Thump. Thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump.
I hear it on the roof. It’s late. I am alone in the only room of my house that has walls. The doors are locked with small key locks which are not very effective when the handles keep falling off. There is a large space underneath the connecting door to the study. My bedroom has the only light that is on. I am sure that the light streams out beneath the door as a beacon to whatever is on the roof.
There it is again. The sound is coming from the left. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. As it scuttles across the roof, the sound reverberates over to the right side of the ceiling. In the silence of the night, even with the air-conditioner running, the bounding feet are heavy from above. It must weigh one hundred pounds at least. Perhaps it is a winged monkey from the Wizard of Oz. What else would be that large and able to jump upon the roof of my room? I hear the thumps only at night. Oh God, a night creature.
The dogs are barking. Now a howl. I have been placed in the setting of a horror film. I sit underneath a white billowy net, a barrier from mosquitoes for which I am protected by inoculation, and all those other insects for which I am not, like the three inch black wasp that I saw on my ceiling this afternoon. Is he still up there? I know I could crush the insects with my shoe, if I were wearing shoes in my bed. My Hindu neighbor would be appalled. I am an ant crusher. Hopefully it is not his aunt. How can I joke when there is something out there? Something that I cannot see but can hear, along with the dogs. Something that is large, and I am sure has teeth. All night creatures must have large, ugly, yellow teeth, and red, red eyes. They always do. I am sure that it is looking down from the clay roof tiles, smiling an evil smile, and thinking of the meal cowering below.
I look up through the netting and notice that the end section of my ceiling is missing the drywall. It has been replaced with plastic sheeting. The only thing that prevents that night creature from falling on me is a thin, clear plastic layer. Night creatures could eat their way through plastic. They probably think of plastic as an appetizer before a meal of white woman. Fear. I feel the fear. I am alone. I have no one to protect me from the sounds in the night, the sounds that go thump. I am unprotected from my fear.
This afternoon, I noticed something dead and white floating in the lotus pond that borders my lower sitting area. Fish were eating the carcass. I thought at first it was an enormous bullfrog, and that the coy were enjoying a lunch of frog legs. I did not know that frogs were white, but this is Indonesia and creatures are stuff that lures the photographers from National Geographic’s. When I looked at my photographs at dinner, I saw that the animal, missing half its body, was not a frog at all. It was a rat. What could have chomped a rat that large in half and left its bloated body floating in my lotus pond until it turned white? The fear. The fear is here. I bet the sounds on my roof are from large Bali rats, or whatever ate a rat that huge. I hear the sound again, racing across my roof. The rat must be fleeing something large. I can feel the fear in its footstep flying across the drywall ceiling. I hope it doesn’t step through the plastic. There is so much to fear in Bali. Would I be afraid if I were not alone?
I walk the dark rocky street to my villa, accompanied at night my small flashlight. On a street without lights, I see an erratic dark image coming toward my head. A huge bat swoops down from the banana tree. This must be a fruit bat. I have seen them in zoos, but they were behind glass cages and not free to nest if my hair if so desired. I hunch my shoulders and stoop as it darts overhead. The fear. I need mace or a gun. I have only my dog whistle, and I am too frightened to fish it out of my pocket. The dogs are barking in an unending chorus at the bats and at me.
I was told that the dogs are no threat. They stand in every doorway growling as I pass. Most begin with a low guttural sound, as they defend their spot for the night. They are skinny with mange, and I pretended to ignore them as I pass by on my way to the Main Street of Ubud. The Balinese dogs look hungry. If they are family pets, food is not wasted on their behalf. They appear to have to fend for themselves. I hope they don’t like to munch on the legs of a tourist. It was recommended to bring my dog whistle to keep them from getting to close. The one time I blew it, they followed behind howling even louder. I try to keep the fear hidden. They can sense fear. I don’t want to give them an advantage. My heart races despite the logic of my brain which is retreating beneath my fear.
I was told that rabies is a problem in Bali. There is a program to get the dogs vaccinated. I did not take the rabies vaccine before my travels. It cost a thousand dollars. I was too cheap to pay so much for the inoculation. I was assured by my doctor that unless I was around bats, I did not need to worry about rabies. Another bat swoops by. I stoop again. The fear.
