He kept driving for more than an hour on what seemed to be a winding road. It was quiet and dark outside. Occasionally I’d hear a dog bark in the distance. There was no one on the road and rarely did any vehicles pass by. Was it because it was late at night or because it wasn’t a popular road, I hadn’t a clue. All I could see were the trees, sky and the road. I was in a car going to an unknown destination with someone I didn’t know. I didn’t bother asking him where we were going.
I was what anyone would call ‘a perfect victim’. I was alone in a country that I hadn’t known much about until a few months ago. Whatever information I had was from a lonely plant book. No one knew where I was staying, including my family back home. I didn’t bother telling the hotel staff where I was going or with who. Stupid, yes! but I guess safety wasn’t high on my agenda at that point in my life.
Oddly enough, there was no fear.
I met him 2 hours ago when I took his cab from my hotel in Suva. His name was Iliyaz. As it turns out, it was the first day of his job. In his early twenties bubbling with excitement, its hard to miss his smile. When he asked what I was doing in Suva, I reluctantly lied “I am on a vacation”. He asked me why I picked that hotel and I honestly answered that it was the cheapest I could find near the city. I hoped to walk to the city for lunch or dinner, but didn’t expect it to be so hot. He cautioned me against walking at nights because the hotel was close to a red light area considered unsafe. Phew!
I paid the fare and was about to get down when he asked what time I might return. He said he’d like to drop me back, so I said ‘maybe in couple of hours’. My first stop as usual was the internet cafe. Yes, it was those times when cafes’ existed for more than a coffee and google didn’t decide your life. My inbox was empty, so I walked out feeling disappointed.
There was an Indian restaurant next door. My appetite hasn’t been great but I was pushing myself to eat. As I took a bite, my eyes welled up, and I couldn’t anymore. I left the meal and walked out. There were cabs outside and I wondered if I should return to the hotel. Iliyaz had more than an hour to show up. The most sensible thing would have been to take the cab in front of me, but something held me back. I knew I’ll always wonder if I disappointed someone on their first day. To my surprise, he pulled up in front of me even before I was done thinking. When we reached the hotel, he asked a pretty logical question “why are you going back to the hotel so early if you came for a holiday.” I lied once again! “it’s getting dark and I don’t want to have trouble getting back.” He stopped in front of the hotel and just before I got out, he said, “I’ll show you around if you want.”
I was taken by surprise. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford it. I told him I don’t have money to pay him for a tour. He replied “pay whatever you want to!” He promised to show me Suva and that I wouldn’t be disappointed. At that point, I wasn’t sure how to respond.
My options were, going back to my dingy room with yellow walls, dead cockroaches and a small TV that played depressing dramas in a language I didn’t understand, OR, go on a ride to see Suva with someone I just met with a possibility of getting mugged (not the best candidate for it), raped or killed. He didn’t seem like a criminal; not that I was an expert in reading faces. In any case, I didn’t feel like I had much to lose.
I sat back and said, “ok.” I didn’t bother asking where he was taking me. He started driving and we were going upwards, surrounded by trees, on a windy road for a long time. I didn’t have a watch or a mobile phone, so I had no way of knowing how much time had passed. I guessed it may be around 9.30pm.
The cab came to a sudden halt. There was nothing but darkness outside, and all I could see was the sky. He got down and went out. I wondered why he stopped in the middle of nowhere. I asked, “are we getting down?” and he smiled “yes.” I got down and took a couple of steps to where he stood. In front of me, or rather below me, was the view of entire city of Suva along the Ocean. The darkness of the ocean contrasted by the city lights under me and the star filled sky above me. I was speechless. It was a beautiful sight.
He sat on the ledge silently and I did the same. Neither of us said anything. Somehow, there was no need for words. I don’t know how much time passed but neither of us moved or even talked.
After a long time, he said ‘do you want to go back.’ I said ok. We walked back silently. Looking back, that moment still feels surreal. I guess depending on where you stand, you can only see darkness, or you can see the beauty of light in darkness.
He drove me back to the hotel. I paid him whatever I estimated. He gave his number and said he worked evening shifts. For the next few days, Iliyaz not only became my designated cab driver, but my guide to the city and a friend. He was right about the brothel. It was pretty close to the hotel that I stayed in. He offered to show me a much better hotel at the same price, but given I wasn’t staying very long, I didn’t want to bother.
Iliyaz sensed that I wasn’t there for a holiday and asked me again one day. I told him I was there to get my work visa for Australia. I had to withdraw my dependent visa because I separated from my husband. His immediate reaction was ‘he didn’t deserve you’. Ofcourse, he was only saying that thinking it was what I need to hear. He didn’t know either of us. He then surprised me by asking if I wanted to go to a temple. I said yes. It was a small, very old temple like the ones in Indian villages, of lord Shiva. I am not religious, but something about the place made me feel peaceful. I guess it felt closer to home in India.
