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Sometimes the world can seem like a pretty bleak place. If you spend any amount of time watching the news, you might start to think that everyone in the world is out to rob you, take advantage of you, or hurt you in some way. Misery sells newspapers and drives prime time ratings, so we’re overwhelmed with stories of mugged tourists and hijacked buses and hotel room theft.
I live in the real world, just like you, so I’m not going to lie- these things do happen sometimes. And in some places more than others. But it truly hurts my heart when people tell me they don’t want to travel, and most definitely don’t want to travel outside the US, because of fear. Fear of pickpockets and criminal gangs and human trafficking and heaven knows what else you might encounter if you go *out there*.
But the truth is, most of the world is not a scary place at all. Bad things happen and you absolutely need to keep your wits about you and make safe choices, but you have to do that in your hometown, too. You don’t walk through Walmart with your purse hanging open and hundred dollar bills in plain view, so you’re obviously not going to do that in the middle of a crowded bazaar in Fez, either.
I’m happy to report that in over 10 years of frequent travel (including over a year of full-time, living-out-of-a-suitcase travel), I’ve never had anything terrible happen to me on the road at the hands of another person. Unless you count me, because I’m an idiot and I’m constantly doing dumb things. But I’ve never been pickpocketed, I’ve never had anything stolen out of a hotel room, I’ve never had anyone physically hurt me in any way, and I’ve never felt truly in danger in any situation due to another person.
Most people, everywhere in the world, are good people.
Most people will come to your aid if you need help, look out for a fellow human passing through their homeland, and genuinely want you to feel welcome.
In case you’re not convinced, or you just love stories that fill your heart with warm fuzzies, here are three travel experiences I’ve had that have restored my faith in humanity.
1. Sri Lanka- Chicken Samosas and the Kindness of Strangers
This story is best told through my journal entry from the day it happened.
I have been adopted by an elderly Muslim man who was born inside the walls of the fort and has lived here his entire life. He’s a gemologist and gemology professor, and the self appointed Galle welcoming committee. Yesterday he saw me walking down the street and waved me over, then spent 30 minutes telling me the history of Dutch architecture, the best places to buy tea (never pay more than 120 rupees per 100 grams or you’re being ripped off), the history of the mosque, and the best places to take both sunrise and sunset pictures around the fort.
Tonight I was waiting for my dinner in a restaurant near his house when Shaffy noticed me and came to have another chat. He’s very proud of the fact that he once had his picture in a Chinese newspaper, two of his gemology students have gone to work in Tucson and Los Angeles, and I’m invited to have tea and break the Ramadan fast with his family tomorrow night.
He left when my dinner was served, but asked if I had been to the roti shop next to the mosque. I said I hadn’t, and he recommended I try their samosas.
Five minutes later he was back with this greasy newspaper bundle in a pink plastic bag. “Chicken samosas for you. You may never come back to Sri Lanka; you must be able to say you had a good time, and met good people.”
What I took home: We’re all given the opportunity to greet visitors to our home, our work, our hometown. Do we take the time to offer hospitality and ensure they return home with good memories of their experience? Or do we keep our heads down and walk on because we’re busy and we don’t have time for that today? I have been the recipient of so much kindness on the road, and I hope I turn around and give just as much back when people visit my little corner of the universe.
Sri Lanka is an island full of amazing people just like Shaffy. Read more of my Sri Lanka posts here.
2. Greece- Like One of the Family
The first time I went to Greece, I fell in love with Athens. And I mean hard. Within a day of stepping off the plane, I was trying to figure out how I could uproot my life and move there to eat baked feta and drink jugs of wine every day. It was a short trip and I never made it further afield than a day trip to Delphi, but I just knew I was going to love the entire country.
When I returned for a longer stay a few months later, I was eager to explore more and confident enough in my Greek language skills to plan an entire itinerary to some far-flung places using public transportation.
Everything was going swimmingly at first- I was eating my weight in baklava every day and a few shop owners had mistaken me for a local, which made me feel like a globetrotting Wonder Woman.
…until I got to Kastraki, where it all went to hell.
So there I was, standing on the sidewalk and staring at the hotel that I had booked online a month ago, wondering how it could possibly be closed when I was holding the booking confirmation in my hand.
An Australian couple walking down the street stopped to ask if everything was okay, and the woman could clearly tell by my face that it was not. I had been on a bus for the last 12 hours, sweaty and gross from sardine-can public transportation. I was exhausted. I had started my period somewhere along the way and stuffed rough bus station toilet paper in my underwear until I could get to my hotel and dig out the necessary supplies. It was getting dark, my hotel was closed, and I had no idea where I was going to go. Every ounce of my energy was going toward not breaking down into a sobbing mess on the sidewalk of a strange foreign town.
I told her about my predicament, and my voice only broke a few times. She replied that she and her husband were on their way to a dinner reservation, but I should come with her. I tried to tell her it was fine, I would manage, but she was not having it.
Greek women are a force of nature, you guys.
She grabbed my hand like I was a small child and dragged me up the hill to a taverna, where she had an extremely spirited conversation with the owner. (Translation: they both yelled at each other a lot.)
I couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire Greek, but after a few minutes, she grabbed my hand again and dragged me back down the hill. She gave me her entire life story as we walked. It turns out she was a native Greek, but had been living in Australia for 25 years. Her name was Angela, and her husband never spoke a word. I got the feeling he learned a long time ago not to interfere when Angela was on a mission.
