Sunday, May 15, 2011

Strangers In The Night

Today is my mom’s birthday, and I dedicate this post in memory of her.  I know she would love these stories, particularly the third one, which just so happens to involve her.   It pains me not to be able to share my travel tales with her in person, and I often imagine the day when we can once again share belly laughs together. 

In the meantime, I know my mom is looking down on me from above as I travel.  Literally, I stick a picture of her smiling face between the bunk bed slats above me when I’m out here alone.  Soon you’ll see how this perhaps-somewhat-odd ritual of mine led to the most mortifying situation in all of my days on the road.

I could write an entire book of stories about the strangers with whom I’ve been sleeping over the past months.  But there’s no time for that at the moment, so I’ve picked a select few.

The Cape-Fear-Gray Valise Guy

One morning, a guy in his early twenties rolled into my Krakow dorm around 6 a.m. and made some racket moving in to the bed next to mine.  It’s hard to say exactly why, but immediately he gave off a certain “not-your-typical-backpacker” vibe.  For one thing, he was toting a three-gallon water bottle with a pump dispenser.  Also, his somewhat-formal manner of dress—slacks, a proper belt, and wife-beater tee—seemed a bit out of the ordinary for the casually-wrinkled, rag-tag traveling crowd.

Later in the day, I crossed paths with my new roommate in the kitchen.  I noticed he was carrying a gray valise, shaped like a wide bowling bag, with handles on top.  Again, atypical backpacker gear.  And this:  a carton of eggs was sticking out of the top.  Why doesn’t he put the eggs in the fridge?  I wondered.

In terms of the kid’s appearance, picture this:  Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, but leaner and more muscular; wide-set, shifty eyes; a military-style, close-cropped haircut.  He had a deep voice and spoke with a conspiratorial tone through an American accent.  One afternoon I walked in on him holding court in the kitchen with a seemingly-trapped Polish girl.   I heard him use the phrase “puppet regime” and then decided to be careful not to engage.  I quickly scurried out.

Back to the gray valise.  He took that damn thing everywhere with him inside the hostel.  He’d pick it up and carry it to the common room; to the kitchen; into the bathroom, even.  He seemed to be guarding it with his life.  In the backpacking world, this behavior was stand-out odd.  We had lockers in our rooms.  Why didn’t he use his?  I quickly became riddled with curiosity as to the contents of that gray valise.

The third morning, Gray-Valise guy got out of his bed around 6:00 a.m. and started doing calisthenics right there on the hardwood floor of our dorm room, then populated with three other backpackers.  I’m talking push-ups and crunches and stuff.   Through squinted eyes I lay and watched him, incredulously.  What kind of Cape-Fear bullshit is this? I thought.  I could see the Argentine guy across the room, now wide awake, was wondering the exact same thing. 

It’s never a good thing when you realize the weird guy in the bed right next to you is not part of the program in terms of social skills.  The underwritten rule for a hostel dorm in the morning is hard and fast: no major activity before 8:00 a.m., particularly in a place like Poland where the beer is cheap and the clubs close late.  This was a clear violation.  And why couldn’t he go to the common room to do his exercise-conditioning?

Soon the calisthenics turned to some sort of tai-chi-karate-kung-fu like moves, and now my imagination was running wild.  This was no regular backpacker.  But what?  A recently-released convict?  An undercover operative?  A killer on the lam?  And what exactly was he hiding in that gray valise?

Mid-week the hostel cleared out, except for me, Cape-Fear, and a Vietnamese guy in the next room who kept to himself.  I would now be sleeping alone in the room with Cape-Fear.  I asked to move into a now-empty, third room down the hall.  Of course this was the one night when no one was on duty at the hostel, so the three of us were alone.  Needless to say, my sleep was fitful.

The next day I met Cape-Fear in the kitchen and could not avoid talking with him.  It actually wasn’t so bad; just regular chit-chat about home, travel and whatnot.  I thought, maybe I’ve been too harsh.  Sure he’s odd, but who isn’t? 

Indeed, there I was, spending hour after hour obsessing over the contents of that gray valise and imagining fantastical things about this kid’s background.  I might even have risked rifling through his bag—if only he had left it unattended for a second—just to satisfy my own, perhaps-irrational curiosity.  What does that say about me? 

And truth be told, I probably could stand to get up early and do a few jumping jacks myself.

I decided to cut the kid some slack in terms of my judgment of him.  Still, to this day, I’d kill to know what in the hell was in that gray valise.

(No) Sex In The Top Bunk

I hate to tell tales out of school and call people names, but this girl deserves it, I think.  This little episode was probably the most outrageous thing that happened with Strangers In The Night in all my travels.

This girl—I will call her S.—was blond, American, early twenties, and volunteering abroad for an organization and in a country that shall remain unnamed.  It was a holiday weekend, and the alcohol was flowing.  By 9:00 p.m., copious amounts had been drunk in the hostel’s common room.  The party then moved down the street to the bar.

Fast forward to 4:00 a.m.  S.—whose bed was the top bunk above mine—comes rolling in hammered.  But not alone.  She had a guy friend with her. 

