Things We Keep ©

Conversations With A Stranger 

A Story by Steven Benjamin

So, there I was, relaxing in the waiting area of the ticket office.  The bus ride was fairly unspectacular, only a tad cold during the night because, as the Sleepliner’s attendant put it: “there’s something wrong with heating system”.  It was late last year, and I’d left an overcast drizzly Cape Town and stepped into the warm sunshine of the nation’s ‘official’ capital.  My ‘contact’ texted me that my hotel shuttle was running on Africa time, prompting me to partake in that age old art of observing people.

I then started chatting with the janitor mopping the floor around me – he was from Zimbabwe.  We then got distracted when a couple moved toward the head of the ticket line – I took them to be Brazilian.  Their negotiations with the clerk soon became a heated debate.  Suddenly, a flurry of activity ensued.  A LOAD of luggage was brought in and placed at our feet.  Lawrence and I exchange looks.  The couple then separated temporarily; the gentleman negotiating with an official outside, whilst the woman continued her quest inside.  From their body language I gathered they weren’t married, tending more toward good friends or distant familial relatives – like he was only there to drop her off.  Also, some unobtrusive eavesdropping led me to reassess my ‘Brazilian’ theory.

Some more remonstrations later, with the administrators sorting through the balls-up, the lady finally had a chance to relax, a few seats away from me as it happened – the seats and floor between us were taken up by all of her eleven large suitcases.

The problem was, she’d booked these suitcases to be transported to Cape Town, only, the price had been inflated once the Bus people discovered she wouldn’t be accompanying the bags… effectively using the bus as a postal service.

Frustrated she took a moment to breath.  Eyeing the bags and then her, I smiled, kept cool, and after giving her a second to chill, I suavely opened with this line: “Is this your whole life?”

She managed a half smile, “Almost; half of it’s clothes and toys for my two kids.”

We started chatting until eventually arriving at the inevitable question, “Where are you from?”

She smiled coyly, tilting her head to one side. “Where do you think?”

Here I had to think.  Through clenched jaws and narrowed eyes I analysed the Atlas in my mind, “Um, somewhere in the Middle East.”

She smiled, suggesting she was impressed, “… Iraq.”

Divorced years ago, she’d relocated her family to South Africa, and was presently relocating again, though that too would be short lived as a job in Europe had opened up.  She wished to stay though, vowing to return as she enjoyed the warm weather and equally warm people.

I was left thinking about the things we keep in life, places we go, people we see, and mostly the people we love.  Materially our lives come down to a dozen or so suitcases, if that.  A few friends experienced this first hand, immigrating to New Zealand – their entire life boiled down to a half filled storage unit – materially anyway.

Back to the lady though, whom I will forever remember with affection… her strength and beauty so richly interwoven, evident even amidst needless frustration on a hot afternoon; she could still smile and engage in an enlightening conversation with a total stranger.

Just before my shuttle arrived, her baggage problems were sorted.  We said our farewells, but not before introducing ourselves:

She said her name was Arwen, like the Middle Earth princess, only she was from the Middle East.

I pray that she and her family are well, wherever they find themselves.

(Note: she told me where she was headed, but I thought that on the off chance she was on the run, I would at least conceal her ultimate destination.)

photos courtesy greebile and charlie phillips

You can see more of Steven Benjamin’s writings at

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15 Responses to Things We Keep ©

  1. Life is full of stories; we can find a story in every activity and encounter, including waiting for a train. ~ shinazy

  2. Nice post, Shinazy!

  3. This is good writing. I had all the sensory questions answered. I also came to care about the woman, and if I were holding the book at my favorite indie bookstore. I might pay for the privilege of finding out what happens to Arwen, and how the author and she meet up against tall odds and bring true love to the planet.

    • Thanks Ron. hehe – those ARE tall odds – by I too wish to meet her again… some time into the future, just to be assured that she is well – and maybe grab a cup of coffee!

  4. Jewell Beck

    Steven is to be congratulated for his photos and endearing travel story.
    I’m relating greatly as we are preparing our luggage today for a 3 day trip with what to pack, and what not to pack.
    Amtrac and San Diego our destination.

    • Thanks Jewell, though sadly I have to disown those photos – but I’ll gladly accept the congrats – always a good feeling, knowing my work’s appreciated!
      Some travel advice: Use ONE medium/small suitcase for essentials, what doesn’t fit – you leave behind… also, a small checklist is always handy!

  5. Beautiful and thought provoking story. Thanks!

  6. Bobbi Parker

    I found myself settling back ready to read on and on……..I wanted this story to continue. I wanted to know where she was going and how well it turned out for her. Did her kids get the suitcase full of clothes. I was drawn in Steven, such a nice flow.

    • Thanks Bobby, always humbling to see such compliments. I wish i had all the answers, but such is life… It was strange – while talking to her I was well aware that we may never see each other again – our paths simply crossed for that moment. The true things we keep in life then, are simply the bountiful memories …

  7. Cathy Reineke

    I loved this story. I remember traveling around the US in a van for six months. I had a box of clothes, a box of cooking utensils, and a sleeping bag and mat. After about a week, I wondered why I needed anything else. What we possess materially makes little difference to what we do to connect even randomly with others in our lives.

    • Well said (glad you enjoyed it) – The more we travel the better we become at it… learning what to keep. My uncle toured Europe for 11 months & over a dozen countries with 1 backpack and two pairs of shoes…! I’m still amazed to this day. 😉

  8. Thanks for your story, Steven. I remember a hike on a trip to Peru. My friends reminded me, “Whatever you carry down the hill, you have to carry back up.” I now use this statement as a metaphor for my life… Stuff is not important. My family is. — mms

  9. Thanks Malati. It is sad that this lesson is something of a forgotten principle in society today. Stuff seems to be all that people want. We tend to complicate our lives to no end.