At the airport, I’m overtaken by grace

My trip had been a disaster, due to my own reticence. And now, who is this man tapping me on my shoulder?

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
A traveler passes through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Making international air connections sometimes poses problems.

My parents taught me to see dependency as something sinister: Accepting help created an obligation, likely a compromising one. Being denied help meant exposing a weakness for others to exploit. It was better, they said, to suffer alone than to let someone else decide your outcome.

I eventually tempered that view, and even thought I’d left it behind until I booked a solo hiking trip to Chile. My plans were last minute and haphazard, uncharacteristically so. As a rule, I’m a traveler who loves spreadsheets and over-researching. This time, I raced to the airport, repacking in the waiting area.

After boarding, I realized that I’d left my hiking boots at the gate. I had only the flip-flops I was wearing. With 20 minutes till takeoff, I needed to ask a flight attendant if I could go and get them. The thought of doing so sent my blood racing and my heart knocking at my throat. I said nothing. 

Upon landing in Bogotá, Colombia, I was so preoccupied with the boots problem that I got lost and missed my first connecting flight to Santiago, Chile. It was 10 hours till the next one. I’d still have time – barely – to make my second connection if everything lined up. Ideally, I’d ask a flight attendant to let me go to the head of the line to deplane, so I could race through customs and on to my gate. 

I paced the airport cafeteria, rehearsing what I’d say. But when the time came, I couldn’t bring myself to ask. The flight left 10 minutes before I got to the gate.

There was nothing to do but rebook my ticket and tell my tale of woe to friends back home. After 27 hours in transit, I was eager for sympathy. Then, in what seemed like the last straw, the airport Wi-Fi would not cooperate.

Hunched over my phone, I didn’t register the tap on my shoulder at first. The man was casually dressed, with a baseball cap and a bag slung over one shoulder. He flashed an ID and began to speak to me in Spanish. 

Determined to escape whatever scam this was, I got up to walk away. Seeing this, the man enlisted a shopkeeper to interpret: “He’s an undercover police officer, and he says someone stole your bag, and you should go with him.”

Indeed, my luggage cart held my suitcase and raincoat, but not my blue backpack. The police officer received my apology with good humor as we trooped up to his office.

I recall it as if it were a dream: the windowless rooms, the organizational chart of mustachioed generals on a wall, the fan that sent paperwork fluttering as uniformed officers looked up to say hello. They were all quite handsome. Would it be graceless to ask for a selfie?

There on a desk was my backpack, recovered before I’d noticed it was gone. The officer set about photographing my belongings: passport, laptop, camera, credit cards, and $800 in cash, neatly laid out bill by bill. He nodded at the money. 

Gracias! Muchas gracias!” I said, nodding vigorously in return. 

Cuéntalo,” he elaborated. Count it.

Next, he took my statement. This he accomplished by calling someone off-site. We took turns speaking to the enthusiastic person on the phone, who greeted me with a cheery, “Hello, lady!” 

The police report, duly completed in a neat script, was presented to me for signature. Then he handed me the backpack, ushered me to the door, and said, in English, “Good luck!”

It was dawning on me now, the loveliness of this reprieve. The officer had solved a problem I hadn’t known I had, both in the immediate moment and in a larger sense. To my mind, receiving such help would accrue a debt I might not be able to repay. Yet a stranger had come to my aid unprompted, without judgment or seeking recompense. He hadn’t burdened me with transactional expectations. On the contrary, I felt warm and cared for.

I walked on, lighter than air. The expansive feeling stayed with me through the final – successful – flight, the shuttle driver getting lost, and finally arriving in sunny San Pedro de Atacama. I was seeing everyone through a different lens, a kinder one: Not every mistake was a crime, and not every consequence was a punishment. I even found hiking boots to rent. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been able to ask for help along the way. When I needed it most, help was freely given.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to replace an outdated term for flight attendants. 

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