Kindness Makes The World Go ‘Round

As I wrote yesterday, reading The Kindness of Strangers stirred up memories of the many times William and I have been the recipients of random acts of kindness from complete strangers when traveling: the old man who drove his car in front of ours for 15 minutes so he could lead us to the restaurant we were looking for late one night in South Africa, the young Moroccan woman who brought a breakfast tray to my room when I was too sick to make it out of bed one morning in Fes, the middle-aged Indo-Fijian man who repeatedly gave us rides in his jeep to the main road on the island of Viti Levu, the young hotel employee in Bali who shyly gifted me with a beautiful hand-woven scarf the morning of our departure. 

Wherever we have gone in the world, we have been treated with kindness.  But my all-time favorite instance of outrageous goodness took place in New Zealand in 2005.

During our time on the North Island, William and I rented a canoe from an outdoors outfitter for a 145-kilometer paddle down the Wanganui River.  William thought we could finish our adventure in three days but the outfitter assured him it would take us four days to complete the journey and arranged to pick us up on the fourth afternoon at the dock in a place called Pipiriki. 

After two nights of pitching our tent in rustic campsites along the river and three days of hard paddling, it was clear that we would indeed finish the route a day early.  As we oared towards Pipiriki in the late afternoon we discussed our options: when we reached the town we could call the outfitter and have her come pick us up that evening; we could find a motel; we could camp out one last night.  Weary of damp sleeping bags and stiff muscles, I voted for the motel option and indulged in fantasies of sleeping in a warm, comfortable bed.

We swept triumphantly over the last rapid and pulled up to the dock in Pipiriki at dusk.  I looked around for a town or a campsite, but the only thing around us was the rickety wooden dock and a steep dirt road leading out of the tangled riverbank foliage.  While William stayed with the canoe and our gear, I walked up the road, hoping to discover a bustling town at the top of the hill.   To my dismay there was nothing except for one small, ramshackle house. 

Night was falling fast.  Not knowing what else to do I knocked on the door of the run-down dwelling.  An elderly Maori gentleman in a torn t-shirt and stained gray sweatpants stepped out onto the porch, introduced himself as Bob Gray and shook my hand as if he had been expecting me. He had the wardrobe of a vagrant and the manners of an aristocrat.  Bob Gray asked how he could be of service.  I explained that we had just pulled off the river a day early and wanted to contact Maree, our canoe outfitter, so that she could come pick us up.  Bob Gray smiled indulgently.  He would be happy to place the call for me, but there would be no way Maree would come a day early, he explained, not unkindly.  It was a two hour drive for Maree, and it was already turning dark.  Anyway, he shrugged, things just weren’t done that way in these parts.   You were picked up on the day that had been arranged in advance.   

Refusing to cave in to dejection, I inquired about a campsite.  He shook his white-haired head in amusement.  “There is no campsite here.”    “Well then,” I continued in an optimistic tone even though I already knew the futility of my request, “if you could kindly just direct me to a motel or hotel.”  Bob Gray laughed.  “Madame, this is a Maori town of 60 inhabitants.  Well, the population goes up whenever the Auckland jails release their prisoners, but then it’s only 80 or 90.  There aren’t any motels or hotels.   No stores, no lights, no restaurants.  The  ‘town’ of Pipiriki actually consists of just a few homes.”

For some reason, despite all of the bad news, I felt comforted.   Because Bob Gray didn’t seem the least bit perturbed about our plight, I figured there was no reason to panic.   I instinctively trusted this man, and didn’t hesitate for a moment after he hitched a flat-bed trailer to his beat up old car and ordered me to jump in.  We roared down the road, stirring up a cloud of dust that engulfed William when we reached him.  William, who was convinced that I had been abducted after I didn’t return right away, didn’t know whether to thank Bob Gray or haul off and deck him.  While I told him how this wonderful gentleman was riding to our rescue, Bob Gray loaded the canoe and all of our barrels onto his trailer as effortlessly as if they were feather pillows.  When I remarked on his amazing strength, Bob Gray noted with pride that he could still canoe the river by himself at age 73.  He didn’t seem impressed by William’s boast of our 3-day accomplishment, but instead seemed to find it a rather silly feat.  Why would someone rush down the river and not take the time to fully savor its pleasures of relaxation?  I shot William a look of triumph, as I, too, had repeatedly questioned why we had to ‘push the river,’ so to speak.

