I stood at the front desk of the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, waiting for the clerk to hand me the stamps I’d just bought. Instead, he plucked postcards from my hand, licked the stamps, and began to place them precisely. The last stamp, however, tore at the corner when he was removing it from the main sheet, but instead of leaving well enough alone, he tore off the tiny, orphaned piece and reunited it with the rest of the stamp, which he’d already affixed. When he was finished, he gave me a huge smile and put my postcards in the outgoing mail.
I laughed as I went out the door—a laugh of surprise at such care. To say it was good service wouldn’t do it justice, because it bore much more the mark of a warm heart.
Most of us travel to connect with this mystery of the other, the strange land, the incomprehensible tongue, and the inner vistas of a different way of life. And if we manage to come away physically unscathed, we never come away without the tire marks of human contact, whether we’re crossing a border, trusting a guide in the bush, getting directions from a taxi driver, or being touched by the spirit of a hotel clerk.
Paul Harper, author of “Waiting to Arrive,” a story in this collection about a journey to the Nigerian frontier, wrote in a different piece about his stint as a bicycle mechanic in Ghana:
When I hear the clink of hammer on screwdriver in any West African City—something as steady and eternal as time—it means many things. It is a sound of defiance, a sound of reassurance that, yes, people are still riding bikes, and above all a comfort that I will not be missed. But there somewhere in the ringing space between beats is a pang, a reminder of an alliance that never happened, of all the other things I meant to do, of what I left behind and what can still be done.
You too are that stranger, who may pass through town like a ghost or leave as a friend who has earned the regard of those he’s met. It’s worth asking yourself, when you travel, are you a parasite, neutral agent, or catalyst?
Recently I was running at the Stanford stadium, when an old guy going the opposite way passed me saying, “How you doing, bro?” His greeting was the best thing that happened to me that day, as I was still digesting the news of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. His words were like a light shining on me, and I left the stadium thinking the obvious: “Why yes! He is my brother.” And so were those who’d just died in the disaster, and so are those who survived. As are the billions of people out there waiting to meet you, just as some of them met the travelers in this book, who brought home the things that happened to them, and the ways they were marked abroad, in tragedy, in happiness, in farce, in anger, and in love.
Be generous with yourself this year—go out and connect, spread yourself around. Travel more, not less. And then come home and tell a story to your friends about what it’s like just over the horizon, where your brothers and sisters live.
Palo Alto, California