“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”Paul Theroux, author of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
When I told my aunt that I had been traveling alone, she was in utter shock.
“That is so dangerous Bene! What would you do if something happens to you? What if you get lost? Who would you trust then? ” she asked, outraged by this revelation.
“I’ll ask for help or directions to the people around me” I answered smiling.
“You’ll ask for help from complete strangers? That is even more stupid than traveling alone! ” she yelled, throwing her arms over her head in a dramatic way that is typical of Congolese people.
I laughed at her exaggerated reaction but I understood her disbelief. “Trusting strangers” almost sounds like an oxymoron but from almost 7 years of traveling alone, I can say that there are more good people out there than they are terrible ones. Does this mean I have never experienced moments where I feared for my life or felt uncomfortable due to the presence of certain people? Of course not, life on the road is an adventure after all and it comes with a lot of surprises, amazing ones and terrible ones. However, I can genuinely say that for every bad encounter I’ve had with a stranger, I had 20 great ones.
By choosing to go on a solo adventure, I choose to become dependent on the people that I meet while on the road. I become dependent on strangers for their help if I am lost and Google Maps does not do the job. If I feel lonely, I am dependent on their kindness; whether that be sharing a cup of tea with me, or telling me stories about their homes. Sometimes, there is no choice but to trust to trust strangers; If I do not speak the local language, I am even more so dependent on the help of strangers who do speak it and can help me figure out my way around.
I often hear that solo travel makes you ‘stronger’ and more ‘independent’, which is true, but I also believe it makes you the opposite too. Solo travel makes you dependent on people you do not know and it also makes you vulnerable and shall I even say… humble. No matter how resourceful of a person I may be, no matter how much knowledge the Internet makes accessible to me, no matter how much I think “I got this”; there are times when I have to put my life in the hands of strangers. And that’s the risk but also the beauty of adventures and life on the road.
But so far? I have never once regretted trusting a stranger whenever I needed help. Wherever I have been, I was able to meet incredible humans who took time and energy in order to make me feel welcomed, cared for and protected. It would take me forever to list all the times I have been on the receiving end of kind actions from strangers, but here are a few examples:
Xiamen, China, 2018
Mulan, the woman I met in a restaurant during my first solo trip in the south of China. I spoke very little Mandarin at the time and she did not speak English therefore we mostly communicated via Google Translate. Nonetheless, she showed me around her city, took me out for many diners and even insisted on buying me jewelry as a souvenir of my time with her. Why did she do that? In her own words, “You are a guest in my home, it is normal that I take care of you. When I come to your home, you will do the same for me”
Hong Kong, 2015
In 2015, I went swimming in a natural infinity pool somewhere on the border between Hong Kong and Macao. That day, the current was strong and I was not a confident swimmer at the time (thank God that has changed). I started panicking and quickly lost my strength as I felt myself being pushed down the deep waters of the pool. Out of nowhere, a young man (who was not there when we entered the pool, we were alone) jumped in the water, pulled me out and saved me from drowning.
New York, USA, 2019
Summer 2019, a blackout paralyzed the entire island of Manhattan. I was in the subway on my way to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to Charlotte, about 12 hours away from the city. The subway came to a halt due to the lack of electricity and everyone was forced to get off. I then tried to hail a taxi but it was impossible as everyone else had the same brilliant idea. A group of 3 guys, on their motorbikes saw me as I was close to tears of frustration. They asked me if I needed help and I told them I was struggling to catch a taxi. And what happened afterwards blew mine; they stopped every taxi they saw (by standing in the middle of the road!) until one finally took me on board!
Dakar, Senegal, 2016
I had lunch at a beautiful restaurant on a boat one afternoon. I went to the bathroom, came back to my table ready to pay and when I asked the waiter for the bill, he told me someone had already taken care of it.
These are just four of the HUNDREDS of times where I have experienced completely random kindness from and been saved by strangers. The list goes on for me but I would love to know what is the kindest thing a stranger has ever done for you?
Of course, caution has to be applied when meeting strangers and sometimes it’s best not to trust wholeheartedly someone you have just met. That’s when discernment is needed and when you have to follow your gut feeling. If someone offers to help but they make you uncomfortable, politely decline their offer and ask someone else. There will always be somebody else. With all of that being said, I think it’s important to share the beautiful stories and encounters that happen on the road because they make up the best part of traveling (in my opinion). There are great adventures waiting for you on the other side of fear and even if you travel alone, you are never lonely.
After all think about all the people you have met and now love: your best friends, your partner, your colleagues etc… They were all strangers to you at some point, right?