“This Is My Island”: Fear and Confusion in Toronto

When I travel there are certain disasters or near-disasters that I hope never befall me, but when they do, I’m glad I experienced them: three little kids on a crowded street in Buenos Aires trying to slice open my backpack to steal whatever tumbled out; three grown men, one drunk, cornering me and trying to rob me on a Buenos Aires subway during rush hour; getting lost in a strange neighborhood in Seattle that may or may not have been dangerous.  I’m glad of these moments because they are the ones that stick with me over the years.  They are the ones that get me questioning and wondering about the nature of the place I’m exploring and the people who inhabit it.

One such episode occurred in Toronto, when I took a ferry from downtown to the islands that mark the eastern end of Toronto Harbor.  There, on the largest island, I strolled among happy families picnicking on the green September grass, kids splashing in fountains and screaming from rollercoasters, and adults biking along the paths that meander through the island’s forests and green spaces.  Centre Island is a place of unbearable lightness and gaiety that, while you’re there, comprises your whole world.  But as in all public spaces, at any time of day, there are also secluded spots where danger may lurk and where strange things may happen.

Around mid-afternoon I approached the western shore of the island to gain a view of downtown Toronto.  I got to within one-hundred feet of the shore and smelled cigarette smoke wafting in the wind.  Though I couldn’t see the source of the smoke, I could hear the laughter and cursing of the young men from whom it emanated.  I thought nothing of it, high-stepped over the tall grass that lines the shore and hopped along a series of half-submerged stones out to a boulder that afforded a view of the city to the east.  The CN tower soared above the pristine condos and new high rises that speak to the vitality of a prospering and burgeoning metropolis.

I crouched on the boulder, not quite large enough to sit on, and pulled out my camera to take pictures of the ducks paddling by against the backdrop of the city.  I thought I was alone, but soon I heard from behind me the sound of twigs snapping and grass crunching, followed by a series of splats, as if someone were slapping the water with the palm of his hand.

I turned around and saw a man in his twenties standing on a stone between me and the shore.  He was staring at me.  Neither one of us said a word.  The man looked at me, then at the rock on which I was crouched, then at the trail of stones leading to it from the shore, as if he was pointing out to me that to go anywhere I would have to leap into the lake.  He rested his eyes on me again, and with a blank face he said, “Hey man, how you like this island?  It’s nice, yeah?”

“Yeah, this view is awesome,” I said.

As if he hadn’t heard me, he said, “This is my island.  I love it.”

He hopped toward me and crouched on a boulder beside me.  He looked at me again and said in a whisper, “This is my island.”  He paused, then, with a sweep of his hand and a nod toward the shore, said once again, drawing out his words, “This is my island.”

We sat there in silence for what felt like half an hour, just the two of us, the water lapping against the shore, the trees swaying in the breeze, the cigarette smoke still wafting in the wind and mixing with the smell of algae that saturated the air, and the disembodied laughter of the young men coming from beyond the shore.

I was scared, but there was little I could do about it, knowing that this man’s friends were nearby.  I guessed that he wanted to exercise power over me, to threaten me with confusion rather than with overt gestures of menace or force.  I felt like that poor toad little boys poke at with a stick yet which they can’t quite bring themselves to crush.

I had calmed down and accepted my circumstances when the stranger asked where I was from.  “Texas,” I said.  “How about you?  Are you from Toronto?”

He laughed.  “No, I been here a year.  Came from Nigeria.  But this is my island.”

“You have a cool island,” I said, and on hearing this he stood up and hopped along the stones back to the shore.  He turned back to me and said, “You’re cool, man.  I like you.  You’re cool.”  And he disappeared among the tall grass and the trees swaying in the wind.

For some reason I felt elation over having formed some kind of meaningful bond with a man who at first frightened me.  I wished I’d had more time to talk with him, to ask how he came to Toronto, what it was like to start a new life in a foreign continent, to leave home, maybe for good.  More than anything, I wanted to know what exactly our whole encounter was about, and why I liked this man who had toyed with me and gone out of his way to scare me.  Why did it gladden me to think that I had somehow earned his respect and approval?  Approval for what?  For existing?  Or did I misinterpret the whole encounter?  Maybe he was just lonely and wanted company.  I don’t know.

*Buenos Aires and Argentina: It occurred to me that I gave two examples of sort of bad things that happened in Argentina and Buenos Aires.  I want to clarify that Argentina is one of the safest countries I’ve ever traveled in and that these two incidents are as likely to happen in a big American city as in Buenos Aires or anywhere else in Argentina.  I just had bad luck, or I did something to mark myself as vulnerable.  Good friends of mine (who are argentinos) live in Argentina.  They’re kind in the way most of the people who live there are.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

20 Responses to “This Is My Island”: Fear and Confusion in Toronto

  1. What an amazing story! I love it! I’ve had similar encounters, I know exactly how you felt. I’m glad the young man let you enjoy “his island”.

