September 04, 2005

Universal Footprints

Although I travel a lot it is rare that I cover the same ground twice. Sri Lanka is a rare exception to that rule, and to my surprise it seems I may leave a stronger impression than I first thought.

The short group adventures which characterise the majority of my journeys gives ample opportunity to make connections with your fellow travellers. I had assumed, however, that the impression left by myself and my companions upon the local people we meet was fleeting and insignificant. We roll into a town or city one day and roll out again in 24-48 hours. Our group is one of many that arrive month after month, not to mention the other tour operators who bring their own visitors in regular succession. We are like a gentle mist that rolls over the landscape and receeds as the day awakens, leaving behind a light covering of moisture which itself will quickly evaporate as the sun bears down above.

My perception changed today when walking down the hotel corridoor to my room. My key had been allocated to the cleaning ladies so they could tidy up, so when I found them they promptly dug around for it. They both looked at me and one said, "You were here before!" And she was right - my last memory of Negombo was leaving this hotel at 11pm for a ride to the airport just days before the tsunami hit. But they had recognised me, remembered my face, and politely asked where I had been. These were the same cleaning ladies when I last visited the hotel.

And a little universe of possibilites suddenly emerged before me. Far from being a light mist that fades away it would seem that some kind of footprint does indeed remain. However small. I delved a little further into my new found universe and re-acquainted my consciousness with friendly store owners, gentle jewellery makers, informative tour guides, happy restaurant cooks and contemplative hotel security guards. A broad band of connections were there to be reviewed; momentary assistance to help lift a sack of grain, indignant anger at a mischevious tuk tuk driver, philosophical discourse with older and wiser locals.

Knowing this universe exists makes me feel very responsible for my actions. Suddenly it makes sense that a single smile when buying a bottle of water and make a difference to someone's day. Avoiding dramatic scenes in hotel lobbies when they screw up your booking takes on a deeper meaning when you realise that even if they did make a mistake, you have the potential to make it even worse for them. Last but not least, the manner in which we wealthy western tourists distrubute money in poor countries leaves a lastingly indelable mark on the lives of young children who are best to cultivate skills for working, not begging.

It's so easy to foget that we actually impact the lives of everyone we meet. This statement is so obvious we overlook it's significance. I enjoyed a quiet chat with a colleague and friend who, not 12 months earlier, led me around Sri Lanka. He has been secretly in love with a girl for over seven years now, their clandestine relationship kept hidden from her parents and hence his life shared with her in the smallest of tender moments. She recognised my name from a passenger list, and sent her regards to me especially. To know that my name would be included in their limited opportunities for communication is an honour beyond all others.

It is amazing to realise just how permanent one's footsteps really are, and the opportunity that exists to leave behind something worthwhile. But I have my new found universe, so nothing is ever really left behind.

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