I have been mulling over comments of several friends of mine about a Facebook post I shared of my time at Borobudur.  I had so many wonderful encounters with Indonesian schoolchildren on holiday and shared several photos my guide took of me with them.


The comments were about what a good ambassador I was for the United States. Of course I was just being myself without a thought to any such mission, although in the horrific current climate of American geopolitics we certainly need to try as hard as we can to counter it.

But I  got to thinking the last few days what powerful ambassadors those schoolchildren were in return.  Their openness, their shining eyes in their clear young  faces, and  the typical adolescent behaviors they showed( the girls all giggles, the boys all jostles) sent such a powerful messages of humanity at its sweetest and most beautiful.

i don’t share the prejudice against Muslims that is so rampant in American culture, and perhaps for those affected severely by that poison, a trip to the most populous Muslim county on earth simply wouldn’t be an option. However, I cannot see how anyone could go to Indonesia and come back with their views unchallenged not just by schoolchildren, but by adults who smile and patiently let strangers take photos of them, or the hundreds of people whose faces light up as they put their palms together as a simple greeting of good will.  And I am not just talking about people paid to be nice.  I am talking about people on side streets, in local restaurants, and in rural villages, who simply want to convey that we can coexist in mutual respect.


If wanting to signal back the same feelings to them makes me an ambassador, then yes, I am doing my best to be one.

I overhear comments from fellow passengers when we are out and about that reveal a lot about what kind of ambassadors they are prepared to be. One thing you see a lot of in Indonesia is motorbikes, and though typically the rider is alone or with one other person, occasionally you see a whole family, with one child  between dad and the handlebars, and one or two more sandwiched between dad and mom.

On one tour bus, several passengers were scandalized.  How could that father and mother endanger their children in that fashion? Look!  There’s one more—a baby— in the mother’s arms.  See that little foot sticking out?  Outrageous!

Another person commenting about another such scene spoke only of her worry that the family might not be safe, with genuine concern that no one be hurt.

i am more practical than sentimental, I guess, and my reaction was to see a father and mother using the resources they had (one motorbike) to do what needed to be done for their family, and I was admiring how they were getting by with what they had.

The first reaction does not bode well for ambassadorship—willingness to pass judgment, inflexibility about the new and unfamiliar.  You can see litter, or you can see faces.  You can see the struggles of the poor, or judge them by standards they cannot possibly meet.

I think the key to ambassadorship, either direction, is generosity of spirit, the belief that people you interact with, or even just observe from a distance, deserve the effort it takes to imagine their lives, not just the quick snapshot one sees. Effective people—whether they are  ambassadors with portfolio or CEOs, teachers, lawyers, politicians, electricians, plumbers, or people like me who are just trying to get a broader picture of the world—are the ones who search for, or even  better, crave the experience of shared humanity. That’s what ambassadors do.  That is who they are.



Comfort Food, Comfort Zone

I am now in Singapore after a week in Indonesia. Before I left Yogyakarta, I  got to thinking, over my last breakfast, about how my comfort zone is changing, and how much that can be illustrated by food.

I would not characterize myself as a foodie.  I’m neither fussy nor particularly adventurous. I don’t yearn for any particular food (well, except  frozen yogurt and popcorn), and I am usually happy to have other people choose the restaurant when we go out. I have been so overindulged  in my  recent life that not much on cruise menus really excites me any more.

Add to that the fact that the digestive system gets a little cranky when we travel, (and, unfortunately as we age), so I am always a bit worried that  unfamiliar food may get in the way of my best laid plans and force me to spend the day  in the bathroom rather than on a tour.

So one of the anxieties I carried with me as I went off on the Asian part of My Year of Living Travelly was the challenge of eating when I was off the ship traveling on my own.

I will use the buffet breakfast at my hotel in Yogyakarta as an example.  It was huge, and gave me a chance to see in one place the great diversity of Indonesian cuisine.  I am not a big breakfast eater to begin with, and the first morning my stomach churned at the idea of eating any of it.

On one table, there was a set-up with a mystery stew, at another a chicken porridge (photo above)  with copious condiments, which seemed very popular. At another, an array of dishes that might work for lunch—sweet and sour fish, chicken curry, fried rice and noodles,  and the like.  The condiments were equally mysterious,including  a variety of sambals ( salsas of various fire powers).

Gamely, I tried a little of a few things, and concluded that Indonesian breakfast was not my thing.  The next day I discovered the fruit bar and chowed down on brilliantly colored watermelon and other tropical fruits and ignored the rest.

However, the time I spent with my guides included meals at places  known only to locals, and a few open markets, where they encouraged me to try this and that, and little by little, I got more adventurous. Indonesia was so open to me, and I would be more open to it.

My third and final breakfast was an entirely different experience.  I still passed on chicken porridge (sorry, but to this westerner, chicken doesn’t go in cream of rice, ever), but  I looked around and said, “oh wow, that fish looks good,” and even “I bet that fried chicken is tasty,” (photo below) and  “I wonder what’s inside that banana leaf packet,” and proceeded to pig out on a good half of  what was there, along with tastes of every condiment I saw.

The  first morning, if there had been American comfort food like mac and cheese in the buffet, I would have gratefully  eaten it.  By the third morning I would be asking, “what the heck is that doing there?” while I reached for the nasi goreng, the sambals, and my new favorite, Indonesian salad (shown here)

I can do this.  More than that, I am doing it.  My comfort zone is expanding, welcoming me to more and more of the world.  Now to keep my waistline from expanding along with it!


