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A Stranger Among Us

14232647_1449881988372335_6502948759817740768_nFew Americans ever make it to Colombo, the main port of Sri Lanka and the hottest place I’ve ever been in my life.  Within ten minutes of setting foot on dry land I felt as if I was going to literally melt and disappear between the cracks in the sidewalks.

But the coastal heat serves to make escape from it that much more liberating.  Once you head up into the hills, the air turns deliciously cool and you find yourself in a sea of luminescent green, surrounded by resplendent tea plants stretching to the edges of the horizon.

The local bus, on which I had bought a ticket for one dollar (only to discover later that I’d overpaid by 500%), lumbered slowly up the mountainous roads, passed by everything with an engine while barely passing pedestrians and donkey carts itself.  After an hour and a half, we pulled over and everyone started filing out.

“Are we there?”  I asked another passenger.

“No,” he replied.  “We are stopping for tea.”

15 minutes later, the passengers slowly began wandering back.  No one was in a hurry.  We sat calmly on the bus a while longer before it started plugging back up into the hills.

My bus the next morning was scheduled to leave at 8:00.  While we sat waiting to depart, vendors selling snacks and knick knacks from boxes suspended around their necks climbed in through the front door, drifted down the aisle, and disappeared out the back. They reappeared moments later, an unending stream of local entrepreneurs hawking their wares.

Thinking that I must have misread the departure time, I asked the man beside me what time we were supposed to leave.

“8:00,” he replied.

I showed him my watch, which read 8:10.

“That is wrong,” he declared.  After another ten minutes, the bus finally began to move.

image-slider-2I got off the bus in Nuwara Eliya, where I boarded a train.  My plan was to visit a place called “World’s End,” the famous overlook atop a 4000 foot sheer cliff in the Horton Plains National Park.  What I didn’t plan was the effort it would take to get there.

When I stepped off the train I found myself quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  I was standing at the intersection of the train tracks and a single-lane asphalt road.  On one side of the tracks was a fruit stand, seemingly unoccupied. On the other, a large sign pointed into the mountains and proclaimed:

7 MILES TO THE FARR INN
THIS WAY TO WORLD’S END

Apparently, the end of the world was farther away than I’d anticipated.

With no real option, I headed up the steep road.  The hike wasn’t bad, I began to feel the early warning signs of the intestinal malady that afflicts so many westerners in the Third World.  With no facilities along the way and a very long row to hoe, my prospects for the afternoon were growing decidedly grim.

Before desperation set in, I was overtaken by one of the locals, a young man brimming over with friendliness.  What was my name?  Where was I going?  Why did I want to go such a long way to such an expensive place?  Why didn’t I come stay with him?

It was 1981, two years before the Tamil separatists brought violence and terror to the serendipitous island, and long before “war on terror” was part of the lexicon of world politics.  There was nothing suspicious about the invitation and, given my worsening condition, any alternative to my original plan was a Godsend.

srilanka_tea_plantationsI wasn’t prepared for what I found.  Raj lived in what anyone from America would call a hovel, a concrete shell with a corrugated aluminum roof and a curtain for a door.  He and two other tea plantation workers shared the tiny space, furnished with three beds, a small table, and one chair.  The mattresses were burlap sacks filled with who-knew-what.  There was no electricity, and there was no plumbing.

Raj gave me his bed, then disappeared for a while before reappearing with a large plate piled high with local cuisine.  It looked like more food than he probably ate in a week, and it was all meant for me.

His English was rudimentary, so conversation was limited.  His housemates beamed at me, and small children arrived to look upon the curiosity of a stranger from a strange land.  I guessed that little changed in their lives from one day to the next.  I made them paper airplanes as gifts.

I don’t know where my host slept that night, whether curled up on the floor or sharing a mattress.  But from the first moment we met until the next morning when I went on my way, he never stopped smiling, unable to contain his pleasure at having the opportunity to invite a guest into his home and share whatever was his.

I never did make it to World’s End.  But I did end up someplace better.

King Solomon tells us that, “The benevolent soul will be made rich, and the one who refreshes will himself be refreshed.”

RandomActsKindness_257_171_s_c1From the time we’re old enough to understand, our parents and teachers tell us that it’s better to give than to receive.  But I discovered something even better that evening:  the pleasure of giving someone else the opportunity to give.  It was a real education, seeing his face filled with joy — the joy of a simple laborer, apparently content with his humble existence, elated that he had found another human being whose lot he could improve.

On the way back down from the hills, I passed a wizened old woman standing on the stoop of her modest little house.  Our eyes met.  I smiled at her, and she smiled at me.  “Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning,” she said.  “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”

“Thank you,” I replied, and stepped into her home.

We sat at the table, she and I and her granddaughter, I supposed.  I sipped my tea and we said nothing, since there was little to say and little way to say it.  After a few minutes I finished, stood up, thanked her, and went on my way.

Three decades later these memories have barely faded.  Without much common language, we connected in a way more enduring than if we had talked long into the night, a connection built upon a foundation of kindness, strengthened by mutual respect and caring, and sealed by the relentless exchange of smiles.

It’s sad that we often fear to make that connection – because of race, because of politics, because of social status or, simply, because we’re too wrapped up in ourselves. The smallest act of kindness can build bridges across a continent.  And a smile can span the universe – if we simply set it free.

And once we do, there’s no telling what might happen next.

Published in the September issue of The Wagon Magazine.

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