Every unfamiliar place is teeming with strangers and and you walk into each being one. In each encounter, there is a certain wariness. Perhaps an instinct for self-preservation or possibly a result of “don’t talk to strangers” advice heard and heeded countless times during childhood.
I have not really put much thought about the nuances of strangers or what being one entails. But my most umpiring trip taught me that there is more to them than just people trying to keep their distance for reasons of their own.
I traveled to Guangzhou last July to umpire for a rowing event. But miscommunication, bad weather, and delays in visa processing resulted to some major changes in my travel itinerary. Instead of flying straight to Guangzhou, I ended up traveling by plane to Hong Kong followed by a bus ride to the said Guangdong capital. I initially wanted to travel by train but I found out that I would not be able to arrive in Hong Kong in time for the last trip.
I left Manila confident that I had things covered. This despite the fact that I did not get any reply on my last email to the organizing committee informing them of my new travel plans. Little did I know that I would learn one lesson I will never forget. Assumptions do have an uncanny way of being proven wrong.
The trip was smooth up until I boarded the bus to Guangzhou. I had no idea that the bus leaving from Hong Kong airport would not be the same one that would bring us to the mainland. That all of us in there would transfer to another bus at the border. But the most worrying discovery of all for me came while we were already in the heart of Guangzhou.
One assumption immediately proven wrong was that I would be getting off at a bus station and meet my contact there. It was only when there were only a few of us left on the bus that I began to wonder if there was one. I tried to ask both the driver and conductor but nothing came out of it because they could not speak English and none of the passengers left could either.
To cut the long story short, I was the last passenger off at past midnight in an unfamiliar city with no cellphone roaming service that I could access to call my contact. I can still vividly remember the dark rotunda where I stood with my luggage, stumped and feeling helpless.
I decided to take a cab to the venue, wherever that may be. I thought that decision already solved my problem when, unfortunately, another glitch came up. Not one of the three taxi drivers I managed to find can understand me nor I them. This was something I did not anticipate. I was hoping they would at least get the idea once I mention the address.
It was on this part of my adventure that I met Stranger #1. And this is where the encounters with the Three Strangers began:
She was a taxi driver with curly hair. She could not understand a word of what I was saying then but unlike the previous drivers I talked with, she stayed. She stayed and found a way to help me.
The first thing Stranger #1 did was to bring me to a building where people are lounging at the lobby. She then approached two people who, fortunately, turned out could speak a bit of English. I learned that she asked them to help her figure out where I wanted to go and to let me borrow a phone so I could make a call.
It turned out that nobody seems to know where the Guangdong International Rowing Center was and there was no one picking up when I called the number my contact gave me. I noticed that the lady driver was hesitant to leave me. I thought maybe she sensed my growing distress or sympathized with a fellow woman who was lost and alone in an unfamiliar place.
A few hand gestures after, we agreed that she would instead bring me to the airport. I decided to stay there instead of sleeping in a hotel because I wanted the comforting feeling of being around strangers who I could talk to. I was hoping there would be some English-speaking travelers at the airport that could help me.
Stranger #1 brought me to the airport but did not leave me as soon as I got off. Instead, she helped me with my luggage and located the information office as well as the nearest restroom that I could use. She made sure I was relatively okay before she left.
I watched her walk away thinking how lucky I was to meet her and feeling a bit sad because I did not even know her name.
I met Stranger #2 while wandering, lost yet again, at the train station on my last day in Guangzhou. Thankfully, I was not alone since one of my co-umpires decided to take a train to Hong Kong and play tourist before going home to India.
We figured we were dropped off by the organizing committee driver at the wrong entrance to the station. As we were both trying to find out how to get to the right entrance, a young man suddenly approached us and told us in not so many words that he would lead us there. We were surprised that he even had the tokens to pay for our entrance already.
Like Stranger #1, #2 made sure we were right where we needed to be before leaving us. Once again, a kind stranger helped without being asked. He walked away without accepting the payment for the tokens, offering only a shy smile and a friendly wave.
He was standing waiting for the same bus that I would be boarding from the Hong Kong rail station to the airport. I did not have the exact change for the bus fare and the driver said he would not be giving one for my HKD100.
Stranger #3 suddenly handed me a HKD50 then immediately proceeded to the upper deck leaving me surprised and grateful for the help. I told myself I have to pay him back as soon as we get to the airport. But when I caught up with him inside, he did not want to accept the money and instead told me, “Just enjoy your trip.”
Three strangers. Three acts of kindness that touched my heart. Three reasons that changed the way I think about strangers.
Each of us is a stranger at some point. And we will continue to be each time we leave our comfort zones, explore unfamiliar places, and embrace new experiences. What my three strangers taught me was that we could go on with our lives sticking to the “don’t talk to strangers” routine or we could choose to reach out and touch other people’s lives in even the simplest ways.