Editor’s Note: This is from a series of travel stories by the late Rebecca Bruns.
It was late summer and the tall grasses that swept the bus were burnt and dry as straw. As the bus chugged its way up the rough mountainside, dark eyed men peered through the tall grass like inquisitive monkeys. Placid goats wandered about, munching the dry grass, and brown Greek children chased one another, scattering squaking hens along the roadside; in the doorway of stone huts smothered in vines old women sat at their looms, weaving. Every detail – goats, stone huts, weaving grandmothers -said that Crete was very Old World. But hours later as the bus sighed into Paleohora – the last village on the road south from Chania – a Frisbee hit the window. Bongo music pattered in the café where some boys with ponytails were writing aerograms; girls in cut off jeans waved, and something in me relaxed.
I was in the mood for company. This place was both sociable and tranquil: a short walk out of town there was a colorful colony of tents on the beach, a straw teepee, seaside caves inhabited by people (they drove out the sheep); and it felt thrilling, after a week of solitary travel, to wash my laundry in the surf with a fellow nomad named Howie Goldfinger.
The village had its characters: the one-armed grape vendor and the faithful oozo drinkers, squinting their old eyes out at the street, the infamous Yanni who ran a gift shop and offered everyone he met a drink, And Yogi – George – whose café was the favorite out of maybe three in the place. It had the only TV in town, for one thing, and Yogi was a man who used his 15 words of English to the maximum. The town was a bright and friendly little paradise, with oozo parties by night and snorkling by day. And yet, the one person I will never forget was a German boy who seldom spoke to anyone.
He slept on a bench near where I had built a lean-to on the beach; lingered at the fringes of bonfires; glided across the beach alone, speaking to no one; ate in the morning alone, and wandered about the town in silence with a secret smile on his face I always noticed him out of the edge of my eye and even felt- here’s a kindred spirit, a loner -but somehow like everyone else I never approached him.
Then he approached me.
I was working on a drawing for Yogi when he came into the café, looked down at what I was doing, and stopped. He stared at the drawing, seemed to be trying to speak, and when I met his eyes they held such bewilderment and disbelief that I could think of nothing to say. Was he so shy? Was my drawing so terrible or so marvelous that it rendered him speechless? I thought then, I ought to talk to him…
The next day a ferocious storm hit the cove. The air turned cold, yellow leaves scudded up the stree, the straw teepee blew away; the beach colony fell into a sad ghost town of loose-flapping tents and flying laundry. No one wanted to believe winter had come. They all
said “In a few days it’ll snap back.” But I knew it was time to go; and in the preparation, I forgot about the German boy.
Yogi placed my drawing on the wall and kissed me goodbye on both cheeks. I waved goodbye to Bill, the revolutionary with the saxaphone case (no saxaphone), and Frank, the bongo man. Tom, the flute player, walked me to the bus. We hugged and I boarded, feeling suddenly cut off from the safety and gaiety of that refuge. Adrift, as one so often feels on the road, adrift and alone.
Then around the corner of the café, walking slowly, came the German boy. He got on the bus and stood looking down at me. “Have you given up?” he said. I made some cheery remark about the sun coming out just as soon as the bus rolled away. “Besides,” I added lamely, “India is calling me.” He looked at me with his secret smile, murmured, “Sure. Goodbye,” turned away, and left the bus. I wanted to call “Wait!” but what was there to say?
As the bus rolled away through the yellow leaves and burnt grass, I thought, now I’ll never know what he was thinking, or who he was, or why he smiled and kept so silent. And I felt a tremendous regret for never having reached out to him, because he was me as I have sometimes felt among strangers; because he was so many strangers I’ve seen in joy-town
cafes; because he was every traveler at some lonely point on every traveler’s road—not helpless, not crippled, just needing a voice.
Why didn’t I speak to him sooner?
Rebecca Bruns, was a freelancer living in San Francisco, who specialized in the tropics and exotic culture. To find out more about her, visit www.rebeccabruns.net.