THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS… & FRIENDS: The Give & Take of Shoestring Travel

Apr 8, 2011 | Book Tours

Last Tuesday in Anacortes, Washington I was loading laundry into a washer at the home of my friend Heather’s landlady, Robbie. Robbie would be throwing a party for my book reading that night. We’d never met before. “I’ve been moved on this trip by how many people have stepped up to help me,” I told her. “It’s been a little overwhelming. I’m usually very self-sufficient and it’s hard for me to ask for help.”

“Then maybe that’s something you needed to learn on this trip.”

I nodded as this simple insight sank in. “Riiiiiight…” Someone recently told me that helpless people never ask for help – strong people do. Maybe I’m growing stronger.

Heather and her friend Bill took me to lunch at the bowling alley, where I enjoyed some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.

Later that rainy day Heather and her friend Bill took me to lunch at the bowling alley, where I enjoyed some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.

Bill is a man of the world, whose odd jobs have included ski patrolling and writing. He’s a college-educated historian and a Vietnam vet. “People think America is a classless society. We’re not a classless society.” He didn’t think it was fair that only poor kids fight our wars, so he joined up. This called to mind the scene in Oliver Stone’s Platoon when Chris (Charlie Sheen) says pretty much the same thing, and King responds, “Shiiiiit… you gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.” Not that Bill’s rich – I’m just intrigued by the idea of volunteering for war. Maybe Oliver Stone came to mind because Bill has written a Vietnam novel to which Stone has bought the rights.

We stopped at a Laundromat so I could dry clothes.

After lunch, we stopped at a Laundromat so I could dry clothes. Robbie, a better environmentalist than I, only has a clothesline. We then stopped at a chocolate shop, where Bill handed my chocoholic friend and I thirty dollars and insisted we buy a whole box for the party. Heather later explained, “Bill gets a lot of joy out of doing things for people.” We giggled like schoolgirls as we made our selections. Bill, a nicotine addict with terrible arthritis that requires him to walk with two canes, stayed in the car and smoked.

We giggled like schoolgirls as we made our chocolate selections.

That evening, Robbie’s cozy home filled to the brim with about 15 friendly, chattering people. Most brought something to eat at this trash-free event – we ate off cloth napkins and used no paper products at all. I was proud to be part of this. During my reading, the room felt energized, and I realized this is what I love best: intimate gatherings where like minds can easily connect. I told them, “This trip is making me feel like Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

This is what I love best: intimate gatherings where like minds can easily connect.

Afterward, Heather left me alone in her home next door, while she slept at Robbie’s. “I know how exhausting traveling can be,” she said. “Sometimes you just need space.” The kindness of close friends is easier to accept, but I was still moved by such intuitive thoughtfulness.

The gorgeous rain-forested island and turquoise water made me determined to return with my husband sometime, to kayak with Heather.

The next day was sunny, and Heather showed me more of beautiful Fidalgo Island, where Anacortes sits. The gorgeous rain-forested island and turquoise water made me determined to return with my husband sometime, to kayak with Heather and her always-amazing friends.

I stopped at the funky Sizizus Coffee House for one of the most delicious cups of tea ever: cream caramel rooibos.

Wednesday afternoon, I drove to Olympia. I stopped at the funky Sizizus Coffee House for one of the most delicious cups of tea ever: cream caramel rooibos. Then I walked to Orca Books for my reading.

Orca Books was just the kind of bookstore where I can while away hours.

This was just the kind of bookstore where I can while away hours: an inviting space of nooks and crannies, a smart and friendly staff, a large collection of used and new books, and a resident eccentric – better known as Henry the cat. John, the event coordinator, brought me a cup of water and warned, “Keep an eye on that – Henry loves author water.” The only disappointment was that I listed the wrong event-time on my website, and the only guests who got thrown off were a mother and daughter whom I had met during the travels I wrote about in my memoir. John suggested I start late, regardless, because “nothing in Olympia starts on time.” My friends still caught half the reading, and we made up for the other half by going out afterward for pretty-colored martinis.

Marina and Mary are avid readers, and I’m eager to read the books they’ve suggested.

I first met Marina and her mother, Mary, in Cortona, Italy, when we all stayed in an old convent that was converted into a hostel. I remember being struck by how much mother and daughter enjoyed traveling together, and how they made me feel like an old family friend. It was that way again this night. Marina was a college student when I met her, and is now a married mother of two and a grant writer. Both women are avid readers, and I’m eager to read the books they’ve suggested.

When Mary offered to pay for cocktails, I demurred, “But I can deduct it on my taxes.”

“You still have to pay for it, don’t you?”

I paused. I reminded myself that I can’t afford to turn down generosity at this time. I reminded myself that sometimes allowing people to give to me is also a gift to them. I thanked her, hugged them both, then rushed off to the hostel, where I was late for check-in.

The odd little house had a haphazard, wayward feel about it and smelled of grease.

The people at the hostel Chez Cascadia were friendly, although the odd little house had a haphazard, wayward feel about it and smelled of grease. I slept in a top bunk that rocked as if an earthquake had struck. Still, if the owners didn’t open this home to travelers, where would I have stayed? I felt a growing determination to pay all this kindness forward.

Outdoor food stands are part of Portland’s welcoming ambiance – I settled on some delicious Vietnamese curry.

On to Portland, where I haunted Powell’s City of Books, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and the outdoor food carts that are part of the city’s welcoming ambiance – I settled on some delicious Vietnamese curry. I spent the night nearby, at a hostel in a lovely old Victorian.

I spent the night nearby, at a hostel in a lovely old Victorian.

In my dorm, a twig-thin young woman dressed, as she described it, “like a Tim Burton character,” turned penetrating eyes on me and asked, “So, why are you here?” I said I was on a book tour, and that my memoir was about my life in Alaska and my solo trek around the world, “How about you?” She said she was going to the My Chemical Romance concert. A sudden squeal emerged from the dorm room next to ours and another young woman rushed in, “Me, too!” The pair shrieked their way through a high-pitched exchange something like this:

“I was a fan even before ‘Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.’”

“Have you heard their new song? Here, you have to listen to it.”

“Do you know I haven’t been to a concert since ninth grade? How old are you?”

“Twenty-six. How old are you?”

“I just turned 21.”

I resisted an urge to squeal, “Cool! I’m 47!”

While they were at the concert, I lay in my bunk, dreaming of my youth, which still spins inside me, but which had never before heard the songs of “My Chemical Romance.”

The next day, only one person showed up for my reading to benefit World Pulse magazine. But we had a great talk, and she bought a book. Her eyes were avid, as she said, “That was so inspiring. I can’t wait to plan my own trip.” So maybe I am giving something back. And when I do that, I feel ageless.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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