Accustomed to alms’ –seekers in India who reflexively stretch out a hand minutes after they’ve enjoyed a previous response, it was touching that an old lady in Bangkok smiled and bowed when we passed the same route again. It left us with a high opinion of Far Eastern courtesy.
A small boy called Sanath in Colombo begged us to buy him clothes at a store in Sri Lanka. The lines were humongous on the eve of Buddha Poornima, and we ourselves had to abort the trip to the cash counter. But the lad still surfaces in my memory as an instance where I was constrained to be liberal.
In Paris, outside the Notre Dame, a sculptor surrounded by two dogs was busy finishing a piece. He had written out a request for cash/ restaurant vouchers to feed himself and his dogs. Empathy for his artistic temperament and his canine friends found us joining the donors. A little ahead, an old lady in a tattered cardigan made a more conventional plea. She was ignored by most of the tourists, but daughter Tammy and I were drawn to her and gave her a Euro. “ Merci, beaucoup,” she said with a warm smile. As we streamed out of the Lido in late evening, the high pitched cries of barefoot Algerian girls rent the air.” S’il vous plait, Madame, Monsieur, s’il vous plait ”, ( If you please, Madam, Sir) they pleaded in sonorous French.
At the railway station in Brussels, a Pakistani woman with a child claimed her purse had been stolen and requested the purchase of a ticket home. It did seem like a scam. But she was young and attractive- my husband DB Mehta proceeded to buy the ticket.
At many destinations in Europe, it’s the street musicians who appeal to your generosity- the sounds that echo in my recall were an accordionist at the Town Square in Brussels playing the Hebrew song “ Havenu Shalom Aleikum” and the plaintive bagpipers of Edinburgh. Outside the Paris Opera, some talented young amateurs played jazz and welcomed coins tossed in the hat.
In Africa one is charmed by little children who wave cheerily at passing vehicles. “ No wonder Madonna likes to adopt African children. They’re so appealing,” commented my son. Actually, they were making a plea- for books, toys and airline give- aways that tourists may have.
The entrepreneurial zeal of beach peddlers in the Kenyan beach resort of Mombasa is amazing. We bought name-engraved animal key chains for Tamara to gift her friends. I singled out the deaf and dumb Japeth for my custom; our purchases came with a liberal touch of the philanthropic. As we ate lunch at a Mombasa restaurant, Samantha sidled up to us with her trinkets. I bought a few beads for Tammy to gift her classmates and also shared some lunch with her. Her face with its speaking eyes reminded me of a dear friend. I also remember Theresa who sold beach wraps and did African hair braids . And Peter who sold me a small painting of African life. But when business is done, they don’t hesitate to seek further help by requesting for some personal effects. They happily accepted complimentary hotel cosmetics, coffee sachets etc and some clothes we could do without. Peter pumped my hand up and down in a gesture of thanks. “ We need more people like you coming to Africa,” he said with a glimmer in his eye. I was prompt to pass the message on in my travel writings- for tourists to carry with them some give aways, exchanging the space for African artifacts on the return journey.
We didn’t face human pressures on a recent trip to Turkey, aside from taking the initiative to share cookies with some fetching children selling postcards at Caravanserai. The animals were another matter. Cats purred and rubbed themselves against one at various monuments; the handsome local dogs also tugged at the heartstrings. One was lucky if there was a store close by to feed them titbits; I also resorted to the expedient of carrying some cookies and cakes from my own uneaten share of breakfast in my capacious handbag to satisfy those mute appeals.
There were more organized requests for generosity that we heeded- contributions for conserving rhino at Ol’ Pajeta in Kenya, Jane Goodall’s facility for orphaned chimpanzees in that vicinity and for endangered orangutans at Sarawak in Malaysia.
As tourists we do a lot of heady and interesting things that linger as pictures in the travel albums. Images of monuments and landscapes may fade, but it’s the personal encounters that persist in emotional memory. If our omissions nag us with a sense of the undone, our gestures of reaching out, however minutely and intangibly, make us feel we have left behind a warm something in distant lands.