One thing that continually astonished us on this trip was just how many amazing, generous people we met throughout our travels. People we didn’t know, who owed us nothing, yet treated us with the kindness typically reserved for close friends and family. If some of them seem familiar, we’ve shared parts of a few of these before, but we thought they deserved their own special post.
These weren’t the only incredible people we ran into on our trip, just a few stories that stood out, and these kinds of experiences were some of the highlights of our trip. In a world where the media seems to spend every waking moment covering awful events, and the State Department has dire warnings about stepping foot into nearly every country outside the U.S., virtually our entire experience was a series of moving encounters with incredible people.
An Uber hero in Bangkok
After a rocky start in Bangkok, we spent a month reveling in the rest of Thailand, and also enjoyed an incredible two weeks in Laos. During that time, we accumulated a number of small items that we planned to mail home – a couple things from our memorable time at Elephant Nature Park, a package of dried Mekong riverweed (a specialty of Luang Prabang), and a few similar types of irreplaceable trinkets that we picked up during our first month in Asia.
We spent all night riding a train from the Laos-Thai border back to Bangkok, where we were to catch a bus to Cambodia in the morning. We leapt off the train at a run-down station on the outskirts of the city and requested an Uber to bring us to the bus station, still a little groggy from the ride. Our Uber driver, Nattawoot, arrived and navigated the appalling city traffic to arrive at the bus station an hour or so before we were due to depart.
Jenn looked around the inside of the car, looked at me and said, “where’s the souvenir bag?”
I immediately felt sick. I had forgotten to grab it off the luggage shelf. I knew the train terminated at the central station in Bangkok, and started frantically looking for a phone number. Our driver asked what was wrong and, after explaining, he said he doubted that we’d make it back for our international bus, so we’d have to decide which was more important. After some, um, intense discussion with Jenn, I told him the package was irreplaceable. He calmly asked for my train ticket and began dialing various numbers for the train station. After several minutes of wrong numbers, he finally reached someone and began speaking rapidly to them in Thai while driving towards the station. As he dodged tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and slow-moving busses, he peppered us with questions about the package color, dimensions and location, relaying them to the train station employee on the other end. At one point, we pulled up to the highway tollbooth and our driver began reaching into his pocket to pay the toll – our toll, on the ride he was giving us! I immediately flung some Baht at him, telling him there was no way I was going to let him incur expenses on our account.
We arrived at the train station and I dashed inside. After getting bounced around a couple offices, a man walked into the Station Master’s office with a small, neat package, attached to a detailed and lengthy note. Relief flooded over me; our driver’s call had been in time to catch the train, and we had our package back.
I raced back outside and our driver took off again, finding his way through the tangle of vehicles. Somehow, the traffic melted away and we cruised back to the bus station in plenty of time to catch our bus and continue our adventure. Despite going incredibly far above and beyond any reasonable expectation in coming to the aid of an absent-minded tourist, he tried to wave off my attempts to tip him, claiming he was simply happy to help out. Unbelievable. Thanks, Nattawoot!
‘I speak Khmer’
When we traveled to Kampot, Cambodia, we stayed in a rustic treehouse at an eco lodge several kilometers outside of the town center. Due to the somewhat remote location and muddy roads required to get there, the tuk-tuk ride was (relatively) pricey. We spent several days puttering around Kampot on a motorbike, then returned the bike in the town center, ultimately deciding to walk back to our accommodations to save on the tuk-tuk fare.
About a third of the way through the walk, we were trudging down a long, dirt road, when a local girl on a motorbike rode by very slowly, regarding us curiously. She came to a halt a dozen yards or so up the road and, as we came alongside the stopped motorbike, she gave us a big smile and gestured at the small empty area on the back of her seat. We laughed a little at the kind gesture and thanked her, but tried to pantomime that we were happy to walk and didn’t want to burden her by carrying two people and two backpacks. She shook her head, patted her seat, and gave us an even bigger smile (Cambodians seem to have universally gorgeous smiles). Charmed by the gesture, we clambered on, holding onto any protrusion available to keep balanced on the few inches of empty seat as the three of us bumped down the rutted-out road.
