The kindness of strangers

Few people could deny that travel broadens the mind.

But it can have a negative effect too.

I first left Europe when I was 18, to go to South Africa.

I was naive and trusting and I am still teased about the time I cheerily agreed to a tour of Cape Town’s townships, suggested by a local taxi driver.

Unfortunately, I was expecting to see something akin to the Cutty Sark… so you can imagine my shock when I saw all those people, living precariously in their homes made from flimsy cardboard boxes.

Afterwards my travel, unintentionally, focused on Asia – Thailand, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Japan, India – and there I learned to get tough.

I am still angry at the man who climbed into my tuk tuk in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital and pointed at a shopping centre I had already planned to visit, before demanding a tip for his assistance.

The same happened in temples, in the street and on buses.

The ‘help’ was unwanted but unless you wanted a long argument and a lot of grief, you had to be prepared to pay for it.

India (a country I adore) is the same.

Often people can be exceptionally friendly there, only to ensure you feel guilty enough to buy something, or perhaps too awkward to barter for the appropriate price.

I accepted all of these things but my experiences made me stern, cynical and wary of any unsolicited help.

That was the 27-year-old who landed in Quito, Ecuador on April 10 this year.

When little old Latino men pointed frantically at bus stops and ordered male passengers to quit their seats for me, the best they could expect was a frosty smile.

I never engaged in conversation. I was abrupt when strangers asked my country of origin.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realised I was a complete idiot.

But perhaps I can give you a few examples of the kindness of strangers in Ecuador.

When Anna and I flew to Quito from Galapagos, we were expecting Monika to collect us. She never arrived.

Jumping into a costly cab was a bad option, in case she appeared and our mobile phones weren’t working.

I asked an Ecuadorian waiter if we could use the telephone in the office of his cafe. He agreed but the phone only connected to landlines and Monika wasn’t answering.

The waiter then walked down the street with me to put credit on his own phone so I could call her mobile.

Tip not required.

Another time, Anna and I were stranded in a rainstorm in Tena, struggling to work out how to call the jungle lodge where we wanted to stay.

We weren’t even sure where it was.

Again, two Ecuadorian women in a cafe stepped in. One helped us negotiate the myriad of area codes while the other called a taxi driver relative to find out the lodge’s location.

No tip required.

Since then I have lost count of the amount of people who have helped me, particularly on buses (often guessing which touristy stop I want) and with directions in the street.

I laughed most on the overnight bus from Guayaquil.

Pippa and I decided the characters sitting around us were dodgy to say the least and we slept uneasily, attaching ourselves to our most treasured belongings.

In the morning, one of the most troubling young men tapped me gently on the shoulder … and pointed to my flip flop which had escaped towards the front of the bus.

A moment later he tapped on my shoulder again, smiling at the other shoe which had decided to flee to the back of the bus.

Of course there will be people in South America out to rob me, fleece me or ridicule me … but consider how many tight and tatty travellers pass through these parts.

We must be a nuisance sometimes.

Despite that, the people I have met have been unbelievably kind and welcoming and for that reason, I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt and shove that frosty smile where it belongs … at the bottom of my rucksac.

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