A collection of travel stories that shows the potential synchronicity of strangers and the significance of each encounter - good, bad or just plain crazy - as meant to happen.
||13 publishers interested
Sometimes we are stuck in our own communities, societies and realities - both mentally and physically. However, traveling can push us out of those comfort zones and expose us to a whole range of new experiences that can have lasting effects on our own lives.
Travel is not just about the places we see, but the people we encounter when we get there.
So many people want to travel and have it be meaningful. Maia Williamson, in her travel memoir The People Out There, explains that it certainly can be if you’re open to the messages and subsequent lessons we receive from the people we meet while out there in the world.
The People Out There is for anyone who loves travel, specifically anyone who appreciates the diversity of the human experience and our reaction to it in all of its different forms.
This collection of travel stories will resonate with those who are open to the synchronicity of strangers and the significance of each encounter, good or bad, as meant to happen in order to create a change or shift in their lives.
This book was written because Maia discovered that during her travels, she is drawn to people who are put in her path to teach her a lesson or show her something that may contribute to her life in a positive way - or so she believes. In fact, many of her encounters have led her to greater self-actualization, tolerance, and acceptance of the (sometimes crazy) world we live in.
Yup, travel can do all of that.
This book is a personal collection of stories from over twenty years of travel adventures. Each story focuses on a significant interaction or encounter, which is not always positive but leads to a positive take-away message or impact. While each story’s focus is on an encounter, the place in which it occurs is the backdrop and very much an influence on the outcome of the story.
- People watcher
- Creepy cabdriver
- Amsterdam’s greatest grandmother
- Seat savers
- Old German lady on the plane
- Kids with the runniest noses
- Drunken educator
- Guy I accidentally fell in love with
- Hero I tried to ignore
- Birthday guests
- Rushegura family
- Hippies on the train
- Kids who could see what mattered
- Jerks who left with our bags
- Boy on the sidewalk
- Bible thumper
- Lady who speaks through mangoes
- Unlikeliest of travellers
- Tree frogs
In our highly globalized world, it is important to see that we are all connected by commonalities much more than we are our differences. This collection of travel stories shows what we can learn about the world we live in through greater understanding, empathy and acceptance of the people we share it with. Each encounter we have, however, sad, crazy, humorous or seemingly insignificant is part of our journey. This book is for those with a touch of wanderlust, who are open to those encounters while travelling and relish in the lessons they can provide.
Whether you are a seasoned traveller or someone who wants to see more of the world but is held back for some reason or another, The People Out There is especially suited for those who are told not to travel by society because of social convention or acceptance – those who want to go solo, women, or anyone looking to shed the conventional nine to five.
Maia was discouraged from travelling alone and to particular places many times, but she went anyway and benefited beyond measure. Her goal in writing this book is to add to the growing narrative that anyone can travel, and the positives far outweigh any negatives or naysayers. It is unique to the travel memoirs that are already out there because of its focus on the humanity, relationships, and lessons of travel while still showing the extraordinary beauty and diversity of each place.
The global tourist industry has been steadily growing each year with 528 million international arrivals in 2005 to 1.19 billion in 2015. Over that same ten-year period, the revenue from international tourism has almost doubled with a 2015 report approximating 1.26 trillion USD spent globally (www.statista.com). What is more interesting are the statistics on the types of people that are increasingly choosing to travel.
According to a 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions study, solo travel is steadily increasing. Specifically, the study surveyed more than 13,600 travellers from 25 countries and found that the frequency of travellers who travelled alone on their first trip abroad was 37%, a 20% in just two years.
Women are a key demographic of the solo travel trend and clearly driving the global travel industry. Statistics provided by booking.com show that 65% of women take vacations without a partner, and the same percentage say they feel more confident when they travel solo. Marybeth Bond from gutsytraveler.com reported that women were excepted to spend 125 billion on travel in 2015. In addition, 73% of travel agents polled noted that female travellers take more solo trips than their male counterparts.
The People Out There aims to support those findings by showing that international travel is accessible, safe, and enjoyable for anyone questioning whether they have what it takes to wander the globe, especially women. And even when difficulties or dilemmas arise, they simply add to the journey and amplify the experience.
