Wednesday, February 16, 2011

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

In response to a writing prompt on Mama'a Losin' It blog:
"A Vacation to Remember"
        While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil in the late 1960’s, I used my vacation time to travel by bus from the Northeast of Brazil through major cities and tourist spots, southward to Pôrto Alegre in Brazil’s southernmost state and onward to Montevideo, Uruguay, eventually arriving in Buenos Aires. There, a kind taxi driver deposited me at a small hotel owned by a Brazilian couple. I had learned Portuguese in order to survive in Brazil, but my Spanish was minimal.
        For vacation days, Peace Corps personnel in Brazil were allotted $9 per day. To save money, I would catch a late bus, saving the cost of a hotel room by sleeping on the bus overnight when traveling between cities. I was in my early twenties and didn’t mind a noisy bus, even though I woke with swollen feet and a stiff neck on scheduled stops every two or three hours. I might mention that buses between major cities were modern, clean, and often more reliable than air travel in much of South America at that time.
       On my way back north, I returned to Montevideo. I arrived in the capital of Uruguay around 10 a.m. on a cold, rainy Saturday and planned to catch a bus twelve hours later. On my first stop there, I had seen many of the sites, so I spent the dreary, wet afternoon in Montevideo dozing in a dry movie theater while a very bad Dean Martin movie repeated every two hours. It was still raining when I left the theater.


      The northbound trip to Pôrto Alegre was supposed to last ten hours, arriving around 8 a.m. On the bus, a Brazilian teenager struck up a conversation. The boy was curious about the United States and eager to practice his English, but we spoke mostly in Portuguese throughout the long night.
        As the dawn broke, the rain ended. It looked like it would be a beautiful day. Because I would have to wait another ten hours in Pôrto Alegre to catch my next bus, the boy urged me to go home with him to meet his family. I politely declined.


        At the bus station I said my good-byes to him, wondering what to do for ten hours on a Sunday when most of the city would be closed.
        After retrieving my luggage, I was confronted by a dozen Brazilians ---the boy’s parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents ---all insisting I visit their modest home for the day. After several polite refusals and their enthusiastic insistance, I agreed to spend the day with them.

        They fed me breakfast, took me on a driving tour of the sun-drenched city, and served a huge lunch (which is the major meal of the day in Brazil.) The family was of Italian descent; the meal consisted of ravioli soup and pasta along with the traditional feijoada, the Brazilian national dish made with black beans and a variety of meats, served over rice.


        Afterwards, the boy's mother insisted I take a customary siesta, which I needed after spending most of the night conversing in Portuguese with her son. An hour before my departure time, she woke me and thrust a large brown bag at me. It was filled with enough fruit, bread, chicken, and guaraná (a Brazilian soft drink) for three or four people. The entire family accompanied me to the rodaviaria where I caught my next ônibus.

        After returning to my Peace Corps site two weeks later, I wrote to the family, thanking them for their hospitality, and later sent a few friendly notes to the boy. They never answered. In my experience, Brazilians weren’t zealous letter writers.
        Forty-plus years later, I can barely remember what I did in Buenos Aires or Montevideo, but I remember that bus ride with the eager Brazilian teen and his congenial family in Pôrto Alegre ---which, by the way, means "Happy Port" in Portuguese.

        After leaving Pôrto Alegre, my bus took me north to Salvador where I ended my trip by attending a regional conference, bringing Peace Corps Volunteers together to share experiences, disappointments, successes, problems, and triumphs.
        I hadn’t seen most of the other Volunteers from my group for a year, yet I was not surprised to hear how many had experienced similar acts of hospitality from relative strangers who were eager to know North Americans and show off their Brazilian culture.

        Brazilian hospitality was a perfect example of how wonderful travel can be in foreign countries and what warm, friendly people one can meet. The most generous people were often those who had relatively little themselves. Such hospitable folks could rarely be encountered in a fancy tourist hotel. More likely they would be met in a local restaurant, on a bus, or in an inexpensive pensão.
        After leaving Brazil, I never encountered any of the people who showed me such warmth, but every time I have had the chance to “pass it on” I have embraced the opportunity to do the same for foreigners in the United States, especially those who may have felt a bit lonely away from home and family.
        I only hope each person passed it on and the next person passed it on, so that eventually those folks in Brazil were rewarded with the type of kindness they had extended to me.

(Text and bus illustrations ©2010, C.J.)

6 comments:

Carrie said...

What a fabulous experience. If only everyone offered that kind of hospitality to a perfect stranger. Just think what the world would be like.

Visiting from Mama Kat's

Jeanette said...

"The most generous people were often those who had relatively little themselves."
I love that. What a great lesson for all of us.

Cheryl said...

What a lovely story! It was a different time, then. I am so glad you experienced that kind of hospitality!

mommyshorts.com said...

What a wonderful experience. I was a big traveler before I had my baby and I hope one day soon, I will be able to travel again. Not as freely though I am sure.

My favorite travel experiences were always the ones that are accidental and spontaneous. I will make an effort to "pass it on" as well.

avgordsuprgddss said...

Thanks for visiting at my blog. I wanted to return the favor. What a wonderful experience for you. It is not often that we find such genuine and giving people willing to share what they have with a stranger. No wonder it is a vacation you remember so well.

kisatrtle said...

what a wonderful post.