Outside of our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, an ancient woman on crutches waited by the door with her hand outstretched. Every day I put my hand in hers as our eyes met. She never failed to return my smile, my grasp, and my "Sin chau" greeting.
John Cowper Powys has assured me that "No one can consider himself wholly civilized who does not look upon every individual, without a single exception, as of deep and startling interest." She was a beam of light in a shadowy doorway.
The last day of our visit to Vietnam, I found myself alone, on a busy street corner across from our hotel. Bicycles and motorbikes careened in front of me. We had been advised to walk straight through the teeming traffic without looking right or left. Let them avoid us. We had proved it possible, but tonight I was by myself, and felt inadequate to face the torrent of vehicles. As I hesitated on the curb, I felt a hand on my elbow, and looked down to see the smile of my small beggar friend looking up at me. She nodded her head toward the street, indicating that she would take me across. We moved slowly into the chaos together as she gently prodded me forward. When we reached the center of the crossing, I looked down at her again, and couldn't resist exclaiming,
"You have the most beautiful smile!”
She obviously knew little English, but must have recognized the tone, for she threw both arms and crutches around me in a genuine hug, while the traffic streamed by us on both sides. Then we moved on toward the sidewalk, where she pulled my face down, kissed me on both cheeks, and limped away, still smiling and waving back to me.
I had not given her a single coin. We had shared something vastly more important with each other. A warming of hearts in friendship.
Mother Teresa suggested, "If you cannot do great things, you can do small things with great love."
To look beggars in the eye and smile, thus acknowledging their existence, is a small thing. Putting a hand into another's outstretched hand and holding tight for a moment is also a small thing. Learning to use a greeting in the local language is not too difficult. Yet fear seems to distance us from one another, at our loss…
There are many reasons why giving money is not the best response to an outstretched hand. Many world rovers have discovered that the greatest gift we have to give while traveling is our time and friendship. Everyone needs recognition, to be seen as worthy of attention, to feel appreciated and loved.
Traveling with Americans in poorer nations, I have witnessed a variety of ways in which they deal with beggars. The most common response of tourists when faced with the poverty-stricken is to ignore their very existence, focusing eyes elsewhere. I have seen Americans push away an outstretched hand in angry annoyance. A few guilty tourists will hastily drop a few coins into a beseeching hand, and then execute a quick exit, in hopes that another twenty ragged pursuers won't immediately appear.
My life continues to be enriched by connecting with the humanity surrounding us. In astonishment, I discover that what I have been given is far beyond monetary value.
There was the legless man sitting by a road at the Pushcar Camel Fair in India. I sat down beside him, and we began to communicate in the kind of sign language and laughter one learns while vagabonding the world. Where does such joy come from? Moments before, we were total strangers, and suddenly we are cemented in a friendship born of our common existence in this world. His eyes shone as we exchanged names. Vidur confirmed what I have discovered, the special beauty of a new relationship. "Speak to the king, and the king will come forth."
When Vidur's smile lured me to join him, I was returning to our tent with my tape recorder replaying the exotic music that I had just captured of the dancing men of Pushkar. After mimicking the whirling skirts and sticks, I showed Vidur how my tape recorder worked. He motioned for me to give it to him. I hesitated only a fleeting moment. After examining it carefully, he began to sing a hauntingly beautiful song, indicating that he wanted me to take it home as a memory of our time together.
Why do we ever hesitate to share?
I did hesitate outside of a Vietnamese temple one day when a teenaged boy aggressively thrust a very deformed hand into my face. I pushed him away and entered the temple, where beggars were not allowed. Feeling pangs of guilt, I prepared myself to face him again when I emerged. I reminded myself of Jesus’s words, “As ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me."
Goethe came to mind as well, with his "To see a man as he is, is to debase him. To see him as he ought to be is to engrace him.".
I became determined to see the king, trusting the king to come forth. Sure enough, the hand was in my face again as I moved out of the temple. I looked past the ugliness into the determined boy's eyes, and asked him if he knew any English. He responded with a hesitant nod, so I started telling him how handsome he was, and how he could use his other hand, the good one, in the future. An education would help to lead him toward new creative ideas. Slowly his smile responded to mine and the misshapen hand totally disappeared as we became involved in a lively discussion in rather muddled English. I learned his name and age and dreams. He learned something about Americans.
When my transportation honked, we had to say goodbye. I reached into my pocket and retrieved a limp 2,000-dong note. I gave it to him, saying "This is not because you were begging, but because you are my friend, and I know you can start something good with it." He quickly put his good hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out a dime and two nickels. "What these?" he asked. I told him and we both laughed that his American coins had exactly the same value as the Vietnamese bill I had given to him. I reached out to put them back into his pocket, and this time he pushed my hand away, saying "No, you keep. We are friends."
After learning a greeting in any new language, I learn the word for "friend". I wear an elaborately beaded Masai necklace, given to me in Kenya as the result of my knowing the Swahili word for "friend". When Maria heard the word "rafiki", her skinny begging hand disappeared immediately, and she took my hand to lead me to her selling stall, where I was decorated with delight, and at no charge. Yet another friend had come into to my life. Maria and I had our picture taken together, and my daughter brought a copy of the photo back to Kenya a year later. When Maria saw it, she burst into tears, hugged my daughter and put one of her beautiful handcrafted necklaces around her neck. "Zawadi" (gift) she exclaimed. "Rafiki".
I continue to learn about giving from the world’s most hopeless. Rich in humanity, they have hearts yearning to be affirmed, and oh-so-ready to respond.
The great Russian writer, Dostoevsky, has told us "To love a person means to see him as God intended him to be."
Everyone is worthy.