Friendly firestarters. Impromptu translators. Spontaneous hosts. They’re all examples of the unsung heroes we’ve met during our travels; strangers who stepped in to smooth a passage, solve a problem or just spread a little love. And they did it all without even being asked. Here’s to the friends you never knew you had.
Help from a pro in California, USA
After pitching a flimsy tent next to the hulking RVs of pro campers in the Inyo National Forest in California, my friend and I were determined to cook up a campfire feast. Mildly delirious with hunger and woefully under-prepared for the task at hand, we began feebly rubbing sticks together à la Bear Grylls. After 30 spark-free minutes, a rotund, red-faced American (who had, presumably, been watching this pathetic display for some time) burst out of his RV, marched over with a gas can in hand, wordlessly doused our fire pit with whatever was in it and threw down a lit match before turning and walking away as the flames burst up from the ground behind him. Heroes don't always wear capes, but they do sometimes wear khaki shorts and baseball caps.
Emily Frost, Social Communications Coordinator. Follow her on Instagram @frostyem.
Found in translation in Okinawa, Japan
After a long drive, we reached our guesthouse in a small village in the north of Okinawa, Japan. We were ravenous, and after check-in, I asked the receptionist to book a table at the adjoining restaurant, the only place to eat for miles. Half an hour later, we arrived to find it full. None of the staff spoke English, and my Japanese was very poor. I tried to explain that we had a booking, but the waitress did not understand me. After some time, a woman who had been watching from a nearby table approached and offered to translate. We were sorted in minutes, and as we ate, the friendly woman, Yayoi, invited us to her home the following night. She cooked an amazing dinner, I joked with her husband, and she showed me her incredible ceramic art and introduced me to her cats. It was one of my favourite nights from my trip across Japan. We are still in contact, and I am thankful that her simple act of kindness allowed me to make a lifelong friend.
James Gabriel Martin, freelance writer for Lonely Planet Travel News. Follow his tweets @James_G_Martin.
Joining the party in Mo’orea, Tahiti
Once, on a long journey through Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, a friend and I found ourselves in Tahiti for 10 days with little money and no plan. After a horrendous first night in a hostel in Papeete (think lurking creepers at the communal sinks and cell-like rooms), we took the ferry to Mo’orea, where – through a series of strange events, which included no available rooms – we arrived in the pouring rain on the doorstep of three young French men. They kindly offered us a room for the night. Once we’d changed our sopping clothes, we discovered the trio were just about to start a dinner party; turns out we were crashing a birthday celebration and someone’s mother had sent a care package from France. We ate beautiful food, drank bottle after bottle of French wine and had the most amazing night. So good, in fact, we stayed a week.
Sarah Stocking, Destination Editor for California and Mexico. Follow her tweets @stockingsgo.
Not just a friendly face in Fiji
My solo backpacking route meant I’d be crossing paths with some uni friends in Fiji, so I planned to join them on whichever far-flung isle they’d chosen. ‘Winging it’ upon arrival was still a novelty for me, but my newfound sense of badassery turned to lead in my stomach when the airport ATM ate my credit card, my calls wouldn’t connect and my Facebook inbox (hastily checked at an internet cafe – as this was the pre-smartphone era) was unexpectedly empty. I was stranded. Mid-panic, I’d snubbed a smiley booking agent repeatedly – but eventually accepted her help. She called various guest houses, chatting jovially and picking up clues as to where my three mates might be (it helped that two of them had red hair). Through some miracle she found them and ushered me on to the next available boat, assuring me (quite rightly) that my small stash of US dollars would see me through two weeks in paradise.
Emma Sparks, Deputy Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow her tweets @Emma_Sparks.
A small gesture in Mozambique
The day had started with a mishap of nightmarish proportions: being on the wrong end of a dodgy currency exchange was one thing, but seeing my backpack containing a year’s supply of medicine disappear over the horizon on the back of a truck was quite another. Thankfully, the truck returned to pick me up and I piled on to the flatbed, the lone traveller among dozens of Mozambicans. With my heart rate back to normal, and legs dangling over the side, the man next to me offered me some of his sugar cane. A small gesture, but as we all chewed away I felt at one with everyone. Many hours later, when a roadside stall wouldn't accept my large denomination notes, this same man put his money down and said it was his pleasure as I was a guest in his country.
Matt Phillips, Destination Editor for sub-Saharan Africa. Follow his tweets @Go2MattPhillips.
Bamboozling the bandits in Nepal
Some years ago, I got lost trekking in Western Nepal and ended up sheltering by a small lake in the middle of nowhere as darkness fell. Halfway through the night, I was woken by men in dhotis with torches and drawn khukri knives. They gestured for me to go with them and, as I was already lost, I didn’t want to run off and get even more lost, so chose to wait for a better chance to escape if things went sour. Before long we ended up in a small village, where they woke up a tailor who spoke English. 'You are very lucky, sir!’ he explained, ‘Last night bandits came through the village and killed a man. These men are vigilantes hunting the bandits!' He then made up a bed for me on his terrace. Early the next morning the monsoon broke, turning the whole valley into a mud bath, so I spent the day there and he fed and watered me without asking for anything back.
Joe Bindloss, Destination Editor for the Indian subcontinent. Follow his tweets @joe_planet.
Getting hands-on guidance in Railay, Thailand
Sunburnt, possibly alcohol-poisoned and down a phone (which had been stolen moments before I boarded the ferry), I arrived in Railay, Thailand, sick, exhausted and shaken only to find out I had boarded the wrong taxi-boat inland. Thanks to a rising tide, my hostel, located on the adjacent beach, was now only accessible via a dangerous scrabble over slippery rocks. I contemplated throwing in the towel. Thankfully, just at that moment, I met a kind German traveller who was also lost, but guided me fearlessly over the rocky path and allowed me to use her phone to contact home and book onward flights. Our friendship solidified further one night when she helped me through a sleepwalking nightmare and I held her hair back during a nasty bout of food poisoning. I wouldn’t have made it through those last few days without her!
Louise Bastock, Assistant Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow her tweets @LouiseBastock.
A show of pride in Jackson, USA
During a shoestring crossing of the Southern USA, a friend and I met an unassuming gent in the smoking area of a bar in Jackson, Mississippi. He was partly bemused, partly impressed by our low-budget odyssey (during most of which we slept in our car), but more interested that our next stop was New Orleans, his hometown. He talked passionately about the city until his cigarette burnt away, finishing his soliloquy by recommending his favourite hotel overlooking the city’s main strip, Bourbon Street. We told him it looked lovely, but we could never afford it. ‘You know what, guys,’ he said, ‘this one is on me.’ It was a bizarre, remarkable act, typical of the countless genial locals we met on that trip.
Jack Palfrey, Assistant Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow his tweets @JPalfers.