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A Lady Who Traveled Alone
|by Ola de Sas|
It was strange how often I bumped into her during my travels. When I try to recall, it must have been at least ten years ago, when I saw her for the first time. It was in the Patmos hotel, near the Plaka (Athens, Greece). My wife and I, with a group of travelers, were waiting there to be allocated our rooms.
I saw her entering the hotel and noticed that she was a strikingly good looking woman, though her age must have been close to ours. Her fair hair was done in a bun and many freckles surrounded her very blue eyes. She was dressed in some sort of denim affair- skirt and jacket- with flat heeled shoes, and on her back she carried a rucksack.
'Fancy, carrying a rucksack at her age,' I said to my wife. 'No doubt she's an English spinster traveling alone,' I watched her with curiosity for a while, and then forgot about her in the excitement of acquiring a South African newspaper, 'The Star,' which our courier had managed to find. Later as we hurriedly tidied ourselves, so as not to be late for our tour of Athens, my wife remarked;
'Shame, she didn't get a room after all. It must be hard for a woman to travel alone.'
'What are you talking about?' I was busy looking for my after-shave in the suitcase, and getting annoyed.
'That woman we saw in the lobby, she was asking for a room for one night. You were wrong; she is not English, she is a South African from Johannesburg. I heard her
talking to the receptionist. I felt quite sorry for her, being alone in a strange city.'
'Why are you sorry?' I laughed. 'Maybe she likes traveling alone. These tours are not everybody's cup of tea. You rush here, you rush there. You're so well organized that after a while, you want to tell them to go to Hell; that they must leave you alone, you're not a child any more.'
'Really, Tom,' my wife was indignant, 'they're only trying to make us comfortable, and this is what they get in return from some ungrateful individuals. I wonder how you would manage on your own. You would mislay your passport, lose your traveler's cheques and forget your luggage at some station or other. Not that I would manage better, with my spastic bowel and the constant danger of thrombophlebitis I need all the comfort the decent hotels and luxury coaches can offer.'
I laughed heartily, 'We're a couple of old crocks, aren't we, dear? Still, it is good we can afford to see the world in this fashion; it makes for a happy retirement.'
The following year, my wife was with me no more, and though I thought I would never go on a tour alone, old habits die hard and I continued to travel this way.
After a time, I did not mind so much. There were always one or two people, like me, on their own, so we would sit together at meal times, go sight-seeing together but I never shared a room with any of them, so I fumed every time I had to pay the extra charge for a double room. It was not fair that my wife was not with me.
I saw that lone traveling woman one day at the Forum Romanum, and again the following year, as she entered Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. She always seemed to be alone, and I was intrigued. When I saw her again, on her knees, feeding the pigeons in Saint Mark's Square in Venice, I felt that I was watching somebody I knew quite well. I broke away from my group, which was about to enter Saint Mark's Basilica, and approached her, smiling:
She looked at me blankly and I was embarrassed.
'I mean,' I stuttered,' I seem to have met you so often in the past few years. I believe you're from Jo'burg?'
'I am,' she got up quite briskly, which was a surprise considering her age, but there are many people in Johannesburg, and I don't recall meeting you there. And now if you will excuse me' She walked away proudly, leaving me feeling very foolish.
'Blast,' I had become quite hot under my collar. Considering that my poor wife had felt sorry for her, what a pity that I could not tell her that she had wasted her sympathy on this silly old spinster. But, I thought, it served me right. Fancy me, trying to pick up strange females at my age. Not that I was without my conquests. Here and there a lonely widow on the tour sought my company, and occasionally, even a young chick did not mind when I invited her for a glass of wine or a meal in a restaurant. But now that was all over; I realized that I was getting on. This woman had put me back in my place.
Having reached this conclusion I began to deteriorate. My rheumatism became worse, and I found myself looking for an excuse not to go on a tour the following year. I dreaded all the packing, rushing in and out of airplanes trains and coaches, and decided it was all too much for me. I looked in the mirror and saw that my hair was thinning on top and definitely getting grayer, my moustache was drooping and my once reasonably handsome features were becoming withered and sickly looking. I knew that I had started to walk with a limp and I knew that I was an old man.
I started playing bridge at the club for senior citizens. The empty house unnerved me.
