I picked up a book yesterday. It’s called The Kindness of Strangers. The book is a collection of travel stories. Each story is about an act of kindness travelers have experienced on the road. I had trouble focusing on the stories yesterday, because I kept flashing back to the random acts of kindness I experienced on my overland journey to India in 1971.
Random Acts of Kindness in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan
The first one occurred in a bus station in Ankara. I was sitting on a bench minding my own business when four soldiers surrounded me and started poking me with the muzzles of their rifles. They looked angry, but not enraged, so I was only moderately frightened. I didn’t know what to do to stop them, though, and nobody seemed willing to step in on my behalf. Finally, a uniformed officer who clearly outranked them called them off. He sat down next to me and told me I should get my hair cut and my beard shaved off. The soldiers and most Turkish people didn’t like hippies. If I looked more normal, things would go better for me in Turkey. He directed me to a barber shop, where I had my hair cut and my beard shaved. My problems in Turkey ended on that day.
When I got to Isfahan in Iran, I stumbled across a beautiful mosque. I was okay until I entered the center of the mosque. Apparently, non-believers weren’t welcome there and a group of men gathered together and gave me menacing looks. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. A man told me to cast my eyes to the floor and walk backwards out of the mosque. He would guide me out. He said a few words to the men and they backed off. When we got outside, he told me what I had done wrong. I told him how sorry I was.
“How could you know?” he said kindly. “Just be careful in the future. You can admire the mosques from outside, but you are not allowed inside some mosques in Iran.” In spite of the danger, I was glad I’d seen the inside of that mosque. It was magnificent. The walls were covered with tiles in detailed geometric patterns. They seemed to suggest the infinite intricacy of the universe: so finely balanced and worthy of reverence.
In Tehran, I accepted an offer of a ride to Herat from an English guy who had converted an ice cream truck into a camper van. Five of us made the trip to the border. We left early, but it was a ten hour drive, so it was late afternoon when we reached the border. We were determined to drive another five hours to Herat. The border guards tried to stop us. We would only be halfway there when it grew dark and would likely be stopped and killed by bandits. Dumb hippies that we were, we insisted on going. One of the armed border guards insisted on coming with us. We didn’t run across any bandits, but I’ll never forget that random act of kindness on the part of the border guard.
A Miraculous Random Act of Kindness in India
I finally arrived in India. It wasn’t what I expected. The poverty shocked me to my core and the sacred cities I visited seemed more like tourist traps than pilgrimage centers. Rishikesh was beautiful, but the main part of town was a cacophony of noise, with music blaring out of every temple. One morning I set out on foot to get away from the chaos. After walking about five miles, I came to a slender trail that followed a stream into a densely wooded gorge. A woman was bathing in the stream. She smiled and pointed upstream, so I continued walking. I came to a cave and saw a Shiva Lingam outside the cave under a rough canopy. A sadhu came out. He wore only a loincloth and his body was smeared with ash. His matted hair was so long, he had to carry it in his hand. I was surprised when he spoke to me in perfect British English. He tried to give me some good advice, but it wasn’t the kind of advice I was looking for and it took about ten years for me to realize how right he was.
Vrindavan was a like a tourist trap, too, but by then I wasn’t expecting much. I met Neem Karoli Baba there and he sent me to Nainital to meet Ram Dass. From there I traveled to Varanassi. I loved Varanassi, but started to feel sick there. One day I noticed my urine was dark brown and my feces white. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had hepatitis. Foolishly, I moved on to Calcutta instead of going back to Nainital or Vrindavan, where my new friends could help me out. I got robbed twice on the way to Calcutta. I went to the U.S. embassy in Calcutta to apply for a replacement passport and was told I had to wait three weeks for it and was rudely told not to come back until then. By then, even the smallest effort was exhausting. I didn’t trust my chances on the streets of Calcutta, so I decided to go back to Vrindavan and stay there until my passport arrived.
A young Indian man in the Howrah railway station asked me if I needed help. He could see I was ill and confused, but had a meeting to attend. He looked around and called another well-dressed Indian about our age over. He said he would be happy to help me find the ticket counter and stay with me until I got on the train. A dizzy spell overcame me and I asked him to buy my ticket for me. He took my money and disappeared when I rubbed my eyes in a vain attempt to get rid of the black spots that were swirling around in my field of vision. Here I was in the crowded, soot filled Howrah railway station with no money and no hope. I crumbled to the floor and put my head in my hands. I was sure I was going to die on the streets of Calcutta.
“Hello. Are you alright?”
I looked up. It was the first man I had met. I told him what happened.
“I’m not a religious man,” he said, “but when I got on my bus I got such a strong feeling you were in trouble, I made the driver stop and ran back here.”
He took me to his meeting and he and his friends chipped in the amount of money the other man had stolen from me. It lasted until the day my replacement passport arrived and I was able to replace the travelers checks that had also been stolen from me.
The random acts of kindness didn’t stop with that miraculous incident. When I went to Howrah railway station to go back to New Delhi, a man took me under his wing and shepherded me all the way to New Delhi. When we got there, he took me to a guesthouse where he knew the proprietor would look after me. I had a full length mirror in my little room. I saw myself for the first time in that mirror. My skin was a sickly yellow and I was so thin, all my ribs stuck out. My stomach was caved in and my pelvic bones jutted out. I was skin and bones and amazed I was still alive. I understood why they wouldn’t let me fly out of the country until I recovered. If I didn’t die on the plane, I’d probably freak the passengers out.
I remember all those random acts of kindness more than I remember the bad things that happened to me. The thefts were crimes of opportunity, but people had to go out of their way to help me with their random acts of kindness. I’m sure I would be dead if it hadn’t been for those kind people I met in India in 1971.