Chapter One: Beauty, Hope, and Vitamins
So it began with a beer. Not exactly my proudest moment – ordering a Coors Light at Newark at 9:38AM – but also not exactly one of misrepresentation. My head was pounding from an accidental bender the night before, and I had a 12-hour leg to Tokyo ahead of me. So I accessorized the bagel with a beer. Like many high functioning adults, instead of frankly addressing my misgivings about traveling to the edge of the earth…by myself…for two months…I chose the Bridget Jones method and opened a bottle of wine. Like I said, high functioning.
The leg to Tokyo was sleepless, filled with stupid movies. I did a little work, ruminated in a general sense of unease, and watched Dwayne Johnson try to talk sense into a genetically modified super gorilla. I arrived in Tokyo tired, with a four-hour layover to kill. Two hours in, “tired” molted to “exhausted” and I resorted to falling asleep hugging my backpack like I was apologizing to it for poor love making.
Zonked out on the flight to Jakarta. When I got off the plane, that smell – gasoline, burning trash, flora, fauna, heat, a very distinct smell I remember from studying abroad in India – rushed my nose. It was impossible not to be excited...I was getting closer. I jammed through customs, knowing I had to re-check in for a domestic puddle jumper. The bus I took between terminals had the vague feel of a vehicle someone might use as transport between torture sessions. Boarding began when a short fat man in light blue button down simply screamed “Ternate, Ternate, Ternate!” a few times and pointed to the plane. As we took off, the flight attendant took to the PA to remind us that transporting drugs was punishable by death. This inspired extra panic in me, even though the hardest thing I was packing was Hair, Skin and Nails vitamins.
Regardless, I slept easy. When I woke, I looked out my window. There was nothing but sea and amber shadows sweeping of over thin swaths of clouds. It was morning. Every now and then, we flew over a small island with steep, broken mountains. The light came up fast, moving between peach to gold, and just like that, two unmistakable islands appeared in my window – Ternate, and Tidore.
This was what I’d traveled 30 hours to see. Funny to finally behold the places I’d read so much about. 400 years ago, this was once the only place in the world where nutmeg, mace and cloves grew. It was said sailors could smell the heady scent of spice 15 miles out to sea. “The spice islands” drove an entire ecosystem of international trade, and by extension, colonization. The plants these spices hail from were exported, and new methods of growing proliferated around the world. The monopoly is over. So while these islands used to be the epicenter of power, today they're pretty much an international after thought.
The truth is, I don’t really know why I’m coming here. I’m not here to find a supplier, because there isn’t a strong industry for trade anymore. And I’m not here to relax. But as I charted this sourcing trip – a summer in Asia to learn the ins and outs of the spice trade – it felt somehow treasonous not to come to Ternate and Tidore. I do not consider myself a superstitious person. And yet, as I was planning, a voice inside me whispered something like, if you don’t go to Ternate something bad will probably happen, like a one of those tsunamis you’re so afraid of, or the Hair Skin and Nails vitamins will not work and you’ll have carried them across the world for nothing.
The plane got lower and banked a hard left, opening up a crazy panoramic view of forest, no roads. Volcanic points rising from grey-blue mist. The sea stretched wide, mottled like lizard skin. As we got down into the thick of it the sun was suddenly high in the sky, and there I was, a million miles from home, all alone, thinking about beauty can do that to a person – give them hope.