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Writer Tim Cahill reflects on the lasting impact of kind gestures—and how the strangers who help us define the stories of our lives.

I’ve wondered, over the years, why on earth someone would take time out of their day to help a stranger. Why, for instance, did a Peruvian farmer walk me a mile up a trail to make sure I took the right path? Why did a Turkish colonel take a break from fighting a local insurgency to assist me on my quest to find the supposedly extinct Caspian tiger? Why was every single Mongolian I met on the steppe intent on seeing that I had enough to eat?

What compelled these folks to help?

I suspect it’s not my grooming or ready wit. When I travel, I’m mostly dirty and confused and lost and baffled. I’m generally in some small bit of trouble, some laughable situation in which I’ve unknowingly enmeshed myself.

Once, in the cattle country of the Brazilian Pantanal, cowboys saddled a horse and allowed me to ride along with them. At one point, one of them cautioned me against riding on the margins of the forest. It was hot, over 100 degrees that day, and the shade of the trees was comforting. But a man named Humberto thought it was salutary to mention that jaguars crouched in the branches of the sheltering trees, and that jaguars are pretty much at the top of the food chain in the Pantanal. In the past six months, he said, the big cats had mauled two people and killed one in this very area.

A stranger in a strange land has all the problems of a child. And people will help. It is hardly a matter of conscious thought. 

So Humberto and I rode on the sandy trail, a good distance from the trees. We chose to endure the heat rather than the possibility of fang and claw. There were jaguar tracks in the sand, crossing the trail at odd intervals. The paw prints were the size of my fist, the edges defined and sharp.

“He is in the trees,” Humberto said.

Now, perhaps Humberto, who had to tend to cattle mauled by jaguars on a regular basis, didn’t want to have to deal with a human in that situation. And maybe he felt some personal responsibility for my welfare. He’d look bad if he managed to get the dude killed.

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But having pondered the episode, I think Humberto was expressing a simple human urge to counsel. Adults who see a child confused or in danger are compelled to help. Similarly, when confronted with anyone who is hapless and lost, it is in our nature to instruct and guide.

My point is that a stranger in a strange land has all the problems of a child. And people will help. It is hardly a matter of conscious thought. 

“Mister, no no, do not stand between the hippo and the river!”

“Ah, señor, let me go to the pharmacy for you. They have medicine for such stomach problems.”

I remember those people. They figure prominently in the stories that define my life.

Not long ago I was stewing in the San Francisco airport during a four-hour layover when I noticed a commotion at one of the boarding gates. An older woman was not being allowed on a plane for Salt Lake City. She seemed distraught and tried to push her way forward. A male gate attendant took her arm and gently guided her well away from the line. He did not help her. There were a dozen irritated people waiting to board, and he had work to do. 

The woman stood alone as busy folks hurried past her on each side. She was on the verge of tears. Just another airport story. But I had four hours and nothing to do.

I wasn’t paying any kind of karmic debt. It was only this: I had the time and I felt compelled to help.

The woman was dressed in western clothes, but she looked vaguely foreign. Turkish, I thought. I greeted her—merhaba—which pretty much exhausted my Turkish vocabulary.

I was right. She was Turkish but spoke a bit of broken English.

After some minutes, I managed to piece together her story. She had come to America to visit her son and grandchildren. This was her first trip out of Turkey, her first time on an airplane, her first encounter with the complexities and frustrations of airports. And they wouldn’t let her on the plane, and her son—she hadn’t seen her son for 10 years—her son would be waiting for her and now she wouldn’t arrive and her son would go home and she didn’t know what to do, she had to get on the plane. . . .

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I looked at her ticket. She wasn’t going to Salt Lake, which was why they wouldn’t let her board. The ticket was for Sacramento. The boarding gate was nearby. I walked her there, stood in line with her, and assured her that it was not too late. She would make the flight. I followed her right up to the jetway. She turned once to wave a thank-you. Her smile was dazzling.

It was 45 minutes out of my time, a small kindness that had cost me nothing. I hadn’t thought of the colonel who’d helped me search for the Caspian tiger. I wasn’t paying any kind of karmic debt. It was only this: I had the time and I felt compelled to help. For me, the episode might soon be forgotten. But for the Turkish grandmother with a dazzling smile, I would forever be the man who rendered a kindness for no apparent reason. I would be a story told to a son and grandchildren, to a husband and friends. I’d be a story among the stories that described her life, just as my own life is delineated and enriched by the stories of all those who felt a compulsion to help.

This story originally appeared in the premier issue of AFAR.

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