I sat around a table last night exchanging travel stories among Airbnb guests. We somehow came to talk of food. “The best pasta I’ve ever eaten was in Cortona, Italy!” I exclaimed. The lady beside me told us about the time she was in Cortona. She arrived at a restaurant as they were closing. Seeing her disappointment, the man locking up said “Come with me.” I interrupted her, looked at the young fellow at the end of the table, and said: “If a local extends an invite to you for anything, take it! Trust me. You won’t regret it.” Suzanne went on to say that the man took her to a park where they drank, ate, and talked with locals for hours. I could tell that that evening was one of her favorite travel memories.
Her story made me think of all the times I had hung out with strangers during my travels. Never talk to strangers! That’s what mom always said, right? Whenever I tell a story about hanging with a local on a trip, people ask questions like: “What if they kidnapped you? What were you thinking?” “It’s better safe to be safe than sorry,” they say.
But how sorry I would be if I’d missed out on the experiences I’ve had from talking to and going with strangers! I live for adventure, cultural immersion, and personal experiences among the people and places I encounter. I never purposefully seek out a local to befriend, because that would be creepy. I’m just open to the possibilities… each time that I decided to take a stranger up on their offer my trip was better for it. Play it safe, but don’t miss out on amazing experiences because of stranger danger or because you had a schedule to stick to.
While in Costa Rica, our zip line instructor Juan recommended a restaurant. That evening we ate there and ran into him. He offered to be my guide the next day, but I was supposed to leave in the morning. However, my friend Kim had hurt her foot and I couldn’t bring myself to sit on a bus for 8-10 hours again without a break between travel days. I convinced Kim to stay and rest her foot while I hung out with Juan, the zip line guy, for the day. Kim thought I was insane to venture off with a stranger. I wrote down his name and number to pacify her and promised to be careful.
I called him up. “I’m here for the day; does your offer still stand?” He picked me up on his motorbike. Yes, we took a motorbike. I know, you’re saying “You not only went off with a stranger but you trusted him to ride you around on a motorcycle?” He was actually a motocross competitor, so I felt ok about it. I told him to bring a helmet for me (safety first). Juan strapped my helmet on. I said a little prayer and held on tight…
We rode into the country where his family lived. We were greeted by capuchin monkeys scurrying from limb to limb right above us. Monkeys! Right above my head! We hiked up a creek. Juan pointed out the native flora and fauna, telling me about each one. We came to a clearing with a spectacular view where we sat and sipped boxed wine we picked up at a little country store.
We jumped back on the bike and took a bumpy ride over to his uncle’s place next door. Uncle was mining gold! It was fascinating. A huge gold nugget dangled from his bracelet, moving to and fro as the he panned for gold. Uncle and cousin showed me their set up, explaining the mining process and how they made the machines that helped them mine the gold. They asked me if I wanted to go to the mine, it was just down the road.
The gravel crunched beneath us and dirt clouds rose up as we zoomed off to the mining cave. The cave sat beside a creek. The entrance was tiny. It reminded me of the seven dwarves. We waded in the creek to cool off and then ventured into the cave. At that point, I have to admit that I started to think “What are you doing? This cannot be safe. We are in the middle of nowhere. This mine could cave in…” I pushed those thoughts aside, strapped the yellow hardhat to my head and walked further into the darkness. We reached what seemed to be the end, but cousin knelt down and wriggled under a tight spot, motioning for me to follow. Reluctantly, I did so. When I reached a point when I could stand up again, I mentally patted myself on the back for not freaking out. I was covered in dirt.
We hopped back onto the bike, stopping at another uncle’s farm. He’d just finished milking the cows. An old horse patiently waited to haul the milk back. I mentioned that I love horses. Juan hoisted me up onto the unsaddled horse and led the horse around so that I could ride. The sun was setting. We bid farewell to dairy uncle and headed back to town.
Spectacular scenery, monkeys, hiking, mining for gold, cave exploration, horseback riding, and cultural immersion all in one day… all because I jumped onto a stranger’s motorcycle, ready to receive what the day would bring us. You couldn’t have seen or done all of that on a package tour, that’s for sure. That long, dirty, adventurous day will forever be one my favorite days. Days like that are what urge me to tell you to TALK TO STRANGERS, accept their invitations, and immerse yourself in the people and lands you visit. You could make friends and memories that will last a lifetime.
What experiences have you had talking to strangers in your travels?