Thursday, January 10, 2013

Winter of the Stars

It was April, 1996. Vince and I had just spent nine amazing months in Kluang, Malaysia. Soon we would be traveling home again to Moscow, Idaho. As we stood on the balcony of our spacious terrace home gazing at Kluang’s one mountain, not too unlike Moscow Mountain, we found ourselves looking up at the stars. "You know it’s funny. I don’t think I have ever noticed the stars before," I commented.

We had witnessed some of the best sunsets and sunrises imaginable in Southeast Asia. From Thailand to our north, Tioman Island to our east, and Singapore and Indonesia to our south, no skyline would ever compare with the orange glow of those skies. I recalled Singapore, then the largest port in the world, and the endless stream of ships that had lined up on the horizon waiting to dock. There was the beach in Koto Bahru, where Japanese had invaded Malaysia during World War II so many years ago. Tioman Island, our island paradise in the South China Sea, where the movie South Pacific had once been filmed, filled my senses. How could anything or any place ever compare?


Port of Singapore - through the trees
 


Malay girls on east Malaysia beach


Kuantan, Malaysia - South China Sea

Yet, for some odd reason, the stars had never been an attraction. We stared awhile at the alien star-filled sky and felt strangely out of place, and perhaps for the first time, yearned for home. It is the same with any move, I guess . . . when you know you about to leave that place or station in life—you slowly begin to disengage. Yet part of me struggled with our decision to leave. "I wish we could stay another six months," I lamented. "Don’t you?" I already knew his answer. Vince had grown restless and was worried about his university position. It was time to leave.

I stared at the sky again. We were so far from home, and to see our wide open skies in Idaho would be wonderful. Here the tropical sky was heavy with moisture and seemed to hover, not too unlike our experience growing up in Tacoma, Washington when the clouds drifted in from the bay—only there it was colder, and when the sky cleared, the stars were familiar. Here the constellations we had grown to love as children, like the big and little dippers and the nearby North Star, were missing. And where was the man in the moon with his big eyes and sunken nose for heaven’s sake? I had to laugh. 


There were plenty of reasons why we had not noticed the tropical sky in the past nine months. Except for checking the sky for sudden downpours, and there were plenty during the monsoon season, it could be hazardous looking up. Exploring Malaysian cities on foot required a good dose of common sense. Just crossing the street in Kluang or nearby Batu Pahat could be a hair-raising experience. Not only did we need to reprogram our brains to cars driving on the left side of the road, speed limits seemed virtually non-existent. Our son was nearly run over by a motor cyclist. But mostly we took things in stride, always thankful for our temporary home half way around the world.


Malay boys on motorbike
We even learned to navigate the narrow sidewalks bordering the small shops in downtown Kluang,  jumping over the drainage ditches when crossing the street. Of course the worry was that one of us would one day fall in, which eventually happened. One of the expat American ladies in our group fell knee deep into the muck and scraped her leg up a bit, giving us all a scare. We could not begin to imagine the infections and bacterial maladies that lurked in those foul smelling ditches. And so . . . we learned to watch our feet.    
 
Aside from worrying about drainage ditches, I found myself on the lookout for black cobras, rats, monitor lizards or smaller less harmful creatures like cockroaches and geckos, although some spiders I saw looked lethal enough. On the grounds of a nice hotel in East Malaysia, I nearly walked head first into the web of spider the size of my fist. Back in Kluang I stepped on a cockroach barefoot, had one fly into my face, another leap at me from a silverware drawer, and to top it off, I once fished out a drowning gecko from our coffee pot.

Soon the familiar sights and sounds of rural Idaho greeted us again. Home at last, we found that not only had we missed Idaho’s spacious sky, we missed our long evening walks. And so we walked—every night, through the remainder of spring, wearing our layers of clothing wrapped snug around our yet-to-be acclimated bodies, into the pleasant warmth of summer. How we loved the lingering daylight. In Malaysia, the sky would darken around seven o’clock every night without fail and again in the morning about the same time the sky would turn bright again. We continued our walks on into fall, enjoying the changing scenery as the leaves turned vibrant shades of red, and finally the chill of winter came. Winter. It hit us how we had skipped winter the year before. How boring a season-less life must be over time, we thought.

When the sidewalks turned icy and the air temperature dropped, we simply put on more layers, for me that meant an old tried and true neck-warmer pulled up over my nose. The skies were brilliant that year with incredible star constellations, forcing us to pull out an old star book. And in fairness, most winters here have equally glorious skies, but our eyes were especially fine tuned that winter. We could not have picked a better winter to walk, for in January 1997, we were treated to an unexpected cosmic display that God himself must have sent just for us it seemed—Hale-Bopp’s Comet.

From January to spring 1997, this magnificent blue gas tail of light accompanied us on our walks. And towards the end of March, we were treated to yet another surprise—a lunar eclipse. We knew then that we would talk of this winter for years to come, because both occurrences would not grace our skies for some time—at least together. Hale-Bopp’s Comet is not expected to return until around year 4385! Lunar eclipses occur yearly, but the timing of these two events together was incredible. The comet was first observed independently in 1995 by U.S. astronomer Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp (amateur U.S. astronomer). The comet was visible to the naked eye for around 18 months and became known as the Great Comet of 1997. 


Hale-Bopp's Comet over Moscow, Idaho
 
Hale-Bopp’s Comet and the lunar eclipse inspired us that year, spawned conversations of going back to school if my book did not get published and of Vince’s desire to own his own airplane. We analyzed our lives over and over again, of decisions made and not make, of opportunities passed and those acted upon, and of the amazing gift we had never expected—living in Malaysia. We talked fondly of returning to the expatriate lifestyle, maybe somewhere else in Asia, especially when the wind chill dipped to temperatures unbearably low and blew through our coats. Although it was wonderful to be home with family and friends again, we dearly missed our life overseas, for from our perspective, it was the most exotic of gifts and one that rarely happens twice in a lifetime. We were also keenly aware of the timeliness of that gift. Worn out from raising our family, remodeling our home, working and going to school, and trying to make ends meet through it all, Vince and I had desperately needed a retreat. 

We continued to ponder the star-filled sky, walking every night, marveling at the wondrous display overhead, discussing our goals and dreams individually and as a couple. Perhaps returning to school was an option. Perhaps an airplane could be built instead of purchased . . . and on and on. And with each step we slowly felt our energy  revived, and with sharpened vision, a new sense of direction took root. For one, we were quite certain the adventure was far from over. 



Source:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comet_Hale-Bopp
(photo): http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/images970312.html )

©Winter of the Stars, Sharon Himsl (orig, 01-28-02)

2 comments:

  1. What a lovely post, Sharon! There really is no place like home, even though "Elsewhere" can be so attractive, for a while.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Kim. Home is always "where the heart is"!

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