Counting On Strangers

by Kim on December 5, 2012 · 25 comments

It was 2 a.m. when our plane touched down in Santiago. I had the flu. Brian would have the flu tomorrow, but as yet he was blissfully unaware.

Because of our late arrival into Chile’s capital city we’d pre-booked a hostel with 24-hour check-in service and arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the airport. I had no idea if this was necessary, but we were still weary of cabs after the dozens of horror stories we heard while in Quito, better to be safe than sorry.

Santiago at night

Except, once we’d collected our bags and scanned the crowd for someone holding a paper with our name on it, we realized that no one had been sent for us. I put my backpack down and slouched against the wall while Brian paced back and forth down the long corridor as if with thorough searching our guy might turn up after all. Oh, I found our driver hiding in the corner! 

But after a few laps even Brian gave up hope that anyone was coming to fetch us. There were two middle-aged men holding TAXI signs and chatting on a bench to the right of where I’d crumpled onto the airport floor. Ask them, I said to Brian, and one of the men jumped up and waved at us to follow him. It was almost 3 a.m. now and, besides, what other options did we have? We heaved our backpacks on and followed him up the elevator and outside to the arrival pickup area.

The man did not lead us to his taxi. He gestured for us to put our backpacks down and then said uno momento and made a phone call. Then he told us that his son would be arriving in five minutes. His son? He kept making phone calls. Who was he calling at 3 a.m.?! I shot Brian a should-we-be-concerned-about-this glance and he shrugged his shoulders as if to say you’ve got me there. So I did the only thing I could do, I shot a little prayer out into the universe and then I got real quiet and tried to listen to my gut. This situation was definitely odd, my gut told me, but I didn’t feel unsafe. The man seemed kind and charming.

But then I thought, serial killers are charming.

Eventually the man’s son arrived, tearing like a bat out of hell down the road. We put our backpacks in the trunk and climbed into the backseat, while the man who’d made the phone call settled into the passengers seat. The son was in his early 20’s and wore heavy cologne. The car he drove was nice, which made me nervous. It didn’t make sense that this man and his Drakkar Noir wearing son would hang around airports on a Friday night at 3 a.m. just to make a bit of extra cash.

The lights of Santiago twinkled as we raced down the highway. In the darkness the city looked modern and spotless. The son could sense our unease and tried to smooth it by naming the roads and explaining directions. Brian and I nodded diligently from the back seat. Of course, we could have been headed anywhere. When the older man made yet another phone call the son caught my eye through the rear-view mirror. He’s only calling my brother, he said, he’s 9. Shouldn’t he be asleep? asked Brian.

I looked out the window and thought about trust. I thought about how, in the months since Brian and I have been on the road, we’ve had to put our complete trust in an uncountable number of strangers and how not a single one of them had let us down so far. So I raised my eyes back up to meet the son’s in the rear-view mirror. Okay, I said, thank you. And I smiled, tried to let the smile reach my eyes. I wanted him to know: I trust you.

I saw this quote on one of my favorite blogs written by the two Oregonians:

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

And when I read it it made me cry. Maybe because I have been sick with the flu for five days now (and counting!), and have been battling homesickness, but I needed permission to feel off-balance, needed to hear that it was normal. And above all I needed some kind of third-party confirmation that traveling can be brutal and beautiful all at once. That for every off-kilter, lonely moment there will also always be some cologne-wearing kid and his father who find you, disheveled and tired, at the airport at 3 a.m. and deliver you, safely, to your temporary bed.