With a little regret, and full of anxiousness, we started to head back towards our rented room near the center of the city. The sun began to set but there was no scenic romanticization in Belle de Mai. Instead of warmth, the orange glow cast ominous shadows where cast iron lampposts loomed over the streets, like strangers with long arms stretching towards our hastening bodies. The buildings seemed dirtier and the people seemed a little more sinister.
The route through Belle de Mai was difficult to follow. There were only a few tunnels that allowed for passage below the train tracks and the one we chose caused us to walk through the suburbs in a indirect loop. Earlier in the day, we looked upon the area with a healthy curiosity, absorbing the gradually changing scenes from the downtown core to the outskirts. We enjoyed walking the streets of strange cities, exploring, wandering and stumbling upon treasures that each city had to offer. However, the feeling was completely lost in Belle de Mai.
I could feel tension building and revealing itself physically. I found little comfort grasping the backpack a little tighter. We walked closer together and with urgency in our steps. If our physical appearance didn’t announce our tourist identities, I’m sure our body language was enough of an indicator.
We passed by an idling car, the man inside following our steps with his eyes. He was parked in the mouth of an alley on the other end of a tunnel, the sputtering of his car producing the only noise on the street.
“Ohh this area looks kind of bad”
“Shh, keep your voice down,” she whispered acutely aware of our surroundings.
My voice had amplified through the tunnel and had carried my careless words through to the next street. I hoped that nobody heard me, or that if they did, they didn’t understand English.
Quick, loud footsteps suddenly sounded from behind us, pounding the pavement with urgency. Someone was running at us. Chasing us. We should have left earlier. We should have headed back before it was dark. What do I do now? I turned quickly to confront our pursuer, trying to grasp a hold of my broken French to form words.
He couldn’t have been much past elementary school; a scrawny kid running home for dinner, or out late playing with his friends. It’s funny how innocent-looking situations can turn menacing in a different environment. I was still wary that he might try to pickpocket us or scam us in some way. We let the child pass.
“It’s just a kid.”
“That could have been so much worse”
On our way back, we searched for a supermarket to replenish our water. In the past few weeks, we normally bought enough water to last about a day, with most coming in large 2 L sizes, which made it too heavy to carry more than one bottle. Walking by a Casino (a discount supermarket chain in France) in Belle de Mai, we figured that we could find some cheap bottled water and some food. My heart had stopped pounding and I felt a little more at ease; buying water was a repeated act in a daily routine.
The supermarket was close to the imaginary border separating the north from the south side of the city. Travelling on a budget, we had been through many smaller grocers and discount supermarkets. Other Casinos actually reminded me of the large supermarkets at home; big-box retailers hardly change wherever you go. However, this Casino was clearly a reflection of its surroundings.
The first sight that I recall was the produce, mangled and beaten as the peeling paint on the outer walls. The lights were a dull fluorescent, as if the bulbs were on their last breath. I looked over at my friend, unsure about this place, as I had been for the last few hours. Her arms seemed bruised, light and dark patches running up her arms. No, it was the sporadic light from the unlit freezers
A few of the customers were boisterous locals, complaining about the prices or other things that I could not decipher. Many more were sad bunches rolling around through the aisles and blending into the despondent store. We searched for water and some snacks to sustain us until we were back at the apartment. The store was mostly silent, save for the guttural French coming from the few loud customers. It was near closing time. An employee dragged bars over the front entrance and an announcement came over the intercom. Mid-message the voice was cut off by a screeching alarm.
“I don’t see anything,” I said. Nobody was running towards the exit and the security sensors were free. “Maybe it’s a false alarm.”
She nodded hesitantly. I could no longer hear the loud customers, and the others meandered through their shopping routine like nothing was happening. The wailing obscured all other noises. I kept peering down the aisles towards the front of the store, waiting for two ends of a spectrum. If it’s a false alarm, the employees will just turn off the siren. If it’s an actual crime, wouldn’t the criminal run away? Or maybe they caught him. Either way, the alarm should turn off.
“We can pick up stuff somewhere else” she said, echoing my concerns. “Let’s get out of here.”
We put down the water and avoided the cash registers. For the umpteenth time of the day, we drew as little attention to ourselves as possible (if possible) and left. The darkness outside quickly encased the supermarket that we left behind.
“That was weird. Nobody even moved after the alarm”
“Shouldn’t the alarm have turned off right away? I mean I didn’t see anything happening”
“Did you see the bars on the front door? We must still be in a pretty bad area.”
“We’ve got food at home right?”
Slowly, as we headed towards a decent part of the city, the streets became more lit with lamps and the buildings were visibly better kept. We were no longer walking in between stretches of darkness, but under constant yellow warmth. We passed an ornate church and checked the map.
“We’re almost back,” she said. “It’s just up this hill and down this street until we’re back.”
“At least we’re out of the city tomorrow. The callaqunes are supposed to be beautiful.”
“Yea! I can’t wait. We can also see the Basilica on top of that hill”
“Oh man, that’s a lot of walking. Maybe –”
BANG. A loud crack echoed through the near-deserted street sounding like a gunshot. A package had hit the pavement a few feet in front of me. I had not noticed its direction and it had only entered my peripheral vision at the last second. Time slowed, as I stared at the package. It was a white powder wrapped in a clear plastic. Flour? No. It can’t be. Drugs? Both sides of the street were bordered by buildings several stories high. There was no way to know where the package came from or was heading towards, just that it landed in front of me. The only other person on the street was as scared as us. A man ahead of us turned quickly, fear in his eyes, and bolted forward.
“Run,” I said simply. The words came out of my mouth, much calmer than I thought possible. It was a statement of fact. There was no other option. My voice did not betray my pounding heart or the adrenaline rushing through my body.
She took off, her bag bouncing on her back and the baguette sticking out of a zipper, balanced precariously, about to fall out. The Canada flag embroidered into the bag, a bright red and white, screamed out our tourist status. We didn’t stop until for a few blocks, sprinting with reckless abandon. My legs were tired from a day of walking but still found the speed to put distance between us and the package.
“What was THAT?!”
“I don’t know,” I uttered as I gasped for air. “I don’t know.” I had lost count of the times I felt confused, lost, and possibly in danger. All I knew was that we needed to head south.
Relief washed over me when we finally made it back home to our room in the dingy apartment. We had our doubts about the host, she seemed a little unstable. But, physical safety was a comfort that masked all our other concerns and allowed for sleep.