When American Jeff Greenwald went to Iran to photograph the solar eclipse in 1999, he didn’t seriously expect gunplay to erupt during the astrological event. True, Iran was a strict Islamic republic in the run-up to 9/11, but so far the Iranians had been helpful and hospitable, and aside from gaudy anti-American graffiti, the streets were relatively quiet.
On eclipse day, Jeff arrived alone at a large public square in Isfahan to discover a sea of families sitting on picnic blankets, lining up their snacks, cameras, and homemade pinhole viewers in anticipation of the free entertainment. Jeff spread out his blanket, lined up his own cameras and snacks, and settled down to wait.
Then the shouting and shooting started.
Jeff jumped up to see some of the local lads 50 yards away brandishing guns, firing blanks at the sky, and yelling. He couldn't make out their words, but when they pulled out an American flag and lit it on fire, he grasped the gist.
Silently, the local people around Jeff rose and edged in close, forming a protective circle. “One woman stood with her shoulder pressed to mine,” said Jeff, when I heard him tell this story at a writers’ conference last week. “A small boy, maybe eight years old, took these two fingers—” He held up the ring and little finger of his right hand. “—and stood holding them, looking around with an expression that said, ‘If they want to get to you, they’re going to have to go through me.’ An old man put his hand on my shoulder.” After a while the shooting stopped, the shouts dwindled away, and the last ashes of the American flag drifted into the darkening sky. The young men stowed their guns, then sat down on their picnic blankets to line up their snacks, cameras, and pinhole viewers. Everyone else sat back down, too, and got on with watching the eclipse.
“That moment changed me,” Jeff said. Three years later he co-founded Ethical Traveler, an organization exploring ways that travel can be a force for good in the world.
Reading the headlines, it’s easy to feel discouraged about humanity. But my own travel experiences – while not nearly as dramatic as Jeff’s – involve an astonishing amount of simple decency. A few years ago in Spain, my friend Teresa lost her wallet on the sidewalk. “It had everything in it,” she said, white-faced. “Passports, tickets, credit cards, cash…” Just then a smiling Spaniard appeared. “Is this yours?” He held out her bulging wallet. Everything was intact.
Think that’s an isolated incident? “Last night I left my wallet - with debit and credit cards, driver's license, social security card, 30 Euros and $60 USD cash - on the counter of a busy store here in the US when I went to buy some juice,” wrote travel blogger Wandering Earl a few days ago. “I realized it this morning, some 13 hours later. Just went back to the store and sure enough, they had it safe in a drawer, nothing missing at all. That now makes about 8 countries where I've left my wallet, laptop, camera or backpack in a shop or cafe and it was there the next day once I realized it. The world is definitely not waiting to steal your stuff when you travel. Or maybe just nobody wants my stuff.”
Still doubtful about human nature? Meet George Mahood and his pal Ben, who set off on a 1000-mile journey through Britain penniless and naked except for boxer shorts. “The idea of the penniless challenge,” George explained, “was founded on the belief that, as a nation, we have lost sight of the basic values of humanity and kinship… I wanted to prove this notion wrong.” And while plenty of people considered them daft (I can’t imagine why) they also gave George and Ben clothes, food, shelter, a couple of wonky bicycles, and plenty of encouragement.
“The world is safer than ever,” proclaimed a recent headline. “And here’s the data to prove that.” The statistics, about murder rates going down and the number of democratic nations going up, are heartening. But the most convincing evidence comes from our own journeys. Like the little boy at the Iranian eclipse, the honest Spaniard, and the Brits helping George and Ben, we all have opportunities to show the world the content of our character. Being human, we won’t always appear to advantage in these moments; would I have had the courage to stand between Jeff and those armed youths? I’ll never know. But life will always provide impromptu tests of my generosity of spirit, and I hope that at least some of the time, I’ll find a way to show chance-met foreigners that they, too, can still rely on the kindness of strangers.
In Vietnam, with a young nun who served as translator for the older woman, who wanted to meet me because she had lost touch with her son when he went to America, and talking with me was the closest thing she had to talking with him. I gave her my ball cap as a memento of the moment, and she kindly gave me her hat in return.
Have you ever given, or received, unexpected kindness while traveling? I'd love to hear your story.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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