One day I confided in my bridge partner, Roy that I was giving up traveling.
'Nonsense,' Roy protested. 'You must change the way you're traveling. These tours are too strenuous for people like you and me. Why don't you go on your own? Choose a place or two where you want to spend a holiday and stay there for a few weeks. Explore the country-side, sit in the sun and taste the local food and wine. You will learn more about the place and the people this way than rushing through half a dozen countries in ten days.'
I smiled, unconvinced. 'My wife used to say I was not capable of doing it. She said I would lose all my possessions or be robbed. I am rather absent minded.
Roy laughed: 'Try man. Prove that she was wrong. You're a big boy now!'
'I like my comforts; I tried to find an excuse. You know we're not as young as we used to be.'
'Try,' Roy insisted,' then you will feel twenty years younger. You won't regret it.'
The more I thought of it, the better I liked the idea. I knew the place I wanted to see again, it was the island of Santorini, somewhere in the Aegean Sea. I had had a glimpse of it while we were on a cruise. My wife had not been well enough to leave the cabin, or to ride by mule up those hundred steps leading to the capital, so we stayed on board. I remember being fascinated by the color of the cliffs, the sea and the strange volcanic mountain. It would be interesting to stay there for a while, without a group of my country-men to stop my explorations. This time, I decided there would be neither bookings nor arrangements. I would just go, and see how I survived.
I regretted my decision as soon as I left the security of the South African Airways Boeing. Athens airport was crowded to capacity, there were not enough trolleys for the luggage, and the queue was a mile long, as we waited for taxis. By the time I reached Piraeus, I was exhausted. My suitcase was too heavy, and my clothes were too hot for the Greek summer. The crowd of young people strolling along the sea front, carrying their rucksacks effortlessly, made me very conscious of my limitations. There was no boat to Santorini that day, but that I could go to Mykanos and catch a connection from there.
Anything was better than the heat, the noise, the stench and the crowds of people in Piraeus. So I bought a ticket and proceeded to the boat. Somehow I survived, and secured a seat on the deck. It was such a relief to sit down at last. The boat was so full that every inch of deck space was occupied with people and cages of cackling hens and ducks. We departed to the accompaniment of bouzouki music, and the loud tooting of the boat's horn.
The sun beat down mercilessly on my face, my throat was dry and my stomach was empty. When the first houses of Mykanos appeared on the horizon, I thought only of a long, leisurely stop at a tavern where cool wine and delicious moussaka would be served.
Alas, the boat for Santorini via Ios was about to depart. There was a mad rush to get onboard, when I finally pushed my suitcase onto the deck and looked around for a place to sit, I could not believe my eyes. There she was, the traveling lady. And next to her there was a vacant seat.
'We meet again!' I exclaimed. 'May I sit next to you?'
She made a none-too-graceful movement, and returned to the book she was reading. What a spoil-sport, I thought, but if she does not want to be friendly, that is her business. I was too tired to bother anyway. As we left the jetty, the passengers began to move around, and I found a seat next to a German couple. They could hardly speak any English, but that suited me. I would not be upset by the strange behavior of that woman!
The islands rose from the sea and disappeared again as our little boat chugged along. There was sky, sea, and seagulls all the time. Most of the passengers were Germans on a tour to Santorini, but there were some English couples and a few French and other nationalities , and except the woman from Johannesburg, all were friendly. I dozed, dreamed and listened to the bouzouki music while trying not to think of moussaka.
Many people disembarked at Ios, only the Germans and my, 'Gracious lady' remained.
It was late afternoon when we reached the island, and it was as if we had entered a fairy land. Our little boat steamed beside the great clumps of cliffs which towered out of the sea perpendicularly, and on the top of the rocky mountain, was a settlement of dazzling white houses. In the last rays of the sun, the cliffs glittered in colors of ochre, brown, yellow and green and the whole place looked enchanting'except for the menacing black surface of the volcano emerging from the sea like a monster, ready to strangle this beautiful island. Standing at the prow of the boat, I felt elated and eager to explore.
At the main jetty I saw the famous staircase to the capital. There were many boats moored, including a luxury liner anchored nearby, but as it turned out, there was nowhere for us to land. So we had to go in search of another jetty. It was late in the evening when we sailed into Athininos. The place looked deserted and I dragged my suitcase to the landing stage and followed the German tourists, who were disembarking. There were buses in the small square, and I approached one of them.
