Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Travel: the good, the bad, and the painful

Wisdom versus experience.

Some lessons in life need not have to be first-hand experience, sometimes it is infinitely better to learn them through others and that is what they call wisdom. 

Europe 2017. 

My brother and I travelled between countries by train. We thought it was one of the ways to learn a culture and get to know a people. It was indeed. We had a 25-day pass. The pass was good for international and regional travel. In one of our border crossings, we got stuck in a regional train station that shut down for the night. Ignorance brought it upon us. We never questioned that train stations might close for the evening, so we did not have second thoughts about our schedule. We assumed that like the bus terminals in our provinces, they are always open. 

But then in a perfect world, the travelers’ lounge and toilets in Ventimiglia might not have been closed.  The building itself was not closed, only the facilities. Because the station was crawling with the homeless, the crazies, and Middle-Eastern and African refugees. And for whatever reason, management did not want those people to access its amenities. 

Perspective #1

Homelessness.

Some of those people were simply homeless. For whatever reason, they have no homes to get to. Others were homeless because of mental disabilities. And of course, the refugees were homeless. 

One or two slept in relative comfort in the biting and bitter cold. One of them was a person with disability. She had a sleeping bag as well as a folding bed. The other person with disability was observing the first with either envy or hatred. She unleashed a mean laughter when the other came back from somewhere with the seat of her pants wet. Most slept on cartons. Others just lay on the cold stone floor without even a decent jacket or coat on and none of them had anything on their heads. 

I had eight layers of long-sleeved clothing on. The innermost long-sleeved shirt was 100% wool. Wool is supposed to keep the cold at bay. Another layer was a 100% cotton cable-knit sweater, another was 100% polyester, and yet another one was 100% nylon, and the outermost coat was 75% wool; my head was covered with four layers of beanie, hood, cap, and a scarf to also cover my face. It was still mind-numbingly cold. My brother and I sat on our bags and tried to sleep with our backs to the wall. 

I had eaten dinner and I was absolutely certain we will have a nice breakfast again. In fact, my brother was looking for food in one of his forays outside the station.

Perspective #2

Money, indeed, is sometimes useless. 

We had the means to go to a hotel or a restaurant or even a McDonalds to wait for our 7 a.m. train. However, all the hotels near the station were all full and there was no McDonalds let alone an all-night restaurant. There was also no drinking pub or saloon. There was not even a taxi to take us to wherever hotels would be found. 

So, we talked, or my brother, to some of the refugees. I tried not to be afraid of the men who chose to sleep near to us. And even tried to be kind to one of them. We lent him our unused folded duffel bag instead, to use as pillow, when he asked to use, by sign language, one of our backpacks. 

Perspective #3

Self-protection.

I brought a flashlight cum Taser to Europe. I took it out for the first time when my brother left me two times to find a place to wait out the hairy night.  

When he came back, I almost got us electrocuted. Our first reaction was to let out a string of curses. Then I became weak with fright and laughed nervously. My brother continued to curse but at my negligence and inattention and then also laughed nervously. While all these were happening, I was aware that the men sleeping on the floor near us woke up to the commotion. They either sat up or craned their necks to watch and judge the situation. But when we laughed, they also laughed. And theirs were a combination of amused and reassurance. And it made us realize there was nothing to be afraid of. They were ultimately more vulnerable than my brother and me. 

But to most females, including me, even the most fearless and confident ones, rape and assault are the most dreaded thing. Sometimes our day-to-day lives and activities are controlled by that fear. 

Perspective #4

Sometimes it’s not about racism, but about social class and mobility.

In about nine or ten border crossings, we were only asked to show our passports three times—in transit as we were leaving Germany, in transit in the same train as we were entering Italy, and in transit as we were entering either Spain or Portugal. Showing passports and tickets to the conductor do not count. 

The people my brother spoke to said it was because many refugees would want to enter Italy. Apparently, once they reached Italian soil, immigration policies are not as harsh as the rest of Europe. We don’t really know what’s going on. One thing for sure, Italy have at least managed to prevent terror attacks in its cities. 

When we left the Italian border city to cross France for Spain, it was early morning. The morning after the incident mentioned in perspective #1. Before we left the station, immigration police were checking every nook and cranny of the train. Even the smallest compartments, where an infant would not fit, were opened. Screw drivers were used if they needed to. And the undocumented migrant workers and refugees who were caught inside the trains were hauled away.

We were not even asked to show our passports. And they were supposed to since we were about to cross back to France; Nice actually. 

Perspective #5

Looks can be deceiving, but sometimes the way we carry ourselves is exactly what we are. 

One of the homeless people that caught our attention was a man who would lay on his carton for a little while then get up and pace then repeat the process. His companions just curled and perhaps got some sleep on their cartons. He never let go of his small backpack. He was good-looking to be sure. But there was something about him that made us conclude he did not belong there. 

He was from Egypt. He was an engineer. He had a working visa that expired, but he did not want to return to Egypt. He wanted to reach London via Spain. He said there was a refugee camp somewhere near, but it was more hopeless than being in the station. He said that sometimes they can get jobs, but the money was never enough to buy train tickets or process their papers. My brother said he had excellent English, but heavily accented. 

Another homeless person that caught our imagination was this old man. He kept coming to stand in front of me and stare down on me (when my brother was away); there was no mistaking that. He did not look crazy. His stare was in fact shrewd and calculating, but not frightening. He was probably staking me for what he can get from me, if he can. 

He was wearing a scuffed leather coat and a paint-splattered denim jeans. He did not smell. Unlike the Egyptian or the homeless woman who laughed at the bed-owning-pant-wetting homeless woman. We tried to talk to him, but he did not speak English. My brother and I thought he was probably a spy or some kind of government agent or operator; most probably an American Spy. To observe what was going on with the refugees who were definitely coming from places that the U.S. had a war going on. Or maybe he was simply an insomniac local man. Or a tormented local artist.

None of them looked drunk. Some of them looked desperate, like one of the men who slept on the cold floor near us. 

Perspective #6

Kindness and gratitude are more powerful than love, whatever romantics may say to the contrary. Love may have caused wars, moved mountains, erected buildings, but it is every day kindness and unsought for gratitude that keep society together. 

So, we lent our bag to be used as a pillow to one of the men who huddled on the bare floor near us. The gratitude shown when he returned the bag was too much. 

If there was coffee to be had, even instant ones, we would have bought all of them a cup or two. 

But in the cold and harsh realities of daylight and schedules, it was every man for himself.  

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