On my first night in Indonesia I met a stranger whose advice changed my life. I wanted to tell this story because it shows how one encounter can forever alter you.
After a very long flight from France, I arrived in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Yogyakarta is the vibrant cultural heart of Indonesia and it was my first destination in the country. I checked in a quaint hostel tucked in a little alley and set out for an important mission: finding food.
The hostel’s young receptionist gave me some (more or less vague) recommendations of places that would carry a decent meal in the area. It was around 6pm, still bright outside and decided to stroll and see where my feet would land me.
I stumble on a long street full of restaurants and shops, it was eerily empty for this time of the day but I figured November was not a busy month in terms of tourism. I walk slowly, taking in my new environment, saying hi to the locals who were both curious and astonished at the sight of a black girl strolling in their neighborhood with such ease.
Suddenly, I see rickshaw slowing down about 2 meters before me. Its passenger gets off the old tuk-tuk with ease and to my great surprise walks straight towards me, stopping only close enough so that our foreheads wouldn’t touch. I take a couple of steps back, unarmed by this sudden invasion of privacy but he stands still, looking at me with disarming intensity. He breaks into a smile, revealing perfectly white teeth, and says: “Would you like to have diner with me?”
I look at him incredulous. He was tall, slim and his head was shaved. The deep brown of his eyes, his olive colored skin and the rhythm of his accent made me assume he could be from the Middle East.
“I am sorry, I forget that sometimes I am too forward” he added after seeing my alarmed face, “Please forgive me if I started youI just saw you walking around alone and I thought that you would maybe enjoy company and a meal. I am also a tourist here actually”.
He spoke softly but eloquently, his words marked by the rhythm distinctive of Arabic speakers. His tone was respectful but marked with a confidence that made me trust him, almost immediately. Now you must think I am the weird one for not telling him to get lost and running away, right?
See my dear friends, I have encountered many creeps, weirdos and just overall not recommendable humans during almost 7 years traveling the world. As a result, I have developed a sixth sense when it comes down to spotting “good strangers”, from “stranger danger”. Maybe not a sixth sense but I trust my gut to save me from potential harm. Especially as a female solo traveler, I cannot emphasize how important the necessity to follow your instinct and to pay attention to how someone makes you feel. If there is 0.1% chance that someone makes me uncomfortable, especially a man, trust me: I will run away. And I run fast.
On that first night in Indonesia, I did not run. After a quick consultation with my “creep-o-meter”, I accepted this stranger’s invitation to diner. We found a Mediterranean restaurant and sat at a table in a bright corner.
Although he introduced himself, until today I cannot remember his name. All I remember is that he was in his 30s and teaching Islamic & Religious Studies in a small university town somewhere in Central Java. He was from Jordan and had been living in Indonesia for 8 years, never having gone home once. He owned one of those old flip-phones and did not use any sort of modern digital technologies, social media. Not even an email address. To speak to his family in Jordan, he used a payphone every 3 months or so.
He did not seem like the eccentric type, so I asked him why did choose this particularly lifestyle and he replied “I chose to cut any distractions from the present moment and focus on my path: studying and teaching Islam” he explained.
“That’s a bit of an unconventional path, there are ways to do that without cutting yourself from the world entirely… don’t you think?” I said, not short from hiding my disbelief.
He laughed, the way someone does when they are used to hearing the same question times and times again.
“The idea of a conventional path does not exist. We are all unique beings and so is our story. Your path is not written, it is created. And if you have the courage to go down the unconventional path, do things that you have never seen others around you do before, it will lead you to an amazing destiny. Trust that God, or the Universe whatever you believe in, is guiding you towards the right direction and everything will figure itself as you do it”
That night those words resonated like nothing in my life before. I listened with my mouth ajar. I went to Indonesia with the idea that I would figure out my life during the four weeks of my travels. At the time, I felt lost and did not know if I wanted to keep traveling full-time. My parents and my loved ones kept pestering me about my future plans and telling me that “I could not carry on living without a plan” and that I needed “to figure things out“.
That’s when I made the decision to keep traveling, to carry on making a path that was truly mine and to run away from doing “what’s safe” or what society expects me to do or even what I expected myself to do. We kept talking for hours about everything and until today, I had never been so enlightened by a conversation like the one I had with this stranger that night. After we finished our diner, he walked me back to my accommodation and I never saw him ever again.
But I carried those words with me, precisely writing down bits from our conversation in my journal and looking back to them whenever doubt would submerge me again.
Eight months later, I think about those words and that encounter as one of the most decisive moments of my travels. I wish I could find him and thank him for having impacted my life in a way I am sure he is unaware of. But I guess that’s also the beauty of this story: the hope that one day our paths may cross again on the other side of the world.
Photo by Alex Krotov