Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Kindness

Day 33. Unlike Blanche DuBois, I have never depended upon the kindness of strangers. I like to be as independent as possible, and tend to rely on wit, research, common sense and phrase books to do most things while I’m traveling. I’m usually pretty successful, and my travels don’t generally throw me anything I can’t cope with. Even so, I am ever so grateful when the kindness of strangers shows up.

I had a day to spend in Jakarta, having arrived from Manado at ten in the morning for a one a.m. flight to Manila. Me being me and Indonesia being famous for batik, I dumped my luggage at the airport and went shopping. I’d read about a huge shopping district called Blok M in central Jakarta, so that’s where I headed. The first unexpected bit of kindness I received was from a man standing next to the airport info desk. I had stopped by to check whether I would likely find what I wanted at Blok M (research!) and approximately how long and how much it would cost me to get there so I could make sure I had enough rupiyahs (common sense). As I was asking my questions, this old guy who was just standing around told me about a bus I could take directly to the shopping district that would cost one tenth the price of a cab. Thank you very much sir, and that’s what I did.

Having duly arrived, I hit the nearest shopping mall. I worked all five floors but couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere, so I stopped in a craft shop and asked the ladies sitting there eating lunch. They spoke very little English and I didn’t have a phrase book (I hadn’t even realized that I had the day in Jakarta, and so hadn’t prepared), but we managed to communicate well enough (wit!) for them to point me in the direction of a totally different department store across the street, through the street market (where the quality was not reliable, or at least I think that’s what they meant) and over the way.

I found the place, and it had exactly what I wanted. Two floors of Indonesian arts and crafts. So, being sensible, I asked about shipping items home before I went mad and bought out the shop, and was assured there was a place in the basement that would wrap and ship my items home. So I shopped.

The shipping issue was important for two reasons: one, I’d been paying overweight baggage charges throughout SE Asia and I still had a way to go, and two, I wanted to buy a couple of awkwardly shaped and rather delicate items that would be difficult to keep safe in a bag with all my heavy-duty dive gear.

I found the shipping counter in the basement as promised, but was told it would not be open for business for another couple of weeks. So much for research. The gentleman at the not-yet-finished shipping desk did suggest the central post office, and then realized I couldn’t get there before it closed. He pointed me in the direction of the travel agent when I asked if the airport had a post office or a UPS, but she didn’t think it did. At least I think that’s what she said. I was kicking myself for not having a phrase book. So much for independence.

A young Korean man had been watching my growing distress and stepped in. He suggested DHL in central Jakarta, and asked the travel agent to call and see if they were open. As she dialed, the young man and I got to chatting, and I learned that he was in the herbal shampoo business and was currently a student in Tokyo learning Japanese to increase his market possibilities there. He had popped into Jakarta to visit his office there, and would be going back to Japan shortly. We talked about Dubai and he mentioned he was planning to go there too, whereupon I gave him my email address and told him I had no shampoo contacts, but I could certainly buy him a drink when he came to town. By this time, we had an answer – DHL was open (hurray!) and I thanked the young man, thinking I’d find a cab and go. Nonsense. He insisted on coming with me. Possibly because he wanted to see how it played out, but probably because he realized that it would be hopeless for me to try to get anything done without a word of Indonesian. I refused to put him out; he insisted. I was silently relieved.

Long story short: DHL wanted to charge me the ‘up to 25 kg’ rate to send my 5 pounds of batik and souvenirs (they charge by the box size, not weight) and that was nearly $300 US. Utterly ridiculous. He argued, he cajoled, he talked to the head office on the phone – no dice. I took my package back and he looked crestfallen that he couldn’t manage to get it shipped for me.

Well, Mr. Oh Byoung Chul, it doesn’t matter a bit. I am ever so grateful for all of your help and, as it happens, I managed to make a sturdy enough container for the delicate thing and put it in my luggage with the dive gear. It has made it to the Philippines undamaged, so with luck, it will make it home. And I will look for an email from you telling me when you’ll be in Dubai. We’ll take you to dinner, and I will look for contacts in the health and beauty field for you. I make no promises, but it’s the very least I can do to repay the kindness of a stranger.

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