Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Crossed Paths

What-might-have-once-been a white mercedes touring van - caked with dirt, sand, and mud - pulls up to the Departures drop-off at Johannesburg International. It's already dark despite the sun having only just dropped below the horizon. The dodgy van's idling engine rumbles as the blaring sound of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody filters through its windows, turning the heads of bustling travellers that pass through the terminal's sliding doors. To match the van, a group of just-as-soiled backpackers file out from the rear while a mismatched pair - one tall and lanky, the other short and portly - squeeze out of the front seats and set about unloading the rickety-trailer in tow behind the van. The tired group stretch their limbs and yawn as they go about gathering their respective duffel-bags and backpacks. Their teamwork, like a well-oiled-machine, makes quick work of the heavy load and before long, the trailer's cargo stands neatly stacked on the terminal's cold pavement. The group then turn to face each other, at first unsure of how to say goodbye, but that quickly changes as they sidestep bags and trolleys to exchange hearty handshakes and heartfelt hugs. Emails and telephone numbers are quickly scribbled down and swapped, as the two mismatched guides stand to one side and look on. Their fists shoved into their pockets, they try to keep straight faces and blink away the tears that well up at the corner of their eyes. But they don't go unnoticed and the rest of the group quickly turns on them, smothering them with bear hugs and ardent thanks. The same are returned, amid lively laughing and thorough promises of returns and calls. But the planes and trains aren't patient, and the group remembers that their time is up. The night is wearing on, and after a few last handshakes, kind words and spirited waving, the group go their separate ways, some homeward bound and others on to other exotic places. And despite their different languages, home countries, beliefs, ideals, religions, ages and careers - they all shared an unforgettable time together.


It's an odd thing, really. It's one of those things we don't actively think about or even consider - at least, I didn't, until it was my turn to say goodbye. After 10 days and thousands of kilometers spent singing, laughing and sleeping in the back of that dodgy old van, I'd actually gotten to know that small group of people rather well. But as I fell asleep that night, I realized 10 days really isn't that much time at all. And yet, we each pass millions of people throughout our lives, each one slipping out of our conscious mind as quickly and silently as they came in. It goes on as we joke about prices at the gas pump, argue at the traffic lights, bump trolleys at the supermarket, or talk ourselves through leaping off the Victoria Falls (anybody?).


The fact is, we meet these people through the most unlikely, uncommon, unbelievable and unforeseeable ways, and yet we hardly ever consider how distinct and unique these lives are that we so briefly touch. But a group of 16 people make a 10 day journey across southern Africa, from Johannesburg to the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, back through Botswana's Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, covering thousands of barely-paved kilometers and hundreds of personal stories - and end with tearful goodbyes. How? Such an unlikely group come together from across the globe - from England, Ireland, Holland, Canada and South Africa - to discover the beauty of Africa, but share so much more.

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