We’ve all been there – that small panic when utterly lost, a sudden illness in a strange land or after 17 hours of hot, dusty travel an unexpected kindness makes clear why we call ourselves members of the human race.
If you’re a travel journalist, you’ve been in unexpected difficulties numerous times in some of Earth’s iconic locations. If you’re an active traveler, exploring and taking risks, getting out of one’s comfort zone is taken for granted. Getting back in often requires help – unexpected kindness.
Barcelona just a few weeks ago was a case in point. After a comfortable three-hour trip from Andorra la Vella the bus arrived at Barcelona Sants station to the announcement that all taxis were on a 24-hour strike. Three heavy bags, one person and a hotel several miles distance in an unfamiliar city – at least since university days – was a dilemma.
The receptionist at the Hotel Constanza assured over the phone that the metro conveniently stops within easy walking distance of the hotel. Within 30 seconds of looking at the multicolored coded metro map in Spanish more assurance was required. The same calm voice on call number two talked through the map.
With a maze of well-lit passageways and escalators to traverse different platform levels, elevators were sought but required this writer’s puzzled frown being replaced by a stranger’s gesture pointing to the lifts. Once arriving an hour later at Plaça de Catalunya, eyes gazed on a vast monumental plaza covering a major transport hub at the north end of La Rambla. A simple direction of “the 3rd….” was a fleeting desire.
For a third time that soothing voice reset this traveler’s compass, and no, Google maps wasn’t working at that point. Lost time yet gained confidence through a reassuring voice.
While spending an academic year at University College Dublin decades ago this writer struck out with a fellow student on a month long hitchhiking trip around the island country. Having had great luck in those more innocent days of the early 1970s with Irish hitchhiking hospitality, there was a surprisingly lengthy time lapse now waiting for a ride. It took a few days to realize that two large young guys with heavy backpacks took up too much room in the small cars of Ireland. So hiking took on an equal role with hitchhiking from hostel to hostel.
One day several hours before sunset a scenic road of unknown distance was chosen. The postcard perfect village of Glengarriff at the top of Ireland’s Bantry Bay was reached just before dark. There was no hostel in Glengarriff; obviously not the anticipated destination.
There was a gorgeous Georgian manor house now a country inn directly in front of two tired faces, but the rate indicated by the pleasant owner far exceeded a student budget. Resourceful as any 20 year old, a beautiful, tree protected bluff overlooking an inlet on the bay was chosen to spread out sleeping bags. Many hours of hiking, bread, cheese and beer soon led to sleep until the downpours arrived.
Soggy wet on an early April morning was not pleasant. Fortunately, much of the backpacks remained dry, minus present clothing and two sleeping bags. The pleasant owner of the beautiful Georgian manor house looked startled and confused as she opened the door, then bemused when the story was told and listened to the request for hot tea. To much surprise, the soggy pair were led down a muffled, heavily carpeted hallway into a small sitting room with a washroom.
Provided with towels, a washing up and change into dry clothing was transformative, but an elegant breakfast tea that lay out on silver trays in the sitting room caused silence. The beautiful warm aromas generated vibes in student budget brains, which must have communicated with the pleasant owner as she waved away any talk of money and softly told stories of her own boys’ adventures.
Yet that day wasn’t over. Not wanting to repeat the previous 24-hours, exploring the rugged but lightly traveled Bara Peninsula was reluctantly struck off the list. Setting off in a safer direction, thumbs out, a comfortable large sedan soon pulled over. The Irish businessman, now living in America, was indeed heading towards Kerry but after hearing the reason for dropping the Bara Peninsula, plans changed.
Since leaving as a teen it was this businessman’s first trip back to his homeland in 20 years. After making a couple business stops, he was more than thrilled to have an excuse to alter his schedule so everyone could explore the stunning steep valleys and fjord-like cliffs of the rugged Barra. A dozen hours later and two pub meals he insisted upon paying, the equally happy businessman left two thrilled and tired travelers at the hostel door. Is the unexpected kindness of strangers an innate norm?
Quite recently on a first visit to the Kingdom of Morocco illness tested resolve. A seasoned traveler knows illness caused by the introduction of new environments happens despite the best precautions. What’s unexpected is the concern of strangers.
Hostel Bayt Alice in the heart of the ancient Medina of Tangier is a restored 200 year old art filled mansion masquerading as a budget hostel. From the first night French architect/owner Fabienne Ancelin and manager Mostafa Bahida included this writer at their table in a neighborhood cafe for dinner promptly at 7:30 p.m. – an important time for French/Moroccan Mostafa to break his 15-hour Ramadan fast. Those evenings continued during the week with the group including 20s and 30s something travelers from Sweden, Palestine, France, Jewish/American, Spanish and Moroccan.
On a post dinner walk along Tangier’s soon to be completed park-like beachfront, illness came on in an unexpectedly violent manner. Skipping details, rather than be repulsed, the young men expressed deep concern and were as reassuring as possible during the mile return to the hostel in the dark. A rough night ensued.
On the following morning, knowing that moving on to the next city on the itinerary was unwise, arrangements were made to remain at Bayt Alice an additional night, and Fabienne called the Casa Perleta in Chefchaouen to cancel the first night. During the rest of the day, the group of a half dozen young guests proved that some travel friendships are more than fleeting. They expressed their concern by hanging out at the hostel with a much older travel writer for a quiet day.
Normalcy somewhat returned after a restful day and travels continued to Chefchaouen. Once settled into the beautiful Chefchaouen blue of Casa Perleta unexpected kindness reared again. The cancelled first night was not charged although the hotel had every right. Additionally the manager arranged for a waiter from a well-respected neighborhood restaurant, Lala Mesouda, to deliver dinner so it could be eaten in the cool calm of the hotel’s courtyard.
Morocco was not a sponsored trip, so no one needed to impress in exchange for the printed word.
Examples are endless now that memory has been stirred:
The Buenos Aires businessman in an expensive silk suit that walked blocks out of his way since he knew the address was difficult to find.
The coiffed Bangkok business women and police man who stopped to assist a traveling companion who had fainted on the spotlessly clean station platform of the Bangkok metro and remained with her until water and smelling salts revived.
Feeling overwhelmed at Casa de Sefrad, the Jewish museum in Cordoba, Spain, during an exhibit on the 5,000-year history of book burning and having an emotional but cathartic conversation with the curator.
Being asked in Ushuaia, Argentina, to prepare a vegetarian dinner buffet for Good Friday for the family of the Posada del fin del Mundo and guests staying in the boutique hotel. No work, fun and an honor.
The surprise birthday cake made by Michelin Star Chef Jean-Marc Boyer while covering a recent residential culinary workshop at the French House Party.
Iguazu Falls, boating on the Mekong River, touring Schönbrunn Palace, standing on the equator in Ecuador are all destinations that through many thousands of photos on the computer will remain memories. Yet it’s young men walking at night in the Tangier medina from radically different cultural backgrounds laughing, trading barbs and in their revelry ignoring any concept of generational divide – no less nationalism – that bodes well for the future. A photo captures the image, but the memory of unexpected kindness is etched in the heart.