She was walking with the short man. Though only yesterday she had been with the tall man. Or she was walking behind the short man, down the street, wondering did she really want to do this and if not why would she be doing it? She had wondered the same thing with the tall man, though not as much. But that was yesterday. Both men had approached her at random as she walked in the streets of Nairobi.
She was a traveler, though many people in Nairobi were non-travelers and even more were natives. In any event they were walking, she and the short man, to a place where they could talk: to a bench. He had asked just for that, to talk and then she would leave and she thought he would let her.
The short man was a stranger. His eyes were red and unfocused, like he chewed ghat and his shirt flapped loosely in the wind over the globe of his stomach.
But when he approached and tried to start a conversation asking, Can I get into parking garages? she had made herself very clear. She did not know anything about such industries. Did he mean to work in one or to park his car in one because he could definitely park a car in one but working in a parking garage would require certain skills and qualifications and she couldn’t judge that from the street. But she said it would be a long road out from under all the paperwork required. Did that answer his question?
What about the moving industry? He said. He could get a truck. Move things from here to there. In America. There was more to talk about, he said. There wasn’t enough time, she said. Back at her hotel her guide was waiting. He said, Did you just come here to look at the people or to talk to them?
That’s what she thought of herself: not a non-traveler, a traveler. A non-traveler to her was a person who carried many lists of the things she must do and wore khaki shorts with pleats and a neatly tucked shirt and loose sandals. For a picture, a non-traveler held her hands out to local children she didn’t know and smiled but closed her window on the bus when the local people came up and asked for a pen or tried to sell her a pen.
On the other hand, a traveler observed an opportunity and said, How can this be done in a new way? and then did it that way. Or looked inside herself and said, What is it I really want? and did that. That was the case yesterday with the tall man. Though she had only just met him, she wanted to go where only a native could take her. Where danger is involved (meaning this is a situation that most people warn against) a traveler would not be stopped but would just think more (would have to think constantly from minute to minute, second to second, have eyes everywhere) and get through it that way. It was like that at the brothel, though even there it was difficult for her to see well with the lights being so low, smoky as it was.
A non-traveler, she thought, would not come out of fear, fear of making known things that were unknown. The prostitutes sat. They were plain and tired. She watched the tall man do magic tricks with whatever things he found, a napkin, a thin straw, a cherry. As a traveler she was closer to a native than a non-traveler. Like a native, she wanted to do something a native would do on a given day. Buy the newspaper or watch a film. Drink at a brothel. These things to the native were not special though to her they were. Maybe she shared with a non-traveler the need for something to be special. Though what was special for her—the newspaper, the movie theater—made her unlike the native or the non-traveler. The money the tall man removed from the pocket of his blue shirt. This for her was special. The pink and green of the bill. The number 5 it bore and its shiny strip. He snapped it before her eyes this last remnant of a dangerous place he had been. She put her finger out to touch it. He folded it down. “Now it’s gone,” he said.
There were no charms in the short man. He just dragged his legs through the street knocking trash. Sometimes he looked back. To see if she was there.
He had come to Nairobi, the tall man, from somewhere else and was leaving soon, escaping all kinds of harassment, would walk a hundred miles then take a train. She said she knew about moving from one place to another. Could speak to that. She was restless and always needed to pick up and leave a place she had been for too long. He seemed uninterested in what she knew. He said, Escaping did she hear? And wrote down with her pen on a cocktail napkin Two-hundred and fifty dollars. What was he asking? For money? She came here to hear him talk and be talked to. Who could he even get to do that here if not her? A traveler. Did he think she was a non-traveler? Someone who he had brought here with the goal of getting money?
Seeing herself sitting at the bar she thought he thought she was excited to be with a live escapee. So startled by his nerve that she would give him anything to get free because she too valued freedom. Or that she wanted to be an accomplice in an act of international escape because her life was devoid of this caliber of disappearance?
In giving the tall man twenty-five dollars, she would not be swindled. It was after all better than being in her big hotel lobby. What he didn’t know, she thought, was that she had not been mesmerized (except maybe only a little in the beginning) by his story. She didn’t really believe his story, the beatings, the killings, the escape. Or did she a little? He’s a con man, she thought. Did he know that was one reason she was with him? At worst she can say she spent an afternoon with a con man in Nairobi. Most non-travelers could not say that. Would never have accepted the invitation to begin with.
