As children, we’re told, very vehemently, never to talk to strangers. This comes from a good place in our parent’s hearts, and ultimately makes a lot of sense for a small child. There are undoubtedly some dangerous people out there. However, sometimes, this advice can linger with us into our adult lives.
I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t let it.
When you read about travelling, whether it be an article or on social media, there tends to be a very big visual element to it: The scenery, the landmarks, the cobble stone pathways. After this, there is an emphasis on the experiences: Swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean, riding the London Eye, drifting through the canals of Venice. However, though it’s talked about, I rarely see as huge of an emphasis about the people met along the way.
To me, these strangers are what make travel worthwhile above everything else.
I have an endless interest in people. There is such a ridiculous number of us in the world, and so many of our stories go untold. This is despite the fact that each of those stories tends to be unique, dynamic, and complex. Getting the opportunity to see a small snapshot of a person’s life, to get to know them for even a second, seems so rare and special. Our paths crossed, and somehow, we began to speak to one another. That could easily have never happened.
Out of everything I have seen and done in my travels, it is these portraits that have been burned into my memory. Here are just a few of these people that you probably will not meet, and that I probably will not meet again:
Max: I met Max when I was on my way back to Philadelphia after a weekend at home in New York City. I boarded my Greyhound bus, plonked down near the back, and decided to allow myself a few blissful minutes of looking out the window before starting a reading for class. Then an older man waltzes onto the bus. He has neat gray hair, a bushy mustache, and round wire glasses. He’s a little small, with a grey woolen coat and a little brown briefcase. The first thing that struck me about him was that he asked if he could sit down next to me, something which nobody has done before. I mentioned this to him, and that sparked a conversation which lasted the entire two-hour bus ride. He worked as a lawyer for thirty years in Philadelphia, but now he’s retired and living in the Caribbean with his partner, whom he had been separated from for about fifteen years. He wishes that he had pursued working in history instead, but is content because he worked with an archival group in his hometown. We discussed the type of weather we preferred, cities we had lived in and been to, politics, what life in the Caribbean is even like, the monkey epidemic, hobbies, and more. I found out that he was only even back in American for two weeks, and that he was heading towards his last stop, visiting his mom in Philadelphia. He said he had somebody who insisted on picking him up at the bus stop, but that person didn’t answer the phone. We exchanged names at the very last moment, when our bus was pulling into the terminal.
Amanda and Jill: I met these two girls during a time of sheer darkness and panic. It was a late, foggy night in Amsterdam. My two friends and I nervously arrived at the parking lot that we had been dropped off in a little over a day beforehand. We were six eyes scattering rows of empty buses, trying to find one that could be ours. Doubts began to form. What if we missed it? What if the bus actually isn’t here? What if it is, but we can’t find it? Then, nearby, we spot two girls who look just as apprehensive and confused as us. Once we spot one another, the attraction is magnetic. We band together, discussing our concerns, the comedy of this situation, and our separate experiences in Amsterdam. Those two had a much more eventful experience than we had. They opted for a super cheap hostel located in the Red Light District, and you can imagine what kind of shenanigans that sets one up for. Drunken, creepy guys wandering the streets and into the hostel. Old ladies who steal your purse while you use the bathroom. Various drugs scattered about the floors of the hallways. Suddenly, my group was grateful that our biggest setback had been spending two hours trying to find the Anne Frank house. Nonetheless, those girls were kind and hilarious, with excellent storytelling abilities. We didn’t talk anymore after we finally boarded the bus, but we wished each other well when we got off in Brussels, 10 hours later.
Allai: I met Allai when I was hopelessly lost in China. My group from class was spending a couple of days at Jiangsu University, and we had just been very rebellious and left a restaurant with a speaker we had met just the day prior. He took us to a nearby supermarket, and recommended all different kinds of candies and snacks that we couldn’t read. Many of them were delicious. However, I was a little slow in my decision making, and was therefore one of the last people on line. When I finally got out, I saw the group I had been with walking rather far up ahead of me. Instead of running, or calling out to them, I figured that I would not lose sight of them, as they were a rather large group. This was apparently not the case. They rounded a corner, and by the time I got there, I was met with a path which split in four directions. Oh no. My phone wasn’t functioning. I didn’t remember how to get back to our housing. I tried a number of things to remedy the situation, but none turned out fruitful. While I knew staying in one place was probably the safest decision, I was determined to get back on my own. So I asked for help. This is where Allai comes in. A junior business student from Pakistan, Allai and I talked about our academics, why we were both in China, and most importantly, my very precarious situation. He was very patient with me, and obviously kind. He took the time out of his lunch break to try and help me find my way back. When he finally suggested that it may be best for me to go to a help desk, I was found by a very frustrated student leader, and I said a hasty thank you, good luck, and goodbye.
Trendy, happy guy: I never got this man’s name, but it was a fleeting conversation which made me so giddy at the time it happened, and has stuck with me since. It is August, and I’m spending the day in a kind of calm and wistful bliss with my boyfriend. While walking, we come across two birds. Being I don’t bird-watch for a living or a hobby, I could not identify them. However, there was a smaller bird that was very patiently feeding bread to a bird much larger than itself. While we watched, a man who neither of us really noticed at first crossed our path, then doubled back and got our attention. He said that he noticed we were looking at the birds, and that he had seen them doing the same thing yesterday. Words can barely express the joy and excitement with which he relayed this information to us, and we reciprocated. For a moment, we had bonded over something so small. It was an excitement shared by three people who had observed the same detail, which countless others had walked right past.
In all of this, there’s a little bit of sadness looming just on the edges. I don’t remember all but one of these people’s names with certainty. I can see them in my mind, but some of the details get fuzzy. It’s only their stories, and my interactions with them, which truly endure.
Though it can be perceived as a little bit wistful, what these experiences really show me is that there can still be mystery in a world that is increasingly populated, connected, and explored. On social media, we tend to keep up with what everyone is doing in real time, all the time. Having these standalone moments with a stranger is something rare, and really rather beautiful in the midst of all that. At least that’s what I think, but maybe you do too. Maybe they did when they met me. In these exchanges, there’s often an unspoken agreement: Let’s not stay in touch.
No exchange of phone numbers, Twitter handles, or Snapchat codes. No photographs which we can reference again. No getting to know one another more. We only have that moment.