When I was growing up, my mother used to tell me that life is like a train: it runs its course, it makes many stops, and while some people hop in and out, others stay for the ride. I fondly think of this tale while I am travelling. In the train that is my hectic traveller life, I’ve met countless people, and they all share something in common: they started as strangers, and they’ve each served a purpose in my life.
More than ever, I am experiencing how important strangers are when travelling abroad. As the saying goes, all friends were once strangers. I’m currently halfway through my journey to circumnavigate the globe by couch-surfing through my social network, a project whose success is dependent on meeting kind strangers who will welcome me into their homes and help me along.
Based on a lifetime of travel and now doing it full-time for my project, here are some lessons I’ve learned about how talking to strangers when you’re travelling can open a whole new realm of possibilities*:
You’ll never be alone
As a full-time solo traveller, I’m a big believer in cultivating the ability to happily be on your own. That being said, when I crave company, it’s nice to know that I never have to be alone. I’ve found that starting conversations with strangers while travelling is exceptionally easy — if it’s with a local, you have the excuse that you’re from out of town and don’t know anyone; if it’s with a fellow traveller, you already have something in common. I have made some amazing friendships from chatting with strangers in buses, trains, and hostels, as well as from getting to know the people who host me.
It’s also nice to have an unexpected travel buddy every once in a while. For example, I travelled through Myanmar solo for three weeks and met a fellow traveller along the way. We shared some amazing memories, from getting lost in the city and getting rescued by locals, to spending an evening chatting with monks at a monastery, to visiting a remote waterfall with locals we had just met. Although I could have done these things on my own, sharing these experiences with a fellow traveller made my trip that much more memorable.
You can have some of the deepest conversations
I sometimes (and ironically) find it much easier to open up to strangers than with my friends and family back home. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know me that well and I feel that they can be objective. Maybe it feels more comfortable because there are no real expectations or repercussions for spilling my feelings. Or, it could be because there’s a possibility I’ll never see them again.
Whatever the reason, some of my most meaningful heart-to-hearts have been with people I befriended on the road. I’ve come to appreciate how much connecting with strangers while abroad has taught me to accept my vulnerabilities and be unafraid to express my emotions.
When I visited San Diego last year, my host (whom I had just met) and I were both going through a pretty tough heartbreak. Though we didn’t know each other, we instantly clicked and spent countless hours driving through the coast and talking about the meaning of love, relationships, and the process of healing. It felt “safe” to talk to her about everything that was on my mind — even my most intimate problems — not only because she didn’t know the people involved, but also because we were both coming from the same place of pain and confusion. The fact that we came from two different worlds but could bond over the commonality of being human quickly sealed our bond.
Everyone has something new to teach you
Talking to strangers, especially when abroad, has helped me realise how much of a bubble we can live in.
The people I’ve met while travelling come from all walks of life: from the poor villager living in a remote mountain to the wealthy expat living in a city centre penthouse. Back home, it’s too easy to filter our interactions to people who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, industries, or social groups. You can’t really do that as well when you’re travelling abroad (well maybe you could if you really tried, but where’s the fun in that?).
We naturally tend to gravitate towards people who are similar to us, and while this helps us meet people we’d likely get along with, we also run the risk of limiting our view of the world. I love speaking to people who are drastically different from me because it’s helped me tremendously in broadening my perspective. For example, speaking to locals at a village in Nepal taught me why traditional animal sacrifices are so sacred and important to their beliefs. I better understood from my conversations with Muslim women in Morocco why they genuinely prefer to wear headscarves. I shamelessly asked a Burmese monk to break down Myanmar’s messy and controversial politics so I could better grasp the nature of their civil wars.
I’ve come to learn from travelling and speaking to all kinds of people that everyone has their own perspective, and my role is to listen and respect their view — even when I don’t agree. This has allowed me to have insightful conversations where I was better able to understand sides of a story that were previously obscured. It has made me more patient, tolerant, and open-minded, which has actually helped me meet even more amazing strangers!
You may discover places you never would have otherwise
When it comes to travel planning, I fly by the seat of my pants most of the time. Meaning, I actually don’t do much planning at all. Funny enough, I mostly rely on stranger’s recommendations to do my planning: every time I meet people, I ask them where they’ve been and what they’ve liked. My itinerary ends up being pieced from the recommendations of many people, which are predominantly locals and fellow adventurous travellers.
This approach has enabled me to discover some amazing places that I wouldn’t have known about from online researching. For example, I found myself in a quaint little village in Montenegro by asking someone who frequently vacations there where I should go. When I was in Greece, I visited a less popular island upon one of my host’s insistence and was completely blown away by its fairy tale beauty. While I was in Nepal, I did a few community homestays in rural villages near the jungle after a local recommended it. Through strangers, I’ve found marvelous places, made new friends, and lived unique experiences that I never would have otherwise.
You’ll constantly be inspired
As a writer and overall creative soul, I’m constantly inspired by the people I meet and the conversations I have.
Strangers I’ve met along my travels have consistently challenged me to question my views and think outside of the box. I’ve spoken to people from all over the world, with professions I hadn’t even heard of, and who have accomplished extraordinary things with their lives. I recently met a Burmese man who paid for his university by becoming a cow smuggler, and later went on to lead rebel forces against the socialist government of Myanmar in the ’80s. I’ve met a New Zealander who set off on a two-week vacation from his stressful job, and still hasn’t returned from his travels two years later. I met a Nepali villager who, at the tender age of 24, has already tragically lost her child yet continues to smile and laugh every day because, as she says, “everyone goes” and we deserve to stay happy.
Humans are incredible creatures, and I’ve found that everyone has a unique story to tell. Staying open to encounters with strangers throughout my journey has expanded my mind immensely, taught me life lessons I could have only learned from experience, and helped me evolve overall as a human being. You never know who you can meet in this wonderful train of life — some people may only stay for a few stops, and others can be in it for the long ride. But all, I believe, will serve a purpose in your personal growth.
* I want to disclaimer that talking to strangers is an adult activity and not recommended for children. Although in my experience I’ve found strangers to be overwhelmingly kind and helpful, approaching them should be exercised with common sense. Which means: it’s probably safe to chat with someone while you’re waiting for a tourist bus to the next place, but maybe not so much if you’re in a dark alley and it’s a sketchy-looking dude.