'Are you with the tour?' the driver asked.
'No,' I was surprised, 'but I want to go to the town to look for a hotel.'
'These are reserved coaches for tour people only. You must find a taxi. You are not allowed here. I may lose my license if I let you in.'
The coached departed, some practically empty. The German tourists were in one of them, probably to join their group who were already at Santorini.
I looked around and realized I was not alone. She was there too.
'We're really in the soup,' I remarked.
She nodded, 'Better phone a taxi, look there's a shop.'
After many attempts at being understood, we managed to convince the Greek shop-keeper that he should call a taxi for us. It was a long wait for the car and an even longer drive to Thera (the capital of Santorini).
'No rooms vacant tonight,' the taxi man assured us happily, 'Thera is full, full, full.'
It was midnight when we reached the town, and night life was still in full swing. The shops were open, restaurants full and people strolling everywhere. The taxi dropped us in the main street and the man collected his fare, which we scrupulously divided between us. Now we were on our own.
My companion put on her rucksack and briskly bid me good-bye. 'Well, good-luck. I hope you find some accommodation soon; that suitcase must weigh a ton.'
I nodded in agreement and limped to the first hotel I could see, the Poseidon Hotel which was of course full, but the proprietor took pity on me and agreed to keep my case until I found a room.
'Hurry up, because we lock up soon.' He shouted after me.
I trudged from hotel to hotel. I asked shop-keepers, waiters and passers by, but no luck. The town was really full. Finally I dragged myself back to the Poseidon Hotel.
'No luck? I told you, didn't I?' The Greek beamed, 'Big night for Thera but bad one for you, eh? You look tired, right? So I decided to give you our bedroom-a lovely big room. Do you have a wife, or a lady friend? I bet you have, bring her here.'
I started to protest, but he shrugged me off.
'You're lucky, we have a place to go. My daughter has gone to a wedding at Oia and we shall sleep at her place.'
I still wanted to protest, but the big bed looked so inviting I just wanted to lie down and never get up again. From the balcony, overlooking the street, I could see the shops were closing and there were less people strolling about.
'Where is your lady?' The Greek asked, 'is she in yet?'
'No not yet.'
The Greek handed me the key to the front door. 'Open up for her when she comes back. I am going now,' I thanked him and remained on the balcony wondering what to do. I wondered why I bothered about her. She had probably found a room long ago, and was now fast asleep. I was so tired.
Then I saw her. She was dragging her feet along the cobbled street and she looked utterly exhausted. I was shocked and felt strangely protective towards her.
'Hallo,' I called softly, 'I found a room; you're welcome to share it with me.'
She glanced up at me, 'Good for you,' she said, 'good-night.'
I saw her disappearing down a lane and I felt bad about the whole situation. I ran down and followed at a distance. She was not searching for a room any more, and I saw her collapse on to one of the benches which overlook the sea and the volcano.
I coughed discreetly and sat next to her. 'The hotelier thought we were together and he offered his own room to us,' I tried to make my offer more acceptable to her. 'You're very tired, you need to rest, you take the room and I'll stay here.'
'I am fine, thanks. I'll wait here till the morning.'
'Then we are both going to sit here,' I said, 'I won't let you spend the night alone on a bench.'
'Why not? Are you my husband that you think you can tell me what to do? Now leave me alone.'
'Here is the key to the front door of the Poseidon. Room seventeen. Please do what I say. I would do this for any woman, we are compatriots after all, aren't we?
Please! This is a genuine offer, no strings attached.' I smiled at her and suddenly she capitulated.
'Very well then...'She said, picking up her rucksack. 'I must say, this is very good of you, I do appreciate it.'
I sat on the bench for a long time, gazing at the young moon touching the sea with its silver light. I dozed a little; I became stiff and cold and decided to take a stroll. As I walked past the hotel I heard the woman's voice, 'Pst'
I looked up. There she was in her dressing gown, beckoning to me: 'Please come up,' she called softly. 'I shall open the door for you.'
'It is all nonsense,' she said, as I entered her room. 'We're both mature people and there is enough bed-space for both of us.' She divided the bed with her rucksack and my suitcase. 'I don't see why you should suffer because of my Victorian upbringing.'
