Sunday, 31 August 2008

The kindness of couchpotatos

I am amazed, astounded, humbled by one very simple but profound fact - I had no idea that there is such a number of kind, generous and warm people in the world. I realise that this is the statement of a complete cynic, or at least an ex-cynic, but this the reality of my almost three-decaded life.

Of course when travelling there is an array of opportunities to meet people, but this may be easier for certain characters than for others. I am certainly of the type who finds it easier to be a loner, but this doesn't mean that I actually enjoy being on my own for long periods of time. Couchsurfing has, therefore, been a revelation for me. The opportunity to stay with 'ingenious' population, a chance to ask them questions about everything from how to get to the nearest cheap canteen to the philosophy of vegetarians in their country, gives you that link, a connection to the place. this is not just useful - which it undoubtedly is - but also relaxing, affirming...

So I am absolutely gobsmacked just how many kind souls there are out there in the world. From the very first time I stayed with the lovely young couple of Montpellier who showed me all the wonderful corners of the city and shared home-made pasta with me, to the spirit and wit of guys in Marseille who forced me to take sandwiches on the train that they've made especially for me, to hospitability of a young Lithuanian psychologist (who had hitch-hiked in Africa for six months - you say I am a brave soul!) and her mum who made me scrumptious breakfasts in the mornings, to the beauty and charm of two red-heads in Warsaw who welcomed me in their house just because we'd briefly met the same person during our travels...these people, and many others, have amazed me with their sense of adventure and their generousity - would you allow a complete stranger to stay in your house, give them your keys and say 'stay as long as you like'?!

I can't describe you just how grateful I am to all these people not just for allowing me to crash on their beds, but for all those light and deep and silly and such awakening conversations. I am thankful to the wild and thoughtful Australian guy I met in Vilnius who asked me many seemingly naive, but ultimately very profound questions, thus reminding me of my tiring tendency to plan. I remembered that what I really wanted from my travels was to go with the flow; to go to places and see people not because this is what you had planned on paper by reading stale guidebooks, but because this is simply how you feel like at that particular moment.

I realised yesterday that what really struck me about many of the people I have met in the last few weeks is their flexibility, their ability - and, importangly, their desire - to go with what other people have suggested; not to follow them but to be taken..It's this clay-like quality that I liked so much in them: they often know what they want from life (or even if they don't, you sense the steel of internal beliefs inside), but allow to be argued with, to make sponteneous decisions on the stop. They allowed me to stay in their houses for as long as I wanted, do what I wanted but also suggested to me some exciting and fun iteniraries. I love that about people. I would like that plasteline quality to rub off my sometimes rather stony exterior..I think things are changing.

The other day morning I got up in a small and cosy bedroom of my new couchsurfing friends in the 'picturesque' communist area of Nowa Huta in Krakow. It was grey and miserable outside. My plan that day was to go to Auschwitz..I felt uncertain about the idea - I knew my sensitivity to such places might mean that I would not sleep for several days after, but more importantly, I wasn't sure if the visit would actually add to my, admittedly limited, knowledge of this historic situation...But I'd had my bag packed, and was determined to go, when my friends' landlord came in, loudly wishing everyone good morning. After some 5 minutes of talking to me about absolutely nothing he said 'I live in a farm 50 kms from Krakow, you are welcome to come with me if you aren't sure about Auschwitz'. So I went!

That evening I was sitting in a bear kitchen of the farm, next to an ancient stove, having fish marinated in turmeric and chilli, talking about the importance of raising little children into big human beings, the philosophy of living in the moment and laughing till my face hurt to my host's silly jokes!

Believe it or not but my host was born and raised in Pakistan in a Zoroastrian family. He moved to the UK in early 20s, studied forestry in Wales, opened a teahouse in the Isle of White and, by pure accident, became a science teacher. He taught in schools in England and Spain for several years, and always wanted a farm. He hates heat and greatly prefers men. He is obviously considered a bit of a weirdo (if not hugely so) in the village: he is dark, he speaks scraps of Polish (can you even imagine a Pakistani speaking Polish?? definitely an imagine to cherish in darker times:)))), lives in the ruins of the farm and hosts hords of Korean children on its ground (he teaches in the international school in Krakow). He is also adored by the locals; I assume partly because he provides much needed enterntaintment to them, but mainly because of his unbelievably generous nature and love for life and laughter.

The time I spent on this small and beautiful Pakistani-Polish farm made me believe even stronger in the importance of making decisions when the time is right. How the hell do you know when such time comes? I have no idea, but I will know when that time comes; I hope so anyway:)..

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