To Ask is to Give

The feet and rolling suitcases of travelers are both seen, and reflected in a shiny airport floor.

A voice screeched gate assignments through a nerve-jangling public address system. Even if the announcements had been in English, I doubt that I’d have been able to make sense of them. But whatever was being broadcast to the cavernous waiting area of the Moscow airport prompted mobs of people to head toward the buses that shuttled passengers to the planes. I grew panicky as I realized that there was no chance of figuring out which announcement concerned my flight. Staring desperately at my boarding pass, I realized that all I had to do was find a Russian with a matching flight number and follow him. To my right was a morose old fellow whose pass was tucked into the pocket of his threadbare suit coat. To my left was salvation.

A pretty teenager had her boarding pass stuck in the book she was reading, and the first two digits of her flight number were the same as mine. Hoping to see the numbers hidden by the edge of the page, I carefully leaned over. Sensing my movement, she turned to look at me. I pointed hopefully at my boarding pass and then at hers. To my relief, she immediately understood. But we’d attracted the attention of her parents and younger brother. When she explained my situation, her mother smiled warmly and launched into what I took to be an offer to help. I nodded, correctly guessing that I’d been temporarily adopted.

When our flight was announced, the mother leapt to her feet and grasped me by the elbow. She ushered me toward the gate, shouting directions to the others, as the boy grabbed my backpack and the girl and her father hauled the rest of the luggage. The mother pushed through the crowd, returning scowls with her own glare and dragging me along until we’d boarded the bus. Once at the plane, I thanked her profusely, using one of the few Russian words I knew. She seemed to thank me in return. But why would she be grateful?

One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and the unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please, help me.”