Unsung local heroes

Not all local heroes wear capes (or indeed, shoes)

It was my last night in East Timor and I was ready to call it a night.

After a year living in this tiny and impoverished Southeast Asian half-island nation, I was finally heading back to the UK – just in time for Christmas.

I’d spent the evening saying goodbye to friends, but with an early flight the next morning (onto Bali, Bangkok, then finally London) I decided this would be my last beer.

As I reached for the wallet in the back of my shorts, however, a sinking feeling hit me.

It wasn’t there.

Frantically, I began checking every other pocket, then my rucksack, then the floor, followed by the bathroom of the bar I was drinking in. It had gone. And with it, my credit and debit cards alongside all my remaining cash.

Now in a state of panic (my mind running through how I was going to pay for anything when I landed in Bali in less than 10 hours), I began to mentally retrace my steps through the evening.

Suddenly, it struck me. I’d stopped to make a purchase at a roadside stall – essentially, a ramshackle wooden table, stuffed with phone credit coupons, cigarettes and chewing gum – an hour or so before.

These stores are commonplace in East Timor allowing operators the chance to scrape together a meagre few dollars a day in a country where opportunities range from sparse to non-existent.

Could I have left it there?

I ran out of the bar, jumped in a taxi and gave directions back to the seafront. As I arrived, I spotted the elderly Timorese merchant still standing on the side of the road – shoeless and dressed in threadbare clothes, typical of the urban poor who populate the capital Dili.

He recognised me instantly. Without hesitation, he reached into his pocket, pulled out my wallet and handed it to me. “All money ok” he reassured me with a proud nod of his head.

I took the wallet, gratefully, opened it and saw my bank cards intact, while seemingly not a dollar had been touched. “Obrigadu barak!” I replied, vigorously shaking his hand before pulling out some notes as a thank you for his decency.

It’s moments like these that stay with you when you travel. Small (or, indeed, major) acts of kindness, honesty and generosity from someone you’ll probably never clasp eyes on again.

Whether it’s a few words of caution which prevent you being scammed or an impromptu guide making sure you get back to your hotel safely, the ‘local heroes’ who step up during a sticky situation restore your faith in the general decency of the human race.

They also demonstrate that honesty and integrity cross not only the cultural spectrum, but also the economic one. When someone with barely two dollars to rub together takes personal pride in returning your lost belongings intact, it really means something.

Local heroes mean that travelling to some of the world’s least developed regions is just that little bit easier. And when you’re reminiscing over your travels in years to come, the help they offered in your hour of need is often one of the fondest memories you can have of a country.

So, raise a glass to local heroes – the unsung stars of many a traveller’s tale.

Questions for digital nomad Jack Davidson