A Pedestrian’s Tale
Although the author has changed some facts to achieve what he calls “fictional accuracy,” he tells us all the “hallucinations are real” in this fanciful narration of walking to work through the streets of Hawally, Kuwait.
by Marty Rempel
Editors Note: This imaginative tale has graced the ISR forum for more than 2 years. For us, it captures the excitement, the out of our comfort zone “je ne sais quoi” of the overseas experience.
In my perpetual quest to become physically fit, I make the 15 minute walk to school each day and walk back most days. Some days I cheat and take the school mini- bus. On this morning I wear my bright yellow nylon jacket. I look like a street cleaner, as many wear brightly coloured jump suits but the point is I feel safer, like wearing white at night, another safety concept that has not caught on here.
My thoughts are premature as a white Toyota van carrying school kids to the Pakistani Happy School merrily swerves towards me. I felt the three inches to spare between the van’s mirror and my chest was a near death experience. The driver probably felt three inches was a wide margin for error.
As I walked on I noticed that an older Egyptian man, warming himself by a fire in front of his parked front end loader, was laughing. He had obviously been a witness to my near miss. I gave a shrug indicating who can explain crazy drivers. He then pointed at his own chest as an indicator that he acknowledged my bright yellow jacket. I ran my hands along the length of the jacket and shrugged again. I felt like a third base umpire as I communicated with my hands. Without language we had shared a moment in Kuwaiti traffic history. Of course if I misinterpreted our little exchange he could have been saying that foreign infidels need bullet proof vests to survive.
My walk takes me past many sights and sounds and tactile experiences, enough to stimulate any learning style. On the side streets and in the absence of anything resembling sidewalks, dexterity is essential to maneuver around the garbage dumpsters, parked cars and the variety of urban flotsam and jetsam that abounds. I wear very sensible shoes, with good traction and thick soles. I have reflexes like the feral cats that inhabit the dumpsters along the route. I am sure-footed and alert. Actually, that’s mainly a crock of shit. It’s 6:30 in the morning. I’m slow and semi-comatose and in no mood to talk to another living person. I am walking a gauntlet and fearful for my life.
Along the way I must cross Tunis Street, one of two main streets in Hawally, the ghetto suburb in which I live. Kuwait was never designed for the pedestrian. This is an automobile society. The traffic is thick, continuous, fast and evil. As I approach Tunis from a quieter side street I felt my adrenaline rise, or it might be bile. I begin to awake from my stupor knowing full well that I must soon be at the peak of my game in order to cross this busy road. Life, as I know it, is in the balance.
Moses had it easy with the Red Sea. Having the ability to part a sea is not actually a level playing field. Knowing full well I could not part the traffic and realizing the force is not with me, nor seldom is, I tentatively walked on the sidewalk (now there was one) parallel to the constant flow of TATA buses, scooters, trucks, taxis and foul smelling diesel engines.
I turned and scanned the horizon for a gap, even a subtle, a tiny one, in the line of traffic. Looking for my window of opportunity. Horns blared. I controlled my panic, knowing I must do this thing. I must get to class, my students need me. They depend on me. They hang on my every word. The future of the free world depends on my crossing Tunis. It’s a bogus little pep talk I give myself before launching across the street. Sometimes it works. Today, I think not.
I was about to go for it, cross Tunis that is, when to my utter surprise, and partial satisfaction, my pants started to vibrate. It was Cheryl on the cell phone. I was then able to give her a real time narration of my crossing of Tunis at morning rush hour. I felt like my hero, Jack Bauer.
“I want you to know that what ever happens I love you. I have to cross the street now.” I stepped off the curb. I was dizzy. Grit, from the wind generated by the stream of traffic, was flung into my face and blurred my vision.
“I see a gap,” I cried into the cell phone. “I’m going for it.” I had to dodge left, zig right; there was constant enemy fire from my left flank as mortars and light artillery fired from the northern trench. I feared for my life even as my men exchanged fire. I could still be the victim of collateral damage. A victim of friendly fire on the way to work. I would not have it. Flak had hit my port engine and I was flaming out. Bullets pierced the thin skin of my aircraft like a knife going through butter. There was no time to write a decent simile. I instructed my crew to bail. Hot engine oil was spewing through my cracked windshield. Black smoke screened my visibility. I was losing altitude fast. I had to act quickly.
Immediately, I dropped and rolled and tossed my backpack even though it contained some vital supplies. I was now lighter and could move faster. I had bought a few precious seconds. I lurged forward. “Bogies at 12 o’clock,” I screamed into the cell phone. Smoke again blurred my vision. I saw an opening and went for it. I had reached the median.
Here blue helmeted UN troops patrolled. It was a temporary safety zone. The air grew calm as in the eye of a hurricane. Still on my cell to Cheryl, she asked me to stop by the store and bring some milk back on my way home. I explained that I was under fire, (she may have thought that was a metaphor), and did she want skim or 2%. I stepped off the curb and left the safety of the median.
Tear gas drifted toward my sector. I tore my shirt sleeve off and wrapped it around my mouth in order to breathe. My life did not pass before me but every movie cliché that applied to crossing busy streets in war-like conditions did. There were only three. I shouted out to whoever would listen. “You looking at me? You’ll never take me alive you dirty copper.” Finally, “There’s no place like home.” In desperation I quickly clicked my heels three times.
“Medic! I need a medic,” and I was on the curb. I had crossed Tunis.
I noticed people on the sidewalk were looking at me oddly, must be a cultural thing I thought. What, have they never seen a person cross the street before? Regretting the loss of my backpack and my torn shirt, I got to work only five minutes late.
Like to comment on this story? Or, do you have a story to share?
Join us on the ISR Discussion Board where we have provided a space for your comments.