The Kindness of Strangers

Malaysia, 2010.

I’ve already seen him talking to other tourists at the hotel I’m staying at, in the Cameron Highlands. I’ve seen their horrified reaction, their quiet dismissal, and their hurrying away. I see the confused look on the man who is older than me. I put my head down, certain I am going to have a relaxing ending to my five month adventure. When I look up, I realise he’s got his eyes on me.

Rolling countryside: The Cameron Highlands, 2010.

‘I don’t understand why other people walk away from me,’ he says.* There’s a desperation in his voice in his voice and a hurt in him that I can see through his frown lines.

I smile knowingly. Five months in Borneo has taught me something: ‘Because we don’t do that in London. In London, if someone goes up to you on the street and starts making conversation, it seems wrong.’

The confusion in him has grown two-fold, manifested in a prolonged silence and an open mouth that makes no sound. Is his world really so different to mine? ‘The culture here is different,’ I say.

He shakes his head. ‘The culture in London is different.’ He asks where I think he’s from. I can see he’s not Malaysian, but I hesitate to guess. He pushes for an answer.

‘Bangladesh,’ I say, not entirely sure how I can guess such a specific place.

His frown lines finally ease. He’s amazed. He takes me to the garden of the guest house, a garden he is responsible for.

Before I know it, I’m holding a tortoise and grinning for a photo. I’m observing with intrigue an array of plants, and now I’m frowning at the camera in his hands.

The tortoise. 2010, Cameron Highlands.

On it are a series of photographs of various groups of people in the same setting, eating dinner cross-legged on the floor. He points excitedly at each photo in turn, telling me where in the world each group is from. He seems like a man who is stuck in one country and longs to cross borders to find great adventures, great people, and great conversation.

How excited was I, the first time I could announce that I had made friends from various corners of the world? How excited were the American teenagers who heard my British accent, and how psyched was I the first time I answered my phone to someone I had met travelling? To the open-minded, multiculturalism is a dream that enlightens and inspires us. Learning about cultural similarities and differences is often fascinating, and having friends around the world makes this planet feel more friendly.

I know now, from the tone in his voice and his wide eyes, and the way he points elaborately at each photo, that the man before me is either lonely or full of a curious delight for mingling with other cultures. I am bound to become a representative of another country in his delightful collection.

Perhaps my friends are right. I trust too easily. Or perhaps, the feeling of certainty about his intentions is something that can only be gained in that moment, not before, not after, not unless this stranger is standing in front of me, a childlike innocence and excitement running through his veins like this is the best adventure he’s ever had – it’s hard to get the world to understand what I’m seeing, and how I know that despite his eccentricity, it’s alright, and this is going to be a grand story.

He takes me on an evening tour. Confidently, he speaks. ‘You must be a little worried, alone in a park with a strange man.’

It sounds like the start of a horror film.

‘Don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that.’

An evening in the Cameron Highlands, 2010.

We buy chicken and rice from the local supermarket, and he invites me for dinner. He lives in a flat provided by the hotel in which he works. It’s dark and small here, but fresh air flows through the open balcony doors. He shares this flat with three other men, who are not home. They sleep on bunk beds. There is no kitchen, only a balcony, a bathroom, and a bedroom, and there is no table at which to sit. I have adjusted to eating on the floor or on low stools with tribal communities, so this is no shock. What’s impressive is the way he gets used to it, cooking on his balcony and cleaning in the kitchen. We put the plates delicately on newspaper on the floor, and sit either side of the square broadsheet. He has no cutlery – an emphasis of his poverty, but also a demonstration of his priorities: culturally, he has no need for cutlery. So now it’s time for me to learn a new skill: eating chicken and rice with my hands.

Food preparation, Cameron Highlands, 2010 (aged 19).

‘No, you’re not doing it right. Here, I’ll show you.’ He grabs a handful and shoves it in my face, pushing his thumb towards my mouth. ‘That’s how you do it.’

I’ve omitted this photo as it was messy!

I laugh hysterically. This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. Little do I know, my solo travel experiences are going to involve many more weird events with strangers, who aren’t all the spooky, destructive sort that society teaches us we must fear; that UK culture teaches us not to engage with.

‘I don’t get it,’ he says again. ‘Don’t people in London do this?’

‘Invite strangers round for dinner?’ I ask, laughing. ‘I think people would run away if they were asked.’

‘That’s strange,’ he says with a mouthful of food. He tells me he’s been in trouble with the hotel for offering free tours to tourists. Despite my explanations, he finds it hard to understand why kindness, and friendship across countries is so frowned upon.

And as I leave Malaysia and return home, I begin to realise, neither do I.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. 2010.

Based on an experience I had 10 years ago.

*Due to the length of time that has passed, quotes may not be entirely accurate but they are as close to the original intended meaning as possible

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