ANECDOTES. Entry Number Three: The Kiwi Drug Trafficker and The Serbian Hooker

Molly and I had been walking the damp streets of London all day and decided it was time for a well deserved pint. We found a crowded corner pub in Earl's Court and quickly ducked in out of the rain. The room was wall-to-wall with people but we quickly snagged a newly vacant high-top table and two stools in the center of the floor. We ordered our pints and leaned in over the table to discuss the events of our day. On all sides of us were more high-top tables and stools, all smashed together in an uncomfortable, claustrophobic cluster. Next to us sat a real bruiser of a guy. Muscular, with a tattered All Blacks rugby jersey, shaved head, and one swollen black eye. In our peripheral vision we could see that he was eavesdropping on our conversation. We leaned a little closer to each other and continued talking. He craned his neck in our direction. We leaned in further. He slid his stool over and was now perpendicular to our table. Molly and I, with our foreheads almost touching at this point, turned to acknowledge him. Smiling, he set his beer down on our table. A table barely big enough for two glasses of beer and four elbows. A table now breaking all the rules of size and space with three glasses of beer and six elbows.

"Hey Mates! Where you from?" he asked in a thick, possibly Australian accent. He was smiling even wider and revealing a few broken teeth.

I hesitated, wondering if we were in for some sort of trouble. He looked back and forth between Molly and me, waiting for our answer. Impatiently he guessed, "I bet you're from the United States!"

"Um, yeah. Yeah, we are," I replied cautiously. He looked satisfied with our answer and pleased that his first assumption was correct. He tilted his stool back and enjoyed his triumphant moment of accurate guesswork. Molly and I attempted to lean back in and pick up our coversation where we left off but a burst of energy struck this guy and he thrust his head in between ours before we could close the gap of private conversation.

"I'm Charlie, from New Zealand," he announced as he offered an open palm for a friendly handshake.

"Jonathan." Hand shake.

"Molly." Hand shake.

"What brings you youngsters here? You on holiday?" he asked.

"Yeah. We're here in London for a few days and then we're heading to France," Molly explained.

"How long you going to be in ol' France? Two, three weeks?" Charlie wondered.

"No. We only have eleven days for our whole vacation. We'll be in France for maybe five or six days and we are hoping to stop in Dublin on our way back to the United States," I said.

Charlie sprayed his beer out of his mouth and on to the floor. "You've got to be f***in' kidding me! Why are you cramming everything in to such a small f***in' holiday?"

We seemed to have hit a nerve here. I explained that typically in the United States we only have two weeks of vacation every year, three if you're lucky, and this was our one big trip for the year.

"Two weeks?! Two f***in' weeks? Really? That's it?" asked Charlie, gradually calming a bit from his intial outburst.

I felt slightly insulted. A little embarassed. So in a skeptical tone I asked, "Well, Charlie, how much vacation time do you get in New Zealand?"

"Four to six weeks for the average bloke. But I have a system of my own. Work six months, travel six months."

"How do you afford to do that?" Molly asked.

"I don't keep a car or a flat. I work for six months, hard yakka, save all my money, and then pick a place and settle in for a while. Been doing it for almost thirty years now."

"Where all have you traveled?" I asked.

"All over Europe, South America, Africa. Oh, Singapore! I had some good times in Singapore just pissin' about. You want to see the most beautiful red sunsets? Spend some time on the beaches of Singapore. One time I lived in a little shack on the beach there. Drank beer and fished all day. I had a little scooter that I would ride into town to get food and supplies.You can live there for practically nothing. If you start to run out of money you can teach the local blokes English for a couple of hours a day and make enough to stick around for a while longer."

Charlie was showing a soft, almost romantic side as he talked about Singapore. I looked at Molly and could tell that we were both starting to like this guy.

I asked Charlie, "What kind of work do you during the six months that you are actually working?"

He searched for an answer. "Um...construction," he said unconvincingly.

"Really?" I questioned.

"Well, no. Not actually. I do a little bit of odd job stuff. Just enough to afford a plane ticket to Columbia." He reached both of his arms out, pulled us in under his wings, and whispered discreetly, "I move drugs from here to there."

