Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

6.15 p.m. on a weekday, with your phone nearly dead, is really not, completely not, when you want your car to stall in the middle of a congested KL highway.

Accompanied by the soundtrack of stuttering and jerking car sounds, frustration, resignation, and the painful acceptance of my own dimwit-ness all exploded at the exact same time, along with the very strange feeling of being trapped in a stationary vehicle while around me people were driving past full of purpose and promise of a destination.

My car would argue that this was really my own doing; only so long before a hungry car seizes its wheels and says no more! I demand appropriate and fair compensation for my hard work. Feed me now, or I quit.



All my begging, prodding, and pushing was met with the same response: none. It was time for Plan B, which had to be very sophisticatedly executed given my phone’s battery life.

11%, and falling. Double-tap, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. I exited all the background apps.

My husband would have been my first point of call, except our worlds were markedly divided by the wave of drivers heading home from work. He was too far away to help (I was wrong of course; he is the one who saved the situation with my phone drama, so really I should have called him first anyway!).

Pitaji is away in Scotland, bearing live witness to the band he founded some 30 years ago marching and playing Scottish music in the Highlands. I would not have swapped places with him for all the world, for this moment is completely his.

My brother is blowing with the wind, insofar as it takes him exactly to the wonders very carefully mapped out in his travel log. Somewhere between the glory of Brandenburg Gate and the remnants of Palatine Hill, his head was in a different world and completely disengaged from my humid reality.

With the men in the family eliminated from the potential rescuer list (shamelessly admitting to gender bias when it comes to car trouble, based on how clueless I am about them), I called Ma. I explained that I would be calling the breakdown service, so don’t worry, I’ll keep you updated, and please no calls as my dying phone would be busy.

10%, and falling. I turned off mobile data. Calls and texts only now.

The insurance company was contacted, and a wonderfully emphatic En. Helmi was the definition of courtesy as he arranged a tow-truck at no cost to me, even though the cause of the breakdown was, as expressed earlier, my own dimwit-ness. ETA: 1 hour. It was the best he could do and I knew that it was a realistic estimate.  

Na├»ve of me to think that Ma would leave me in the hands of strangers; sweet as mothers are, she was very soon activating the family SOS network and my cousin called a few seconds later to coordinate the rescue mission. I was very grateful for my brother’s offer (thank you, Veera, and later, Tarsem!), but I knew that I was on the wrong side of the road and with traffic as it was it would have taken ages to get to me.

8%, and falling. Desperate times call for...

I considered placing the phone between my palms to enhance the percentage energetically. I was infamous for blowing up lightbulbs at home, surely I had enough charge in me to revive a phone.

8%, and falling. Honestly, Harkiren. This isn’t X-Men! Foolishness.

10 minutes later, the tow-truck driver had still not contacted me. At 8%, to call or not to call was a time-sensitive question.

I decided to call, and lucky thing I did. He was at the opposite end of Kuala Lumpur, and made it very clear that it would take him at least 1.5 hours to reach me. I believed him. Cheras was a black hole at 6.30 p.m. and I was near Gombak.

You learn so many things from situations like these. I discovered that insurance companies contact other intermediaries, and then those companies contact individual tow-truck drivers. In order to keep costs low, everyone calls the cheapest service without any consideration to the relationship between where the rescuer would emerge from and his proximity to the distress scene.

By now, my dimwit moment had passed and I was in action mode. I called (they might say harassed) everyone from all 3 parties until they found me a truck that I deemed was of a suitable distance to my location.

6%, and falling. What was life like before mobile phones?!

The phone rang, with my husband on the line. CANCEL! CANCEL! You can't possibly have anything helpful to say to me now!

The ringing ceased. A few texts arrived.

10%, and rising. The man is a GENIUS. Apparently it is still possible to charge your phone even if you haven’t got an ounce in your car’s belly. Well, sheesh. Clueless about cars and phones as it turns out.

14%, and rising. Life was now rosy again. There were meadows and hay bales everywhere.

Shortly after the phone situation settled, a car pulled up by my window. A middle-eastern man leaned out of the passenger window and asked if there was anything they could do to help. I smiled in gratitude and shook my head, saying that help was on the way. 

Right behind them came a motorcyclist. Another kind face offering to help push my car to the side of the road (until this point I was still marking my glorious spot right in the thick of things). He was sweet to offer, but really there was nothing we could do. Cars were hardly moving and we would not have been able to find enough space to push a car 3 lanes to the left. I looked at this good Malay man, and again with my palms together, thanked him, and said the tow-truck was almost there.

Apparently it was bonus season in Kindness-ville. Some minutes later, yet another motorist stopped at the side of the road, parallel to my car, and got off his bike. He started waving down other drivers, and finally caught the attention of another man. I watched curiously and then realised that he had been enlisting help in order to assist to me. It took them a few minutes to cross the 3 lanes as traffic was finally clearing and cars were picking up speed. The bubbly Chinese man and his young Malay recruit tapped on my window and said don’t worry, just shift into Neutral and we will push your car to the side.
  
Which they did. I sat at the wheel, beaming, so, so pleased at how wonderfully this entire backfired evening was turning out.

Once safely out of traffic’s way, my Malay rescuer rode off with a wave. Thank you, thank you.

Alan wasn’t done. He asked if I had a triangle, and together we looked for it in my boot, assembled it, and he helped place it some distance away. He walked up and down a few times until he was happy with its position and stability. Finally, he walked me back to my car, made sure that someone was coming to get me, and waved his hand shyly when I asked for a photograph. Then he was on his bike, waving me good luck and heading home. 

