We formed a small crowd in the big confused mass of travelers in the Miami airport departure lounge . . . most of us identified by Planet Savers T-shirts, Planet Savers baseball caps, Planet Savers jackets, or at least Planet Savers lapel buttons. We were going to spend the next three weeks together, fifty British Young Conservationists. We were prizewinners in a competition run by the Planet Savers TV program. Part of the time we'd be staying on a wildlife conservation station deep in the Ecuador rain forest; part of the time we'd be visiting the Galapagos Islands.
I'd enjoyed flying from Gatwick as an unaccompanied minor. It was the first time I'd been alone on a plane, but that hadn't frightened me at all. Now I was beginning to feel scared. I'd won a place on this trip by thinking up a biodiversity experiment about beetles. But I suppose I'm a typical nerd, good at the details, not very smart at seeing the larger picture. I'd gone in for the competition because I liked my science teacher, and it had been like doing any interesting piece of homework. I had not thought it through. I had never sat myself down and said to myself, "Hold on, Semirah, what if you win? You are shy. How are you going to survive for three weeks surrounded by total strangers?"
Two presenters from the Planet Savers TV program were coming with us--Neil Cannon and Georgie McCarthy. They were at the center of a chattering group, tall, thin Neil with his spiky ginger hair and freckly tan, Georgie with her glowing dark skin and her cheeky smile. Both of them looked very friendly and cheerful and genuine, the way they did on television. They were the only people I wanted to go up and talk to. They seemed like friends, because I'd seen them so often on TV. But I knew that was an illusion. Real life is different. So I walked about instead, counting my fellow prizewinners.
There were thirty-seven teenagers and ten adult organizers, including Neil and Georgie. There were actually fifty prizewinners, but the other thirteen were traveling on another flight. I decided I was in the rain forest already, or else in a zoo. Maybe I was a new young animal, freshly arrived, and I had to find the enclosure where I belonged. I spotted a baby giraffe; a wolf cub; a slinky green-eyed lizard; a couple of pointy-nosed, mischievous young lemurs; a pouchy-faced boy with tufty auburn hair who looked amazingly like a guinea pig, the kind with the fur sticking up in rosettes. There was one sad girl with big eyes and smooth fair hair sitting by a set of beige pigskin suitcases (while the rest of us had backpacks and nylon stuff-bags), who was like a baby seal--beautifully dressed and totally helpless. There was an awkward, gangly boy with a huge nose, carrying a fluorescent orange puffa jacket, who looked like a newborn wildebeest, stumbling over his own legs. There was a Very Cool Girl, with long black hair, long brown legs, black T-shirt, gray cutoff combats, and a battered rucksack that looked as if she'd borrowed it from Indiana Jones. . . . I couldn't think of an animal comparison for her. She didn't look lost or anxious at all. She must be one of the keepers.
But what kind of animal was I? I didn't know.
I walked all the way around the zoo, and then came back to a girl with a round face and fluffy hair, who looked like a baby owl. I like owls. I was about to say hello when along came Very Cool Girl, with her beautiful hair swinging. She smiled at me, and so did the baby owl. But oh no . . . My throat closed up. I simply could not speak. I can't talk to strangers! I swerved off, and pretended I'd been heading for a nearby drinks machine.
On the row of seats by the machine there was a big chunky pale boy with bristle-short dark hair, sitting by himself. You wouldn't have known he was one of us, except that he had a Planet Savers information pack lying facedown on top of his rucksack. I'd given up on the animal identities, so I didn't try to think of one; but I decided I'd sit down, not next to him but a couple of seats away, to drink my can of Coke. I would try to look casually inviting, and maybe we could strike up a conversation. I sat down, giving a sigh that might have been a sort of noncommittal half-hello. He looked up from the game he was playing on his GameBoy and stared at me, narrow-eyed. His expression said very clearly, I've got your number, Unpopular Girl. Stay away from me.
I am not unpopular. People like me when they get to know me. It's just that I'm chubby and shy, and maybe I work too hard, so I'm not very sociable. . . . I shrugged and walked away, trying not to feel insulted. But being glared at like that naturally didn't make me feel any better. I decided he was an animal after all; a bad-tempered, solitary kind of animal, liable to lash out and best not approached.
Our flight was delayed. I still hadn't managed to talk to a single person when we got on the little bus and were driven out onto the tarmac to board our charter plane. I'd spent most of my time reading a book (well away from the nasty boy). It was hot outside, even though it was evening by then. I remember looking around at all the gray tarmac and the planes, and the smoggy sky, and being glad I was going somewhere green and wild.
There was some swapping of seat allocations, as the lucky people who'd made friends arranged to get next to each other. I had no part of that. I was extremely surprised when I found I was going to be sitting with Very Cool Girl.
"Do you want the window?" she said. "I've got it, but I'd rather have the aisle."
I said yes, I would like the window; and we sat down, me thinking how sophisticated not to want to sit next to the window.
"My name's Miranda Fallow," she said, holding out her hand. I wasn't used to people shaking hands with me, but from Very Cool Girl it seemed adult and right.
"Howdeedoodah," I said, "I'm Semirah Garson, people call me Semi--"
From the Hardcover edition.