Dr Jenn and I have now parted ways. She’s on her way back to the UK and I’ve headed down to Penang, a small island on the coast of Malaysia. I’ve done this route once before on my own. In fact, I’m going to cross over much of the same path that I did two years ago when I was exploring South East Asia, but this time, it feels different. Obviously, a lot can change in two years and indeed, some of the places have, but the biggest difference of all, is me.
There are some great aspects of travelling alone – meeting new like minded people, having the flexibility to do what you want and generally being selfish with all your decisions. However, all that comes at a price, because you’ve got to fend for yourself in all the tricky situations you get yourself into. Last time I was here I was completely carefree (some might also say a little bit reckless), which I guess is one of the things that left me vulnerable to being attacked in the first place. These days not only am I more conscientious but my awareness and instinct are super tuned into everything around me. There’s also a much deeper sense of compassion and empathy that I carry around with me too.
The journey down from Surat Thani (mainland Thailand) to Penang wasn’t the most comfortable of rides. A 12-hour journey in a small mini bus squeezed full of passengers and backpacks stuffed into every square inch. When we arrived at the border, everyone had to vacate the bus to pass through security with their bags, to then hop back into their new Tetris style position on the other side. While we took the opportunity to stretch our legs on the Malaysian side, a young Western woman in her late 20’s approached. She asked if we were headed to Penang and if so, could she get a lift? This woman had got out of her bus at the border under the impression that she could get her Thai visa renewed, then hop on another bus going back into Thailand. It wasn’t until she was stranded on her own that she realised that not only was this not possible but that transport in general around the border is pretty scarce. She was still another 2 hours drive from Penang which is where she needed to go for the visa and it was getting dark. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no room in our bus and, however much our driver might have wanted to cash in on this opportunity, she would’ve literally had to sit on top of bags in the gang way which wasn’t going to be safe or legal (not that these bus journeys are legit anyway, as we found out later when we got stopped by the Malay police). We had to turn this poor woman away and I instantly felt for her. It was dark, she was somewhere unfamiliar and she’d made a couple of misjudgments that had caused her to be in a vulnerable situation.
Two years ago this could have quite easily have been me and being as brazen as I was back then, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, brushing it off with “I’m Shereen, I’ll manage”. This time though, all I could think was, What if something bad happens to her?…What if she gets raped?
I spoke to her for a little while about what she was going to do and she said that she’d just get a hotel for the night and work it out in the morning. She didn’t look too panicked about her situation and clearly trusted in her ability to work it out. So we left her, completing the last 2 hours of our journey, while she was left to walk on the side of the highway, in the dark, alone. That night I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman and I just hoped that she was safe, wherever she’d ended up.
The following day I had to take the ferry across to the mainland and I was astonished and delighted to see her walking out of the ferry port. I literally screamed “Hey, you’re the girl from the other night! You’re ok!” as I held back on the “Thank god you didn’t get killed/raped” line that was on the tip of my tongue. I stopped to have a chat with her and we exchanged numbers, initially she was quite surprised at my level of concern but seemed grateful when I explained what had happened to me, which had led to my concern. For me, I physically couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes and feel scared, alone and with that ‘I’ve messed up’ kind of feeling. So when I saw her I was instantly relieved, naturally I became compassionate because these feelings inside me had been triggered.
Then I got thinking about compassion. What it is, why it’s important and how much of it is about these days. I was pondering this subject as I sat in an open-air Indian ‘restaurant’ (it was more of a street cafe) in Little India waiting for my food to arrive. As I sat there on my own I watched all the other people in the restaurant. The Malaysian, the Indian, the Chinese and the scattering of foreigners, all sitting together peacefully regardless of race, religion or beliefs. This harmony among people is what I love most about Malaysia, each sect unquestionably respects the other and there doesn’t seem to be a judgment of each other’s choice of beliefs. Everyone just gets on with their life and they seem to treat every person like the human being that they are. At least, I thought so… check out the Little India/Mosque/Chinese Lantern pic below.
As I people watched in the restaurant, I saw a middle-aged Indian man shuffle through the tables, stopping at each one to beg for money. He put his hand out at every table and stared at each person, one by one with his glaring eyes while he loudly asked for money in some language I didn’t understand. This man had erratic body language which was verging on aggressive, he leaned into every table, sometimes towering over people and then slammed his hand out. On rejection, he would jerk it back into his body and loudly slur some words out before moving to the next table to try the same tactic. To me it looked like he was quite emotionally driven and could have had some mental disability, he was most likely poor and quite obviously shunned by society. Hardly anyone gave this guy any money, most people acted like he didn’t even exist and a few gave him such a look of disgust that I felt embarrassed as a human to see them do it. By the time my food came he had resided to the alley way beside the restaurant and was screaming to an imaginary figure. He would viciously move his arms about like he was fending off an attacker and occasionally point up to the sky; I wondered if he was blaming someone up there for his situation.
Earlier that day I’d eaten in a similar street style cafe, in China town with the same diverse mix of culture. There was also a beggar at this cafe but the difference was that in this instance almost every single person gave her money. This woman was of a similar age, she looked Chinese and she subtly moved from table to table, going around completely unnoticed until she appeared at a person’s table. She carried a small bowl that she would quietly present as she made eye contact and smiled at every person she was asking from. Her body language wasn’t intrusive at all and she had warm feeling about her with a look of hope in her eyes. She smiled at every person regardless of whether or not she was given to, or even acknowledged. She gave every single person a smile and in return most handed over a small denomination of money.
I gave money to both of these beggars, of the same amount of too. If I hadn’t had the money on me I would have apologised but acknowledged that they’d asked rather than completely blank them like I’d seen that evening. The reason I gave to them was because firstly, I can afford to. Especially when I’m luckily enough to have a bank account in a currency as valuable as the GB pound. What seems insignificant to me can make quite a difference to someone else. Secondly, I decided that regardless of my judgement of their situation I figured that if they’re asking for money things must be pretty bad for them right now. They must have both felt a variety of challenging feelings which I’ve never had to even consider, so who am I to judge whether or not they deserve my pocket change? Third of all, they weren’t stealing money, they were asking. They were giving people the choice to decide if they wanted to give or not. Obviously one persons strategy was judged as more worthy than the others by the cafe patrons of Penang, probably resulting in more money. However, both of them had made a conscious choice to ask for money rather than take it through force and I respected that.
So regardless of that persons situation and what led them there, surely as human beings don’t each of them deserve the same amount of compassion? I mean wouldn’t you want someone to show you compassion if you were caught out in an unfortunate life situation? Wouldn’t the World just generally be a better place if we were more compassionate to each other?
I’m leaving this message with a video link called ‘Not just homeless’, it’s about homeless people in the UK which talks about the situation from perspectives that aren’t often heard. It’s a cause that is very dear to a friend of mine and I think it’s a good message to carry throughout life in general.
I hope I’ve inspired you to be more compassionate today.
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