It wasn’t even an incident. Thankfully, nothing happened to me on that summer evening in Portugal many, many years ago.
The ship I was sailing on was in dry dock* at Lisnave dock yard in Almada, Portugal. I had walked to the shopping area of Almada to pick up a few things. Walking back, I lost my way. I asked passing pedestrians directions to the ship yard but only got “no comprendo” and a regretful shake of the head. At that time I didn’t even know the little bit of Spanish – which shares similarities with Portuguese – that I know now. I began to feel anxious but told myself that it was summer and it wouldn’t get dark for another hour at least.
Presently I saw two nuns in white habits a little way ahead. Weaving between people thronging the sidewalk I caught up to them. I smiled and said “Excuse me?” Then I started with the simple English that kind of works in some places.
Blank expression. In desperation I tried the two Spanish words I had recently picked up.
–¿Lisnave – puerto?–
One of the nuns asked, “Do you speak English?”
I could’ve wept with relief.
She said, “Wait…I… haven’t spoken English… for ten years…It is…difficult…” I waited. Her eyes sparkled with happiness. She said she was from Canada and told me a little about herself. The other sister was Portuguese. They accompanied me till we reached the road that would lead straight to the ship yard and left me with a solemn blessing, “May God be with you.”
I bought an ice cream cone as my mouth had gone dry with all that anxiety. As I began walking a man fell in step behind me. Hypervigilance is second nature to me when I’m walking alone in an unknown place, or on a poorly-lit road in the dark. I became acutely aware that the road was completely deserted. I quickened my step, but he kept pace. I sneaked a look at him and he grinned and called out something I didn’t understand. After that I resolutely avoided looking back and walked faster for – 5 minutes? 10 minutes? More? I don’t know. He kept up his non-stop gibberish.
The scenarios that played out in my head in those few minutes sent me into a panic. It was like being in a nightmare. I was gasping and my heart thumped away like I was hearing it through a stethoscope. My knees felt like they could buckle any moment. And the man continued to keep pace, insolently tossing out short phrases that sounded like questions. Frightened though I was, I held on to the thought that I was fitter and swifter than this middle-aged man.
Finally the shipyard came into view. Oh, thank God! I guess He had heard the nuns bless me. I chucked the melted ice cream and broke into a run. Some ship yard workers in boilersuits were around, and the footsteps following me ceased.
I have been in an accident where my moped was rammed in the back by a lorry, and I had a head injury and lay unconscious on the road. Another time, a speeding bus scraped past my little moped and pushed it into a storm–water drain whose width was fortunately less than the diameter of the wheel of my bike. The wheel twisted and got wedged, and I was saved. I fainted, actually keeled forward on to the handlebar. Some passengers stopped the bus and got down to revive me. It took me weeks to recover from both these accidents. PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
As I said at the beginning, it wasn’t even an incident. Nothing happened in a physical sense to hurt me on that summer’s day. Nonetheless, the jolt to my psyche was no less traumatic than being hit by a lorry.