Someone once asked me what I’m afraid of. I thought about that for a while, and the only answer I could think of was that I feared fear itself; when you’re as immovable as a mountain with your thoughts screaming at you in made-up languages of your mind. There aren’t many instances where I felt that way but one particular incident comes close because I felt all of the following at once:
Not to mention I couldn’t swallow or breathe because of the gigantic lump that had formed in my throat. So I decided to share this experience with all of you, from beginning to end.
It was rainy season in Cape Town. Fog coated the air and my face and fingers were numb because of the cold. I had stayed at University quite late; it was my first and, after this experience, last time to ever leave University just before sunset. I stood at the bus-stop which was nearly empty because of the miserable weather and the hour. Darkness enveloped the sky and after standing in wait for half an hour, fat icy raindrops fell down mercilessly. I called my mom, asking if there was any way that I could get a ride home, but I already knew the answer. We had no car, the drive home would be over an hour-long and to top it off it was during Ramadaan.
I couldn’t break my fast because I had no food with me and the little stores across the street were closed for the night. I had to wait for a bus to take me home, so I waited. And waited. Turns out there was only one bus left for the night and, sure enough, it wasn’t the one that would take me home. I called my mom again and she told me to get on the bus, that its destination wasn’t that far from where we lived and that I just had to look out of the window and keep track of where I was.
That sounded easy enough except I didn’t get a window seat and I couldn’t see through the windows anyway because of all the fog. I looked around, hoping that I’d recognize someone but there wasn’t a familiar face. After what felt like hours many of the seats became vacant. I scooted over to a window seat and wiped at it vigorously with my jacket sleeve so that I could see. It made no difference because what I saw didn’t help me. What I saw was:
- Dirt roads
- Trees and bushes everywhere
- No signs except one that said “Phillippe”
And no, that was not where I was supposed to be. I could feel my throat tightening, my breath hitching slightly and that’s when I screamed, jumped from my seat, ripped my clothes off and jumped out of the window. OK that didn’t happen although it played out in my mind a few times. I don’t know why but I’ve never lost my cool in situations like that. Inside I’d be panicking with a million thoughts racing through my mind, but on the outside I’d stay calm, scared that if I lost it I’d be sent to a lunatic asylum. This was no exception except that my heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest and into my lap.
After a while there were only a handful of people on the bus. We stopped at a set of traffic lights in a deserted road and I went up to the driver, asking him if he could drive to an area that I knew. Obviously with the luck I was having that night he said no. But that isn’t all he said.
“You’re here by yourself?” he asked in a thick Xhosa accent.I nodded and he shook his head saying, “Girls like you can’t be out like this. In this neighborhood. You going to get killed tonight.”
And then he laughed.
Seriously, who tells a lost University student who didn’t grow up in Cape Town that she was going to get killed in a dodgy neighborhood and then laughs about it?I had no choice but to get off the bus unless I wanted to stay with the bus driver and a man in a grey hooded jacked sitting all the way at the back.
A woman got off with me; she was short and plump and wore a thick dark jacket and a winter hat. I stood on the pavement, looking at signs, houses, anything that might be remotely familiar. There was nothing familiar about where I was.
The woman turned to me, and having heard my conversation with the driver told me that I wasn’t far from where I wanted to be, “Just cross the road, and keep walking straight. All the way down.” I’m sure I mumbled an uneasy thank you while still trying to make sense of where I was. I crossed the road and stood on the pavement while I called my mom.
“Where are you?” she asked
“Uhm, I don’t know.”
“Tasneem. Look around. Where are you?”
There was a huge poster on a building and I gave her the description.
‘Ok, wait there. We’re coming now.”
I could tell she was panicking. Here I was, out in the cold, in a drug-infested neighborhood, while it rained relentlessly with night increasing by the minute.
I looked across the road only to see a group of men, huddled together looking at me. I should have walked away, I know that, but I couldn’t. In the corner of my eye I saw someone crossing the road to where I was standing; it was the woman from the bus. She held onto my arm and told me to keep walking. She went on to say that she couldn’t leave me, that it wasn’t safe and that bad things happen often around there. I don’t know why, but I trusted her. I always joke around saying that I can feel people’s auras, and so far I’ve never been wrong. She walked briskly down the pavement with her arm intertwined in mine and all the while I prayed; prayed for her safety, that she’d get home and have a good life because she was the kindest stranger I’d ever met. And, really, how many people would risk their own lives for someone they just met?
I could tell she was anxious, so I asked where she worked and if she had family. She worked as a nurse and had two sons. While we were talking, trying to distract each other, my phone rang; it was my mom, asking where I was. At that point I could see my mom and uncle, running in my direction. We stopped walking and my mom came up to us, thanking the woman. I didn’t know how else to thank her, so I hugged her and held on for longer than necessary because I knew I’d never see her again. I’ve never felt that way about a complete stranger but there was something about her and her warm complexion that somehow radiated the warmth of her soul. There’s no other way to explain it.
While I was on the bus, dazed and lost, I kept telling myself that there was a reason this was happening. Of course I was trying to make myself feel better but whenever things don’t go according to plan, I tell myself there’s a reason for it. I guess it was destiny to meet that woman, to have a bit of faith restored in humanity because I didn’t believe that such people even existed anymore.
Sure enough, I never saw her again. I don’t know what would have happened to me if she hadn’t helped me when she did. I don’t like to think of it because I know it wouldn’t have been anything good. Wherever she is, I doubt that she thinks of what happened in the same light as I do because out of all the strangers I’ve met along the way, she’s the one I’ll never forget. Because when I look back on that night I don’t remember the numbing fear that I felt, I remember how kind she was.
And I’m forever grateful.
If you have a memorable encounter with a stranger, feel free to share it because I’d like to hear it 🙂