Thursday, July 1, 2010

the joys of travel

(warning: this post does not contain my usual rants about Rome and/or being an expat)

Another year older, another year wiser? Perhaps "wiseass-er", if that were a word. I've been reflecting on my life thus far and do admit I consider myself lucky. I've had so many great experiences, met so many great people, traveled to so many great places. I firmly believe travel should be obligatory for all: you learn so much about yourself, the world, and humankind in general.
Lately I've been thinking about one specific travel incident that happened to me years ago, when I was younger, freer, and didn't work freelance. Yeah, as odd as it may seem, working freelance has halted my travel because I never really know when work will come my way so plans are hard to make.
It was June-July of 1999 and I grabbed a backpack, stuffed a few things in it and flew to Tunisia. That's how I used to roll: me & a guide book… no tours, no guides, no companions. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to see during my 9 days there but played it by ear most of the time.
One day I decided to get on a train to Gabes because I wanted to go to Matmata. For those of you who don't know, Star Wars was filmed in this town and I wanted to see it because… I like Star Wars. Don't judge me, I grew up on those films. Anyway, while on the train I hear an announcement that I can't understand (I speak no French or Arabic) but I suspect they're announcing a delay since the train is running late. A conductor walks by and I stop him to ask more info. I tried in Italian first (although this was pre 9/11, I always traveled to Arab countries on my Italian passport instead of the American one and passed myself off as an Italian... dunno why, but I felt "safer" that way) and then in English, to no avail. Suddenly, an Arab man who was more or less my age, pops up and explains to me in Italian what the situation is. Said Arab man and I strike up a conversation and he confesses his love for Italy and the Italian language. Now mind you, I may have been in my 20s but I always had street smarts and an incredible ability to sniff out a freak from miles away. This guy seemed totally harmless and was not at all trying to mack on me. We chatted for hours and then we reached Gabes later than planned, so it was dark out. I hadn't booked a hotel but knew the general area I was going to stay in. The man, Hichem, tells me he would gladly host me at his home. At this point, I wondered if my freak-radar was out of whack and I just laughed and said "Non credo proprio" (I don't think so). He was smart enough to understand why I'd be hesitant and assured me that his home was his parents', meaning he lived with his mom, dad, and two sisters. I politely declined and said goodbye and started walking away. He kept at it and assured me it was safe. He even went so far as to say, you can walk with me there (which was in the general direction I would've been heading) and if you feel uncomfortable you don't have to come in. I figured there was no harm in that, so I walked with him to the center of town. We reach his home and he goes in to inform his family of the new pet he'd brought home from the train, his sisters rush outside with him to greet me and were incredibly thrilled to see a strange foreign girl traveling alone. They were extremely nice and polite. I agreed to go in. Sounds like insanity, right? My mom would've flipped out had she known (hi mom, even if you don't know I have a blog), but I trusted my gut and felt like this would be a great experience. And indeed it was.
Hichem's family was amazing, they were not wealthy but not dirt-poor either. They were very caring, attentive and even protective of me, they couldn't believe I was traveling alone. I stayed with them for two nights, they made me breakfast, let me shower in their home, offered me the best bed in the house (they all slept on mattresses on the floor). I also spent lots of time with Hichem (settle down, it was TOTALLY platonic). One night we walked to a fancy hotel in town and had beers at the bar, chatting till late at night about life, about our different cultures, about how strange it was that I, a Westerner, could sit at a bar and drink with him, whereas his sisters could not. His father was very strict with the sisters so they were rarely allowed to do anything. Hichem also offered to accompany me to Matmata and Chenini, his presence made it soooo much easier for me- not only because of the language barrier, but also because I had a male guardian to ward off any weirdos.
On day three, I packed up to leave, much to his family's disappointment. They wanted me to stay longer and see more sights in their area but I needed to move on and head back up north. I thanked them profusely, wrote down their address so I could send postcards, gifts, etc., told his sisters (who also loved Italy) that they were welcome to come stay with me in Rome, and headed to the train station with Hichem. We said goodbye and parted ways. Five minutes later he rushes into the train and hands me a paper bag, kisses me on the forehead in a brotherly way (settle down!) and rushes out. I open the bag to find snacks, beverages, and fruit for my long train ride.We kept in touch for many years, I sent packages to his family, his sisters were never allowed to come visit unfortunately and then we lost touch…
Still to this day I have such fond memories of my time with Hichem & his family. It was truly the most amazing experience. I'm eternally grateful to him for his immense generosity and his immense trust in humankind.

This, my friends, is what traveling is all about…


Saretta said...

That was truly an awesome connection you made there. I had a similar experience in Spain many years ago, but I was not alone. I have never been brave enough to travel alone.

Romerican said...

Traveling solo is one of the greatest pleasures in life (for me at least)! I need to find some time to do it again SOOOOON.

Kataroma said...

Travelling solo (or rather sola) is how I met my now husband. ;)

That is such a nice story, romerican.