My sister recently said to me, ‘you need to just let go of people Ruch’. I took those words and thought about them for a while, I turned them around in my head over and over again, and considered how sad it was to just ‘let go’ of people with whom some of my best memories had been created.
Being the sentimental type, giving up and saying goodbye has never come easily to me. This led me to consider the kinds of relationships we make in life. Ultimately everyone starts out as a stranger. Sometimes these strangers become more, holding a greater significance in one’s life, which may or may not last. But then there are those with whom you share no more than passing moments. Yet these moments often teach us more than life-long friendships can. Whilst I abhor a cliché, I really do believe that everyone comes into, and out of your life for a reason.
It was then that I reflected on the beauty of travel in this way. To all those strangers who hadn’t become more, but who had taught me something as our paths crossed, albeit in different directions. Those strangers who make the long haul flights/bus/boat journeys bearable, those strangers who point you in the direction of that remote view point and then walk there with you, those voices that make the stories you tell people back home, really come to life. As Paul Theroux wrote, “Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”
So here I share with you some things I’ve learnt from strangers…stranger things if you will.
The strangers who showed me the essence of sisterhood
On a recent trip to Mexico my sister and I stumbled upon Maria and Araceli. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Jalisco, the town was peaceful, and the slight breeze helped lessen the sting that tears had brought to our sun burnt cheeks (it had been an emotional trip so far). The sisters in their late 70s sat on a bench, ice creams in hand exchanging the odd word and chuckling. There had been no deep and meaningful conversation between the four of us (our non-existent level of Spanish made sure of that) but as we sat for some time on the bench we looked at each other and suddenly everything was ok. I was reminded that the sister bond is long-term. In old age, I imagine my older sister will still be as comforting and infuriating as she is now. She’ll be bossy, but also she’ll remind me of what I can do, even when the frailty of age takes over. There is no one who has greater faith in my abilities or more comprehensive acceptance of my limitations. She has made her mark on me, and I on her (not only with the pink hairbrush I scraped down her forearm at the age of 6). Now, every time my sister and I argue, I send her this photo.
The stranger who taught me about building a dream from scratch
I had been floating in sea in the coastal town of Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka last year, when a young man called Nishan cautioned me against the strong tide that was coming in. We got chatting, and he began to tell me about his job as a chef in Amsterdam and that he was visiting his family also checking on the guesthouse that he was slowly but surely building. He spoke endlessly about his passion for catering and how it has been his life-long dream to build a well-respected guesthouse and restaurant in his home town, which westerners would want to go to. Nishan was in awe of western hospitality, but I was saddened by the low regard with which he held the small, humble treasure troves serving up hearty, homemade curries to travellers. One of the best parts of my trip. Nevertheless, I could only admire Nishan, for his hard work, his desire to boost the economy and reputation of his local town but also for how he had moved from a tiny town in Sri Lanka, to a city foreign to him in every way. Later that day he invited me to visit the grounds of his new development, and sample one of the cocktails he was hoping to serve on the menu. If Nishan taught me anything, it was that with the right amount of hard work and focus, anything is possible.
The strangers who taught me about relationships
After spending the day visiting the Petra tou Romiou coastline and the area best known for being the home of Aphrodite’s rock, in Cyprus, I sat in a small café watching the sun set and sipping on a Mojito. I watched on as people passed through, and observed the couple who owned it, Maria and Arion. A Mexican and a Greek. Maria stopped to talk to me, telling me the story of how she met her husband in Mexico, how together they had lived in over 7 countries across the globe, raising their children along the way and how they had eventually settled in Cyprus, opening their small restaurant serving explorers of the town. They seemed beautifully content yet Maria, the more talkative of the two talked candidly about their relationship. Their mother tongues were not the same, the cultural heritages couldn’t have been more different, but their love and respect for one another was palpable even after 27 years of marriage. Maria did not hold back from sharing their struggles with me of her family not being happy about her giving up her life in Mexico, the financial constraints raising three children and the usual tests that marriage brings. But she explained in some detail (while Arion nodded along in agreement), that they tried not to worry about the expectations and opinions of other people, to always value one another and remember what it was that they loved about each other, and above all, not to give up on things too easily. Maria and Arion proved to me that love was both a feeling but also a practice; and that in order for a relationship to survive, both forms need to exist along-side one another.
The strangers who reflected my own struggles and showed the importance of friendship
We met Erika and Malin from Sweden in a bar in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka last year. Jess (a stranger who became a friend for life; we had met in south-east Asia 7 years earlier) and I had been playing cards, when the girls made a joke about how seriously we seemed to have been taking the game. From there our conversation spanned a number of ‘deep’ topics until we were thrown out of the bar; societal pressure on young women, work-life balance in Scandinavia and UK, relationships, family and even natural disasters. I had been moved when Malin shared with us her experience in Nepal through the Gorkha earthquake, the year before. She talked of the trauma she had experienced following the disaster, and how Sri Lanka had been her first long haul trip since. Erika had joined her in support. Jess and I spent some time with the girls whilst we were there, they were in many ways a Swedish reflection of ourselves. Whilst ‘perspective’ is always something I like to think I have, the girls reminded me that sometimes whilst meeting people from completely different walks of life is great, meeting people just like you but from somewhere else, can give you a fresh lens with which to examine our own lives.
And then there are those strangers who teach you some other valuable lessons…
Like never to give an old Mexican, taxi driver your email address and believe he genuinely wants to be pen-pals; be careful before you give a young Russian chef (who works till midnight) your phone number so he can show you the city after work, and always think twice about who you invite to have dinner with you…
It can often feel easier to share thoughts and feelings with complete strangers because we have no expectations of them and don’t fear the repercussions that showing our vulnerabilities may bring. It could just be that ultimately we know we will never see them again and so their judgements won’t matter to us come tomorrow. Either way, I have certainly had some of my most meaningful heart to hearts with people I have met on the road. What has always been so wonderful for me, is that often we come from two different worlds but it is the commonality of being human that quickly seals bonds.
As I embark on my 30th year, with a new found optimism, a glass half full rather than empty attitude, I feel better equipped to enjoy without any expectation. The thought of missing out on some experiences just because I’m afraid of goodbyes would be silly! Everyone has something they can teach you, and beyond that you learn about your own social capacities.
Do you have your own ‘stranger story’ to share?
About the author
Ruchi Malhotra lives and works in London but can be found in far-flung corners of the world when she’s not sitting at her desk. Her appetite for travel recently encouraged her to ask her boss for a 6-month sabbatical. Luckily the answer was yes, so she’ll be grabbing her backpack and heading to South America in the not so distant future. Shing, her wannabe sister and creator of The Culture Map will be joining her out there for a few weeks. The pair are very excited for their impending adventures together and the unspeakable mischief that will unfold.
I’m sure we’ll hear more from Ruchi again… in the meanwhile, you can check her other writings on The Culture Map here.