I believe that people are good. I believe that I am safe when I travel to other places, and that the people I meet genuinely care about my well-being and will do what they can to help me. Sometimes, the help comes at such unexpected and urgent times that the memory can bring tears to my eyes even as I write this many years later. After a few situations like this, I started recording the random acts of kindness I’d received from the hands of strangers to remind me that people are good, and to remind me to share kindness with others. The first experience had the greatest impact on me, and I’ve given it more detail, but the others were no less appreciated.
1. Spiez/Faulensee, Switzerland 2004 After finishing my semester as an exchange student in Vienna, I traveled around Europe by myself for two months. I was excited about my independence, but I had no idea how lonely it would be. I started my journey in Italy with my Italian exchange student’s family, and then made my way north to Switzerland. I was staying in an empty hostel in a small town, and the owner of the hotel only came by twice a day to see if anyone was there. Many shops were closed because it was a weekend and a holiday, and everything I ate came from a convenience store. There was no transportation, so I decided to walk to another town a couple of kilometers away. I’ve never been so lonely, and as I walked in complete solitude, the tears fell faster as the pain in my feet and the emptiness grew greater. I walked by houses, envying the families inside and hoping they’d open the door, see my standing there and invite me in. I sat quietly in an empty church until the attendant apologetically explained that they were closing the church down and I’d have to leave. He had to speak in High German, because I couldn’t understand the Swiss dialect. The next day I resolved would go better. I would rent a bicycle. I would go to Spiez, a closer town. The bicycle shop was closed, so I walked, instead. The city was livelier, and I walked by a church with a notice on the door saying that there would be a walk along the lake (a Wanderung) for anyone who wanted to come. I walked away three times and came back each time. I was lonely. I needed companionship. I went to the meeting place, where I was the youngest person in attendance by at least 40 years. The group was delighted that a young American wanted to walk with them. As I got to know them, they discovered that I was alone in the hotel, and Erwin and Emmi offered to let me stay with them for the night. We picked up my things, and I was shown a room in their house. A poster on the wall read, “Keinen Weg lässt uns Gott gehen, den er nicht selbst gegangen wäre, und auf dem er uns nicht vorausginge.”– Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (There is no path that God would have us travel that he has not already traveled, and even then we would walk before us.) Erwin prayed at the dinner table, and the dam broke, and there I was sobbing at the table of strangers, thanking God that a family had opened their doors to me when I so desperately needed it. That moment made me fully and completely believe in God, and I’ve never doubted God’s love since. Even now I look at my life as ‘before Switzerland, and after Switzerland.’ I still keep in touch with the group.
2. Florence, Italy 2009 I’d been sent a package from home, and because I wasn’t at the apartment to receive it, it had been sent to another location until I came to pick it up. Since I was leaving Florence in the next couple of days, it was important that I get it immediately. I was first told that I had to pick it up in a location outside the city. I went out there, became incredibly lost and had to give up my quest, and then a smiling old woman guided me back to the bus I’d need to get back to the city and gave me bus tickets. (Getting the package is a longer story. I was then directed to another post office. They didn’t have it. I had to leave Florence, and the landlady had to go pick it up herself and forward it on to me. Getting that package ended up costing me twice what it had cost to send it.)
3. Florence, Italy 2009 I was leaving Florence for good and was moving north to a smaller city near Milan. I got to the station an hour early, but it wasn’t until 15 minutes before my train left that I realized I had to take another train to a different station and then board there. I was already panicked, stressed, and in general had just had a really bad day with many transportation woes. I dashed for that other station, lugging 2 very heavy suitcases. I could see my train as it was pulling in, while I scrambled furiously up a staircase. A man saw my distress, grabbed my heavy bag, and loaded me safely on to the train. When I finally had a chance to sit down and catch my breath, I was weeping in gratitude.
4. Shenyang, China 2010 I traveled to Shenyang with two fellow teachers, and we set off for the Magic Slopes, which had rated very highly on the list of tourist attractions. We arrived after an hour-long cab ride to a rundown theme park, with the ‘magic’ slope being a flat bit of track that was nothing much to look at. Adventurers we were, so we explored and laughed about it, anyway. Getting home looked to be a problem—we were way out in the middle of nowhere. We decided to trek down the highway until an empty cab might pull up. A bus saw us from a distance, and drove over to us to pick us up. Anyone who’s lived in China knows that this never happens. That was the first act of kindness. The second was that I accidentally dropped my cell phone on the bus. I tried calling it from Rhian’s phone after we were in another cab driving away from the bus station. I knew it was gone for good. Amazingly, someone called back, and with our basic Chinese and the cabdriver’s help, we were made to understand that the bus would WAIT for us while we turned around and came back for it. This bus waited for us for half an hour. The next day, I got a phone call from a local reporter in Shenyang who had heard the story and wanted to write an article about it for the newspaper.
5. Shenyang, China 2010 Shenyang was voted the ‘friendliest city in China,’ and after the cell phone incident we were inclined to agree. The next day, Lizi, Rhian and I were on our way to Benxi to see the water caves. We got very lost when we were trying to find the bus that would take us there. We asked one man for help, and soon there was a crowd of men gathered around our map discussing our problem, and after they’d decided what was to be done, one of them led us to the correct bus and gave the driver instructions for us.
6. near Bangkok, Thailand 2011 I had a rough time in Bangkok. Nothing seemed to go right, and I felt that every interaction with someone resulted in them cheating me. I spent an entire day trying to see the floating markets outside the city. I was sold a ticket to the wrong city, and had to take another two hour bus ride to go to the correct city. The driver knew I’d never be able to find the connecting bus to the markets on my own, so he arranged for a woman getting off at my stop to wait with me and direct me to the right bus.