IT was the summer of 1997 and American Sharon Besser, a grad student at Univeristy of California, Berkley, near San Francisco, found herself on the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea.
She’d arrived here via Earth Watch, an organisation that connects volunteers with scientists in need of assistance, and she planned to spend the next several weeks in the coastal town of Madang, diving the waters of the Pacific to help study the region’s barracuda population.
After a few weeks of backpacking around the country, she boarded a plane in Hoskins, on the island of New Britain, to take her to her post. Australian Jeremy Howell was in the pilot’s seat.
“The plane was a small, 20-seater turbo prop,” Jeremy remembered. It was usually operated by two pilots, but this time Jeremy was flying solo.
“I stayed at the controls in the cockpit as the passengers boarded.” When Sharon came up the stairs, he turned to the cabin and smoothly offered “Would you like the front seat? The view is better up here.”
“It was a little like a Top Gun fantasy,” Sharon said as she remembered taking the co-pilot’s seat. “He had on a white uniform and Aviators and so of course I wanted to sit up front.”
The duo chatted on the flight, and Jeremy discovered that Sharon would be staying at Jais Aben Resort, a spot he frequently went with his friends. He asked to meet her at the bar that night. “I had to fight off a couple other pilots,” he laughed. “We didn’t get too many single ladies visiting Madang.”
Jeremy and Sharon saw each other several times during the next few weeks, but remained friends despite Jeremy doing his best to impress her. “I’d organised a day out for us with two of my co-workers who owned a boat,” Jeremy said.
“It sounded like fun, but the guys swore like troopers and their jokes were no better. After an hour or two, Sharon was saying that she had a headache and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I would too’.”
When they got back on dry land, however, it quickly became apparent that Sharon was seriously ill. “[When] we got home she went straight to bed and I started to realise something was wrong,” Jeremy said.
“There are only three doctors in town, so I drove around for an hour or so before I could find one.”
Sharon was so weak by the time Jeremy returned that he had to carry her to the car. The doctor diagnosed Sharon with malaria.
“I’d planned to keep travelling but couldn’t go on because I was sick,” Sharon remembered.
“But now we had this extra time together – five days we wouldn’t have had otherwise. He was so sweet taking care of me and at some point, things got romantic.”
Unfortunately, once she got better, Sharon’s time in Papua New Guinea was up, and it was time for her to fly back to the US to return to school. “We’d developed quite a bond. She left a little teary and we agreed to keep in touch,” Jeremy said.
Nine months passed, and during that time the pair exchanged letters recounting their daily lives.
“He had no email or phone really,” Sharon said. “I just had a black-and-white photo of him on my fridge, and every couple of months I’d get a letter and write one back. He was a great letter writer, very romantic. It was a refreshing way to get to know someone, writing about the details of your lives, even the mundane things. I still have them all in a file.”
Summer was on its way again, and Sharon would have another stretch of time off. “So I wrote him a letter asking if he would want to meet me somewhere to travel around together. It was a risk, this letter, but I wanted to see where we might go next with our relationship.”
It arrived with fortuitous timing. “I got a call from him, which was weird because I hadn’t ever talked to him on the phone,” Sharon said.
“He had gotten the letter literally on the day he was leaving the country. He told me about a new job in South Australia and asked if I could come there. And that’s when our relationship really started,” Sharon said.
Over the next two years, the couple saw each other during a series of visits, still residing on opposite sides of the Pacific until Jeremy moved to the Britain in late 1999 where Sharon planned to join him after graduation.
“We always talk about there being three ways of doing something: his way, my way and the third way,” Sharon said.
“The move to England was like that — I didn’t want to move to Australia and he didn’t want to come to California, so that was the middle, the third way.”
Jeremy proposed the next summer, while visiting with Sharon at her family’s lake house on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. They were later married there in 2001.
They later had two children, and the family recently settled in Madison, Wisconsin, although Jeremy still flies for a company based in Hong Kong, where the couple lived for 10 years after they moved from the Britain.
“Lots of people think it’s weird that he commutes to Hong Kong, but we had this history that makes us able to cope with distance,” Sharon said. As for advice for other couples who have to endure stretches of time apart?
“I think that being patient and finding yourself is important. Because what a long-distance relationship gives you is space to develop the self that you need, and so can the other person. Then you can figure out where you fit in between.”
- Source: http://www.bbc.com/travel