Maia Williamson has been an avid traveller for over 20 years, mostly solo, always with a backpack. She teaches English in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where she lives with her young son, who she hopes will develop the same wanderlust she has. Maia writes a travel blog in her spare time (travelmeans.ca). The People Out There is her first book.
Maia has a travel blog Travel Means (travelmeans.ca) which focuses on what travel means to her – freedom, knowledge, culture, life – as well as corresponding facebook and instagram pages that have over 1,000+ followers.
She has been featured on different travel blogs catering to women. She has written about solo travel for Travelettes (www.travelettes.net) "Is Cape Town Safe for a Solo Female Traveller?" and been featured in an e-book promoting solo female travel for Be My Travel Muse (www.bemytravelmuse.com) “Conquering Mountains”.
She has also spoken at an academic conference catering to language teachers (SPEAQ Campus, 2016, Montreal, QC). Her presentation was titled "What Travelling Means for Language Teachers".
With a potential publishing deal, Maia would work to leverage those avenues as well as her expansive personal and professional networks in North America and around the world.
On social media, Maia follows and belongs to many different solo female travel groups, a few which she has written for or been featured in: “Be My Travel Muse" https://www.bemytravelmuse.com/ (featured in article) as well as “Travelettes” http://www.travelettes.net/ (wrote guest article). These bloggers have huge followings and she has discussed the prospect of them featuring The People Out There book on their site and promoting it. Once it is published they’ve agreed, the plan is to send copies out to these these ladies as well as other popular female blogging sites such as “Adventurous Kate” http://www.adventurouskate.com/, “Wanderful” https://www.sheswanderful.com/, “Intrepidista” http://intrepidista.com to name a few.
Maia also has a piece coming out on the female storytelling platform “Inkfully” http://www.inkfully.com/ and is being featured in an upcoming article about solo female travel for “Nomadic Matt” https://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-guides/ who is one of the biggest names in travel blogging. Therefore, her intent is to talk to these and other writers, bloggers and influencers that would likely aid in the promotion of The People Out There book just by reading it and/or mentioning it on social media.
This book is tapping into a niche that is thriving. Global travel is more accessible and popular than ever before. Yes, there are a ton of travel bloggers and instagrammers and those avenues may be saturated, but there is still room for travel-based literature that is inspiring and encouraging of people to travel. Not saying this is the next ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, but why couldn’t it be? Consistently engaging with and promoting inside the travel community and writing circles, Maia is more than willing to do the work and pursue the inroads she already has, while making new ones.
We have reached out to a number of travel companies about promotion and partnering opportunities and one in particular that pre-ordered a copy of my book “Canyon Calling” http://www.canyoncalling.com/ expressed interest in purchasing larger quantities once it is published to give out as gifts for their own promotional purposes. Once the book is published Maia stands an excellent chance of establishing more relationships of that nature.
In addition, travelling events and conferences both domestically and abroad is on the agenda for 2018. The People Out There is in good hands moving forward, and with a credible publisher Maia will clinch some additional major press and speaking opportunities.
On a personal note, Maia is stepping away from teaching to focus more on writing, blogging and speaking. Her blog is in the process of rebranding and restarting after a short sabbatical through the process of adopting her son.
There have been numerous successful travelogues written by solo female travellers but few where the people are the primary focus and influence the experience. Some noteworthy memoirs in the same general genre are:
-Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte, Choose ART (2014).
This memoir shows us that talking to strangers can lead to a life of crazy adventure and lasting friendship.
-Life is a Trip by Judith Fein, Pudie Inc. (2012).
This is a guide which shows how cultural travel will change how you see the world.
-Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo by Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick, Christina Henry de Tessan, Seal Press (2007)
This is a collection of twenty-three essays written by solo female travels from around the world who show us that being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely.
-A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Viking Penguin (2005)
This book is a collection of autobiographical essays and focuses on pivotal moments and relationships in Rebecca Solnit's life to explore issues of uncertainty, trust, loss, and place.
-Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach, Random House (2002)
This book is a travel memoir about the authors decision to take a break from the routines of her daily life in order to see more clearly who she is when separated from all the labels–mother, journalist, ex-wife, single woman–that have come to define her. And she decides to do it by traveling alone in foreign countries.
Solo Travel Handbook, The by Lonely Planet, (2018)
Non-memoir, this was developed with Lonely Planet's expert travel writers, it explains how and why individual travel is such a valuable and rewarding experience.
Ch 5. Eavesdropper
I initially chose my career as an English teacher based on my ability to travel. Thankfully for my students I ended up loving it and have not been half bad at it either. At first though, I knew it was my ticket out, a way beyond what I knew. First stop, South Korea. With my shiny new degree, I headed for a year of teaching abroad, nervous and alone but ready to take on the world. With all the optimism possible, I left Canada for Daejeon, South Korea on a 15-hour plane ride, followed by a 4-hour bus ride.
I finally met my in-country job coordinators at a dark and dingy bus station. Although tired and weary, I’ve never been happier to see two complete strangers, non-English speaking ones I might add, in all my life. After a few awkward greetings, I was taken to a store where the one gentleman bought me a soda (which I detest), an egg sandwich (which I detest even more) and some gooey-looking sugary thing that I knew would never make it near my mouth. I couldn’t really say anything in Korean other than gomapseumnida (thank you) and since their English wasn't much to brag about, I offered up my token phrase for the kind gesture and tried not to think about my impending hunger later on. I was much more focused on getting to my new apartment. I had, of course, pictured it to be a modern abode fit for the cosmopolitan, independent jet-setter I was striving to be with a touch of adventure mixed in - half Carrie Bradshaw a la Sex in the City, half Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. And yes, I'm aware Meryl sometimes slept in a tent. Just go with it.
As the key turned in the hole and the door creaked open - an eerie sound I would later loathe with everything in me - I was aghast at what I saw. It was a bug infested, mould-laden shithole. Not able to articulate my disgust to who I thought of then as my two Korean captors, I had little choice than to bite my tongue until I could speak to my Canadian job coordinator the following day. Oh, the barrage of expletives I would unleash, I thought.
When I was finally alone, it hit me how alone I was and where I was. As I surveyed my surroundings, my heart began to pound and my chin started to quiver. This was not how it was supposed to be. This was not what it was supposed to look like. The stench in the place was so bad that I thought it best to breathe through my mouth under my shirt collar. How else would I keep from vomiting or ingesting the mould spores I was convinced were everywhere? I won’t fully describe the condition of the bed linen, the filth in the kitchen or the mould covering the toilet seat, but it was not a pretty sight.
I called my mom to let her know I arrived safely and did my best to suck back the tears. However, my mom - a seasoned veteran of mom-hood - saw right through it and pried out of me that I felt like a squatter in an abandoned building. With her usual words of encouragement and some major self pep talk, I knew I had to hack it for a night, so I slept in my clothes (which included my shoes and coat pulled over my head) curled up directly on top of my suitcase so as not to come into contact with the sheets. I cried myself to sleep that night, thinking Meryl would definitely not have put up with this shit.
Thankfully, things began to look up after moving apartments, starting my job and meeting a group of friends. I was slowly beginning to adjust to life there; however, some things were constantly challenging. I was always the target of stares and whispers being a big 5 ft 9, blonde blue-eyed sore thumb amongst a sea of black-haired dark-eyed munchkins. Some days, there would be a pack of kids who followed me, giggling away and yelling out any English word or phrase they knew. They would immediately dart behind the nearest building or parked car for cover when I turned around, a back-and-forth game that never got old for them. The shout-outs usually consisted of “hello!”, “how are you!”, and the occasional, “Britney Spears!” “David Beckham!” just for good measure, as they must have thought we were old personal friends.
In classes, my students would do everything from whisper and giggle behind my back, make fun of my lefthandedness, pet me like a dog and even sniff my hair, as if the blonde locks before them were an urban myth come to life. I was also the source of stares at my neighbourhood grocery store, bar, and video rental place. I was made to feel like Gigantor at the gym I joined, being bigger than everyone there, men included. I know this because when I worked out, I literally had a crowd of onlookers every time I stepped foot on a treadmill, lifted a weight or stretched a limb.
