November 14, 2022

Wayfarers tell their story through travel

I am waved goodbye in the pre-dawn light by a hotel receptionist from Gujarat and a bellboy from Lagos, Nigeria. My take-away coffee – which I’d planned to drink en route – must be imbibed before I climb into the immaculate transfer vehicle.

“Water, yes. Coffee, cigarettes – no,” says my driver, laughing somewhat mournfully at that final prohibition. 

Coffee hastily slurped and goodbyes waved, we make for Milan’s Malpensa Airport. My Italian is non-existent and my driver’s English is meagre, so he uses a voice-activated translation app to converse as we race along an electricity-spangled shoreline and through infinite tunnels towards our destination. 
"I was born here in Como, but I am of Calabrian origin and I love the sea. In the lake, I only bathed once – I don't like," he says through his app. 

His name is Vincenzo – like my son’s; he has a daughter named Julia – like my daughter. We were born, it transpires, in the same year. "We have much in common!" he says, before kissing me on both cheeks after unloading my baggage at the airport. 

In the check-in queue, I meet Karim from Benin. He's headed home for his first visit since arriving in Europe seven years ago. I tell him I visited Contonou just before lockdown. "You were in Contonou, my home city?" he beams. He lived for a year in France, but it was too hard, too expensive. Now he works as a butcher in Turin. His papers, it seems, aren't in order, and he's marched off by an airport official. When she returns to check my passport I ask what's happened to him. 

"He's in the wrong line – he goes via Paris,” she says. “People, they wander the airport for hours." 
I object. Does she know he hasn't seen his family in seven years? That people aren't always familiar with the check-in process? She assures me he will make his flight. 

Boarding my own flight to Doha, I pass a young Filipino woman standing aside from the throng. "Is this Zone Five ma'am?" she asks. It is, I confirm, and we walk together across the air bridge, my heart aching at that enforced honorific. She's returning to her home country five years after leaving it. "This is my first time travelling alone," she says.

On the plane, I’m seated beside a couple headed for Islamabad, where they will show off their sweet baby, Zachariah, to their family for the first time. After take-off, I move to an almost empty row so that the family can attach their baby bassinet and I can travel more comfortably. There’s an empty seat between me and my new neighbour. As we descend, he strikes up conversation. His name is Lorenzo, and he’s from Verona; he’s a contortionist on his way to Doha to perform in a series of shows. “You’re the first contortionist I’ve ever met,” I say. We part at the airport with warm goodbyes, swapped Instagram handles and wishes for an amiable journey. 

As I board my next leg, to Sydney – an unpleasantness that doesn’t bear telling – I’m reminded that travel at its most fundamental is not about the sights we set out to see, the stamps we wish to have embossed in our passports, the photos we long to post in order to prove where we’ve been. It is, most importantly, about the wayfarers we meet along the way, each one of them reflecting the truth of our great big world through their own indelible story.

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Catherine Marshall
is a freelance journalist, travel writer and editor. She contributes regularly to publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. Follow her at Time to Wander 

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