On Monday night while I was waiting for the Metro, tired and cranky after a long day, a dark-haired women approached me. She towed three children, a grandmother and a clunky suitcase. “Vienna?” she asked, pointing at the tracks.
I tried to explain that this train didn’t go to Vienna (that’s Vienna, Virginia, not the faraway place you’re thinking of), that she’d have to transfer to another train that would take her family there. But she didn’t understand my English. After several futile tries, I finally pointed to myself and said, “Vienna.” She understood that right away — I was going to Vienna. It was only half true; I was transferring to the train that went to Vienna, but I wasn’t actually going to that destination all the way at the end of the Metro line. But that didn’t matter. The woman looked me in the eye, a desperate look, and asked, “Help me?”
I nodded. How many times had I found myself in this same situation while traveling abroad? Clueless about how to get where I was going, I’d often latched onto other women for support and guidance. That’s one of my favorite piece of advice for solo female travelers: Make friends with other women, because they’ll take care of you. It was true in Africa. And now I had the chance to prove that it was true in my own country, too. That women stuck together and supported one another, no matter where we were from.
The family and I waited for the train on the crowded platform, and soon the shy children took an interest in me and began asking questions — in English. The oldest, a girl with long, beautiful hair that was pulled into a messy ponytail, wanted to know whether this was my first time riding the train; I smiled and shook my head, no. It was theirs, she said. Her family lived in Virginia, but their father was in Pakistan, not here to drive them by car, which was how they usually traveled home. And so they were riding the Metro for the first time.
When the train raced noisily into the station, we boarded, me silent, my messenger bag slung over my shoulder, the rest of my pack speaking noisily to one another in a foreign language. One stop later we arrived at our transfer station, and while we waited for a train to Vienna, I pointed to the Metro map, showing my young friend we’d come from, where they were going, where I would get off the train. Now her family understood that I would not accompany them the entire way.
Soon we were on our second and final train, and then I was waving goodbye to the family who had accompanied me on my commute. They knew to ride the train until it stopped, that Vienna was at the end of the line. I smiled at the mother before out the doors, and she nodded her appreciation.
Even after their train took off, I found myself still smiling. It felt good to be on the other side of that interaction, to be the woman who’d been helpful, rather than the woman who’d been helped. And yet, after stepping onto the escalator that would deliver me to the street, I closed my eyes and let myself feel the weight of a traveler’s pack on my back and a sweaty money belt tight around my waist. And I pretended, for just a moment, that the street that was waiting for me was not mine.