Yet for every annoyance there were a ton of exciting discoveries that made me fall in love with the country and its culture. The food was amazing as soon as I figured out to say “no eggs, I’m allergic” (which is actually a lie I've always told but the only non-offensive way I can tell people I don’t eat them). There was gimbap, bibimbap, kimchi chigae, pin dae duk, which would always be accompanied by numerous sauces and side dishes and spicy kimchi and rarely enjoyed without a social group of some sort.
Society was fast-paced, technologically-driven, and jam-packed with people everywhere you turned, yet there was natural beauty and serenity there too. Daejeon was considered to be a medium-sized city with about two million people, yet it was also surrounded by beautiful mountains, the Sikjangsan, Jangtaesan and Gubongsan among others, in perfect juxtaposition to the hustle of the city.
Each dong (neighbourhood) mirrored that contrast and would consist of a few dozen rather typical high-rise apartments, all enormous, identical, sterile, immaculate, yet there was frequently a small community garden in the centre. These gardens were serene and idyllic, a place that allowed you to escape what surrounded it. Each one typically had beautiful willow and bamboo trees and others that flowered and changed with the seasons. There would most certainly be a traditional garden house, pond teeming with lotus flowers and symbolic stone to instill a sense of calm and contrast with the water. The dichotomy of these gardens and the bustling city was ever-present, but with time it began to make sense and fit together.
There was also a calmness and simplicity to the Korean people that contrasted with the pace of daily life and a sense of family that I greatly admired. Korean history and custom and societal expectation taught me that the importance of respect and etiquette were paramount to daily interaction, most certainly with people you didn't know or elders. This was travelling, I thought. This was the world. This was life. It took a few months to fully settle in, but I soon felt a sense of home and comfort in this strange land with all its uniqueness and beauty. It would have been an amazing year, full of travel and adventure had my world not been turned upside down just three months into my stay.
I will never forget the phone call in the middle of the night. I will never forget the haze I immediately entered. I will never forget the room shrinking in size and spinning at a quickened pace. I will never forget phoning a few colleagues in all the thickness asking for help to pack up my new life, book a plane ticket, and arrange a two-hour cab ride to Inchon International airport so that I could get home to Canada immediately. I was scattered and sad and can admit that much of it was for the life I was leaving behind as it was for the one I was going to say goodbye to and mourn. It was my mom, my mum. She was dying.
She had had cancer the year prior and went from good to bad to good to bad to kind of good and keep your fingers crossed to apparently, the worst yet. When I took the job in Korea, it was solely contingent upon her heath, which was fab-ola at the time of my leaving, but it eventually faded. Without my knowing. Yup, without my knowing.
She had kept her decline from me and requested that others in my family did as well, and I had no idea the end was near - as the end was clearly near. Looking back, I remember her having a cold the week before I left for Korea and being in an (unusually) contrary mood the day I flew out over a persistent sore throat which I can only surmise now as the cancer coming back. With a vengeance. If she were still here I would be pretty pissed off at her for not filling me in more about her health issues, her need to shelter me from the truth, her insistence on putting my dreams and life first, over hers. As a mom myself now, I get it though; I'd likely do the same even though I haven't quite forgiven her – a drop of hypocrisy to it all, I know.
My series of flights from Korea to Canada were a blur for the most part. My Korean exit was filled with a lot of crying, profuse sweating, frustration at being on standby, more crying, and feeling sick at the thought of what was waiting for me when I arrived home. I remember feeling frantic in the airport as I waited to board; I remember smelling bad, like the kind where you can actually smell yourself; I remember yearning for the sound of my alarm clock to go off and wake me from this terrible dream. I also remember nothing. Staring. Waiting. Empty.
