An Act of Kindness (day 1): Handing a Seat and a Cup of Coffee

This is day 1 in the 30-day series “An Act of Kindness by a Stranger”. Today I did not encounter 1 but 2 friendly gestures worth sharing, which I consider a positive omen for this project.

We are camping at a petrol station near Campo Grande, in southwest Brazil. The Land Cruiser is being washed. There is no automatic carwash system where you put your car on a belt and the employee only has to push a button (a system that is practically non-existent in South America). Nope, washing cars is generally still done by hand, and so it is taking a while.

My back doesn’t like my standing up for a long time whereas I am very comfortable squatting, and so I squat and watch the car washer at work. Squatting is not exactly frowned upon, but South Americans do find it weird (a contrast to e.g. the subcontinent where everybody squats and where, in that respect, I felt very much at home). The car washer regularly walks into his storage room to light a cigarette but one time he not only returns with a cigarette but with something else as well.

“Here this should be more comfortable for you,” he says and offers me a bucket upside down to sit on, and as it is old and a bit dirty he has covered it with a new garbage bag.

How thoughtful is that?

The carwash is taking a long time and I am craving my coffee. Unfortunately, my coffee thermos is inside our car.

“I am going check at the counter of the petrol station if they have cafezinho,” I inform Coen. In Brazil, you can often get coffee for free at petrol stations, for which a thermos stands at the ready. The cafezinho is served in the cutest, minuscule cup which I find a perfect quantity as a cafezinho is generally strong.

However, as Brazil is developing into a first-world country, traditions are making way for modernities. As a result Brazil’s largest chain of petrol stations, BR, is abandoning the tradition of preparing its own coffee.

“We have a machine over there. Here, let me give you a coin,” an attendant informs me. I turn to the machine with mistrust. A machine, huh? I look suspiciously at the buttons and try to decipher the choices and before I know what is happening I encounter my second act of kindness by a stranger.

“Here, let me help you,” another attendant offers. “What would you like? Espresso, cappuccino, mocha?”

See, that’s what I don’t like about these machines. You can get all kinds of stuff but not just ordinary coffee.

“Can I also get a cup of coffee?” I try.
“Sure, espresso, cappuccino, or mocha?” he asks.
“No, I mean coffee. Like your Brazilian cafezinho,” I answer.
The man looks at me with a mixture of a smile and a touch of pity. “Poor lady, stuck in ancient traditions,” he must be thinking, or something like that.

I stare at the machine and conclude that my craving wins.
“What’s that?” I ask, pointing at one description, “coffee Carioca?”
“Espresso, but not so strong,” he responds.
“Let’s try that.”

And so the attendant throws the coin in the slot, puts a plastic cup in place (an ugly, big, brown one, not enticing at all), pushes the button and meanwhile asks if I want sugar or sweetener. With a smile he hands me my coffee. “Here you go.”

Of course, now that the coffee comes from a machine it costs money. (I will add that this logic doesn’t make sense in western countries but does in Brazil, as labor doesn’t cost a dime here while these packages of machine-coffee cost a fortune).

Now I have to explain to the first attendant who stands behind the counter I don’t have money to pay for my coffee Carioca as my wallet is locked inside the car, which is being washed and therefore inaccessible.

“No problem,” she says, “I’ll write it down and you can pay later.”

To learn about the reason for this initiative, please read this post.

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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