Travel makes me happy. I’m not content to sit on the sideline and watch the world from behind a screen. Some people are – and it is definitely each to their own – but I like to smell a place; feel a place and even the best videographers and instagrammers can’t transport that magic.
I’ve been a travel agent for the last 3 years because as much as I love to send myself away to a foreign land – I also like to help others experience that same joy that I myself chase. The job has always been about helping to create that wonder but every now and then, it’s not about sneaky getaways or epic adventures. It’s about saying goodbye.
It’s never been uncommon to have someone travel for the death of a loved one. That’s what life is – people coming and going – and part of what makes travel so alluring and at the same time, frightening.
It is the heartbreak of goodbye and the cost of compassion that has found me in the firing line and ultimately, the end of my travel agent career.
How does that happen?
It starts with a Saturday not unlike many Saturdays I had worked before. The exception being I had got to bed late and it was a glorious day – so like many, my enthusiasm to be stuck inside was not at it’s all time high.
In dire need of a hot beverage to kick start the system, bang on 9am I had a client literally banging down the door. After 3 years, my late night disappeared behind a very well rehearsed sunny persona that anyone in sales will know. It’s the face that caters to all needs and earns the commission. It’s also how we survive working a weekend.
I had a woman sit before me, an erratic energy buzzing off her. She looked at me and told me she had to get an international flight immediately. She paused a moment, and her lips trembled as she managed to say that her husband had just died and she needed to get to him. Her face contorted as her words were left hanging between us and a pained squeal escaped from deep inside her chest.
In my time as a travel agent I have experienced many people’s grief. People travelling for a mother, son, aunt or best friend. People wearied from waiting for the news and people in shock who had been blind sided by it. Most of the time, these people had someone by them. To place a comforting hand on a shoulder, to clutch at each other or to embrace as reality crashes down in the form of last minute fare prices. I had seen all these people before. As consultants we aren’t ever taught how to deal with grief – weirdly – but each person has their own technique. A way to distance themselves from the heartbreak that is only on the other side of the table. It depends also, on the person in front of you. Most men will be matter of fact – they need someone who is cut and dry and won’t ask details. Most women need someone to offer a tissue and speak softly, so not to rattle the grief that is already caught in their chest.
I had helped every kind of person in my time but this was the first time I had a spouse sit before me having only just found out about their loss. It’s the kind of news that shatters lives and most of us spend our whole life trying to prepare for. Here was a woman before me; her whole world had just crashed down around her and she was alone.
My first question, after getting her a glass of water, was to ask if there was anyone to support her in these moments? She shook her head. There was no one. She looked up at me and said that all her family were overseas.
Her tears continued and her shoulders shook, but she tried to pull herself together. She told me she only had so much money and that she needed to be at her destination as soon as possible – particularly before the funeral in 4 days time.
The admission of a funeral and her reality overwhelmed her and once again, she began to cry. It was at this moment that my ability to read people determined she needed assertiveness – the promise that I would take care of her – and so I told her I would. This was what I could do for her; take away the responsibility of the details. I had already put in the necessary search parameters for the travel she was after and I absentmindedly asked her how many travellers? I had assumed one as she was alone after all and all her family was overseas.
Her answer broke my heart. ‘Two please. For me and my infant daughter’. I stopped in that moment to look at her. ‘I had to leave her with my neighbour to come here.’ Her tears continued and she fumbled over her words as she added ‘I’m trying to hold it together so I don’t scare her’. She scrunched up her face in an attempt to hold back the emotion that was overwhelming her. I looked back at the fare prices on my screen and my heart dropped. They were all higher than what she had, for at least a week. She would not make the funeral.
I turned back to her and told her the pricing.
I’m sure you know the moment; when you are consumed by such a powerful grief that you open your mouth to cry and no sound comes out. There is the moment of silence as you inhale and try to catch the pain that is tearing apart your chest. The woman before me now, as she realised she could not say goodbye to her husband, to the father of her child – wore this expression. Her hands trembled as they covered her face and she rocked forward in her seat; drawing herself low to the desk and shoulders shaking.
It was this moment, when I was sharing with this woman perhaps the most intimate loss of her life, that I made the decision that would ultimately be the wrong one as a travel agent.
I told her I would take care of the difference.
As is the nature of sales, I worked on commission and a base salary. I’ve often had to forfeit commission to remain competitive against another company’s quote, or in the event of making an error – forfeit my commission to fix it. It is the nature of the business and one all agents accept. Sitting in a negative on a file is the worst case scenario for the business – and one we try to avoid at all costs. But it does happen.
