Letters To Strangers

This book looks like a must-read for multiple reasons. At least 65. That is the number of writers musing on a simple question: how can an “ephemeral encounter with a stranger leave such an eternal mark?” As someone whose life story hinges on a chance encounter in an airport, and so believes that strangers can make great co-adventurers, I am in. If you want a taste of what is in store, this essay by an author we have appreciated in these pages several times over the years, titled To My Lost Trishaw Driver, is excerpted from it:

Yangon, Myanmar, via Creative Commons.

Pico Iyer on decades of letters to a man he met, once, in Myanmar.

Travel is, deep down, an exercise in trust, and sometimes I think it was you who became my life’s most enduring teacher. I had every reason to be wary when, in 1985, I clambered out of the overnight train and stepped out into the October sunshine of Mandalay, blinking amidst the dust and bustle of the “City of Kings.” I wasn’t reassured as you sprang out of the rickety bicycle trishaw in which you’d been sleeping, as you did every night, and I don’t think the signs along the sides of your vehicle — b.sc. (maths) and my life — put my mind very much to rest.

To me it seemed like a bold leap of faith — a shot in the dark — to allow a rough-bearded man in a cap to pedal me away from the broad main boulevards and into the broken backstreets, and then to lead me into the little hut where you shared a tiny room with a tired compatriot. Yes, you gave me a piece of jade as we rode and disarmed me with the essays you’d written and now handed me on how to enjoy your town. But I’d grown up on stories of what happens when you’re in a foreign place and recklessly neglect a mother’s advice to never accept gifts from strangers.

Yet it required trust on your part, too, I realize now, to take in a shabby foreigner in a threadbare jacket, hauling a worn case off the third-class carriage and looking as if he hadn’t washed in days (for the very good reason that he hadn’t). In New York City — where I lived — it was not taxi-drivers who were agents of violence, but their customers. So we both took a chance, in the hope that we could turn an unscripted meeting into something durable. You won me over in your bare room when you started opening up all the albums in which you’d meticulously transcribed the names of every foreigner you’d taken a snapshot of and showed me the handwritten essays in which you shared your dreams (of earning a further certificate in mathematics; of inviting your parents to your graduation; of one day, perhaps, possessing your own trishaw)…

Read the whole essay here.

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