14.07.2009 - 16.07.2009
Traveling is a strange thing. It can make you do things that you would never do in similar situations at home. Like lend somebody you met barely 24hours previously - and whose name you can't even remember - 250usd to fly to a foreign country. I mean, if somebody i met in the pub the previous evening asked me something similar (and for a sum even as small as 20usd, say) I would never dream of lending the money.
And yet that is pretty much exactly what I did in Nairobi to assist two Americans, Bryan and Andrea. As i've previously mentioned, traveling is a strange thing, but one of the more interesting aspects of it is the networking and self-help side of the backpacking circuit. Though it happens everywhere, in general terms the less developed and traveled (in backpacking terms), the more crucial the circuit is.
For want of a better way of explaining it, it basically means that everybody helps anybody else. If you stay in a hostel, anybody who has been there for longer than a couple of days pretty much instantly becomes the information point of choice for newly arrived travelers: What to see, what to do, where not to go, which bus to take, how much to pay for pretty much anything, how to avoid being scammed and any other small local tips that might be useful all get passed along. Sometimes, and especially in areas where potential routes are fairly limited, this can be exchanged for similar information for the place that they have just come from and where you are heading. As somebody that travels quite allot and is a regular returnee to many places, I am used to being the point of reference. Most of the time, I have no problem with it but in some cases in the past I have been actively known to lie and pretend that I am a random newbie who has never visited, just to get a bit of peace or talk about something else. As i've been in Nairobi for most of the past 3months, i'm the obvious point of reference here: Even the staff are now asking me about some things. It is the sort of thing that is not organised. it just happens - when you meet somebody in a hostel, the first 4 pieces of info that tend to get exchanged are 'what's your name', 'where are you from', 'how long have you been here (or where have you come from to new arrivals)' and 'what are you doing here'. Follow ups come from those responses. And of the four, asking a name is by far the most optional of the questions.
That, in itself is a great ad-hoc system and a crucial source of information to backpackers, especially on roads less traveled. But the great thing is how it cranks up if people have difficulties. When I had my wallet stolen back in Romania in 2005, for example, any number of random strangers helped me out in different ways – helping me look through rubbish bins (in case it had been chucked), giving me a phone card, letting me stay for free, buying me food and booze. One girl who I had known vaguely for a day or so and was sick at the time, gave me some euros she had in her pocket, just like that. Her name is Maaret, and as i'm sure any person stupid enough to read this drivel regularly will be recall, she has since appeared regularly throughout this African tale, even though she left the following day and we didn't even exchange email contacts at the time, let alone have any expectation or even wish to get her money back. I have done similar things on several occasions, giving fairly small sums of money to people who had had stuff stolen or had other travel related problems. And helping people in any number of different ways for a couple of days until they can get hold of money/a friend/whatever is a regular occurrence.
And that, basically, is what happened this time. The only differences to normal were that the sum was much larger, and the people involved were not able to stay around until they had money to pay it back. The details don't matter, but an unlikely and unfortunate combination of events (as is the way of the world) had mean't that they couldn't get hold of enough money – they had to pay cash, USD only – to pay for their flight tickets and needed to fly to Rwanda the following day. With timezones also playing havoc and all options looking like they had been exhausted, they were gloomily facing up to having to cancel, so i stepped in and offered. To begin with, they were confused. Then stunned. Then logic kicked in and they realised it was the only easy way to make their flight, and eventually they gratefully decided to accept. They could have got away with less and just got a 1way ticket, but in for a penny in for a pound (in for a nickel, in for a dime?) and they decided it would be cheaper and make more sense to take the full amount with a bit extra to tide them over until they could get to a bank in Kigali to receive the funds. And with that, i handed over 250usd to two people who's surnames i didn't know, and at the time didn't have any contact details for.
In a way, i know it was crazy, and in a way it was also an experiment. I certainly wouldn't do such a thing for any random backpacker. But having spent a few hours with them that day as their (different) problems unfolded, i was confident that it was a genuine problem, they intended to pay me back, and that it wasn't some scam. I also knew that even if i did get it back, i would loose money on simple transfer fees and exchange rates. there was absolutely no gain in the entire transaction for me under any circumstances. But that didn't matter, I trusted my instinct, it felt the right thing to do, and I handed over the cash and that was that. By the time i woke up the following morning, they were gone.
The really odd thing is the same day, i lent an ipod charger to some other guests. I was more worried about getting the charger back, despite that being reasonably easy to replace, and much cheaper than 250usd. And I have no idea why.
I am happy to announce that Bryan and Andrea arrived safely in Kigali, eventually got all their problems fixed and have repaid the cash. And that is that. The chances of us ever meeting again or even staying in contact, are remote. Astonishingly, I even got my charger returned. And thus my faith in backpackers has been upheld once more.
Happy traveling, everybody