The Kindness of Strangers
For the 2008 VIA Dream Vacation Contest, we asked our readers to share their stories of the kindness of strangers. Of the 2,000 essays we received, we picked the following six as our finalists. Our judges and readers selected Sandy Raney as the winner of the $5,000 AAA Travel voucher.
I met the little girls while sitting in a small gazebo in Thailand. They appeared out of nowhere, giggling and carrying cut grapefruit. After traveling alone for a month, I was feeling pangs of loneliness that day. I had ridden my bike to this quiet temple far off the beaten track. Shyly, they offered me a piece of grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar. They sat close to me as we ate our grapefruit, juice running down our arms. They sang songs for me. I taught them the hokey-pokey, our arms waving as we twirled around. Without speaking each other's language, we shared more than grapefruit that day. I'll never forget their faces or laughter or the taste of the sweet grapefruit. I was no longer lonely. I knew no matter where I went, the simple kindness of strangers would connect me to the people and countries through which I traveled.
Tokyo was pink with blooming cherry blossoms. I had some free time, so I took my sketchbook out, plopped down on a park bench, and began to sketch a lamppost surrounded by blossoms. Time melted away. Later that night, I discovered my jacket was missing. By morning, I realized I had left it on the park bench. Perhaps, if I was lucky, I would find it crumpled in a heap under the bench. When I approached the spot, I was surprised to find my jacket folded on the bench. It was not an ordinary fold. The collar and lapels were standing up. The arms had been folded in to raise up the neckline. The back was rounded out by tucking in the sides, and the hem was pleated at the back. To my astonishment, I saw a bird in flight in that jacket. This was the genuine magic of origami played out by an unseen artist with my jacket.
M. Cathy Martin
Palo Alto, Calif.
The flu slammed into me like a Japanese bullet train. Foolish college student that I was, I had defiantly ridden my bicycle in the monsoon rain, and the tropical damp had gone deeper into my lungs. As I lay feverish on the tatami mat, the grandfather of my Japanese host family peeked in on me. Days earlier, we had attempted conversation, each of us with tiny, thick phrase books. Now, with a concerned look on his wrinkled brow, he quietly brought me a tray laden with a squat pot of tea and a black vase with a single white rose. Day by day, the rose opened petal by petal. By the time its fragrance was weak, I was strong again. That kind old man is probably gone from this world, but if I could, I would bow deeply, thanking him for healing me.
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Avoid the creek," the rubber tapper cautioned me in Portuguese over the din of rain, with darkness crowding in. "Poisonous snakes live there." At that moment his slender house, on a remote tributary of the Juruá River in Brazil, looked like Eden to me. It was nearly New Year's Day, 1992. I wearily disembarked from the open canoe I was sharing with a team of health workers. Our host, unperturbed by the inexplicable arrival of soggy foreigners, ushered us inside, where three toddlers gaped at us. He introduced us to his wife, who was 20 (my age!), lovely, unspeakably sad, and already a mother five times over. (Two babies had died.) She mashed plump, rosy bananas into a porridge redolent of flowers and offered us strips of wild boar. I had never been the houseguest of people so poor. And I had certainly never met anyone so generous.
In October of 2003, I went to New Hampshire to visit my brother. He had arranged a three-day road trip into Maine to view and photograph the fall foliage. I got many beautiful shots. We stopped at Kingsbury Pond for more pictures. Several hours later, I noticed my memory sticks containing hundreds of photos were missing. We called the local police, who sent an officer to look for them at Kingsbury Pond, to no avail. A couple from Bangor had found them. In one of the photographs, they saw the license plate number of my brother's car, traced it, and returned the memory sticks. Shortly afterward my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in April of 2005. The photos from that trip mean so much to me; our time together documented in those photos was so precious. I am so thankful that these people took the time and effort to ensure their return.
In the late 1980s, while in Japan, I took the train to Hiroshima. Being a San Franciscan, I feel Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor and the attack on Hiroshima as real. On the train, a young Japanese gentleman began conversing with me. I told him my destination, and he graciously offered to accompany me to the site. I felt pleased to have an escort, yet uneasy for a Japanese person to be accompanying me at such an emotional site. At the Children's Peace Monument, he saw my tears as we viewed strings of hundreds of folded paper cranes (called origami) draped over the memorial. They were folded by children visiting Hiroshima making their wish that this never happen again. My Japanese friend seeing my tears, his sweet comforting words were: "It's a reminder that we never want this to happen again." How I appreciated his sensitivity at such an emotional site.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Photography courtesy of www.thaiwebsites.com 
This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.