Friday, 20 May 2011

The random act of kindness

The sun was shinning and the temperature was rising in the tranquil back lane of Chiang Mai. I woke up with a mild diarrhea and was feeling depleted. It was a traveling day - an 8-hour bus ride to a mountain town near the Burmese border.

To be on the safe side I had a (microwaved) croissant for breakfast rather than the usual Tom Yum or any other coconut milk concoctions. After packing and checking out, I hurled my 10kg backpack on my back and went in search of a tuk-tuk to take me to the bus station.

Minutes before the bus was to depart, I went to buy a bottle of water. As in most bus stations, everything was overpriced. So I walked further and finally found the cheap bottle I was looking for. It cost 5 bath but I only had 100 bath. The mother and son who ran the simple shop looked imploringly at me for smaller change but I had none. The son sent by his mother trudged through the flooded road to find someone who could change a 100 bath but came back empty-handed. I felt bad for causing them the trouble. The son told the mother who was cooking that he couldn't get change, then they said something to each other and then they gave me back my 100 bath with an apologetic look.

I understood. I was grateful that they went through the trouble for 5 bath and for a foreigner. As I put the note back into my wallet and started to walk away, they called out to me, urgently and pleadingly. I turned back wandering if I left something or did something wrong. But the son took the bottle of water and gave it to me. I looked at the son then at the mother, taking a while to register that they were giving it to me for free. I tried to protest but they insisted. The son holding the bottle with his outstretched arms nodding for me to take it. I looked them both in the eyes and said the most sincere and heartfelt "korp kun karp" (thank you in Thai) I could mustered.

In all my 7 years of travel, it never ceases to amaze me how generous people can be to stranger.

I remembered on a bus ride in Turkey, I met a family who invited me to their home in a village in the middle of nowhere. It was a small farm house where I slept in the kitchen floor. They were poor farmers but hey slaughtered the chicken, cooked some delicious dishes and made a feast for me. We chatted, albeit with some language difficulty, and I played with the children under the starry sky. There was no electricity and when the fire died, it was pitch black except for the little light that came from the moon. What prompted them to treat me, a stranger, with such kindness? There was no way I could repay them. I could not give them money for that would be rude, so I went to the small ration shop and bought them something and sweets for the kids.

Another time in Syria. A poor school teacher invited me and a friend to his humble home and in our honor his wife cooked for us and he went and bought a roast chicken. We ate while his wife and 5 children hid behind the curtain and watched us. I knew that it was an extravagant meal for this poor family and tried to leave as much of the chicken for the family, but the father wouldn't hear of it and kept putting pieces of chicken on our plates. With his basic English and our non-existent Arabic, we managed to chat. And I learnt about him and his family. He became a person to me rather than just a kind Arabic man I'd met in Syria. On that day, I'd also learnt that kindness is blind. It doesn't see creed nor nationality.

So with the bottle of water in my hand I walked back to the bus a little stunned still. When I sat down, I realized that my eyes were moist. I closed my eyes and said a prayer of thanks and asking god and the universe to bless this mother and son who had shown so much kindness to a stranger.

Although that didn't make my diarrhea go away nor gave me more energy, it did however make me feel good, really good. I guess there are people who don't measure everything with monetary gain or loss. That kindness itself is the greatest reward. And those of us, like me on this day, are at the receiving end of kindness, the best we could do is to pay it forward.

Mark Twain said that "kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see", I'll add on "it is also a language which the stranger feels welcomed and the lonely feels loved."

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