The Way of Kindness: The Kindness of Dangers
I had struck up a conversation with Ernest when I sat next to him in my hotel lobby, waiting for my room to be cleaned so I could check in. Before I could ponder why he'd compare Vancouver to, say, Ciudad Juarez in Mexico or Cairo, he added, "Now China, there's a place I wanted to go. But Berta here" -- he nodded over to his wife -- "she put the eighty-six on that one."
Yep, that's right, I had stumbled upon a real life Berta and Ernest. We were far from Sesame Street, though -- especially if you asked Ernie, I mean, um, Ernest. I sighed and let Ernest, a "born and bred Virginian," change the subject.
I understood his fear. Traveling to the outside world can be a frightening ordeal. The angst of the unknown. The fear of the inability to communicate when you don't speak the language. The dread of having to sit through an evening of traditional folk dancing. I'm with Ernest on this. But if only he'd met some of these people he was afraid of, I'd thought.
I, too, get nervous when I'm going to a new place. Given my profession, I'm embarrassed to admit this, and hitherto I've kept it a secret, but the day before a big trip abroad (especially when it's to a place I've never been), I feel a dread in my stomach, a sudden emotional weight attached to me, dragging on my hardwood floors as I slump through my comfortable West Village apartment packing my bags. Once, while waiting to board a flight to Belarus for a magazine assignment, I kept reminding myself that I was headed to "Europe's last dictatorship," as it was branded, complete with the KGB and a strongman-leader-for-life who regularly jailed journalists. I reminded myself that I was going there to write an article on a tourist visa, not a journalist one, and therefore, I'd be doing it on the down-low, while the KGB would be shadowing me (I'd been told, true or not, that they regularly follow tourists) I stood at the gate at JFK as they called boarding, the emotional weight still dragging behind me, and nearly talked myself into walking away.
But I knew I had to get on that plane. For starters, it's my job. But, deeper than that, my own well-being was at stake. I'd mentally and emotionally wither if I stopped traveling regularly. I've been doing it for so long, I have a hard time imagining it not being a major aspect of my life. I can't fathom abandoning the mission I set out for myself when I was 20 years old and in Europe, during my first big trip abroad: to keep expanding my worldview and my mind by seeing new places and meeting new people around the planet. I am travel and travel is me.
I often remind myself that travel is not supposed to go well all the time. If it did, it would be dull and quotidian. Don't get me wrong: I'm not the Dalai Lama. I'm not happy in those times I'm leaning against my broken-down car on a highway outside of Rome, steam flowing heavenward from the hood, or when my flight is abruptly canceled in a small Vietnamese coastal town, stranding me with almost no money. After all, the great travel writer Paul Theroux once said, "Travel is glamorous only in retrospect."
And so in retrospect, the bad times on the road are the times when I've gained the most trust in humanity, when I've realized that people outside the United States (and, yes, within the U.S., too) are generally good people. They're not those we should fear. When people see another in need or distress, there's a universal truth that kicks in, no matter what culture, religion, government or skin color appears to divide us. If we stayed home and only learned about the world from the news, we'd have a lot of reasons to never cross a border again.
But when we travel those fears fade.
Take, for example, that time my Nha Trang–to–Saigon flight was abruptly canceled and I had to catch my flight home from Saigon 12 hours later. At the railway station a concessionaire and her dwarf sidekick pushed me through the long line to the ticket window and translated for me. And when they didn't get the answer they were looking for, they pulled me around to the back of the ticket office and demanded that I get on the next train. This time she was more convincing to the people in the back of the ticket office. I had a ticket. Of course, no matter how much altruism the woman was filled with, I knew part of her motivation was economic: She wanted me to buy some snacks from her stand. Which, of course, I did, in ample amounts. (Who knew that shrimp-flavored chips and dried durian tasted so, um, good?) We sat there together waiting for me to board the train and she told me about her life, how her husband had died of alcoholism and how she'd love it if I'd come back and marry her dwarf friend.
Our relationship was one of mutual interest. I wanted to get home -- one of the purest instincts in human nature -- and she needed to make money to feed herself and her family, a fundamental human need.
Maybe it was my instinctive curiosity that made me want to go to Belarus. While I was close to talking myself out of going, I did get on that flight to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and I'm glad I did. I had to change planes at the Moscow airport. The passport control line was long and slow, and I kept watching minutes tick and tick and tick until I had only a dangerously small window of time to get my flight. I finally got through and, on the curbside, frantically began asking people how to get to terminal B. I suddenly had a small cadre of aggressively mustached men and not-so-aggressively mustached babushkas trying to figure out how to get me to my next flight.
"Take autobus," screamed a ponytailed man in a vest, pointing to a bus that had just pulled up. It was a city bus and I drifted toward it thinking I was going to make my flight -- before realizing I had no rubles on me. I went to the door of the bus and made eye contact with a woman about my age who was just getting on. I steepled my hands together and asked -- nay, begged -- her to pay my fare. She did, and we talked the entire way to my stop, exchanging stories about our lives. I made my flight with a few minutes to spare.
I'll always be thankful to that mysterious and generous young woman. I hope her good karma has rewarded her in some way.
My survival didn't depend on catching my connecting flight in Moscow that day -- but, really, besides Edward Snowden, who wants to spend time in the Moscow airport? Not me.
More importantly, it taught me something: The experience shattered my impression of Russians as a people who lived in a lawless land and were cold and not wont to help strangers.
I could give a handful of other examples, but I think the point is clear: Traveling, especially in places your mind deems "unsafe," doesn't always make for the smoothest days of our lives; yet, unless you're traveling in, say, Afghanistan, we should let go of some of that fear. Let the notion evaporate that good travel always means safe, comfortable travel.
I'm not trying to preach here and suggest that everyone should welcome danger and disaster. Still, this goes for us all -- and not just the Ernests and Bertas of the world: Leaving Sesame Street and wandering into uncharted territory with an open heart and an open mind, letting the world help us when we need help, is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.
On my way back from Belarus I had to change planes again in Moscow. This time I took a taxi between terminals, one of the best $20 I'd ever spent. And because I had a couple of hours to kill, I did something I almost never do: I parked myself at a TGI Fridays in the terminal and ordered a salad. I hadn't eaten a vegetable in a week. I paid with my debit card and, quite jubilant that I'd had such a fun and journalistically prosperous time (i.e. didn't get arrested) in the capital, Minsk, I got on my JFK-bound flight and dozed off to sleep.
When I got home, there was a notification from my bank. Someone in Moscow had hacked into my debit card account and swiped every single cent. I had zero dollars. But I was home, a home I'd had to unglue myself from a week and a half earlier, and I was all the better for having done so.
So not all my stereotypes were washed away by spending time in the Moscow airport. As I had wished for the woman who paid my bus fare in Moscow, I hope the karma of the person who hacked into my back account comes back to "reward" them, as well.
I hope, at least, they used my money to travel.
David Farley is an eater, imbiber, traveler and writer. He's the author of "An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town" and co-editor of "Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories." His writing also appears in Travel and Leisure. Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, Slate.com and the travel sections of The New York Times and The Washington Post. He teaches travel writing at New York University and Gotham Writers' Workshop.