The turn-off to Maloula on the road from An-Nabk to Damascus, Syria (June 9, 2010)
Early on the afternoon of June 9, 2010, I stood on the side of a Syrian highway and took this picture. For the previous two nights I had been staying at Deir Mar Musa, a monastery perched on a mountainside near An-Nabk, and now I was on my way to overnight at the Convent of Saint Thecla, a Greek Orthodox convent in Maaloula.
But this post is about neither of those places. Instead, it is to share with you, the reader, about the kindness of a stranger toward a cheap budget traveler.
* * *
As I stood at the ticket window in An-Nabk inquiring about transport to Maaloula, I was told that the way to get to Maaloula is this: you buy a seat on a minibus going to Damascus; you then get off at the Maaloula turnoff (see picture above); and then you wait to flag down a passing ride to Maaloula. The cost from An-Nabk to the turn-off: 60 Syrian pounds, or roughly $1.30.
That’s the same price one pays if going all the way to Damascus too, and — well, I didn’t want to pay it. In the logic of a budget traveler with sparse income who is stretching every dollar, it made more sense to just walk to the highway and try to hitch a ride, or flag down a passing minibus coming south from Homs — surely a minibus with an empty seat would pull over and let me on for thirty pounds. I’d get a little adventure, save some money, and not feel a slight sense of injustice at paying the full price to Damascus even though I was going less than halfway there.
But here’s what happened next: Within seconds of leaving the ticket window, a local man ran up and said he thought I’d still end up paying 60 on the highway. “Do you not have much money?” he asked.
Such a simple yet complicated question. After all, I had enough to travel for many months in the Middle East. But that was only possible by being frugal in my spending.
The stranger continued to say (and I’m paraphrasing here): If what you want is to save thirty pounds, allow me to help you save it. I would rather give you thirty pounds toward your sixty pound ticket, helping you, than do nothing and watch you walk to the highway.
* * *
Sometimes a simple encounter tips over the shelf on which we have placed our principles, or at least our sense of operating independently in the world. I was stunned at this Syrian man standing before me.
Valuing independence, I could have told him, “No thanks, I am able to stand alone on the road and don’t need to be helped.”
Or, wanting to avoid the burden of his generosity, I could have said, “No thanks, I’ll go back to the window and just pay the sixty myself.”
Instead, I listened to the man say, and mean, that he wanted to help the stranger who, for whatever strange reason, seemed to have a need to save sixty-five cents. I let him know that I truly didn’t mind walking to the highway, but he affirmed that he truly wanted to help, and so he placed thirty pounds into my hand.
In this way, an “independent” traveler departed on the next leg of his journey, humbled, woven a little deeper into the fabric of our shared humanity.