The Kindness of Strangers

June 22nd, 2012 by Michael White

A writer reflects on a charmed life of travel and how to pay it forward.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

After my recent return from a six-week tour of Israel and Palestine, I’m again forced to ask myself the source of my luck that has routinely led complete strangers to so generously invite me into their homes, feed me, then send me back into the world in a much better position to confront it than I was before I met them. I’ve often cited “Oliver Twist” as the story that most informs my imagination, everything from my boyhood fantasies of living among a band of pipe-smoking pickpockets to my undying adult prejudice toward underdogs. But despite my commonly repeated claim that Oliver Twist is by far the least interesting character in the novel bearing his name, apparently in the eyes of the world I’m no Artful Dodger or Charlie Bates – those cackling conspirators whose streetwise resourcefulness rarely failed to provide their daily bread – but rather a wandering waif in need of guidance and protection. As a low-budget and mostly solo traveler whose endless desire for adventure has often landed him in situations where success has largely depended on the kindness of strangers, being viewed in this way has often proved a saving boon.   

I recall my Japanese odyssey a few years after college that at one point had me hitchhiking (it’s generally considered safe in Japan) into the Alps in search of natural hot spas where I planned to hike and camp, practice photography, and maybe befriend a few monkeys that – according to my travel book – would likely enjoy bathing alongside me. But it turned out that the Japanese Alps get a lot of snow, even in the summer. I was prepared for the cold, but not that kind of cold. My driver refused to drop me off at the trailhead I first showed him on the map, seeming certain that I was the type to think everything would turn out okay, right up to the point that I froze to death. He drove me instead to the only tourist establishment in the area, a traditional family-operated inn of the sort that I definitely couldn’t afford, and he then pleaded with the owner to let me stay there for next to nothing. She agreed, then quickly set me up with a sashimi and saké lunch. The next day she encouraged me to stay a second night free of charge so that I’d be able to tour a second trailhead that was supposedly even more picturesque than the first.   

Then there was the time a few years later when I stepped out of the train station in Seville, asked a group of twentysomethings directions to a nearby hostel, answered a few questions about what I was up to in Spain, and then found myself pleasantly herded along with their group who were on their way to a dinner party. I wondered if they truly considered me in a weakened condition when they wouldn’t even let me carry my own backpack. At the dinner party I was treated like one of the gang, given a free ticket to a flamenco concert that night starring one of their own, and was even offered to spend the next couple of nights in the spare room in one of the band members’ apartments.   

In Vietnam, after a bus that was supposed to deliver me to the Hanoi airport for my flight back to the States failed to show up, an elderly man living across the street from the bus stop enlisted his son to take me there on the back of his motorcycle. It was an hour-long ride, mostly in the rain. Once again I was denied all opportunity to repay the deed, and only in response to a great amount of pressure did the man singularly responsible for me not missing my flight accept my gift of a souvenir Tiger Beer tee shirt.   

One might think that with age I’d find myself less prone to being spoiled in these ways, but as a 35-year-old, during my first trip to Israel and Palestine, I quickly discovered that the patron saints of travelers who have so often blessed me in the past were still with me every step of the way. After telling a new acquaintance about my plans to tour the Galilee and Golan Heights regions, she offered that I consider visiting her small northern village of Klil (we were in Jerusalem at the time), apparently for no other reason other than its location made it a good launching point for traveling to the places I’d previously mentioned. I ended up staying in Avigail’s home for an entire week, with Avigail even joining me on several tours throughout the region, though I’d say guided me might be a better way to put it given the extent to which I never could’ve seen and learned so much about her country on my own, sans car, sans interpretation, sans just about all the incredible access to her and her friends’ lives that rendered this trip the sublime education that it was. And all this the result of Avigail’s casual generosity that opened the door to what I consider the greatest possible outcome of any foreign experience, the forging of chance and true friendships.   

Which brings me to the point where I admit that never in my life have I offered my home to a complete stranger. I’ve also never picked up a hitchhiker. I intermittently volunteer and generally try to help people in obvious need, but these small gestures of kindness hardly stack up to the grand acts of hospitality so commonly offered me in my travels abroad. Inviting someone into your home, your car, to wrap their arms around your waist as you race to the airport on a motorcycle in the rain – all these things involve a serious level of trust. In my experience, the invasion of private spaces such as houses and cars marks the point where even the most charitable Americans commonly draw the line, myself included. Then again, when Mr. Brownlow invited Oliver Twist into his home, he did so against the standard wisdoms of his time, not to mention the advice of his friends, trusting his instinct that Oliver wasn’t the criminal threat that everyone else automatically judged him. 

Since my latest return to the Unites States I’ve been making a point of pushing myself to take more minor, calculated risks when it comes to helping others, especially when doing so involves inviting them into the confines of personal spaces in ways that I’ve been trained most of my life to avoid. A few weeks ago while staying with my parents in the suburbs of St. Louis, I spotted a burly woman in a restaurant uniform walking along a road with no bus routes or sidewalks. I pulled over, guessing that her car had broken down somewhere further back.   

“If you’re not afraid to take a ride from a stranger,” I said. “I’d be happy to take you wherever you’re going.”

“Afraid of who?” she shot back. “Thank God someone grabbed me cause I was definitely gonna be late. You look like you need to eat something. Stick around till we open and I’ll get you a free burger.”

Michael J. White’s work has appeared in Conjuctions, The New York Times Magazine and The Chicago Review. His first novel, “Weeping Underwater Looks A Lot Like Laughter” (Putnam), was nominated for the Barnes & Noble “Discovery Award” in 2010.