Of course, being a Muslim, he didn’t come into the shrine; but he bent his head in respect and sat on a bench in the courtyard. We talked casually for some time. I knew every minute he spent with me was the time he was losing out money on his cab but he would never rush. I remained conscious of the time and would ask him to drop me back at the hotel. He stopped using the meter since the first day even though I insisted, so I had resorted to paying him whatever I thought was reasonable. A strong belief in karma meant I would rather pay more than less, but I also knew I could never pay for what his company meant at that time.
My routine was pretty boring otherwise. In the mornings, I would go to the city to eat, check my email, return to hotel and lie down. There was nothing on TV, and I only had one depressing book which I read, twice. I counted minutes, probably seconds. Sleep eluded me and questions raked my head. I wasn’t really inclined to see much of Suva. It felt a lot like India, and it was hot.
It was Sunday afternoon, and Iliyaz came to pick me up. It was his day off and he had promised to show me the city. He drove around showing me buildings and telling me what they were. He talked about the political uprising and the friction between Fijians and Indians. In the evening, we stopped by a beach. We sat on the low wall along the road overlooking the beach. He said the tide is low. My first view of an ocean was when I was 23. Tides were something I only knew from books. He talked about reading the tides and how it affects the fishermen. He once worked with them and had to know how to read the weather and tides.
Water was still and there was an old sailing boat far in the distance. It was around sunset and dusk settled in. We bought some snack from the roadside, ate as we watched the sunset. We talked about random stuff, and when there was silence, neither of us felt the need to fill it. At one point, Iliyaz suddenly jumped up from where he was and walked away. Before I could ask what happened, I saw him talking to an elderly man. When he came back he explained that his uncle saw us sitting together and would assume he was seeing a girl. He blushed so hard that I guess for the first time in weeks I laughed.
The next morning decided the course of my life ahead. My visa came through. Once the consulate sorted the paperwork, I went straight to Air Pacific to reschedule my flight. They didn’t have an outgoing flight from Suva, so I confirmed a flight from Nadi the next day. I had a spring in my step after what felt like decades. After all those days of waiting with questions for which I had no answers – “will I get a visa”, “If I don’t, how will I afford a ticket back to India” “what would I do if I had to go back to India” “how will I repay the colleague $1500 that she lent me to go to Fiji, without even asking.” I was broke thanks to my husband who stole my debit card and emptied my savings, before telling me that he decided to leave me in India until I agreed and learned to live by his rules. It was no longer a matter of choice. I knew what I had to do with an amazing sense of clarity, even if leaving him meant losing my job, my visa to live in Australia, my financial and emotional freedom. It was a risk I had to take. But today, the universe finally had the answers and I couldn’t pack my bags soon enough.
I asked Iliyaz if he’d be willing to drive me to Nadi. I knew before I even asked that he would. I was going to pay him, but I also knew he wasn’t just driving me for the fare.
It was a long beautiful drive along the ocean. We stopped at a small road side restaurant for lunch, but as a vegetarian, I struggled finding something to eat. We had a lot of time, so Iliyaz was determined to show me all the beautiful places enroute. He would stop at vantage points, or take a detour. I had earlier bought a disposable camera, and we clicked pictures of my first solo travel ever. The irony of it was, I dreamt of traveling solo since I was a child. Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would come true like this.
Later in the evening, we stopped at a beach and watched a final sunset together. We talked about whether it was true that taking pictures with sunset will shorten our life. Neither of us had an answer or cared about it.
We reached Nadi late evening. Iliyaz helped me with my bags while I checked in at the hotel close to the airport. I paid his fare, and when I said thank you, I meant it in a way I didn’t mean anything before. I gave him a hug and said good bye, he held my face with both hands and said ‘take care of yourself, you are a very brave girl’.
When I turned back to go to my room, we both knew we wouldn’t across paths again, but there was no sadness. As he turned a corner, he looked back and flashed his winning smile before leaving.
Looking back, all of it seems unreal.
Life is strange and unpredictable. In over a year and half of marriage, I was deeply lonely. And here I was, in a country that I barely knew, yet I didn’t feel alone because of a stranger who happened to be kind.
I am glad I trusted my instincts. I have beautiful memories of Fiji because I did. A part of me feels that it was the universe’s way of telling me I will be ok. How else can I explain a stranger sitting with me on a ledge in the dark overlooking a beautiful view, in silence, and being at peace. The way mysteries of the universe work.
PS – I love this story and many such adventures I got to live thanks to my freedom. It was people who I knew the least that stood by me in the most trying times. I have an unbridled trust in the universe thanks to such kind strangers.