I felt sorry for the gentleman sitting next to me on the flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta. He looked quite sharp in his clean suit and tie, and while he appeared to be Indonesian, greeted me in crisp English. I, on the other hand, hadn't had a chance to wash up for two days (not counting my crossing the international date line) and I'm sure I was pretty ripe. I had an extra hour waiting for my connecting flight; I should have taken advantage of the pay showers.
I had no idea what to expect from Indonesia. I only knew I was coming three weeks ago, and I didn't really have time to read up as I usually like to do. My knowledge of the country pretty much consisted of the following:
1. It's an extremely large archipelago on the equator, close enough to Australia to attract a LOT of tourists.
2. It's the world's most populous Muslim country.
3. Barack Obama spent part of his childhood here.
4. Once, it was a Dutch colony.
5. The movie "The Year of Living Dangerously" took place here, and that movie didn't make this seem like a very safe place. Of course, it took place during a political uprising in the 1960's, so I guess I could safely assume that things have mellowed out a bit.
6. The day before I arrived, a suicide bomber blew up a mosque. Great.
The rest, I suppose, will come with time. So far I haven't been here long enough to get much of a feel for things, since I just got here, but I will say that in spite of the smog (so bad my eyes are already itchy) this country smells wonderful. It smells like car exhaust, of course, but it also smells like magnolia and plumeria mixed together with spices like chile and curry and cardamom.
As I walked through the airport I had a kind of funny feeling in my stomach, not exactly uncomfortable, a feeling I hadn't had it quite some time. The first time I got it was when I was seventeen, and made my first road trip with my best friend for a weekend in Los Angeles. The second time, I was 22 and making my way through Heathrow Airport, this time totally on my own. I haven't had it since. In the decades since then, I've lost count of the times I've crossed the Atlantic, most of the time on my own. Perhaps the difference this time is that I travelled a record distance for myself; a little over ten thousand miles. I had never been this far from home.
Immigration and Customs were easy, my suitcase was the first one down the baggage claim, and my taxi was waiting. I stopped outside at the taxi stand to breathe in the air of Southeast Asia for the first time. Just like that, the feeling in my stomach was gone, and what was left was another feeling I hadn't had in a long time: exhilaration.