The Important Role of Strangers in the Life of a Traveler

After the initial shock of being robbed in Chile in broad daylight wore off, I began the inevitable process of going through all of those cycles of emotions I imagine one is suppose to go through after any kind of trauma.  There were stages of self-blame, reclusiveness, paranoia, revenge fantasies, ultra dependency on my iPhone, and anger.  Rather than experiencing them in distinct stages, they were actually all kind of blending together, resulting in a few odd mood swings.  The most recent stage though, after that big heaping mess of emotional confusion, was when I finally rediscovered humanity, one of the most simple yet emotionally moving experiences of my life to date.  Though I continue to be extremely grateful for all of the support I have from family and close friends, it was in this moment where I realized the how pivotal the roles of strangers are in our everyday lives and especially in those of us who are solo travelers.  As the conduits of our sole physical human connections, strangers can have nominal impacts on our lives such as providing information or slightly more meaningful roles such as providing varying levels of companionship.  The greatest impacts they can have lie in their ability to satisfy our need for trust and to represent humanity.

The Need for Trust

Nobody ever tells you to pack plenty of this in the already overstuffed midget perched upon your back or that it is something you will rely on everyday, but trust in strangers is one of the most important yet fragile tools in the life of a solo traveler.  It´s definitely something that I never realized or took for granted up until now.

Before my altercation with three of Chile´s less than upstanding youths, my main concern with trusting strangers was whether or not they were giving me an inflated price to take advantage of my assumed wealthy gringa status.  Normally, this resulted in colorful negotiations, questioning less than scrupulous store owners with a suspicious eyebrow raise and endless amounts of comparison shopping.  Over my seven months of travel in South America, I´ve grown to accept and even embrace this slight departure from complete honesty and price transparency in my consumer life.  I was dealing with relatively innocent people who were merely engaging in an individual-level ¨Let´s Determine a Fair Market Price¨game.  As an econonmics major, I ought to respect this constant daily application of my skills.

My level of concern for paying a fair market price for goods and services however, took a major nose dive as I was now contending with trust issues regarding whether or not a particular stranger intends to physically or emotionally harm me.  While each day does continue to get better, I now appreciate much more what a huge role trusting strangers, plays in tasks as simple as walking down the street as what used to be one of my favorite activities, has now turned into an intricate dance of constantly looking over my shoulder, changing pace and changing direction.  Though as it turns out, rebuilding the normal levels of trust I once had and relied upon, gets easier with each anonymous face that passes me without incident.

Representatives of Humanity

Not too long ago, I was reading a post on a friend´s blog about letting go of the need for outside recognition that really spoke to me.  The point and challenge of the article as I interpreted it, was for us as a society to be inspired to do good no matter how big or small even if it is met with no recognition or praise from the outside world.  In other words, it challenges us to commit the truly altruistic act.  Thinking about this, I realized that acts of kindness from strangers come the closest to being purely altruistic acts.  The anonymity of the act means you can generally rule out seeking of praise as the driving intent and without that, you´re left with either some intrinsic sense of fulfillment or simply because the stranger knew it was the right thing to do.  With this semi-revelation of a stranger´s true intentions, I think we can begin to discover the real meaning of humanity.  It was through one random act of kindness from a stranger that I began rediscovering humanity .

After the robbery, I spent the next couple of days hiding indoors and restricting my human contact to only those who I completely trusted for fear I couldn´t handle experience another deception of even the slightest level.  Eventually though I had to move on to a new city and had to pack up my now much lighter backpack and step out again into the real world.  I was not the same and being 10 kilos lighter was not what I noticed.  Nobody passing by me on the street was beyond suspicion and I especially didn´t take kindly to people looking at me for whatever reason.

After waiting for what felt like an eternity for a colectivo to bring me to the bus station, I started becoming conscious of looking like a target waiting on the street with my giant backpack and wanted to get out immediately.  I saw a woman waiting across the way for public transportation who reminded me of Ana, a kind and lovely lady I used to work with at GMAC and worked up the nerve to approach her and ask for directions.  To my disbelief, she not only told me which bus to take, she told me exactly how much the fare was and explained in detail the route the bus would take.  She continued on to explain that she would get off a couple of stops before me but would remind me before leaving.  I felt so relieved and grateful.  Not that I expected her to tackle me and make off with what was left of my traveling existence, but I was grateful that she made this traveling task of mine incredibly easy instead of leaving me with a one word answer and the usual dance of asking a million people before I finally found my destination.  We didn´t speak the entire duration of the bus ride and as she got up to leave for her stop, I started running through everything she told me.  I stopped however when I saw her go to the bus driver and personally insist that he tell me where to get off and point me in the direction of the bus station.  She also referred to me as ¨la niña¨, which means ¨child¨ in Spanish.  She then exited without saying goodbye.  I was stunned for a moment and forgot to say ¨Thank you¨.  I then sat there trying to stifle sobs as I felt a surge of emotions flow all through my face as I tried to process the concept that this woman who knew nothing about me went beyond the call of duty to help me and even referred to me with a term of endearment.  She wasn´t taking pity on me for the robbery which she knew nothing of, nor was she looking for a pat on the back.  She was simply a genuinely helpful woman trying to make the world a more bearable place for another human being.  It was one of the most reassuring feelings ever to discover this gentler side of humanity as if for the first time.

Moving along with my travels and life, I now carry with me the important lesson of how powerful the role is that strangers play in the life of a solo traveler, and will be constantly mindful of what I can do to positively shape the experiences of strangers who may be placing their trust in simply hoping I´ll be the one who restores their faith in humanity.

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