Sometimes, during my travels, I’ve had encounters with people whose stories, so unusual, have become lodged in my mind, long after our brief meeting. The island of Djerba provided me with one such encounter. It was late afternoon, after a blistering, twelve-hour bus ride where, to keep myself from going cuckoo, I tried to remember every house I’d ever lived in, and after that, every minute detail of the overnight camp I’d attended twenty years earlier. I’m not sure it helped. I arrived dazed, hot, and tired.
Djerba itself is unforgettable–a tiny piece of the Sahara, flat, sandy, with millions of palm trees and dazzling sunshine, dropped right into the Mediterranean. The water was the warmest and the clearest blue-green I’d yet seen, more turquoise than teal. I stepped off the bus in the main town, Houmt Souk, in late afternoon. I found a room at the youth hostel, then hastily donned my swimsuit—after my interminable bus ride, I was eager to get into the inviting water. I hurried down to the beach and jumped in, then swam out through the incoming tide, totally refreshed. Looking back toward the island, the sands along the shoreline were like a Saharan oasis, with dunes and palm trees arching out over the sea, more inviting than a picture post card. I wondered if I’d get caught, just as Odysseus had when he stopped at Djerba, enchanted by the goddess Circe and her beautiful sirenes.
After my swim I walked down the beach for what seemed ages. Toward the end I came to a shiny new Ford van with its side doors flung open, parked on the hard-packed sand. Inside sat a man about my age, with blond hair springing out from his head like active electric wires, and penetrating pale blue eyes, the kind that can see into a person. They made me think he’d probably had many psychedelic experiences. Curious as to why he’d be parked on the sand, and, trapped by his eyes, I stopped. Seeing me staring at him, he started up a conversation. After a few minutes, he invited me into his van, and introduced himself as Mark. It was only then that I realized he was a paraplegic.
He soon told me his story. From Australia, he’d hitched all the way to England to buy the hand-operated van he was now living in. He was on his way back to Australia, this time driving his own vehicle. He’d been on the road for two years, and expected to take another year before arriving home. I was impressed by what he’d done—hitched all the way to England without the use of his legs—and I was also intrigued. How had he found the courage to do it? What was traveling like, with only the use of his upper body? He asked me to stay for dinner, and as we talked he made us a tasty couscous and vegetable tajine, which he cooked up on his two-burner propane stove.
After dinner he set about changing the tire on his van. He crawled out of the van with his tools, sat on the hard sand with his legs crossed in a Yoga pose, jacked up the van and removed the tire. He astonished the locals, who’d gathered around him as if he were the evening’s entertainment. He didn’t seem to mind at all, and kept working quietly.
At one point there was a part he seemed to think needed washing. Rather than using his wheelchair, which wouldn’t have worked in the sand, he crawled down to the water’s edge like a snake or an eel, slithering on his belly, using his arms like he was doing pushups against the sand, washed the part and crawled back the same way. It was clear that his arms, so well developed, were doing the work of his lifeless legs. When he finally replaced the spare tire on the van, all the curious onlookers, villagers and tourists alike, gave him a round of applause.
After he’d changed the tire, we continued our conversation, exchanging travel stories as travelers do, about the places we’d been and where we were heading next—both eastward, across North Africa, but following different routes. Then I thanked him for dinner, said goodbye, and returned to the Youth Hostel. The next morning I left Djerba, and never saw him again.
I’ve thought of Mark many times over the years—how a chance encounter with someone as courageous and confident as he was had made me feel appreciative of my own lucky life. I’ve wondered what the rest of his trip home was like, what kind of welcome he’d receive when he returned home, and even if he actually made it. As he didn’t have an address and neither did I, I never found out the ending of his story.
When I think about him now, what impresses me is not only his courage, but the trust he must have had, so vulnerable without the use of his legs, to have undertaken his long journey to England. Trust in himself that he would succeed, and trust in others, that they would not take advantage of him. And when I realize his trust, I also recognize my own trust as a solo female traveler. Whether we were foolish to have had such trust and were simply lucky, or whether we elicited good will by our vulnerability, I’ll never know. I like to think the good will was there all the time, just waiting for someone to call on it.