Asi winced slightly as she gently kneaded her foot. She took in her surroundings. She was still reeling from the breath taking views from their hike up Table Mountain today.
Not bad as far as hostels go, she thought
In fact, there was very little about Cape Town, South Africa that was bad and she was a little sad that her 5-day trip was coming to an end tomorrow. She must remember to note in her journal tonight that she would be returning. Perhaps on her way back to Lagos- but that was not for another 3 months
“Where did you say you are now again?” Her mother had asked on the phone the night before
“South Africa, Mummy”
“Ehen, that’s not too far now. Why not come home for 2 days or so and then you can go back to your waka waka? That was her mom’s way of saying she missed her. Her ever-supportive mother still struggled to come to terms with her decision to solo-travel for 6 months. So did Tombara, her sister and Nancy, her best friend.
Asi sighed. “I’ll be home soon, Mummy. Can you believe it’s been 3 months already?” She was trying to lighten the mood.
“So you won’t come, ehn?”
Asi rubbed her neck
“I have a travel plan to stick to, Mommy” She’d lost count of how many times her mother had made this request. Her answer never changed
She changed to the other foot and started kneading again
Tomorrow she was off to Seychelles and then Mauritius
She stretched and yawned careful not to bump her hands on the room’s ceiling. She much preferred the bottom bunk as bunk ladders made her a little nervous but by the time she booked into the hostel this evening they were all taken and she didn’t have the energy to go looking for another hostel
Speaking of bunk ladders, she needed to pee
She stared at the ladder warily and for a moment considered holding in the urine until day break when she would need to have a shower
Don’t be silly Asi. You are a 29-year-old professional banker. You can navigate a measly bunk ladder
The time on her phone said 1.36 am. She turned up her phone flashlight and tiptoed carefully out of the room hoping she didn’t wake any of her 5 room mates
Her phone vibrated just as she quietly closed the door behind her
“Hey, you up?”
“Barely” She typed in response as she made her way to the set of toilet stalls at the end of the corridor
“I think Tam has gone mad”
Asi rolled her eyes not sure whether she was in the mood to hear about another one of Nancy’s couple’s quarrels with her boyfriend of 5 years, Tam- a constant reminder that she had never been able to hold down a serious relationship for more than 6 months
She started typing “What happened now” head down. She turned right to where the stalls were and suddenly recoiled as her forehead collided with something warm, hard and hairy. A chest. A man’s chest.
“Ouch! Excuse me…I’m so sorry…I wasn’t looking…” the words were tumbling out at lightning speed.
Jeez, Asi! When will start paying more attention to where you’re going?
“No, it’s my fault. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone at this hour” The voice of the owner of the chest. Warm, accented, confident with a faint sign of laughter
“Are you OK”
Asi was rubbing her forehead
“All good, no worries” came her reply and for the first time looked up to see who owner of the iron chest
He had taken about 4 steps back to assess her, affording her the same privilege. He was at least 6 feet 2 inches tall which would explain the forehead to chest contact.
He had shoulder-length blonde hair, which wet, at the moment, stuck to his scalp and skin like a damp cloth
His features weren’t what you would regard as handsome but he was certainly attractive. His grey eyes were bright and full of expression and from the look of his body, he certainly worked out.
And that body only had a grey towel around its waist at the moment- held in place by one hand
Asi quickly caught herself and averted her eyes back to the floor
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to stare” She sounded like a mouse even to her own ears
“You probably shouldn’t be walking around with only a towel. This is a public place”
She was still looking down
Why in the world did the shower and loo stalls have to be unisex here??
“Ah yes” at least he had the decency to sound a little embarrassed,.
“I’ll be sure to remember that for next time”
To that, she looked up. He was staring straight at her
It made her uncomfortable. He made her uncomfortable
She was all of a sudden aware of her un-made face, the minny mouse PJ set she was wearing and her messy weave
She looked away again moving her weight from one foot to the other
He seemed to know he made her uncomfortable and from the slight smile on his face, was enjoying it
“Well, sorry I bumped into you” Asi finally said
“Um…good night” she was trying to figure out how to get her legs to work so she could move past him to one of the toilet stalls.
Thankfully, he got the hint and strode towards her instead
She quickly stepped aside so she wasn’t in his way
“Yes, good night” he was still smiling as went past her back into the corridor leading to the rooms
Safely within the privacy of a loo stall, Asi released the breath she didn’t even realise she had been holding
Why was her heart pounding like she just ran a 100m sprint?
