May 12, 2016
Original title was “To the Shaken Traveler,” Off Assignment, May 12, 2016. (original post here)
(Listen to me read the essay here)
This piece is also included in the book, Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, 2022.
Two nights earlier, as I signed into a guesthouse in Mwanza with Bradford, the truck driver, I’d watched as he wrote “Kamba” under tribe. I’d never seen that category of information on a hotel register, and asked him what I should put in that space on my line; I was thinking maybe “Dutch-Norwegian American” or “WASP.” He paused and mulled it over for a moment. “Put Europe.”
I mention it because, as I saw you—a fellow traveler—there in distress at the border post, I thought about our Euro-tribe, and what we are like, and the money that makes us different, and how much one traveler far from home might owe another.
You were ahead of us at the border post at Rusumo, having already gained entry to Rwanda, and as I saw you and your girlfriend standing off to the side, in tank tops and handkerchiefs, ponytails askew and backpacks against the wall of the shed, I thought, Who sticks around after clearing customs? What are you waiting for? Now I can see that you waited because you had no choice, really, but to make a request unlike any that anyone—we hope—has ever had to make: an admission and perhaps a self-incrimination.
I nodded at you from my window of the truck cab, and you nodded back—something wrong. Meanwhile Bradford shouted out his window at the Rwandan border officer. It was a routine I’d seen before, when we entered Tanzania: He would argue, then look away, as if by dismissing the demand for payment of duties he could make them disappear. That official had compromised, but this one looked as though he would not—he looked tough indeed, fierce and uncowed and in no kind of hurry. Surely, you were appraising him now.
Had you ever, in your earlier life, imagined yourself in such a place, in such a position? I don’t think so. Who could ever guess that one humid morning, a traveler would so fear a shakedown—or the rules about currency—that she would attempt to rearrange her large stash of Deutschmarks or kroner, deciding at the very last minute that a safer hiding place than her fanny pack was her underwear?
Never would you have pictured yourself stepping out of the queue at the border hut and repairing to the fetid outhouse behind it, for the privacy that would allow you to secrete those bills in warm places between skin and bra, skin and panties, where a guard was unlikely to reach.
And never would anyone ever imagine the misfortune that would there befall you:
The moment’s hesitation, the guilty bobbling in the penumbral cabin that somehow led to the epic slip and fall, your bills with the engraved drawings of pale-skinned ancestors in neither hand, nor wallet, nor money belt, nor held close by underthings; but rather fluttering darkly down toward that septic pool, to land with a splash, and force you now to ask your tribesman whether I know enough French or Swahili or something to explain to the guard that
I need to hire somebody to help me. I dropped something valuable—OK, a lot of money—in that outhouse. We—you’ll—need to take it apart and reach in there and get it out and then, I don’t know, maybe rinse it, or, God, probably boil it and then dry it and I guess come to some sort of arrangement so that I can wash my hands of this.