My Father's Journey Around the World with Stolen Plane Tickets
After a chance encounter with a Black Panther, my father embarked on the adventure of his life—an adventure that led him as if by fate to my mother.
Dad created myths and lived them. He'd take me on 3 AM walks in strange cities and tell me wild stories about how he helped overthrow the Suharto regime; how he was blacklisted in Indonesia; how my mother's death was a possible murder plotted by the regime, and that's why we had to sleep with a baseball bat under our pillow.
But recently, I learned this: Gordon, a.k.a. Dad, and his ex-girlfriend Una, a countess and a model, traveled the world on stolen plane tickets. If it weren't for these stolen tickets, and the journey they took him on, I wouldn't exist.
Dad told me about all of his adventures—including the crime of the stolen tickets—again and again like bedtime stories, though I'm aware that just because his self-fulfilling folktales were vivid doesn't mean they were necessarily accurate. I gathered them from the memory bank he shared, as well as from the journals and photos he left behind. I've spent the years since my father's death traveling across the world chasing truths about his life and spreading his ashes. That was his dying wish: for me to deliver him across oceans and continents—smack dab in the heart of every city, every beach, and every memory.
The stolen plane tickets arrived on a rainy summer evening in 1971, when a Black Panther fugitive showed up at his doorstep in Berkeley, drenched and desperate for a place to hide. A gun was tucked inside the sleeve of his leather jacket. Gordon invited him in for coffee and a joint.
"Can I crash here?" the Black Panther asked.
"Sure, man. You got money to chip in?" Gordon asked.
"I've got something better than money," the Black Panther said. He drew a lockbox from his wet backpack. Inside were 60, 90, maybe 100 sets of blank airline tickets. "So-and-so's friend works for Qantas. She brought these home," he explained, "These are good for getting you anywhere in the world. You go to the airport and have the agent write out the ticket. One destination at a time. But you can't stay longer than three weeks. You have fun. You lose track of time. If that happens, tear up the first pack and start over with a fresh pack. Don't let anyone catch on. You see, these tickets are..."
"I catch your drift," Gordon said.
"Take as many as you'd like. But be careful, man, that's how folks end up having three babies in each continent."
Gordon smirked, snatched four blank ticket books, and built a makeshift bed for his new guest in the walk-in-closet. He spun a globe he kept to watch where his finger would land—a nightly routine that calmed his frenetic thoughts.
"Let's run away," his girlfriend Una said shortly after my dad received the tickets. "Somewhere new. Somewhere far and exotic."
So, my father and Una zigzagged across nations and time zones and cultures. Gordon's charm and Una's regal beauty opened doors; together, they befriended royalty, politicos, artists, businessmen, shamans, and indigenous folks around the world. On the stolen tickets they'd eventually hop to France, Italy, Mexico, Australia, Tahiti, Fiji, Nepal, Brazil, Afghanistan, Singapore, and Indonesia. At each destination, Gordon would buy a small souvenir and slip it into his pale green attaché case, which I was eventually gifted.
At LAX in 1971—prepared for their first journey—my father let Una do all of the talking while he hid. Una wore a floor-length cream dress and hoop earrings. She spoke to the agents without hesitation. Her English, tinged with French and German overtones, made her seem worldly, and she was quick on her feet—handy traits for negotiating at international airports. Meanwhile, my father, with his long hair and blue eye shadow (which he wore almost daily), hid in a kiosk, sweating profusely, in a velvet bellbottomed tuxedo and cowboy boots, one gold and the other silver.
"The next flight to Paris is in six hours," the agent said, handing Una two tickets.
"You're a sorceress," Gordon said to his partner. "Just like all the other fairytale witches from the Black Forest."
They made it through security without raising an eyebrow, and shared a high from the rush of not getting bagged. On board the plane, they ordered champagne and toasted, "To Unzarella and Gordonzolla."
Gordon added, "Don't things taste better when they're free?"
