Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trust Your Fellow Man

I'm writing this post at 4:50am, and you know what that means: another night of furious tutorial-writing has come and gone, and the caffeinated Diet Coke I guzzled a few hours ago to get me through the last push still has too much of a hold on me to let me go to bed. It's hard to believe I only have 4 papers left to write in my time at Oxford, ever. I feel like I've been doing nothing but writing (and thinking about writing) for the past six months. As much as I stress about it, I was remarking with a couple other kids in the program as we walked back from an amazing dinner at Atomic Burger (a burger place that makes the most outrageous themed burgers and holds to an unrepentantly Sci-Fi theme - I would have taken pictures, but I inhaled my food too rapidly for it to be documented on film) that I'm really going to miss the tutorial process.

But anyway, that's not quite on the topic I had in mind. I wanted to write about something that I've been thinking about since my trip to Ireland last weekend (which was pretty awesome, by the way: a more complete report and tons and tons of photos can be found over on my horsey blog, accessible here). It's the idea of community, and of trust in others.

(A photo that didn't make the other writeup: Ha'Penny Bridge all lit up on my one and only night in Dublin - sigh... I would have loved to have seen more of it!)
That is, that there are far more extremely good-hearted people out in the world than I want to give credit for. As a child, I was totally haunted by the idea of being kidnapped, and so took the "never talk to strangers" motto deeply to heart, even though the one time I broke that cardinal childhood rule (when I got lost at Fenway Park as a four year old and asked the first random stranger I could find for help) it was probably, paradoxically, the smartest thing I could have done to keep from getting abducted because it meant that I got put in official care that much faster. As I grew older, my mistrust of strangers got greater and greater, and I remember being absolutely paranoid on my first trip to Europe by myself: I would make sure all my activities terminated before dark so I could hole up in my room and not have to deal with encountering possible murderers in darkened Austrian and Belgian alleyways. There was one night I remember where I was trying to find a public phone in Bruges to call home from, and it was about 9:30 in December and I found myself in a dark street with a group of men; I absolutely panicked and didn't walk but ran back to my hotel, all thoughts of phone calls forgotten, all because of mere proximity to a group of uncertain-looking strangers. While I obviously survived the trip (I am here writing this account, after all), it certainly took a bit of joie de vivre out of the experience.

(Dublin looking very emo the afternoon I arrived)

Though I've tried to get better about it, I'm still just not a very trusting person with people I don't know. It's partially my shyness and partially my independence, but it still puts my stomach in knots to even talk to the bus driver (I much prefer the bland anonymity of the train, with its automatic tellers and ticket scanners). And yet, when I do force myself to take a step out of my well-entrenched comfort zone, my experience is almost always better for it.

(Traveling alone = an inherent amount of StrangerDanger that has to be overcome! But it's soo worth it)

On Friday night in Ratoath, the little town I was spending the weekend in, I arrived exhausted after a long and stressful day of travel. I still faced a 40 minute walk with my 15 kilo backpack along a twisty, shoulderless road. Now, I was definitely prepared to do this (I did it coming back, after all!), but when a man offered to give me a ride fairly sketchily and out of the blue, I decided I was tired enough to swallow my pride (and my fear) and take it. Not only was my trip ten times shorter and easier as a result (and I wasn't raped and killed), but I also thoroughly enjoyed the conversation I had along the way.

It reminded me of last summer in Greece, where I had to make the biggest leap of faith I've ever had to make in a stranger in my entire life. I successfully overcame my extremely vivid visions of being abducted into the Thessalian mountains and brutally murdered, and accepted the offer of a moped ride with a humorously corpulent man up the side of a mountain to go visit the monasteries I'd come to see. The ride that resulted has ended up being one of my favorite travel memories of all time, speeding up and down barrier-less roads that traversed the face of a cliff with unbelievable (if at times death-defying) views of the plain far far below, all while dodging goats and sheepdogs along the way. And it never would have happened without a little (or in my case, a HUGE) vote of trust in my fellow man.

(I still can't believe the only picture I took was of the ONE section of road that had a safety barrier on it)

(The awesome Meteora cliffs that I got to moped up)

(My driver and our sweet ride)

I was just generally overwhelmed with the good karma passed my way on this trip. Besides the man who gave me a lift, another gentleman helped me set up my tent when the wind was making it a total pain, everyone I spoke to was friendly and kind, and people I ran into on Saturday morning remembered me and wished me well as I left on Sunday afternoon. It was a reminder that, if I can make myself do it, the larger community of the world is a generally good and exciting place to be (if still explored intelligently, without making wildly rash decisions that land you riding around in a stranger's panel van at 3 in the morning...).

It was also a serious reminder of how lucky I am, and how I need to pay this good karma forward. I was also reminded of this fact very painfully today by the news that a farm I've been to before (and where I got Ringo from) lost six horses last night in a horrific barn fire. One of the working students led the effort to heroically save five other horses, at the expense of burns to her hands and feet, but was unable to save her own horse in the blaze. I can't imagine a more painful and moving example of selflessness. I could only hope that I could act a fraction as bravely in a similar situation. It's a very sobering reminder to be thankful, enjoy my blessings while I have them, and continue on the road to becoming the best person I can be.

(It makes my unhappy thoughts towards Ryanair seem even more petty... though that does not mean that I'll be flying them again any time soon if I can help it!)

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