Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The kindness of strangers

Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay
I am sure all of us would have experienced kindness in one way or other and when it is from a total stranger, it is never easily forgotten. Ever been in such a vulnerable place only to be helped by someone you have never met before?  That someone who could have walked past, but chose not to... I have had some such incidents and thought of sharing it.

This is an incident that happened 19 years ago when mobile phones or google maps were not there for our rescue. It was the first day I landed in a new country on assignment. Also my first ever trip alone and outside India. Usually, for these assignments, you are mostly on your own. Thankfully for me, my counterpart was kind enough to come and receive me at the airport as she knew it was my first trip and I am travelling alone. In the short time that she was around, she gave me an overview of the German train and bus systems as there were absolutely no signs in English those days and I had no clue of German either. Once we reached my apartment, she told me to take rest and said she will pick me up after office for dinner which she did. We went to an Indian restaurant and she also helped me to pick some milk, juices and some vegetarian eatables for my stay. Unfortunately it got a bit late and so after dinner she didn't have time to drop me back as it was time for her last bus. So she got me the bus map to the place I was staying. Only catch was after 8 PM, the buses will not go via the stop next to the place I was staying and instead takes a detour after the previous stop. Based on the map, she told me to get down at the prev stop and walk in the direction the bus has taken for 10 mins and I should get to my original stop. I got in the bus and alighted at the designated stop and started walking in the direction the bus went. Little did I know at that time that the bus had taken the right turn first and then stopped. According to the map the stop was in the main road and the right turn was after the stop and that is why she told me to walk in the same direction. It was 10.30 PM and the night was getting colder. I didn't have any warm cloths as it wasn't very cold when we started and also had some 5-6 kg of load that I had picked for my entire stay from the grocery store. It was all fine as it was only a 5-10 min walk to the apartment. But I walked, walked and walked and the familiar stop was no where to be seen. There was no human in the road to ask (even if there were I didn't know the language).I had picked a business card of the apartment just before leaving for dinner. I saw a telephone booth and thought of calling the apartment but it needed a pre-paid card which I didn't have and even the operating instructions were in German. Most of the houses were dark and there were hardly any vehicles on the road. I then saw a car and stopped it and asked for directions showing the business card. It was an old man and he tried searching in the map(physical) and told me it is somewhere near but could not give me an exact direction. I again continued my roaming and by then it was 1.30 AM and I was walking in that road for 3 hours. It was the start of winter and the temperature was - 4 °C and my hands were swollen by the weight of my groceries. As a last try, I started walking in the opposite direction and probably reached the main road. I guess I went to and fro many more times in desperation and suddenly I saw a couple sitting in the sidewalk and smoking. I did fear they might be doing drugs considering the odd timing but I didn't have an option other than to approach them. In fact, I have no clue from where they came as I hadn't seen them in my earlier pacing. Probably from a pub or a party near by. Anyways, I showed them the business card without much hope but to my surprise the guy knew the place. He understood English but could not speak and so although he tried to explain me the direction I did not understand it and the desperation set in again. Realizing that he accompanied me and took me through a short cut to my apartment and before I could come back to my senses and thank him he disappeared, just the same way they appeared in the middle of the street ! I really don't know who he is or what his name was but without his help I don't know what I would have done in that cold night in an unknown place without any means of communication.

Another incident was when I was pick-pocketed in Rome and lost my passport and other valuables. Since my base was in Germany I couldn't stay back in Rome for the passport retrieval process. So I had to return and thankfully the officer at the boarder allowed me when I showed the FIR and the xerox copies of the documents (which I had carried with me thankfully). That was the first kindness in that whole process probably because Rome is notorious for the theft and they have seen many such cases. But the real test was yet to come. I called up the embassy and explained my situation but the officer was scolding me to have come back to Germany. His argument was if you have lost the passport in Rome, you need to take it from there and he cannot help. Finally, after much pleading he asked for details of passport and place of issue and such. When he realized, I am from Kerala he was happy to help and even offered that I can stay in his house as it will be difficult for me to get there on time if I tried to take the train the same day.  The Indian consulate in Germany was in Bonn that time which was around 600 km from Munich where I was staying and there were hardly any direct trains. Thankfully my friend was studying in Koln which was only 30 mins from Bonn. So I went the prev day and stayed with her and could reach the embassy at the appointed time in the morning. The embassy officer also raised the same objections of different country but Mathew sir (the earlier officer I talked on phone) convinced him and he agreed to issue my emergency certificate. Again the catch was the distribution of documents starts only at 4.30 PM and my direct train was at 3.30. If I missed that, I had to take a break journey with only 1 or 2 mins connection interval in the middle of the night which was almost impossible without knowing to read the directions written in German.  I was wondering what to do as I had my return flight to India in 2 days or even that had to be postponed. It was at that time a couple entered which I guess was mostly the last appointment of the day. What are the odds that they were also from Kerala and settled in Munich and had driven down to Bonn in own car and were returning the same day?  Mathew sir was talking to them and as soon as he found out these details he introduced me to them. There was no compulsion on Mathew sir to take care of me like he would of his own daughter and go to the extend of getting details from random people who has come to his office so that I can return safely. And even for that newly married couple, there was no need to agree to take a random stranger in their car all the way back to Munich.  The couple were Joseph and Olivia and they safely dropped me to my apartment in Munich and even today I think about them with so much gratitude. I did try to search for them in Google to get in touch with them again but no luck yet 😔

Another incident happened to my father in my hometown. He loved going out and used to go to town multiple times in a day. So for sure many people knew him by face. One day he blacked out and fell in front of a shop. I guess it was the first time it happened (there were 3-4 similar incidents that happened later which might have been the result of brain tumor). It was not so easy to trace someone in a town like Thrissur if you don't know them directly - no name, no address, no phone number. But someone saw him and recognized that he lives in his friend's neighborhood. He called our neighbor's house and described him and they contacted amma. She then rushed there and took him to hospital. If that person hadn't taken that pain to connect the dots and trace him to our neighborhood, not sure what would have happened to acchan that day.

Hopefully in this time of negativity all around us, these are some of the incidents that make our hearts grow, and remind us that the world isn't a scary place after-all. It will restore our faith in the world and encourage us to carry it forward..

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