The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2

Often when I reflect on my travels I find myself becoming rather overwhelmed when I remember all the random acts of kindness that I experienced from almost complete strangers. Being a backpacker and travelling the world can be an amazing and fulfilling journey, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it isn’t always easy. You find yourself in some pretty desperate situations, preparing yourself for the worst, when out of nowhere these people descend like guardian angels to remind you that it’s not as bad as it seems, and often offer a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. I’ve already written specifically about this idea before, about the somewhat surprising friendliness and hospitality I received in Russia, and whether it’s been through Couchsurfing, friends of friends, or quite literally strangers on the street, some of my most memorable experiences have been when someone who barely knew me decided to take a chance on me, completely out of the goodness of their heart. But there’s one story in particular that seems almost too good to be true that I often have to remind myself that it wasn’t actually a dream…

***

After a week of fun, exploring Rio and hanging out with Tom, the morning that my bus was due to depart back to São Paulo finally arrived. It was just past dawn when I had to get up, but Tom even got up as well and made a bit of breakfast and called me a taxi. I have to admit, I got a little emotional when he accompanied me down to the street to say goodbye – we’d become pretty close during my short stay. I had stayed with a lot of Couchsurfing hosts so far, and I’d gotten on really well with every single one of them, but often our friendships were formed around learning about each others cultures, languages and customs. But I think Tom and I had more in common than any of my previous hosts, and our friendship formed so easily and naturally, although it was based on some weird, distant familiarity rather than any kind of cultural discovery. I was definitely sad to be leaving, and I gave him a big hug before climbing into the taxi, and wishing him all the best for his remaining time in Brazil. He wished me well on my travels, and waved until the taxi had disappeared around the corner.

I’d gone with the taxi option for getting to the bus stop because there was very little traffic at that time of day, and so I made it there quite quickly and it was relatively cheap. I was grateful that I had sorted out the issues with my ticket the afternoon that I had arrived in Rio, so it was smooth sailing from there and onto the bus. It was even more empty than the bus from São Paulo had been, and the WIFI was even working this time, so I slept a little bit and otherwise kept myself amused for the six hour bus ride. When I finally made it back to São Paulo, I tried to get in touch with Fausto. When I had been booking my bus tickets to and from Rio, he had suggested that I arrive back in São Paulo with plenty of time before my flight, and offered for me to swing by his apartment to have a shower, freshen up, and have some dinner before getting another taxi to the airport. However, I hadn’t been in touch with him since the morning I left São Paulo just under a week ago, and I hadn’t even ended up meeting him or any of his friends while I had been in Rio. I had exchanged a few text messages with one of his friends, but in the end the plans hadn’t matched up very well, so I’d spent my time hanging out with Tom.

At first I had tried to send a message through the internet with iMessage. I wasn’t sure if it had worked or not, so I sent a regular text message saying hello, and asking if he had received the earlier text.
Shortly afterwards I got a reply: “Did not get any messages.”
“Oh, okay. Was just letting you know I’m back in São Paulo 🙂 ”
“I never heard back from you. Thought you were already gone. Safe trip.”
“Oh my plane is tonight. I just got back with plenty of time to get to the airport, like you suggested.”
“Hope u had fun in Rio.”

I stared at that final message, a clear allusion to the fact I was not going to be seeing him again before I left Brazil. A combination of anger, frustration and nervousness began brewing inside me. It’s easy to play the blame game – we hadn’t contacted each other while I’d been away, and I had assumed that our previous plans had still been in order, while clearly he hadn’t. Maybe he was mad that I hadn’t met him or his friends while I was in Rio? Maybe he had legitimately forgotten and was just too busy to have me come over for those last few hours? Maybe I was reading too much into it, but his messages didn’t seem to indicate I was at all welcome, so I found myself facing the prospect of another nine hours in this city with nowhere to go, no one to call, and speaking practically none of the native language. I think it was the first time in the entire two weeks that I had spent in Brazil where I actually felt scared.

I could have headed straight to the airport, but it was just after 4pm, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 1am. There had to be better ways to spend my last hours in Brazil than sitting on the floor in the airport terminal, so after catching a bus further into the city I wandered around until I found something – anything – familiar. And that’s how I found myself in a Subway restaurant, desperately begging the employee for the WIFI password on the condition that I bought a sandwich. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he looked overcome with sympathy and gave it to me, despite it not being their usual policy. I thanked him profusely, and began scouring the web on my iPad while eating my food.

What I wanted more than anything was a shower, or some way of freshening up and maybe putting on a clean outfit before boarding the plane. I’d already done a lot of travelling that morning, so I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I still had a long slight ahead of me. A quick search of the airport at Guarulhos told me that it was absolutely awful and had no such amenities I’d be able to use, so I searched for anywhere where I might be able to use a shower. There were a few beauty salons and health spas, some of which might have had showers but none that explicitly said so – as far as I could tell and translate –  and none that were close enough that I would be able to get there before they closed for the day. There were pools and gyms, but anything like that required some kind of membership, and I wasn’t about to sign up to a Brazilian gym just for a shower.

