In an exhilarating moment of synchronicity, my plane rumbled down the runway with its nose towards Asia exactly one year to the minute that I started fasting for the first surgery: an inconclusive but painful biopsy that was the prelude to a peculiar kind of travel. One in which, for months, I was a guest in my own life and a foreigner in my own body. A traveler bound for the other side of the world watches the plane, pirouetting on the screen, counting hours to touchdown and the countries flying by underneath. But a cancer patient has only one’s feet to watch. Dreams and schemes for the future fall abruptly from reach. Time becomes discrete, a regimented schedule of chemotherapy and its side effects, predictable to the hour. I counted rounds of treatment by the white marks on my fingernails. And by the hair that grew in spurts, looking like tree rings, until toxic drugs stopped those cells from dividing, too. From the cubicle of my bed, summer sun—once an invitation—screamed through windows at every angle, a harsh reminder of all that I wasn’t participating in. Hours dripped by; I checked them off by forcing down a fresh glass of ice water. Nightfall, and the promise of a sleep stretching far into the horizon, was the only imaginable thing to look forward to. When your own body neither looks nor feels as one you have inhabited before, even home becomes terra incognita.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of a 17th century map:
“Beyond Baja California the line simply stops as though the world there was not yet made, as though it were neither land nor water, as though the Creator had not yet finished this part of earth, as though substance and certainty together dissolved there, and the phrase “Terra Incognita” spreads across this unmarked expanse. On a map drawn up by Gastaldi two years later, Asia is fit in like a puzzle piece into the blankness of the North American west, so that it looks as though you could walk from Tibet to Nevada (which is not yet named or marked) without any detour to the north. Strange woolly shapes like caterpillars or clouds dot the continent, and more clouds boil off the edge of the round earth. The Pacific proper appears on later maps, but a mythical island of Java sometimes appears on it, far larger than the island that would finally be saddled with the name.”
Four months past the last of chemotherapy, but a world away, and a few days before takeoff I started to feel as though Java—still mythical to many—was so close that I could actually walk there from my apartment in Los Angeles. Jogjakarta, a university city in Central Java where I’ve spent several months in the past, felt, in particular, as if it were just around the corner. Like one home fitting in seamlessly against another. There, I know the sky is low and the air musty. I’ll hail a blue taxi outside the single airport terminal. The driver will ask where I’m going. Mau ke mana: want to where? I’ll give him the intersection nearest to my guesthouse and he’ll repeat in recognition. We’ll zoom west past shop after shop selling bakpia, the red bean or chocolate-filled mini pastries. You don’t travel to visit a friend in Indonesia without bringing along a treat from the place last left behind. The best pastries, then, are usually found en route to the airport, or near the train station. The taxi smells of chemical orange air freshener. I crack the window. We have a scripted exchange in Indonesian while stopped at a light. Where do you come from, he asks. Amerika, I say. How long have you been in Indonesia? One day, I reply, but last year for several months. Oh, you’re already fluent, he says kindly. Belum, I respond. Not yet. In Indonesian “not yet” really means “not now, but perhaps later. Let’s hope.” Answering with a direct “no” erases the hope. In the absence of verb tenses, we reply to, for example, “have you eaten lunch?” with an imprecise gesture towards time: not yet, already, just now, later, or kemarin, which translates literally into “yesterday” but can refer frustratingly to anytime before, like last Monday. Later, hopefully, in my dreamed-up future, I will eat lunch, be fluent, go home. Indonesian time, like terra incognita, stretches ahead infinitely, waiting to be colored in.
Turning north, there is a shop on the corner with an open, curved facade and stools lined up at a counter that looks, deceivingly, like a neighborhood bar. If this were Paris, it would be nothing else. But instead of bottles there are canisters of paint, brushes, and some carpet samples. The local hardware store, in a city that's in a perpetual state of reconstruction. The street narrows here under a mop of tree branches that obliterate the sky; motorbike, taxi, and truck drivers nearly ricochet off one another. The driver will speed up and glance over at me, needing more direction. It’s right there, at the second ATM, at the green elementary school sign. Turn left. Here, against a tall gray wall, is a man with a skin disorder and a glass-encased cart, making crepes with slices of tiny banana and melted chocolate sprinkles on a single gas burner. A pair of teens in skinny jeans and wispy purple headscarfs poke at Blackberrys while they wait for their order. Bumping over broken pavement tiles, I tell him to turn right at the red-roofed inn. He always grumbles as he sees the dead end, my stop, realizing he’ll have to make a seven-point turn to maneuver his taxi out. A family of four, or five, and some thin chickens glance up indifferently from their doorway beside the street. Welcome home.
This kind of terra cognita, where you can walk from one side of the earth to the other, is hard-earned. Unlike terra incognita, evoking—at its best—the adventure ahead, terra cognita pulls from the past. Its map’s outlines are filled in with brush strokes, some wide and some just an ink dot, dabs of open space still peeking through. While I waited to leave Los Angeles, the pieces of Java cognita that were most colorful were sliding a spoon against the inside of a young coconut, ribboning the slippery white meat. Enormous maroon and emerald leaves bobbing over walkways, overhead, at every turn. Chicken sate grills perched on the ground at dusk, sweet charcoal smoke stinging the eyes. The wailing Arabic of the 7:20pm call to prayer—or call to dinner, for me—that’s broadcast from mosques in every direction, crickets playing along. And the ruptured, slanting road edges that are a pedestrian obstacle course, forcing us to look down at our feet. But despite its familiarity, venturing back into terra cognita still requires work. It demands one hold their gaze for a few seconds longer and to glance towards the periphery of things. To seek out the mythical, and make it known.
Photos by author. Around the neighborhood, Jogjakarta.