Waiting at Bangsal harbor on Gili Trawangan for our public ferry back across to the comparative “mainland” of Lombok island it was quite clear that the ride would be just a bit different than the nice sail we had on the way over. A squall was approaching and looking out just a couple hundred meters from shore whitecaps dotted the horizon. We already purchased our ticket on the public ferry, a 30 foot long wooden boat with a single engine and 20-30 people and goods crammed aboard. Nevertheless, even with ticket in hand (even if it was just $1.5) I began to fear the journey…. The internet is a certainly a blessing and a curse with travel planning, but I think I read one too many stories of Indonesian ferries sinking so I decided to share my fears with Risa. After a brief discussion on it, it was clear she agreed especially if I felt better taking a private speedboat across…something that might cut the waves and dodge around them instead of being at the mercy of their destructive powers. 30 minutes or so later and some negotiations done and we were on a speedboat with three guys heading across. The journey started out uneventful….and without question I was starting to feel like an idiot for suggesting to pay $20 each for a journey that only cost $1. Besides…who did I think I was? Locals wouldn’t have a choice….the public ferry is their option to cross to the mainland, most wouldn’t shell out the kind of money required for their own boat. But honestly…there weren’t many locals waiting to take the public boat that day….perhaps they just go when it’s more appropriate…. Anyhow, I digress… About the time my mind was beginning to wander to thoughts like this the boat began to feel a bit more as I expected….heavily bucking up and down as it ascended waves and then dropped from them, the seas slapping the boats keel harder and harder each time. Moments later…I made the mistake of looking forward instead of to the side and realized I could no longer see over the waves…the seas were angry that day and the swells towered 3-4 meters in height. How was this even possible?? It wasn’t even raining! As soon as the seas changed for the worse, they began to calm and after maybe 10 minutes more we reached the safety of Lombok harbor.
As we sat later on the black sands of Senggigi beach overlooking the same ocean we crossed hours before, I began to ponder the incredible influence fear has in our lives…
Those who know me well know that I’ve always been very interested in current events, history, political science, etc…. and keeping up on global news. At various points in my life I’ve expressed this in different ways….. After 9/11 when I saw the US take an ugly turn towards Islamaphobia and the war drums began to beat at a more and more frantic pace to fuel the military-industrial complex, I got quite involved in looking for alternative sources for my news and strived to find the real story behind the narrative we were being fed. I spent my time debating with those who saw my point of view, and those who opposed it 100% both online and in my day to day life. I wrote several letters to local newspapers as an outlet for my thoughts expressing how appalled I was at what my country was doing in the world…in our names, without our consent.
Soon however…I became content by my standard of living… As a close friend of mine would say, I was distracted by the bread and circus. I even went so far as to start thinking that voting for the democrat or Republican Party might offer a solution…. That we just had to harness the power back.
I’ll pause for a brief moment…. I’ve refrained from posting my thoughts on this until now as I didn’t want to turn this blog into something not in any way related to travel. When I pondered the power of fear, however, I realized just how interconnected so many things can be in our lives…and ultimately I became more aware than ever of the power of fear in our lives.
My fear prevented me from getting on that public ferry. Now, you may argue that it was a good choice, or that it was a “first world” decision…using money to get myself out of an uncomfortable situation. I felt for the first time in a while just how controlling fear can be. Having read some articles about Indonesian ferries sinking in storms, I extrapolated this in my head to mean I could be in danger and made a different choice. I didn’t engage in elaborate fact checking, I didn’t even make certain those stories I read about were on this ferry route.
A lightbulb began to go off in my head as I sat and looked out in the darkness of the sea from that beach in Lombok. I’ve always been aware how powerful fear can be when used by the media, but somehow having this real life example for myself allowed me to better understand how it controls others.
I have to credit a close friend who I met in Prague back in 1999 with bringing my attention to many of these things well before I came to them on my own…sometimes to the point of me thinking he was “out there” in his theories…..but somehow later on everything always makes sense.
In the early half of the 20th century, just as the concept of marketing and advertising began to become mainstream in America, PR men like Edward Bernays and many others began to work in an increasingly disturbing way with our media and political systems. What they realized is that leaders could be elected into positions of power if the population believed that the leader would help protect them from some danger… some element that only the “elite” were aware of. This would only work for so long however, as eventually people began to question the dangers.
