I just finished reading this WSJ article written by a security expert Bruce Schneier. Mr. Schneier explains that strangers are very likely to help you in your time of need. There is one caveat, though: you need to choose them, not the other way around.
That got me thinking.
During my travels, I have encountered a fair share of scams and scammers. Nothing too dangerous or violent, mind you, but things happen. When we’re on vacation, we tend to be more relaxed, more drunk, more hell-bent on having a good time no matter what. We’re just not our careful and reasonable selves. A skilled pickpocket can seriously ruin your vacation, but a soft-spoken timeshare salesman can do even more damage: he can ruin your love for those pretty umbrella drinks. Why? Because a few of these drinks have just nudged you to put your signature under the contract you would’ve never otherwise signed. Shouldn’t have signed. Not in a million years! Not without doing your due diligence. Not without your lawyer. But you’re on vacation now, having the time of your life, so caution to the wind! What can go wrong, right?
That tourists are a “legitimate” target for all unsavory characters all over the world is not really big news. We look paler than the locals (well, at least I do where I mostly go); we walk around with these expensive cameras on our belts; and everyone knows we must have at least some cash in our pockets. Separating a tourist from his money is a game played passionately all over the world including our own backyards. So again, what’s amazing is not that bad things happen to tourists, but that they don’t happen all that often. What’s even more amazing—considering we rarely have a liberty of choosing the “right stranger”—is how most people go out of their way to help a tourist when they find us out of our element.
Consider this scenario.
You mistakenly get off the bus in the middle of Brazilian nowhere (the reason why I made this mistake is another story and quite embarrassing, too). In front of you, there is a busy highway, and behind you there is an uneven pathway cutting through something that looks like a barren waste-ground. So you’re standing there like an idiot with two heavy suitcases for a good 10-15 minutes, trying to hitch a ride. You know hitching a ride in rural Brazil might not be perfectly safe, but your safety concerns are moot, because no one’s stopping anyway. So you turn around and start rolling your suitcases down this pathway, although with the terrain, “rolling” is an overstatement. You’re going down that path for a good 15-20 minutes cursing and groaning, when you suddenly see someone walking toward you. At this point, you’re not scared, even though it’s getting dark and you should be; but you’re so miserable and exhausted that you just want a resolution or, well, whatever comes next.
What’s coming next is an 18-19 year old fellow. Having caught my drift in my lousy Porto-English, he grabs my suitcase—the heavier one—and leads me back to where he came from for what I believe is another 15 minutes of walk. He brings me to the central square of a pretty small town, and there is a small shop on that square where another stranger fires up his car and drives me to the bus station so I could continue on my journey. He then refuses to take my money (although at the end, he lets me compensate him for the gas), then he takes me to the booth so I can buy my ticket and on to the embarkation area. That wasn’t really necessary, but it was very touching. Now why would anyone have done that for a stranger? Not for the money, as we’ve just established beyond reasonable doubt.
Kindness of strangers, it is!
Considering how we, “rich tourists” are seeing ourselves as targets—as we should be, it is amazing how my good travel experiences have so far outweighed the bad ones with a ratio of at least 10 to 1.
- A Rio bus driver returned my “secret” money pouch that had slipped off my belt, down my leg, and I didn’t even feel it ( oh well…);
- A doorman at my Lima hotel handed me back the wallet that I’d dropped upon exiting the cab (more drunk, remember?);
- A perfect stranger fixed my car when it had stalled on the hills of Buzios (and refused to take money for it);
- A merchant lady at a Bangkok market expertly massaged my foot and actually made it much better after I tripped over a pothole and badly sprained my ankle (she refused to take the money, too, but allowed me to buy her trinkets).
There have been other small instances when the local folks would go out of their way to help me. I cherish these little human moments (but not the circumstances that lead up to themJ) no less than I cherish breathtaking vistas, great architecture and stretches of pristine white-sand beaches. Sometimes you can choose your “perfect” strangers. Other times you’re not that fortunate. Yet, in either case, you are more than likely to end up just fine.