It was one of those blow-in-the-solarplexis travel moments. I had just been robbed, and among the loss were interviews and notes from Tibet, a camera, and more than $1300 in cash.
This happened in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2004, and I remember keenly the anguish I felt, almost as if someone had ripped a limb off my body. But I also remember this: the gentle touch of an eleven-year-old girl named Pushpa, her hair pulled back in a yellow bow, as she gingerly stepped forward and took my hand as i approached her family’s home 16 hours into my grief. I had been to this poor neighborhood several times earlier in the week to visit her and her family, and I had promised (before I was robbed) to return this night. But I didn’t feel like being here. I was exhausted, angry, dazed.
I told Pushpa and her family what had happened, and they were stunned. The family felt, and their faces reflected what they felt. Quickly shaking loose of the shock, Pushpa slid in next to me (we were sitting on the concrete well outside the house) and she wrapped her lanky, girlish arms around mine. She caressed my hand and rested her head just above the curve of my elbow. “I’m so sorry, Joel. People are so evil.”
The full story is too long for this blog, but the point here is that in Pushpa’s touch I experienced the miracle of compassion, and it began to transform me. The family insisted I stay with them this night — “you shouldn’t be alone when hurting”, they said — and I will remember them always for it. And part of what I will remember is their touch.
We may not travel specifically to be lovingly touched after being robbed at 2:00 a.m., but in travel we enter the realm of the unknown, and both crisis and compassion may be around the corner. So perhaps we can say that we travel prepared to sometimes be touched in ways that we don’t wish. But we also travel with the hope of being open to other forms of touch — to the love of an eleven-year-old girl and her family, to the unsettling grasp of a beggar’s hand as he reaches up from the sidewalk, to the beauty of a Thai massage at the end of a long trek in the mountains.
We travel too, of course, with our own capacity to touch, and to bless. Hands connected to eyes that see and ears that hear are no small thing; they can even change the world…or at least a life or two.