On this particular day, I wasn’t thinking of the negative I might end up in – I was thinking of the woman in front of me – with her unbearable burden of loss and the task she faced in concealing that devastation from her daughter.
When she understood the gesture I was offering her, her tears returned. This time though, they were in gratitude – not in pain.
We finalised the booking and I told her the documentation would be ready by midday. I reminded her what time she would need to be at the airport and she absentmindedly mentioned it would be earlier – as she would have to catch the bus.
As she left, I began to plan.
As the cheapest flight I could find had overnight stops – I booked her some accommodation in hotels close to the airport. I then called the hotel to advise them of the delicate nature for travel and provide the flight details for the hotel transfers.
Then I emailed the airline rep to see if there was anything that could be done – lounge passes, upgrades or simply, kind hostesses – to take care of this woman and her infant child while travelling. I then placed remarks in her booking asking the same and called the airline – just to make sure they were received.
It then occurred to me she was catching the bus to the airport. How could I help her with this? No one wants to take an infant on the bus to the airport. Pre-booking a taxi proved beyond my technological skills so I decided to get some money out of my own wallet for a taxi for her.
The woman returned at midday and I had her documentation ready. I ran through the airline flight times and where she could find the transfers for the hotel at the airport. As she was preparing to go, I handed her $40 for a taxi. ‘Please take this from me, because it can’t be easy going through this today’.
She refused to take the cash originally; tears tracking their way down her face, but I insisted. Her hand came up to cover her mouth and she bent her head to cry. I reached out and placed my hand on her arm. ‘Let’s just get you there and… I am so sorry’.
At the time, I did not realise that the gesture of covering the difference in this woman’s flights – which was minimal – would mean the end of my travel agent career. As it were, that woman walked out of my store, out of my care and because of me, was able to travel to say goodbye to her beloved.
I don’t dispute the reason behind the termination of my employment – it was classed as financial misconduct – and I accept responsibility for my actions. Had I known at the time the severe consequences that would follow such a spur of the moment decision, I would more than likely have acted differently.
It makes for a pretty isolated world doesn’t it? When we are happy to let someone drown in their sorrow for fear of misconduct. When we are content to let the best of intentions suffer the worst of consequences.
I understand why a business cannot condone such actions – it makes way for exploitation of the business and undermines the value of the services offered. These things I get.
I guess what makes me sad is that we forget.
We forget that people, are people. That they are not a dollar per file or a profit estimate. They are not a closed ledger or passenger number. When this woman came to me, I didn’t see a stranger. Instead, I saw my Mum. Or my Dad. Or my sister. Or my Aunt. Or my best friend. Or their fiancee. I saw everyone I knew in this woman – and I thought that if they were desperate, if they had just lost the person they loved most in the world and they couldn’t get to them – then I would want someone to help them. If it was the person you loved most in the world and they couldn’t get to you – would you have wanted me to help them?
Now, when I find myself all of a sudden facing a future of uncertainty and financial strain – I still don’t regret my decision. Regret suggests that I feel remorse for helping a woman in need. I don’t feel that. I feel remorse that I wasn’t aware I was breeching policy and the implications of that breech – because I pride myself on having clear morals in code of conduct – but for the woman who was able to make it to her husband’s funeral? She made it to say goodbye. That is enough for me.
Travel is usually about wonderful, amazing new lands. Places we’ve been holding our breath to see or family we’ve been waiting to return home to. It’s the excitement of touch down and the terror of all the what if’s. It’s business, pleasure and everything in between. But always, it’s people.
For a minute there, after I found myself out on the pavement, I was scared – scared to be kind. If these were the consequences of compassion, it surely does not encourage such actions from ourselves as employees or as people – even if it is a spur of the moment decision; a once off. I was scared that should I write about my experience, then I would be penalised for that too. But perspective allowed me to keep my honour. My decision as an employee was not the right one, but I will not allow my decision as a human being to be one of shame. In world full of Trump, a game of nuclear war chicken and a refugee crisis never seen before, I don’t think compassion is the worst thing I could extend.
I wouldn’t want the woman I assisted to know that my actions cost me my position. I would want her to remember it so that one day, if the situation presented itself, she simply passed the gesture on.
My compassion cost me my job, my livelihood, financial security, professional standard and peace of mind. Yet, what I have lost is absolutely nothing compared to the woman who lost it all. I think to know we’re not alone, in the moments when we feel most so – that’s the gesture that counts. That moment, it doesn’t have a dollar value.