“Freedom” by Helen Percival, Paris

Paris,Travel September 9, 2011 03:29

topic: TRAVEL medium: TEXT, AUDIO

as shared at a PenTales event in Paris

Listen to the Story!

It was the summer of my second year at university and I had four long months looming
ahead of me. In search of freedom, I did what any university student would do- given
half the chance- and booked tickets to Ecuador. I roped in my good Irish friend Johnny-
an experienced traveler- and we embarked on three weeks of adventure working in
orphanages, riding horses and swimming in hot springs.

Johnny left five days before I was scheduled to fly home, and he’s parting words were
“Helly, make sure you have enough money for the taxis-it’s about 40 euros.”

Money was a little tight as I’d been over enthusiastic on the spending front-buying
panpipes, Ecuadorian jewelery and ceramic pots.

I tried to make the most of my last few days of freedom, but without my Irish friend, I
found myself feeling young, isolated and alone. I felt trapped by my vulnerability.
In the end I was itching to return to England- oh how I longed for grey skies, grumpy
faces and marmite.

I took a 12 hour long bus journey back to the capital Quito-one of the world’s most
dangerous capitals I hasten to add-making sure, as Johnny told me, that I had the forty
dollars for the taxi ride from the bus station to the airport.

I felt rather smug when the taxi driver asked me for just 30 dollars-clearly he saw I was a
discerning traveler, and poor old Johnny had been ripped off.

I arrived at the airport with 20 dollars spare…wanting to use up the last of my money I
bought myself some nice breakfast and then headed to the check-in.
By this point I really wanted to get home.

I checked my bags in and was about to saunter off to the departure lounge, when the
woman at the desk said
“Right you just need to go and pay your airport taxes, and then you can leave.”
“Airport taxes?” I said. “No one mentioned those.”
“Yes madam, it’s about forty dollars. You can’t leave the country without paying.”

I suddenly felt very sick.
Those “taxis” Johnny was talking about, wasn’t the taxi fare, but the airport taxes.

With not a cent to my name (the breakfast wasn’t even that good) I walked up to the
Airport Taxes Man, and armed with my best-young, English girl smile said-
“Hello. I’m from England. I’ve been working in an orphanage for three weeks, and
wasn’t aware I needed to pay airport taxes. I don’t have the forty euros right now, but can
I just pay it when I get back?”

I was reasonably confident he’d say yes.

He said no.
Instead he assured me I couldn’t leave without paying and that I would have to stay in
Quito until someone could wire money out to me.

I was absolutely trapped. My quest for freedom had led me to get stuck in an airport
thousands of miles from home, with no way to leave.

The clock was ticking, and my flight would soon be taking off.

Fighting the rising panic, I realized there was only one thing to do.
I had to ask a complete stranger for the cash.

I began scanning the crowds…

Wealthy looking couple? Too obvious
Single middle aged man? He might expect something in return
Young family? No cash to spare

In the end I settled on a couple in their mid twenties.

I sheepishly approached, and explained the situation.
The girl was immediately suspicious asking what I’d been doing in Ecuador and why I
couldn’t use a credit card.
The guy on the other hand was much more empathetic.
With a smile he handed me more than enough cash, and told me not to worry.

Gratitude and relief washed over me.
I handed over the forty dollars to the Airport Taxes Man (who was clearly suspicious
about where I’d got it) and before I knew it was up in the clouds, homeward bound.

My freedom had only been taken away for an hour or so, but I’d never valued it more.

A few days later back on British soil, I emailed the guy, asking for his bank details so
I could transfer him the money I owed. He replied saying I need not bother, it was one
traveler’s gift to another.

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