In Paris, they hitched a ride to Hotel Le Meurice to pay an unannounced visit to their mutual friend, Salvador Dalí, who they'd lived with in an artist commune years prior.
"Ahh, it's The Man Who Plans to Eat a Car! Enter," Dalí said, twisting his wispy, gelled mustache into tiny knots. He was referring to the title of the collage book Gordon had made for Dalí: a pictorial story about a German auto-enthusiast who planned to eat a car. It was still prominently displayed on Dalí's coffee table, its pages now browned from touch. "It is a masterpiece," Dalí said.
My father let Dalí in on the secret about the plane tickets.
"Go to Bali," Dalí said decisively. "There's magic there."
Dalí tore out some drawings and handed them to Gordon. "For you."
Gordon put the sketches in his pale green attaché case, wedged between the blank tickets.
Next stop: Kabul.
Afghanistan, at the time, was facing a wave of freedom—a golden era of modernity and democratic reform—women attended universities (often in miniskirts) and worked for Parliament. Tourists flocked to Kabul, curious about the "mystic east" and lured by the beauty of the city's ancient sculptures, its surrounding snowcapped mountains, and sprawling gardens.
Gordon and Una followed the Silk Road and visited the Bamiyan Buddhas. They frequented Sigi's on Chicken Street to exchange ideas with fellow travelers. They bathed in the Kabul River. They slept in a large room on thick carpets, along with 20 or 30 other tourists. They made love in secret. Hedonistic hippies, freaks, heads, and other tourists came to Afghanistan for spiritual quests and adventure, or else to escape the humdrum of convention. Painted VW vans purred down the streets. Kabul was a destination on the infamous overland hippie trail, deemed the "Paris of Asia." Most people with stolen plane tickets ended up there. This fact made Una nervous.
"We should leave," Una urged, "We'll get caught."
"Relax," Gordon said, "We won't."
Gordon was having fun. He'd lost track of time. He grew a beard and walked around barefoot until the soles of his feet grew tough, like elephant hide. He took mescaline and wrote poetry under the pen name Dubjinsky Barefoot. He haggled at the market and bought a knife inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He wrote postcards that he never sent—no money for stamps. He picked fights with Una about nothing in particular. Three weeks had ticked along. It was time to board the plane again. Just as they were heading for the airport, the ground shook. A damaging earthquake. The northern region was in ruins. Air travel was suspended.
They flew to India. In their hotel in New Delhi, the phone rang. It was the airline agency. "Madame, you better come into the office. There's a problem with your ticket."
Una's voice shook. "I want to leave New Delhi now." Her throat felt tight.
"Yes, madame, but you must first come into the office." The agent's tone intensified and became threatening.
"They're on to us," Una told Gordon.
They shredded the first ticket book and headed to the airport. With frantic fingers, Gordon handed Una the unused tickets. She approached the ticketing counter. Behind the desk where the agent stood was a poster that read:
DO NOT ACCEPT ANY STOLEN PLANE TICKETS WRITTEN OUT AT QANTAS IN SAN FRANCISCO ON 10 MAY 1971.
That was exactly what was written on their tickets. Una willed herself to appear calmer, more regal.
"I'm sorry, Madame," the agent said, "I cannot issue you this ticket. You'll have to go to our office in New Delhi."
"Please, sir," Una begged, "There's a flight to Bali in one hour. I have some dignitaries I must meet."
The man's face softened. He placed the tickets on the counter.
Una and my father got through security. At customs, someone tapped Una on the shoulder. Her heart fell to her knees. "Madame, you forgot your hand luggage," a stranger said.
On the flight, as they were celebrating the close encounter over wine, the captain announced: "Ladies and gentlemen. Please prepare for landing. We are making an unscheduled stop in Mumbai."
"The plane is landing so they can arrest us," my father said, certain.
They rehearsed what they'd say to the officers. Escape routes mapped in their mind. Each magnified the other's anxiety. They snapped their eyes shut as they landed.
