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HER WORLD

Journeys Can Offer Inspiring Lessons in Depending on Kindness of Strangers

November 26, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Travel makes you vulnerable. It opens you up to new people, places and adventures, but when things go wrong, that vulnerability can mean disaster, particularly if you're a woman alone. You can get stranded in your car on the highway, lost in a foreign city or dehydrated on a desert hike. And even smaller, less dramatic problems like losing your wallet can mean trouble on the road.

For instance, I forgot to pack my glasses for a recent trip to Germany and realized it only when I boarded the plane. I thought I could get along without them (though not easily) because I wear contacts. But when I reached the little town of Gelnhausen, 20 miles northeast of Frankfurt, I stopped at an optician's shop, where the owner examined my eyes and made me a new pair of glasses in less than two hours.

You could say he was just doing his job. But he took so much time with me and treated my problem so seriously that I think of him as a German good Samaritan.

It seems perfect to me that the biblical story of the good Samaritan, from the Gospel of St. Luke, is about a traveler, waylaid on the road by thieves. Destitute and half-dead, he is ignored by two passersby. But a third man stops, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn and resumes his own journey, apparently needing no thanks or recognition for his good deed.

A cynic would say that something like this could happen only in holy books and fairy tales. But I've heard too many stories about travelers saved by passersby not to believe in good Samaritans. The idea eases my mind and sets me free to travel, even though I know only a fool leaves home counting on the kindness of strangers.

The kindness of good Samaritans is almost always disinterested, which makes the help they give even more astonishing. Several summers ago, Susan Klein, my sister-in-law, and her daughter, Sarah, were traveling on the tube in London when Susan unknowingly dropped their passports. A lost passport isn't the worst thing in the world, but it can ruin a vacation. While they waited for their stop, a woman with her hair in a bun and wearing sensible black shoes tapped Susan on the arm and pointed down at the passports. The woman, who fit Susan's idea of an English angel perfectly, melted back into the crowd before they could thank her. The experience is fixed in Susan's memory almost as firmly as her first sight of Trafalgar Square or Westminster.

Sometimes, it's those little things that make you feel lucky. Once, as author and traveler Marybeth Bond stood waiting for a bus in Sri Lanka, a fellow in a battered station wagon full of kids pulled over and told her she wasn't at a bus stop.

Two Mexicans in a Land Rover saved my brother John and me in the mountains of northern Baja after our car got stuck on a dirt road. We spent a long, cold night wondering what we would do, when these two Samaritans happened along. They pulled the car out and wouldn't accept money for their good deed.

After Evelyn Hannon, editor of Journeywoman, an online travel magazine for women, disembarked from a train in Gruyeres, Switzerland, she stopped at a store to ask about accommodations at a farm. The proprietor called a friend, who not only took her in but also let her join his family on an excursion to see Gruyere cheese being made in the mountains. The next day, as she prepared to leave, her host wouldn't accept a penny.

On the other hand, Hannon was once called on to be a good Samaritan at the train station in Rome. There a woman approached her and asked for $2 for a ticket. "She really got to me," Hannon says. The woman ducked out of the ticket line as soon as she got the cash, and Hannon realized she had been scammed. She felt violated. "Women are soft," she says. "We've got to watch for the signals. That doesn't mean we don't help, but we have to ask why we're being picked out."

Like her, travelers who have received assistance often try to return the favor. But sometimes it's hard to decide whether you should give money to a beggar or think fast enough when you see someone in trouble, which is why I can't condemn the two men who passed by the beleaguered traveler in the Bible's good Samaritan story.

I'm also haunted by the story of Andre Dubus, the author of such novellas as "Voices From the Moon" and volumes of essays including "Broken Vessels." In 1986 he was driving on a highway near Boston when he saw two stranded motorists, a man and a woman, and stopped to help. Dubus saw another car heading straight for them; he pushed the woman out of the way, but the car struck Dubus and the man, who died. Dubus lost the use of both legs and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. A vigorous, productive man before the accident, he seemed to unravel afterward, though he eventually regained the will to write and won a MacArthur Award in 1988. He died of a heart attack last year at the age of 62. His struggles after the accident seem to me no reward at all for a good Samaritan.

Nevertheless, while traveling, I still hold doors open for women with strollers and help older passengers stow carry-on bags in airplanes' overhead compartments. But these seem small gestures, considering how much good Samaritans have done for me. As a solo woman traveler, I can help others, if only in a limited fashion, and trust the people who want to help me, though only to a certain extent, because one mustn't be too vulnerable.

But where do you draw the line in Naples and Bangkok? How do you know a good Samaritan when you see one? And how do you be one?

I'll need to travel many more miles to know.

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