In the end I realised there was one place where I knew I would be welcome that would definitely have a shower  – a gay sauna. As fate would have it, there was one that wasn’t even too far away – relatively, for São Paulo – and as the battery of my iPad was quickly depleting, it was coming to crunch time and I had to make a decision. I’d been writing down a bunch of addresses on some scrap paper, but in the end I left the Subway, found a taxi, and showed him the address for the sauna. It was about 15 minutes away, and when I arrived I was still feeling that bitter combination of frustration and nervousness. The place didn’t look like a sauna at all – it was a big, spooky looking house with lots of lush greenery in the front garden, tall fences, and a path that presumably led to a front door which was concealed by the vegetation. I followed it through the garden and arrived at the building, and I had to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in. I didn’t need to say anything, but I imagine there was some kind of camera, what with everything I had seen in Brazil about security measures so far. Once I was inside, it definitely felt a lot more like a sauna. There was a pretty sleazy vibe in the place, and there were a couple of guys sitting around the main entry room, talking quietly or gathering their things to leave.  I tried to talk to the guy who was sitting at the payment office, but he didn’t speak much English.

One of the guys in the room noticed I was struggling, and came over to help translate and assist. He was tall, and seemed to be a little drunk, but he was quite friendly.
“Your… your bag? What are you going to do with it?” He was referring to my huge backpack strapped to my shoulders, containing most of my worldly possessions.
“I just… I wanted…” I was already regretting my decision to come here – clearly it wasn’t working out. “Don’t they have lockers?”
“Well, yes,” the tall guy said, “but not that big. And you can’t leave it here… No, I wouldn’t leave it. It’s not safe here. Are you… are you okay?”
I sighed, realising how pointless this endeavour had been. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just looking for a place to freshen up.” I turned around, marched out of there, and plonked myself down on the gutter, completely out of ideas. After about five minutes, the tall guy came up the path and out of the greenery, and noticed me sitting by myself.

“Hi… You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are a few cheap hotels up the road. I could help you check into one, if you like?” I ended up explaining my entire situation to him, and he listened carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, exactly. But you shouldn’t stay here. Do you want to try one of the hotels?” At this point I was just grateful for some company, so I agreed to at least walk with him on his way home. His name was Rafael, and he asked me some more curious questions about myself, so I told him all about my travels.
“Wow, an Australian,” he said with a gentle smile, “so far from home! Anyway, I mean, I would offer for you to come spend a few hours at my place, but, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” He giggled a little and smiled, and even though it didn’t really solve anything, I couldn’t help but smile back, and I guess that made me feel a little happier.

“Now, lots of these places would try to rip you off if you didn’t speak Portuguese. But I will help you and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you so much.” It just seemed so surreal how quickly my circumstances had changed.
“It’s no problem. When I was younger, I was living in England. I met so many lovely people, and they were always so nice and generous to me. Now, when I meet a traveller in my home country, I want to help those people in the same way other people helped me.” It was such a kind and simple adherence to the ‘pay it forward’ mentality that it actually made my heart swell just a little bit. I’d been so scared of running into less than favourable strangers in Brazil, yet here I was wandering down the street with a man who seemed to be the epitome of selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, the first two hotels that Rafael tried to check me into were completely full.
“You know, thank you so much, but you really don’t have to do this,” I said as we left the second one. “I’d only be around for a few hours anyway, it’s probably not even worth it.” But he dismissed my concerns, insisting that there was another hotel nearby that would definitely have some room. I shrugged and followed him, not really having any other bright ideas of my own. This third place was a little nicer looking that the previous two, and after talking to the receptionist for a couple of minutes, Rafael turned to me with a grin and signalled me with a thumbs up. However, when I’d reached into my wallet to sort out the last of my real, he shook his head and shooed my money away.
“Please, no, this is on me. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

I was totally shocked. This man who I had met no more than half an hour ago was willing to fully pay for a hotel room that he knew I was only going to spend a few hours showering and possibly sleeping in. I know in a lot of other ‘stranger danger’ situations that that would seem incredibly creepy, but there was nothing sleazy or suspicious about Rafael at all. He finalised the booking, explained my situation to the staff and said that I would be leaving again that evening, and than accompanied me up to the room to make sure everything was as it should be. It was a small, simple room with two single beds, a small desk and a bathroom, but it was all that I needed. Rafael wrote down his phone number, and told me to call him if I had any other problems while I was in Berlin.
“I just… thank you so much,” I said to him as I gave him a hug goodbye. “This is so generous of you, I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“You just have to pay it forward,” he said with a smile. “You sounded like you were having a terrible afternoon. I would hate that to be your final, lasting impression of my country.”
“Well, you’ve completely turned it around with this!” I said with a smile. “If you’re ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to make it up to you.”

