Friday, August 11, 2006

The Kindness Of Strangers

Throughout this trip I have often been helped by complete strangers who expect nothing in return; indeed I would have floundered and failed early on if it wasn't for their help. Sometimes it is only an answer to a question, giving directions or advice, pointing out that I have left my hat back at the internet cafe (again) or letting me know that I have reached my stop on the bus. Sometimes the help is more substantial: a lift, a long, educational conversation, a cup of tea or a meal. Despite the bad press Islam gets in the press (along with my general allergy to religion) and general conversation, Muslim countries, and by extension Muslim people, are by far and away the most hospitable people I have come across. I thought that Iran was the acme but have just been blown away here in Azerbaijan. Throughout this past week we've hardly been able to spend anything on food, with various people insisting on being our hosts.

A particularly striking example occurred today. We were waiting by the side of the road in a northern town to try and hitch a ride to a nearby castle. A local man came by and after asking us what we were doing and where we were going brought out a chair for Sian to rest (it was midday and traffic was slow). Then came a bottle of cool water. Then a while later he offered us the shade of his garden and said that in an hour workers would be heading past to begin their shifts and that we would be unlikely to get a lift until then. The hour quickly turned to five as we had lunch and afternoon tea of bread, cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes (the latter two coming from their garden) washed down by cups and cups of tea, sweetened by delicious blackberry jam. We talked of anything and everything. Despite Askar (the man's name) having no more than the minimum 10 years' education, being out of work and living in a small town, he was surprisingly knowledgeable about many subjects, ranging from world history to politics and geography, saying that he listened to the BBC world service every day. Somehow I doubt a person in a similar situation back home would be so well informed. And in the end, after having travelled out all the way to this town we finally had to head back to Baku. Though, far from being a failure because we hadn't seen what we had set out to see, the day was our most enjoyable because of the unexpected warmth and affection that was lavished upon us, complete strangers, by people whose means, materially speaking, are far below our own. It shames me to think that such behaviour is unheard of back home. Instead we worry about robbers and psychos and our own petty problems too much to recognise the humanity in people around us.

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