Written by Tami Sulistyo
“If you have time constraints, don’t come.” “If you like knowing where you are going to sleep the next night, this trip is not for you.” “If you like a predictable schedule for the day, don’t bother.” “If you like to travel in comfort, yeah right!” Not once in this 12 page list of reasons why NOT to come on the around the world trip being advertised on a wall at the University of Minnesota did it say, “Don’t bring a young child.” So my parents packed an entire suitcase full of powdered milk, and off we went despite the worried looks and vocal disapproval of well meaning grandparents.
Two recent dental school graduates, one from Australia and one from New Zealand, decided to travel Europe before going back to settle into their professional lives. They ran out of money to get home and ended up with two broken down busses and a British ex-army mechanic who promised he could fix any vehicle anytime anywhere with any equipment. Ads ran at universities in multiple countries resulted in 70 adults from around the world convening in Luxembourg to set off on an adventure through Europe, across the Middle East and into Asia. Oh, and me. I was four. Lucky, lucky, lucky me. Imagine the surprise of the tour guides, who had not meant for children to be allowed on the trip. And they thought they had been so comprehensive in their 12-page list of who should not come. But they could not send me back across the ocean at that point, and so instead I had the great fortune of copious time to spend with dozens upon dozens of adults from a host of cultural backgrounds, who would visit with me and tell me stories. Hopefully I provided them with a bit of levity in return.
Pieces of Memories
The first thing I think I remember, is an impression or feeling of running around and through magical white archeological ruins in Greece, glancing up at the piercing blue sky as I ran, feeling free, alive, and as if I were floating. I imagined I was some combination of a Greek goddess with a flowing cape trailing behind me and fictional detective character Nancy Drew. I had a similar experience later at the Taj Mahal in India. Sprinting with glee along the water canal running up to this mystical building, shimmering in the distance, my eyes popped wide open in the awe of a new experience when, upon entering the comparatively dark coolness, we were asked to shed our street shoes in favor of a slipper in order to come into this Holy ground. I have a vision of yet another dark interior in a building in India, but this one was too dark, too vast, too frightening to me, even though it was a castle of sorts. That time around, I stayed closely attached to the safety of my parents as we wandered through.
I recall lying in bliss on a gentle sand dune under the stars in the hint of a cool desert breeze, next to my parents, talking, whispering, and watching the sky twinkle at us while our mechanic took apart one of the busses and put it back together again. Everything was perfect. Until. Until rolling along forever and ever in an endless and what looked to me to be an empty desert, we came upon a large complex of buildings. Finally! Something to see, something to look at, something to photograph. Oops. Bad idea. 70 people gawking openly and snapping away on our cameras, just because it was something to do. Until we stopped and my dad and a few others along with the bus drivers were taken inside, being forced to carry every single camera, led by angry and official looking men who had rushed out to us and demanded an explanation as to why we were photographing a secret military compound in Syria. Who knew?
For the next million hours, or so it felt like to me, the rest of us were made to wait outside in the hot sun, under the glares of menacing guards. My mom made it quietly crystal clear to me that I was to be silent and still as a mouse. I was to behave with my best Grandma Erna manners no matter what. I did. Way too scary to do anything but obey. I was thirsty. Tired. Hot. Properly intimidated. When my dad and the others came back, they looked both strained and relieved. All camera film had been confiscated, but we were released after having been severely scolded and warned. We were dumb tourists after all. None of us on either side, neither the Syrians nor the travelers, could quite believe this had happened. Twilight zone.
As we gladly rode off into the distance, two boys chased after us on camel back and hurled rocks, breaking the back window of the bus I was on. The rocks landed with a powerful thud on the seat I had just vacated. I loved letting the bumps in the road bounce me up and down, up and down, up and down in the back seats. That was a major source of daily entertainment for me, making me laugh aloud. The higher I was bounced the better. On the bus at last after that unpleasant encounter at the Syrian military base, I had run to the back seat and settled in, but for some reason I changed my mind and had just moved closer to the calmer front of the bus. I narrowly escaped getting whacked. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.
Playing with kids in each country we visited, it never dawned on me that language could be a barrier. That concept was beyond my comprehension as a four year old. And so, it was not. I craved interaction with other children, since I was the only kid on the bus trip. Every chance I had I would eagerly approach any child I saw and babble at them in English, inviting them to play with me, assuming innocently that they would want to, and that their family would be happy to have them do so. My mom said this was fantastic for my parents, because it meant they automatically got to meet many local adults in all the countries we visited. I was the living icebreaker.
The Little Girl
When these kids I would approach without hesitation were up for it, we would play, and despite not understanding each other’s words, we would always, always figure a way to communicate enough to get along and have a good time, not worrying about a thing, and fully accepting each other. Except that once. One time, a girl who looked to be my age caught my eye and with intention, approached me and asked me for money. As a grown up, I realize what this was about, but at the time I recall being utterly surprised and bewildered that she would think I had money. I thought to myself, “My parents have money, not me. Why would I have money? I just want to play with her. Why is she asking me that? I am a kid, just like she is.” I remember the feeling of her beautiful eyes on me, looking through me, not at me. I somehow knew she was not really seeing me, but seeing something I represented to her. I felt invisible. And confused. She left a mark on my heart, and I have never forgotten her. I so wish I could know her and reach out to her, so that we might get to know one another. I wonder how life has unfolded for her and I wish her many blessings.
My mother was researching for her thesis about China and in every country we visited. She tried to obtain visas for us to enter China, but to no avail. This was the very early 1970s and foreigners were not welcome in China. Abandoning hope of getting to mainland China, we made a last stop in Afghanistan before heading to Singapore. My parents were trusting enough to leave me with missionaries they had never before met while they went overnight to explore historical sights in unsafe territory (still unsure how I feel about that – what if something had happened to them? Or me?)
Reunited, we headed to Singapore so my mom could research there instead. I remember lying awake in the room we rented in a YMCA, watching geckos crawl along the ceiling, hoping, hoping, hoping they would not fall off and onto my head. I was simultaneously fascinated, entertained, and horrified. I remember running through a field at night during the lantern festival, watching as hundreds of brightly colored paper lanterns danced in the sky like butterflies flapping wings. I started school there. And years later my own daughter would also start school in Singapore. I have always cherished that completely unplanned serendipity. Apple doesn’t fall far and such.
What is the point of sharing these small moments of memory that took root in my four-year-old mind? Not sure, but clearly this nine-month trip we took became the foundation of who I am. Despite not remembering more than snippets, the collection of experiences created a life long craving and love of exploring what unknown treasure of sights, sounds, and human interaction is waiting just around the next corner, even in our own community, ready for us if we just make the effort to get up off the couch and go see.
- What experience/s laid a foundation for who you are today and how you have spent your time and focus over the years?
- The book Ubuntu, by Nelson and Lundin, introduces an African greeting meaning “I am here to see you and be seen by you.” Imagine the person we each will become if we enter into every interaction saying to ourselves “Ubuntu,” as a reminder to be open, present and focused on equally “seeing” the other person fully and allowing our own self to also be fully “seen.” To what extent do you let people see into you – by being open enough to share who you are inside – your passions, values, hopes and dreams? This is real intimacy: in-to-me-see. It is a choice we make each day. Recall a time when you really “saw” someone fully and you know they felt it – felt that you were not seeing through them, felt that they were not invisible. What was the impact of that?
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