Guy was sitting on his terrace while his wife enjoyed a massage inside their bungalow. She certainly deserved the special treat: they’d been delayed in their travel to a six-week long holiday on Bantayan Island, a small unpretentious isle off the north coast of Cebu.
“We were in line at customs and then when we got to the counter, the person said, ‘Where’s your arrival card?’ and we had to get off the line after having stood there over an hour, fill up the card, and queue up again for another hour.”
That wasn’t the only test of their patience. “The airline lost or misplaced all our luggage,” he says, with a shake of his head, “and we had to stay an extra day on Mactan.”
The story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s where it begins.
At their hotel in Mactan, jetlagged and tired, Guy and his wife waited for their lost luggage to materialize. They waited a day and a half.
But while they waited on Chinese New Year day, sensibly beside the pool, because why not—he noticed a young child, from a Chinese family lounging beside the pool, get into the pool that had three levels of depth. The boy had gone into the deep end and was submerged.
After what seemed like a long time, Guy realized the boy’s family were not aware of what was happening to their child, and he quickly dived in. Guy lifted the boy out of the water and helped him clear his airways until the child spluttered and gulped huge breaths of air.
“That just put things into perspective,” he told me, “to understand that if I hadn’t seen that happening, maybe that family wouldn’t have had such a good New Year.”
He looks away, rubs his hair. “It’s not that I saved him, you know? It’s that all that delay in our travel – it put me in a place where I could do something for someone else.”
Guy’s story puts fresh perspective into the day to day effort it takes to traverse a new place, a place that doesn’t function perhaps like I’ve gotten used to, with trains on time to the second or the internet available at all times, and few last minute cancellations.
His story was also something I really needed today, after the past couple of days in Cebu City where desperation and poverty hit me like a sixteen wheeler.
I remember traveling to New Orleans from Bangkok, back when that was my base, for the purpose of seeing a friend take her final vows as a nun. My route was Bangkok to Narita to San Francisco to New Orleans.
The United flight was delayed in Bangkok due to technical issues. We sat on the tarmac for about 70 minutes, and that was enough to put the passengers transitioning to SFO in danger of missing their connecting flights.
Once at Narita, those of us heading to SFO were herded, walking fast through the underground of the airport, bare cement walls and piping featuring the hallways we walked, just so we could make it to the San Francisco flight. We made it, but it left late.
On that flight, I sat beside a kindly lady from Guam who was headed to SFO to visit her son. She had all this homemade food she had packed in Tupperware containers for the long flight. She and I had good conversations in between naps, and at the end of the flight, she pressed a container of rice cakes into my hands. I was going to refuse, as I don’t really like sweets (I know, I know), but in her culture it’s not polite to refuse kindness, so I accepted the rice cakes and put them in my backpack. Disembarking in SFO I said goodbye to the kind lady from Guam and rushed to find my gate to New Orleans.
Of course, I missed the flight to New Orleans. I had to line up at the United counter to get the delay vouchers for a hotel and meals and my new ticket for the next day.
The line of passengers waiting for their rerouting tickets was long, and behind me in the queue was a Japanese lady with two young children. The children were probably eight and six years old. They were patient for the first hour, but after that they started to get hungry. They cried to their mother, and she was increasingly stressed because she couldn’t leave them to get any food.
That’s when I remembered the rice cakes. I took them out of the backpack and told the woman she might want them for her children. She was surprised, and she accepted them. The children quieted after their meal. I silently thanked the lady from Guam for gifting them to me.
That night, I stayed at a hotel courtesy of United Airlines. I had a dinner of nachos with jalapenos and cheese and a sparkly Riesling from Napa, courtesy of United. Just after 2 in the morning, I was able on a redeye flight to New Orleans, barely able to make the list with a rapper’s convention going on in the Louisiana city. (Yes, I too did not know rappers had conventions until that day.)
When I boarded, I was reseated in first class with rappers and their partners. (Oh that upgrade was nice. Steaks and herbal butter for your warm dinner roll, at 30,000+ feet and real cutlery.)
And when I got to New Orleans it was still dark outside, and because of the rapper’s convention, they had run out of cabs.
I was tired, and I sat down on my luggage trying to think.
A man approached me a few moments later and said “I’ll figure something out.” I thanked him and he left me sitting on my bag.
About ten minutes later, he comes back and says, “We have a ride for you miss.” (I was miss then, not ‘ma’am’.)
I follow him outside the airport exit and there waiting on the curb is the biggest limousine on earth. “MY ride?” I remember asking.
The man chuckled and said, “Get in.”
I made it to my friend’s consecration mass and had a good time in New Orleans that summer.
Like Guy said, it was about being there for someone else. Yes, being bumped up to first class and getting to ride a limo to a convent was part of the adventure. But the delight I find in remembering the delay in the travel that day is the serendipity of accepting rice cakes from a woman on the plane, and being able to give those rice cakes to a family who needed them.
The kindness of strangers can surprise us in our travels. And, we might have the chance to be the kind stranger who ends up passing on the kindness we’ve received to someone else.
Not every delay in your itinerary will become an act of kindness, a milestone in a shared humanity you’ll remember long after the trip has ended. But perhaps, just perhaps, one day when you’re least likely expecting it, you’ll be the one chosen to pass it on.