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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A Little Luxury

One thing I’ve learnt about travelling is that, try as you might, there is no possible way to prepare for every single situation. You can spend weeks or months planning a trip, but odds are that life is going to throw you a curve ball and you’re going to have to deal with some unexpected and potentially unpleasant, or at the very least frustrating, situations. I experienced one particular drawback during my Air BnB stay in Barcelona, when I was told halfway through my third day staying in the apartment that there was a plumbing problem with the shower and they would set to work installing a new shower right away. Great for the people who live there – not so great for the people who are paying per night to stay there, with the expectation they would have access to basic facilities such as a bathroom. I’d already paid upfront with no chance for a refund which was a little frustrating, because if I had known I wasn’t going to have a place to shower for half my time staying there then I probably would have left to find a place where I could.

I don’t think that’s necessarily being ungrateful either – this wasn’t Couchsurfing: it wasn’t a free place to stay. I was technically a paying customer, and unfortunately I didn’t get what I thought I was paying for. I went so far as to meet up with someone on one of the various gay social networking phone applications so that I might be able to borrow their shower to get ready for my final night out at the clubs in Barcelona. He was another tourist, a British guy named Mike, and after my shower we hung out for the afternoon and actually got on pretty well. He was even considering coming out to Metro with me that evening, but he had to cancel after receiving an emergency phone call from home about someone trying to break into his apartment back in London. So once again I set out to the club by myself, and that was the night that I met Fausto, Holger and Malte.

***

The next day, after catching up on a bit of sleep, I got in contact with Fausto. He had invited me to come swimming with Holger, Malte and himself at their hotel pool, and considering the shower in my apartment wouldn’t be fixed any time soon, I figured a relocation wouldn’t be such a bad idea – even if it was just for an afternoon. I gathered my things, said my goodbyes to Rich, and then jumped on the metro over to the seaside hotel where Fausto and the German guys were staying. I dropped my things in their hotel room, changed into my swim shorts, and headed down to the pool.

I chatted with the three of them as we sat around the pool and soaked up the bright sunshine that was beating down out of the clear sky. Fausto, despite having a distinct American accent and speaking perfect English, was actually from Brazil. He’d lived and grown up in New York City before eventually moving back to Brazil, where he now resided. The three of them were part of a group of friends who lived internationally, taking trips around the world during certain events and special occasions to catch up with one another. Holger lived in Munich and Malte in Berlin, and the three of them had caught up in Spain after Fausto had been travelling in Greece wi some of his family. I told them about my travels while they told tales about some of their trips and some of their own crazy stories with this global group of friends. I think more than anything they were fascinated about the idea of my backpacking journey, but after seeing the place they were staying at, it wasn’t difficult to see why. There were hotel staff wandering around the pool area who were catering to each and every whim of all of the pool-goers in order to make their experiences as comfortable as possible. Ironically, I actually felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of people waiting on me so incessantly. It was a level of luxury I hadn’t really experienced in quite a long time, and I’d grown quite used to depending on nobody but myself for most things, especially in the last couple of months.

Eventually I slipped into the water, partly to avoid being asked “Is everything alright here?” another countless time, and partly because the Mediterranean sun shining down on us made the sparkling blue tiles that lined the pool irresistibly inviting. Afterwards, we had lunch in the restaurant at the hotel, and the guys also let me use the shower in their room to clean myself up and get ready for my next train. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was heading west to the Spanish capital of Madrid, in hopes of finding a more engaging party scene than I had in Barcelona. But I thanked the three men profusely before heading off to the train station. They had given me a glimpse into another world of travel from which I was currently so very far removed. After the nuisance that had been the broken shower in my Air BnB apartment, I definitely had to acknowledge the benefits that come with paying for your own place in an institution that specialises in services for travellers. Not that I would have experienced this level of luxury at a hostel – and there’s no way I would have been able to afford the kind of place Fausto, Holger and Malte were staying at on my budget. I’ve heard plenty of people tell me that they could never do what I was doing, and that they always had to stay in hotels when they were travelling. Though in most cases those holidays only last a few weeks, or a couple of months at best, since most people had regular jobs to go back to – which probably helped them in affording to stay in such places. The length of my trip on the budget I was working with didn’t exactly allow me to be too fussy when it came to accommodation, but I was okay with that. For now, I was more than content with my life hopping through hostels and couches as a thrifty backpacker.