  2. anda says:

    Yes, I’ve had that kind of encounter also. At first feeling threatened–probably for good reason–and then “passing the test” of some sort. Strange. I think if I had stayed on the defensive, I would have “failed” the test that I think if a mixed message of: are you going to fear me or accept me, but I don’t know either.

    • I think you said it perfectly. It is a sort of test… and sometimes I think it’s because the person testing you is actually scared or uncomfortable too. They’re wondering, “Will you give me a chance or will you assume the worst about me?”

  3. Not knowing the deeper meaning of that encounter–or the possibility that there was no deeper meaning–is what makes random experiences like that so “sticky,” for lack of a better word. They tend to stick with you to contemplate and wonder over. Good story! That’s what traveling should be all about.

    • I think “sticky” is a great word! And I agree: mystery and a bit of confusion do make traveling worthwhile. I think that often discomfort should be the goal. Not that I mind relaxing, too!

  4. Sorry to be a girl, but the beginning actually upset me. Which is somewhat ridiculous considering that you are clearly alive and well enough to post about it on your blog. Still, my first thought was that you should not be allowed, under no circumstances, ever again, to travel alone. Okay, no traveling whatsoever. That’s something I can live with. My second thought was, “well, he can’t live with it”. My third thought was, “that’s just too bad, mister!”, and we had a little argument. You won. Happy now?

    All kidding aside…nothing like that has ever happened to me, not even close. For a reason I can’t put my finger on, though, I didn’t feel the same distress when you were describing that man. Maybe I was acclimated by then, I don’t know.

    I think I would have felt the same way at the end. There’s pride and even joy in being tested, and not being found wanting. But it’s more than that. He had confidence. And power. With his words of approval, he acknowledged that you had those things too. It’s just a thought.

    • Haha, no worries! Thank you for the victory 😉 It’s interesting that your distress went away when you read the description of the encounter. Maybe because I set it up to end well. It would be fun to make up something haunting and fictional, but I don’t feel like doing that.

      “Not being found wanting” hits it on the head. That’s exactly how I feel sometimes, even in really fleeting encounters where nothing is at stake. I like your thought 🙂

  5. pattisj says:

    I knew there was a reason I don’t travel much. 😉

    • Haha, don’t worry, it’s almost all good! I went back and added a clarification to this post about Buenos Aires and Argentina. Those two incidents (with the boys and the men) were total exceptions. I feel bad that I didn’t add those qualifiers to begin with.

  6. dream2write says:

    I think it is human nature to react the way you did. I love that you bonded in the silence. Lovely story

  7. NL Quatrano says:

    Well done – and as usual, thought provoking. I too have been in instances where fear my not have been the necessary emotion and yet, it was there, like the air I breathe. Hmmm. Thanks!

    • Thank you! No matter how often I find that my fear or worry was unfounded, I keep fearing and worrying from time to time. I do think I check myself and calm down more quickly than I used to.

  8. The Urchins says:

    This is such a… almost primordial moment. This silence between the two of you almost likens to the way animals will attempt to bluff one another before a fight. It’s amazing how travel, being out of your normal environment, can bring about these occasions of pure human nature. What a way to learn something about yourself!

    Great story!


    • “Primordial” is a wonderful adjective ! When I was writing this I tried to think of a good descriptor that summed up the whole experience, and I think “primordial” is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!

  9. That experience of thinking you are alone and then catching a whiff of tobacco smoke….that is spooky. It’s happened to me before.

    Maybe I missed it, but I am surprised no one so far has commented on what I think was the axis of the shift in your dynamic with this man. You acknowledged the island was his. You did not say, yes I like it here too. You said the words “Your island.”

    In my experience many threatening people are looking for someone to acknowledge them as legitimate, having rights, being worthy. They are people who have been pushed or pushed themselves to the margins of society and in some way want back in. I see a real connection between this post and your post about Into the Wild.

  10. Elizabeth, that’s a good insight. I was trying to acknowledge his ownership of and/or responsibility for the island, and to thank him for allowing me to enjoy it. And I think you’re exactly right: He was looking for a way back into society, even if for fleeting moment. He was looking for acknowledgement and acceptance.

  11. I realized yesterday, that reading this blog post, inspired me to write one along the same lines. Here it is, if you care to see what you’ve inspired. http://wp.me/p1pPE2-9k

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