Book Review: "The Kindness of Strangers"

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I had a very nice Christmas this year, despite being afflicted by a mild cold which left me slightly sniffly and tired by Boxing Day. My family and friends were very generous, yet also quite successful at giving me presents that, for the most part, fit neatly within the "6 Things" rules, including lots of yummy consumables, and cool trip-related stuff. In fact, this was the first time EVER that I was able to fly with carry-on baggage only to and from Christmas at home. This is unprecedented, and a hopeful sign of things to come. However, while I was able to fit everything into my poor old carry-on eBag, I was weighed down quite a bit more on my return to Winnipeg than I was when I set out, mostly due to the acquisition of loads of great new travel-related reading materials.

All this is an introduction to what may become yet another recurring feature here at Go See Run Eat Drink – book reviews! (posts like this will be labeled "books" in the tag cloud). It occurred to me as I dove into the first of several new travel-related publications, that other people might also be interested in hearing about some of them. So here's a look at the first travel book I received this Christmas, one that I actually started reading on the plane home on Christmas Eve, and which I liked from the first page.

"The Kindness of Strangers" is a Lonely Planet published collection of 26 stories by different authors that explore "the unexpected human connections that so often transfigure and transform the experience of travel, and celebrates the gift of kindness around the world."

In his introduction to the book, the editor Don George, writes this alarming but hopeful message:

"In twenty-five years of wandering the world, I have learned two things: the first is that when you travel, at some point you will find yourself in a dire predicament – out of money, out of food, unable to find a hotel room, lost in the big city or on a remote trail, stranded in the middle of nowhere. The second is that someone will miraculously emerge to take care of you – to lend you money, feed you, put you up for the night, lead you to where you want to go. Whatever the situation dramatic or mundane, some stranger will save you."
As promised, these are stories by many different authors. Some are only a few pages long, some longer, but each one recounts a true experience of the author as traveler encountering some small or large kindness rendered by a complete stranger, usually when the traveler is in distress: alone, sick, lost, or otherwise in need of help and with no one to turn to.

In the happiest of these stories lucky travelers are showered with food and gifts and friendship in Venice, or picked up from the muddy, potholed streets of Haymarket in St. Petersburg, or even lead by a Wodaabe tribesman out of the darkness of a Sahara night and back to a lost campsite. In each case the friendship or gift or help is unexpected, but turns out to be one of the the most memorable parts of the journey. There are some more complicated stories too – ones where the exact nature of the kindness is murky, and where the traveler comes away conflicted about the experience. Each story I've read so far has been a pleasure, and because they're only a few pages each they are, fittingly, excellent for reading on the plane. You probably won't have to stop in the middle of one when the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign goes on.

The other thing I like about the book is that while many professional travel writers are represented in its pages – people like Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer and Rolf Potts, there are also several stories by ordinary travelers as well. This is because as the editor was soliciting entries from professionals, Lonely Planet sponsored a contest on its website and hundreds of people submitted their own tales from the road. Three of their stories are included in the collection alongside the professionals.

It's also worth noting that the collection is graced with a preface by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so really, what more incentive do you need to seek out this book? It's recommended by Go See Run Eat Drink, AND by the Dalai Lama. Oh, and it was the winner of the 2004 Independent Publishers Book Awards in the Travel Essay category.

These stories give me real hope for this solo journey I'm planning. They reassure me that though I'll be traveling on my own I'll never really be alone, not if I can trust my instincts and accept help when it's needed and offered. Though I hope I never find myself in the kind of adversity that some of these story talk about, I also hope that when the inevitable small disasters befall me I can figure out who to trust and be grateful that they found me.

I'll leave you with a thought from the story "Adnan's Secret", by Maxine Rose Shur:
"As travelers we were strangers to everyone, and everyone a stranger to us. We had to rely on only the fragile, often surprising connection we knew we could feel with others, and others with us. This is the connection made despite difference, distance and even death. It is the delicate thread of sympathy that stitches humanity together."


Phonella said...

That quote is such a fine summation to this post. I mean it applies on all levels, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Pam, this book had not found it's way to my 'must read' list - but it has now! Thanks, I will be picking it up very soon. It is amusing how our blog posts are like leap frogging over each other - and it's nice to have someone to share the journey with. Merry Christmas!

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