Excerpt: 'I Married a Travel Junkie' by Samuel Jay Keyser


Chapter 1: The Journey Starts

I remember the day as if it were yesterday, the day I first followed Nancy half way around the world. It was July 22, 1994. I had been 59 years old for just 15 days. Now my significant other was dragging me along with her to Bali. That isn’t fair. She was going. I was dragging myself. The fact is I didn’t have the courage, the strength, the objectivity, the disinterest, the insight, the-whatever to stay behind waiting for her to return. This was to be our first trip together. I mean first real trip, a trip that was not 200 miles away, like to New York City, but 10,000 miles away. We couldn’t be going farther away from my comfort zone.

I’ve read that major life events like moving or a new child or the loss of a job can make-or-break a relationship. This was one of those make or break experiences. Anticipating the trip built an anxiety in me that came from someplace I didn’t have access to. Never mind. Nancy and I were going to Singapore, then on to Bali, and finally to Jakarta and Djojakarta, Indonesia. Either that or she was going crazy.

As the days grew fewer until our departure, I receded deeper and deeper into the myth that we weren’t really going anywhere. The night before had been devoted to packing. Nancy packed for me. It wasn’t a mothering thing. She knew I didn’t have a clue how to pack for a long trip. She, on the other hand, was an expert. Still it took time. Long after my bags were neatly stacked and waiting downstairs for the taxi that would take us to Boston’s Logan Airport for the flight first to New York and then to Singapore, she stood amid a sea of clothes, toiletries, cameras, batteries and the piles of flotsam and jetsam of long-distance travel. The floor of our bedroom looked like a yard sale after a high wind.

While Nancy was putting Travel Smith trousers together with T-shirts, I was doing everything in my power to make time stop.

“Would you mind going downstairs and bringing up those little mag-lights in the breakfront?” she asked.

No answer on my part. Just a loud clumping down the stairs, a yanking of the drawers open and a slamming of them shut, loud enough so that she would be sure to hear. Odd that. I was aware of what I was doing. But I was in the grip of resentment. I just couldn’t stop acting like, well, an asshole.

I went to sleep a little after midnight on the morning of July 22. I knew Nancy would not get to bed at all. It seemed better for both of us if I were unconscious. The telephone woke me at 8am. Through the bedroom window I could see torrential rain. The wind was whipping the dogwood tree on our patio into a frenzy. George Whitehouse was on the phone. He and his wife, Gaby, were close friends. They also ran a travel business, CATS. It stood for Custom African Travel Service. I thought of it as Calling All To Suffer. They had arranged the trip.

“I think you guys ought to give some thought to renting a car and driving straight to New York,” George said on the other end. “The weather looks bad. Logan may cancel some flights.”

It was as if someone had thrown me a lifeline.

“Thanks, George,” I said. “I’ll tell Nancy.”

Maybe I’ll be saved by the weather, I thought. Maybe we’ll miss the flight and have to cancel the trip. “Who was that?” Nancy asked from the other room.

I wrestled with the thought of lying.

“Wrong number,” I could hear myself saying.

Instead I told her George’s advice.

“Nonsense,” said Nancy. “We’ll be fine.”

She went on stuffing things into suitcases. That afternoon, through a driving rain, we took a taxi to the airport. The ride was excruciating, the conversation, painful.

“Did you remember to bring your passport?” she said trying to make small talk. She had reminded me a dozen times the previous evening.

“Umm,” I muttered, staring out the window, but not seeing a thing.

I couldn’t bring myself to look at her now that I was driving to my death, maybe worse. The plane would crash. The only thing I could take comfort in was getting enough to drink in me so that going down in flames would strike me as fun.

“Looks like the rain is letting up a bit. I’ve taken off in much worse weather.”

“Umm,” still looking out the window.

“They say Singapore Airlines is the world’s best,” she chirped ignoring my bad behavior and talking on cheerfully as if I were right there beside her.

“Fuck Singapore Airlines,” I said under my breath.

If Nancy heard me, she didn’t let on. Rather she indulged me as if I were a child. I was certainly acting like one. I was caught in some kind of internal storm that was threatening to capsize me. I didn’t want to be in this taxi hurtling toward my doom. I didn’t want to see the Dieng Plateau, not at the risk of life and limb, my life and limb. A couple of Internet photographs in the comfort of our living room would have been fine, thank you very much. This was a mess of my own making. After all, it wasn’t as if Nancy were forcing me to go. Who was I angry with? Myself, of course.