At a grueling four-hour layover in Japan which felt more like four days, I sobbed to a friend on a marathon phone call. She was and is the most supportive human being to walk the planet, and she allowed me to spew out all that I was feeling - potentially not getting the chance to say goodbye and what a life without my mom was going to be like. After a few hours of blubbering, I finally released my poor friend from a long distance charge that probably rivaled a mortgage payment. I was going to search for a restroom, clean myself up and get to my gate.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere I was approached by the tiniest most unassuming woman. “She’s going to be alive”, she said. “When you get there. Your family will love her enough until you get there”, she said in heavily accented, timid English, almost a whisper. When I realized what she said, it was like the wind was knocked out of me. I immediately crumbled. Literally, I fell apart and into the arms of this stranger, who in two sentences, crushed me yet saved me all the same.
Thinking back on that day, I assume that this woman had obviously not been able to ignore me, my wailing, my disheveled state and listened in on my whole sad conversation. And in her inability to do so, she became the most generous, kind, indispensable person I have ever encountered. I like to think I collapsed in her arms like they do in the movies, but thinking back on her size, I actually might have fallen on her, she was so small. I cried in her arms, snotted on her shoulder and said who knows what. In fact, I’ve never been able to remember anything I said to her. I might not have said a thing to her, but when I composed myself as best as I could, she placed a little candy in my hand, in green shiny wrapping, hugged me tight, wished me luck and went on her way. Just like that. Her words were warm and reassuring, which I needed more than anything at that moment. And I can't explain why, but I believed what she told me. All the way home.
I still have the candy but not my mum. But the tiny eavesdropper was right. I made it back in time. I lay in bed with my withered mother the whole night through and told her everything I wanted and everything she earned. She died the next morning with me and my brother at her side. The three of us, just how it should have been. It was by far, the very worst moment of my life, and a part of me died that day with her. The entire experience will remain with me for the rest of my life even though the pieces are blurry and patched together haphazardly. And in a weird way, my mom and this woman will always be linked together in this experience, for when I think of my mom’s death, I reluctantly go back to that horrible trip home from Korea, a trip out of my new life and back in to my old, one that was made a little more bearable by the kindness of a total stranger in a Japanese airport.
I found out months later that before my mother lost consciousness but knew she was going to die, she asked one of my aunts to travel to Korea to get me so that I’d be with someone on the trip home. She knew the pain I would feel and how such a long journey alone would magnify it. However, since she declined so rapidly, my aunt knew there was no time, so the decision was made to give me the news over the phone and have me make my way back on my own. My aunt has been weighted by guilt over that all these years, but the truth is I wasn’t truly alone. I had my mother there with me, but I also had the eavesdropper and her words in my ear and heart the entire way home. As I was supposed to.
I’m not a praying person by any means, but every now and then, I think of that woman and hope she has a good life. I hope she has friends and children and a mother and that someone else has experienced her resolve and reassurance the way I did. I hope someone has benefited from her comfort, her need to do something, to say something when most people would not. I hope someone else has felt her compassion and been as grateful as I was to have met her at the right moment, albeit one of my darkest. Sometimes, I wonder if she’s ever thought of me too. I wish I could tell her I made it home in time. I wish I could tell her somehow what she did for me that day.
I guess I’m doing it now.
Ch 13. Birthday guests
On my third trip back to Africa, I wanted to see more of the continent I had fallen for so strongly, so after brief stints in Tanzania and Kenya, I headed to Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas and volunteer for a month. I was in Fort Portal, which is in the very west of the country near the Congo border. Fort Portal is a beautiful town, amidst lush terrain with the Rwenzori Mountains as the backdrop. It only has about 50,000 people and is extremely clean, safe, and friendly, just what I needed after a brief stint in the capital Kampala, the exact opposite. Kampala has a few bright spots and probably many more that I never got the chance to see, but a few hours at the main bus terminal and even more time spent languishing in traffic solidified my aversion to it in all forms.
My home stay and volunteer placement were actually out of town about 10 kms, so it was even more isolated and quiet than being in Fort Portal proper. The volunteer house I was at had about 15 people there at the time. We had shared rooms, three showers and two toilets between us all, hot water when we were lucky, and electricity some days, just not most days. We had a communal room where we congregated to eat and relax, but thankfully there were also plenty of nooks and crannies on the property to hide away in when privacy was a necessity. We also had the wonderful Mama K, the definitive ruler of the roost who did the cooking, cleaning, rule-making, security-guarding, and mothering. She was quite jovial despite the long hours she put in, and you could tell by her general countenance that she liked us all about as much as we liked her.
