To be all alone in a country where the language is alien to your ears, where the signs for everything are strange symbols to your eyes, where your ears are constantly trying to tune into sounds that mean nothing, where the surprise of hearing English stuns you into heightened awareness – to be alone, in such a country – is a scary thing. When Maria waved goodbye to me, and I headed towards the bus station, and sat down on a bench inside the huge building; waiting for my bus to begin my journey south; after 4 days of being ‘protected’ in the bubble that is Santiago, I suddenly realised what it is like to be a fish out of water. At the bus station of a thousand strange faces, where I can’t even find the sign to the toilet – I could feel the eyes of people upon me. Eyes that followed me everywhere and bore into me like drills. To be the centre of attention is most uncomfortable especially if you don’t know if the attention is friendly or not. What were these eyes thinking? Were they planning schemes to rob me? Were they thinking of ways they could cheat me? Were these eyes looking at me with good intentions or bad? I struggled to understand their facial expressions.
The guy sitting next to me on the bench – could I trust him? Why did he keep looking at me? Was he wondering what was in my bags or in my pockets? Had he sat down after I arrived or had he been on the bench before me? I was relieved when he got up and left. But then another guy sat in his place and the paranoia began again. This one would turn his head to take a peak at me whenever I turned the other way. What is going on here! Am I some circus animal put up for display?
Or was I being unjustly paranoid?
I know for sure, that after a month and more of lone travel, I will feel less insecure about such things. The thing is – the 4 days I spent in Santiago with Maria and Mauricio were 4 days of ease. Everything was more or less taken care of for me. Now, I must learn to walk on my own and I can’t even find the sign for the toilet!
OK, it’s not as If I have not done trips like this before. It’s the language you see – or the inability to understand it. You could be alone in India, Thailand, Laos, anywhere in Africa, anywhere in Europe but its not a problem because everybody speaks English – but here, in South America – English is rarely spoken. You become encased in a cocoon of aloneness. Who can you have conversations with that are more complicated then asking where things are, or how much things cost? Anything much deeper then that or any sentence longer then 2 lines can only be had with yourself!
Will I go mad and end up speaking to myself?
A man who has lost his sense of sight, hearing and language. That’s how I feel right now. In English if I’d look at a word long enough it would suddenly appear unfamiliar. Now everything appears unfamiliar. Salida means exit – what is the sign or word for toilet? Just follow where the people seem to be heading and you might find it! And that’s how I do find it. The toilet! But then I have to work out how going to the toilet actually works. You have to buy a weird metal thing and then use that to open the gate first.
And how am I supposed to know that when I go to the pharmacy I have to pull a ticket first and wait for my number to be called before paying for something? Talking of which, why was the security lady in the pharmacy following me around? Did I look like the sort of person that goes around pharmacies nicking shaving gels? She would stand at the edge of the aisle and bend her head sideways to look at me and If I turned my head towards her, she’d hide behind the shelf. This is not funny. I’ve never been to a pharmacy and felt like a criminal before, ever.
The world is suddenly all threatening. I never felt threatened in London – even in dodgy areas like South London. When I am in a taxi I wonder if the driver is taking me for a ride. Can I trust him? – will he take me on a circuitous route and circle the whole city 4 x and charge me extra? What have I let myself in for? And suddenly I am overtaken by feelings of regret and uncertainty – why am I doing this and what am I hoping to achieve? I don’t even have anybody. Another person travelling with me would make it all so easier. But easy is not what I am looking for, and besides other people complicate things.
And then I realize what it is I am aiming for – a revelation. Si a revelacion born from the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar to serve as a shot in my veins to wake me up from the sleep of routine existence. The unfamiliar to inspire me. To inspire me to reassess my entire existence. Who am I? And what is this life of mine? In familiar surrounds such questions never bubble to the surface – and now, as I sit in this bus, after having being traumatised by the unfamiliar, these questions are bubbling to the surface…