Sunday, May 29, 2011

Meet The Wilsons

Don't worry Wilson, I'll do all the paddling. You just hang on.

Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, 
Cast Away (2000)

Perhaps I understand more than most how Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away became insanely attached to an inanimate object.  The protaganist, Chuck Noland, finds himself stranded on an uninhabited island after his FedEx plane crashes in the South Pacific.  In one of the undelivered packages was a white volleyball.  Chuck eventually names the ball “Wilson” and the two fast become friends.  Chuck regularly talks with Wilson—even argues sometimes—as Wilson serves as Chuck’s faithful companion.  When Wilson falls overboard into the ocean, Chuck is naturally grief-stricken. 

I probably would not be able to watch that particular scene where Wilson floats away without breaking down.  I had two Wilsons of my own when I was out there in the world alone, and I think I can understand the extent of Chuck’s devastation.

My first Wilson was a black LL Bean long-sleeve, fleece pullover.  I bought it in an outlet store somewhere outside Wilmington, Delaware in 2006, and brought it with me when I left home to travel the seven continents in 2007.  At first it was just a fleece pullover, but by the time we reached Peru eight weeks later, it had become my Wilson.  At least, that’s what I called him.

Wilson was a good friend.  He kept me warm on frigid Bolivian trains.  He was a comfortable pillow on long bus rides through Patagonia.  He was a constant companion; always there to guard me against the night air’s chill.  Many times, he just hung at the ready around my waist, sleeves tied in front.

This is where Wilson was when we made our way into Oslo, Norway toward the end of summer.  I remember what happened like it was yesterday.  It was August 27, 2007, and our big plan for the day was to visit the Nobel Peace Center, next to the fjord at the harbor.  The Peace Center museum highlights past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by a committee of five persons chosen by the Norwegian Storting (i.e., Norway’s Parliament).

Wilson and I took our time getting to the museum.  We stopped at McDonald’s and ate something called a “Laksewrap”—sort of a pita wrap with salmon inside that cost some outrageous amount of Norwiegan Kroners, considering it was fast food.  We also souvenir shopped for a friend whose grandfather was Norwegian, and passed the morning taking in the sights around town.

When I reached the Nobel Peace Museum, I thought Wilson was with me.  I toured around, reading about past winners that I recognized, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jimmy Carter.  I also learned about other heros, like Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank which provides microcredit to help poor people establish creditworthiness and financial self-sufficiency.  Soon I reached the gift shop and it was then that I realized:  Wilson was gone.

At first I was fairly calm.  I started back through the museum, retracing my steps, feeling confident he was somewhere within.  My panic increased as I discovered:  he wasn’t in the theater; he wasn’t in the Points of Light room; he wasn’t in the bathroom; he wasn’t in lost and found.  He was nowhere to be found.

Now I was beside myself.  Where could Wilson be?  How could this have happened?  I left the museum and began to visit the souvenir shops where I stopped along the way, being careful to conceal the panic in my voice as I asked various shopkeepers if they had perchance found a black fleece pullover.  No one had.

I began to allow myself to accept that Wilson was gone, and it made me feel sick.   I knew it was probably crazy for me to cry, but I didn’t care.  Wilson had become my friend along the journey, and I was devastated at the thought of continuing without him.  Suddenly I felt completely alone in the world, and the tears began to well.

That’s when I spotted something in the distance on the ground near Oslo’s City Hall.  It was black and just lying on the sidewalk.  Could it be Wilson?  My heart raced as I sprinted over to see.

It was Wilson!  He must have fallen from around my waist when I passed by this way hours ago, and here he was on the ground, waiting patiently for me to come back for him.  I snapped a picture to memorialize the happy moment.  I then picked him up and hugged him close to me.  “I’m sorry, Wilson,” I told him, vowing not to lose him ever again.

Later, in December, Wilson was with me in Johannesburg, South Africa, when we boarded the long plane ride for home.  Together we had been to forty-two countries over seven continents that year, and it was one wild ride.  Wilson was a little worn out from the trip, so we decided that he should retire.  Every now and again he makes appearances at the budget travel classes I teach back in Los Angeles.  He’s part of the backpack show-and-tell night, and he’s always a hit.

I didn’t think another Wilson would emerge on this latest journey, but another Wilson did.  My second Wilson came into my life in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Second Wilson is a small water bottle, purchased at a supermarket in the Passage Shopping Center on Nevsky Prospect.  The bottle was light and held a perfect amount of water for walks around town, and conveniently fit into the side mesh pocket of my small backpack.

I had the bottle with me through Russia, and Ukraine, and Poland.  By the time we reached Belgium and Luxembourg, I realized that this was more than just a water bottle.  This was my friend.  I named him Wilson, as well, kind of like how George Foreman names all of his kids George. 

I carried Wilson everywhere from eastern Europe to the western Balkans and down to Greece, and refilled him with water everywhere from the Rila mountains in Bulgaria to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro.  Wilson connected me with so many people in restaurants and elsewhere who happily complied with my request that he be refilled.  Many interesting conversations were struck as a result.  By the time I reached Albania, I was thinking how special Wilson had become.  I had even decided to feature him and the first Wilson in a blog post called Meet the Wilsons.

One night, in Athens, Greece—just days before my long journey was to end—I was hopelessly lost looking for a certain sushi restaurant.  Finally, after winding through endless back alleys, I found the place.  I went to reach for Wilson for a sip and noticed—to my horror—he was gone.

Along the way I had stopped in several shops and a nearby hostel, asking for directions.  I knew that if I had left Wilson behind and someone found him, he or she probably would just throw him away, thinking Wilson was just a plain, old water bottle, rather than a close friend of mine.  I ran through the streets in a panic, hoping against hope that I would find Wilson before disaster struck.  I thought it would be a bad omen, too, to lose Wilson just before our journey was to come to a close.

I approached the last place I visited—the hostel where I stopped for directions—and peeked through the front glass window.  There Wilson was, on the counter where I left him.  I ran in and took a picture to memorialize our happy reunion, just like with the first Wilson.  I tried to explain to the people behind the counter what Wilson meant to me—but they just returned my words with odd looks.  I left with Wilson securely in tow, feeling positive that we were both going to make it okay to the very end.

Wilson rode home with me the other day on the plane from Amsterdam.  We both recognize that it’s time for him to retire, too.  I gave him a good washing, and now he’s ready to join first Wilson when our travel classes start up again.  I think he's going to love the spotlight on backpack night, and I'm sure he and the first Wilson will get along swimmingly.

And yes, I realize—especially now that I’m home and surrounded by actual, human loved ones—all of this is totally and completely nuts.  But if there’s one rule I’ve kept with this blog, it’s this:  I speak my truth.  And the truth is, the Wilsons were, and always will be, friends who kept me, among other things, warm, hydrated, comfortable, and--most important--company.