I scowled at the couple blocking my escape from the sweaty, claustrophobic clutches of the Metro.
With their heads buried in a map they were oblivious to the mounting anger amid the chaos of rush hour commuters circling them; like an unwanted damn they blocked the bottom of the stairs preventing the rising tide of morning travellers from passing.
I don’t speak French but their accents were coated in confusion and it was obvious from their puzzled looks as they traced the coloured spiders’ legs with their fingers that they were lost.
One of them looked up and slowly scoured the mass of people, his eyes frantically flitting from person to person, hoping to spot a friendly face amid the sea of solemn suits to set them on the right path.
He paused and latched onto my gaze. As he lunged towards me, desperation spilling out of his cornflower blue eyes, and opened his mouth to start pitching his plea, I ducked my head and like a rhinoceros stampeded through the pile of people towards the exit.
As the warm rays of the morning sun caressed my face and I broke into a half-jog to reach work on time, the guilt started to set in, tickling the edges of my conscience.
By the time I sat down at my desk, the guilt had taken hold, latched on tight, greedily tearing my conscience to shreds, and trying to convince myself that I would have been late for work if I’d stopped to help wasn’t doing anything to help.
My mind raced back to the three men who’d greeted us with wide grins as we stepped onto the train from Goa to Kerala in India; strangers in a foreign land.
With confusion written on our faces, just like the French couple I’d ignorantly ignored, they welcomed us on board, showed us to our seats, made sure we had clean sheets and told us they were on hand if we needed any help.
During the 18-hour journey, the sound of their bellowing laugh and load chatter erupted at regular intervals as they came to check that everything was ok and stopped for a chat over chai, samosas and fried bananas they insisted on buying from the wallahs that swamp the train at every stop.
Ok, so you can argue that they’re paid employees but these guys went above and beyond the line of duty. Their reason? “Because it’s our job to welcome foreigners into our beautiful country,” Amardeep said, letting out a deep chortle as he proudly stroked the long white beard that hung over a T-shirt bearing profanities that were best left unexplained.
Another stranger that snuck his way into my heart is Govind. Three years ago, my then fiancé and I were celebrating after having got engaged in the shadow of the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
Cramped into a dark corner in the upstairs of iconic Indian haunt Leopold’s, the fans doing nothing to appease the suffocating heat, we asked a waiter to take our photo.
“We’ve just got engaged you see,” I gushed as I flashed him my engagement ring, unable to contain my excitement.
“Congratulations,” he shouted. “My wife have her first baby in June. We marry one year ago.” After a bit more chatter, the waiter went off and came back moments later armed with a Leopold’s calendar, complete with a scrawled message in the corner: Have happy life, Govind.
Thanking him, he went back to work and we carried on celebrating before flying home the next day, with all traces of him erased from our mind as our daily routines set in.
A year later, we found ourselves sat downstairs in the same place. As I was about to order my bowl of beef chilli, I noticed the waiter staring at me with an impish grin.
“You no remember me?” he asked, disappointed at the blank looks on our face. “I served you here last year, just after you engaged. I gave you calendar. You remember now?”
Of course I remember the calendar; it hangs proudly in our kitchen, a framed memory of the night we got engaged, but there’s not a chance I remember the face of the person who gave it to us.
“I have baby now,” he said. “Siddiqah. She is six-months-old. Make me very happy.” As the night went on, on the rare occasion Govind had a moment to himself he returned to our table to tell us about his new found love for life as a dad and to ask about our wedding plans.
“Tomorrow, I take you to meet my family. Please.” Hesitantly, we agreed to meet him at the café at 10am. And sure enough, the next day we turned up, ignoring the niggling caution echoing in our ears. Who is this person? What does he really want? Why is he being so nice?
After leading us through a narrow network of winding stone corridors that sat off the main street, we reached a sprawling mass of metal precariously balanced like a matchstick tower into makeshift homes, ready to tumble at a whisper of wind.
“This my home,” Govind said, pointing at the small settlement over the road. Minutes later, after weaving our way through the even tighter maze of tunnels that separate the homes, we were clambering up a set of rickety wooden poles and squeezing through a tight hole to meet Govind’s family.
For four hours we sat cross-legged on shabby rugs laid out on the cool concrete floor as Govind’s wife cooked us course after course of food over a small stove in the corner of the room. Laughter bouncing off the four small walls that they called home as we were treated to a kindness I never knew existed.
Govind fired questions at us, eager to learn more about the Western way of life, and he reminisced as he told us tales of the family he had left behind, while offering us bottles of Kingfisher beer and ice-cream, bought especially for us.
And as we left, he handed me a beautiful turquoise scarf as a goodbye gift, rebuffing my cries of protest. Not only had we already accepted far too much of their generosity but it scared me to think how much this few hours had cost them – a week’s wages? A month’s? More?
To this day Govind stays in touch, rushing to an Internet café to check we’re ok via email after hearing about last summer’s London riots on the news or to send us photos of his daughter and, most recently, his son.
So, as I sat at my desk in front of my computer I took a vow. The next time I see a tourist in distress the least I can do, having being treated to such kindness, is spare a few minutes out of my day to offer a helping hand.