There is an old folk story of which I am often reminded when I am travelling. I’m sorry that I don’t know to whom it should be credited, but it goes something like this.
Once upon a time, in a land far away there lived a wise old king. The king had twin sons but could only pass the crown to one of them. One of the princes could be arrogant, haughty and rude and was always complaining about people. The other prince couldn’t be more different. He had lots of friends and he was always happy and content.
The king was not getting any younger and he soon had to make a decision about which prince should rule over his kingdom once he had died. He called both princes to them and told them that he wanted them to each visit a distant land and find out what they could about the people there. They were not to tell the people whom they met that they were princes and they were tasked to report back to the king and tell him what they had found when they returned.
The princes set off in different directions as instructed and were each gone for more than a year. The arrogant prince was the first to return and the king asked him to describe what he had found.
‘The people of that land are so unfriendly,’ he said. ‘They went out of their way to avoid me, and if I asked for directions I was usually sent along the wrong road. They are rude and often charged me far more for my food and lodgings than they advertised outside the lodging houses.’
The king pondered upon this answer and then the happy prince returned a few weeks later.
‘I am sorry that I am late back father,’ the prince said, ‘but the people were very generous and kind to me. I was often invited to live with people in their homes and the people are always laughing and smiling. I was very happy to visit their land.’
‘I have decided who will rule when I have gone,’ he said and then proceeded to announce that he would pass his crown to the happy prince.
The members of his court all cheered as the happy prince was very popular among them.
‘Father,’ said the arrogant prince, ‘please can you explain why you have chosen my brother over me?’
‘It is quite simple,’ replied the king. ‘Unbeknown to either of you, I sent you both to the same country to meet the same people. Your experiences were very different but mirrored your own personalities. When you are open and friendly, people will respond in the same way and will go out of their way to offer help but if you are suspicious or surly, people will close ranks and will avoid you. I want the next king to be popular and to have the people on his side’.
The above tale is so true in any aspect of life but it is especially relevant while travelling.
I was waiting by the carousel at Madrid airport and I struck up a conversation with the young woman next to me. In the twenty minutes or sowhile waiting for our bags I learned that she worked in Madrid but wanted to go and travel around Australia and she was keen to learn about my imminent trip to South America. Rather than part once we had collected our bags, we went together to the Metro where she explained about the ‘tourist tax’ which I would need to pay before I could exit the airport and she advised me to buy the better value multi-ticket. We then travelled a couple of stops together on the underground, nattering and passing the time of day.
I was on one of those double-decker tourist buses in Toledo and began to comment on the views with the solo lady who was sat in front of me. By the time that our tour had finished we had agreed to wander around the town and take in a few more sights together and then share dinner together rather than dining alone. We nipped inside a back entrance through the priests’ door into the St Tomo church where we took a (banned) sneaky photograph of a famous El Grecco painting which was hung behind the altar, and then, thanks to Kiwi (yep – the lady was from New Zealand) and it being her last night in Toledo, we were allowed to sneak into one of the synagogues for free as it was close to closing time rather than return the next day.
I once received an impromptu Arabic lesson from a passenger who was sat next to me on a flight and I have lost count of the number of times that strangers have gone out of their way to set me back on the right path or bus. For a traveller I have an appalling sense of direction!
I have been allowed inside the gates of a cordoned off mosque in Jordan (the King was due to visit the following day) and invited behind the scenes in a restaurant to see an ancient relic after enthusing about the beauty of the place to the owner as I settled my bill.
There are dreadful stories of travellers who meet a sticky end and innumerable books on how to travel safe, but by being too cautious, stand-offish or aloof you run the risk of missing out on some incredible experiences. It is wonderful to stand and photograph fabulous buildings or landscapes, but to be handed a baby to hold in India or to be invited into a family home in Cuba for a meal is better. You can’t beat the human touch; – drinking the local firewater, getting pulled up on stage in a cabaret show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, or have an elderly lady proudly show off pictures of grandchildren whilst talking nineteen to the dozen at me in Spanish. Standing and perusing the destination board at a bus station, laden down with my rucksack, two men with their own backpacks and carrying the long wooden walking sticks from their pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago approached and just checked that I was all right. Just because.
I am always aware of my possessions so that if I am approached and told that I have dropped something (as happened to me), I can confidently walk past the people who are hoping to pick my pockets and they will turn to another victim, but I am happy for people to join me at my table in a bar or a restaurant and share my space. I will keep an eye on somebody’s possessions on a beach while they go for a swim and hope that they will do the same for me later in the day and I will often approach somebody and offer to take their photograph in front of a monument and then ask them to reciprocate the favour.
Maybe if I wasn’t so friendly I wouldn’t have a phone filling up with the email addresses and phone numbers of travellers, but hey, if I am ever stranded in the city of Medellin in Colombia, I may be very grateful that I met Marcela in Madrid.