Turn Left at the Mosque

It happens in almost every city I visit. I am asked for directions – and I often know where to direct the lost souls. I was in Sydney less than twenty-four hours and was asked in a train station where was Platform 7. Up the stairs to the left. I had a flock of tourists following me to the Diwali Festival in Auckland, as I knew the way from my visit earlier that day.

I have given directions in Spanish on the London Tube, counting the number of stops to their destination – uno, dos, tre…up to ochos. I don’t look like I belong in Cairo, Dubai or Muscat, but have succesfully given directions to tourists in those cities.

My first day in Brisbane I was asked where was WIckham Terrace. This one I didn’t know. I stumbled upon it later that day and my hotel this weekend is on said street. Sorry, lady, I failed you.

I have thought about why I get approached so much. I certainly walk with confidence, even if I don’t know where I am going. I confidently walked 4 kilometers in the wrong direction yesterday to revisit the South Bank Beach. Betty will confirm that we confidently walked many kilometers out of the way to find Central London from our hotel in Kensington.

Do I have a kind, approachable face or demeanor? What is it? Does this quality leave me vulnerable to hooligans, scoundrels, rascals and reprobates?

Yesterday, I stopped to take a picture in Anzac Square on my way to catch the train back to Ipswich. Seconds after taking the photo, I could see a young, clean cut kid of about 20 making a B line for me.

“Are you a backpacker?” he asked enthusiastically.

“Sort of,” I replied. I did have my day pack with all my beach gear on my back so I could see how he would make the mistake. But I am getting a little long in the tooth for backpacking and not many backpackers stay at the Sofitel Resort in Bora Bora…or fly Business Class for that matter.

The entire ten minute encounter is a blur. No directions were given, but here is what unfolded.

His first question, after hello, was where was I going after Brisbane – north or south. He wanted to go south as he wanted to be in Sydney for New Year’s Eve. But Sydney is very expensive, as is all of Australia. I agreed. He then asked my name and introduced himself. He was German. I didn’t quite catch his name, but it was close to Mattias. He’s been in Brisbane three weeks. He’s staying at City Backpackers. Where was I staying? I told him about HelpX.net and he agreed it sounded fantastic. I asked if he new about the South Bank Beach. He did and had been there. We compared other notes in a whirlwind.

I had taken the photo in Anzac Square with my iPhone. I was certainly friendly and gave some good traveller advice, but when he asked for my phone number, I motioned to my iPhone and said I didn’t have a local number and don’t use it and that I didn’t have a a local Australian mobile. He offered the name of a good Australian mobile company. I wrote down the HelpX website and gave him my email and then said I had to catch my train to the suburbs. Before parting ways, he said he was assembling a ‘funny gift’ for a friend and he was asking people if I had anything I could contribute. Strange request, I thought. I replied I did not. Later I realized I did have several 50,000 Vietnamese bank notes in my bag (worth about $2 each).

As a traveller, I try not to be suspicious or excessively cautious as interactions with people are one of the great joys of traveling. I like to think I have good instincts and can sense when something is not right. I thought about what if Mattias had been ten years older and less “clean cut”. Would I have spent the time with him or simply dismissed him from the start and hurried along to catch my train? And why should I make a judgment based on age or appearance? If it were dark and we were not in a busy square what would I have done?

When you travel by yourself you are faced with these questions all the time – and I can only imagine how a solo female traveller must feel. If you close yourself off to every stranger that approaches, you will be deprived of one of the many great joys of travel.

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. – Francis Bacon

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dolcie Graham says:

    Francis Bacon’s words are so true and so are yours. Enjoy yourself, meet people and trust your instincts.

  2. Annette says:

    Hi Terry. Your ponderings about remaining open with travelling alone reminded me of an encounter I had in a train station one night in the Czech Republic. I was in transit between Vienna and Poland and was catching a connecting train there. Upon disembarking, I was hit by the knowledge that a) I really, really, really spoke no Czech at all b) I only had Euros on me, not koruna and c) I was too hungry and tired for words. I wandered around the train station for a while, trying to figure out which track I was supposed to get to (or what the Czech word for “track” was). I was even approached by what I think were Czech Jehovah Witnesses who quickly gave up when they realized that I didn’t understand them.

    Anyway, I finally sat down on a bench to figure out what to do next when a young woman sitting nearby said something to me in Czech. I sighed and said “Sorry, I speak English” when she said “Oh, ok…I asked if you could watch my bags for me for a minute.”

    I hate to admit it, but my first reaction was …errr, bad idea?? But I thought, what the hell, and said sure. It turns out she wasn’t a terriorist but a lovely university student, studying English in Prague and returning home for Christmas. We have a great conversation, and time flew until I had to catch my train.

    It was a split-second decision, but it made all the difference to my experience of that time and place.

    Keep up the posts, Mr, Terry! I am enjoying them immensely!

    1. peiterry says:

      I love this story, Annette! And I know exactly how you would have felt and possibly hesitated or declined the request.

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