Travel: Confirmed Identity, Or En Route To Empathy

July 23, 2018

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It’s a routine stopover for us, pulling off the highway to the coast and parking outside a rural supermarket selling sweets, braai meat and local artisanal bits and pieces of all kinds (edible, wearable and all points in between). We’ve been there dozens of times and recognise some of the local personalities by sight, if not by name.

Daughters The Younger and Elder love the place. For them, it’s called “The Sweet Shop” and they could care less about the efforts of the owners of the surrounding farms to supply the establishment with vegetables, sirloin, honey and fresh milk. For them, shopping there involves collecting bags of 11 different kinds of sugary treats before editing that pile down to a shortlist and then weighing each in their hands to see if they can detect an extra gram of tasty goodness in one or another packet. It’s a tradition of sorts, even if it adds an unnecessary quarter-hour to a long-distance trip.

On this occasion, the girls have money to burn. Their grandmother has augmented their pocket money and her expectation is that none of that marvellous moolah will make it back from the holiday. Daughter The Younger has a loose association with currency, understanding that we have her back in general retail situations provided her demands aren’t ridiculous. She does, however, understand the concept of “holiday rules” – being relatively irresponsible simply because our shared routine has changed for a few days – and is happy to invest (as it were) in the concept of letting her fiscal hair down a little.

Walking from the car to the supermarket, we pass a craftsman with a range of wire, wood and tin items displayed on a sheet. He’s busy with a new creation, shaping the outline of what might become a colourful wire and bead rhino. Initially, he doesn’t pay us particular attention, probably – and reasonably – assuming that we’re more of the smile-and-nod brigade who appreciate his presence there but never really interact with him.

Cue Daughter The Younger. Loudly.

“Please, do you have anything for R10?”

Knowing that she’s just chosen an arbitrary amount of money to spend and that the man’s time and skills are worth more than she is willing to offer, I gently inform her that that’s unlikely, beginning to add some basic facts about how long things take to make, and that he has to buy materials, before I am interrupted. The man, a tall youngster, probably in his early twenties, has a wonderful deep baritone, warm and friendly.

“I don’t, but you can take a keychain for R10, if you want.”

The striking, beaded keyrings he points at usually go for twice that price, it transpires, but he is completely unfazed by the loss of potential income. I mumble something about his kindness not being necessary, but his reply reminds me that that’s exactly the point of kindness.

“She has asked so nicely. She can have the keychain for R10.”

Daughter The Younger kneels next to the pile of keyrings, choosing a beautiful example in the shape of the initial of her first name – something she points out to the craftsman, who grins as she fiddles with her pink purse, wrangling a R10 note out of a modest sheaf of folded bills. He takes her cash and stuffs it in a pocket, a smile still bothering the corners of his mouth as he refocuses on his wire work. He may not know – or just as easily, he may – that Daughter The Younger has some hearing and other difficulties that make it a challenge for some people to understand her and vice versa. His easy interaction with her has made it seem like absolutely nothing is amiss, buttressing her own strongly held opinion that that is the case, and reinforcing her positive self-image. The gentleness he showed her may be his default setting, or he may have adjusted because she was a child, or because she was cheerful. Regardless, he has made a difference in her day, and in mine.

Inside the store, Daughter The Younger, having pawed half of the stock in the sweet section, finally settles on a bag of wine gums. As we turn to head for the till, she picks up another, stating that it’s for her best friend at school, to whom she will deliver it the following week when we return home. I point out that we’re two days into an eight-day vacation and that we have other exploring planned, for which she may want to save at least part of the remainder of her budget. She considers this carefully before, after being assured that we can buy exactly the same sweets up the road from our house should she want to still give them as a gift, returning the second bag to the shelf.

She takes her turn at the till, requesting a slip as proof of her grown-up transaction, before pausing outside with me as we wait for The Beautiful Wife to pay for a number of items she’s chosen. The owner of the supermarket, a giant, genial farmer clad all in khaki, greets us as he passes by. Daughter The Younger, who has opened her wine gums, offers him a couple. He smiles and declines, so she takes out three and gives them to me. I accept and we chew contentedly together before we are joined by the rest of the family and head back to the car.

I thank the craftsman again as we leave, and we’re a few steps past where he is sitting when Daughter The Younger turns and runs back to him.

“Do you want a sweet?”

He grins, widely this time.

“Yes, please.”

Rustle, rustle, rustle. He is presented with three gums of different colours.

“Thank you.”

“High five!”

He gives her a high five.

“Low five!”

He plays along, gently swatting her hand.

“High five again!”

Again, the man gets involved, and is not in the least put out when the cheeky tot pulls her hand away and laughs, amazed that he fell for such an obvious ploy.

He laughs again, keeping his hand raised but waving this time.

“Bye bye sister. Thank you for the sweets.”

It’s just a routine stop for us, a repeat of an experience that the children enjoy and which gives us a chance to stretch our legs and swap drivers. But now it is also a place where strangers unexpectedly connect and gift each other value they may not have felt earlier in the day. A sweet shop, indeed.


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