The anticipation of landing at a strange foreign airport brings a bundle of conflicting thoughts to the mind of the traveler. At least it does to this traveler. When I am a passenger in an airplane on a final approach to a foreign airport I experience a feeling of both the excitement and uneasiness of looking forward to the unknown.
On an August day in 2002 I left Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I was doing development work, to go on an R&R trip to Bangkok, Thailand. It was my first trip to Thailand and I was looking forward to time away from the torrid and dusty Kandahar summer. I did not have a hotel reservation in Bangkok. I had one in mind at which I had planned to stay but decided to take a chance and wait until I reached Bangkok.
After arriving in Bangkok, and claiming my luggage, I walked out to the taxi holding area, paid for a round trip fare to town and took the next taxi in the queue. The driver was both personable and chatty. We had problems understanding each other but we managed to talk about family and our work. He asked where I had come from and I told him Afghanistan. He was quite concerned that I was working in the unstable country. He also wondered why I had chosen the hotel to which I had directed him. He suggested another at half the price and in a good area. I did what a traveler shouldn’t do; I decided to take his suggestion. I had actually read about the hotel in a guidebook so I knew I couldn’t go too far wrong.
The hotel turned out to be okay. It was worn but comfortable. It was also in a bustling area full of tourists. When I left my hotel for the first couple of days I was constantly stopped by peddlers asking me if I wanted company for the evening. They even pulled out pictures of possible companions. After being stopped five or six times I got annoyed. I started thinking about my taxi driver and questioned his motives for directing me to the hotel. Finally the truth dawned on me. Gray-haired men of my age, traveling alone, usually go to Thailand for reasons other than sightseeing. My driver apparently assumed that I was there for those reasons. He was trying to accommodate me.
After a time the peddlers finally figured out I wasn’t interested in their offers and left me alone. I relaxed and spent a delightful week in Bangkok.
On the morning I left Thailand, and by previous arrangement, the same driver came to pick me up at the hotel. From his conversation I could tell that he had found out I wasn’t the type of tourist he thought I was. We had a very pleasant trip to the airport through the bustling Bangkok traffic. We again talked about family. He told me how difficult it was to make a living because of the post-9/11 tourist slowdown. He questioned me about Afghanistan. He asked how difficult it was and if I felt secure. He seemed genuinely worried about my welfare.
When we reached the airport the driver got out of the taxi to wish me goodbye. He modestly handed me a small object. I looked and saw that it was a medallion with the figure of a Buddha on it. He told me he was worried about my safety and said that Buddha would protect me. He also told me the proper way to wear the medallion to both protect me and honor Buddha. He then bid me goodbye, got back in his taxi, and left.
My trip back to Kandahar was filled with thoughts of the ironies in this tumultuous world. Initially both the Thai driver and I misunderstood the other’s intentions. I thought about how often that must happen with tragic consequences. I have had the privilege to travel and work in many countries over the past few years. If there is one certainty I have learned in my travels it is the evidence of the brotherhood of man. When we get past the fears of another’s culture or religion or perceived intentions we find that most of us share the same desires and concerns. We want security and peace for our loved ones and our friends.
The thoughtful actions of a taxi driver in Bangkok personified the important and often forgotten connection that all humanity shares.