I grew up in the Midwest. A place you can still borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor. A place where strangers say hello to each other on the street. Where strangers will offer to share their umbrella when it rains and help you when you look lost.
There is a culture in the Midwest that I have missed living in DC. Some people will say hello to you, but usually when I say “good morning” to the familiar faces I see each day on my morning runs, I am met with blank stares and confusion. The metro is a lonely place, where rarely do you say hello to the people around you, even though you may share hours together, especially on track work days.
I, however, think taking the time to say hello to strangers is important. You never know who you will meet. Plus, weren’t we all once strangers in a strange land? Who knows, maybe a hello is all someone needs to put their mind at ease.
There have been a number of times in my short near-adult (I refuse to admit I may actually be an adult) life, that I have been genuinely impressed by the kindness of strangers. Once, while hitchhiking in California, a man gave me $20 and just asked for me to send him a postcard after my hike. I had a couple make me dinner at their home while I was hiking in Colorado. After a half-marathon in New Orleans, someone noticed I didn’t have anyone to take me home, bought me an Irish coffee and escorted me to my hotel.
This week, I stepped off the plane in Kabul. I was self-conscious that my headscarf was crooked and did my best to keep my eyes down. I hate traveling to places without a grasp of the language and the culture, but I am here for work, and there was no time to learn Pashto. I read as much as I could about the country, its customs, and its people, but, I felt like I was really walking into an unknown land.
The plane, which was perhaps built in the 80s, slightly musky with tacky carpeting and no “no smoking signs,” landed in Kabul a bit late, after a turbulent flight from Islamabad. People started shuffling into line to wait for their hand checked baggage, and I followed suit. I looked around the landing field surprised to see that Kabul is truly beautiful, surrounded by incredible, snow-capped mountains. I pulled out my phone to snap what I thought would be an artsy picture of the tail of the plane with the mountains behind it, but was quickly scolded by a bearded man in a uniform holding a gun. I decided he was not the type to explain that I just wanted to Instagram the picture to my friends back home. I looked later and the photo was blurry, but I will try again when I fly out.
I waited for a long time before I saw the woman who had sat next to me on the plane. She asked if it was my first time to Kabul, we joked about how long the luggage was taking, and eventually I learned she worked for WFP. We talked shop a few minutes before we realized our luggage had already been taken to the “unclaimed luggage” area. She told me to follow her. I did and we were greeted by a man in a UNICEF vest. He skillfully pushed past the people returning from their spring pilgrimage. These pilgrims had more luggage than you can imagine. I have no idea what they were packing, but as I waited with my new friend, I saw huge package after package, wrapped in tarps and ropes being tossed onto luggage carts. There were hundreds of bottles of holy water. Many of the men had two or three carts full of their family’s luggage. Pushing past them was not easy, and I was quickly lost in the crowd. My new friend waved goodbye, and I saw her move quickly past all the security lines. I however, stayed behind and got the pleasure of going through four different customs security counters.
As I finally emerged from the airport, I looked at my watch. My driver was supposed to pick me up at 8:00 and it was already 9:45. I was a little nervous that perhaps he had left me. I did not see anyone with an IMC logo-ed sign with my name on it, as I had in Islamabad.
I asked someone where “Park C” was, as my instruction from the driver was to meet him there. The man I asked, who spoke very little English, directed me to a taxi. You can imagine then the negotiations about me not wanting a taxi, the taxi driver insisting that I cannot walk to my hotel form the airport and that he would give me a good price, and me trying to explain that I had a colleague meeting me. Eventually they understood I was looking for “Park C” and escorted me there.
At “Park C,” it was easy to spot the standard white land cruiser of the NGO world, and I checked the license plate with the information I was given. I stood by the car for a few minutes, and a man next to me explained in, what I assumed to be, Pashto something, I think about the driver’s whereabouts. But he could have been commenting on the weather. Or on my beautiful face. Or on Cabbage Patch Dolls.
Eventually I walked back into the airport and found a young man, sans beard, with western-style dress. I asked if he spoke English and he said yes. I then asked to use his phone. He looked so upset when he explained he had no credit, but quickly called another man other and insisted he give me his phone. These two men, mind you, certainly did not know each other.
Eventually I got ahold of the driver and thanked the men who had helped me get ahold of him. The driver explained that when I had walked (right past him), he assumed I was an Afghani woman. I felt good about my ability to blend in, and better that I had finally found my ride.
Throughout the whole experience, I never felt worried or lost. I had nice strangers, all along the way, offering to help and making sure I made it to my end destination.
Even when I feel furthest from home, I am continually impressed by the kindness of strangers. I only hope I can return the favor. Maybe when I get back to DC, I will find someone lost, who doesn’t speak English, and I can lend them my phone. If not, I will at least continue to say hello to strangers. Nothing like a smile on the metro to make you feel like you are back in Omaha, and make the track work seem a little more manageable.