She was so outraged on my behalf, I started to feel better in spite of everything.
She dragged me back to the closed hotel, where she started pounding on the boarded-up front door. This drew the attention of a couple living next door, who came outside to ask her what she was doing. She again spoke to them in blistering Greek, presumably telling them about my situation.
They told her the hotel had been closed for a year. (A YEAR!! Are you kidding me right now?)
Another couple came by and joined the conversation. They confirmed that the hotel had been closed and abandoned for a very long time. They all took turns passing around my printed hotel confirmation, scratching their heads, and shrugging.
Finally Angela turned to me and said I was going to stay with her cousin tonight. I tried to protest, but she explained her cousin owned a hotel and would be happy to have me stay there. She again grabbed my hand and dragged me further down the hill until we got to a pay phone mounted to a tree. No, seriously. Yes, they still have pay phones all over the place in Greece. This is the land of ancient relics, after all.
She called her cousin, shouted something in Greek for a few minutes, and then hollered at a passerby to call a taxi for her. He did, and a few minutes later she was shoving me in the back of the car and telling the driver where to take me.
It was full dark at this point, I was in a strange city in a strange foreign country and a strange foreign lady was shoving me into the back of a strange foreign taxi to drive off into the night toward an unknown destination with a strange foreign taxi driver.
What could possibly go wrong?
It never occurred to me to argue with her, though. Like I said, Greek women are a force of nature.
I arrived at the Hotel Sydney a few minutes later and was met by Angela’s nephew, Tony. Within minutes I discovered he was a fellow New Englander (“Wait, you have a Boston accent. I’m from New Hampshire! No way!”) As soon as Tony realized I was American, he said I was staying with his family, and that was final.
“Unfortunately the hotel is fully booked right now…”
There’s that familiar gut-sinking feeling again.
“…but we moved some family members around and emptied out a room for you, so you’ll be staying in one of our rooms downstairs.”
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
It probably goes without saying that my attempts to protest were fruitless. I stayed with my newly adopted New England Greek family for four days, and they treated me like their long lost daughter the entire time. No matter what time I woke up, breakfast was ready. When I came back from a day of exploring, the first thing anyone asked me was, “Have you eaten? We saved you a plate.”
It’s been five years, and I still get choked up every time I think about it, including now as I’m writing this.
What I took home: When I see someone who obviously needs something, do I go out of my way to find out what’s up? Even if I’m in a hurry to get somewhere? I have no problem taking charge of a situation when I need something; do I extend that same force to other people’s needs? If not, why not? Looking out for other humans is Basic Humanity 101.
3. Myanmar- Integrity is Everything
One of the first things that struck me about Myanmar was the heartbreaking number of homeless people on the street in Yangon. Because it was my first solo trip anywhere in the world, I was a little intimidated. I wasn’t sure if it would be safe for me to walk around by myself. Was I going to get hassled, or worse?
I took a taxi to Bogyoke Market just to be safe, and as we sat sweltering in congested afternoon traffic, I watched a group of German tourists making their way down the street. They were oblivious to their surroundings- laughing, chatting away together, blissfully unaware that the tall blonde girl in the back had a bag slung over her shoulder from only one strap, and that it was hanging wide open behind her.
As I watched from my quiet bubble in the middle of the loud, dusty free-for-all that is the hallmark of Asian city traffic, a rainbow cloud tumbled out of the girl’s bag and landed in front of a beggar sitting among the piles of garbage. It was a wad of paper money; a colorful stack of 1000 and 5000 kyat notes.
The beggar’s eyes were wide as he scooped up the money and struggled to his feet. He had a clubfoot, and when he opened his mouth to call out to her, I saw only one tooth in his sunken mouth. He pointed to her bag with one hand as he handed her back her money with the other, pantomiming the motion of pulling it up securely on her shoulder.
Their interaction was over in seconds. They turned away from each other and she disappeared into the crowd with her friends as he slowly made his way back to his spot of dirty sidewalk without a single cent that wasn’t his to take.
Who’s chopping onions in here??
What I took home: Righting wrongs we see is everyone’s responsibility. Of course I’m not going to take anyone else’s money if it falls on the floor, but what if the cashier rings up a purchase wrong in my favor? Am I going to speak up or am I going to take advantage of someone else’s mistake? If a desperate homeless man wouldn’t take advantage of someone else’s carelessness, why would I?
It was hard for me to narrow down my ‘faith in humanity restored’ anecdotes to these three; I could have kept writing for days. There was the Indian hotel manager who treated me like a daughter and made sure I knew where I was going every morning when I set out to adventure. The bus full of London commuters who stopped to make sure I was okay when I suddenly got sick on my way to Greenwich and needed medical attention. The Burmese monk who wanted to make sure I didn’t leave Yangon without seeing what he thought was the most important temple, and took me on a guided tour. The Greek barista who threw an impromptu going-away party for me in her cafe so I would be surrounded by friends on my last night in Athens.
Over and over, humans around the planet have gone out of their way to make sure I felt welcome and safe and happy when I visited their part of the world. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, full of people who are out to get you. Only, that’s really not true at all, and I think it would do us all a world of good to remember that people are mostly good, after all.
Have you had an experience while traveling that restored your faith in humanity? Share it in the comments and let us keep the warm fuzzies going.