The wind swept up and buffeted me out of balance momentarily. Ignoring the unwelcome warning, I scurried into the ferry in front of me, the hem of my skirt fluttering ferociously.
The ferry was noiseless, and it hushed my fluttering skirt the moment I stepped into the ferry. Except for the low hum and the motor’s off-beat drum, which for the uninitiated, would sound like a big deal, the ferry seemed like an informal office filled with tourists from all over, their silent anticipation robed with excitement.
The IJ was whistling like a little humming bird flying backwards, sending ripple waves across the waterbody as the ferry moved forward.
A bunch of people were chattering, some were looking around for inspiration (like me I suppose), a couple was kissing, and a cyclist dressed in a white jersey and netted shorts was impatiently looking to the other end of the river, his hands gripping the handlebar and his eyes facing ahead as if a sprint race was about to begin and a hard stare would make him reach Noord Amsterdam faster!
A little boy was fidgeting with his straight but overgrown burgundy mane that now reached his shoulders, pretending to trim its ends with his index and middle finger forming a V to snip it up, but decided to let go of it and pulled his hair back into a tight bun, leaving out a couple of stray hair dangling on his neck.
I chuckled to myself.
What kind of thoughts run through people’s heads?
My roving eyes spotted the star.
He was seated on one of the worn-out wooden benches, its ochre paint peeling off from the sides. The bench looked like it grew old by the minute, very much like its subject. His silver hair gleamed like a beam that shone sharp from a full moon, its craters making patterns and designs on its canvas. His head was bent over his walking stick, his shrinking right hand exposing nerves that swirled like snakelets that traveled across his forearm and towards his chest, stifling him like an invasive skin creeper. But he seemed to be at total ease!
The folds of skin on his neck hung low. He wore a bright blue neck-scarf with yellow polka dots on them. His head was still bent over his walking stick. As if just woken up rudely from a deep slumber, he straightened himself up, cleared his throat and looked up at me. He looked at everything around him with a child-like innocence and grinned widely, exposing his nearly-toothless mouth. His eyes were a beautiful blue, reflecting the greyness of the sea, and his age. A quick look at him would have told how meticulous he was. His yellow socks bore tiny leaves that flew like little birds over a water body, and his deep brown brogues shone a twinkle. His white shirt was ironed crisp, the iron folds telling me the effort that has gone into it. His burnt sienna orange pants told me he loved attention.
He would have been well over ninety, crouching his weight over his walking stick like that. His frame was small. He seemed welcoming. I went up to him and said ‘Hello’. I bent to his height and smiled at him. He smiled back and said ‘Hello, young woman. Welcome to Netherlands. Are you a tourist here?’.
I said, ‘why, yes! How about you?’
‘This is my 98th country. I’ve been living here for the last three years, and I’m prepared to take off any moment, for I have a long way to go’ he said, and gestured a flight taking off with his left hand, while his right hand tightly clutched his intricately carved wooden walking stick.
He smiled yet again. The insides of my heart melted like strawberry gelato liquifying in Indonesian sun on a summer’s noon. I smiled back, feeling all warm and fuzzy with a wee bit of tear shrouding my eyesight, the tips of my ears feeling the inexplicable fulfilment of having approached him for a conversation.
‘So, what’s your next destination?’ I asked.
Without batting an eyelid he said ‘I’m moving to Brazil for a two year sojourn’. I wanted to hug him tight and ask him for more but the ferry had come to an abrupt end — thwarting our conversation and jolting me from the next question I was about to ask. I eventually forgot what I was going to ask.
We had to get down.
I had to get on with my holiday, and this travel expert, home.
I smiled and said goodbye, and got out of the ferry. I could not help but look back to check on him. He was right there — his small frame ambling along the sidewalk, the upwind hitting him, his yellow socks still peering from under the hemline of his pants, his scarf dancing to the tunes of the wind. He had great company in his walking stick.
I walked straight ahead, the tears in my eyes flowing faster than normal, carried by the ruthless speed of the wind hitting my face.
When was the last time we felt this content, this satisfied being with ourselves?
I kick myself to this day for not having asked more about him or for not having spent time knowing him.
Some questions are better left unanswered.