Clearly, this was not a good idea.
I’ve been lost before. Hell, I’ve made it a standard practice. I wander the world directionless, shifting through an endless maze of crowded bodies and coiled streets, signs only sometimes written in a script I recognize. I’ve learned to love losing myself, descending into city and popping out again where I least expect to find me.
I’d been warned.
“Public transportation is never safe at night,” my guidebook read, “If you must go somewhere after dark, stay in a group.”
“That’s a red zone,” Dorothy whispered, voice so low it shook, “We don’t go there anymore.”
Even my country’s reckless government kept its volunteers away; I stood alone at the brink of needless hazard.
I arrived deep in a starless night. The sky was an ink spill leaking through the seams of the horizon, soaking into every blackened blade of grass. My eyes squinted through the scuffed glass into the emptiness that the ascetamine glow of the one working headlight failed to banish. Blind, I dug into my purse, searching with the my fingertips, digging through the damp tissues, around the cookie crumbs, and under the wallet that refused to get out of the way. I fought the illogical urge to dump everything out upside-down, and letting out a frustrated breath, grabbed hold of the cell phone at last. Midnight.
A part of me felt secure holding the soft weight of the phone in my hand, reporting in with a friend now five hundred kilometers away. A smarter part of me knew indisputably that if the shit went down this could be my own story’s climax.
Despite my growing sense of dread, I’d done my best to make friends with the man pressed against my left side. We’d been squished together that way for the past eight hours, four passengers in a row of three. Each of us spoke just enough French to have something to answer each other’s questions with but neither of us knew enough to understand the questions correctly. He’d made me his charge, though, which I appreciated even as I kept my trust clasped tight in one hand, hidden away from him. I didn’t know this man but I needed him.
”I have to go here,” I told him, pointing on the map, “I need to go to this hotel. This is where my friend is waiting for me.”
“Ah, of course. I know that hotel well and I know what you need to do to get there. You will need to get off at the second stop, you know. [I nodded.] Yes, don’t worry though, I will help you get off at the correct bus stop so that you can go to your hotel,” he told me using a complicated mixture of French, Cameroonian, facial expressions and pointing.
At least, I hope that’s what he was trying to tell me.
We stopped at the north edge of town.
“Is this my stop?” I asked in English.
Everyone shook their heads, the next one, I understood in their pantomime, and so I leaned back from the night and allowed myself to be carted further into the center of the red zone.
At once, all heads but mine turned to look behind us.
We just passed your stop, that was it there.
A few kilometers further down the road the bus rolled to an incomplete stop and my keeper bounded out of the car, yanking me along, handing me off to a rickshaw driver and showing me which colorful bill I was to use to pay him with. Do not overpay, give him only this much.
I had already loaded my backpack into the cart when there was a change in my plans. My guardian snatched me back up, pulled me and my bag away from the army of rickshaws that lined the late night streets and put me back on the bus.
Most of the passengers had gotten out, and I found myself now seated next to a man about the same age as me.
“It’s better to go in the car,” he told me in English.
“In the bus? But they passed my stop already.”
“No, to go back. Better in the car.”
We had already left the city limits and were crawling around and around the black alleys before I realized that he meant his own personal car.
My caretaker got out. He will take you back to your hotel.
As the passengers disembarked and the night deepened, the drivers shifted the cargo from the top of the van to its interior. I sad amidst the bags of rice, charcoal and live poultry, protected by a fortress of mislabeled 50 kilogram sacks. A goat sat on my left, his legs tied. If I’d been the humming sort, I would have started humming here.
A few stops later and the man who offered to take me back stepped down off the bus, holding up a hand to stop my approach, “It’s late. I have to go now.”
“Wait, how am I getting back to my hotel?”
But he was gone and I was alone with the four bus drivers and the goat.
“Are you taking me back to my hotel?” I tried, first in English, then in French, forcing my lips back and up into a mockery of a smile.
None of them turned my way.
I asked again, louder, in French and twice.
I touched the goat in the eye, just to make sure I still existed. He blinked; stared right through me.
I texted my friend with another late-night update.
“That’s weird,” was all he wrote back.
I turned my eyes back out to the universe, soaking it in, filling myself up with the darkness around me. If this was going to me my final adventure, I was going to watch each moment roll along outside, even if all I could see was black. In the night outside my window, I pictured the cityscape, watched families sleeping next to a softly glowing fire pit, the deep orange embers cozy and familiar.
But that orange glow was real, and arched up along a vertical surface taller than two of me standing one above the other.
And the glow curled along a soft cursive French word, and the word was familiar.
We screeched to a full stop in front of the neon sign.
“Hotel,” the driver told me, and giving the goat a playful pat, I bounced out of the van and into a hot shower and a soft bed.