These past few weeks, the actions of some of my countrymen have made me ashamed and heavy-hearted. We claim to live in an Asian culture, although I’m not sure what that even means anymore. It used to stand for community, integrity, simplicity, and hospitality, but in the whirlpool of recent events plaguing the nation, it seems impossible to believe that we ever even lived by those principles. Was there really such a time, or have we imagined it in our nostalgic innocence? Certainly those occupying the media stage are demonstrating no shred of these values. And while they choke the limelight, we are blinded with their gross misappropriations of trust and resources combined.

I wish I ran into them more often, the good and kind people that are my neighbours. If you’ve lived in KL, you'll know what the sentiment is like on the roads after work. Long working days, hours of driving and sitting in traffic, inconsiderate drivers darting in and out, accidents, tolls, thunderstorms, corrupt cops, and foolish Harkirens who drive without enough petrol. It is a complete zoo, and the only thing that unites us at that hour is the desire to get home.

Against a backdrop of street crime, road rage, and impatient drivers, KLites are advised to place caution above compassion. Lending a helping hand to strangers has burnt so many fingers that most of us keep our hands safely in our pockets, eyes on the ground, and ears closed to the problems around us.

In the midst of all this, these men borrowed a few moments out of their hectic day to show kindness to a stranger. I know for a fact that as a woman driving alone in KL, I would not have done the same. We are taught to drive on and if the situation needs attention, then to call emergency services from a safe distance. Maybe the dynamic is different for men, but I will not belittle the kindness they showed me by saying that it was easier for a man to do that. It was an inconvenience, period, and they saw beyond that when they came to offer me aid.

The encounters with my ordinary, living-the-simple-life, neighbourly Malaysians were not over. The tow-truck could have done with a wash, and maybe a seat belt in the front passenger seat (ironic how I am always lecturing everyone about seat belts and on this day rode without one!), but Jerry was reassuring, light-hearted, and professional beyond expectations. He stifled a grin when I told him why I was stuck, and quickly countered it with a “never mind la”. He took care of everything; including getting us both to the nearest Shell at a safe speed, fuelling up the car, and moving to the side to unload it instead of hogging up space at the petrol booth. I didn’t have to lift a finger and at no point did even a flash of doubt cross my mind.



When I tried to tip him at the end, he steadfastly refused, again and again. I almost gave up and in a final attempt pushed the money forward and said: for your family, Jerry. At last, he accepted.

43%, and rising. Tank full. Time to go home.

Thank you to all those who stopped to offer assistance, and unforgettably, those who stepped out to help.

It is now some days later, and I am reflecting on what I learnt from those 2 priceless hours.

To be more compassionate towards drivers stranded in the middle of the highway. The frustration of having wasted precious moments stuck in traffic is something we have all experienced. Hey, even smart people do silly things sometimes, and they are probably even more anxious just trying to get out of that situation.

To keep my tank sufficiently full (maybe this should have been the first lesson!). It’s better to spend 10 minutes after a long day at the petrol pump, than…

To see my countrymen as people first, with the same aspirations, fears, grievances, and joys as people everywhere (well, let’s not get carried away; obviously exclusions to the “human first” rule are allowed where abuse of power is involved!).

And… drumroll please… to listen to the wisdom of my dear husband more often (I hope he is not reading this!).


To end, and since we know how much I love lists, here are a few things that might be useful to you in preparation of similar situations:

1. Cars run on fuel, not baseless optimism. You would think everyone knows this, but you would be wrong (points at self).

2. Phones are an ingenious tool that were originally invented for communication. It is of no use having one if you can’t communicate with it! Charge your phone before travelling and keep a charger at your office/ in your bag. Have the common sense to actually use said charger when battery life is low (I have cables in both locations and look what happened to me).

3. Keep a phone charger in your vehicle. Know how to charge your phone in your car even without petrol. Something about one turn of the key/ one push of the button with your foot off the pedal? Bla bla bla. Although, I am not sure if this works when your car battery runs out (advice welcome!), in which case, I hope you read point #2.

4. It’s useful to have flip-flops in the car, especially for women drivers who dress in heels. You never know when you’ll need to get out and roll up your sleeves for some roadside rescue action.

5. We rely on mobile phones and mobile data so much these days. What if they fail us suddenly? Have your emergency numbers written down in your purse/ car, including numbers for your insurance company and breakdown service.

6. If you are being referred from one person to the next when calling for help, ask for the name and number of who is going to be calling you back. In case they don’t within a reasonable time, you‘ll still know who to call.

7. Go ol’ skool. Pen and paper in the car. Must.

8. Leave your hazard lights on to alert other drivers to be careful.

9. Humans run on air, not wireless data connections. Roll down your windows slightly to allow circulation.

10. Learn how to share your location with another person using the location pin in Google Maps or Waze. I fumbled around with Google Maps for a few minutes before figuring it out, and this was how Jerry found me. Google Maps does not require a sign-in, whereas Waze needs your phone number (something I refuse to give as I don't see the relevance). 


How do I end this post? It seems to be such a jumble of details, emotions, revelations, lists, confessions, and realities. Just like true, Malaysian-style rojak.

Perhaps with an expression of gratitude.

It is comforting, how Guru covered everything.
It is beautiful, how good people exist.
And it is simply humbling, how I am able to sit here, and recognise it all.

Note: Thank you to Veerji Harbhajan for giving this post a voice through Asia Samachar. Blessings!