Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
I’m walking back from a colleague’s apartment in the centre of Honiara in the Solomon Islands at 9 p.m. The moon, deep red and swollen two hours earlier as it rose above clinking yacht masts, is again a bright coin shining through the trees.
“Don’t walk after dark here, at any time,” the other expats had told me when I arrived. But that was nearly 10 weeks ago.
There are no streetlights in Honiara, and my apartment is behind the main road, along a very dark Matavale Street, and then up an even darker alley behind it. I should have brought my flashlight, I think.
But I also recall my frequent walks along a forest path down the Niagara Escarpment from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., after classes finished at 10 p.m., while still an undergrad. The nights were black and strands of silver moonlight hung from the trees. It had been a sweet connection with nature. You can always see in the dark, I assure myself.
As I pass the Ministry of Finance, a van pulls up onto the sidewalk in front of me, blocking my path. One voice inside me says: Don’t walk between the van and the fence; they can jump out on you and no one will see. Another voice responds: People in this country park on the sidewalk all the time, and nearly run people over in the process; the culture of the pedestrian has not developed here yet.
I walk around them on the road side. A man in the driver’s seat, thick forearm hanging outside, encrusted in tribal tattoos, gives me a friendly smile. I return it. Approaching the van from the other side is a young woman walking – unhurried, alone and totally unconcerned – into town. Nothing to worry about.
During the day, Matavale Street is beautiful. Barefoot women sway across the gravel, babies lolling on their hips, as if strolling on carpet. The bright sun gleams off the men’s sweating biceps, as they cut grass with expert machete swings.
The Kingston Club – silhouettes of four curvaceous women animating the signboard in front of it – is farther out, near the Ministry of Rural Development, and I cross the street to avoid it. There are drunks outside, as there would have been on Yonge Street in Toronto, but they are harmless. There are some laughs and shouts, and the sound of a beer can hurtling onto the street, safely behind me.
Then, 300 metres of pitch black, with only the sound of the sea and the sudden light of a passing car. I walk the dark dirt path away from the main road, stumbling slightly once in the darkness, and am enveloped in Matavale Street.
A soft light from the familiar corner house paints the road ahead. The doors of Linzees family shop are locked, not barred. No one has bars here, I reflect.
An older couple and a young man are talking to a grocery vendor across the street. An orange lantern from his tiny wood shack glows behind the young man’s head.
There are no streetlights on Matavale, but there are pockets of light coming from a hundred sources: houses, shops, street vendors. An older couple walk quietly together ahead of me, hand in hand. “Good night!” The young man’s greeting is cordial, and I respond with pleasure.
In Upper Canada in the 19th century did people have time for this? From a time gone forever back home.
No one hurries in the daytime, I think, and no one is hurrying now.
The human mind is an odd thing. We build walls around ourselves so quickly, and take them down so reluctantly.
When I worked in India, it was nearly a year before I felt safe leaving my laptop on a coffee shop table while I went to the washroom, although back home I often do this. Neither the situations nor the people seemed different and my intuitions were not warning me of danger, but this was India. There are a lot of poor people here, I thought. Laptops are worth more than most people walking on the streets outside earn in a year. Surely, this isn’t wise?
The first time I returned to a coffee shop table in India and found my laptop there, and a smiling neighbour, I felt a flush of pleasure. It works.
But it would have been so easy to never learn this. After all, caution has no obvious cost; it is risk-taking that has a price. At social gatherings we are forever narrating the dangers, both serious and trivial, of international travel. The government issues advisories about it.
And when politicians air cowardly speculations that all Muslims could be potential terrorists, we don’t respond with a robust and scientific refutation. Our science of human psychology, like our behavior, is geared toward risk, not the opportunities we lose from excess caution.
A young Australian journalist rents the floor above me. He has been taking down different types of walls: he has soaked up the cadences and nuances of Solomon pidgin, and devotes hours before sundown each week to chatting and kicking a ball around with our big boisterous neighbours.
Then they sit on the upholstered chairs of the car wreck by the front door, drink beer and chat for a while.
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