It was only when he asked for more money and she said no and then asked for her sweater to which she also said no and then pocketed her pen, that she felt bad, really truly bad, if only for an almost imperceptibly short amount of time.
But even after she gave him the money, for the entertainment, for being a con man, for needing the money whoever he was, she wondered if his having thought she was a non-traveler meant she was a non-traveler and not a traveler as she thought she was. Or if what was most important was how she saw herself. He was angry as he put her cash away. Angry that she hadn’t given more and it caused her to question herself. Why had she talked to him, gone with him, given him money and let herself feel bad. Why had she felt bad? Had she actually felt bad or had she only been seeing herself in that moment as a non-traveler would see herself: swindled, pitiful, manipulated.
Now the short man. They walked and walked. He dragging his feet slightly ahead, she behind. It was clear he wasn’t stopping at a bench. As she walked she thought if she continued on to the hotel, did not stop or turn around, she would be on her way there in the Land Rover past the hippodrome, past the rhino orphanage, to the estate. Rather than with this short man. She might take pictures, one of a blue porcelain toilet bowl from the early twentieth century, some fat cigars in a glass case and an overstuffed pony-fur chair. She would see the large copper coffee silos and listen as the guide told her information about the baroness who owned the estate, the book she wrote, the typewriter on which she wrote it. Wouldn’t she enjoy a break? To sit under a tree with an apple, to look at a dead person’s things in the absence of danger?
But there would be other non-travelers she was sure and that would make her angry because they would smile at her as if she was one of them.
Is that why she went with the short man? He spoke to her like a non-traveler. It made her want to prove something and her walking was proving. She would go anywhere he wanted just to prove it. How would a non-traveler think, she thought.
The psychology of it was, she knew, he had said it to make her feel guilty for being a non-traveler looking for experience in this city with its colonial history, to get her to go by making her feel sorry for walking through it as if she owned it. It was a cheap guilt psychology. And so she went. But not because she felt guilty about walking through his city without stopping but because she was different than a non-traveler and where a non-traveler would not go she would go. But as she walked she wondered if that was not the psychology he was using after all, the one that challenged her to be different.
In her own city if someone stopped her on the street she would not let herself be stopped. There was never time for things like this. She would have to make time, and time was taken up too easily. If she ignored a stranger in her own city she would not be called ignorant and if she was she would not care. Not having to care was good, but not caring meant in some sense not learning. Whereas here she cared and she learned and thus was not native.
Several blocks down they reached the entrance to an indoor café. Looking at them, a non-traveler might say she was following him. She saw there were no benches and that the man had lied about wanting to talk to her on a bench. It seemed she was taking herself out of the safety of the street and into a café after he broke his promise. It could have been expected, she said to herself. As a traveler, she could see it coming, the things he was doing because he thought she was a non-traveler. He thought she didn’t realize he had lied about the benches. But she realized the way a scientist realizes a mouse is going in the wrong direction in its maze, or the right direction. And she could see she was letting herself into some kind of trap. But watching it she could choose to view it as something else, as amusement.
Did she really want to go into a café with a person who had just lied to her to get her to come into an indoor café that was filled only with natives? A non-traveler, she knew, would not go in here—would be scared. But she was a traveler and walked in with the look of confidence. If she objected she would be a non-traveler that tries to co-opt every experience and turn it into something comfortable and those were the experiences, she thought, from which you learn nothing.
There was a non-traveler who saw her enter the café with the man. With a cool manner he looked at her out from under his wide brimmed hat with the chin strap. He had on suede safari shoes sold at the hotel shop. Did he say about her “sucker”? She thought she heard him say it. If he did, would that mean she was in fact a non-traveler and not a traveler? Was it enough to think of herself as a traveler? Would the man in the hat be there outside if something went wrong?
Also she did not get to see the inside of this café though she passed it earlier when walking. She had been intimidated then. But now she had a native to go in with. She told herself anyway, If he asks for money say no. He led her to the balcony. She knew he thought he was luring her.
