The Kindness of South American Strangers

Traveling alone is fantastic but there will always be moments of sickness and vulnerability. But Brazil and Colombia are both famous for their warmth, where the people have stitched together a social safety net.
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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.

I was sitting in the bus station of Medellin, a well-organized city that had just finished hosting its annual party, the Feria de las Floras. I had rushed from Barichara, a dreamy colonial town of rare 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.

As we waited to embark, a second in command to the driver walked through the bus distributing black plastic sick bags in case we needed to vomit. 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. 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.

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. He had really managed to get the bus to stop at a pharmacy on my account.

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. 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. Alvaro showed me his 15 birds. 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, or finca, as they call them in Colombia.

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. Mi casa es su casa, he told me.

I've been waiting for this kind of thing to happen in Colombia, but I suppose it takes a moment of vulnerability. And the kindness just continues. Two days later a friend and I were coming back from spectacular hot springs in Santa Rosa to our hostel in the coffee town Salento. We missed the last bus and wound up on a bus riding between towns with nowhere to stay and no way to get back to our hostel. A Colombian-American on the bus offered us a free room at his mother's home, which he and his sister are turning into a bed and breakfast. 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. In Sao Paolo, my couchsurfing host took me to a hospital for emergency antibiotics.

Traveling alone is fantastic but there will always be moments of sickness and vulnerability. Brazil and Colombia are both famous for their warmth. The people here stitch together a social safety net--I get the feeling that I will never be left truly alone if I need help. There's almost always an angel who comes to help. Those experiences which seem so horrible at the time are the ones that bring me in closer contact with the culture of everyday life, when I get to see randomly inside a family's home or even the emergency room. I am grateful, even almost grateful that I drank that tap water and got sick.

Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone and To-Do List. She's has spent most of 2010 travelling in Brazil and Colombia. Read more at