Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age

Sometimes it’s the People, Not the Places


I read this  great post by one of my favorite travel bloggers, Jodi from Legal Nomads this week, and it brought back some happy thoughts about folk I’ve met over the years, and that I’d written about one chance meeting for some competition or other last year. It didn’t win, or even get a mention, so I am free to reproduce it, because I think it’s a story worth the telling:

I hadn’t slept well, despite the airport hotel’s comfy bed. My first flight had been delayed, so I’d arrived at Heathrow late, set the alarms on both cell phones, asked for an alarm call from reception for back up, and tumbled into bed. Still my subconscious worried about missing my flight to North Carolina, and when all the bells went off next morning, it was clear to me that I’d wasted money on the hotel room. I could have gotten as much sleep on the airport floor.

I made the flight. I had a window seat, and was all set to sleep away the next six hours.  I organized my space, and crossed my fingers that my fellow travellers wouldn’t turn out to be jumbo-sized chatterboxes, who would disturb me.

“Hiya, I’m Mandy,” a beautiful, fragile-looking, young black woman beamed as she slid her bags into the overhead rack, and sank gracefully into the aisle seat. I introduced myself, we made small talk and it was time for take-off.

She turned out to be the perfect travel companion. We joked about airline food, talked about our destination and the weather inLondon. She didn’t intrude when I read. She exuded a kind of tranquil excitement, but she seemed to be a seasoned traveler.

Unable to place her accent more precisely than “African” I asked her at some point where she came from, and she replied, “Sudan.” Her answer filled me with both curiosity and an overwhelming need to be tactful. It’s not as if she’d said, “Amsterdam,” and I would have replied that I’d been there, and we could exchange experiences.

During the course of the previous couple of years  I’d met lots of refugees from Africa, very few of whom had been from Sudan, a country whose atrocities occupied headlines daily, leaving one with a feeling of despair and helplessness. I felt sympathy but didn’t know how to express it, sitting there in my western skin.

It was as we began our descent that I probed a little, and she explained, charmingly, that she had had some horrific experiences, but that she preferred not to talk about them.  She had, however, written a book, and she jotted down its name, “Slave,” and her name, which turned out to be Mende (and not Mandy, as I’d thought I heard) Nazer.

As I breezed through immigration I turned back to look, and she seemed to be, as she had predicted, having a hard time.

I didn’t see her again, but first thing next day I went to Borders to buy her book, and then I spent most of the next, two days reading it. Mende had had a happy childhood (excepting the trauma of female circumcision), until the day that her village was raided by the Mujahidin. To read a first-hand account of this, as opposed to neutral  reportage, is to feel the terror. I felt the dust in my throat, a deep fear in my belly and rising anger as I read.

It’s hard to describe in a few words how she was thereafter sold into slavery in Khartoum; how she survived, literally,  on scraps from her masters’ tables; how she learned to appear to be subservient in order to spare herself from further violence; how, unbelievably she was presented as a gift to family members in London, and lived in the heart of democracy as a slave; and how, finally, she managed to escape with the help of  Damien Lewis, with whom she co-authored her book, and others.

I’d travelled around 5,000 miles to North Carolina on that visit, but my internal journey had been far greater. It was a learning experience I will never forget. I hadn’t been to Sudan, but as a result of travelling I’d met this extraordinary young woman, and learned about things I didn’t know were still possible in this modern world. I was well aware of poverty, corruption and wars, but I didn’t know that slavery could exist on the scale it does. I’ve read a lot more about modern slavery since then. I sent Mende’s book to an American friend when I left, and I’ve bought other copies to give away. Her story is terribly important, and if she hadn’t sat next to me on a routine flight from London to the US, I would never have known about it.

Travel can broaden the mind in more ways than one. Often it’s the people and not the place which define our travel experience.


Author: IslandMomma

Exploring island life and the freedoms of Third Age: Challenging myself every day: writing, traveling, snapping pix, running & teaching ESL

11 thoughts on “Sometimes it’s the People, Not the Places

  1. I loved that account Linda. And I believe there is always a reason for some of our encounters with strangers, of which you may not yet know the full implications! Mende reminds me of a succesful photographic model who had a very similar background. She also wrote a best selling book of her young life. Harrowing.

    • Thank you. I am quite convinced that we are all connected, so that we should meet certain folk along the way doesn’t surprise me……even if sometimes they are a reminder of what/how not to be! :=) Every now and then since I met her, which was at the end of 2007, I’ve googled her & did so after writing this and see she and Damien Lewis have a new book, a follow-up, but it’s only available on Kindle as yet it seems…..ah, well, I knew I’d buy a Kindle one day!

      • Excellent to hear that you still keep in touch. I shall look into it too….you see….your experience is beoming mine now!! And you won’t fall in love with your Kindle have no fear. It is perhaps an extremely useful tool for travelling, for reading outdoors in a high wind and for cheap thrillers when you need a cuppa and a cosy corner to escape to. It is not a beloved old book….xx

  2. Fabulous account of what travel and being open to people and their stories can bring to us. On my way back from Canada recently I was seated next to young Canadian guy and I did prejudge him by his lanky hair and baseball cap which stayed on throughout. He was delightful and I was pleased to have met him and his knowledge of the Beatles astonished me. Not quite on the same level as your meeting with Mende but everyone has something of interest (o.k. we’ve all met the exceptions to that, especially on long haul flights)

    • Oh, yes, judging by appearances is the worst thing we can do, isn’t it! Well done for not doing that. You’re so right, everyone has their story if we just listen, though, let’s be fair, some people make it hard (think George Bush or Mitt Romney!). I have yet to make a long haul flight, sadly, but I’m always armed with books just in case!!

  3. Wonderful post, Linda. What a lovely story about your meeting with Mende. It´s typical of you that you we interested enough to buy her book to learn of her past, and have sparked further interest in others by posting here. I´ll look out for her book – it sounds fascinating. What a brave and inspiring young woman.

  4. I’d be happy to send it to you….don’t BC much these days, and I am meaning to downsize my “library,” to free up both funds and karma for some traveling soon :=) EM me islandmomma55 at yahoo dot com with your addy?

    I learned a whole lot more about Sudan too as a result, (Mostly I knew about west or south Africa until then) and the “lost boys of the Sudan,” which is a fascinating story/stories, worth googling at the least. If the subject of modern day slavery moves you, then Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times is expert and passionate. It goes on……sadly and outrageously.

  5. Really makes me think about all the people who come and go in my life, and what they might have to share. Thanks Linda!

  6. What a great story, Linda. I also enjoyed Jodi’s post and I have had some similar encounters. People don’t realize how much they can travel with a simple conversation.

    • Indeed. I only wish I’d known more about Sudan at the time that I met her. She was on her way to the US to get married, and she didn’t want to think about the past that day because she was really happy, and she didn’t want to spoil it. I sent her note after I read the book, via her publisher, but have no idea if she ever received it. I was already involved in things West African then, so meeting her seemed timely. I learned an awful lot as a result of meeting her, even if our conversation at the time was limited. Thanks for reading!

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