A Free Trip Around the World
In the middle of the night, after my daughter Zoe woke me for the third time because she was afraid of the snakes, I wondered, not for the first time, whether this trip had really been such an inspired idea. Earlier, Zoe had been complaining about leeches, and before that mosquitoes, and it dawned on me that unless you were raised in the rainforest, accustomed to strangler figs and spiders the size of gerbils, Borneo was a pretty forbidding environment. For a nine-year-old girl reared in suburban Colorado, this place looked downright menacing. My thirteen-year-old son Kolya, also awakened by his sister, didn't help things when he authoritatively informed Zoe that, since she was the smallest mammal among us, any predator would obviously eat her first.
I shot Kolya a venomous look that temporarily silenced him and reassured Zoe that it was unlikely that snakes could board the 55-foot houseboat (called a klotok) where we were sleeping, moored on the banks of the Sekonyer River in southern Kalimantan. She wasn't persuaded. Zoe knew the serpents were lurking. Heading upriver earlier that afternoon, past suffocating green jungle crawling from riverbanks and proboscis monkeys hanging from trees like misshapen, mischievous fruit, we'd noticed a sudden movement in the water. Peering ahead, we felt certain it was a crocodile. We were wrong. The animal's head, although almost as big as a crocodile's, belonged to a 20-foot-long python with a body circumference only slightly smaller than my thigh. We gaped with disbelief as the python disappeared into the murky water, leaving deceptively minor ripples.
As the ripples receded, we became especially attentive to other motions in the silty ribbon of river that carried us deeper into the jungle. I felt acutely aware of the reassuring diesel engine chug that muted the unfamiliar and suddenly ominous chirps and creaks and rustles emanating from the overgrown banks. We moved forward from the deck, shaded by a blue plastic canopy jerry-rigged on metal poles, and positioned ourselves on the bow like sentries. Within five minutes, we spotted another serpentine motion in the river and glimpsed a much smaller bright green reptile with a classic triangular-shaped head, slithering with startling speed toward the port-side shore: a pit viper, one of the world's most poisonous snakes.
I held Zoe's hand, tried to convey my amazement rather than fear. In the space of five minutes we had seen proboscis monkeys, with their bulbous, clown-like noses, a species that didn't live anywhere else on the planet--as well as a python and a pit viper. This was what it was all about for me, heading upriver into Heart of Darkness territory with my two children--a voyage to the headwaters of grief, loss, and--who knows?--possibly even the source of healing and grace after such momentous transitions in our lives.
Dual tragedies had propelled the three of us into orbit: my older brother's sudden death from cancer, and the departure of their mother, my wife, after our wrenching divorce. The weight of those losses accompanied us as surely as our backpacks filled with shorts, underwear, Game Boys, guidebooks, traveler's checks, portable CD players, DVDs, mosquito netting, bug spray, asthma medicine, malaria pills, antibiotics, extra passport pictures, my laptop, and Kolya's skateboard.
After a treacherous passage through the past few years, a long, open-ended journey had beckoned to me like a Siren's song. Hitting the road had always served me in times of transition as an entrée into a reflective trance, as a tool of personal reinvention, as literal and metaphorical escape. For much of my life, I had sought psychic salve in the thrill of discovery amidst wild, unfamiliar places and among unpredictable traveling companions. Borneo certainly qualified as wild and unfamiliar, and my two children effortlessly supplied the unpredictability.
Copyright 2003 by Daniel Glick. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher PublicAffairs.
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