How I Learned to Trust Strangers on Solo Holidays
The short version: by trusting myself. Wherever you go in the world there is danger: different kinds, sure, but still travel always carries a certain amount of risk. When you learn to trust your instincts and ability to fix any situation then the world really opens up! I am not saying that you should take unnecessary risks—sacrificing safety is not the way to adventure—but on my solo holidays I learned that a few simple things helped make me more comfortable with the strangers around me and brought me into enjoyable experiences I never expected.
Know the Emergency Numbers
If I am entering a new country know the emergency number for police or ambulance—it is not always 911—and how to say “help” in the local language. I learned this one the hard way by booking a train to San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain, unbeknownst to my eager self that this region doesn’t use Spanish as its primary language. I got off the train with that fizzy feeling of growing anxiety because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get help from others if I truly needed it. Being in Spain, many people could still understand my broken Spanish, so I had gotten lucky. The next chance I got I was at the closest Internet cafe researching and writing down the words “help” and “thanks” in the languages of every country I was planning to visit for the rest of my trip.
Get a Paper Map
First thing upon arrival, no matter how tempting it is to speed out of the bus depot, train station, or airport, I take a moment to find a map. Almost every point of arrival will have these available, either at a tourist information booth or with the local transportation information. If I know I will be in a more remote area I bring a map myself. Technology is not always reliable and a map will tell you where to find everything you need. Knowing this map is in my back pocket makes getting lost a less vulnerable place and a more curious one. Knowing a map is in my back pocket emboldens me to explore without negotiating every step with my technology. The less I use technology to find my way the more I notice the people around me.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
This might sound ridiculous to some, but when I first began traveling alone (and was extremely skeptical of strangers) it gave me a sense of comfort knowing my movement was unhindered. Wearing comfortable shoes is my foundation for being prepared for anything the day may hold. It is about both safety and adventure! If I am wearing flip flops and someone tells me about a local hike nearby it is much less likely I am going to go explore it than if I am wearing my trusted Converse. As time goes on this is a frame of mind that is bound to shift; I began doing this because I felt more in control of my safety and I continue to do this because it is the best way to stay open to anything my day—or my newest friend—might bring.
Listen to Your Instincts!
It might be hard at first but it is probably the most important to ensuring my risks are healthy ones. Instincts are a muscle that must be exercised in order to be best used. This began by being my own advocate—if I wasn’t comfortable with a situation, even if someone was trying to be genuinely generous, I would get myself out of it. It is OK to say no! Many people, women especially, don’t want to be rude to strangers, but this is about putting yourself first. The more in tune I am with my natural instincts, the more capable I am of knowing whose advice I want to take and who I might want to approach for advice myself. It can also be helpful with boundaries. I was cool with the German local at the Hamburg kebab shop striking up conversation and annotating my map with his favorite spots in the city, but that does not mean I am comfortable with him coming along with me to the harbor.
Start with the Little Things
I began by asking strangers for directions; every time I arrived at my destination based on their directions I would trust more. Sometimes I would ask even though I already knew where I was going! What matters is that I had the courage to ask and they had the goodwill to be honest. On my first solo ventures that was all I was comfortable with, and that is perfectly fine, but next thing I knew I was asking what is good on the menu, where to go for the quietest surf beach, or if there are any farmers markets in the area. Some of these questions became conversations. Some of these conversations turn into genuine friends! Many of them won’t, but I will still have gotten to eat some really good food, enjoy truly zen beaches, and support the local farmers markets.
Of course, none of these steps can be taken out of cultural context. Due to differences in culture, it was much easier for me to meet locals in Cape Town, a city renowned for its hospitality, than it was for me to meet people at the hostel in Paris, a city known more for its food and fashion. But no matter where I was—and no matter where I go next—being sure of my capability to take care of myself gives me a solid foundation to meet strangers. It is these wonderful, eccentric strangers that give color to my adventures and make traveling solo my favorite way to see the world!