A smile can yield unexpected kindness

IMG_0498It was a beautiful sunny day in Vientiane, Laos. One of my travel buddies, Susan, and I decided to rent bicycles ($3/day) and explore the Mekong River shoreline bike path 3 blocks away. Most of the way we had the path to ourselves, but occasionally we’d come upon boy monks or other explorers. We carefully wove among the shoreline sidewalk restaurants until we came to the end of the paved path after an hour.

IMG_0487On the way home, we stopped at an outcropping overlooking the river. There we encountered a muscular, shirtless jogger — a thirtysomething Asian man — with a beautiful tattoo across his upper back. We smiled and waved as we glided past him, as we did everyone else we came upon. He smiled in return.

Near the end of our trip we paused to take pictures at the top of the long stairway that would take us from the edge of the river wall to the street level below. I decided it would be easiest to put my bike on the edge of the stairs where there was smooth edge and walk it down the slope. I was at the bottom before Susan descended.

When I turned to see how she was doing, the jogger had hoisted her bike on his shoulder and was jogging down the stairs. He made it look effortless.

We both thanked him for his kindness. I asked if he spoke English, he said a little. I asked if his tattoo was Maori. He said it was Japanese. I asked if he was Japanese and he said yes.

Conjuring up my college Japanese from decades ago, I said, “So desku ka? Honto?” (“Is that so? Really? — I was just making a little conversation as it wasn’t really a surprise that he was Japanese.). I pointed to the stairs and added “Muzukashii desu ne” (“That is difficult” — getting the bike down the stairs.) A huge grin covered his face and he chuckled as he seemed tickled that this Caucasian foreigner could speak any Japanese at all. “Arigato gozaimasu” I thanked him profusely. Luckily, he didn’t try to engage me further as I was about at the end of my vocabulary. We all smiled as we waved goodbye.

When I travel, I’m frequently surprised by the kindness and generosity of strangers. I’m amazed at how people will go out of their way to be helpful if you just make eye contact and smile. I’ve been to 44 countries and have never found one that didn’t have kind, helpful people.