The best part of staying there was the tranquility and relaxation, nothing but fresh air, and the sounds of the country. There was so much green in the surrounding forests, the kind you can smell if you close your eyes and imagine it. And I do sometimes.
It seemed to be consistently sunny and hot, but there were still periodic bursts of rain and thunder to mix things up, I suppose. It probably down-poured every day, but I wouldn’t say it was a hindrance or even a nuisance. It would be brief and cool everything off, which would make things fresh again and amplify the green hues.
I was volunteering at a school for impoverished children, many were orphaned and most lived on site. The volunteer work was enjoyable but more physically challenging than what I had done in the past. My days would begin about 7:00am and consisted of walking about 15 minutes to the nearest stream to haul water with a few of the children, staff and my partner in crime, Manuel from Austria, who was the only other volunteer willing to get up as early as me. It was such a pleasant walk there but no easy task on the way back to the school - carrying two full jerry cans of water over a dodgy bridge, up a hill, and through a banana patch. The first haul of the day definitely got our blood going but by the third or fourth in the afternoon sun, our arms were numb and legs were like jelly. Every time I did it, all I could think about was my luck not to endure that type of trek every day before my actual day even started, which was the reality of most in the community.
After morning water duty, most of the other volunteers would have sauntered over and we’d all fall in to our regular duties, some in the classrooms, some on construction, others taking care of the smaller kids, some like me doing daily chores and whatever else was delegated to us. We'd wash an endless amount of dishes in large plastic tubs of water, one for soaping up and the other for rinsing off. This took a whole team of us and a lot of patience as the dishes were endless and our supplies were less than adequate. Then, we would help serve mid-morning porridge at the school which consisted of carrying huge pots of steaming porridge across the road and doling it out to each class. Next, we would de-pod an endless amount of beans, which also took a team of us and even more patience. Afterwards, we would get to wash more dishes and get more water. And then repeat. And repeat again.
We did get down time in between chores to have lunch and play with the smaller children who did not attend the adjacent school, which broke up the day and added much needed comic relief. We made each day light because bean-picking turned into a contest, dishes turned into a sport, and carrying water turned into a race.
I really did like all of the volunteers in the house, although my patience wore thin quickly. It’s not because of what anyone did in particular, but rather the sheer number of humans in my personal space got to be tiring. There were of course a few odd ducks in the bunch....the loud talker, the fork biter, the mouth breather, the tab keeper, the shit talker and a number of other –er title bearers. I’m sure they had one for me too, which would have made a whole lot of sense.
I realized that my upcoming birthday was shared with another girl in the house, so when the day arrived most of the gang went out for dinner and drinks and then to a local bar to dance the night away. The camaraderie felt natural, the laughs, necessary. I was right where I was supposed to be.
The next day a few in the group bought us birthday girls the best gifts we have ever received. Hot showers. Literally. There was a fancy schmancy resort in Fort Portal that had a pool and health club, and you could pay 7000 shillings (about 3.50 $) to use the pool. None of us cared much about swimming though – we were mainly in it for the hot shower you could take, along with fast internet and western food choices. Everybody took a turn escaping there every few days likely to feel human again and recharge, and my birthday would be no exception.
On my way to the resort that afternoon, I had my funniest travel experience to date and probably fodder for many an African who would later tell the story of the Mazungo and the great flash flood of 2012. I was by myself on a boda boda, which is a motorcycle taxi of sorts. The ‘of sorts’ part is because there are generally no helmets, no set price, no speed limits and no concern when operating one. And the driver most certainly does not have an official taxi license. He just happens to have a bike and voila—he’s an entrepreneur, a taxi driver ‘of sorts’.
On my way to the resort, I was on a boda by myself when my driver and I suddenly got caught in a freakish monsoon-ish downpour which was not uncommon in Fort Portal. My boda driver couldn't communicate what he was doing but it raised no alarm bells when he gestured that he was going to stop so we could wait out the storm somewhere dry. He pulled over and into a nearby 'store' (I use that term loosely) right off of the main road. It was sandwiched in between other local businesses and as unassuming as the others. I think it was supposed to be a general store, but it was no bigger than a large bathroom in my world and most of the shelves were bare. It had a dirt floor, no windows, a heavy main door made of wooden slats, and lacked signage as did the other businesses nearby.
