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Fertile mind, foreign country...

Posted on November 12, 2013 at 5:50 AM

Any sojourn to a foreign country can be rocked by challenges, not the least of which can be your own mind.


You read correctly — your mind. My own got the better of me just two evenings ago, a mere 24 hours after I arrived in Poland for the United Nations Climate Change Talks, being held in the capital Warsaw.


I arrived on Saturday to learn from my taxi driver — a friendly gentleman — that my hotel, the lovely Bella Vista, is located in suburbia. That is, a good 30 to 40 minutes outside of the city where the UN talks are taking place. But not to worry; I have a day to get situated.


The following day — Sunday — bundled up for warmth, I head out of my hotel, intent on orienting myself to the area. I was going to catch the 502 bus (to Rawar) and then the 135 (to Aleja Zieleniecka) into the city, as per the instructions from two helpful hotel attendants, who had provided all this in writing for me.


But as the saying goes, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. A five-minute walk on the quest to find the bus stop saw me doubling back to a gas station to ask for help — for which, by the way, there was none forthcoming.


The first person — a gas station attendant — shook her head, indicating she spoke no English, while pointing me in the direction of a station shop. I get there to encounter two others, also unable to help because of the language barrier. Back outside, I talk to another woman with very little knowledge of English.


She could not tell me where to locate said bus stop, outside of pointing in a certain direction and then indicating that where I was headed ultimately was “very faraway”. Phmmm. What to do? Once again try to find the bus stop on my own, of course — the cold hitting me in the face, as I step confidently away from the gas station.


Twenty feet later, I give up the ghost; it’s too cold for this nonsense. I don’t speak the language and am seeing signs I cannot read, plus wherever the bus stop is, it certainly is not in sight! I head back to the hotel and do the sensible, Jamaican female thing — call a taxi.


Twenty minutes later, the taxi arrives and I am off. Irony or ironies, this taxi driver wears dreadlocks. Nice! That is a good sign. He learns I am Jamaican and we have a good laugh about the coincidence; you know, he wearing dreads on the portion of his head that has hair, my being Jamaican and all that.


We talk amiably all the way into the city. The subjects covered include — no surprise here — wonderful, sunny Jamaica. He cracks up at the fact that I leave warm, balmy Jamaica for the bone-chilling cold of Poland. Go figure, right? Wrong! I ought to have brought the sun with me.


He also expresses a desire to visit Jamaica and confesses a love for reggae. Fantastic! Jamaica scores again. Got to love it.

Finally we arrive; he gives me his number with instructions to call if I need a taxi back to suburbia. I agree. We will see how that goes. I don’t have a local SIM yet and with the language challenge, who knows.


And so begins my day in the city.

I get settled into the media centre and attempt, haltingly, to get familiar with the vast conference site that is the National Stadium. I then head to the city centre — with help from a really nice woman who spoke English and who provided directions and instructions for the tram, at risk of being chastised by her boyfriend who was waiting for her — to change some money. Of course, I get lost before I am able to find the ‘kantor’, if memory serves, where I do the exchange.


Afterward — with help from yet another nice woman, this one speaking only a little English, I head back to the stadium where I read a bunch of documents, file my first story and later — minutes to 8:00 pm — grab dinner with my Panos colleague Indi Mclymont Lafayette. By the time we get through, it is after 9:00 pm and so we walk to get a taxi. Indi, fortunately, is staying in the city.


I enter the taxi — and this is where my fertile mind begins to take over the reins. It begins with instructions to Indi to photograph the license plate. Or perhaps it began before. I never sit at the front of any taxi in a strange country; always, I am seated in the back. Indi takes note of the taxi number.


No problem, we have his details ‘on file’ and I am off, with instructions from Indi to send a Skype message once I get to suburbia. I agree. We are underway.


Fifteen minutes into the journey, paranoia really takes root. I begin to calculate the amount of time we have spent in transit, factoring in the fact that this taxi driver utters not a word and, nothing — not the streets, not the billboard signs, NOTHING — looks familiar. It is, after all, night. I tell myself this, but it doesn’t help.


Thirty or so minutes into the journey, I enquire of the driver how much longer to the hotel. He responds in Polish. I understood not a word, but perhaps his holding up five fingers is indicative of the fact that there is five minutes left on the journey?


By this time, I am plotting doing bodily harm — yes, serious bodily harm. I quickly run through my mind all the items in my knapsack that can be used as a weapon. My scan turns up nothing. ‘Typical’, I think, disgruntled.


But then, voila! It comes to me: my laptop power chord — that nice, thick extension bit that comes with my Mac. Perfect! I quietly remove it from the bag, holding it low while I wrap it around my hands, creating a garrote. The whole time I am doing this, I am talking to myself to stay calm and be prepared to act while images of murdered women from various news reports and films — the likes of Frozen Ground comes readily to mind now — flash through my mind’s eye. OMG!


Thankfully, I see an intersection that looks familiar and then a sign that reads ‘hotel’. I am there! Sweet relief. There is no need to fight for my life…


Dramatic, right? Perhaps. But what is a woman travelling alone in a foreign country to do? Have you seen Hostel? One has to be prepared. At least, that is how I rationalise it.


So what has the experience taught me? A number of things, actually.

1. The fear of crime — perhaps a carry over from my own country — can and does cloud your perception of your experiences.

2. Travel with a companion while in a foreign country. It helps to provide peace of mind, which is invaluable.

3. Not everyone is out to kill you; there are good people in the world — different language and other expressions of a foreign culture not withstanding.


— Petre Williams-Raynor


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