Travel Journal: Wheaton, Illinois

In this brief lull before I head back over the Atlantic, this time to Europe, being in the U.S. feels less like being home and more like a rest stop sandwiched between two very different journeys. There’s no irony, therefore, in titling this post with the town in which I live. Wheaton is, for this week, a mere respite before the process of checking and re-checking my passport, combing over itineraries, and the bottoming-out feeling of the airplane lifting off the ground begins again.

It recalls a time in my life, more distant than I think of it as, in which an airport, any airport (don’t all of them fundamentally feel the same?) was in some ways more familiar than any place I’d been, and any place I was going.

Even now, whenever I’m in an airport, I’m—not home, exactly, but we recognize each other, the airport and I. Every airport recalls dozens of memories. Pick up book, read. Pick up phone, scroll in a daze. Pick up ticket, review boarding time. Stare at fellow passengers, sketch out histories for them, people with whom you will soon be sent hurtling into the sky usually for at least several hours, yet people you will not know any better when you return to earth, disheveled, yawning, shouldering bags in resigned impatience.

All of this is in my recent past, and also in my near future. But for now: Wheaton, Illinois. What’s here? What to include in this brief travel journal?

There’s the food, of course. Always the food first. Steamboat BBQ just down the street, so close that when the windows are open a breeze carries through tantalizing scents of smoke and salt. At least three ice cream shops, frequently changing ownership, are within a few blocks of each other downtown. River City Roasters, also downtown, serves excellent coffee in a now-ubiquitous rustic industrial setting, right next to County Farm Bagels, which boasts a dizzying display of bagel and cream cheese options.

A small pond lies just outside our apartment. We have a view of it from our windows. Herons flap over the water to roost in trees half-hidden by another building. They settle among the branches, heads tucked under white feathers. Full-throated frogs bellow in melancholy along the lip of the pond.

No hills. That’s one thing about Wheaton. I love to climb, in a sort of recreational, strictly non-serious way, and Wheaton is flat, flat, flat. I don’t mind this fact as much just now, while Wheaton is only a rest stop. Europe will have hills.

And when I’m back, will I mind still? Well, I’ll save that question for later. Perhaps I can find a mole-hill, and make it a mountain to climb.

Travel Journal: Makassar, on the Island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia

Standing on the edge of an island half an hour from shore, digging my feet into the sand and wondering: is this home?

This island is, as far as we know, uninhabited, but the shell of a house promises future inhabitants. Cats inexplicably stalk the sand and meow for the food we forgot to bring. Six or seven years ago when we were first taken to the island, we named it narcissistically Brake Paradise Island, but its real name in Indonesian is Kodengareng Keke.

About an hour before, when I expressed my doubts as to the sanity of going with our particular boat-driver on this particular dock, my mom inquired if I had gone soft. Well, yes, I have. I’ve been in the United States for five years, where no credible dock would have rickety boards or small boys fishing on top of rocks and tires and sitting among mounds of trash. No man would accost you without preliminaries and haggle a price. I’ve gone incredibly soft, wishing as I did for neat white offices, online set prices and tickets purchased in advance, a blue-suited man who would outline the itinerary, and perhaps a gift shop? Incredibly, embarrassingly soft.

Still, a sense of adventure made me more excited than worried, and there’s freedom in setting your own itinerary. We’re not in America. Why should things be done in the American way? Soft but not hopeless, perhaps.

The beauty of the island and the journey there was breathtaking, the speedboat bucking and slapping against the water. We watched as flying fish skimmed over the surface of the ocean, blue and buoyant, fins flashing like translucent wings. The trash that clogs the water lessened as we went farther out.

When we reached the island, Joe and I made friends with an orange cat and named him Horatio. He followed me around for a little while before being disappointed that, although I loved petting and scratching him, really I was here to snorkel. Schools of transparent fish darted about in the water. A few of us ventured to the drop-off, where electric blue fish swam between rocks and ahead was only murky darkness. I swam a bit further out, feeling nothing but fascination at the shimmering movement I thought might have been the current.

Dad warned us that we shouldn’t touch the spiked black sea urchins, then got stung himself while trying to get a shell. We had a brief conference, airing questions of poison and lamenting that we can’t get a phone signal to google What do I do if I’ve been stung by a sea urchin? Our boat-driver assured us he would probably be fine.

We visited another island, one frequented by tourists, and found a huge clam, the biggest any of us had ever seen. No pearl, though. Even now, when I know how silly it is, I always look for a pearl. We handed the clam to a group of tourists so they could take pictures. The water here wasn’t quite as clear, but we still saw long, pencil-thin fish and what might have been an eel or a sea-snake.

After that, back to shore.