I muttered my thanks and lay down. I did not undress, so that I would not cause her any embarrassment or arouse any suspicion, but I did take off my shoes and loosen my belt. I was asleep within seconds and then I had the most wonderful dreams.
I was woken up suddenly by a rumbling noise. It was so loud that it seemed as if the whole earth was vibrating. Also there was a frightening cry coming from my bed. I stretched out my hand, protectively and touched her hair; then she reached for me, past our barricade.
'The volcano has erupted. Did you hear it? Oh, I'm so scared,' she wailed.
Yes, she was right. Oh God! I remember reading about the devastation that this volcano has caused in the past. It was similar to what had happened on the island of Krakatoa, the island Krakatoa of was almost destroyed. I jumped out of bed and flung the shutters open.
'We must go down to the street,' I shouted,' the building may collapse.'
I looked down and saw that the narrow streets leading to the 'staircase,' the harbor was jammed with mules and donkeys being chased by their drivers.
The Greek hotelier waved to me cheerfully from below.
'The animals are running down to be in time for when the boats arrive. Did they wake you up? They make a big noise, eh?'
'Come here.' I called to the terrified woman sitting on the edge of the bed. 'Look,' as she stood by my side, I pointed to the animals, 'this is your earthquake, my dear; by the way, I don't even know your name.'
'Mary, ' she smiled, her eyes were sparkling blue and I smiled back at her.
'I'm Tom. Let's go out this evening, to celebrate our miraculous escape from the volcano, shall we?'
After that we became good friends. We rented two rooms, so that everything was correct and proper, and we did lot of sight-seeing together. We sampled the Greek culinary delicacies, as well as the wonderful Santorini wines at various taverns. But whatever we did, Mary insisted on paying her share. She had to be independent. This was the only trait in her which I found irritating and unbecoming. At the time, I did not know the reason for it.
I really loved the island, especially our walks in the evenings along the cliffs. The sea was usually calm and molten silver in the moonlight, at such times we spoke in whispers, so that we should not disturb the quietness of the place, which was far away from the merry and noisy settlement. It was in those moments, that I was filled with happiness again.
But alas, Mary was a keen student of ancient civilizations and she decided to join a tour to Crete which was to be conducted by a professor of archeology, an expert in the Minoan civilization. I agreed to go with her, what would Santorini, and the walks along the cliffs be without her? We paid a deposit for the tour, packed our bags and then went to Kamari for our last swim and fresh scampi.
That night I had an attack of fibrositis. When Mary knocked to wake me in time for breakfast, I was prostrated with pain.
'I can't go, Mary please forgive me.'
She was concerned, but I assured her that after a rest, I would be alright. I knew, because it had happened before. The boat was due to depart for Crete within an hour, and when Mary came to say goodbye, I could see that she was excited, and that made me feel sad.
'Have a good time,' I said, 'I'm glad I met you. It was difficult to make your acquaintance but it was very worth while. I still wonder sometimes why you were so touchy about your independence. Perhaps, one day when we meet again, you will tell me.'
I kept thinking of her after she had gone. I wished I could have left with her, and later when I heard the sound of the horn, I knew that the boat was leaving the jetty. 'Goodbye my darling Mary,' I whispered.
Then there was a sudden knock at the door and before I could call, 'Come in,' I saw her standing there, her arms full of flowers and fruit, and she was beaming at me.
'I've decided not to go to Crete,' she announced calmly.
'But why, Mary?'
'You need me, don't you? Don't argue. You did not abandon me when I was all alone on that bench, too tired to move. How can I abandon you now that you cannot move?'
'Oh my darling, my dearest darling. I love you so much.' I tried to take her in my arms but collapsed with a groan.
She cuddled next to me.
'The only regret I have,' she smiled, 'is that I could not prove to myself that I could be completely independent of a man. My late husband used to say that I was hopeless and could not manage anything without him; I have been proving to myself, ever since he died, that I could. Have I succeeded?'
'Up to a point,' I laughed. 'But don't worry; my late wife used to say that I would lose my passport, money and luggage if I traveled alone. She was right in a way, because I lost something much more important; I lost my heart.' I managed to put my arms round her, 'Promise me, no more traveling alone, dear heart?'
'No more,' she agreed happily.
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