The Way of Kindness: As Natural as Daylight

Sunset over whitewashed village on volcanic rim of caldera.
We were going to sleep on the sidewalk, if we were going to sleep at all. It was that or the freeway median, and that seemed an even worse choice. I did not want to sleep on the sidewalk or the freeway median, but there were no hotels, there were no campgrounds, there was ... nothing. The town was little more than a crossroads, a few streets lined with white stucco houses. We had been dropped there hours -- or was it days; it felt like days -- before and could not catch a lift out.

And now, the sun was going down. Sunset ends a hitchhiker's day. Drivers want to see the goods. They want to see the battered cardboard sign -- ours said PATRAS -- and the backpacks with the unraveling seams. Drivers want to see your face. Once you've turned into a cut-out shadow, the day is over. There would be no rides and, to the dismay of my increasingly noisy stomach, no dinner.

We shouldered our packs and wandered off the arterial onto a quiet side street. There were no cars; there were no people. Every now and then we'd hear the whoosh of a truck flying past on the highway. In between, there was silence. No noise came from behind the high courtyard walls, no cars rolled past, no locals slowed down to eye the skinny backpackers seated on their bags on the sidewalk.

The promise of a night sleeping rough is nothing; I have done my share of trying to sleep on airport floors and rattling pickup truck beds on overnight drives. Once I slept in a hedge outside a Tel Aviv apartment building. It was not a good night's sleep, but the worst I suffered was mosquito bites and fatigue. Now, the worst that would happen would be a night on the sidewalk, no dinner, no sleep, no breakfast, until we got a lift out of this unnamed village.

We took turns walking in one direction, then another. One of us sat with the packs, the other would look for a corner store, a hotel, a commercial business of any kind. A park, a field that had not been mowed, any place with just a little bit of shelter. Everything was hidden behind high white walls and it was so quiet. A Sunday kind of quiet, when even the birds are still.

This story is small. There is no drama or danger in it. Two hitchhikers get stuck in a small Greek village and they are saved from a minor inconvenience by a stranger. There's little to it, but it has stayed with me like the glass snowflake paperweight from my high school boyfriend on my desk, or the beach stone there, too. And on the bookshelf, a boat that fits in the palm of my hand, sent from Alaska as payment for a ferry ticket that I was not going to use and refused to take money for. This story is a souvenir from the time when I hitchhiked to Greece to board a ship to Haifa, Israel, where bigger, more dramatic things happened. Many of my memories from that time have lost their polish, but this story remains, still valuable.

A man appeared on the sidewalk and beckoned to us to follow him. This communication took some time, as we had no common language. He led us through a gate and showed us the little bedroom in a space that had once been a stable, perhaps, or a shed. It was neat and there were calendar pictures decorating the white plastered walls. There was a four-poster bed with a lumpy horsehair mattress, some quilts. Everything was tired but clean. Across the courtyard, under some stairs, was a little water closet with a toilet, flushed with a red bucket that hung on the wall. We tried to give him money, but he refused. He asked us to wait, in the universal gesture of raising an index finger, and he returned a few minutes later with a brown paper bag holding some hard-boiled eggs, bread, olives and fruit. A bottle of water. And then he disappeared out the gate again, leaving us in the silence of the courtyard and bedroom, the sky darkening.

At the time I thought nothing of this hospitality, but the years have made it more mysterious. I have tried to imagine myself in this man's position, feeding and housing completely random strangers who have washed up on the sidewalk outside my house. Maybe he was a priest or maybe he was an angel, or maybe he could read us. The backpacks, the cardboard sign, he had seen this before and this is what he did. He collected and fed strays for just a night -- it could never be more than one night -- there was no other reason for strangers to stay there.

I could not find this town on a map; I could not retrace the route we traveled. I have no photographs of the place we stayed. I'm angry with the me that lives in the shoebox of my memory for not realizing at the time how generous and trusting this stranger was to open the gates, to give us a bed and a perfect traveler's meal. All I have by way of gratitude is this little story, some words about being still in a Greek village, feeling safe and cared for, as though good fortune came to me as naturally as daylight.

Very early the next morning we shut the gate behind us, headed back out to the highway, and caught a ride almost immediately. Probably with yet another truck driver, smiling, talkative in the way of those who think a language barrier is no obstacle, bouzouki music blazing at full volume. We probably shared cigarettes and tried to answer questions in sign language, and eventually, we reached our destination, forgetting that reaching it had ever been in doubt.

Pam Mandel has written for Conde Nast Traveler Online, Gadling, Afar, World Hum, WGBH (Boston's Public Radio Station), Lonely Planet, MSNBC, Thomas Cook, and other outlets. But she's a blogger first and has been writing about her travels at Nerd's Eye View since 1996. She lives in Seattle, Washington.
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