Two weeks later…
4 days in Frankfurt was a dream
Asi never thought she’d been able to say that. She’d had this preconceived notion that Germans were a bit stiff-lipped and probably not too welcoming to strangers from other countries who didn’t speak the language. How wrong she was.
As she made her way through customs, Reykjavik- bound, she thought of her new german friend Emmaline and smiled. Yes, Frankfurt was a dream
On the plane, she patiently waited to locate her seat as passengers in front of her would put away their luggage in the overhead compartments and take their seats, one by one
She looked at the seat number that was beside her: 28. Her seat number was 42. Not long now
A passenger 2 people ahead caught her attention: blond hair, tied into a ponytail now revealing sideburns she didn’t notice the first time. Plain white t-shirt that showed a little stomach as he lifted his luggage and dumped it into the overhead compartment with little effort. Like someone who had done it a million times before
He chose to turn at that moment just before taking his seat when he locked eyes with Asi’s. Time seemed to stop. So did her breath.
The passengers in front of Asi were an older couple and they noticed the young man in front was not moving out of the way. They traced his gaze to Asi
Do grounds actually open up and swallow people? I need to be swallowed up- now!
She looked back at the couple with what she hoped was a neutral expression, not to challenge them but because it was easier than looking at iron chest guy
Iron chest guy spoke: “I’m so sorry” he said to the older couple She reckoned he was dutch or german. He ook his (aisle) seat, never for once taking his eyes off her . They exchanged smiles that said “I don’t know how I ran into you again but I’m glad I did”
When she went passed his seat, she half expecting him to grab her hand. But he didn’t
Was that disappointment lodging itself in her heart?
They landed at Reykjavík airport around noon. Asi’s heart started pounding again. She was terrified of this obvious connection she felt with this stranger but couldn’t wait to see him again, even if it was from a distance
And see him she did, he was about 6 passengers in front of her now as they slowly disembarked. He seemed to have forgotten Asi was in the same plane because he didn’t look back to search her out even once
By the time she got off the plane, he was no where to be found
Disappointment rented more space in her heart
One week later…
Asi finally agreed. You haven’t tasted good pasta until you have visited Italy
After 2 days in Rome, she was making her way to Naples where she would spend the day and visit the Pompei ruins. The tour bus driver was insistent that they stop at this local restaurant on the way to have lunch. Asi was difficult to please with food but even she couldn’t deny the deliciousness of this pasta recipe. It was almost other-worldly
They had 20 minutes before it’ll be time to continue their journey
There were several other tourists obviously en route to Naples too and they littered the entire stretch of restaurants. Tourists from different parts of the globe
She loved being a solo traveller. But sometimes it meant you stood out a little. Especially if you were of African descent
He had her back to her but she knew instinctively that it was him. He had visited almost every dream she’d had in the last week so there was no mistaking that blond hair. He was looking up as if to take in the sun and the glorious weather in all its splendour. He looked so at peace
Mr iron chest must have sensed eyes on him because he looked back and immediately locked eyes with her.
Seconds passed. He stood. He walked towards her until he was inches away- Asi wouldn’t need to stretch her hand all the way to touch him
He put his hands in his pockets.
“We seem to keep running into each other”. Asi could hear the little laughter in the warm tone of his voice. She still couldn’t place his accent for sure yet.
Asi cocked her head to one side stealing a look up at him and then her eyes found the ground again. She feared that her treacherous wildly-beating heart would make her faint there and then
“It would seem so” She finally said, laughing nervously
Slowly she watched his brown-booted feet close the small gap between them
And just then a tentative pointy finger touched her chin and gently lifted it till she was looking up at him
She tried to move. What audacity did he have to touch her? But something in his eyes held her in place. It was a mix of confusion, desperation and…was that…awe?
He spoke again: “I’m not sure what is happening right now”
Glad he’s just as confused and nervous as I am. Asi thought to herself
“I don’t even know your name”
“Asi” he echoed. She loved how he pronounced her name
“Henri” She echoed back
“Asi” Henri said again as if to test it for good measure “ Just so you know: I’m not letting you out of my sight again”
He was so close she could smell his cologne. This familiar stranger that had disrupted her life all in the space of 1 month and 3 chance meetings.
She grinned and said “I hoped you’d say that”