The Intuitive Traveler
Posted on July 23, 2013
This essay was published in The Philidelphia Inquirer.
It wasn’t our guide who made me suspicious it was the bystander, a short, African woman with vibrant dress and bananas in her hand. Our guide had been confident all throughout the ‘tour’ of Arusha, Tanzania, not the least bit shady. “This way,” he said. “Right through here,” as he pointed to a shoddy door on the side of a nondescript building. The woman, however, was shifty, her eyes twitching, her too-still body poised, begging, “Don’t go you fools, it’s a trap.”
Everybody knows a suspicious look when they see one, those darting eyes or a stare that gives the feeling of impending danger. These impressions can be heightened in a foreign land. Such feelings are instinctual, whispers from the psyche. And though easy to detect, they can be difficult to follow.
“Wait,” I said, motionless. My friend stopped and turned, followed by the guide who looked confused. The half-day adventure through the busy town in Northern Tanzania, which served as a jumping off point for safaris and treks up Mount Kilimanjaro, had been fun and stimulating, but most importantly, and sometimes surprisingly, safe. And the guide, a scrawny, twenty-something African from a neighboring town had been accommodating and seemed genuine, despite his obvious desire for us to buy one of his paintings at the tour’s conclusion.
As the woman beside him shuffled her feet anxiously, I began to reconfigure my impression of the young man. The sudden hint of danger had cast the local artisan in a different, less-than-hospitable light. In return for a few swirls of paint, a quid pro quo I was certain he performed regularly, perhaps he had wanted more than a few of our American dollars.
The woman had been quiet, she hadn’t nodded at me, she hadn’t slipped me a note, she hadn’t screamed, “Run!” or had done anything overt at all. But I had reacted nonetheless, pausing awkwardly. She had given our guide away, exposed him. Now pensive, I wondered what the building in front of us housed. Maybe it was a group of jolly painter friends, lost at their easels, welcoming of guests though, especially ones from the Northeast with deep pockets, who’d gladly entertain the idea of carrying a rolled-up canvas a few thousand miles home. Maybe it was an indoor market, bustling and colorful, like the one we had already passed through earlier. Perhaps it was something my imagination couldn’t even conjure, something for which a little mystery was appropriate, a sight our guide would present theatrically with an outstretched arm and a clichéd “Ta-da!”
“No,” I said, despite the fact no one had addressed my hesitancy. The guide had been slick, and successful in hiding any ulterior motives he may have had. The woman, on the other hand, had been honest with her exterior, a veritable beacon of useful subtleties all of which warned, “Danger ahead.”
“But this is last part of the tour,” the guide responded eagerly, placing his palm on my friend’s backpack.
Without my control, a game of connect-the-dots erupted within me. Like breadcrumbs, I followed the details of the last few hours back to the moment when our guide discovered us at our hostel’s front door, wading through a crowd of peddlers and beggars, offering us refuge in a cozy alleyway where he stashed his artwork for purchase. “I can show you around Arusha,” he had prodded. We told him ‘no’ a handful of times, but ultimately, adventurously, agreed. His services required such persistence, of course, but not taking ‘no’ for an answer should have been our first tip-off, the first of what I began to think were clues. The second had been his speech; it was choppy and too quick, like a coffee-house barista who’d done too much of her own stuff. I always thought your senses were keener while traveling. In my experience, I had always been more attracted to novelty in transit, noticing architecture and admiring a creator’s choices, or pausing on a wispy cloud in the shape of a lion, which I certainly would have missed had I been commuting to work or discussing a quarterly plan with my supervisor. I was keener indeed, but I had missed, perhaps overlooked, his fast-talking ways at first.
The guide had loved my friend’s Gortex boots and, with a grin, had joked my friend could leave them with him before we returned to Boston. His quip had seemed playful and benign then, but now, my eyes glued to the nervous woman, the remark seemed empty, a canned observation likely bestowed upon countless wide-eyed tourists that came before us, and before them.
“Take us back to our hostel, please,” I said, now convinced the “last leg” of our tour was a trap and that hiding inside the building were not friendly creatives, but wicked thieves, their stolen duffel bags stuffed with the wallets and watches and purses and jewelry of travelling victims.
The guide’s face dropped, his head shifting backward. Saying nothing, he pivoted and dodged the building on our way back to the center of town. Was he shocked because I had somehow been tipped off, disappointed that his plan, which had worked without a hitch countless times before, had been foiled? Or was he insulted by my silent accusation that his intentions were criminal? Perhaps he was overwhelmed by the epic loss of trust and my subtextural jab that he was a faker, a predator even.
Would we have come upon danger or wonder, thieves with machetes, or an oasis, brimming with sensory treasures? I’ll never know. Intuition is funny like that. It deals in subtleties, rascally details subject to perception, environment and false cues from objects and especially humans, like a random woman who had put my nerves in overdrive. But, had I misread the situation? The woman could have just heard a terrible bit of news, after all. She could have been searching desperately for a lost child. Maybe, humiliatingly, she had found our presence unnerving. Had I stopped the tour because of real red flags, my appropriate reconfiguration of reality, or had I been rash, victim to heightened senses, my own prejudices and fears, provoked by a low-down building in a foreign country at the edge of an otherworldly town?
As we walked back to the city center, I felt a slight embarrassment, wondering if perhaps I had overreacted. But I also felt grateful that I had followed my instincts, that I had let the woman on the periphery inform me and that I hadn’t directly experienced the building to know the truth. Right or wrong, appropriate or obnoxious, clever or foolish I had listened to the tiny details only my intuition had noticed and knew that was the best I, or anybody for that matter, could do.
The Intuitive Traveler was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer here.