When you lose your way or really need help badly, you’ll often encounter a kind of real magic when traveling: the kindness of strangers who are eager to help.
Hikers call it “trail magic” – when someone leaves a cooler of ice and water on a hiking trail for whomever encounters it. But when traveling internationally there is often a kind of magic that happens organically, majestically. I call it the travel gods.
It happened to Masayo and I as we were trying to find a town called Kuala Selangor in Malaysia.
After almost a month in the capital Kuala Lumpur, we finally bought a bus ticket to nearby Kuala Selangor… but missed the stop. You’re supposed to tell the driver when you want to get off, but we didn’t know that, and watched in confused horror when we apparently shot right by the town.
The friendly driver
After a few miles, over which we tried desperately to figure out if we had indeed missed our stop, I asked the driver “Kuala Selangor?” and he immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stepping off the bus with us. He spoke no English, but from what we could understand, we had missed Kuala Selangor.
He couldn’t turn around but there was a bus station up ahead we could try.
We thanked him and started walking, but he started walking with us — his other passengers still sitting in the idling bus! Eventually he passed us off to an older woman with a headscarf who had also gotten off the bus; she said she’d show us the way. We thanked the driver and he returned to his vehicle and pulled away.
The friendly lady
The woman spoke a little English, enough to invite us to stay at her place if necessary. But as we neared a busier-looking area, a middle-aged guy in a white car pulled up. He and the woman spoke for a couple of minutes, and then it was decided that he would drive us back to Kuala Selangor in his car. Throwing caution to the wind, Masayo and I and our bags climbed in. We smiled and thanked the older lady, who walked off down the sidewalk.
The friendly boxer (well, sorta)
The driver’s was Muhammad Ali — he was a government worker and had just finished work, showing us the ID badge he was still wearing. (I wondered if he was showing it to us to assuage any fears we might have, or if he was just confirming that he really did share the name of a famous fighter.) He said he had seen us gesticulating with the bus driver on the side of the road and turned around to see if we needed help.
His English was pretty good, and as we arrived in Kuala Selangor he said he only knew of one hotel, and if there was a problem we could stay at his place. (We had no reservations, so it was all kind of up in the air anyway.)
We neared the only “nice” hotel in the area but I knew from my Rough Guide that it was out of our price range. I pointed out the smaller and dingier Hotel Kuala Selangor in the middle of town next to the mosque. He shrugged and dropped us off there, emphatically refusing my offer of money as thanks. We got our cheap room.
Nothing can make the clouds of travel fear dissipate better than meeting selfless strangers who are genuinely open and helpful. If you had to boil down the benefits of travel into a single thing, it would be the friendly faces you meet, in every corner of the globe, and the kindness they show that evokes the same instinct in you.
And if you’re really lucky, you might even get a ride from Muhammad Ali!
What lucky, friendly stories have you experienced while traveling?
Next page: Day 35: Kuala Selangor's wild menagerie
“Monkeys and human-sized lizards are just some examples of the bountiful wildlife in and around the town of Kuala Selangor, Malaysia.”