Our Boston flight was delayed a full hour on the runway because of the bad weather. I tried hard not to let my soaring spirits show. We arrived in New York with less than 15 minutes to make our connection. We had to get to the international terminal at the far end of the airport. I glanced at Nancy. I was about to say something like, “We might as well forget it,” but the look on her face changed my mind.

What I had been harboring as my ace in the hole was threatening to turn against Nancy like a bad oyster.

Against every better-judgment bone in my body, I said to a cab driver, “I’ll give you $20 if you can get us to the international terminal in 10 minutes.”

It wasn’t that I was such a nice guy. It was that Nancy was somewhere between panic and no-holds-barred depression. I had to do something. The taxi driver jumped curbs, went the wrong way down one-way ramps, passed other cars on the wrong side. He got us there in 9 minutes. I handed him a twenty-dollar bill. We ran as fast as we could to the gate. Our hearts sank. The waiting area was deserted. The door to the gangway was closed. A lone Singapore Airline employee stood behind the counter. He looked at our tickets and smiled.

“Relax. Bad weather. The plane is still at the gate. Your flight has been delayed for an hour.”

He waved us through the doors. In a single gesture he had realized my worst fears and assuaged Nancy’s.

Our flight to Singapore was uneventful. At least I think it was. I had two double vodka martinis and two bottles of red wine with dinner plus a scotch on the rocks afterwards. I was feeling so good when we landed that I didn’t mind it a bit that our luggage was missing. Singapore Airlines said not to worry. They gave us a couple of travel kits, each with a blue kimono and a complete set of toiletries. They also gave us $75. This latter gift was especially generous since it wasn’t their fault the baggage was delayed. I bought a pair of socks, a pair of silk drawers, and a blue T-shirt (I still have the drawers). Nancy did the same. Later when we flew from Bali to Jakarta, our luggage was lost again. Only this time we were advised to wait an hour for the next flight in. Our bags were on it. No toilet kit. No $75. Damn.

We spent 12 days in Bali. Our travel agent friends had secured the services of a driver for us. His name was Bantok. This was by Balinese standards an unusual name since everyone in Bali is called only one of four names—Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut. The names are allotted in that order. If you have five children, the fifth is Wayan again. And so it goes. Bantok means “soon, quick” in Balinese. According to Bantok, when he was born, his mother thought she had to go to the bathroom. She sat down on the john. Out came Bantok. Hence, the nickname.

Bantok was a godsend for us. He knew where the best temples were, where the best cremations were being held, where the best restaurants were, the best cheap hotels. He even discussed health issues involving Balinese women. Who would have thought we would be discussing endometriosis with our driver while weaving our way through rice terraces north of Ubud?

One of my favorite memories of Bali is a hotel Bantok took us to on the East Coast. It wasn’t really a hotel. It was a thatched cottage built in the middle of a slew of rice paddies. We arrived late. It was almost 9pm. We were hot and sweaty from a day on the road. We made for the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool. Nancy and I were the only ones there. That’s how I saw the Southern Cross for the first time, in a bathing suit floating on my back with my arms out, my body mimicking the constellation. That’s when it hit me where I really was—halfway around the world.

In Ubud we had our very own valet and maid, Dewa and Dani. Dani would bring flowers to our rooms in the morning and place them on an altar outside the bedroom. She pressed her hands together in a prayer meant to bring nothing but good things to us and our cottage all day long. For each of the days we were there her prayers were answered. Every morning we would descend the outdoor stairway and take our seats in the breakfast room below our living quarters. Dani and Dewa served us black rice pudding, eggs, and tea for breakfast. At night we would order dinner from the Café Wayan, a mile away. There was no telephone in our room. We didn’t have a cell phone, nor did Dewa and Dani. Everything seemed to work by word of mouth and motorbikes. Every night that we ate at the cottage, dinner came as if the kitchen were just downstairs. All of this for $45 a day.

“Are you still anxious about traveling?” Nancy asked me over dinner days later. I answered with a question.

“Are there poisonous spiders in Bali?”

It was not an idle question. We had arrived back at the cottage late that afternoon. When we stepped inside, I spotted an enormous spider, at least five inches across lying on the floor just in front of us.