Other than the series of three shots for rabies which I decided to decline, I have had every other inoculation available to prevent diseases spread from the water, the soil, and insects. Months before my departure, I begged my doctor for shots that have yet to be invented. Why haven’t they come out with a prevention for the plague? I want it. There are rats here. I read Camus’ book. I even read it in French. I know what a rat can spread. I saw a large one on the wall of my bathroom garden. I adjust the mosquito netting to make sure there are no gaps. I want to insure that my sleeping perimeter is secure from rats, bats, dogs, and mosquitoes.
Malaria is a huge problem in Africa. It kills thousands each year. Here in Bali, malaria is not a concern. I have packed my prophylactic Malarone pills, just in case I get an email from the CDC saying that things have changed. It was only by chance that I checked their website and discovered a vaccination that I lacked, Japanese Encephalitis. I only had time for two of my three shots. There was no time to be inoculated fully before my departure. I am at risk. Fear.
I loved traveling to Africa. Every shot possible was required before entering the country of Burundi. I had to produce an inoculation record which was presented at the airport at Bujumbura. How nice to make sure that everyone has had their shots.
Before I left for Africa, my friend Henry and I were discussing elephantiasis. Henry was laughing at my fear. I was not. Testicular elephantiasis can be found in Burundi. He had seen it on the internet. We looked together in horror at the images of the poor souls disfigured by this disease which is born on the wings of a mosquito. There is hope for a vaccination by the year 2020. 2020! That is ten years away! Six percent of the country’s populations suffer from this disease. What will I do if I get testicular elephantiasis? Henry assures me that this is impossible. The female alternative is unimaginable. There is no cure for elephantiasis. The only treatment is to bathe your skin in Clorox. I have packed a Clorox pen, my mosquito netted pants, my clothes treated with insecticide, and a case of Deet. I am sure that if the mosquitoes don’t get me, then skin cancer will.
They laughed when I arrived in Africa. They said that there had never been anyone who traveled to their country more prepared that me. I am sure that REI’s stock skyrocketed after I purchased my equipment. Despite their laughter, before my departure from Gitega, the staff begged for my supplies. I told them that I had been a Girl Scout, and that I was always prepared. Actually, it was the fear that had pushed me to prepare so well.
I took my dive knife on my trip just in case I had to slash ferocious African animals or a terrorist on my way to the latrine at night. There were neither ferocious animals nor terrorists around us, and we had the luxury of indoor bathrooms. I used my dive knife to sharpen pencils used for drawing a mural on the wall of a school. Everyone was glad that I had brought it. There were no pencil sharpeners.
I also brought my water purifier. Water is a problem throughout the third world. Bad water produces parasites. All kinds of hideous worms come from bad water and ultimately attack the whites of your eyes, coil beneath your skin, or cause diarrhea, dehydration, and sometimes death. I had done my internet homework. I knew what was lurking in the water. My doctor warned that if I returned from Africa with a rash that moved beneath my skin, to contact him immediately. Not to worry doc. You’ll get my call from the tarmac. I want an ambulance with anesthesia sent to my plane. I want to be hospitalized immediately.
When bathing or washing my hands in Africa, I chanted, “Water is poison. Water is poison.” With the smallest break in concentration, I might open my mouth in the shower and unwittingly let the water come in. I told my doctor that he should come with me to Africa because he had the skills to be of great service. He said he would never go there. Perhaps he felt the fear too. Always remember doc, “Water is poison. Water is poison.”
As for Africa, one thing you need not worry about is ice. There is none. In Bali, I order my drinks without rocks. But it was hot today, and I was thirsty. I had a coke at dinner with frosty cubes of ice. They assured me that bottled water was used, and that I was safe. I feel my stomach tighten and churn as I sit in bed looking toward the ceiling. I fear getting sick and spending the evening on the floor of my bathroom. There was a rat on the bathroom wall and mosquitoes will be attracted to the light above the sink. There is also the matter of something unidentifiable thumping above my head. There is goes again. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. Thump. I breathe deeply and ignore the cramps in my stomach. Nothing will make me emerge from beneath my mosquito net. I freeze into stillness and think happy thoughts. I think of hand sanitizer.
