The Kindness of South American Strangers

My savior in Pereira

Monday was a terrible morning that turned into a wonderful day thanks to the kindness of a Colombian stranger. I am now traveling in Antioquia, a region of Colombia known for extremely welcoming people. They treat you as a family member immediately. It is such a special feeling to travel in a place like Antioquia (or the Northeast of Brazil), especially when I am in vulnerable and in need.

I was sitting in the bus station of Medellin, an impressive, well organized city that had just finished hosting its annual party, the Feria de las Floras. I had rushed from Barichara, a dreamy small town of beauty and tranquility in the mountains, to get to Medellin in time for the last day of the Feria de las Floras when campesinos parade through the city with massive, elaborate flower arrangements on their backs and compete for prizes.

My trip to Medellin was a bit of a bust. I couchsurfed with a young woman whose birthday was Sunday, and for a variety of reasons we never got to the parade. I would have struck out on my own but I felt sick and weak. I thought the pain was period-related. But I vomited during lunch at a restaurant. In the middle of the night I vomited again, bewildered about why. Just wanting out of Medellin, I packed my bags the next morning for a 9:15 bus to Pereira, and then on to the coffee mountain town of Salento.

I didn’t realize the root of my sickness until I got to the bus station. Tap water! I never drank the tap water in close to seven months of travelling in South America, but my host had told me that Medellin water was safe to drink. Since the town seemed practically American in its organization, I believed her. Mistake! As I sat there waiting to board my bus, I suddenly knew that my nausea was more than period-related. It’s not exactly fun to write about diarrhea, but, there you go.

Oh what dread! Five hours on a bus. I had already bought the ticket.

As we waited to embark, a second in command to the driver walked through the bus distributing black plastic bags to use in case of sickness. Amazing. I have taken dozens of buses in Brazil and Colombia, this was the first time a bus ever distributed sick bags.

I felt a compulsion to marvel over the irony of it all. The man sitting next to me seemed very friendly. Alvaro was in his 50s or 60s, in jeans and a button-down shirt. He had told me his is an electrical engineer and sometimes works in Nigeria and that he has a brother who lives in New York. His sixteen year old daughter is already studying engineering at the university and his son is in his second semester of medical school.

Alvaro asked me if I had any medicine or toilet paper and I said, no, I just realized the nature of my sickness before boarding the bus. He said he would talk to the driver to ask them to stop at a pharmacy and buy me Coke, a medication, and toilet paper. I couldn’t believe they would really stop. Bus drivers have never been that nice.

Alvaro rolled up his jacket to offer it to me as a pillow. I took a nap as we rolled through Colombia’s stunning countryside. I woke up and Alvaro had a Coke, toilet paper and a pill for me. I was stunned. While we rode he pointed out the kinds of trees, wax palms, and when coffee plants started to populate the countryside.

Alvaro called his wife and told me that I should stay with his family in Pereira before taking the bus to Salento the next morning so I could get well at his house. He called his wife put her on the phone to me while we were on the bus. Suddenly I was talking with his wife. I had a two hour layover, so I figured, why not?

Alvaro’s wife served us a beautiful lunch of chicken, rice, soup, and vegetables. I ate only the rice and soup to stay simple. She squeezed lemon into Coke for me at her husband’s request and that was delicious. Alvaro showed me his 15 or so birds—the man had to be quirky in some way. He really wanted me to meet his daughter so she could practice her English with me. He really wants me to come back and we’ll all go to a coffee farm together. Why did this man care so much about me and my sickness? He didn’t have to buy me Coke and medicine and toilet paper and get the whole bus to stop on my account.

Alvaro took me on a quick tour of his town, Pereira. In 15 minutes we met seven of his best friends, from a campesino selling fruits to another engineer. Absolute magic. It’s amazing how when you go to a non-touristy city with few attractions people take you in as you as gold to them. I couldn’t really understand why my well-being and presence was so important to Alvaro. He just seemed to want me as a member of his family for a little while, mi casa es su casa.

I’ve been waiting for this kind of thing to happen in Colombia, but I suppose it takes a moment of vulnerability. I’ve received so much kindness and care from strangers in Brazil. In Sao Paolo, my couchsurfing host took me to a hospital the morning after we met for emergency antibiotics. In Rio I found myself alone on New Year’s Eve in Copacabana. A family adopted me for the night and I slept at their house in Jacarapegua, the Brooklyn of Rio. When I’m traveling alone there are always moments of sickness or loneliness and vulnerability. And in the countries I have chosen to visit, there’s almost always an angel who comes to help. Those experiences are the ones that bring me in closer contact with the culture of everyday life, and I am grateful for them. I’m almost grateful that I drank that tap water and got sick.