Here she was looking down from the balcony at the door, which seemed so far away. She looked down at the people. Each of them might have seen her as a non-traveler being lured by a native. Perhaps they knew the man, had seen him come in here with other non-travelers. Maybe they were all friends. Maybe co-conspirators. Maybe when she had looked in earlier they had notified him and he had run out after her setting the whole thing up to look like an accident that they had met on the street. Maybe she wasn’t a non-traveler though he thought she was if she herself did not think so. But what if all these people thought so. Would she then be a non-traveler? She looked down at the heads of the natives lazily drinking their coffees. Each table engrossed in its own conversation. They seemed not to be paying attention.
Looking down at the heads of the natives she wondered would she be a traveler if she is robbed of very little money but it is taken by slight force. If they have a drink and when the waiter brings her money the short man takes it out of the dish. What if she does not fight back but just lets him take it?
The short man did not speak of the parking industry or the moving industry. He lifted his glass of water and the ice made a clinking sound.
What if when he tries to take the change from the dish she fights back and the dish falls on the floor and they both scramble for it drawing the attention of the patrons on the main floor. And she grabs the change and runs down the stairs and out the door? What if they scramble for the change but the patrons don’t turn their heads and no one sees and then she runs down the stairs and out the door?
The short man looked at her with his red eyes and said he was escaping and needed money to leave.
What if rather than the change in the dish he grabs her bag with a large sum of money and her passport and the green leather wallet that was given to her for her birthday? Will she still think she is a traveler or will she think she is a non-traveler, a particularly naive one? What if the diplomat at the embassy where she retrieves her passport has heard a similar story on an infinite number of occasions?
She said she had no money to give and clasped her purse under her arm. Looking down on the main floor the patrons looked up from time to time but mostly didn’t seem to care. It was a diffused energy and the crowd was thick. What if it is not thick enough to break her fall were she to jump or be pushed from the balcony?
The waiter came and they ordered coffee. What if after they order the short man stabs her and takes all of her things? In the hospital will she be more a non-traveler than a traveler?
What if while sitting another man approaches and puts his hand on her shoulder and says, Lady, and then the door with its little rectangle of light is snapped shut so the man in the safari shoes cannot come in and help her and all of the patrons rise up from their seats and form a circle holding out their hands into which she is thrown from the balcony screaming and doesn’t die but has all her clothing torn off and all of her cavities searched for hidden money? Will she be a non-traveler then? What if she becomes known on television as the unfortunate American non-traveler X attacked and beaten in an indoor café and all of the people who watch television say to themselves “when I travel abroad I will not to end up like American non-traveler X attacked and searched in an indoor café?” Will she have been a traveler still or will she have been a non-traveler?
What if the man who puts his hand on her shoulder grabs the bag clutched under her arm and she lets him have the bag but runs down the stairs screaming causing all the patrons sitting down below to come to her help and close the door and get the purse back? Will she tell the story to friends as though she had accomplished something like climbing a tall mountain? Will she see in the faces of her friends disbelief and embarrassment for her? But what if on this point their opinions didn’t matter to her? Or did they? Will the opinions of her friends at home change the way she acts the next time she is approached by someone? Will she be fearful when someone approaches her?
What if the traveler that exists within her gradually begins to hide itself and is never allowed to come out because of the non-travelers all around her who see her as a non-traveler and not a traveler and look at her as if they know what she is? Day by day she would begin to see herself as the non-travelers do rather than how she sees herself. Even despite this feeling that she might be a non-traveler, sometimes she senses the traveler emerging and she imagines herself on some mountain peak being blasted with snow with no non-travelers around. But these moments are brief and there are so few of them in contrast to the many times she encounters non-travelers.
But would a traveler ever make distinctions between a non-traveler and a traveler? What if not? What if a traveler would never see herself as different from a non-traveler or fear a non-traveler because she would be comfortable enough with herself for the distinction to be irrelevant to her experience.
She worries that by making the distinction she is less of a traveler and further that by realizing she has made the distinction she is even less of a traveler and by realizing she has realized she has made a distinction lesser still a traveler, etc. until she is as close to being a non-traveler as possible without actually being a non-traveler that she may as well, for all intents and purposes, be a non-traveler.
She could just resolve to be a non-traveler and accepting this less elevated position be free to move around in the channels carved out everywhere by non-travelers but is afraid that if and when the traveler she might be emerges against her will she will have to wonder again what there is out there to be and of that what she is.
Rozalia Jovanovic is a former attorney living in New York. She was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia. Currently, she is working on a story collection.