A Strange Encounter

Travelers’ Tales Solas Honorable Mention

It is a sultry and overcast day in Casablanca. I am stuck in the Mohammed V international airport and facing a five hour layover. Despite the dreariness of the weather outside, the airport is alive with African color, odors, and mystique. There are multiple languages being spoken and I enjoy the serenity of not knowing a single one of them. For a long time I simply watch the flow of humanity and marvel at the variety of dress that parades past me.

This airport, with direct flights to and from Paris, is one of the main bottlenecks into the heart of Africa. I imagine Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman walking by hand in hand. A very large woman, wearing a dress that could serve as a tent in an emergency, walks by with a fruit basket on her head. Behind her is a man so thin that he seems nearly transparent, in a strange sort of way, and whose skin reminds me of a dried up creek bed. With his long wooden staff, flowing white robes, he seems biblical. Two teenage boys strut by covered head to toe in replica rip offs; Nike tennis shoes, Gucci watches, thick gold rope chains, baggy Diesel pants, and New York Yankee jerseys. Skin colors vary as much as the fashionable array of clothes that swim past me like tropical fish on their way to Maputo, Paris, or Zanzibar. There is the strong smell of human sweat, perfume, and mint tea in the waiting room.

Then I see him. The man is helplessly confined to a wheelchair and struggling to maneuver out of the traffic flow, I lend a hand.

He looks up and into my face and says, “Anchors away.” He smiles with sad eyes.

I realize that he is American, though his outward appearance gives no such indication, and I am immediately intrigued. “So… you’re an old sailor eh? So am I.”

“You’re looking at a man that has survived a shipwreck in the Bermuda Triangle, young man. It is very nice of you to help an old man like me.” He then proceeds to orate on the capsizing of his sailboat, twenty days floating alone at sea, eventual rescue and New York Times notoriety.

“It was the ninth day out in the devil’s maelstrom that I had a profound epiphany.” I take a good hard look at him and speculate that he is in his eighties and in fragile health. He wears a threadbare pair of tan chinos, sea blue deck shoes, loose fitting pullover, and his thinning hair had obviously been flaming red in his youth. He clutches one of those cheap plastic bags that attempt to look like leather, with his thin vein ridden fingers. His teeth are yellow and decayed. His wheelchair looks like a hand-me-down from the Salvation Army.

“That’s right young man, a full blown, honest to goodness epiphany. My life was dangling in the abyss, between life and death, when it all came crystal clear. Life was meant to be lived, not endured, was the message that rose up like a sea monster in my soul.” I watch his eyes water up and his knees bounce up and down with nervous tension.

“May I ask you what you do, my dear fellow?” I shake myself out of his mesmerizing yarn.

“Well, I work out logistical issues in Germany and Africa.” I feel absurd saying it.

“Oh my… how dreadfully boring. It must be so ordinary, all that mundane security and lack of chaos. I dare say how can you stomach such a life?” It made me wonder, how did I?

He continues, “One must live life to the fullest, not retreat into a cocoon of false stability. By the way, the name is Charles Hughes, awfully nice to have made your acquaintance.”

It all seems so absurd; I have the vague feeling that I am slipping into a daydream, that the man in front of me is an apparition of my imagination. I review the last several weeks that I have spent working around Africa; exciting work, exotic, pays well, always a new challenge to confront. Nevertheless, the man’s comments have unsettled me somehow. Was I doing what I really wanted to do? Or was I wrapped in a cocoon of security and fear?

“Ever heard of Slocum? Now that man knew how to live.” In fact, strangely enough, Slocum was one of my heroes, a man that lived the life I wanted to live.

“Well, sure I have read Slocum, and Tillman also. In fact, I can retire in several years and I plan to buy a 42’ aluminum sailboat designed by a French designer, with a double stern, the hull streamlined to heave itself up onto the ice instead of getting crushed.” I am excited and babbling on for a good twenty minutes about my plans (which I formulated right there on the spot). In fact, I really didn’t have a firm plan, just a bag of dreams.

I begin to feel like I am no longer in an airport surrounded by hundreds of Africans, rather, on the high seas and at the helm of my own sailing vessel.

“Young man, I have been listening to you intently and with much interest, and I dare say that to wait your several years is pure insanity. You must shove off on your sailing journey immediately.”

“Yes, yes, I wish I could, but I have my career, the house, family, and…” He cuts me off mid-sentence.

“Hogwash! Young man, I have a proposition for you. I might not look the part, but I am an extremely wealthy man, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, and quite frankly, lonely and desperate. Alone in the world! I own houses in Morocco, Sarasota Springs near the racetrack, midtown Manhattan, and a country home in Martha’s Vineyard. I have outlived my wife, brothers and sisters, and my own daughter. Alone I tell you, alone!” His waxy-like face turns flush red.

“My proposition is for you to go back home and resign from your position immediately. I will buy you your 42’ foot sailing vessel, give you my entire fortune, if you will sail me around the world before I die. I think I have a good five or six years left in me, that should be enough time don’t you think? I will write you out a check as collateral on this plan, a sort of assurance you might say, and there isn’t a bank in the world that will refuse to cash a check from Charles Hughes. You can bank on that! What do you say? Is it a deal? You will have your dream and I’ll have mine.”

Visions of Bora Bora, the straights of Magellan, Thule, Greenland, and all the ports and oceans I had ever dreamed of flash across my brain. My heart beats like an African drum. This is the moment I have been waiting for served up on a golden platter.

“Sir, I would be honored to join you on this voyage, honored.” Charles smiles and I wonder what the hell I am doing.

“Quick, quick, my plane is boarding over there at gate number seven, can you help me?” I frantically push him through the lingering crowds to his gate. An airline attendant rushes up to us and takes over the wheelchair.

“What is your name young man?” Charles is already entering the gate and tunnel to the airplane. I am suddenly shaken from my reverie and yell out, “Tor.” It is too late, the man that has offered me my dream is gone, and he only knows that my name is Tor. I am at loss for what to do.

I have always believed that each and every moment provides a potential for an “Encounter” that will ultimately change your life. You might meet your guru, a life patron, the love of your life, a mentor to lead you towards a long lost dream, or a kindred spirit that is sympathetic to your life’s quest.

“You will have your dream and I will have mine,” echoes like church bells across my brain.

Back home I ponder my dilemma day and night. Am I going to let greed rule my decision? Take a suicidal leap into wealth and fortune?

Should I throw everything that I have been working toward spiritually down the drain and embrace my desires with reckless abandon? I share my situation with several close friends and their advice varies from taking the money and sailing away, to suggesting that Charles is a fraud and that giving up my secure life will ruin me. Naturally, I do not hear from Charles, since he only knows my first name. Finally, I break down and begin searching the name Charles Hughes on the internet and discover what a wild goose chase I am on. Maybe one day I will run into Charles Hughes again, however, I have come to doubt it. Regardless of the outcome of my encounter with Charles Hughes in the Casablanca airport, I will always see it in a positive light. This strange encounter made me think about my dreams, where I was at in regards to them, and how far I was willing to go to obtain them. Wherever you are Charles I would like to thank you for inspiring me to live my dreams and the life I imagined.

Tor Torkildson