It was just a stop for fuel.
According to my father's journals, they happened to land in Bali, Indonesia, on Kuningan, a day marked by ancestral spirits descending from the heavens.
Whenever someone would ask his profession, Gordon would say something outlandish with a serious face, like, "I'm a traveling Merkin salesman—a booming business of vaginal wigs." Most of the time, they believed him. By this point, they'd burned through the stacks of stolen tickets the Black Panther had gifted them. His mother wired him a monthly stipend, but he made the bulk of his cash by grifting at airport bars on the journey, selling harmless, phony "language pills" to strangers after claiming they were the reason he spoke so many languages.
Gordon and Una rented a motorcycle in Bali. They bought traditional sarongs. Una tucked a red hibiscus behind her left ear. They went to trance dances where villagers would stab their bare chests with steel blades and, protected by black magic, remain unscathed. They attended cremations and ceremonies, slaughterings, exorcisms, and long meditations. They fought and made love in the dense jungle that clung to the hillsides, along the serpentine streets, on rice paddies, near ancestral temples, and sacred Banyan trees.
As their spiritual search deepened, their paths diverged. Una was content to stay in Bali. Gordon was getting antsy; he craved a change of pace. They fought more, about trivial things like the way the other's hair was parted.
"Find yourself a patient Javanese," Una said to Gordon, her tone bittersweet. "I'm not your girl anymore."
They made love one last time. Sad but resolute, in 1973, he left her in Bali with her new Balinese boyfriend, amid the land of gods. He found a map and let his fingers decide his next steps: the Special Region of Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java.
In 1974, Gordon found himself in the midst of Indonesia's independence day parade in the ancient city of Yogyakarta. He was surrounded by thousands of villagers who gaped at him from afar, who inched closer to touch his unprecedented white skin or else gasped as they watched him eat a chicken skewer with his left hand, the devil's hand.
A group of dancers unfolded their limbs like petals. Gamelan music vibrated. Gongs sounded. Skinny horses and ancient-looking men sat lazily in parked pedicabs, bare and filthy feet peeking out from batik sarongs. Teenagers jammed to Bob Dylan. Sultans were hoisted above the crowd in gilded carriages. People shouted, "Merdeka!" "Independence!"
Gordon heard a laugh, like wind chimes. He followed the sound to a woman with smiling red-stained lips in a hip-hugging minidress—a sight far too modern and incongruous in a city renowned as the heart of traditional Javanese culture, where many women, including the one accompanying her, resisted Western influence by continuing to wear the classic batik sarong and lace blouses.
A purple orchid was pinned to the brazenly dressed woman's hair. Her cheekbones were high; she was a ghost of a woman whose force was so overpowering that looking at her turned him on, but also kind of hurt him. She was strolling arm in arm with another woman who was carrying a baby in a batik sling.
They walked toward one another, standing inches apart for the few moments their paths intersected. Sweat beads trailed Gordon's brows. His hands shook. She turned her gaze toward him. Their eyes locked. She blushed, but didn't look away. The loquacious and never shy Gordon stood transfixed and mute as they flirted with their eyes for pregnant minutes. All of the pickup lines he'd ever used, and some he hadn't, flashed through his mind, but none seemed appropriate, especially after translating them into his far-from-fluent Indonesian. When he got up the nerve to introduce himself, he was so tongue-tied that he couldn't speak. Instead, he went to buy loose cigarettes at a nearby kiosk. From the corner of his eye, he saw her leaving the parade. He sped toward her, elbowing passersby, but she vanished into the crowd.
For the next 34 days, Gordon waited where his roommate Jono thought he'd seen her, atop the highest perch of Taman Sari castle, now ruins, legs and binoculars dangling high above Jogjakarta's bustling bird market.
Word about the foreigner in the watchtower looking for love spread. Curious kids joined him. Others came and brought him daily offerings of magic love potions made of reptile blood and minced ginger, which he drank, happily and hopefully. Several times he thought he'd seen her, mounted his bike, and peddled off in hot pursuit with his heart thumping a mile a minute, only to find out it was someone else.
