Fear works like breaks on a car. There is no moving forward and no going back, we stay there frozen like a deer in the headlights, whenever we hit the fear-pedal.
One of my first assignments as an interpreter brought me to Tunisia, Africa. When they asked me if I would be available, I screamed YES and I run around like a bouncy ball for the rest of the day. I started planning and packing right away, even though the trip was still two weeks away. I couldn’t believe it; my dreams came true, I would work in Africa for at least 4 weeks. It was in the 80’s and back then it wasn’t so common for a woman to travel alone, not even when it was a business trip. My husband didn’t feel too comfortable either, but he saw the excitement in my eyes and so he didn’t say much. He asked me to be safe and I promised him that I wouldn’t do anything stupid. I can now say, that he should have known better.
The heat took my breath away when I left the plane in Africa. Everything was different than I had imagined it. Lots of sand and funny looking houses; the people were loud and talked in a language that I couldn’t understand.
I stayed in a very nice hotel, had a beautiful room with a gorgeous view that overlooked the busy city. I went out on the balcony and stood there for a very long time; it wasn’t at all how I had expected it to be. That wasn’t the Africa that I longed to see. There were no elephants, giraffes and lions. The city was loud, there were noises everywhere and I could smell all kind of things and I didn’t like any of it.
A hotel manager stopped by my room welcomed me and gave me a long list of things I wasn’t suppose to do. “Don’t go outside alone,” was one of the things he made very clear to me. “Don’t mingle with the natives, we can’t guarantee your safety,” he went on and on. Don’t do this and don’t do that. I nodded that I understood and felt frustrated. I understood the danger, but didn’t like it.
It made me sad, I was in Africa and all I would see was the place where I worked and the hotel. I sat on my bed and cried and cried. My very first trip alone -without a supervisor- turned out to be a total disaster.
The work was OK; just being stuck in the hotel bothered me. I was bored; there wasn’t much to do besides swimming in the pool or sitting at the bar.
A few days later I came back to the room, when the maid was still there. A beautiful young woman was making my bed and cleaning my room. I sat down in a chair and took of my shoes. My feet were hurting and I looked at my red, high heel sandals that had caused all the pain. I never really liked them and should never bought them, because they were too small and I knew it. I don’t know why I had taken them with me, but now I had enough and I threw them in the waste basket.
The maid looked at me in disbelieve and she took the shoes out of the basket. She handed them back to me and I shook my head. I didn’t want them anymore. She was holding the shoes so gently and she looked at them like they were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She didn’t understand why I had thrown them away, they were almost brand new.
“Essayez-les” I said and pointed to her feet. She sat down and tried them on. They fit her and looked much better on her than they had looked on me. I gave her the shoes; she hesitated first, but then she smiled and she took them.
A few days later she knocked at my door and she asked me to meet her on her free day. She and some friends would meet me in a bakery nearby and pick me up, this way nobody from the hotel could see us together and she wouldn’t be in trouble. She didn’t tell me what we would do, she just asked me to meet her.
Don’t mingle with the natives! Don’t go out alone! I remembered what they had told me. I looked in her eyes and followed my guts. I decided to trust her and we set the day and the time when I would be at the bakery.
The following Sunday I left the hotel and walked toward the bakery. “They are going to find me in a dumpster,” I thought to myself and all kind of scary pictures came to my mind. I could be robbed, raped, murdered…the seeds that the hotel manager had planted in my head started sprouting and my imagination went wild.
I entered the bakery with my knees shaking and I didn’t feel like drinking coffee, I was more in the need of a stiff drink. They were waiting for me, a group of young people and they greeted me like a long lost friend. It was a big “Hello” and before I knew it I was one of them.
They went with me to a camel market; we visited the bazaar, the medina and ended up eating dinner in a small house outside the city. We talked French, German and English and used our hands and feet, when we couldn’t come up with the right words. Laughter is an international language that we all understood.
I had a magnificent time in Tunisia. This group of young people showed me their city and their country away from tourism. They showed me how they lived, their families opened their homes and I was invited to lunches and dinners. Time flew and I didn’t want to leave.
I wouldn’t say I am fearless, but I don’t let fear get the best of me. There is a difference between being cautious and fearful.
When it’s my time, then it will be my time and I will be ready…until then I will be living. 🙂