The Kindness Of (Cyber)Strangers: Prodigal, Guatemala, & The Black Flag Café

Even though it would imperil my standing in the misanthropic organizations, clubs, and societies to which I would belong if misanthropes joined organizations, clubs, and societies, were I to be hypothetically interrogated in the course of an inquisition with an especially odd theme, I would nonetheless have to confess that I have been the recipient of favors from strangers, many of whom I’ve known exclusively online. Further, these have been folks who had no obligation, either moral or commercial, to help me and provided assistance with no compensation beyond my gratitude and, in fact, rejected offers of payment.

Go figure.

I have several of these stories, each of which I treasure and recount to myself periodically, not only to produce that pleasant sense of gladitude1 but also to admonish myself that since I’ve made a number of withdrawals and more than a few unsecured loans from the Cosmic Bank of Favors, I had best take every opportunity to make a deposit.

Today’s parable falls short of miraculous and is, in fact, altogether routine and typical of the genre, which makes it all the more wonderful.

The Plight Of Prodigal

When he was 19, my eldest son, Prodigal, returned to Guatemala, the country of his birth, to spend over a year in full prodigalhood as a semipro wastrel. At one point during that visitation, he disclosed to his paternal unit (that would be me) that the renewal of his tourist visa was – oh, let’s round it off at 300 days overdue.

This renewal process was, of course, incredibly complex, but, in compensation, it was set forth in the ambiguous, complicated, and contradictory language rampant in officialdom.2

Where Good Samaritans Hang Out These Days

The Guatemalan government turned out to be precisely as helpful as one would expect a bureaucracy, especially one that operates in a language and culture other than ones own, to be. So I went a-Googling in hopes of finding an explicated version of the visa regulations. While that aspiration went unrequited, I did run across an unexpectedly clear explanation of the process written in the form of a complaint on the (and I couldn’t make this up) Black Flag Café forums, a site dedicated to those “living in dangerous places.”

Although the author of that entry used a pseudonym and listed no e-mail address, he left enough clues (e.g., the kind of work he did) to enable me to track him down – and, more importantly, deduce his work email address (by shuffling through his employer’s web site and mimicking their standard email address format). I sent a message asking for details about renewing visas. He wrote back, not only answering my questions but spontaneously offering the help of his sister, who ran a travel agency in Guatemala City. She, in fact, met with Prodigal, gave him detailed instructions re what answers to give to the administrative questions he would be asked. She also gave him an airline ticket home (Guatemala required proof of capacity to get back home) to a flight which existed only on paper.

After completing beaucoup forms and transforming a significant number of American dollars in my bank account to a cryptic sum of quetzales in the Guatemalan treasury (my personal form of foreign aid), my progeny was in possession of a valid visa — all because some guy and his sister, who knew nothing about me or Prodigal except that I had stalked him and emailed a plea for help provided far more assistance than I requested, volunteering for the job with only my appreciation as a reward.

God bless kind people and the internet.

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  1. Oddly, “gladitude” doesn’t seem to be an accepted word in the English language or even in the Scrabble word lists. A Google search draws a blank as well. Yet, it seems a useful construct, denoting a “glad gratitude” as opposed to, say, a “solemn gratitude.” Who knows? Those OED criteria for new words seem pretty lax. Maybe this can be selected in the same group as “bippy” and “hard-assed.” []
  2. In case you’re asked it as a question on a game show, the Guatemalan immigration office [at that time] requires a credit card and proof of income to renew ones visa every 90 days; alternatively, one can leave Guatemala for 24 hours and then return for another 90 days – of course, to legally leave the country, a visa is required. To renew the visa, one submits a photocopy of a credit card (front and back) or other proof of income along with 10 quetzales (then equal to $1.25) for each day the 90 day term of the visa has been overstayed. The Department of Immigration holds the applicant’s passport for the several days required to complete the renewal. []