Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The kindness of strangers

Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

I am sure all of us have experienced kindness in one way or other, and when it comes from a total stranger, it is never easily forgotten. Have you ever found yourself in a vulnerable situation only to be helped by someone you've never met before?   That someone who could have walked past, but chose not to... I have had some such incidents and wanted to share them.

This incident occurred 19 years ago (2001), a time when mobile phones or Google Maps weren't available for our rescue. It was the first day I landed in a new country on assignment, also marking my first solo trip outside of India (inside too). Typically, in such assignments, one is mostly on their own. Fortunately for me, my counterpart was kind enough to come and receive me at the airport, knowing it was my first trip alone. During the brief time that she was with me, she gave me an overview of the German train and bus systems as there were absolutely no signs in English in those days and I had no clue of German either.  Upon reaching my apartment, she advised me to rest and promised to pick me up after work for dinner, which she did. We went to an Indian restaurant, after which she also helped me select some essentials like milk, juice and some vegetarian food for my stay (labels were also in German which made it impossible for me to shop on my own). 
Unfortunately, dinner ran late and so after dinner she couldn't drop me back as it was time for her last bus. Instead, she got me the bus map to the place I was staying. The only catch was that after 8 PM, the buses wouldn't pass by the stop near my apartment but would take a detour after the previous stop. Based on the map, she instructed me to alight at the previous stop and walk in the direction the bus had taken for 10 mins to reach  my original stop.
I boarded the bus and got off at the designated stop, then began walking in the direction the bus went. Little did I know at that time that the bus had made the right turn first before stopping. According to the map, the stop was on the main road, with the right turn occurring after the stop and that is why she instructed me to walk in that direction. It was now 10.30 PM, and the night was growing colder. I didn't have any warm clothing as it wasn't very cold when we started, and also was carrying some 5-6 kg of groceries that I had bought for my stay. 
It was all fine as it was expected to be only a short 5-10 min walk to the apartment. But I walked, walked and walked and the familiar stop was no where to be seen. There were no pedestrians to ask for directions, and even if there were, I didn't speak the language. I had grabbed 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 houses were dark, and there were hardly any vehicles on the road. Eventually, I saw a car and stopped it, and asked for directions showing the business card to the driver. He was an old man and was kind enough to search it on a map(physical) and told me it is somewhere near but could not give me exact directions. I continued my roaming, and by then it was 1.30 AM, and I had been walking in that road for three hours. It was the start of winter and the temperature was - 4 °C and my hands were swollen from the weight of my groceries . 
As a last try, I began walking in the opposite direction, and probably reached the main road. I guess I traversed back and forth many more times in desperation and suddenly I saw a couple sitting on the sidewalk, smoking. I did fear they might be doing drugs, considering the odd timing, but I had no other  option other than approaching 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 recognized the location. 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.
Before I could fully comprehend the situation and express my gratitude, he vanished, much like the same way they had appeared in the middle of the street! I never learned their identities or names, but without their help, I don't know what I would have done in that cold night in an unfamiliar place, without any means of communication.

Another incident occurred 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. Thus, I had to return, and thankfully, the officer at the boarder allowed me entry when I showed the FIR and the xerox copies of the documents (which I had carried with me thankfully). That was the first act of kindness in that whole process, perhaps because Rome is notorious for theft, and they have encountered many such cases. However, the real test was yet to come.
I called the embassy and explained my situation, but the officer scolded me for returning to Germany. His argument was that if I had lost the passport in Rome, I needed to reapply it from there, and he couldn't help. Finally, after much pleading he asked for details of passport and place of issue. When he realized I was from Kerala , he was happy to help and even offered me accommodation in his house, understanding that it would be difficult for me to reach there on time for the appointment if I tried to take the train the same day.  
The Indian consulate in Germany was in Bonn at 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 previous day and stayed with her , and could reach the embassy at the appointed time in the morning. 
The embassy officer also raised objections due to the different countries involved, but Mathew sir (the earlier officer I spoke to on the phone) convinced him, and he agreed to issue my emergency certificate. The catch was that the distribution of documents started 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 minutes connection interval in the middle of the night, which was almost impossible without knowing how to read the directions written in German.  I wondered what to do as my return flight to India was in 2 days, or even that had to be postponed.
 At that moment, 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, having  driven down to Bonn in their 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 as 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 off at my apartment in Munich. Even today, I think about them with so much gratitude. I tried to search for them on Google to get in touch  again, but no luck yet 😔

Another incident happened to my father in my hometown. He loved going out and would often go to town multiple times in a day. So for sure many people recognized him by face. One day, he blacked out and fell in front of a shop. I guess it was the first time this had happened (later there were 3-4 similar incidents that might have been related to his brain tumor). Tracing someone in a town like Thrissur, especially if you don't know them directly—no name, no address, no phone number—was not an easy task. However, someone saw him and recognized that he lived in his friend's neighborhood. They called our neighbor's house and described him, prompting them to contact my mother. She immediately rushed there and took him to hospital. If that person hadn't taken the initiative to connect the dots and trace him to our neighborhood, I'm 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. They will restore our faith in the world and encourage us to carry it forward..

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