Hand sanitizer is the blessing of third world travel. I keep it by my sink with a bottle of water to remind me that I am not at home. My favorite smell when traveling is that of sanitizer. Five years ago on a cruise to Alaska, the ship was blessed with the Norwalk Virus. The employees washed every wall with sanitizer several times a day. Sanitizer dispensers were placed by each stairwell and every elevator. The captain of the ship refused to shake anyone’s hand at dinner. We were asked to bump elbows as a new way of greeting other passengers. The ship smelled cleaner than a hospital. I am sure that you could have performed surgery on the floor of the hall outside or my room. I was in heaven.
We tend to want sanitized lives. It is all born from fear like the sleeping sickness parasite that comes on the wings of a tzetze fly. We have brains to inform us when shots are need, Deet should be applied, and hands should be washed. We can listen to the government reports, walk in pairs, and avoid dangerous street corners. I read every government report before I flew to Africa. When information was difficult to find about the emerging violence in Burundi, I called the embassy in Bujumbura and spoke with a marine named Phil. Phil assured me that the country was quiet, and described the previous day that he had spent on the beach at Lake Tanganyika. He recommended going to the beach. He had not heard my mantra that, “Water is poison.”
Phil was right. Once I arrived in Burundi and met the people who live there, I felt no more fear. The unknown had become the known. The known had vanquished my fear. I walked on the rutted orange dirt road behind the Gitega Orphanage and greeted the people with a smiling Amahoro. Amahoro means peace. It is a fitting way for people who are tired of civil war and mass murder to greet each other. I clasped their hands in mine in the tradition way of showing respect. After extending your right had to shake, you grasp your right forearm with your left hand. In that way the left hand can offer no harm to the other person. Peace, may no harm come to you.
When you meet an orphan, it is a special and blessed experience. This is a human being, whether young or old, boy or girl, who has had a difficult life by no will of their own. To see the smile of a child in an orphans home eliminates the need to sanitize your hands. You want to hug their shoulders, pat their hair, clasp their hands, and offer any encouragement that you can.
In Africa, their parents have usually died in the genocide, or by disease. In Indonesia, the parents are more than likely alive, just too poor to care for all of their children. Some children are sent from their homes at the age of five to work in the rice fields of Bali for food. At six, a dear friend from Burundi watched his parents and thirty-two members of his family die at the hands of neighbors with machetes. He, his sister, and cousin hid in the fields until he was rescued and eventually found his way into an orphanage.
The question I always get is, “Will you come back?” and, “When will you come back.” I tell them that I will, and their next smile comes with a large sigh of relieve. They do not want to be forgotten. The cry from the poorest on earth is the same, We are here. Thank you for coming. Do not forget us. Please return.
Remembering the voices of the poor has caused me to forget the sounds on my roof. Perhaps there has been no sound for a while, only the gentle hum of cool air blowing from the air conditioner. Even the dogs are quiet. My thoughts have silenced the sounds.
I am now remembering my testimony before the Anglican Church in Bujumbura. I was terrified. I had written about my faith. I had read my writings in class to a handful of encouraging other writers, but I had never witnessed before a group. I had no idea that the church would be so large.
Three of us were driven in a van on the first morning of our arrival into Africa, to a large cinderblock building down the typical red dirt road. A small child stood in the doorway, and through the darkness we could see that the service was already in progress. We were told that church services in Africa could last for hours. Praise the Lord, our host exclaimed. We were also told that we would leave early, before noon so that our group could have lunch and journey on to the mountain town of Gitega. Praise the Lord, we thought.
The fear grew when I entered the enormous one roomed building and saw twelve hundred worshipers staring toward the door at the only white faces entering their sanctuary. We bowed our heads. They smiled in curiosity and continued to sing along with the choir which rocked in unified rhythm before the raised stage where the pulpit stood. We were seated to the right of the stage, just below the pulpit, and in front of the visiting choir dressed in black and white. I was wearing a black skirt and a white blouse. I fit right in.
