conversation with her, dying to practice whatever little French I remember, but she closed her eyes even before the plane took off.

When meals were served some 30 minutes into the flight, she opened her eyes briefly to nibble on her braised chicken and fried rice, sipping delicately on her red wine. She asked for tea from the stewardess after the trays were cleared away, but the tea remained untouched on her table as she dozed off again, leaving me alone with my thoughts on the pros and cons of led light bulbs.

At some point during the flight, turbulence threatened to spill her tea, so I touched her elbow gently and she awoke with a start. But her eyes smiled with her lips as she murmured a heavily accented “Thank you” after she realised how close she was to having her skirt drenched with hot tea. After hastily downing the contents of her paper cup, her delicate eyelids closed shut once more.

She only opened her eyes again as the plane slowly started its descent and the chief stewardess requested the passengers to turn off all electronic items and stow away the tables. That’s when I decided to take my chances and talk to her. I smiled and asked in English if she’s in Jakarta on holiday. She smiled back broadly and answered yes, she’s visiting her son.

Emboldened, I asked her, this time in French, “Vous etes Française?” (Are you French?). She laughed and answered to me in Bahasa Indonesia, “Saya dari Madrid.” (I am from Madrid.)

And so started the most interesting short conversation I ever had with a stranger on a plane. Apparently, she’s a native of Madrid who goes to Jakarta twice a year, staying for about a month each time. Her son, (Spanish) daughter-in-law and three cucu (Indonesian/Malay for ‘grandchildren’) have been living in Jakarta for nine years already and speak Indonesian like locals, hence encouraging her to learn the language, as well. And that’s exactly what made the conversation truly unforgettable — while I spoke to her with whatever Spanish I could muster, she was speaking to me in halting Indonesian, interspersed with some Spanish words that she asked me to translate into Indonesian!

Alas the flight was over too soon. As the plane touched down in Cengkareng Airport, I wished her a safe trip and invited her to stop over in KL next time. She smiled one last smile and promised to do so in her next trip.

It’s small moments like this that make a trip unforgettable and travel an experience like no other.