The bravest traveler I ever met

Long term world travelers are not exceptionally brave. They don’t fight fires or deactivate bombs or take 78 hour bus rides from Spain to Romania in the punishing heat of June (the sane ones don’t at any rate). Yet, world travelers frequently hear reverential comments about their bravery from friends, relatives and acquaintances. In truth, as most travelers will admit, crossing borders, coping with seesaw confusion and pantomiming several conversations a day all becomes relatively routine after a while. Not much more brave than ordering a hamburger in Norway.

That said, every once in a while, one runs across an individual that gives even a hardened world traveler pause. In my case, this person was named Shira.

I “met” Shira, a New Yorker, in an online travel discussion community. I was amazed and intrigued the moment that I became familiar with her situation. As a round-the-world traveler, she had several defining characteristics, any of which alone would have made her noteworthy, but all together made her pretty much my hero. Shira was:

  • A solo, female traveler
  • Completely deaf
  • Only four feet (1.21 meters) tall

This woman’s determination and fearlessness slackened my jaw immediately. As I internalized this information and, as politely as possible, asked her the same questions about her situation that everyone else has probably asked upon meeting her, it came to light that we would both be in Sydney, Australia at the same time. We made plans to meet.

For me, this was not just a casual meeting. I had a tentative, super-genius plan. I was just getting some traction in my travel writing career and, knowing an amazing story when I heard one, I was hoping to write a profile on Shira and sell it to, I don’t know, the New Yorker? Oprah Magazine? I’d work out the details later.

This was 2004, four unyielding, exasperating years into the Bush administration’s policy of using fear and paranoia to suppress even the idle consideration of foreign travel for anyone, never mind a solo female. Moreover, during my time participating in the aforementioned online travel discussion community, one woman after another would join and start their posting legacy with questions like “Is it safe for a solo female to travel in ‘X?’” The ‘X’s in these queries ran the table from Thailand to, of all places, England. With Shira’s permission, I intended to correct the record and write a piece that would put some of those aspiring female travelers at ease.

And get me a byline in a huge magazine. But mostly for the ladies.

After a long, hot morning of getting lost in obscure parts of Sydney while futilely swatting at gnats so persistent that they could’ve made Buddha curse, I zeroed in on our meet-up spot in the neighborhood of Woolloomooloo. (A place name that I, unbelievably, did not make up.)

When I finally lurched up to the prearranged café, sweaty, exhausted and 20 minutes late, I found Shira perched on a bar stool, feet dangling miles from the ground, digging into a sandwich. I’d never had more than a few moments of interaction with a deaf person before and I was a bit nervous about how the conversation was going to progress. Of course, this was an everyday situation for Shira and in only a few moments we were communicating freely.

Initially we interacted partly through lip-reading/pantomime and hand written notes in her notebook, but after the sandwich we went walking and animated lip-reading was all we needed. It was surprisingly easy. I quizzed her about her trip, whether she was completely deaf (several dozen of Australia’s most shrill birds were having an eardrum-perforating screeching match in a park we walked through and I wondered if she was oblivious to it – she was), and other minutiae about getting through the day.

After roughly 90 minutes, we parted ways. I bent way over and gave her a brief hug and wished her luck. I was now convinced that writing a profile on Shira would be a comprehensive triumph, but the plan was shelved almost immediately and later forgotten as a variety of frantic travel plans formed and paying projects landed on my desk.

Apart from a couple short messages, Shira and I never spoke again, which, even now with Facebook, is common after brief on-the-road encounters. Unexpectedly, I eventually forgot about Shira all together. These things happen as one is inundated with years worth of new, mind-blowing experiences for every month they’re on the road, up-and-coming David Beckham-looking travel writer or no.

So far removed from that experience now, I was unsuccessful in tracking down Shira after I recently stumbled upon this part of my dusty travelogue. How long did she travel? Did she return to something approximating a normal life in New York? Did some other bastard write about her amazing resolve and get a byline in Oprah?

Are you reading this Shira? If so, say ‘hi’. And friend me on Facebook, naturally.