Flipping through some old sets of postcards that I bought on my very first trip abroad, I felt an inclination to want to reminisce about that trip as if it was such a beautiful experience. You know, those memories that you see through rose coloured spectacles pretending that everything was perfect with the world and you felt like you belonged? That’s the hint of an emotion that I had when I looked through those postcards. But I knew immediately that I would be lying to myself if I tried to believe that to be true.
My first trip out of my home country was to the Holy Lands of Makkah and Madinah. It was a life long wish that was finally fulfilled. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t even have a passport when I decided to travel. I recall taking a few weeks’ leave from work, sitting around by myself in Cape Town while working away from home, wondering what I was going to do for the time I had to myself. The weekend passed, then Monday dragged on and suddenly on Tuesday I had this a-ha moment. I decided to make the trip of a lifetime. Alone.
I visited the travel agent on Tuesday, submitted my application for an emergency passport on Wednesday, collected my passport on Thursday afternoon, flew to Johannesburg on Thursday night, submitted my passport on Friday morning for my Saudi visa, received the visa on Friday afternoon, and flew to Jeddah on Saturday. It was an impossible achievement by any measure had it been planned to happen that way, but it happened. As usual, I didn’t allow myself a breather to even think about what I was doing.
The trip was amazing and heartbreaking in ways I never imagined. It was eventful as well, with Turkish Airlines losing my luggage, and hopping down onto the runway one wheel at a time, we finally landed in Jeddah. I caught my connecting flight to Madinah and was fortunate enough to be bumped up to Business Class for the whole 45 minute flight. I was extorted of money by a taxi driver in Madinah, and physically thrown out of the mosque by the arrogant Saudi guards for not finishing my prayer in time for them to start cleaning that section of the mosque. I then made my way to Makkah and despite the splendour and majesty of the city, I felt isolated amongst the thousands of visitors that spent many hours in the Holy Mosque. I felt incomplete, like I had always felt my entire life.
This was my dream trip that came true, yet i wanted to leave without delay. So much so, that I cut my trip short by 3 days, changed my return flight and headed home just days after the massive earthquake that devastated Turkey. As fate would have it, I spent a day in Istanbul as part of my stopover on my way back to South Africa. I walked through the city attracting the strangest looks, greetings, and sometimes hugs because of my appearance. I had a full beard and I wore the traditional Muslim dress for men, both of which was outlawed for Turkish men at the time. Of course I had no idea I was being such a rebel.
The most memorable moment that day was when I sat down for lunch in a local restaurant, alone, minding my own business, when suddenly the wall next to my table started slapping against my leg. As usual, hardly anything phased me, so I sat there and watched everyone else screaming and shouting as they ran out into the streets panic-stricken at the intensity of the after shock. When I looked around, I noticed that it was just the owner and me left in the restaurant. He smiled at me and with his finger wagging in the air, he just said, “Zil Zaal, Zil Zaal”, which is ‘earthquake’ in Arabic. I returned his smile and continued to eat my lunch while the waiters returned to get sugar water for the petrified patrons that were outside in the street.
As much as there is to remember, the memory feels like just another memory. Nothing sweet, nothing amazing, nothing extraordinary. Just another memory. I’ve never felt at ease in myself, let alone with myself, and throughout all my travels, that dis-ease has been my most loyal travel partner. I was born restless, and I suspect that the restlessness will only ever recede when I take my last breath. Before that moment, I pray that I am protected from myself, and that others are protected from me, because a restless soul is capable of much hurt without intent. But I know how to be nothing else.