As we motored along, she would occasionally point at side roads or buildings, trying to understand where we were headed. A couple times, we attempted unsuccessfully to tell her the distance to our road in English numbers (all we could offer), but she quietly protested, “I speak Khmer!”
We finally arrived at our road, which we knew had the better part of a foot of mud on it (I had to help push out our stuck tuk-tuk earlier in the week). We tried to convince our kindhearted driver that she was going to get trapped, even looking up the word for “mud” in Khmer, but she insisted on proceeding down the road until she caught sight of the veritable swamp, when she slowly, doubtfully came to a halt. We quickly scrambled off, worried she might try to proceed, and thanked her effusively. Even then, she waited, making sure we were got safely around the watery roadblock before flashing one last striking smile, waving, and heading off.
Strangers in the rain
While walking around Saigon looking for a grocery store, I watched with some trepidation as a bank of black storm clouds rolled in. I took shelter under a bank awning, and was shortly joined by a rattling, smoking heap of a motorbike that appeared to have been built back in the 70s. A family of three hopped off the bike, the man wearing a tattered, camouflage poncho that looked like it might have come with the bike, and whose tears seemed to disqualify it from being called anything remotely close to “waterproof.” The woman was wearing a brand new, bright red poncho and she was consoling an upset toddler in a Spiderman helmet.
The little guy was having none of the comforting. He was wet, the rain was coming down in sheets, and when the lightning started, his unhappiness only increased. My Vietnamese consisted of only “hello” and “thank you,” but I figured superheroes are universal, so when he caught my eye for a moment, I pointed at his helmet and announced, “Spiderman!”
He immediately stopped crying. I have no idea what Vietnamese words he said to me, but after I had exhausted all of my Spiderman-related gestures (how many people have ever pantomimed web-slinging under a rain-soaked awning to amuse a Vietnamese toddler?), I pulled out a small-denomination Vietnamese Dong, wadded it up, and sent it sailing through the air towards him. We experimented with different ways of launching the tiny projectile, to his great amusement, until the rain finally eased up and I could head back, as Jenn would probably wonder where I had been for an hour. I stood up to set off into the light drizzle when the mother stopped me and in one motion, she pulled her new poncho off over her head and held it out to me.
I shook my head, and she quickly turned and demonstrated that she and her son could both fit under the tail end of her husband’s shredded raincoat. I almost cried, feeling completely overwhelmed by the gesture and trying to figure out how I could politely tell this woman that I didn’t need to take their only good poncho. Fortunately, the rain reduced to a mere trickle and, upon seeing that, she allowed me to depart… carrying with me only the memory of a family who owned nothing, yet offered me their only new raincoat because I was nice to their child for an hour.
No [rush] visa for you
One of our more critical tasks while in Hanoi was to get our Chinese visas so we could head up to Beijing. Since we hoped to also spend a few days Ha Long Bay (a few hours east of Vietnam’s capital), we planned on paying the small premium for expedited visa service. The embassy’s website indicated that the rush service would ensure the visas were back to us in 3 days, leaving us time plenty of time to pick them up before heading out on the boat.
We arrived at the embassy early, noted the expedited service listed on a placard outside the building, and stepped inside with our unwieldy stack of required and optional paperwork. We walked up to the window, passing everything through and telling the woman that we would like the expedited service.
“No expedited service. Regular service.”
“But… both the website and the list outside the building say we can get expedited service.”
“No expedited service. We do not offer.”
