As I was awaiting to enter the airport the other day, I saw two burly security guards checking our passports to let us in. Ahead of me was an elderly lady, perhaps coming to the airport for the first time. The guard asked her in as rude a manner as possible in a language she was not familiar with, to display her identity. The lady smiled at them and asked in her rustic language where she could find her flight. The guard simply shouted at her for her ‘ignorance’. The smile vanished from the lady’s face as she fumbled hurriedly for her passport in her bag as the man continued to press her to be quick. She did manage to show her passport and enter the airport perhaps more overwhelmed by the sophistication in an airport than was needed, especially at her age. The scene is imprinted in my mind. Here was a wonderful opportunity for the man to be simply nice to a lady perhaps old enough to be his grandmother. All he required was a little patience and a smile. He chose simply to do just his ‘job’ instead.
I don’t attempt to be didactic here. I seek to recount some memories for myself mostly. Try as much as I may, I simply cannot be the people I have come across during my travels, who have gone out of their way to help me despite being total strangers. When I first stepped out of my comfort zone, I was flying for the first time to a foreign land to study. I had not carried any cash on me and I had overlooked a long halt at Heathrow. I was looking at over 15 hours of wait time without food. It was night time and cold and the only other person in my seating area was a well dressed man. He had been observing me for a few hours and after a while took a seat next to me and opened a box of chocolates. All he said was, “I see that you haven’t eaten at all. I have plenty of goodies. Enjoy yourself” and he was gone. This simple act of kindness made my day. I had more to eat than I could have imagined.
I cannot emphasize enough on the learning that travel alone can teach. I often quote that I have found more of an intimate connect with a stranger on the road than even my closest circle of friends and have relied on the kindness of a stranger to help me out quite often. I recall realizing on arriving in Munich on a public holiday, my first visit to Europe, that the tourist information office at the central station was closed. I had no smart phone then with me, that could give me directions to my hostel. Out of the blue came a friendly lady who not only dished out her phone to find my hostel, but also took me around some of the finest art museums and explaining some of the art works for a whole day. It was something she absolutely was not obliged to do, but she did it anyway. On the leg of the same journey, I visited the city of Bratislava and I was overwhelmed by the good people I came across which made me shatter my initial inhibitions of a country with a communist past. This taught me to look beyond the veils that society has cast on peoples.
My trip to Venice was made extra special because of a very friendly encounter. It was also very strange because all I did was choose a random spot to have lunch and I happened to sit beside an old gondolier. I speak no Italian and he spoke no English but he just turned to me and started talking to me in an evocative and friendly manner. I did surmise that he missed his daughter and I think I reminded him of her. He wanted me to just sit with him for a while. It was my last day in Venice and I had nothing better to do. He kept talking about her and I kept smiling, all this while overlooking a beautiful canal. When I took his leave, he took my hands in his and said something which sounded lovely. Nothing he said made any sense to me but it was a wonderful moment.
In my recent trip to beautiful Oviedo in northern Spain, I had to take a hop flight into the city which resulted in baggage delay. I reached my hosts’ place well into the night. There was no reason for them to fret over ‘my’ problem. Not only did they invite me into their circle of friends that night to make me feel very welcome, but they also went out of their way in driving me all the way to the airport the following day, discussing in Spanish with the airport authorities to ensure that I would have no hassles in getting my bag back. I knew I couldn’t have managed it smoothly on my own. In the worst case, they said they would help me out with a new set of clothes! I knew they meant it. They just didn’t have to do it, but they did.
Sure, I have had many casual discussions while waiting in queues to get into a museum, a laugh together with a complete stranger on a hike, a chat with a passenger in a train or even shared lunches and dinners with co-travelers but not all of them can be mentioned here. These are moments that I have collected over a period of time during my travels. It has made me see that no common language is required to be kind. I think it has made me a grateful person and hopefully a nicer one to reciprocate a bit of kindness and give it back to the world we live in.