In Tajikistan, Stephen Fabes was pedaling down a quiet road when a stranger waved him over — she just had to share her fresh apricots. In Alaska, laborers spotted his filthy bicycle and gave it a thorough bath. In Mongolia, a family he’d just met offered him a plate of lamb and a place to rest his weary legs.
The “little acts of charity” recounted in Fabes’ first book are quietly powerful. The British doctor’s “Signs of Life” is a plucky memoir about the six years he spent cycling around the world. His journey was eventful and sobering. Near Afghanistan’s northern border, a hotheaded soldier reached for his pistol when questioning Fabes. In China, Fabes slept in wastelands and went days without an indoor bathroom. He saw teenage “pemulung, or waste pickers,” living at a city dump in Indonesia.
Though he’d ultimately cover 53,000 miles, Fabes didn’t know what he was looking for when he set out from London a decade ago. But as the 30-something physician began volunteering at remote hospitals, he found his focus. The trip helped him better grasp “the forces shaping health, and, by proxy, places themselves.”
At a clinic in Cambodia, Fabes saw patients who have no access to “surgeons, scans or biopsies. … Death, they say, is democratic — but not a good death. Not everyone has that opportunity.”
His time with physicians in Kenya and India broadened his understanding of the stigma around mental illness. And in the country of Georgia, Fabes watched as doctors fought a tuberculosis epidemic that was hastened by governmental neglect.
But this is not a dour book. Fabes is a winning storyteller, and when he arrives in a new spot, he gives us some irreverent local history. In Passau, Germany, he says, “Adolf Hitler was reputed to have fallen into the icy [river] waters while playing tag with his friends. His life was saved by a passing priest. Whoops.”
For all its strengths, “Signs of Life” has a flaw that’s fairly common to memoirs: Some of its quotations feel a little too perfect. In California, for instance, we meet a dodgy meat peddler who has a hilarious, screenplay-ready gripe about the very idea of restaurant menus. This is entertaining, but it reads like a punched-up version of reality. Though there’s no reason to doubt most of what Fabes writes, a no-nonsense fact-checker might have some questions for him.
During his journey, Fabes battled injuries, infestations and Dengue fever. Yet his travelogue retains its bighearted humor. In Mongolia, he and his hosts didn’t share a language, yet they found plenty to laugh about. “Disband the U.N.,” he jokes, “we’ve got this figured out.” Not quite, but there’s no denying that this is a bridge-building book.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
Signs of Life
By: Stephen Fabes.
Publisher: Pegasus, 416 pages, $27.95.