The Kindness Of Strangers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 12:00am

The Kindness Of Strangers: Travellers' Tales Of Trouble And Salvation Around The Globe

Edited by Don George

Lonely Planet $105

Travellers - as opposed to tourists - understand that the best journeys are made from person to person rather than from place to place. That's the spirit of this feel-good collection of short pieces on the theme of kindness encountered on the road.

Marking the 30th anniversary of Lonely Planet, the book boasts an impressive list of contributors: 20 established authors - including Dave Eggers, Simon Winchester, Tim Cahill, and Jan Morris - six winners of a competition on the Lonely Planet website, and a preface by the Dalai Lama.

'Anyone who considers himself or herself above all a member of the human family should develop a kind heart,' beams the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.

Lonely Planet editor Don George concurs: 'We are all members of one grand, globe-encircling family.'

Despite the good vibes, the book stalls as it begins. The opening essay by Jan Morris says that kindness towards friends would have been a worthier subject for a book. True, but it throws a wet blanket on proceedings. Things almost get moving with Pico Iyer's story about a trishaw driver in Mandalay, but Iyer is never in trouble and the driver never helps him. It's not until page 27 that James D. Houston locks himself out of his car in a remote part of Hawaii and encounters a villainous-looking Polynesian who helps him open his car window with a coat hanger. Finally, we are on the road.

Other highlights include Douglas Cruickshank's encounter with a butterfly-breeding, mystery-writing London cabbie named George ('Name's George, call me George for short'); Carolyn Swindell shopping for underwear in Buenos Aires; Sarah Levin's delicate tale of sickness in Tanzania; and Tanya Shaffer's brilliant Looking For Abdelati - a farce of mistaken identity set in Morocco, made all the more funny because the reader figures out what's going on long before the heroine does.

Such an optimistic collection wanders dangerously close to chicken-soup territory, but it never gets there because the writing is consistently satisfying. Plus, the strangers our travellers meet aren't always nice.

In Israel, Laura Fraser hitches a lift with a driver who expects sexual payback. Laurie McAndish King is almost kidnapped in Tunisia. And Rolf Potts meets the helpful stranger from hell: the gung-ho Mr Ibrahim, who takes over his travel plans, lectures him on Lebanese pride, and bullies him into eating a huge tub of chocolate pudding.

Eggers explores the nature of responsibility in We Can't Fix Anything, Even The Smallest Things In Cuba. He meets a Cuban family who give him dinner, then accept far more money than the meal is worth and push him to bring more gifts. Eggers doesn't help them. Kindness, he concludes, relies on the whim of the giver.

Egger's contribution, he admits, doesn't fit neatly into the theme of the book. Mostly the stories lend themselves to pithy truths rather than philosophising. 'If I love other people, they will love me,' says the Myanmar trishaw driver; 'Everything come round and round and round,' says the Polynesian car thief; 'Virtue is its own reward,' says Simon Winchester in the concluding story. It's unfashionably inspirational, but it works. It's the sort of book that everyone should read once a year to remind themselves of what's important in life.

The collection's only failing is its claim to be global when not one of the 26 pieces is set in China, Japan or India. Half involve Arabs; three are set in Turkey alone, and three more in Israel. Perhaps we'll have to wait for a second edition to hear about kindness from this part of the world. I look forward to it.