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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8/21/2015 09:37:03 am
I loved this story!! Like you, I have experienced kindness all over the world. I have lost my billfold on two occasions, once in a blizzard in Chicago and once in O'Hare airport. In both cases, My billfold was returned to me within minutes. I can't tell you how many times young people (I am 70) in Paris have given up their seat on the Metro so I could sit down. People are kind!
8/21/2015 07:31:35 pm
You prove my point so well, Duane! Of course, there are exceptions, but people so often surprise us in such positive ways. Thanks for your comments.
8/21/2015 11:08:09 am
I really appreciate your writing something positive and inspiring about humanity. I get so tired of and jaded by the negative press. By the way, you are a very good writer! Tanks for doing this and I do hope to meet you in Seville in Sept. Best, Jodee
8/21/2015 07:33:38 pm
Thanks for your kind words, Jodee. I read that negative press always gets more attention, even from people like us who want to look on the bright side. So I thought it would be fun to write something positive! I do hope we can connect when you're in Seville next month. Hasta luego.
8/21/2015 12:15:50 pm
This blog was a bona fide pick me up (just like tiramisu!). I haven't lost anything (yet), but I've been helped thousands of times throughout my travels. I have concluded that most people in the world are kind and, the majority of those people, are kinder than I've ever been, but hope to be.
8/21/2015 07:42:20 pm
It's heartening to hear you've been helped so often by strangers, Nancy. Rich and I have stories about so many people going out of their way to assist us. In fact, sometimes they go too far; there was one old Hungarian with a back brace who insisted on hauling my suitcase off a high train. I almost had a heart attack watching him wrestle my bag to the ground. But he was determined to help, and I was suitably grateful, both for his assistance and for the fact that he didn't, as far as I could tell, do any serious damage to his back. He was so proud of himself! A wonderful guy... Yes, they are out there!
8/22/2015 09:08:48 am
Lindsay, you and Ross probably know more than I do about the goodwill of strangers, living the nomad life that you do! Thanks for your kind words. And by the way, I just saw the photos of Everett's birthday party; that guy gets cuter by the day. Can't wait to see you all in Seville soon!
What a moving and inspiring post. :-) Yes, I too have found people much, much kinder than I ever imagined. Once in Florence I was lost and a lovely girl from Mexico who was planning on taking the bus changed her plans and took the train with me because she'd lived there for a year and knew exactly where to go. :-) Lovely. :-)
8/23/2015 07:02:51 pm
Krista, that's a wonderful story, thanks so much for sharing it wth us! It's a very literal example of someone going the extra mile. Lovely, indeed.
8/23/2015 10:13:43 am
When we were getting ready to board a train from Paris to Bordeaux, I looked at the overwhelming flight of stairs that I needed to traverse to get to our train. Both me and my travel companion have severe knee problems. A young French woman approached and although I did not understand her words, I understood her offer of carrying our luggage for us. What a beautiful experience.
8/23/2015 07:30:48 pm
Such a lovely story, Dawn! It's amazing how people can come out of nowhere just when you need them. You're so lucky to encounter someone like her. Thanks for sharing your story.
8/24/2015 03:15:49 am
The three of us are at the tail end of a road trip around Europe and are currently a few miles outside of Maastricht. Our first day here, we wanted to go by train into Maastricht city centre. The ticket machines at the railway station (no ticket office) wouldn't accept any of our cards, so a kind local bought our tickets for us with his card and we paid him in cash. Such kindness which meant we could still see Maastricht. And a very adventurous day that turned out to be! I've read your railway book while we've been away, too. Very inspiring and thought provoking. Loved it.
8/24/2015 08:35:42 am
Wow, Polly, what a Good Samaritan that local was! A great example of the unexpected and extraordinary generosity people show us. Thanks for sharing that story.
Terry Galvin Matthews
8/24/2015 08:39:38 am
I hiked and biked El Camino de Santiago from Lisbon. I had three flat tires. Three strangers immediately changed them. None would accept money in thanks.
8/24/2015 11:18:13 am
Now that's what I'm talking about! A wonderful example. Thanks for sharing it, Terry!
12/14/2015 01:09:51 pm
Have just discovered your blog after recently reading your book, Dancing in the Fountain (and immediately downloading your a Railroad book--it does pay to put those teasers for another book at the end of a book 😊). Wanted to comment on kindness. We too have experienced much kindness during our travels. Two recent incidents happened in Toulon, France. We were on a 28 day cruise--I know not the most out there or adventurous type of travel--but our first in the Mediterranean and our longest cruise yet and just our second trip of this length, since retiring just a few years ago. Anyway, we do consider ourselves way more adventurous and willing to seek out real experiences than the majority of people we meet on cruise ships (which can be quite economical ways to travel to a variety of great locations). We don't generally take the listed ship excursions but like to plan our own adventures both because it can be WAY less expensive AND because we feel like we can get more interesting and personal experiences. Back to the example of kindness...at this particular stop, which was right in the middle of the 4 week trip we had decided to find a local laundromat and do a bulk washing of our heavier clothes, vs the every few days of washing out undies in the sink. So as we were looking at the directions we'd collected in advance (and must have been looking more lost than we realized) a nice couple, who were actually Americans, but were familiar with the town as their traveled there often to visit family, insisted on helping us find a laundromat that was closer than the one we had researched in advance. They even took out their phones and looked up directions. Sure we could have eventually found the one we'd looked up on Google in advance, but our goal was as much to have a local experience as to get out clothes washed. So we set off to find the one they suggested. The other act of kindness was once we arrived at the tiny little 'hole in the wall' laundry, at first there was no one else there but U.S. And as we were trying to figure out the instructions with our very rusty and minimal high school and Freshman collage French (I already mentioned that we recently retired) a little old lady (we're in our early 60's) came in and right away started to show us what we needed to do. With charades and gestures she helped us figure it out and we were quite grateful. Although she really did not want me to put the 'laundry washing sheet' that we bought in the states into the washing machine. I tried had to 'tell' her it was soap, but not sure she understood. Turns out the washing machines there weigh your clothes and charged for the load according to how heavy the clothes were! Anyway we got the job done and it was thanks in large part to the help of these strangers. This is typical of what we have found everywhere. Of course it helps to remember to be that kind of traveler yourself. On this same trip on our tour of Pompeii, my husband was one of several men who assisted another man in manuvering his wife who was in a wheelchair (even carrying down several flights of stairs--not Pompeii is not handicap friendly). Another time we made wonderful life time friends with a couple from Canada that we met in Melbourne Australia after we helped them with directions and shared an extra sweater. Kindness is out there and it seems the more you put it out there the more it comes back to you.
3/1/2016 02:58:02 pm
I am very glad to see your blog. It is very good to see that kindness is still remaining in the world... It is a good post to inspire people about kindness. I am very inspired with your positive thinking and I am so excited to share this post with my friends and family.
3/1/2016 04:15:03 pm
I am so glad you enjoyed the blog post, Lovisa. I am always inspired by stories of kindness, generosity, and open-hearted decency. We hear so many negative things about the world, it's great to connect with the positive side as well!
3/3/2016 02:41:51 pm
It is not necessary to do kindness work in our relation but we have to expand our vision/thinking to work for others also. If any new person comes in your town then we must welcome with warm wishes.
3/4/2016 03:37:06 pm
You are so right, Josefin. We need to be the kind of people who welcome strangers and help them when they need it. Otherwise what kind of a world are we building?
12/5/2022 12:26:16 pm
I love the positive thinking and the positive post! it's so great to see positivity in this world. Yes there is a lot of focus on the negative, but it's so important to focus on the positives too!!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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