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Column: Giving thanks

Almost exactly three years ago, I took a bus into Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, back from a short jaunt around the beaches in the south of the country. With my travelling guidebook in hand, I arrived at where my book said my hostel would be.

And found an empty warehouse.

This was concerning. I double-checked my book, double-checked the address, double-checked everything I possibly could in hopes of discovering that I had gotten the number or the street wrong.

But alas, my hostel continued to be an empty warehouse.

It was a warm, sunny November afternoon, and with my backpack on my back I was hot and tired and sore from walking. There didn't seem to be any Internet cafés within walking distance nearby, and I really did not want to walk all over town looking for this place. And did I mention that I was by myself?

Not the most dire of situations a traveler can face, certainly, but not the most convenient either, especially for someone tired of walking.

Frustrated, I tried to ask a nearby café owner to call the hostel's phone number for me (and keep in mind that I only spoke Spanish and not Portuguese). Not really understanding me, he pointed me to a nearby police station.

As someone who likes to travel and takes pride in not having to ask for help too much, I admit that this was fairly embarrassing. I took a deep breath, and trudged over to two policemen loitering outside of the station.

"Excuse me, I'm lost and I need help," I said to them in an awful mix of Spanish and Portuguese.

They both frowned at me - either out of concern or not understanding what I said, I couldn't tell - finished up their cigarettes, and ushered me inside. They introduced me to the "jefe," the chief of that station, and left me to him, returning to their cigarettes.

"What is problem?" the chief asked in broken English.

"I am lost," I replied in English, and opened up my guidebook. "This address is not correct," I said as I pointed to the hostel entry. The chief looked up and frowned. It was clear he didn't understand.

"Do you understand Spanish?" I asked in Spanish. He nodded, and I explained my situation to him.

The chief sat down and thought for a moment. Then he took out a coin from his pocket, handed it to me, and pointed to the phone in the doorway. "Call the number," he said.

I dialed the number listed in the book, and got a message in Portuguese telling me, I assume, that the number had been disconnected. I looked at the chief and shook my head. He rubbed his chin and thought again, and then turned on his computer, which seemed to be from the 1980s.

It took about 10 minutes for the website of the hostel to load, during which time we sat in an awkward "I'd communicate with you if I could, but I don't know your language, so I can't" silence. Finally, the site came up, and the chief clicked around until he found the actual address, then drew a map and circled it for me.

"This is where you want to go," he said, pointing. "The hostel moved not long ago."

I took the map and put it in my pocket, and extended my hand to the chief, who took it.

"Thank you very, very much," I said, relieved, shaking his hand. The chief just shrugged, and walked me outside. I was at the hostel twenty minutes later.

Every year on Thanksgiving, I like to reflect not so much on the obvious things to be thankful for, like family or friends, but rather on the people in my life like the chief, who went out of his way to help me when I was frustrated, alone, tired, and lost.

If we take time to think, I bet we have all met a Portuguese police chief in our lives. And that's something to be thankful for.