Having no choice, we accepted the regular service and eventually left the embassy uncertain as to what we’d do. Our pick-up date for our visas was during the time we were supposed to be floating through Ha Long Bay, but we had no weekdays between the boat trip and our train to China to collect the passports. We couldn’t push our train date back, because we needed the time in Beijing to then apply for our Russian visas. This was probably the only part of the trip where we had reduced flexibility, thanks to the scheduling of our Trans-Mongolian Railway tickets, and it looked like it might cause us to cancel our boat trip and completely miss Ha Long Bay.
When we got back to the hotel, I caught the attention of the hotel manager and asked him if there were any trustworthy courier services who we could pay to go collect our passports. He told us he didn’t know of any, but that he would be happy to do it himself. I was stunned – surely the manager of two hotels had more important things to do than spending what would inevitably be an hour or more traveling to the embassy and standing in line. I asked to pay for the service, but he flatly refused and said it was simply something he would like to do to make a customer happy.
He was as good as his word – going to pick up our visas on time, and his desk clerk messaged us the moment the visas were back at the hotel, giving us the peace of mind to know our passports were safe and allowing us to enjoy our ride through the bay. And in the end, our profuse thanks were all that Ben would accept as payment for the monumental (to us) chore.
The benevolent bus driver of Sarajevo
In our typical effort to avoid group tours, in Sarajevo we found the local bus route that would bring us to the Tunnel of Hope, the saving grace for a city under siege just a couple decades ago. We knew that the bus would be dropping us off a little way from the tunnel itself, and from what we read, there was no indication of which way to go. Armed with Google Maps and some written directions, we figured we’d eventually find the way.
Clearly the only non-locals on the city bus, we rode it to our stop on the outskirts of town and stood up to get off. The bus driver waved at us and, misunderstanding his intent, I smiled back, waved, and departed. A moment later, the driver threw the vehicle into park and dashed out of the front of the bus, waving frantically at us. I thought we might have done something wrong, but he ran up to us and questioned, “tune-null?” while gesturing in a giant circle with his arms. We nodded, affirming we were headed to the tunnel, and he started pointing out the turns we needed to take to get there. He then handed a small piece of paper to Jenn, on which he’d jotted down the next several bus departure times, ensuring that we knew where we were going and also that we wouldn’t have to wait for a bus when we returned. It was a tiny, kind gesture that took us completely off-guard, and made us fall even more in love with the soul of Sarajevo.
Stranded in Split
I frequently tried to ensure that failures of technology wouldn’t completely cripple us on this trip, but at the end of the day, we relied heavily on my cell phone to provide us with directions and communication, and sometimes we had limited options.
The minute we crossed the border into Croatia from Bosnia & Herzegovina, my phone’s coverage suddenly disappeared, leaving us with no signal. This wouldn’t have been a big problem, since I arranged a time and place to meet our AirBnB host, but our bus also ended up being nearly two hours late arriving. By the time we arrived, our host had left – presumably awaiting a message from me. As the darkness crept in, we found ourselves with no Wi-Fi, no cell phone signal, and no idea how to find our apartment or contact our host.
As I poked around the building, I showed the name of our host to a woman sitting outside her door. She shook her head, but went inside to get her husband, who spoke a bit of basic English, and went on to inform me that his wife was mostly blind. He didn’t know the name of my host, but instead of accepting my, “thank you, good night,” he jumped on the phone and called a friend who spoke better English. The gentleman’s wife then called a second friend, while he led me downstairs to the mailboxes to see if we could decipher which apartment I might be looking for. By the time we arrived back upstairs, a third friend was calling their phone back. While the husband took the call, his wife disappeared out the door, where she proceeded to bang on every neighbor’s door seeking additional help. The phone call seemed to be a lead, so he called his wife back in; they were clearly prepared to rouse the entire apartment building and all of their friends in seeking out help for a weary foreigner who just happened to walk by their door. Eventually, the phone rang yet again and, thanks to the unwavering efforts of a building full of compassionate strangers, a few minutes later I was being led down the walkway to our apartment, keys stashed under the doormat.