“Oh, my god,” I said, pointing to it. “Don’t come in.”

I rushed back out and ran to find Dani.

“Laba-laba,” I said pointing up towards our rooms. It was the Balinese word for spider. I haven’t a clue how I had come to know that.

Dani went upstairs ahead of me. She stepped into the room, picked up the spider and spread it out on her open palm, holding it for us to see.

“The spider was dead, for godssake,” Nancy said with only the tiniest hint of exasperation.

“Yes, but it wasn’t always dead,” I replied. “One of these days we might not be so lucky.”

The next morning I showered in our outdoor stall. The walls came up to my shoulders. I had an unobstructed view of rice paddies below, the beautiful blue, cloud-smattered sky above, and, in the distance, the shrouded peak of Gunung Agung, the most sacred mountain in Bali. On its slopes was Besakih, the Balinese counterpart of St. Peter’s in Rome. The shower was warm. The cool breeze that drifted across the veranda felt like Nancy was rubbing my back with her fingertips.

“This really isn’t bad,” I said to myself. “In fact, this is quite lovely.”

That was when a bee stung me on my ass. I couldn’t see it, of course. But it was a big bee.

After several more lovely days in Bali, marred only by pain whenever I sat down, Nancy and I left for the next leg of my maiden journey, Jakarta. Our plane landed around 6am on Sunday, July 31, 1994. As Nancy and I drove from the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport into Jakarta, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing through the taxi window. People were asleep everywhere; under park benches, in the crooks of trees—Why didn’t they fall out?—in doorways, on the sidewalks, in alleyways. They were stick people stuck in the interstices of the city. I was used to seeing the homeless in America, but here was a several-orders-of-magnitude difference. What I was seeing for the first time, Nancy had seen countless times before in her pre-me wanderings. It didn’t faze her. But I was totally unprepared. I felt myself growing numb, as if I had just taken a Novocain hit. I had never seen so many people in one place. It made New York’s Fifth Avenue at noon seem like a Sunday suburb. Was I going to have to get out of the taxi and walk through that mob? How in the world would I manage it?

Our taxi stopped outside a high wooden wall surrounding the home of a friend. He was working for a year in Jakarta as an economic consultant to the central government. A gate in the wall opened as if we had tripped an electric eye. Our taxi slipped inside. A servant, a man, pushed the gate closed again, hurriedly, as if he were keeping the inhabitants of the street at bay. He must have been waiting for us. Another servant, a woman, came rushing up to take our bags (they were husband and wife). From the unsettling poverty of the city just outside those walls we stepped into a space of amazing tranquility. The living room was sparsely furnished save for a low table and divan. A water carrier that our friend, a collector, had recently acquired in Kalimantan stood on the low table. It was an object worthy of any museum in America, its warm, chocolate finish emitting a light all of its own as if it were a lamp. The manservant disappeared with our luggage. His wife reappeared with tea and toast. We spoke quietly with our friends, planning how to spend the day together. The desolation of the city on the other side of those high wooden walls was now as far from my mind as America was from my body. I found this distance between the world I normally inhabit and the world of the people around me to be unnerving, disconcerting, surrealistic, even, as if we were in parallel universes.

Occasional reminders that the two universes were linked intruded. We were shown to our rooms. The bathroom was elegant, unlike so many of the bathrooms I had used since I had left home. It was equipped with a glassed in shower, tiled floors, gleaming surfaces. Over the toilet was a sign. Please do not flush fecal matter. Deposit it in the bags provided. The servants will dispose of it. Thank you.

Two days later we moved on to Djojakarta. As soon as we got there, we took a walk along a busy street. Every third step brought beggars pleading for money. I was not making matters any better by speaking to them.

“No thank you. Sorry! Can’t stop. I’m late.”

I found that very hard to do. It seemed so inhumane to ignore someone’s plea for help. I soon learned that beggars were like multi-headed hydra. If I gave to one, two more appeared in his place. I was forced to adopt a suit of mental armor, bulling my way forward, staring ahead, acting like a robot. It was that Novocain hit again. I didn’t like what it was doing to me. I have an American friend who refuses to travel for this very reason. He finds the great disparity in wealth between himself and the people in other countries too tough to deal with.

