By Jug Suraiya
As global aviation limps back to normal after being rudely interrupted by an erupting volcano, stories pour in about people who were stranded, far from home, by Eyjafjallajokull blowing its stack. While some of these stories are about travellers exploited by unscrupulous hoteliers and others who took advantage of the situation, many more are about the kindness that people often show to strangers. Having briefly been refugees ourselves, many years ago, Bunny and I can attest to this kindness of strangers.
In 1973, Bunny and i were on a six-week tour of Western Europe. Our travel bible was Arthur Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars a Day, and we were going to stick to that budget, despite friends and family repeatedly telling us it couldn't be done. We were determined to prove them wrong. And we almost did.
We travelled by coach and train, through France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria. Our last destination in Europe was Munich, from where we were to take a Syrian Arab Airline flight to Delhi. The two one-way cut-price tickets had been bought in London.
To keep within our budget we often skipped meals: a missed lunch paid for admission to an art gallery or museum. Food could come later; Picasso, or Rembrandt, couldn't. By the time we reached Munich, both of us were half-starved. And in Munich a bombshell awaited us. Unknown to us on our travels, an Arab-Israeli war had taken place, as sudden, swift and fierce as a desert storm. Syrian Airlines' entire fleet of three planes had been damaged or was ferrying wounded Arab troops back from the front. As the airline was not an IATA member, no other carrier would fly us. In Munich we demanded a refund on our tickets. We were told we'd have to go to London for the refund. Our family in India wanted to pay our airfare home, but RBI rules wouldn't permit it.
Money fast running out, we were stuck in Munich, one of the most costly cities in the world. We lived on a diet of rejected supermarket chocolate, the cheapest food available. Eventually, all our money exhausted, we had to go to the Indian consulate and apply for repatriation. Declaring ourselves destitute we had our passports defaced in front of us and were issued one-time travel warrants, normally reserved for escorted criminals. Air India flew us to Delhi. At the airport i wanted to kneel and kiss the ground. We were home. But one memory of Munich we'll never forget.
Waking past a street fair one day, Bunny had stopped before a woman selling toffee apples. The woman had smiled and held out two apples. Bunny had shaken her head, held up one finger; we could afford only one apple. The woman seemed to intuit our plight. She accepted money for one apple. Then she'd held out the second apple, indicating it was free. Bunny had hesitated. Hunger is bitter; pride is even more bitter to swallow: Bitte, the woman had said. Please. Please? Why had she made a plea for us to accept her gift? Because, by accepting the kindness of strangers, the recipient gives back the greater gift of trust? Bunny had taken the apple. And by doing so, had perhaps given back something in exchange. A belief in our common humanness, a mutual recognition that the person who receives is also a giver.
A simple thought to remember, particularly when we in India are -- at long last -- preparing to reach out to those of us who all their lives have known only hunger and poverty. Think of what they might be waiting to give us. Not gratitude, never that. But perhaps a mirror -- flat, hard and unsentimental -- in which we see ourselves, as we might have been, as we might be one day. The gift of ourselves for the price of a toffee apple? What better bargain in the world. But why does it take wars, or volcanoes, for us to find that out?
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi