“I might actually die today,” kept running through my head as the large, bearded taxi driver left Bucharest behind us and threatened to do terrible things to me.
Instead of dropping me off at the train station like promised, he had demanded more money, and with each of the first 5 ATMs he stopped at that denied my card, he became increasingly angry, in a quiet, unnerving sort of way. After the 6th ATM finally gave me the local currency, he stopped talking, and started driving. And driving.
We were deep in the countryside now, and as I watched the miles of empty beige fields slip by under cloudless skies, I was so, so afraid, held hostage with no idea of my fate, or how my parents would cope if I never came home. If I became a statistic. A fleeting headline on the news.
I flashed back to the night my Dad had me sit down on their old blue couch and watch Taken with him before the 22-year old me left for 6 months of solo backpacking, thinking naively then that bad things only ever happened to other people. Only happened on TV.
A little voice inside told me I needed to play it cool if I was going to survive this. Somehow, miraculously, I felt a surreal calm wash over me. Instead of crying, I heard myself telling him that I was moving to San Francisco in the Fall. That if he ever needed a place to stay in the city, I would host and cook and be his guide.
It sounds absurd to think of now, but as I slipped a piece of paper with a fake email to the front of the car, his edge started to disappear. A few miles later, a small gray building appeared in the middle of nowhere, seeming almost like a mirage.
The man slowly pulled to the side of the road about a hundred yards away, and my heart seized. This was the moment. This could be the end.
“Go,” he said quietly. And I did.
I cried then as I walked into a tiny, dirty room near overgrown tracks, never happier to see a broken-down station in my life.
I was afraid though, and knew that I’d be arriving to Sophia, Bulgaria late, and in the dark – and in a time before smartphones were mainstream, the couch surfing host who was supposed to meet me at the station would be long gone. Desperately, I asked a couple on the train if they would walk with me to a hotel, any hotel, not yet able to process what had just happened. Graciously, they agreed.
Then just as we pulled into the station, I saw him. More than an hour after I was supposed to arrive, I stepped onto the platform and looked up to see my name in large letters, scrawled on a piece of paper, and a smile on the face of the brown-haired man holding it.
Despite what I’d experienced that day, I remembered this: People are good.