The beggars themselves know this. In Egypt street vendors offered me their products for nothing. They would insist. Of course I should have just said no.

“It is a gift. Please take it. It is free.”

Then they would ask me for money. I would try to give back whatever they had given me. They refused. It was a matter of honor. I was a guest in their country.

“You must take it. It is bad to refuse a gift.”

I learned to keep my hands in my pocket and keep walking. I didn’t like it.

Sometimes the request for money came from the most unexpected places. In the Oriental Rug School in Egypt, the weavers are children. Our guide showed them off unselfconsciously, as if child labor were the most natural thing in the world. As he nudged us away from the workroom and into the showroom, the children, hard at work on their looms, would give me a knowing look and then furtively rub their thumbs and forefingers together.

It is a universal gesture, that: rubbing the thumb, the index, and middle fingers against one another. When made by children at a loom, it is easy to pretend not to understand. That was not the case at the Red Pyramid at Dahshur. I had stepped away from the group I was with. The pyramid’s capstone had been removed from the top of the pyramid. It lay near the pyramid’s base where it could easily be inspected. That was just what I was doing when a tourist policeman came up to me, pointed to the capstone, and then rubbed his fingers together just like the children in the Oriental Rug School. What service had he performed? He pointed out what I was already looking at. Even so, there was no way I wasn’t going to fork over for a guy with a rifle on his shoulder.

Or take the workman in the tomb of Mereruka. Mereruka was a high priest in the court of Teti, founder of the 6th dynasty (2345BC-2181BC). He was the one who supervised the construction of Teti’s pyramid, now pretty much a pile of rubble, all except for the burial chamber. The tomb is a single-storied mastaba, an Arabic word meaning “flat bench.” Its walls are adorned with scenes of daily life. Strolling from one room to the next is like skimming through the pages of a 4,700-year-old almanac. The scenes are detailed, domestic. On one wall, fishermen are depicted scaling fish. Below them are the varieties of fish they catch. On another wall are tax collectors. I was the last in line following our guide through the rooms. A workman suddenly appeared from behind a doorway and motioned me to come in. I felt privileged. He had picked me out of the crowd, doubtless to see something special. He stuck a trowel in my hand, put cement on it, and showed me a niche in a column. He motioned for me to fill it in. When I did, he rubbed his fingers together. It was a variation of the free-gift gambit. I give him a buck. I think of him as an Egyptian Tom Sawyer.

The most inventive scheme I’ve ever encountered for getting a tourist to part with his money unfolded at Aswan, Egypt. We were in a felucca sailing along the Nile River to Kitchener’s Island. We were headed for a walk through the island’s botanical gardens. As we approached the dock, children in miniature dories paddled out into mid-channel until they came amidships of the felucca. They took hold of the gunnels, and while we were sailing along, they sang in a deeply Arabic accent “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.” How could you not come across after that?

One develops certain defensive tactics but even these have consequences. Once our Vietnamese guide took us to Cai Be, an island in the middle of the Mekong River, to see how the locals made candy. Whenever we walked out of a shop or candy factory, a cloud of young children descended on us, selling postcards. I asked Nancy to buy a package so that we could defend ourselves against the others. One little girl—she couldn’t have been more than seven years old—came up to me. I showed her my postcards. She gave me a look of disdain that took me at least 30 years to acquire.

The gift-giving ploy followed by the request for money must be nearly universal. It happened to me in October of 2004 in Luang Prabang, Laos. On our last day Nancy and I were up before dawn to watch the march of the monks down Sakkaline Road. The streets were empty of vehicles though an occasional tok-tok puttered by. In the distance a saffron dot appeared. It grew larger and longer by the minute, expanding as monks from temples along the route folded themselves into the line like floats in a parade.

Along the sidewalk Laotian women of all ages had put down mats and were squatting in the honorific pose, feet out to one side and pointed away from the monk as a sign of respect. They opened large rice baskets and scooped tiny balls of it, ready to be transferred into the begging bowls of the monks as they passed silently by. The monks moved briskly.