The spirit of the congregation was infectious. I swayed to the hymns that sounded like melodies from the Caribbean. Africans were brought to the Caribbean as slaves. With them, they brought their music. I had the honor to listen to the origins of music that I have always loved. When my translator was not paraphrasing the message of the minister, I was running through a speech in my head that I hoped to remember when it was my time to climb on the stage with my fear.
I heard my voice as I began to speak. It was tenuous. I spoke slowly and at each pause, the translator would begin. The congregation was so large that the people in the back were barely visible. Round dark heads like rows of tiny dark bubbles filled the room. My eyes focused on the microphone in my hand. I spoke of a message that I had heard in England exactly one year before from the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Our mission in life, he explained, was to take one step at a time, and hopefully with a little help from our friends. That was all. The translator translated. I was their friend. The members of our team that had come to Africa were their friends. People from America that they may never meet were their friends, and cared what had happened to them. I wanted to let the worshipers know that Burundi mattered, and that we would be with them as they took their steps along the way. The fear was gone. I was speaking with intensity. When my last words were finished and the translator was quiet, I could hear the congregation clapping. How could I have been so afraid to begin talking? I was humbled by the appreciation for a simple message. No more fear.
Fear is appropriate at times. At dusk on the street corner in Gitega waiting for our hosts to buy three cases of Coke and Fanta for our dinner, I saw a group of men standing beneath a ramshackle tin awning. I knew that this was a group to be wary of, to fear. One night, when the guard who patrolled our twig and leaf security fence that bordered most the Gitega Orphanage discovered a thief, fear was natural. The guard always carried a machine gun. As we lay in our bed, we held our breath. We could hear the cries from the beating. We feared the sound of gunfire. Gratefully, it never came. However, the fear disappeared in the morning with the sun and smiling children.
The fear of death still concerns me. In January, when I took my scuba certification test, I accidentally disconnected the primary hoses to my air tank. I breathed in salt water rather than oxygen in my practice rescue exercise. I knew at the time that I was drowning. There were no thoughts of life, God, or love. Only panic and fear. The voice in my brain cursed violently. I did not want to die. So much for the peace of the Lord. All I needed was for the Lord to hurry up and get me some air. He did. My instructor placed the secondary regulator in my mouth. I had a tank full of air the entire time. I had forgotten about it, when panic and fear took over.
The lessons learned from scuba diving are life lessons; Stay calm, assess your situation, and above all breathe. I hear the sound of an animal slamming into my ceiling and scuttling over to the opposite corner of the room. It was a difficult landing for the creature visiting my house. I laugh this time. I wonder if the unknown brute is bruised from his haste in bounding so recklessly onto my roof. Something that clumsy will not cause me to be afraid.
Neither will the dogs. I will ignore them and carry my umbrella when I walk down my road to the fabulous Japanese restaurant near the corner. As for the mosquitoes, diseases and parasites, that’s what Deet and the pharmacy in my closet are for. Of all the drugs that I brought with me to Indonesia in April and Africa in September, I have yet to use a single pill. What a shame to have missed the scuba diving off of Sulawesi or the songs sung with orphaned children in Gitega for fear of a mosquito or tainted water. I grew up in the south. Mosquitoes were everywhere.
Fear comes from physical things, the animals that fly, crawl or slither. It comes from psychological things such as being alone or forgotten. And then there is always that fear of death or the unknown. I am happy to remember my diving lessons. I take a deep breath, relax, and think calmly. I am under my mosquito net. I am in a safe country, in a beautiful villa, under warm covers in an air-conditioned room. When the sun rises, I will meet a new friend, travel to a beautiful beach, and jump off a boat into some of the most breathtaking coral reefs in the world. Once under the water, I will remember how to breathe again. I will relax. My breaths will slow, and I will achieve a Zen-like state as I float in harmony, in rhythm with my lungs and heart. No fear at all.
I have traveled a little through this world alone and yet was never alone. My friends and family are always an internet click away. I have met new friends everywhere that I have gone. I am grateful that fear has not prevented me from taking my journey. I can hardly wait to see where each new day will lead.
Tomorrow I will ask what resides in my roof. I will turn the unknown into the known. For now, I will turn off the lights and sleep. No fear. Simply sweet dreams of diving and another beautiful day in Bali.