Conversations With A Stranger
A Story by Steven Benjamin
So, there I was, relaxing in the waiting area of the ticket office. The bus ride was fairly unspectacular, only a tad cold during the night because, as the Sleepliner’s attendant put it: “there’s something wrong with heating system”. It was late last year, and I’d left an overcast drizzly Cape Town and stepped into the warm sunshine of the nation’s ‘official’ capital. My ‘contact’ texted me that my hotel shuttle was running on Africa time, prompting me to partake in that age old art of observing people.
I then started chatting with the janitor mopping the floor around me – he was from Zimbabwe. We then got distracted when a couple moved toward the head of the ticket line – I took them to be Brazilian. Their negotiations with the clerk soon became a heated debate. Suddenly, a flurry of activity ensued. A LOAD of luggage was brought in and placed at our feet. Lawrence and I exchange looks. The couple then separated temporarily; the gentleman negotiating with an official outside, whilst the woman continued her quest inside. From their body language I gathered they weren’t married, tending more toward good friends or distant familial relatives – like he was only there to drop her off. Also, some unobtrusive eavesdropping led me to reassess my ‘Brazilian’ theory.
Some more remonstrations later, with the administrators sorting through the balls-up, the lady finally had a chance to relax, a few seats away from me as it happened – the seats and floor between us were taken up by all of her eleven large suitcases.
The problem was, she’d booked these suitcases to be transported to Cape Town, only, the price had been inflated once the Bus people discovered she wouldn’t be accompanying the bags… effectively using the bus as a postal service.
Frustrated she took a moment to breath. Eyeing the bags and then her, I smiled, kept cool, and after giving her a second to chill, I suavely opened with this line: “Is this your whole life?”
She managed a half smile, “Almost; half of it’s clothes and toys for my two kids.”
We started chatting until eventually arriving at the inevitable question, “Where are you from?”
She smiled coyly, tilting her head to one side. “Where do you think?”
Here I had to think. Through clenched jaws and narrowed eyes I analysed the Atlas in my mind, “Um, somewhere in the Middle East.”
She smiled, suggesting she was impressed, “… Iraq.”
Divorced years ago, she’d relocated her family to South Africa, and was presently relocating again, though that too would be short lived as a job in Europe had opened up. She wished to stay though, vowing to return as she enjoyed the warm weather and equally warm people.
I was left thinking about the things we keep in life, places we go, people we see, and mostly the people we love. Materially our lives come down to a dozen or so suitcases, if that. A few friends experienced this first hand, immigrating to New Zealand – their entire life boiled down to a half filled storage unit – materially anyway.
Back to the lady though, whom I will forever remember with affection… her strength and beauty so richly interwoven, evident even amidst needless frustration on a hot afternoon; she could still smile and engage in an enlightening conversation with a total stranger.
Just before my shuttle arrived, her baggage problems were sorted. We said our farewells, but not before introducing ourselves:
She said her name was Arwen, like the Middle Earth princess, only she was from the Middle East.
I pray that she and her family are well, wherever they find themselves.
(Note: she told me where she was headed, but I thought that on the off chance she was on the run, I would at least conceal her ultimate destination.)
photos courtesy greebile and charlie phillips
You can see more of Steven Benjamin’s writings at http://stevenbenjamin.weebly.com/blog
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