Hello Moscow: Seeing Red Square

The shower at the hostel in Moscow was amazing. It didn’t even have a shower head – there was just hot water pouring out of a pipe. But it was hot water and it was washing my body and oh my God it was amazing. It was that kind of dirty where you can physically feel it washing away, but as soon as you’re clean and dry, you just want to have another shower just to make sure you’re completely clean. Or perhaps that was just me rediscovering the meticulousness of my personal hygiene. It also felt good to be on solid ground. There were places to go, things to see, drinkable tap water, and did I mention showers? It was also a change to be in a big city like Moscow. After we’d freshened up, I headed into the streets with Tim, Tracy and Jenna to find some breakfast. It was a drizzly overcast morning, but I soaked in the surroundings of the concrete jungle. As much as I loved the great outdoors and the rural getaway that had been Mongolia and Siberia, I have to confess that I’m still a big city boy at heart. Places like Bangkok and Saigon had found ways to win me over, with the busy streets and the nightlife and the diversity of people, and even the sleek and somewhat sterile Singapore was nice when it wasn’t charging an arm and a leg for a few beers. Beijing might be the only exception, with its pollution just being too intense – though I also harbour a few bitter memories – but generally I love exploring new cities. With a population of around 10 million, Moscow was big, and I was definitely excited to see what it had in store for us.

City centre of Moscow.

City centre of Moscow.

***

After breakfast we returned to the hostel to meet our guide. Maria was an attractive woman, tall and thin with long blonde hair and sharp, defined features – almost every stereotype I had expected from a Russian woman. We did a round of introductions, then wasted no time in setting out into the city to see some of the major attractions. Along the way, I was advised by the rest of the group that there were three must see attractions in Moscow – Red Square, the Kremlin, and the State Armoury. It was lucky that we had three full days in Moscow, because due to a serious lack of planning it took that many days for me to see them all. To get from the hostel to the city was only a few stops on the Moscow Metro, but even that proved to be a little bit of a thrill. And that’s not because of my weird obsession with efficient subway systems, although the Moscow Metro is insanely efficient – one time we missed a train, and there was literally another one coming out of the tunnel just as we lost sight of the one we missed. It was actually a thirty second wait for the next train – needless to say, I was impressed. But all the excitement happened before we’d even reached the platform. For the metro, all you have to do is buy a standard ticket that lets you travel anywhere within the system. All you have to do is swipe the card and walk in. Now, at the train stations back home there are barriers that open to let you through when you swipe your ticket. To be fair, some of the stations at Moscow have this too. However, the station we were at didn’t seem to have barriers, just metal gates which you walk through after swiping your ticket. I swiped mine, saw a little green arrow, and proceeded through, then turned around to wait for Kaylah. She swiped her ticket, went to walk through and then suddenly BAM! These old, rickety metal arms came flying out of the gates to crash together directly in front of Kaylah. I don’t deal well with sudden shocks and jolts like that, so I’m pretty sure I let out a scream. Kaylah herself was standing there, dumbfounded. “Oh my God,” I said as I ran back towards the barrier. “Oh my God! Are you alright?” We looked down at the metal arms clamped together in front of her waist. “Jesus, a second later and you wouldn’t ever be having children!” She was startled but otherwise fine, and laughed it off in her typical style. “It’s all good, it’s all good.” One of the station attendants came over to help us. Turns out Kaylah’s ticket just hadn’t swiped properly, and so hadn’t allowed her to go through, but her movement forward had set off he barriers to rather aggressively stop her from proceeding. Which makes perfect sense, but still, it was as freaky as Hell to watch, and for the rest of my time in Moscow I tentatively slipped through the gates at the metro, so as not to awake those angry metal arms.

