The cliffside hike from Monterosso al Mare, the most northern seaside village of Italy’s renowned Cinque Terre, to neighboring Vernazza is extraordinarily scenic, but it’s also arduous—the two colorful, ancient towns are connected by an endless series of steep stairways that overlook the rugged coast. “I can’t endure another step,” I breathlessly told my thirty year old daughter after a few minutes of strenuous climbing. She suggested I turn around and take the train back to our rented apartment in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, while she continued on.
When I arrived at the Monterosso train station, I learned that the ticket machine would accept only coins. I had ten and twenty euro notes on hand, and being that it was late November and decidedly off-season, there were no kiosks or cafes available to change my paper notes, and foot traffic at the train station was sparse. With no other choice, I approached whomever came my way with a polite, “Mi scusi,” quickly followed by, “May I speak with you in English, per favore?” A few passersby held up their hands in the universal sign of apology—they were either unable to communicate in my language, or they were in a hurry to catch their train. One man with a toddler in tow stopped before realizing he had no coins to exchange.
With only a few minutes to spare before the southbound train was scheduled to arrive, I asked a young couple dressed in hiking gear, their backpacks bulging with provisions, if they perchance had change for a ten euro note. “We don’t,” the woman said, transferring a walking stick to her other hand in order to reach into the pocket of her cargo pants. “But here, I can give you two euros.”
“I can’t take money from you,” I said.
“It’s fine. Just pay it forward.”
At that moment—literally—a young Asian woman tapped my arm. “You help us please?” she asked. There was fear in her dark brown eyes and in her voice.
I turned to the couple who had given me the money. They were halfway up the stairs, on the way to their platform. I shouted to them, “See that? I’m paying it forward!”
The woman smiled and gave me a thumbs-up, her walking stick dangling from her hand, and I turned back to the Asian woman. “Whatever you need,” I said.
A group of nine other people were now gathered around her, each of them appearing as frightened as she. “We’re very lost,” she said. She was the only member of the group who had a modicum of English at her disposal—the rest of the group spoke only Mandarin—but through the magic of body language and shared human emotions I learned much about their dilemma and felt their anxiety: they were part of a group of thirty travelers from Beijing whose plan for the day was to stop in Monterosso for lunch before their bus headed east to Venice, and then onward to Milan, part of a whirlwind two week adventure through central and northern Italy. Somehow, they’d been separated from their leader and the rest of the group. After a flurry of texts, their leader instructed them to meet as soon as possible in Riomaggiore. But without a map and no one on duty at the train station, they were worried about finding the destination, and concerned about ruining the day for their fellow travelers waiting for them.
“How do we buy the ticket?” the young woman asked, looking at the machine that had no option for directions in Mandarin.
“We’ll need twenty euros in coins,” I said.
She translated my words to her traveling companions, who then reached into wallets and pockets and produced the exact sum needed. I gathered their coins, purchased their tickets and mine, and checked the schedule. We’d missed our train, and the next one wasn’t for another hour and a half. I led them upstairs to our platform and they gathered around me, smiling and bowing with gratitude.
“It would be my pleasure.”
She translated my words into Mandarin, and there was more smiling and bowing. While we waited, I shared stories with her about life in Los Angeles, a place they dreamed of visiting one day, and she told me about Beijing, and how much she and the group loved to travel abroad. They’d been looking forward to this special trip to beautiful Italy for many months, and they were worried that their unintentional separation from the group had somehow spoiled it for everyone else. I assured her that unexpected and often unwelcome events happen when we travel, and things usually turn out just fine. “In fact,” I said, “there’s our train now.”
We all sat together, bundled in our winter coats, and I could sense their relief, knowing they’d soon be reunited with their group. One of the travelers took out her selfie stick and snapped a series of photos of us before passing it around for everyone to see. Their relaxation from fear was evident in their laughter.
When we arrived in Riomaggiore, I delivered my ten charges to their anxiously awaiting leader at the station. She and the twenty members of the group who surrounded her looked on, puzzled, as the formerly lost travelers gave me a sincere and energetic hug, thanking me in Mandarin, the voices of the women like gentle temple bells. We waved and waved as they walked away, until they turned a corner and were gone from my view. I stood there for a moment, breathing in the crisp autumn air, the sky beginning to darken over the Ligurian Sea, then headed back to my rented apartment, eager to be reunited with my family and share with them the joy of receiving a gift and then paying it forward. For most of us, I believe, the real joy is in giving back a gift, more than receiving it.
Meeting the temporarily lost travelers of Beijing was one of the more memorable afternoons of my time in Italy, and I was especially gratified to know that the couple in hiking gear who had asked me to pay it forward had the opportunity to see me carry out their wise directive.