Thus we ushered in a new age, one with a need to manufacture fear. Allow the government to spy on its own citizens? No way – who would agree to such a thing. Drum up fear about the dangerous in our midst…how terrorists could live among us and all of a sudden a nation founded on free speech and individual liberty passes the patriot act and gives up so many of those freedoms in a heartbeat to avoid getting on that boat in a storm that gives them that uncomfortable feeling.
We all have those transformative moments in our lives…moments when someone older and wiser says something to us that has an impact beyond that moment. It certainly doesn’t feel like almost 20 years ago that Mr. Chasey, my high school economics teacher told us to always “follow the money” when looking for the real story. Or when he told us that it would one day make sense to us just what things like gated communities and income disparity would lead to. He was right… it didn’t make sense at the time, I found it interesting, but I didn’t comprehend the depth of it. Being part of the journalism program in high school took it even further… learning about the concept of primary sources for news…. These things truly gave me the tools to understand it all later on.
I firmly believe we are living at a truly terrifying time. My fear doesn’t come from the events reported in the news and the supposed narratives behind them…..instead it comes from realizing the power that fear holds in each and every one of our lives and how it is being used to sell events to enrich the power and wealth of those in power. The reality always lies in the margins or the middle….certainly not on one side or another of the story.
I often go back to examples from the former Yugoslavia as it’s a region I’m fairly well read on, so my apologies in advance….. Having taken the train from Belgrade to Skopje it’s horrifying to think that the nation where I was born bombed this train. Question the narrative….the narrative that said we bombed military targets to take Slobodan out of power…. Once you start to do this and find more and more examples like this a fear of a different kind emerges – the realization that the story is not as it seems.
When looking where to go from Jakarta…Russia had almost been written out of the equation. Rapidly declining relations between America and Russia have led to a situation where due to visa reciprocity one can only obtain a Russian visa back home, for $300+ and after a decent amount of waiting. Gone are the days where you can get your visas on the road as you come up with new destinations to visit. Again, I found myself letting fear and “realism” talk myself out of the possibility of getting the visa, and we began to make other plans….. We would obtain Chinese visas in Jakarta or Hong Kong and then cross slowly towards Europe overland. I spent many late nights emailing and asking consulates on the way if there was any way around this…any chance for a Russian visa, but the closest I came was an honorary Russian consul in Bali telling me he could try, but no guarantees and minimum 1 week wait. I nearly forgot this as we arrived in Jakarta and Risa suggested calling the Russian embassy to see what might be done there. I’m sure my first response was something along the lines of “It’s a waste of time, it’s not possible…” Instead after some moments, it seemed like there were no problems at all – well, this is confusing.
We weren’t convinced as it seemed unbelievable…. So we decided to brave Jakarta’s traffic and head to the embassy to talk person to person. Again, we were assured that all it took was $$ and an invitation letter for the days we wanted to go, which can be obtained online. And the image you have in your head of the Russian embassy we visited…… probably isn’t that it’s an embassy you can walk into with minimal security, actually speak to someone who is remarkably friendly and helpful and wants you to get your visa. A disturbing contrast actually to US embassies which have become walled cities with in a city where even US citizens can’t enter without surrendering passports, cell phones and the like.
Indonesian beaches and 90 degree weather in the winter clearly made too much sense for us….. Instead, at half the price than the visa would have cost us acquiring it “the right way” at home, we are off to Siberia at winter time…crossing Asia and Europe on one of the longest train journeys in the world… Vladivistok to Moscow with some stops in between.
After settling on our next destination I was amused to read CNBC’s headline story… “Americans no longer see China as public enemy number one, with Russia now cited as the country’s top adversary, according to a new poll.” Somehow this is getting disturbingly close to: “Oceania is no longer at war with Eurasia, instead they are at war with Eastasia,” from Orwells 1984.
“The only thing to fear is fear itself.” Whether it means stepping out of your comfort zone onto a boat, or going to visit Russia after growing up in an America that teaches you only one side of the cold war…and at a time when it seems tensions are ratcheting back up to those good old cold war days….make the decision based using your own mind, don’t allow yourself to fall victim to the intoxication of fear. Time and time again I’ve found when I make decisions like this what results is a beautifully disorienting experience, not always the most comfortable one, but one in which I grow that much more.
I’ll end with natural beauty….and Indonesia is certainly full of it. A truly beautiful country with warm and friendly people…. thanks for an amazing 3 weeks!