And with that we said our goodbyes, and I showered, packed and even had time to squeeze in a quick nap. Eventually the time came for me to head to the airport, and I managed to take a photo of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, possibly one of the more recognisable sites of São Paulo. It had been shrouded in fog on the morning of my arrival, but tonight it was lighting up the night.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

***

The rest of my night at the airport went by smoothly. I checked my bags, ate some food, did some duty free shopping with my remaining cash and then just enjoyed the serenity of an empty airport, with short queues and very little noise. But the whole time I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face due to the whole completely unexpected act of kindness that Rafael had done for me. Something that like can really restore your faith in humanity, and I really wonder if he knows just how much he completely turned around my bad day. And I think the most beautiful thing about those random acts of kindness, helping out strangers in need, is that when they do deeply affect someone, they don’t just stop there. Because I do believe that a person is more likely to pass that kindness on, pay it forward, and contribute to someone else’s life by doing something that could mean so little to them, but mean the world to that someone else. I know it’s definitely changed my perspective on the world. The world can be a scary and terrible place, but if you give it a chance, there is an abundance of kindness just waiting to be unleashed upon you and make it all worthwhile.

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Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

***

One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

***

Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.

Culture Lesson in Review: “Normal” Love

My first weekend in Bangkok felt like a throwback to my previous lifestyle in Sydney – you can take the boy from the party, but you can’t take the party from the boy.

Silom Soi 4 on a Saturday night.

Silom Soi 4 on a Saturday night.

Earlier in the week, Rathana had put me in touch with a few of his friends in Bangkok, and they had agreed to take me out and show me around while he was still in San Francisco. After dinner, and several jugs of margaritas, I found myself back at Silom Soi 4, though it was a Saturday night this time so the street was a little busier than last time I’d been there. The four guys I was with were all good friends, a couple of them having known each other for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, but they were fantastic company and welcomed me warmly into the group. Conversation was flowing fast and freely, and it usually does between such good friends, and I was privy to some hilarious, provocative, and thoughtful conversations. One in particular that I want to reflect on was a topic that was sparked when we spotted a peculiar couple on the other side of the street. One half of the couple was a young Thai boy with pretty, delicate features – I’m terrible with guessing, ages but I’d say somewhere in his mid- to late-twenties at the most. The other man was older… much, much older. I’m no stranger to age gaps in my relationships, but even I have to confess to feeling a little uncomfortable watching these two canoodle on the balcony of the bar.

Some cheeky remarks were made about the couple couple, and the discussion about such pairings being a common occurrence in the area turned to questions of why they occur in the first place. One of our group, who has only just recently moved to Bangkok himself, suggested that some of the younger local boys were almost driven to those types of relationships due to poverty, while the older Caucasian gentlemen use their wealth to effectively buy affection. In response to that suggestion, one of the guys – who we shall call ‘Anna’ – made a point that I personally had never really considered.

“The definition of love in their culture is very different from our Western ideas of what love is supposed to be. For them, love is about taking care of someone, or them taking care of you. I wouldn’t say that they’re driven to these relationships, or even that they’re being coerced, or that these men take advantage of them. It’s just how their culture defines love – they’re in love. Who are we to come in with our Western ideas about love and tell them what they have isn’t normal?”

I paraphrase, of course, but the idea really stuck with me. Even in a Western setting, I’ve had people question the integrity of my relationships with a number of previous boyfriends, whether it be due to ages or otherwise. And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Anna. As two consenting adults, these two men have a relationship. Are they in love? Who can say? We didn’t ask them –  I know plenty of people in our own Western society who are in loveless relationships, but seeming a little more “normal” helps them avoid much scrutiny at all. The idea that love means different things in different cultures was intriguing, and while I’m sure there’s a multitude of complexities regarding love and relationships in Thai culture that I have little to no idea about, I think the discussion reaffirmed a value in me that I’d temporarily forgotten – love doesn’t play by any set rules, and there’s no such thing as a “normal” relationship. That particular age gap may have given me the heebie-jeebies, but hey, if they’d said that they were in love, then that would have been good enough for me.

Dancing in a cage in a Bangkok club - don't ask me which one, because I can't for the life of me remember.

Dancing in a cage in a Bangkok club – don’t ask me which one, because I can’t for the life of me remember.

My period of deep reflection on such complex emotional processes didn’t last long, though. A few more margaritas later and I was ready to hit the dancefloor. I think that’s what I like about a good gay bar – you can be millions of miles away in a foreign city, surrounded by people that you’ve never met and probably never will, but when you’re shaking your stuff on a crowded dancefloor to a Britney Spears remix, it’s always going to feel like home.