Rainy season came and left. It was 1975, and my father had been in Yogyakarta for two years, roughly four years since his trip with Una first began. He walked along a quiet lane during sunset; his head hung low. His thoughts wandered to life in New York City. His parents had offered to pay for the 10,000-mile journey home. Penniless and heartbroken, he weighed this option. He had a yen for a hot dog from Gray's Papaya, a cheesecake from Carnegie Deli, a midnight subway ride.
Gordon looked up. At that moment he spotted a familiar woman. He took out his binoculars. To his astonishment, it was the other woman from the parade who was accompanying his love with the same baby slung onto her hip—only now doubled in size. He ran up the staircase, panting. The woman gasped; a look of shock struck her lips, which quickly morphed into a smile.
"You're that foreigner from the Merdeka parade," she said immediately.
Gordon was surprised that she remembered. This gave him a boost.
"We thought you were just passing through, like most white guys, bules," she said.
"Please," Gordon begged, lapsing into his unpolished way, "Gimme her address."
"I can't," she said. But then she took out a pencil and a pink receipt and began to scribble. "Here."
NANIES, it read.
"If you love her enough, you'll find her."
He liked this game.
Gordon and Nanies's auspicious wedding date was set by local Javanese mystics. I still find it kismet that Dad died on the 32nd anniversary of my parents' wedding day, July 21, 1975.
Una received word of Gordon's impending marriage and flew from Bali to halt the wedding. She appeared as a tall blonde apparition in a lemon sundress. As soon as Gordon saw her, he felt the deep glow of old friendship. When Una met his new bride—a princess and dancer from the royal court—she surrendered. She found Nanies's beauty to be poetic and non-threatening—the rare kind of beauty that made you want to look more like yourself instead of her. Una saw how he guarded Nanies like treasure. He'd grown up, moved on. He'd even cut his hair.
"Nanies centers me in my deepest soul," he told Una. "She gives balance to my tight-roping spirits way up there in the rainbow-filled sky of my universal being. She turns my shitty aspects into gold." Seeing Nanies and Una together in juxtaposition—contrasting and complementary—was almost a visionary experience for Gordon: two hemispheres of his heart, two worlds, peacefully colliding.
Nanies, with her Javanese celestial-like peace, seemed a perfect match to temper Gordon's volatility. What more did Una really want for her great love than to wish him well. It was time for her to leave Indonesia, to close this chapter, and to travel home—overland through Asia and Europe—back to Paris. Visions of them floating hand in hand in the Red Sea looped in her mind. There'd be no more Unzarella. No more Gordonzolla. Una exited the scene.
But Una never left the scene entirely. When I was a teenager—motherless—dad flew me to visit her twice a year. He wanted me to taste mother love. He said Una was his gift to me, that without her I probably wouldn't exist. I visited her in 2007 at her home in Ibiza. It was six months after dad died.
"I have something for you," I said, reaching into dad's pale green attaché case. "These are dad's ashes. I want you to have some."
Before I said another word, Una reached across the table, swiped the baggie from me and dunked her finger inside. She lifted her dusty finger to her lips and sucked on it.
"Now he's inside me. He'll never leave me," Una said.
I laughed. "Cancer stole his eye, his breast, and his leg. But he still came to you. Flew here. You were his final destination."
"He was haunted and charmed," she said. "Destiny can play dirty tricks."
We ate paella and looked out at the Mediterranean Sea twinkling and fading in the evening sky.
"I can't taste the food. I still taste him," Una said, "He doesn't want to leave."
He'll never have to leave. Dad's ashes are now across 39 countries—and counting—scattered among the people and places he loved. Even death wouldn't stop him from traveling, stolen plane tickets or not.
This story is excerpted from Naomi Melati Bishop's memoir-in-progress. Follow her on Instagram.