The Kindness of Strangers

A traveller depends on the kindness of strangers, in the 21st century as in the first.

And when said traveller lacks the forethought to have learned the local tongue, and finds him or herself in a situation not covered by the handy Book of Phrases, the kindness of strangers is the only salvation between the hapless pilgrim and catastrophe.

In all fairness, it was not unreasonable to have assumed that the foremost car hire agency in America and much of Europe, Hertz, was also a professional organization in Japan, not a thin subcontracting cover name with no more substance than a handkerchief.  Just as it was not entirely unreasonable to expect that if there was some key element of running the car–the subtleties of gasoline types, for example–and the persons hiring the car clearly did not read sufficient Japanese to decipher the inside of the gas flap, it might be good just to mention in passing that the green inside the cover did not relate to the green color of the gas pump.  Which was, in fact, not gas but diesel.

And just in case you aren’t aware of this, let me say that gas and diesel really, really don’t mix.

Approximately 65 seconds after driving away from the gas station, the car strangled and died.  Very fortunately, not before I’d managed to steer it to the side of the road.

A few minutes later, I began my relationship with a vendor of sakes and beers on the other side of the road, whose English was less than my Japanese, ie, none.  We had cause to mourn our lack of common ground, although he was most helpful in scribbling down Japanese words in the hopes that the written word would get through where the spoken word would not.  Alas.

When asked if there might be a telephone in the neighborhood, the liquor gent suggested the train station, a goodly hike away.
But there is nothing like desperation to make a woman just a bit pushy, and blinking my big blue eyes at him, I asked if perchance he might have a telephone.

What do you know: he did.  Although most certainly he received few calls on it for the rest of the afternoon that were not related to the stray Americans on his front step.

An hour later, the numbers on the Hertz papers being either disconnected or disconnected to Hertz, the repairman arrived–with a device to jump the battery, and driving a tiny truck.

It took some time to communicate that the scope of our problem was rather more profound than a faulty lead from the battery, but when I had succeeded in drawing his attention away from the unoffending wires, and convinced him that communicating with a woman would not instantly render him unmanly, I jabbed my forefinger at the gas flap and pronounced the key words: “Gasoline,” accompanied by a pouring gesture, followed by “diesel,” and another gesture of pouring.

His face went slightly pale. I nodded.  He looked to the man in our party, in the hopes that I was simply being a fluttering female.  Our resident male nodded.

Still, the adventure gave us the singular opportunity to observe rural Japan, and particularly its repair garages, from an intimate distance.

And in a village near Kochi, Japan, one man is faced with the disposal of some 12 gallons of mixed diesel and gasoline, and another man wears with pride the knowledge that he and his grubby mobile telephone saved the bacon of three alien life forms and brought great honor to a seller of sake and beer.

And tonight, when we finally made it to the ryokan in Matsuyama, we toasted our day in the most expensive bottle of sake the gentleman had carried on his shelves.

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  1. Tim H. on April 11, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Quite the adventure, nice to know it was resolved so well. Hope the rest of your trip isn’t interesting in that way.

  2. Kris Lewis on April 11, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Sorry to hear about your misadventure. I speak some Japanese and am quite familiar with the culture. One bit of information that you may find useful during your stay in Nippon, is that, while most Japanese do not understand spoken English very well (even after a number of years of English lessons in school), a large number of them read and write it pretty well. Next time you have a communication problem, try writing it out in English using short, straightforward sentences. Somebody near you will be able to read it and perhaps give you some written instructions in return. As always, it is good to be a writer. Good luck!

  3. strawberry curls on April 11, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Heavens, what an adventure. Something tells me Russell and Holmes might find themselves having trouble communicating in Japan in say…1924. You handled the situation with all the aplomb of those two capable persons. I hope your trip settles down to become more enjoyment and less adventure from here on.


  4. Kath on April 11, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Not quite having your level of adventure we still managed our own version in Italy. Being used to relying on ourselves we were quite proud that we have found our own way in the huge Milan train station to the Genova train (Genoa) only to find we were going to Geneva, Switlzerland. Still misadventures do make the most entertaining stories! Hopefully, you’ve gotten your misadventure over early and the rest of your trip will be interesting, but uneventful. Enjoy!

  5. Karen Lowe on April 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Smoothly handled…much better than my major car mistake. I wish mine had been as simple as the wrong fuel, instead I filled the engine of a brand new rental car with water instead of oil, wondering why it was taking so long to fill the darned radiator! Oops….

  6. Meredith on April 14, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Bless the man! indeed, English is now close to Esperanto…but not quite close enough. The unexpected is the essence of travel. I hope it becomes a boringly predictable for a few days. Also: sake: good. Ryokan: Very Good!

  7. Jessara on April 15, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Apparently Siri speaks Japanese as well as English, but I’m not sure she can translate. This article seems to say you can speak English to Siri while you’re in Japan; perhaps this might help next time.

  8. carol on April 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    wow. just shows that gestures and goodwill will usually see us through. well done!

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