As Valentine's Day approaches, writer Pamela Sneddon regales us with a not-so-romantic tale of adventure deep in the islands of Indonesia (Ed.).
I should have been in a better mood – the ambience certainly called for it. The balcony where the two of us stood seemed to float in the lush tropical foliage that climbed skyward up the steep slope. Resting our arms on the railing of our little porch, we looked down at a white beach to the left and about a hundred feet below. We were at Prince John Dive Resort, a short drive from the city of Palu on the northern edge of Sulawesi, the Indonesian island which sprawls, spider-like, in the South China Sea. The resort wasn’t exactly in the five-star category (it lacked electricity, for one thing), but it had immense charm. Our rustic bungalow was on stilts, right at the edge of the cliff, and we could see a couple of snorkels traversing the turquoise blue water below. Mosquito netting embraced the teak framed beds. The bathroom, a wood slatted niche, had a bok – a cement reservoir, with a dipper to pour water over yourself as a shower alternative. With the afternoon breeze lifting the broad leaves of the papaya trees nearby, it was hard to imagine a more romantic spot. I sighed, trying to stifle the thought that all this dreamy scenery was a cosmic waste of atmosphere, and turned to my companion.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said. I knew I should be grateful. After all, I was in Indonesia only because of Mom. In spite of limitations stemming from a car accident which had left her with a fused neck vertebra and a permanently impaired right shoulder, my mother, then in her late 70s, had been determined to visit my brother, Paul, and his family who were serving as missionaries in Palu, Sulawesi. My dad did not want to go. To the relief of family members, I had been cajoled into accompanying her from our California home as her strength of mind sometimes exceeded her strength of body. I admired her spunk, but knew I faced a tough job as the family representative in charge of keeping the spunk in check.
I realized there would be challenges when we met before our flight at Los Angeles International airport. Mom had bought a new sweater to wear on the plane, and we discovered at the last minute that the heavy – and obvious – plastic anti-theft device was still firmly attached. She had also just had her hair done. Mom, a striking redhead in her youth, now kept her short hair permed and coloured a softer version of auburn. This time it looked, well, different.
“I told Ellie that I didn’t want it too frizzy, and I didn’t want it orange,” said Mom. Apparently, Ellie only remembered the adjectives, because there was Mom with bright orange, frizzy hair that stood out in a little cloud around her head. To add to the effect, the dark glasses that she had to wear to protect her sensitive eyes happened to be bright blue. It was like traveling with Ronald McDonald escaping from the U.S. in a stolen sweater.
Luckily, the hair toned down over the next few days, both colour and frizz-wise, and after our arrival in Sulawesi, my brother, by a great deal of pounding and sweating, finally got the plastic security device off the sweater. As we no longer had to worry about Macy’s security guards tracking us down, or people asking us for French fries, I had been looking forward to being able to relax at the nearby Prince John Dive Resort. Especially since, owing to the spunkiness factor, Mom had, as usual, tried to master things that had an adverse effect on her; for example: hot peanut sauce.
Indonesian food is usually fish and vegetable-based and always fresh. But Indonesians like their chili, too, and every meal included a dish of spicy peanut sauce. As my sister-in-law Julie was a devotee, my Mom, always sure someone else had a more delicious food option than she did, thought she should ladle it on, too.
The first time Mom took a big bite, she choked, then, eyes watering, gasped out: “This is way too hot – how can you eat it, Julie? I don’t think it can be good for you!”
“Well, Mom, you don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it,” I said.
“I know, I know, you’re right,” she responded. However, aligned with the spunkiness factor was a streak of competitiveness – if Julie could do it, she should be able to as well, so that was not the end of the issue. Mom would strive to conquer that peanut sauce again and again, but each time the sauce fought back. Raised not to waste food, Mom would finish the dish anyway, eyes streaming, coughing between bites, complaining afterwards, and trying to convince Julie to stop eating it. Finally, in an enforced truce, we had to move the peanut sauce far away.
Between the stimulation of our travels and the dining challenges, I was more than ready for a little “R and R,” and Julie and Paul had sung the praises of this little reef-perched resort. But instead of an afternoon of relaxing, the day after Mom’s and my reverie on the balcony, I was sitting bolt upright on the white sand of the beach, eyes focused outward. Julie, Paul and I had all been snorkeling in the clear warm water, marveling at the abundance of beautiful tropical fish (I saw a lion fish, first thing). After listening to our enthusiastic reports, Mom had said she wished that she could snorkel like the rest of us. To my surprise (and annoyance) my brother Paul had encouraged her.
“But I didn’t bring a suit,” she’d said wistfully.
“It doesn’t matter here, just go in your clothes,” Paul had urged. “Come on, you won’t believe what a different world it is down there.”
“Paul!” I’d started to interfere, as the anti-spunky chairwoman, and to say what was both prudent and true: “Mom can’t really swim that well!” but I could see Mom’s pleading – make that determined – eyes through her blue lenses. I wasn’t sure if she wanted permission or someone to blame if she drowned. Now it was too late.
“Do you think we’ll be able to rescue both of them?” Julie asked. I strained to see what was happening, trying to recall lifeguard lessons from 30 years ago. Tensely, we watched two forms struggling in the water as Paul tried to get Mom to let go, relax, not breathe through her nose and keep her mouth closed around the mouthpiece of the snorkel. “Yes,” I couldn’t help thinking, “this is the romantic tropical vacation I always imagined!”
A tense few minutes passed, and then Julie and I could see two snorkels and something billowing like strange water wings. Oh, Mom’s pants! (Fashion alert: beige polyester pants can also serve as a flotation device.) After what seemed like hours, but was probably only 20 minutes, there was some splashing and upheaval and then Paul was helping my mother back through the gentle surf. She was choking, but beaming, her clothes dripping, her hair plastered to her head. She looked about 16.
“I did it! I did it!” she sputtered, eyes bright with excitement. “I snorkeled! I can’t believe how beautiful it was down there. It IS another world. Oh thank you, Paul! I never thought I would get to do something so wonderful. But I snorkeled! I snorkeled!”
I looked at Mom, radiating joy, and it was then that my sense of being cheated out of my romantic get-away vanished into the balmy air. There’s a kind of romance that can be found in unexpected moments, and, as my brother Paul had shown me, there’s also romance in creating those moments for someone else. (Spunkiness has a place in there, too).
Author’s Note: My mom has since passed away after many more years of keeping us on our toes, and I miss her every day. I don’t think she would have minded my interpretation of this memory (too much, anyway), but she would want to make it clear that she did NOT steal the sweater, and she would probably try to find the receipt.