The Kindness of Strangers: Setting off Travelling Solo.
At 18 and with little knowledge of worldly affairs, and even less on how to survive alone, I convinced myself that I wasn’t scared. I boarded a plane to Guadalajara, Mexico, kitted out in harem pants and sunnies, backpack still shiny and new, in a projection of the version of myself that I wanted to be. And over the next six months I learnt a lot – mainly about myself, but about humanity too. Namely, strangers can be the kindest people you’ve never met. Of course, they aren’t really strangers – everyone knows someone so really they are just strangers to you. Perhaps then it would be better to assert that people can be, and are, kind.
I was travelling alone. It felt like something I had to do because I wanted to go travelling and be out of my comfort zone. I wanted to challenge myself in some way, some new way. I wanted to immerse myself in cultures and places and to meet people that I couldn’t at home in my day-to-day life. If I have to be a dot smaller than is visible to the naked eye on the globe then I want to be a dot who has at least made a few squiggles round that globe. And everyone has to start somewhere.
“Travelling was the catalyst. I fell in love with it wholeheartedly.”
But I never really felt alone once in my travels. Instead I felt responsible. Looking back on my journal from the time I wrote that ‘the bravest aspect of it all is having to take responsibility’ and I stand by that. Because, as someone I met on the road reminded me, you’re never alone, not really. I was constantly surrounded by people, in hostels, on the street, in guest homes. Even the more off the track places I stayed, where there were few people around, there was always some human interaction to be had and loneliness was never really on the cards. And the one night I decided to take a three day bus journey from Mexico to Nicaragua (which resulted in me staying in some random and empty single hotel room just shy of the border with no one to talk to but the reception staff who were nodding off anyway), found me going out for dinner and meeting some locals who offered to pay for said dinner. In fact, I breathed a sigh of relief that night as I curled into bed and realised it was the first time in months I’d been alone with a private room to myself.
So instead of being lonely, I felt a sense of responsibility. Responsibility for myself and my choices in a way that had never really manifested itself before. I had always had someone to bounce my decisions off. A friend I’d known for years or a parent to point out the flaws or brilliances of my plans. And now I didn’t. I had to fend for myself and trust that I knew what I was doing. Most of the time I didn’t.
I guess this is called growing up and it would happen wherever you are and whatever you do, it’s not exclusive to going travelling by yourself. But for me travelling was the catalyst. I fell in love with it wholeheartedly. But I also realised the flaws of backpacking. Funnily enough, it’s easiest to get lost in your own culture when you immerse yourself in someone else’s. I think primarily because it’s familiar. Backpacking by yourself is rarely lonely, especially if you spend time in backpackers hostels. And, though it can bring about the most amazing companionships, you can also forget what you went there to see; why you left home in the first place. There were points when I was travelling that I would wake up and go have a beer on the beach with English speaking friends, and luxurious and lovely as this was, did I fly halfway across the world for this? Probably not. At times, I had to remind myself of this.
Looking back, whilst I’m blessed with the friendships I made with similarly brought up travellers, these were the types of people I probably could have met at home. And so I think the kindness that we shared, the looking out for one another, was a natural and unsurprising kindness. What moved me more was the kindness of stranger strangers. The familiarity disperses when you loose the common ground of language and culture. And yet, there were so many times when the locals I met persisted to astonish me with their hospitality.
When I first arrived in Mexico, I stayed with a local family who were amazing. Yes, I was paying rent for them to house and feed me, but their kindness surpassed all expectations. They showed me around, explained their local life to me and even loaned me money when I lost my bankcard. (Note: it takes a long time to transfer money from the UK to Mexico and setting up Mexican bank account is more trouble than it’s worth. Try not to lose your stuff.)
This family were just the start to the kindness that greeted me over the next 5 months. I was invited into numerous family homes and cooked for, and even ended up helping to plan a kids birthday party and then getting offered a job in a local school. A bartender I met took me to my first ever Mexican wrestling match, and though the night was characterised by broken Spanglish sentences, I never felt unwelcome. My first day in Mexico City was planned by a local sat next to me in a coffee shop. My innocence at the chaos that is Central American border crossings was bearable with the help of one kindly Guatemalan bus driver. A Panamanian invited me out on his boat to see the islands. A half Chilean girl now living in Cuba actually came to pick me up from the airport after having tipsily promised we’d meet up in Cuba one night. And the list goes on. It seemed everywhere I turned there was kindness and hospitality, and the way it marked my travelling experience is one of the most unforgettable aspects.
So thank you humanity, thank you for being kind.