Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?
“A stranger is just a friend who you haven’t met yet” is a phrase uttered by frustratingly jovial people and would-be kidnap victims. But seeing as the title of ‘stranger’ includes factions such as religious fanatics, avid sports fans and furries, I’m not entirely sure it can be applied to everyone.
The majority of strangers are either weird or dull. That’s why they are strangers. And that’s why we don’t bother to talk to them outside of situations in which we are forced to be cordial, such as work or the weddings of obscure relatives. For the vast majority of people it’s not worth the effort to get past the required amount of smalltalk needed to actually get to know someone because once you do, you end up finding out that they can quote Lord of the Rings scene by scene, or whisper “Lumos” to themselves every time they flick a light switch. These are the people who end up in your Facebook friend request limbo, a place I like to call the ‘Wall of Shame’. You have neither accepted their all-to-eager request nor denied it, and there are no amount of unsubtle hints in the office kitchen over morning coffee that are going to get you out of it Sam.
The other reason that we refrain from striking up a conversation with the fraught looking, wide-eyed man on the bus, is fear. We are told from a very young age not to engage in conversations with strangers; “don’t talk to anyone you don’t have to”, “come straight home”, “don’t eat the strange man’s sweets”, and we carry these words of warning with us into adulthood. On our commutes to work we keep our noses buried in books and phones. In queues for shopping we keep our eyes ahead silently muttering to ourselves about the woman in front paying in change. We would rather ask Google for directions than someone in the street and if anyone actually approaches us with an offer of assistance or conversation they are met with surprise and suspicion, as your mind thinks “what do they want from me?”.
Quite often however, people don’t want anything from you. They just fancy a chat or – even more shockingly – they actually want to help.
Being abroad is a strange double edged sword in regards to interactions with strangers. On the one hand you are trying to be open and welcoming to new people so you can make friends, but on the other you have a hundred warnings in your head about tourists being kidnapped, pickpockets hiding in every crowd, your stuff being stolen from your dorm room and people trying to swindle you at every market stall. There are very few times in life other than being abroad when one is on such high alert for skullduggery.
In The Weary Traveller in Tulum I got trapped in a conversation with a slightly unhinged American woman who reminded me – rather alarmingly – of Brad Pitt’s character in Twelve Monkeys. She had impossibly wide-eyes and would burst into hysterical laughter mid-sentence before continuing her story, stoney-faced as if nothing had happened. I swear at one point she ate a spider. She had been travelling for years and was filled with notions that all the world over people were out to trick you, con you out of money or in her words “make a quick buck”. She was convinced that anywhere you went people would only do something for you for money or to further themselves in some way and that everyone was a thief or a liar. If she had been my agent at STA I probably wouldn’t have ever left the country – or my house – ever again. I decided not to point out to her that what she had just described was basic business practice. I also did not bring up the irony that she had only initiated this conversation with me because I was rolling and she wanted some; nor did I bother to ask why, if she hated the world so much, she continued to travel it (she was also terrified of flying and it made her physically sick) because honestly I just wanted it to be over.
I met another woman at a bus stop in La Irma, Costa Rica who was equally filled with tales of caution about the world. I had merely asked her what currency was best to use here; the local Colones or US dollars, as she had been living here for many years having moved from America. She went off on a rant about how she always uses credit cards, only goes to established restaurants and only gets out small amounts of money from banks and only if she absolutely has to. It was again alarming, and if I may say, completely off topic and didn’t answer my question at all. I still don’t know what currency gets you the best value here and have been trading riddles and songs for goods and services ever since.
Perhaps American women who leave their country for many years are just overly-cautious. Or perhaps it’s Americans in general whom I should be avoiding. I met another American man in that same hostel a few nights before Brad Pitt turned up and he told me: “If in a group of people there’s one asshole, nine times out of ten, they’ll be American”. He too had been travelling for most of his life but seemed far happier about it. My experience of Central America however has been the complete opposite of these tales of warning and I’ve met very few assholes, American or otherwise. Indeed I have found myself in situations that have raised alarm bells in my head but in almost every one of them I have been met by helpfulness and in some cases true kindness.
In Chetumal, Mexico I ended up buying the wrong boat ticket to Caye Caulker because the woman at my hostel sold me the wrong one – there are two boat companies that make the trip and they run on alternate days. When I got to the pier with my ticket the man at the booth informed me of this and said that I’d have to go back and get a refund, then return there to buy the right ticket. The hostel was a twenty minute walk away, the boat was leaving in an hour and I still had to get through customs. It wasn’t happening. The woman on the other desk offered to ring my hostel, tell them what had happened and secure me a refund. She did this but it still didn’t solve my timing issue. A taxi driver who had been observing the whole time saw my plight and approached me. He said he’d take my ticket, drive back to the hostel, get my refund of 990 Pesos (about £40) and come back so I could buy the right ticket here. In the mean time I could go through customs. Obviously alarm bells went off. Definitely this man was going to take my money and disappear with it, leaving me out of pocket and stranded for another day. But I silenced my inner Brad-Pitt-Lady voice and handed my ticket over. Ten uncertain minutes later he returned, with a 1000 peso note and even tried to refuse my tip.
I’ve got a million of these encounters. A crazy-eyed, crack-head looking man in Granada, Nicaragua led Nat and I down a very stabby looking ally to the bus stop when he saw we were looking for it in the wrong place. A guy at the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras was seemingly trying to rush us through to make sure we got his bus and nobody else’s – as is common at most bus stops here – but it turned out that we were close to missing the final bus of the day and he didn’t want us to spend the night in the most dangerous city in Central America. Everywhere I’ve gone taxi drivers, bus drivers, food vendors and complete randomers have been nothing but helpful and kind, which has been the most pleasant surprise in a place where shoe shops and ATMs have armed guards, transport doesn’t run at night and tales of caution come on the lips of every American you meet.
You may have caught my ‘almost’ just over two paragraphs ago and of course I have run into a few sketchy situations. A man in Caye Caulker followed Adina and I almost all the way back to our hostel one night proclaiming that he and his friends “only ever come out at night”; a man in Granada thrust his face inches from Nat’s as we walked past him and said quite aggressively that she was pretty; I almost used an ATM in Honduras that definitely had a TeamViewer screen-sharing window in the corner of it and in most places you go, you will enevitably run into what is affectionately called the Gringo Tax. Aside from Caribbean vampires and something that can be avoided if you bother to learn enough Spanish to talk yourself out of it, I’ve not encountered any more danger or nefarious doings than I would back home. I’ve found Central America to be a delightful corner of the world populated by some of the nicest people I have ever met. Sure, keep a grounded level of sense about you, but going through life mistrusting everyone you meet is bound to give you a shifty look and a nervous cackle. Keeping an open mind about that potential weirdo sitting next to you on the bus may just be, to quote a great film, “A light for you when all other lights go out”.