Traveling and the Kindness of Strangers
I never forget the kindness of strangers. I was at the train station in Nice, France in the middle of night, shivering in the brisk night air. I was only 18 years old- a child really- and in tears because this particulat misadventure had left me with no place to stay that night in a strange city. Countless people passed me by without a word by before a teenage French-Algerian boy stopped and asked me what was wrong. He offered me a couch for the night in the flat he shared with his brother after listening to me blurt out my story through my sobs.
I considered his offer while I studied his face. My gut told me he was a good person. The brothers gave me a comfortable couch to sleep on in their flat and then helped find lodging the next day.
Almost a decade later, I was in Milan during the brisk springtime when the sun still sets early and brings with it a chilly wind that whistles through the corridors of its cobblestone streets. Trying to pinch pennies, I decided to use CouchSurf.com to find a place to stay for free. The guy hosting me was odd from the start, but when he added another couchsurfer unannounced to the flat and then suggested that we all should share a bed, I took my things and got out of there as quickly as possible. The other couchsurfer, a college student from Eastern Europe, followed me out of his apartment. She was near tears when she realized that her credit cards weren’t working in Italy and she had no way to get an alternative place to stay, much less get home. Been there.
I believe in passing on random acts of kindness. I gave her enough money to hold her over until her parent’s wire transfer came through. Then, I checked myself into a hotel and left my couchsurfing days back in college where they belonged.
A few weeks ago in Santiago de Cuba, I was trying to take the camion back to Havana to catch my flight back to Panama only to find out that the midnight bus had already left at 9 p.m. As the sun rose over the Santiago Bay and Cuba’s streets began to buzz with economic activity, I arrived at the terminal at 6 am to catch the first bus back to Havana the next day. The bus driver assured me that the bus would leave in no more than 30 minutes as he awaited a few more passengers…thirty minute turned to 8 hours. During that time, I flirted with the idea of taking the Via Azul, the tourist bus, that left on schedule throughout the day instead but I was $10 short of the $50 one-way ticket. Unable to use my American debit or credit cards in Cuba to take out more cash, I was down to my last 40 CUC for the next 2 days. And $10 in the local Cuban peso (Cuba has 2 separate currencies for locals v. tourists. The CUC is the tourist currency pegged on the dollar and the peso- CUP- is the local currency).
My financial constraints preoccupied my mind the entire 15-hour ride.
$10 for the camion. That leaves me with $30.
The casa particular in Havana is $25 a night…perhaps I should skip it and go straight to the airport. Nah, I need to rest my head, at least for a few hours. That will leave me with $5.
The taxi from the bus terminal is $5. That’s it. I’ll be left with $0.
I must’ve looked like I was infatuated with myself because every so often, I’d reach into my bra wear I’d put the last of my cash, just to make sure it was still there. I’d purchased a mystery meat sandwich with 2 CUP early on into the ride though the Cuban countryside. However, I hadn’t gotten off at any of the other rest stops since we left Santiago. Without saying a word, the Cuban man seated next to me returned from one of the many rest stops with a snack and handed it to me. I was touched by this random act of kindness and thanked him profusely.
When we arrived in Havana at 6 am the next day, I was dazed with fatigue. The casa particular, a Cuban household that offers room and board to travelers, had been expecting me the night before. I was unable to use my phone in Cuba and had no way to contact them to inform them of my very late departure. Because I had nowhere else to go, I took a taxi from the bus terminal to the casa in Old Havana and hoped that not only would someone be awake, but that they’d also have a bed to offer me.
The driver pulled up to an aging building basking in the warm glow of the street lights. The locked gate meant that I needed to call the number that Sergio, the owner, had provided me with. The cab driver called the number on his cell phone for me and a few minutes later, Sergio escorted me up to his family’s apartment and gave me a room to rest my travel-weary head. Sergio apologized profusely that for not having been expecting me anymore but I was simply grateful to sleep in a bed with the hum of the air conditionier lulling me to sleep.
