11 April 2014

Kindness of strangers moments that restored my faith in humanity

In my years of travel have been lucky enough to cross paths with truly kind people who either helped me in a moment of need or who had a gesture of kindness with me which made my trip particularly special. 

This post is dedicated to them and to the many people who make travelling around the world so rewarding and so encouraging and who remind me, frequently, that the human race is not as selfish as world news, global warming, wars and daily exposure to poverty and misery lead us to believe. 

The lady who lent me her car

The Marine park I was looking for
I was in American Samoa and there were no rental cars available. The entire island has a grand total of 80 available cars all of which had been snatched by attendees to a conference. Without cars most of the island's sights and points of interest are inaccessible as they are either part of a national park or marine reserve and not served by the public network of minivans. Also, I was there for a short period of time so public transportation would have severely limited my options - it takes ages to get from one place to the next and it involves several changes of van. 

I got a rental car only for the first day and as I was driving around I saw the sign for the Tourism Office and walked in to find a very eager lady who was very happy to hep out. In her sign-in booklet I could see that she had not seen a tourist in a few days, American Samoa only gets 25,000 visitors a year most of which don't make it to her office, so it would fall among the least visited places on Earth. A 20min flight away from Samoa, already a hard to reach country, it is not easy to get there. 

Taking up the views at the Western most part of the world

I wanted to get directions for a marine reserve where one could snorkel with lots of fish and dolphins (if lucky) in absolutely pristine waters and loneliness.
I had heart that there were no signs to it so getting there was impossible unless someone showed you. She tried to indicate "when you see the billboard with this, then turn right, then at the house with the green fence turn left..." but it was becoming apparent that it would prove difficult to get there and almost entirely left to luck. So all of a sudden she offered to tour the island with me, to show me around. I was happy to have some local company and very interested in getting to the reserve. 

Post tsunami tent made permanent home
She closed down shop and jumped into my 4x4 and we spent the afternoon sightseeing the parks and the towns and she also drove me to the Western most part of the island which had been swiped away completely by a tsunami in 2009. She painfully explained to me the devastation that followed suit. One can easily see the scars of such natural disaster everywhere; in the temporary military tents that were put up and still stand, on the houses completely destroyed by the waves, the upside down cars that are still just like the water left them, the memorials. Everywhere. 

There I was, sitting at the western most part of the world hearing the horror stories that mother nature had caused. It was a story that travel guides (the only available one is the LP for Samoa and Tonga and has little mention of this) do not tell and whose magnitude can only be understood through the local eyes.

The result of a tsunami

Her kindness did not end there. After unsuccessfully trying to cal all rental companies on the island and realising there was nothing she could do to help me she dropped me off at my hotel. The following morning, to my surprise, the door bell rang at 7am and there she stood with her son, on their way to school, and with the most generous offer I had ever received: would I want to use her car for the day? 

She had talked to her husband and he agreed to lend me their pick up truck so I could explore the rest of the country. I could return it whenever I would be done. 

Of course I wanted it! And she insisted no payment be made so I could only be sure to leave the tank full and invite her and her son for dinner. 

So that is how I managed to tour the country for another day. 

How did I return the car? I just had to go back to the Tourism Office whenever I was done

The minivan drivers in Sudan

Sudan's capital Khartoum has a few yellow taxis, extremely old cars with even holes on the floor through which one can see the road below. As bad as they sound, they are invaluable to move around seen as the public transportation is not really an option and nobody speaks English. 

One of many van trips
In my year and a half working there we used to have a driver provided by the client and even, at one point, drive our own car. But as Sudanese laws are not very friendly to foreigners that was not a sustainable option: should we have had an accident it would have been our fault no matter what purely because we were foreigners, if we hadn't been there the accident wouldn't have happened was the logic. And it was blood money and death penalty to kill someone on the road.

So how were Sudanese kind to us?

Several times the driver was not available, lost in combat or simply taking the client around and given our limited Arabic and his nonexistent English, trying to understand whether he was going to be 5min or 1h late was difficult so we found ourselves stranded many an evening in the office without a means to get back to the hotel.

Consultants as we were we quickly came up with alternatives stopping cars on the road to take us to the hotel. The fare was not pre-agreed and we were never too sure they would take us to the right place but there was always the certainty that a) we were not going to be robbed b) the driver had his best intentions and c) people would not run us over when standing in the middle of the road, white looking, wearing a suit, laptop in hand. Try to do this in the Western world and you are sure to a) not manage to stop anyone, drivers are either too scared you may have bad intentions or are too engrossed by modern life to actually take notice of other people b) Nobody will take you anywhere on their car outside of their route c) in those cases where fetching people around was an option, drivers would try to extort you knowing that they hold the bargaining power and can ask for any amount

So this was our mode of transportation for the entire time we were there whenever the driver was unavailable which happened at least once a week. Consistently, drivers stopped, listened to the name of the hotel, took a good look at us, drove us where we wanted to go and took whatever money we offered. Granted, for Sudanese standards our fare was not too shabby.

The guesthouse ladies in Samoa

My host
I was travelling around Samoa as part of my solo Pacific trip. I chose a guesthouse owned by a local Samoan woman who used to be married to a Scottish man because it seemed the homiest option and I was not disappointed.

But her kindness extended beyond just providing Guesthouse service. She not only drove me around and picked me up after dinner but her and the Italian Guesthouse Manager were awaiting for me to come back from a weekend in the neighbouring island of Savaii on my birthday with a handmade, hand picked lei and a birthday card.

I was touched. They had gone to the cousin's garden to pick up the fresh flowers and had hand waved the necklace for me. 

It was also a special birthday for me as it lasted for almost two full days. On the 14th August, my birthday, I spent it with the ladies in Samoa to then fly to American Samoa on the 15th and land, after the 20min flight, on the other side of the date line realising it was, again, 14th of August. I got to relive my birthday but, without the lei, it wasn't as special :)

During my solo trip in the Pacific I was blessed with lots of other moments of kindness. People inviting me to their tables for dinner, locals inviting me to their houses and generally everyone going out of their ways to make my trip better lending me a hand, picking me up or taking me places, letting me store my luggage, giving me tips or warnings.

To all those who, in the last 12 years have made my travels more genuine and more pleasant thank you for restoring faith in humanity.

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