At 6:30am, slowed down by a steady rain that had been falling all morning, they were within half a city block of us, a long, saffron line, bowls slung over their shoulders, a black umbrella over their heads. They ranged in age from the very old at the head of the column to a young boy bringing up the rear. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. An old woman sitting on her haunches in the street outside our hotel transferred handfuls of rice from her own bowl into the bowl of each monk as he passed. Nancy ran up the street for a better picture-taking angle. I stood outside our hotel watching. Suddenly, two old women descended on me. They pushed little packets of rice wrapped in banana leaves and pinned with a sliver of wood into my hands. They motioned excitedly toward the monks as if it were my duty to fill each monk’s bowl as he passed. I hopped to it, taking the packets of rice from them and transferring them to the monks. I thought: How nice that they are including me, a stranger, in their morning ritual. But once the monks had passed, the ladies held out their own hands demanding money. I didn’t understand what was happening. A member of the hotel staff interceded. There was much chatter back and forth. The staff member informed me that I owed the ladies $3. I paid it.

I came away from these experiences with the realization that I was defenseless against the wiles of the baksheesh seekers. It didn’t help that I began with a full load of guilt in my pack. What was $3 to me? But there was also that feeling of having been taken for a ride, a feeling that I came into court with clean hands and had been handed a bill of goods. Then I thought: How could I blame them? They were so damned poor. My friend’s strategy, just say no to travel, seemed like a good solution.

It was certainly better than the one I concocted out of self-preservation in Indonesia. It worked like a charm, but it made me miserable precisely because it worked so well. In the countryside around Djojakarta I learned that most of the people believed that defects like blindness, madness, or muteness were a sign that the person possessing them should be avoided like the plague. Maybe they thought it was catching. One morning a crowd of marketplace beggars assailed me. I felt panicky and claustrophobic all in the same moment. Nancy and I were without a guide to run interference. The idea struck me out of the blue. I don’t know how or why I thought of it. But in the midst of beggars, extending open palms, trying to shove trinkets into our hands, offering to show us the local back streets, I opened my mouth wide and with my index finger I kept jabbing the air toward my tongue. It worked. They stopped in their tracks, backed away, and disappeared into the crowd around us. Feigning being a mute had restored my equilibrium. It also injured my sense of dignity.

Dignity can go both ways. On one occasion, this in Hanoi, I came out of a water puppet theater and was approached by a young girl, maybe 11 years old. She was thin with scraggly hair and just the hint of a hair lip, a slight malformation that was enough to capture your attention. She offered me a package of postcards for $2. For some reason I decided to haggle. I don’t know what got into me, but there it was. She looked shocked. I insisted.

“$1,” I said.

She came back with $1.50. I shook my head and walked away. She ran after me, tugged at my sleeve.

“O.K. $1,” she extended the package of postcards.

I gave her the $1 but refused to take the postcards. If she was shocked before, now she was irate.

“I take $1,” she insisted. “You have to take postcards.”

I took them. I didn’t feel good about it. But I did feel good about her. There was something so self-possessed and straightforward in her manner. She gave selling postcards a dignity I never thought it could have.

My companions and I milled around waiting for the bus to come for us. It started to rain. Everyone huddled beneath the marquee of the puppet theater to escape the downpour, the little girl included. When the bus came, I turned to her and smiled. I offered the postcards. She hesitated, then smiled back at me and accepted the gift.

Excerpt republished with the permission of the Author. Image republished with the permission of the Travel Junkie, herself,  Nancy Kelly. Copyright © 2011 Samuel Jay Keyser.

About the Author:

Samuel Jay Keyser is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. Associate Provost from 1985 to 1994, he currently holds the position of Special Assistant to the Chancellor. In his career as a theoretical linguist he has published over 60 articles and four books. He is editor in chief of the journal Linguistic Inquiry and of the Linguistic Inquiry Monograph Series.

In addition to his career as a theoretical linguist he has published two books of poems, Raising the Dead and The Pond God and Other Stories. The latter won the 2003 Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award for children’s poetry.

His most recent book, Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows, was published by the MIT Press in April 2011. GemmaMedia of Boston, MA will publish a new book, I Married a Travel Junkie, in the fall of 2011. He is currently working on a third book, Looking for Me.

Aside from his career as a theoretical linguist and author, Keyser is also a jazz trombonist with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, the New Liberty Jazz Band, and the Dave Whitney Swing Orchestra. He has appeared on 12 CDs.

Keyser travels extensively, having been to over 42 countries. Excerpts from his A Safari Journal: Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness appeared in the May 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He has been a commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. He also blogs, at The Reluctant Traveler.