My travel Angel

I maintain composure despite glimpsing desperation; a man, wearing his polished blue “Safety officer’’ badge, dashing past. There is a caustic smell creeping down the aisle but I am not concerned. Despite the inherent danger of fires on planes I feel safe, smugly cocooned in the knowledge that I have my own personal travel angel. This is a fact. His name is Gustav; I do not know why, it just is. Gustav works tirelessly behind the scenes to try to smooth my path and keep me from serious trouble, sometimes in a comically roundabout way.  He no doubt has a very good reason for steering me onto this seemingly doomed, Air France flight, AF442 from Paris to Rio on March 30, 20111

Every traveler has a personal travel angel even if they don’t properly realise it. Some people thank a higher power, some a system of give and take, some merely cite good fortune. I like to imagine Gustav as a thin man wearing brown slacks and thickly rimmed reading glasses circa 1960, he is calm and collected like a celestial accountant. He is without voice and toils quietly, beyond sight, without health benefits or pay. Whatever name or belief is attributed to this authority, every traveler can relate at least one story when they were gently steered out of trouble.

When I liquidated my life and set out to explore I did not believe in angels, but as anyone will tell you, travel can, and will broaden horizons. 

Earlier that year in November I missed a bus. Watching it pull out of the station without me I blinked away a cloud of belched diesel and cursed Gustav expansively. Slinging my red backpack over my shoulders I searched for another bus. A two hour wait in a stifling, chaotic depot complete with underhanded staff ensued. By slipping a sneaky ‘gift’ to an attendant I was first to board the next bus, nursing my faithful and now very dusty red companion I eagerly anticipated the adventure to come. I had always dreamt of trekking in the Andes alone.

In front of me a contemplative chicken on a lap strained its rubber neck and quietly studied my features. To my right an elderly chap wearing traditional clothing absently stared through a grimy window. We gave up on conversation before properly starting, having reached “where are you from?” my vocabulary dried up like the country’s healthcare budget. Our bus plunged deep into a lush valley while the Ecuadorian Andes poked through clouds, distantly following our progress.

My knees were bent far closer to my chest than they were designed, my backpack was taking up what little leg room the hard seat afforded. I abandoned my book and stared back at the mountains wondering if Gustav had forsaken me. The chicken vocalised my mood with a resigned “squwaaark” “What will be will be”. At one isolated stop I watched an arthritically bent figure fight his way up the stairs. He accepted with a smile when I stood with cracking knees and relinquished my seat.

A small green tinged child vomited all over my friend’s Sunday best just as he settled. The sickly boy extensively decorated the floor where my pack had sat seconds ago. My eyes met with the elderly chap as he toiled with crumpled newspaper and we chuckled. Some ironies do not require a common language. “Gustav is still here”. Our bus rumbled and bounced; squeaking and fuming further away from Westernisation we penetrated deep into the heart of Ecuador. The air, now tasted not smelt, held a zesty whiff of vomit lurking beneath body odour and diesel.

While gingerly negotiating a windy pass our driver stomped on the brakes and caused them to squeal in surprise. Peering through my window I discovered what triggered this stop. Despite the scratches, dents and greenery plastered across its battered red side, it looked like the one which left before us. Sitting mutely on its side like a discarded toy, was the bus which had abandoned me earlier. It was missing a roof. A drunken driver misjudged a corner and sent the bus hurtling over this mountainous pass. An extended Friday night binge claimed twenty lives that day, including the driver’s. I mentally apologised to Gustav for doubting him as my bus rolled sombrely on.

Weeks later I was to discover that travel angels do not work alone. I was labouring through an icy blue wonderland with my friend Vincent. Crampons in crunchy snow and impermeable pants singing a tired requiem. Vincent is an amiable Dutch medical student I befriended at my Spanish School. He had asked me with religious fervour to show him the mountains so we could share His playground.

We had turned back while climbing Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador’s second highest peak2, as snow conditions signalled avalanche. With aching bones we toiled to disembark the mountain, moving as quickly as fatigue allowed. Circling down the mountain we watched awestruck as the rising sun poured hazy violet over a new day. The cool blue which coloured our world for the last ten hours slowly warmed to pink. Behind me Vincent stopped babbling through his balaclava abruptly as the rope which connected our fates snapped taut. I looked back to see his slender frame cut in half. A snow bridge had rudely collapsed, plunging him unceremoniously and waist deep into a crevasse. Vincent cried out when I turned to run away. Forgetting the rope attached to his harness he thought I was abandoning ship. Throwing my weight onto the rope I pulled until our connection extracted my friend from a snowy grave. My Dutch friend slowly emerged, clawing grey faced at the ice like a frightened new born zombie.

Every downhill step calmed my friend but my mind was racing; What if I had chosen a different Spanish School? What if I had decided to go to the beach with the others, leaving Vincent to climb alone? I pictured Gustav silently scheming with a clog wearing angel, pointing out a particular “Learn Spanish” brochure on that rack as I passed; piquing my interest in this climb; tickling memories of rope rescue lessons just before Vincent fell

The safety officer with the polished blue badge finishes his scampering and sits apprehensively for landing. Two jumbo tyres explode on hot tarmac. Re-ticketing and company spiels cost me an extra sixteen hours before I excitedly arrive at my hostel in Rio. 

My titillation fades with the realisation that I have missed the party by eleven years. I go to bed early, a grandfather of the hostel. Drunken revellers return throughout the night, submitting to oblivion under threadbare sheets. 

At 2am I wake to find the dorm full of smoke. Neither extinguisher, fire blankets or lucid helper are at hand. A fire is licking upwards from a wall fan, gaining momentum by feeding on cheap plywood. I dash to rouse the slumbering receptionist who follows me to the fire, wielding a wet towel. I slowly make a connection and grab the wet towel away; electrical fire, no water. A dry duvet quells the flames. Three nearby bodies do not even pause their drunken snoring throughout the excitement. 

With the emergency abated I steal a well deserved beer from the communal fridge and sit, bug eyed on a balcony which faces a twinkling city. 

I sit alone on my hard seat and ponder in the muggy night air. I realise that, no matter how bad a situation may seem, wherever you may find yourself in a journey or the world, you are exactly where you need to be (I also discover that this hostel is infested with mosquitos). There is no point trying to force your will upon a journey, it will set its own course regardless. Maybe the whole point of travel is to show us how little, how insignificant, how utterly powerless we are against forces of chance and mishap. Fourteen months of travel have certainly subdued my inner control freak. Maybe we can all relax and trust our Gustavs a little more.

On behalf of the oblivious people sleeping in my room that night I thank Gustav for delaying my flight. I continue to quietly thank him; for hijacking my ride on that bus and for introducing me to Vincent, amongst countless others. Finishing my now warm beer I resolve to make his job easier by going home.

Even travel angels need a holiday. grey My travel Angel

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