Bob Gray motioned us into his wreck-of-a-car and drove us a couple hundred feet from his house to a postage-stamp sized piece of land that served as the community park.  It contained a small building that consisted of public restrooms and an open, concrete-floored room protected from the elements by a wooden roof.  He told us we could camp there for the night.  As William and I unloaded our gear, Bob Gray regaled us with tales of rape and murder committed by drunk or drug-addled villagers.  His eyes then lit with excitement as he confided that he would like to burn down his own house for the insurance, making sure that a certain local official he detested was in it when he set it aflame.  He went into exquisite detail, and suddenly our guardian angel seemed more like an emotionally deranged demon.  I was relieved when he finally took his leave.

I had just about stopped shaking from Bob Gray’s murderous fantasies when his car roared back up to our makeshift campsite.  Oh God, I thought, maybe he was going to kill us to make sure we couldn’t go to the authorities with news of his pyromaniacal threats.  I was utterly ashamed of myself when he produced two foam mattresses and a couple of canvas tarps so that we might rest more comfortably that night.  After an invitation to come to his house in the morning, he bid us good night and left us to our evening. 

The next day dawned chilly but clear.  It was before 8:00 when Bob Gray’s jalopy reappeared.  He hustled our half-packed belongings onto his flatbed trailer, warning that our campsite was about to be overrun by villagers who would be using the toilets and dumping their trash in the bins.  They would be curious about us, and badger us with endless questions if he didn’t get us out of there.  That didn’t seem like such an awful thing to William or me, but Bob Gray was insistent that we follow his orders and evacuate the place. 

When he drove up to his house, there were four people congregating on his front porch — English and Australian tourists, Bob Gray informed us, waiting to take a jet-boat upriver.  Bob Gray ushered us all into his house.  The place was tiny and disorganized and crammed with the little curios that one accumulates over a lifetime, but it was clean.  He motioned us to take seats on some beat-up chairs and a threadbare couch and disappeared into the kitchen to put on a kettle.  After he returned to the living room with a tray of biscuits and cups of tea, Bob Gray proceeded to play the role host with all the grace and etiquette of a Buckingham Palace social director.  He kept the conversation and the tea flowing and soon we all felt like chums. 

Eventually, the other tourists departed.  It was still several hours before the canoe outfitter was to pick us up.  We spent the time learning from Bob Gray.  Not only was he an excruciatingly polite gentleman, he was a well-educated one, as well.  Born into a poor family, he had nevertheless excelled in school and had attended a fine college.  He had a decades-long career teaching Maori history and mythology from every level from elementary school to university before retiring to his ancestral home in Pipiriki.  Bob Gray regaled us with Maori legends, tales of his upbringing and lessons on New Zealand history.  Sensing our genuine respect for, and interest in, his culture, he confessed his considerable pride in his Maori heritage, and eventually shared his given name with us — Te Wheturere.  It was a name he never revealed to white folks, he confided, because they were generally dismissive of all things Maori and would never be able to pronounce it correctly, anyway. 

William and I felt deeply honored, and from that point onward in our conversation with him, (plus our fond reminisces of him after we returned to Los Angeles, and our continued correspondence by letter), he was Te Wheturere.  Our visit ended with a tour of the creek that was hidden alongside his house.  Te Wheturere considered it a sacred spot, and it was where he did his bathing since he didn’t have a bathroom in his house. (He had to use the public toilets where we had camped out in front of the night before.)  I was awed by the dignity of this man.  In spite of the grinding poverty that old age had delivered he refused to take the money we tried to offer him for his kindness.  (We were later able to mail him some by insisting that we were simply making a koha, a Maori offering of respect…) When the outfitter finally arrived to pick us up, I felt sad that we had to leave.  I also felt that the privilege of spending time with this great man would prove to be the highlight of our entire trip.  Seven years later, it is Te Wheturere we talk about most when we reminisce about our adventures in New Zealand.

Peace & Blessings,