Through a drunken stupor she starts throwing things on the floor right next to my head:  her coat; her scarf; her purse; her cell phone.  She didn’t care how much noise she made.  Now I was wide awake.  I saw her kick off her shoes, unbutton and unzip her jeans, and place her foot on the first rung of the ladder leading to the top bunk above me.  The boy was standing right behind her, presumably waiting his turn.

I could see where this was going. 

“Excuse me,” I said, through a croaky, what-in-the-hell-do-you-think-you’re-doing?, 4:00 a.m. voice.  I put it bluntly:  “That’s not going to happen.”

Now, putting aside the completely-nasty factor for the moment, let me tell you my reasons for wanting to put the kibosh on this little planned sex-capade before it had a chance to begin.

The plain fact is, the rickety, wooden bunk beds in those parts of the world are not meant for two people, and certainly not ones about to get jiggy.  S. wasn’t fat by any means, but she was tall and had some meat on her bones.  The guy was tall too, and so together I’d put them somewhere north of 300 pounds—perhaps too much for that top bunk to hold.  I hadn’t come this far to have it put to the test, either.  There was no way I was going to die in a bunk-bed crushing accident beneath this little you-know-what and her newfound friend.

Also, I’m 40, and I need my sleep; period.   It just so happened that this particular bunk bed was one that creaked something awful every time the person above me so much as rolled an inch.  I couldn’t imagine the noises that would result from not one, but two, occupants--as Danny Zuko would say--"rockin’ and rollin’ and whatnot." 

So I doth protested.  And here was S.’s response:  “But we’re not going to do anything.” 

Now I was annoyed.  Did she think I was stupid?  Born yesterday?  In fact, I was the oldest person in the room that night by about ten years, and I hated that she was calling me out on it.  I like to roll young, and this tramp was forcing me to be mother hen, at four in the morning, no less.

“That’s fine,” I said.  “But you’re both not getting up there.  It’s not safe.” 

Now the boy joined in the argument with some more nonsense about what they intended not to do.  But—seeing as I was once 22—I called bullshit on the both of them.

 “It’s not negotiable,” I said, firmly. 

They stood quiet for a second, and then whispered something between themselves.  The next thing I knew, they set about removing the entire mattress from the frame above me.  They set it on the floor across the room.  I could now see the ceiling from where I lay. 

The resourceful little bastards, I thought.  They just vitiated my safety argument.  And since they already swore up and down that they weren’t going to “do anything,” what was my objection now?  I was already sleeping in a room with five other strangers.  What’s one more?

I rolled over toward the wall, signaling my acquiescence in their sharing the mattress on the floor.  I lay there for the next twenty minutes or so, listening to them not “doing anything.”  And yes, it was completely gross.

Getting The Picture

This is probably the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me on the road.  It’s also a bit salacious, so if you’re a professional colleague of mine, please stop reading.

One day, in Tirana, there was a torrential downpour, and the ceiling above my bunk bed began to leak.  I was asked to move to the next room as a result.  I did, but forgot to take with me the aforementioned picture of my mom from beneath the top bunk.

The next day I kept remembering about my mom’s picture, but always when I was out somewhere away from the hostel.  In the evening I noticed a man had arrived and was given the stand-alone bed in the dry area of my former room.  But again, I neglected to remember to get my mom’s picture that night.

The next morning, I woke up and remembered about the picture.  It continued to rain in Tirana, and now I was worried that water might leak through the top mattress and frame and ruin the precious picture.  I decided to go get it before I left for the day. 

Now, hear me out on why I chose not to knock before going in the other room.  Simply, it was 8:00 a.m., and I didn’t want to wake the man up.  I just wanted to slip in quietly, grab the picture, and leave, with no one being the wiser.  Also, it’s not so out of the ordinary to walk into another dorm room, particularly where you may have left something behind.   Dorm rooms are communal, and the doors don’t lock.  Even when you’re in a dorm room by yourself, a staff member could walk in without knocking.  In fact, this happens a lot.

Back to the events.  I approached the man’s door, quietly turned the handle, and opened it.  To my complete horror, I found the man in his bed, wide awake, obviously engaged in a certain activity.  I don't want to say specifically what it was in mixed company, but suffice it to say, I’m certain he would have preferred to be doing whatever it was in private.  I’m sure the last thing he expected at that time was to have a woman burst in to the room in order to reclaim a picture of her deceased mother from the bottom side of the adjacent bunk bed.

Needless to say, my surprise-entry shocked and startled him.  I was a bit paralyzed too.  I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, wide-eyed with my jaw open.  Finally I snapped out of it and said, “Oh my God, I’m sorry,” and shut the door.

Later that day, God answered yet another one of my prayers on this long journey.  When I returned to the hostel, I found that the man had checked out and was gone.  I never saw him again, thank goodness.  But, for as long as I live, I’ll never forget the new, mental picture I snapped of the horrified look on his face.

The good news is, I did eventually remember my mom before I left Tirana, so she's still with me.