I woke up a few hours later with the weight of my financial distress weighing heavily on me. To add insult to injury, I asked Sergio’s wife, Miriam, about the cost of a cab to the airport. She assured me that it was just $20- $20 more than I had at the moment.
I did know a few people in Havana so I used the house phone to first call my friend Justin. Unfortunately, there was no answer on his end. I then tried my friend Dash, but I got the operator message telling me that she was unable to accept calls at this time. I asked Miriam for assistance making the call and she told me that if Dash didn’t have phone credit, I couldn’t call her from a house phone. Her cellphone didn’t have minutes either, but she said I could at least text Dash from her phone.
I texted Dash about my predicament and waited by the phone for her to text back. Noticing my growing anxiety, Miriam asked me what was going on. Perhaps it was living in Latin America for the past few months where people speak more openly about topics that Americans find taboo such as money. Perhaps it was the fact that I was still too tired to string together eloquent euphemisms in Spanish. Whatever the reason, I blurted out the truth to Miriam before deciding to go for a walk around old Havana to ease my mind rather than wait beside her cellphone.
Two blocks from Sergio and Miriam’s house, the antiquated buildings that looked down proudly on weathered streets and playing children, as if unaware that their glory days were far behind them, transformed into the brightly restored Plaza Vieja. Plaza Vieja is a spacious plaza lined with colorfully updated buildings and charming cafés. It’s the poster-child for the Cuban government’s push to use tourist dollars to restore Old Havana’s neighborhoods one by one.
Lost in my thoughts, I navigated the restored blocks of Old Havana as well as the Cuban neighborhoods on the literal and figurative margins. One minute I’d be in my favorite perfumery, 1791, distracting myself with a discussion with the owner on a special blend I’d dreamt up after leaving the spice island of Zanzibar. The next minute I’d be sitting on a crooked old stoop chatting with an old Cuban man about the changing neighborhood. In one of these local neighborhoods, I remembered the few Cuban pesos I had left and stopped and asked a man eating takeout food where he’d purchased his lunch. He gave me direction to a local restaurant on the next street. Here I spent just 5 pesos on a meal of rice and chicken with a drink.
With the clock ticking, I headed back to my casa particular around 3 pm, ready to face the music. To my surprise, a weathered gentleman seated on the front porch greeted me, “Are you France,” he asked, “I’m here to take you to the airport.”
I assumed that Miriam had called a cab for me, a cab for which I had no idea how I’d pay. I told him I’d be right back down and went up to grab my suitcase and pray that Dash had texted me back. Upstairs, I made my way over to where Miriam and Sergio were sitting at the dining room table in order to pay them my stay. I reached out and handed my last $25 to Miriam resolutely when Sergio called me over to his side of the table.
“Your friend sent you a cab. Did you see him outside,” Sergio asked me while showing me Dash’s text. Dash, whom I'd first met online through various Facebook groups that we are a part of, Dash, who I'd only really met in person briefly a few days before when she helped me find my way to Santiago, had come to my rescue. Her message read: “I sent my neighbor to take you to the airport. Don’t worry about it, you can pay me back in Panama.”
I exhaled in relief before breaking out into a wide grin, but Sergio wasn’t finished, “My wife told me what’s going on with you. Why didn’t you tell me yourself? We could’ve helped you get a taxi.”
I looked away, embarrassed because I didn’t really have a good answer.
“Mira, it wouldn’t be right to make you pay for a full day when you only really slept here this morning. That’s not the kind of people we are. Just pay me $10 and promise to come back for a longer stay with us,” Sergio smiled at me with kindness in his eyes.
Instictively, I threw my hands around him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I was relieved, there was simply no other words for it.
I made my way to the airport thinking about the famous quote from Cesare Pavese. He was right, traveling really is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. It forces you to put all hubris aside and connect with new people at the most basic level. Many strangers have shown me unwarranted kindness during my travels. I can only hope to continue to pay it forward.