One thousand little kindnesses

It’s headline news on the BBC when a British tourist, backpacker or student is killed in the Far East, Latin America or Africa. But the good news doesn’t get reported.

People warn me about backpacking in foreign countries, full of the fear that prevents them from going to far-off lands. They know that other countries are dangerous places because they’ve seen the evidence in full colour in their living rooms: the wars, the riots and the murders. And if that’s all I had ever seen, then I’d be scared too. If the only truth about a country was the sum total of its sensational news footage, then we would all be living in a hell on earth.

The reality, of course, is that most of the time life goes on in a fashion that’s not newsworthy. I know from travelling in more than 100 countries around the world that the reality is much more complex, mostly quite ordinary, and on the whole much more positive. I’m fascinated by differences in countries and cultures around the world, but I’m also struck by the similarities. Everywhere, people are going about their everyday lives, making a living, raising children and enjoying friendships.

One of my favourite travel quotes is from Aldous Huxley who wrote: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” So true! The reality doesn’t match the stereotype. Places are never quite as exotic as the photos in travel brochures would have us believe. Neither are the dangerous places half as hazardous as they tell us. The exotic can be found everywhere, if only we choose to look; and danger can occur anywhere, depending on how we behave.

The counterbalance to sensational news stories is the ordinary kindness of people. So far at least, my trips overseas haven’t resulted in tragic news headlines of a British guy killed in some far off land. I usually return having seen a thousand little kindnesses. Some of these were given to me as tiny everyday blessings.

In Cuba I didn’t have small change for a coffee so a woman on her way to work put a few small coins on the counter without any comment or fuss. Hitch hiking in Luxembourg, soaking wet after standing in the rain for hours, two women gave us a ride. In Mexico, a family gave me extravagant hospitality simply because I was a foreigner in their country. I could go on and on about acts of generosity, big and small, near and far. None of these were reported in the news, nor should they be. Thankfully, people helping each other is not such an unusual event. Nevertheless, these unreported encounters can be touching.

In Myanmar (Burma) I had taken the Yangon (Rangoon) Circular Railway and stopped off in a small town with a market. There are few tourists in Yangoon and rarely any at all in this particular town. I bought a watermelon and sat by the road eating it, enjoying its sweetness but making a sticky mess of my hands and chin. Locals walked by. Then I noticed an old lady who walked past and glanced at me. Then she crossed the road. A few minutes later she came to me with a small packet of paper tissues, gave them to me with a gesture in place of words, then walked off. I said thanks and put my hand in my pocket to give her some money, but she waved it away with a smile and went on her way. In the great scheme of things it was nothing major. It wasn’t reported on BBC news that evening. But it touched me. That’s just one of a thousand little kindnesses that have happened to me, one of millions that happen every day, everywhere.

These are the things that happen when you travel. These are the things I remember from other countries most fondly. But don’t expect to hear about them when you’re watching TV.

Copyright © David Parrish 2019.
First published 01 July 2019.

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“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Aldous Huxley

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