There was no electricity, which may have been from the storm or the way it was usually. Due to the lack of light I could faintly see that the shelves were scarce, save for a few random household items for sale such as a large pot and washing basin, a package of red plastic cups, a half empty shelf of dried goods in faded packaging, a few cheap imported snacks, and some familiar and unfamiliar brands of alcohol prominently displayed next to the cash box.
Not long after we entered, the store owner had no choice but to shut and latch the big wooden door in order to prevent the rain from pouring in and the wind from blowing it open. As the heavy door was closing and I realized what was happening, it all seemed to move in slow motion. It was me, my young boda driver, the middle-aged store owner, and a fairly drunken elderly gentleman - settling in in the pitch dark. I stood frozen. The store owner lit a few small candles and pulled out two stools from behind the counter which he gave to me and the elderly man, but I felt little reassurance with the seat and sudden visibility. I took the stool and sat down nonetheless. He got himself a large crate to sit on, and by then the boda driver flopped down on a few large bags of supplies nearby.
As we hunkered down in a little circle, hearing the rain beat down on the flimsy corrugated roof, the men began to speak to each other in quiet tones. What little they said was not directed at me, nor did I understand any of it, so I kept my head down and tried to be invisible. It didn't take long for me to fully grasp the precarious situation I was in - alone in a hot dark room with three men I didn't know nor could communicate with, in a place where I couldn't be reached, off the grid and away from anyone I knew. As my predicament became increasingly clear, every horrible scenario from every awful horror movie flashed through my mind. I knew that things could go terribly wrong at any moment, so I immediately started to survey my surroundings and commit to memory everything in the room. This was perhaps a reflex of watching too many after school TV specials and America’s Most Wanted episodes as a child, but it gave me something to do other than cry. I scanned what was on each of the near-empty shelves and most importantly where the door to freedom was and my quickest way to get there.
The candle light shone brightly on the faces of the three potential axe murdering rapists I was confined with. I studied each of their faces without trying to make it too obvious, with each passing glimpse committing to memory one more detail the police would need later on – that’s if I could crawl out to safety on my one remaining leg. My boda driver wore the brightest of red shirts, which clung to his body from the rain. He was youthful, likely in his late teens or twenties. He looked strong, sturdy in fact, with a dark complexion and short-kept hair. The store owner was short with a stocky build, dressed conservatively as if church was his next stop after the rain let up. He had soft kind eyes, but I refused to take the bait. Ted Bundy did too after all. The elderly gentleman was very tall and thin. He looked worn and weathered and his hands told me he worked hard at some point in his life. His eyes bulged slightly, perhaps naturally or perhaps from fatigue and drink.
I realized that they were all looking at me too and what I could only imagine was just how different I was from them and perhaps what I would look like in a few dozen pieces. I sat smiling awkwardly, barely breathing, heart pumping, hoping my facial expression wasn't too inviting but not weak and fleeting either. “How did I get myself in this god-forsaken situation?”, I thought. “And can they hear my heart beating like a drum because I sure as hell can?!” I truly thought the worst was likely to happen at any moment. Happy birthday, Maia. Nice gift to yourself. Get ready for your torso to rest near the red plastic cups.
As the rain persisted, the store started to leak through the holes in the roof. Since I was planning a getaway should I need one, I wanted to stay in my spot close to the door. So when a steady trickle of rain began to run down my back, I didn’t dare move.
The store owner, sensing my unease, tried out a few languages to see which ones, if any, I could follow. I'm useless in Luganda, the widely spoken local language, but he was pleasantly surprised when he tried his hand at Swahili and I was able to speak it back to him. He gave me a jambo (hello) and I gave him a nzuri (fine). He asked unatoka wapi (where are you from)? Natokea, Canada, I replied. Then, his eyes smiled. The older man said he was from Congo so I gave him a bonjour, comment ca va? and his smiled too. Bullseye. At least I could plead for my life in a way they'd understand, I thought.
