Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

When Travel Takes a Friend

by Caroline Makepeace Aug 26, 2010
Death is not something many of us like to associate with traveling. But when it happens to a close friend, we have to accept the reality that life can end in an instant, much the way it begins.

It was one of those fresh fall mornings where the air was crisp and clean and you could hear the birds singing. I glanced at the gum tree outside my balcony door, and noticed how the light from the rising sun cast a soft glow inside my living room.

I sat down to the computer to check my email. Amongst the clutter of newsletters and group messages sat an email from our friend Wazza. My smile brightened at the thought that maybe he had already heard our good news.

I scrolled down in anticipation of following my friends latest travel adventure, but really, could it top his last story of partying with Bono on a Mediterranean sailboat?

Within moments of clicking open the email, I wished I hadn’t. For 10 years I had avoided this email, or its less tactful friend, the phone call. As much as I tried to deny its existence, I always felt the presence of the dark-side-of-travel’s shadow lurking. The words stung.

Dear Caz and Craig,

We see through Warren’s address book that you are friends with our son. It is with great sorrow that I write today to tell you that our beloved Waz was killed in a tragic bus accident in Kenya last week.

My breath was suddenly smothered by my hands covering my mouth. I read the words over and over again in the hopes that they would just vanish. But they didn’t. Wazza was dead. Despite the shock, tears began to fall and my mind scrambled for details.

Was he alone? Where was he going? Was it quick?

How did this happen?

Images moved to the forefront of my mind. I knew how it happened all too well. I had sat in the spot where he lost his life. On a crowded matutu, crammed in the back with twenty locals. The overloaded minivan careened around mountainous bends and overtook trucks. I prayed that my life would be spared, knowing that in Africa the odds are not in your favor.

I lived that terror and felt the needles of fear on my neck. But I was spared. Warren wasn’t. His driver overtook at the wrong time. A cattle truck. Instant death.

My body was consumed by Wazza’s fear at the moment of his death. Blackness overwhelmed me and I could not breathe.

Begging to Know Why

Why did you get on that bus? You must have known? You must have felt something was not right? It’s your life, you know when you are hungry, you know when your heart is about to break, or when magic is about to happen, you must have known your life was about to end.

I’m so sorry Waz. I’m so sorry your life was cut short. It’s not fair. While people spend their day whining and bitching about triviality you instead chose to live out loud and in joy. Why did you have to be taken? You were helping to make the world a better place.

It was your stories that inspired Craig and I to river tube in Vang Vieng, Laos. It was my stories on the pearling boat in Broome that inspired you to go to…Africa.

Was it my enthusiasm and love for travel that set him on the path of his sudden premature death?

Warren’s boat was my favorite to work on. I was relatively new to Pearling. He was very patient and kind, always offering an encouraging word or smile to help me learn.

We’d stand across from each other at the table, chipping away at the barnacle crusted pearl shells, in an effort to produce the world’s finest Pas Paley Pearls. To overcome the mundaneness of the day, we’d talk about travel and our dreams for the future.

I was on my way to the US after 2 years in Asia, the UK and Africa. He was working hard to live his dream; sailing chartered yachts through the Mediterranean, surfing through Asia, and backpacking Africa.

Stories of Africa was all he wanted to hear. His eyes wide open with curiosity, “And so tell me Caz… . What about….. Wow! And how……” I would gladly regale him with tales of wild animal encounters, tropical islands, and dangerous road trips.

Craig is going to be devastated. He thought so highly of you, as did Stilts. So many memorable nights you and my brother spent together playing indoor cricket in the corrugated iron shed, followed by barbies and campfire beers. And Chris, you were like another brother to her. And what about Jenny? I was so happy that my sister had someone so decent and loving in her life. I was proud to call you BIL. Remember-Brother In Law. I was sad when you two didn’t work out. You knew and loved my whole family and they loved you.

Levels of Pain

I thought of his family. I felt their devastation. Waz, the baby of the family, was adored. His brother, one evening in Perth, took Jenny and I out to dinner of all places to an African restaurant. His sister invited me, a stranger, to her house party. “A friend of Waz is a friend of ours,” she said.

On the day of his funeral, I sat alone on the beach on the opposite side of the country, my heart heavy with silent respect. The water danced and twinkled in the sunlight, enticing me to feel joy.

A stranger nearby asked “Why are you so sad?”

“A friend is getting buried today.” I looked out to the sea.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he spoke kindly, “but do you think your friend would want you to remember him with a heavy heart, or in celebration for a life he lived well?”

A boat, masts abreast in the wind, sailed into my line of vision, moving toward the horizon. I saw Waz at the wheel, blond hair blown around his bronzed face, his cheeky grin, radiant as he waved. I felt the wild kicking feet of my daughter playing in my stomach.

A kindred, wandering spirit, he lived for the freedom of the sea and of the open road. And that took his life.

Have you ever experienced a friend or family’s death from travel? Share your thoughts below.

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