I know I have a tendency to tell the same stories over and over, so let me ensure you that you're not obligated to keep reading if you've heard some of these stories before :) However, I've found myself getting into variations of this same conversation three or four times over the last month, so it's something that's been on my mind a lot lately, and I figured that if I just tell it to EVERYONE who reads my blog, I'll have all my bases covered and I'll never have to tell it again :)In 2008, Zach and I spent six weeks or so wandering around Costa Rica and Nicaragua. When our plane landed in San Jose, we literally had made no plans other than our return ticket, so we asked a taxi driver at the airport to take us to a hostel he would recommend. As it turns out, we loved it, and decided to stay there again when we were on our way out of the country six weeks later. It had great old huge windows with multi-colored glass panes, they served us a full sit-down breakfast every morning, and the outside of the building was cotton-candy pink. It was all kinds of ideal. When we stayed there for the second time, we roomed next to another American woman who didn't speak a word of Spanish and was pretty sure she was getting screwed by the lovely people who ran our hostel. Well, to be fair... she was pretty sure she was getting screwed by everyone. Zach and I kept trying to reassure her that she WAS paying a fair price for her hostel room, that the taxi drivers were probably not going to drive her to a remote location and murder her, and that the prices marked on the labels at the local grocery store applied to everyone and were not just marked up for the white people.
This turned out to be something we talked about until all hours of the night. We looked back through several of our trips, and countless instances of strangers' goodness immediately came to mind. This has been an interesting lesson for me to learn - I'm one of those inherently paranoid, cautious people - but, especially after experiencing the stories I'll share below, I've become convinced that, while there are definitely a few criminals and con artists everywhere, the majority of people in any country in the world are kind and helpful people who feel protective of other human beings, and I want to celebrate that!
One of my favorite examples of this still chokes me up a little to think of it. Zach and I had been in Kangding, an amazing little Tibetan mountain town, for several weeks. We had hung out with our roomies at the hostel, a group of Tibetan medical students, every night and most of every day. They laughed at my attempts to learn traditional Tibetan yodeling on our rooftop; they took us to all the best secret local lunch spots; over beer and cigarettes late at night, we helped them practice their English and they helped me with my Mandarin. Our little group got so close in such a short time that they ended up officially giving us Tibetan names (a big honor) and asked us to give them English names. So, the whole time we were there, we had been living off of the cash we brought and had been charging our room and board to our tab at the hostel. We had noticed three or four banks with ATMs around town, so we weren't really concerned about withdrawing more cash, but then it came time to leave town. In a few panicky hours, we realized that, while we had plenty of money in the bank account, none of the ATMs were compatible with our bank card. We either had enough money to pay for our hostel bill for the last few weeks or buy our bus tickets back to the city - not both. We went to Han Wen, the hostel manager and our new friend, for ideas. Can we call someone? Can we wire money from an American bank to a Chinese bank to a Tibetan bank and withdraw cash? What do we DO in this situation?
Prayer flags at a flower festival at the nunnery in Tagong
Without hesitating, she smiled, and said, "Tashi Droma (me), Tashi Tendru (Zach) - you are my friends. Don't worry about your bill - here's my bank account number and access information. When you get to Chengdu, go to your bank and just transfer the money into my account. Take your time; get there safely!" We were astounded. I mean, we were pals and all, but Han Wen was just willing to give us foreigners access to her bank account? Our friends' kindness didn't end there - the day we were to leave, Lin Zi came with us to the bus station to help us with our bags. We turned to pay for the taxi, and she winked and said, "Too late, it's already been paid for."
Throughout our time in Nicaragua & Costa Rica, everyone always wanted to know where we were headed next. When we told our Costa Rican hostel manager that we were headed to Nicaragua, he was very concerned for our safety. "They're all criminals up there," he confided. "They're all poor and dirty and will steal things from you." Well, we made it to Ometepe Island in Nicaragua with no problems. On Ometepe, we when we told the wonderful people we stayed with that we were headed to San Juan del Sur, we were fussed over and told to be careful because it was so dangerous. In San Juan, everyone was wonderful, and told us to be very careful in Masaya. On the bus ride from Masaya out to the Corn Islands, we were befriended by a gangster-looking kid with sparkly diamond earrings, who told us to look out for the people in the Corn Islands, and offered to sit with us at the bus station if it would make us feel safer. Long story short... everyone was concerned about us and wanted to protect us. We NEVER ran into the "other people" - the "dangerous people" who were supposedly out to get us.
Now to be fair, you should DEFINITELY exercise caution and logic while traveling. Never display large wads of cash in public, never wander around in the middle of the night, never go home from the bar with a random local guy. Be suspicious of anyone who wants to know too much information about you right away. If something feels sketchy, there's a really good chance that it is. Keep your eyes open. Don't lose eye contact with your stuff. Especially in the really touristy areas, keep your hands in your pockets and don't be surprised if you pay way too much for trinkets or cab rides. But, you know, that's equally good advice to follow in Denver or LA, too.
I've learned that most people are not out to take advantage of you. A lot of negative traveling stories get more publicity than the positive ones. Whether you're traveling abroad or are riding the bus in Denver, stop looking for potential enemies and start looking for potential friends. Be cool to people, and they'll be cool to you. Take care of strangers. If you're reasonably cautious, you can afford to give other people the benefit of the doubt, and then you can have some really cool experiences and develop relationships with some amazing people :)