Auspicious Signs

It began with being welcomed to Bali by an earthquake, and continued with arriving during a Hindu religious festival whose purpose is to sweep away everything negative and invite in new, positive energy.  Overnight rainfall washed the air clean in a dramatic sound and light show. To add to that, tomorrow is my birthday (69), and I will be moving on to Yogyakarta to my next bucket list thing, Borobudur.  The universe could hardly be sending stronger signals that this journey I am on in this part of My Year of Living Travelly is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.

Yesterday I saw glimpses of the fabled Bali, including these rice terraces.

But  what I think I will remember more are glimpses of people on their own journeys, both those whose devotion to their faith was so on display at Holy Springs Temple, shown below, but also in the numerous villages I passed through,  each one with a specialty—wood carving, glass blowing— and each one full  of people simply going about their lives, holiday or not.

The best thing about being a traveler is seeing the ordinary as special. It’s hard to do that in the middle of one’s everyday life.  Maybe that is what far more evolved people than I have managed to do, traveling through every day with new wonder, even if it is on their own street in their own village.  I still have so much to learn about that, as I chase new experiences around the globe.

Sweeping away what holds me back and inviting in what propels me forward is a lot of it, but so is just sitting here at breakfast  on this hotel terrace, shown below,  as a cooler breeze wafts through and dark clouds hover.  Be here now, the world whispers.  I am trying for no more than that.



Day One

Well, Day Two, if you count getting to the airport hotel in Singapore around 2AM and not leaving the airport before my next flight to Bali. In my mind, this is my first real stop, and this chapter of My Year of Living Travelly is truly underway. Perhaps it is telling that there was a small earthquake this morning.  Perhaps it was Bali saying hello.

Last night I came after dark down a tiny road, to arrive at my hotel outside Denpasar.  The scene around the airport was so honky tonk, so clearly created for tourist revels, and so un-Balinese (except for the phalanxes of motorbikes) that I felt a little dejected by my first impression.

As a little aside, I read recently about how McDonald’s is so utterly predictable in the US, but abroad it actually reflects the culture. Indeed, so far so true.  I saw a billboard showing a burger with the only familiar topping being a fried egg.  There was also a platter of Mc Curry and McRice( no, it wasn’t really called that).

I was so glad to get away from there and escape to the sight of trees in the headlights, and to that last tiny road to someplace real.

And this morning, here I was.


Every space that wasn’t occupied by road plus motorbikes, houses, or shrines was cultivated as small rice paddies. Every  entryway to a home or business, even a driveway, and everyplace in between, was decorated with an offering to the gods. And everyone was busy, busy, busy with the new day.


This woman kindly allowed me to take her photograph as she laid down little offerings of flowers, crackers and other tidbits, while incense wafted from the platter she carried. Other people waded through muddy rice paddies, pounded hammers, hung out laundry, or cooked breakfast in cafes.

i am grinning ear to ear. There’s nothing better than being among the new and different, and learning about other places that have existed day in and day out before I came, and will continue to do so after I leave, although they will remain forever real as memories.  I am just passing through, and all I can say to the universe is thank you, and offer to it a photograph that  represents how grateful I feel:



I Am Running Into a New Year

Boarding in a half an hour for my big Asian adventure.  Jitters over. I am thinking about one of my favorite poems, by the late Lucille Clifton, titled “i am running into a new year”:

I am runnning into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

Even thirty six!  Just imagine how many more things I and others my age have said to ourselves about ourselves, in now roughly twice that number of years.  All those chances for reinvention, rethinking, repairing, rebirthing.

And it goes on.  Hello, next chapter!  I am ready for you. The wind is in my hair.


Lucille Clifton 1936-2010

The Four Seasons


I had a weird dream the other night. Two young children, maybe about ten and four, who didn’t look like mine, but I identified in the dream as mine, went off on a motorcycle, ten year old driving. I was screaming because I just knew they were going to be killed (they weren’t killed in the dream, they just disappeared down the road). That’s it.

The dream recurred several times, and i remembered it in the morning, which is unusual for me. I suspect it is a reflection of my anxiety about leaving for such a long time in Asia, but it was a strange  way for that to manifest.

I posted about it on Facebook, and had several friends who know a lot about such things offer explanations.  One offered a numerological analysis based on the three ages, the two children and myself.  Another added to that,  the idea that there was in it the “innocent exhilaration of a four year old with the sense of adventure of a ten year old,” adding that I was the experienced voice of caution, but might  not need to be as worried as I felt.  Another friend, well versed in Jung, agreed with this and pointed that in the dream no damage occurred. An adventurous and brave 10-year old undertook the  nusual act of riding a motorcycle, and shared  it with a friend.

I  feel  bathed in the love of three people who deeply want the dream to mean that things will  be okay. They wanted me to see this dream as a basis for confidence in myself.   Despite my apparent anxiety, I would be fine, and these little adventurers on the bike were extensions  of myself going off into the unknown.

But the dream wasn’t about the children.  It was about me.  It was about being helpless, about the dawning sense of terrible, terrible loss.

I don’t talk much about this, but here is what I think the dream meant.

In 1999, I went off for the fall semester to Florence for a sabbatical.  I said goodbye to my 21-year-old son, Adriano, and never saw him again.  In December of that year he took his life shortly before I came home.  I have recalibrated my own life, and have indeed been able to reconstruct a happy existence. He is there, tucked into my heart, to put it gently, or scarred into it, to put it another, blunter way.

I know from experience that you can never expect to come back to what you leave behind.  When I go off on my travels, everyone I  love goes off on their own life journey as well. I want to come back and find everyone unchanged, or better yet, changed in positive ways. But I can’t keep them safe. In many ways it is much, much easier to believe I can keep myself from harm.

When those two children went off on that motorcycle,  it would be nice to think it was all a fun adventure and they would be back.  I know better.  Trust, love, and hope are all I can send out into the universe, and pray that it will be enough.