When you’re traveling alone, it’s the chance interactions you share with others that keep you going. A tiny glimmer of a smile. A slight nod. Small talk about where you’re from or where you’re heading. At home, these moments seem trivial, easily unnoticed as we move about our busy, insular lives.
But when that’s all you have, these tiny moments, you’re only left with yourself. While time alone can be reinvigorating, it’s equally terrifying and overwhelming. You’re forced to reckon with a myriad of thoughts and emotions, some of which can be uncomfortable.
Life is being lived all around, except now you’re merely an observer to an unfamiliar world spinning madly in front of you. It’s quiet, really quiet. The silence that comes with traveling alone will make you love yourself at some points and dislike yourself at others.
One moment you’re stupidly proud of yourself for lugging a 30-pound backpack around for miles in search of a hostel. And when you find that secret, little corner booth at a cozy café far from where tourists have set afoot, you feel like a conqueror.
In these moments, it’s as though we’re invincible. The alluring lights of an unfamiliar city, no matter how big or how small, tend to have that effect. It’s rather silly. There are thousands of streets, thousands of people, but you feel like everyone knows your name.
But no one does. As darkness falls, we each head back to our little rooms in remote pockets of these metropolises alone. That is when the emotional reckoning happens.
One question weighs heavier than most: Am I significant? Sit there pondering long enough, and it will tear you up.
Thankfully, you have these random strangers to pull you back up again even though they owe you nothing. After all, our days are all fragmented and numbered.
Strangers have no idea where you’ve been. They don’t know your proudest moment or your biggest regret. They’re not required to care.
To truly get an idea of what strangers are like as people, ride among them on any form of public transportation. You’ll uncomfortably shift in your seat, pitifully grasping for human connection, however brief, as friends still lie sleeping in faraway time zones.
There will be the people who cut through your shy smile with callous turns of the head in the opposite direction. But just as you sorely resign to isolation, there will people who miraculously smile back.
Sometimes, actually, they’ll smile at you first. They’ll stir up random conversations about the stupidest things, like your shoes. Curiously enough, you feel your blood flowing through you again in these moments.
It happens when two guys notice you sitting alone on top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and invite you on a wild hiking adventure.
It’s when a woman offers to walk 30 minutes with you to the bus station in Seville because she figures you could use the company.
And it’ll happen when a teenager with wild piercings in Amsterdam makes you stop listening to your iPod just so he can introduce himself and ask if you’re enjoying your time there.
The love of family and friends is wonderful, but familiar love can be messy. Expectations, motives, conditions and stipulations can sometimes complicate an otherwise beautiful thing.
But with strangers’ love, there’s no pretense. They have just overcome a great struggle to say hello, wondering if it’s OK to stir up a conversation with you.
“Is it the right time? Is it the right place? Will she think I’m weird?” After all, we’re warned not to talk to strangers.
But these people smile, wave and say your shoes are neat anyway. Why? Because they don’t see you as just anybody — they see you as somebody.
They don’t know your past, your future or even your name, but they appreciate your existence.
Every now and then, we find ourselves walking alone in this world. We wonder if we’re worth loving. We need strangers to teach us that we are. We so are.