***

This photo was taken the next day on a short trip back to Red Square - showing off my shiny red gum boots in front of the State History Museum

This photo was taken the next day on a short trip back to Red Square – showing off my shiny red gum boots in front of the State History Museum

The first attraction we visited was Red Square, which in itself was more of a collection of sights. We took photos in front of the State History Museum, and then visited the Lenin Mausoleum. I know what a mausoleum is, but what we found inside still took me by surprise – a glass coffin with the preserved body of the Soviet leader lying there for the world to see, looking rather peaceful. Kaylah and I had been walking along with linked arms to stay a little warmer in the cold, overcast weather, but I felt her grip tighten tenfold around my arm when we walked into the room and saw the body lying there. It was a chilling experience, but we slowly and respectfully shuffled around the room and out the other side. From there it was onto St Basil’s Cathedral, a place that I’ll confess I didn’t know by name, but instantly recognised from photographs. The colourful tops on the towers were a typically Russian style of architecture, and I thought it made the building a little more fun and interesting than some of the other ones – though I’m not sure if anyone ever built a cathedral with ‘fun’ being the primary objective. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful building, both exterior and interior. Inside and upstairs, there was a male a capella vocal quartet singing what sounded like Russian church hymns. Their voices were beautiful, and their musical singing added a whole new level of awe to the atmosphere inside the cathedral. Even though any spiritual or religious convictions I might harbour lie far from Christianity or Russian Orthodoxy, it was simply enchanting to explore the stone walls and corridors while they echoed with the rich tenor and rumbling baritone voices. I took a few photos, but as I lined up my camera, before I’d taken a single picture, I knew that no image would ever capture this experience in a way that would do it justice.

St Basil's Cathedral.

St Basil’s Cathedral.

Inside the chambers of St. Basil's.

Inside the chambers of St. Basil’s.

***

After we’d finished in Red Square and had some lunch, Maria took us down to buy tickets for the Kremlin. The deal with both the Kremlin and the State Armoury is that they only allow a certain amount of people inside, during scheduled periods of visiting, to prevent the places from growing too crowded at any one time. This happens every day. Except on Thursdays, when the Kremlin is closed. It was a Thursday. Yep. That was a little awkward for Maria. “I guess we will have to come back tomorrow… What else would you like to do?” Tim and Alyson wanted to go shopping, so we left them to their own devices, while – short of our own ideas of what to see in the city – Maria took us to a part of the city where we could ride up the Moscow River and see some of the cities major and minor attractions from the water. Even though the weather was a little cold, it was an easy way to spend the afternoon. So easy, in fact, that I may have been guilty of taking a few power naps between photographs. We’d been up since 4am, after all.

Statue of Peter the Great on Moscow River.

Statue of Peter the Great on Moscow River.

Moscow cityscape as seen from the river.

Moscow cityscape as seen from the river.

The Kremlin from afar.

The Kremlin from afar.

That night we took it pretty easy. I had dinner at a small little pizza place around the corner with Tim, Tracy, Alyson and Jenna. The food was nice, but the one thing that struck me was that all over the restaurant, people were lighting up cigarettes and puffing away like chimneys. I have so many friends back home who smoke that the smell of second hand smoke doesn’t really bother me too much, but I think it was just more the fact they were allowed to smoke inside that surprised me. Although I really shouldn’t have been surprised – I’d been warned by almost everybody that smoking inside clubs was a really common thing all over Europe. I hadn’t expected that rule to apply to restaurants, but there you go. Rather than complain, I just tried to accept it and get used to it – if it really is as common as everyone says, then I was going to be seeing a lot more of it in the next few months.