My boda driver was already napping at this point and said little to anyone in any language, so the three of us slowly began to chat about the day in a mixture of our three languages. We discussed our families, our countries, the weather, and of course, football.
The store owner eventually made us some murky tea that I tried not to gag over; however, I did not overlook this kind gesture. I shared some biscuits that I had in my bag even though I had absolutely no desire to eat. I figured offering something in response was the right thing to do and I should eat too, so I chewed as fast as I could and swallowed as hard as I could - the lump taking extra long to make its way down my nervous throat into my even more nervous stomach. At one point, the man from the Congo whipped out a little bag of alcohol, not a bottle, a bag, and offered the first swig to our strange little group. I politely declined but was touched that he was willing to share his stash which he had clearly been tucking into all day. And there we sat, eating, laughing, learning. While I was unable to follow everything that was said, I realized that I was really enjoying our candlelight conversation and felt the fear slowly subside.
After it sounded like the rain was finally stopped, the store owner got up and opened the door. The torrential rain was gone and replaced by a heavy dose of sunshine which seemed to be waiting patiently for its turn at the day. I realized then that I had made it through the experience unscathed, and the three blood-thirsty assassins turned out to be perfect gentlemen.
The ordeal was not over though as I saw that the road was partially washed out. I say 'partially' because I couldn't see it at all; I only know it was there because my boda driver, just up from his nap, was wading out to the road to fish out his bike from where he left it. He soon started beckoning for me to do the same. "Are you kidding me?” I wanted to say “No, it’s my birthday, I cannot wade in waist-high sewage; this is not how it’s supposed to go down!” However, with a crowd of a few dozen now looking on, it seemed I had little choice. So I did what I had to do....I hiked my pants up over my knees, put my sandals in my bag so I wouldn't lose them and waded thigh-deep in the sludge to get to the road and get the hell out of there. As I walked deeper in, smelling and feeling unexplainable things under my feet, I began to gag. I saw a tire float by, a random boot, a doll and a cooking pot. Then I slipped a little on some mystery gunk and almost fell over to the amusement of the now jeering crowd. Thankfully I kept my balance and soon felt the water recede, at my knees, now my calves, finally my feet. Made it.
My getting out alive delighted everyone even more than my slip, and they all erupted in loud cheers and hooting that I “made it through the lake without a boat” as one man told me in English. Covered in the inexplicable, I gave a sheepish wave and smile to the crowd, hopped on the wet motorbike and waited for lift off. As I held on tight to my boda driver, I looked back to see the store owner and elderly man standing in the door way, waving, smiling, presumably seeing me off. A cast of warm light shone on them both. I waved back and nodded, sort of a thank you for your hospitality wave, but also thank you for keeping me safe, thank you for proving me wrong. As I locked eyes with the store owner, I have a feeling he knew. Asante (thank you), I mouthed. He nodded back.
We carried on to the resort as if the last strange hour of my life never happened; I was soaked and covered in mud from the waist down, so the hot shower let me forget about the parasites I envisioned were all over me. Later that day and many times since I've reflected on the experience - I spent a portion of my birthday in what felt like a dank cage with three strangers, one of whom drank brownish alcohol. From a bag. I waded in sludge almost at waist level in front of an audience. But I got through it.
Many of my adventures and predicaments don't come with an epilogue of sorts. They're just experiences one goes through while travelling that show you the world and all its diversity. However, the silver linings here cannot be overlooked. Chivalry exists across cultures and will get you the good stool; everyone loves football so it helps to follow it even if you don't care, and while some people like to watch others fall, they also like to see them stay afloat. However, there were deeper lessons to be embraced as well; they lie in the fact that I can tell this story, that one can be treated with kindness and respect in the worst of predicaments, that language isn't always spoken in words, that stereotypes are just that, that a chance encounter might not be due to chance at all, that people are good before they are not, that the positives outweigh the negatives if you just let them.
I enjoyed birthday tea, friendship, and laughter in rural Uganda with random strangers in a dimly lit hole in the wall with water streaming down my back.
A gift, indeed.