We tried to not to look too shocked. I'm not sure we did such a good job hiding our surprise. Now all these thoughts were racing through my mind. How did he get that black eye? I assumed it was from playing rugby but maybe it was a drug deal gone bad. Is he dealing drugs in London? Is that why he's here? Is he going to try to bring us into his scheme? Will we be accomplices? Does he have a gun?

Charlie must have sensed our nervousness because he sat up straight and said, "I'm just here in London visiting a friend for a while. I'm on holiday too."

"Oh...that's...nice," Molly and I said simulataneously.

"Look, here comes my friend now," Charlie said as he pointed across to the room to a middle-aged blonde lady maneuvering through the crowd with two full glasses of beer. She approached our table and set a beer down in front of Charlie. "This is Natalia. Natalia, meet Molly and Jonathan. They are here on holiday from the United States."

"Hello," she said in a thick Eastern European accent as she nodded politely.

"Natalia is from Serbia. She used to be a f***in' prostitute! That's how we met," Charlie said as he laughed happily.

As uncomfortable as Charlie's no-secrets-at-this-table approach to conversation was, I had to appreciate that he just saved us the embarassment of having to ask Natalia what she did for a living.

"I don't do so much anymore," Natalia made sure to add in slightly broken English. "When I was young girl, Serbia was dangerous place. My family was so poor. I came here because I want better life. It's not better life here. Things so expensive and it hard to make good wages."

As Natalia told her story I looked closely at her face. The deep creases and lines of a hard life where dusted over with lots of makeup. In her eyes was a sweet sadness. She continued, "I miss Serbia. I miss my family. I have not many friends." When she mentioned that she didn't have many friends she put her arm around Charlie as if to assure him that she counted him as one of her few actual friends.

The mood of the conversation was getting too solemn for Charlie so he brought up the subject of his travels again. "I spent a lot of time in your United States in the 80s. Have you guys heard of Escobar?"

"Pablo Escobar?" I asked.

"Yeah! Pablo Escobar! I worked for his operation. The Americans loved the cocaine. I would travel with shipments and help with distribution. When my work was done, I would get paid and then usually just stay in the country for a while. Miami! That's a great f***in' city!"

We were at a loss for words. Charlie was not. "Things were good until the United States got serious about the War on Drugs. In the late 90s they really came down hard on Columbia and business has been tough ever since. It's easier to transport and sell in places like Thailand and Mexico now."

We didn't have much to offer at this point of the conversation. Neither did Natalia. Clearly, Charlie was the only globetrotting drug trafficker at this table.

Charlie turned to Natalia and said, "You know, these two here only get two weeks of holiday." Natalia looked at us with pity in her eyes. "What a shame," she said. After all she had been through in her life, she felt bad for us because of our limited quantity of vacation days. Go figure.

We told Charlie and Natalia about how much we love to travel. How even with the challenge of shortened vacation time, travel has opened our eyes to new possibilities and helped us meet so many unique and interesting people, present company not excluded. They agreed with our sentiments and shared wildly beautiful stories from their own personal adventures. Here we were, two twenty-somethings from the United States, a Kiwi drug smuggler, and a Serbian hooker, all finding some common ground and enjoying each others' company.

After a few more stories from Charlie and Natalia, and a couple more beers, it was time for Molly and I to head back to our hotel. As we stood up to leave we thanked the couple for a memorable evening. Natalia approached and gave us each a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. Charlie gave Molly a hug and then stepped sideways and placed himself firmly in front of me. He grabbed the back of my head and pulled me toward him so that our foreheads were touching. He looked intently in to my eyes and I could see that he was beginning to get misty-eyed. His voice was shaky when he said slowly, "You have the ability to do whatever you want. Take your wife and go see the world, brother!" He quickly embraced me and gave me the kind of hug usually reserved for long-time comrades. As we exited the pub we turned back and Charlie and Natalia were standing side by side, watching us leave. They offered one last wave goodbye. Molly and I floated back to the hotel, high off the pleasant fumes of the experience.


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