Are people always kind to travelers? Or are travelers always kind and people reciprocate?
I drove 30 kilometers south to Putaruru to get copies of my passport notarized for my Medicare exemption form so I can, hopefully, get some extra money back on my Australian tax return. I walked into the law office of Tim Kinder. The receptionist wasn’t at the front desk but a middle aged man wearing a beige sweater vest was toying with the photocopier.
“Hello, I need to get some documents notarized.”
“Oh, ok, I’m the notary, come on back to my office.”
I love small towns. Everything is easy. No one is in a rush. It’s not like the bustling suburbs of Northern Virginia where a five mile drive consists of 10 traffic lights, high school traffic, university traffic, city traffic, all kinds of traffic. And then you would wait in the office for 20 minutes.
A Boston cream donut and a cup of black coffee were waiting on his desk.
“Ahh, my assistant was nice to me this morning.”
I explain my situation as he examines my copies and my passport. He signs, stamps and presses his seal into the documents.
No charge for that one,” he says as we walk out of his office.
I was expecting at least a $20 fee but I guess his donut and coffee put him in a good mood. And I suppose his business does not rely on budget travelers looking for a notary in the middle of cow country.
Then there was the generous AA mechanic who fixed my van in Tauranga. He was toiling away in the shop at 8:30 on the night it broke down. He said he would look at it in the morning. I picked it up the next day around six. Same guy was there with the same sweaty hair and goatee.
“Another long day?” I say as I walk up to the reception desk.
“Yea, and tomorrow will be the same.”
He gave me his diagnosis. The van passed the compression tests, the TK tests and whatever other tests he put it through. Awesome. He replaced the thermostat, housing gasket and radiator hose. Air was getting into the radiator making steam, and heat.
“These old Mitsubishi’s don’t like heat.”
Another mechanic, wearing motorcycles leathers, walked by on his way out. He said he drove it down the expressway and back. Thermostat didn’t budge. They both trust it. But it is old. The sweaty mechanic said he knows this situation. You get a car fixed and think it’s great and then suddenly the head gasket blows and its a couple thousand dollars to fix. He’s been there before.
Look, this is a 700 dollar job. I found some cheap parts and worked it out for you. I’m gonna charge you 300 plus GST.”
After I paid up, he said to meet him at the garage around back. He gave me a 1.25 litre water bottle full of coolant.
“You’re a fucking legend,” I tell the fucking legend before I get in my van and listen to Dark Side of the Moon on the peaceful drive over the Kaimai’s with a cool engine.
I never had any drama with my 2000 Ford Falcon in Australia — except when I got stuck in sand one night just off the road and waved someone down for a quick tow — but I’ve heard a couple of amazing stories from backpackers.
Three german girls — Laila, Alex and Ari — drove an SUV with a mattress in the back from Sydney and almost made it to Alice Springs. They broke down on the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t have the $500 needed for a tow.
A true-blue stopped to help. He heard their situation and paid for the tow. Five hundred dollars to three strangers. This encouraged a fierce debate around the fire barrel at the hostel about how that would only happen to three beautiful girls. Damsels in distress.
No! He was just a nice guy, it wasn’t because we are girls!” Laila said, drawing eye rolls and suppressed chuckles from all the men.
I think Laila was right. When I was in Cairns I met three Belgian guys who broke down along the east coast. A tow truck was on the way. A friendly Australian mechanic happened to be driving by. He took a look at the car and got it going in a few minutes. They called off the tow and bought the mechanic a bottle of Bundy, an Australian rum. Before they parted ways he gave the boys his phone number and told them to call if they broke down again.
They drove for forty-five minutes the next day before the car died. True to his word, the mechanic drove out to them and fixed it up, this time for good. I have a theory that locals help travelers for selfish reasons. They know the broke and broken travelers will share their stories of generosity from hostel to hostel then back to Belgium and eventually the story of the nameless Australian mechanic ends up on a blog somewhere.
I try to give back to other travelers when I can. Ono hitch-hiked into Alice around 11 on a Thursday night. No accommodation booked, no familiar faces. The town was dead except for the Rock Bar and its bouncer standing guard. Ono asked the bouncer if he knew where he could stay for the night. He pointed to Kenny, an extremely Australian tour guide with a booming voice. Kenny approached Jeremy, maintenance worker at the hostel and my roommate, and asked if we can help a brother out. At this point Jeremy and I were sharing a six bed dorm. Four empty beds. We agreed to let this stranger into our room.
Ono is from Amsterdam but his parents are Indonesian. He speaks softly and is always smiling. In the pub full of drunk backpackers, I asked him what he does. He is a shamanist preacher. With a beer in my hand and a suitcase in his, he tried to explain the different planes of existence. I wasn’t getting it.
“Like, what do you do, man?” I ask.
I’ve been traveling for twenty years with no money.”
Imagine the generosity he has seen in those years. He told me about his time in Coober Pedy, the tiny mining town on the Stuart Highway. Josh and I drove straight through on our way down to Adelaide. Ono got a ride there from a local miner and stayed the night in his dugout. Most of the houses in Coober Pedy are dug into the sides of hills to take advantage of natural insulation to escape the 40 degree summer days with no humidity and no clouds. Ono met this man’s neighbors and friends and slept in his unique underground house. Some people spend thousands of dollars to travel around Australia dining at the finest restaurants, lodging at four star hotels, and here is Ono seeing a side of Australia they would never dream of.
When I asked about his plans, he said he wants to hitch-hike to Uluru because he feels an overwhelming need to perform a shamanist ceremony near the sacred rock. I guess he found a ride because when I woke up the next morning he was gone, leaving only a note:
I love meeting people like Ono. He presents himself and people give him food and shelter. He gives them his company, his stories and his advice.
Travelers like Ono understand that if you are kind to everyone, everyone will be kind to you. Fast food workers, lawyers, preachers, hotel housekeepers, mechanics — it doesn’t matter. We can all learn, share and grow with each other. We are all just people.