Stranded in Guilin
Brian is a Contributor for TCW, an Analyst at TD Securities, business undergrad, and a former exchange student from Singapore, where he travelled 7 countries.
There is a city in Guangxi, China, known as the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus. Surrounded by innumerable Osmanthus trees and marked by karst topography, the place serves as a fantastic destination for adventurers and sight-seeing enthusiasts. Tom, a backpacker from Europe, told me about his experience hiking up the Elephant Trunk Hill and journeying across the Lipu Mountains. He was travelling with a few nomads but decided to split ways before embarking on a solo trip to the Cuiping Village near the Li River. It was the last thing on his itinerary before flying back to Germany. He had just enough Chinese Yuan to cover for food and the bus fare to Guilin Liangjiang International Airport. He told me it was at this juncture of his journey that something remarkable happened.
He was travelling around the countryside, deeply engrossed by the scenery, food, and cultural activities. While he was mesmerized by the whole experience, he completely lost track of time. It wasn’t until late in his trek that he realized that the last bus was in an hour. He was at least two hours away from the bus terminal if he travelled by foot. Distraught and incredibly fearful, he frantically paced down the village roads, tumbling and dropping his luggage on several occasions. He wasn’t even able to think coherently because his mind was whirling in panic, incorrectly tracing his steps and finding himself in an unknown area of town. The sky was getting dark and rain started to pour. It was evident that he was going to miss the last bus and he had no idea where he was. Initial stress for missing his flight has now transitioned to fear for his safety.
There were no cars or pedestrians in sight and he couldn’t mentally map out the walkthrough he followed to get here. The only things he saw were distant paddy fields, some abandoned huts, and dark forests along the roads. He did not have enough money to stay at an inn (if he could even find one) and to make matters worse, he didn’t even know how to explain his situation to the locals because he couldn’t speak Mandarin nor any other Chinese dialect. He was stranded in the middle of nowhere, in a foreign country that is halfway across the world, with no friends or family members he could reach out to. In that single moment, he had never been more petrified and desperate in his entire life.
Almost in answer to his calling, he started seeing a dim light from afar that was approaching closer and closer. He squinted his eyes and made out the headlights of an old beaten taxi, and almost immediately, he started yelling and sprinting towards the vehicle. The car stopped in front of him as the window rolled down, revealing the driver as an old man. Tom tried to explain his situation, flailing his arms in an attempt to gesticulate his story. The old man stared at him, took a look at his carry-ons and luggage, and as if he understood the whole situation, gestured him to get in the car. Tom hopped on and the car started bustling down the road. A few minutes into the ride, thoughts of hesitation, skepticism, and fear started creeping into Tom’s mind.
“Does he know where I want to go? I don’t think he knew what I was saying.”
“Wait, what if he’s going to kidnap me and lock me up somewhere? He found me in the middle of nowhere and nobody knows where I am. I am literally the perfect target for him! I don’t remember seeing any comments or reviews on Lonely Planet about Guilin being a dangerous place?!”
The man saw his expression from the car seat mirror, laughed loudly and tossed a towel at him. He pointed towards a distant farm from atop a hill, and then at his own eyes. Tom understood and figured he probably lived up there and saw him lying on the barren road. Thanking him, Tom quickly pulled out his flight ticket and pointed at the time of departure section, practically stuffing it in his face. He smiled and dramatically stuck two thumbs up. The car screeched and started belting down the road. It was a short ride, but it seemed forever. They couldn’t communicate verbally and Tom was constantly thinking about how he was going to pay the fare. He didn’t have enough money for the ride, but also knew this was his only option.
After around 45 minutes, they arrived at the airport. Tom wasn’t going to miss his flight. Astonished and beyond grateful, he pulled out all his money from his vest and handed it to the old taxi driver. He knew it wasn’t enough and he was prepared to give some of the stuff he had in his luggage, for whatever they were worth. The driver smiled and shook his head, kindly pushing Tom’s hand back to his vest pocket. He helped Tom carry his luggage out and with a wave of his hat, he left as quickly as he first appeared. Dumbstruck by what just happened, Tom stood still for a few minutes before walking towards the platform for his flight. He didn’t even get the chance to ask for his name.
The series of events that transpired in the narrative are based on a true story. What makes this act of kindness so unforgettable and extraordinary? Maybe it's because of his dire situation and the fact that anything could've happened to him. He could've been stranded there forever, with no food, no shelter, and certainly no game plan for returning home. I think the most incredible part of it all, however, is how a Good Samaritan just came along and helped him without expecting anything in return. Tom was a foreigner and most likely, he wasn't going to be seeing him ever again, so there was nothing to gain. Not only did he go through the trouble of driving a complete stranger all the way to the airport, but his own safety was at risk as well. Think about his situation. The sky was dark, it was starting to rain, and then you see a man walking on the countryside road by himself. I think most of us would be too spooked to reach out or maybe we just don’t want to get involved, which calls in question the differences in psychology and the rationale of people in our environment. Tom was initially doubtful in the car because he has rarely engaged with such friendly (and life-saving) strangers. He probably couldn’t imagine receiving the same treatment in his own city.
The concept of helping someone is very simple. In society today, however, we often see a different kind of human interaction; one that is powered by self-interest and combats the principle of altruism portrayed by the taxi driver. The increasing complexities of work politics and social influences have made the concept of "genuinely" helping one another rare in practice. An employee would obviously help a manager or director if he wanted to better his chances for a promotion. Similarly, a man might help the elderly cross the road if he was trying to look good in front of his crush. While the act itself is good, the intention and reason behind it is sometimes even more important. Decision-making is driven by our rationale, emotions, and our evaluation of the pros and cons involved. Would the employee help if it was for a janitor or an employee from a different team? Would the man help the seniors if the girl he was trying to impress wasn't there?
Many believe that people are innately good in nature. Ambitions, day-to-day influences, social media, and other factors, however, may have changed who we are. I think most people accept this and realize that the way they think and interact have indeed altered, even if slightly. Maybe we’re used to behaving under different personas in front of the public and it has ultimately become part of us in character. Or maybe we’re so preoccupied with our own agendas and lives that we don’t pay enough attention. Do we need to see a “pro” in helping someone in order to do it? It would be sad to imagine yourself in Tom's shoes and find out that no taxi is going to pull up to help.