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HER WORLD

Surviving Cancer and Plane Hijacking, a Teacher Finds Healing in World Travel

March 19, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Jeanne Moore, who describes herself as a "middle-class schoolteacher-psychotherapist," has been chased by a bull in the Galapagos Islands, ridden atop a train in Ecuador, worked her way through the Panama Canal on a boat--and lived through the hijacking of a plane she caught in Katmandu, Nepal, on Christmas Eve.

She was the only American on Indian Airlines Flight 814, which went for a wild, weeklong ride across south Asia and the Middle East before ending up on an out-of-the-way airstrip in Afghanistan. During negotiations for the release of the passengers, sanitary conditions on the plane deteriorated, and the hijackers, a group of Islamic extremists, toyed with the passengers, raising and lowering the cabin temperature and alternately withholding food and serving it freely. One traveler was killed, but the 155 others were released on New Year's Eve.

But Moore's eight-day ordeal aboard Flight 814 is only the beginning of her story. As I talked with this seemingly ordinary 53-year-old Bakersfield woman recently, her passion for travel and life become apparent.

For instance, she put herself through a master's degree program as a single mother of three, worked her way out of debt when her second husband left her, and beat a rare form of stomach cancer by opting for high-intensity doses of radiation that have permanently weakened her immune system.

While recuperating, Moore decided to join a group of concerned Americans doing social work in Israel. She applied for a passport, but she couldn't pass the physical required by the volunteer organization.

What do you do if you're recovering from cancer and have a passport? You work your way through the Panama Canal, of course.

"As a cancer survivor, I do this kind of stuff," she said in a recent telephone interview.

When I prodded, Moore, whose soft, singsong voice belies her derring-do, opened up a bit.

Question: Had you traveled much before five years ago?

Answer: No. I'm a baby traveler. I'm still on my first passport.

Q. Panama was the first foreign country you visited?

A. Yes. I was traveling with a male friend. But when we got there, we were told that it was the wrong time of year to go through the canal, which was the whole point of the trip. In Panama City we found out that the only way to do it was to get hired on as line-handlers.

Q. What's a line-handler?

A. As you go through the canal, you have to cleat and uncleat the heavy lines that attach the boat to the bank. You have to do it in time so the line doesn't go taut, which could tip the boat over.

Q. Did you have any experience in that line of work?

A. I was a Girl Scout. That's helped in more than one instance. Before we went through the canal, we got caught in a labor dispute in Panama City. We were leaving a bank and saw people run by, followed by cameramen and the military with their machine guns. I pulled my friend back inside, and the guard locked the door. But later on I got teargassed. And let me tell you, it does make you sick.

From Panama we went on to Guatemala, but the rest of the trip was uneventful. We went to Lake Antigua, had some wonderful hot chocolate and bought a few pieces of jade.

Q. What was your next trip?

A. The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador.

Q. Where you rode on top of a train. Why?

A. Because I could. I've got pictures of my little tennis shoes hanging over the side while I'm looking down a cliff. I'm afraid of heights, but I can say I did it. It's part of taking your life back after cancer.

Q. Do you like to take risks?

A. Sometimes I go on vacations I think I've planned well. But things happen.

Q. How do you get ready for a trip?

A. I do all the planning and a lot of reading. I'm a great believer in reading before you go, so you don't come home and say, "Oh, I wish I'd known about that." I've done everything from hooking up with a tour group, where they hold your hand, to leaving home with just airplane tickets and hotel reservations.

Q. What were you doing in Nepal at the end of last year?

A. I'd gone to the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and India in the summer. I still had my visa for India and wanted to see more. The plan was to go to Nepal for five days on my own, and then join a tour in India. But I started to get sick in Katmandu, and the plane to India was delayed. By the time I got settled in and ate my meal, I heard a commotion, luggage bins banging and trays of food being thrown around. It didn't register until I saw the men with their guns and grenades.

Q. But even during the ordeal, you figured out how to comport yourself. Did your travels help prepare you for that?

A. I decided early on that if people were allowed to get off the plane safely, I'd be one of them. I knew not to scream or make demands. I am sensitive to cultural diversity, tolerant of other points of view, and learn the rules and regulations of the cultures I'm visiting. I honor other people and don't try to change them. It can save your life.

Most of all, I could tell that the hijackers were passionate about their cause, which made me decide to make sure I didn't do anything that could harm my fellow passengers. On the fourth or fifth day, when the hijackers took our passports, I realized that I was the only U.S. citizen on board. It was a heavy burden, because I knew I needed to behave well as an American.

Q. I doubt you felt like touring India when it was all over. Is it still on your traveler's wish list?

A. I'm starting to think about going back already.

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