The kindness of strangers

By Caitlin Kelly

An offering in rural Nicaragua -- fresh from the tree!
An offering in rural Nicaragua — fresh from the tree!

Without which, most of us can’t survive.

I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.

Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”

Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.

Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.

Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.

Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.

Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.

Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:

Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”

I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.

It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence,  and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick),  and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.

And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!

I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)

How far would you go and feel safe?
How far would you go and feel safe?

You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.

My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.

I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.

I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.

As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.

My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!
My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!

So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.

— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.

— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.

— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.

— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.

It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.

We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.
We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water

When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.

I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.

Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:

A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.

The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”

In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.

I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.

How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?

The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.

21 thoughts on “The kindness of strangers

  1. La Panzona {Pahn.So.Nuh}

    Great post! I struggle with this. I was a “latchkey” kid, walking 30 minutes to school and back by myself at 8 yrs old (my only sibling was in high school). I have also experienced the kindness of strangers while travelling.

    My first time travelling with a friend outside of Canada was to Sedona, AZ. We met a woman at the hostel there and she offered to bring us to Taos, NM for an alternative therapy workshop hosted at a couple’s home. We slept, for free, at this lovely artist’s home. The day after the workshop the couple had to leave early in the morning and they trusted us to wake up on our clock and let ourselves out.

    My take is it depends on where you live. In bigger cities I think it’s somewhat “natural” to fear strangers, unfortunately. And it makes sense that the less you have, in terms of money and stuff, the less fear you have that someone’s gonna take it away.

    As I get older I’m more chicken shit to travel alone. I did enough of that when I was younger. But your message is important. I want to highlight that 100% if you open yourself up enough you WILL ABSOLUTELY experience beautiful connections with “perfect strangers”.


  2. I’v done quite a bit of travelling alone, including Africa during Apartheid. I certainly did develop a sense what felt safe and what didn’t.

    I work with teenagers and am very aware of the damage that helicopter parents are causing – a sort of fearful entitlement.

    Great piece. 🙂

  3. Dear Caitlin
    How much do I agree with you! I am back from a solo trip to India. A country that anyway interests me so much and where I have been frequently. But this time nothing had been planned, I had non references at all, because I wanted to live it differently.
    Well I wrote all the amazing experiences and people I met and this incredible natural courage I lived, despite being in a totally new place for me Maharastra and Mumbai especially, that is said to be dreadful and dangerous. Well of course I also had tension sometimes, not knowing how to be safe in trains and how to communicate sometimes when English was not enough. But I learnt that human beings can go beyond language, everyone can be extraordinary. Travelling gives you this openness of mind. It’s something that excites me so much… to the point that travelling has always been my priority, after gaining my living of course. I would never accept a relationship preventing me from this freedom. Probably it’s seen as “snob” but I’m sure you understand what I mean. My travelling are not a search for “divertissement” they’re mostly about learning, meeting people, sharing cultures. I like the word “beautiful” to describe this kind of travelling.

  4. i absolutely love this and agree and admire you for what you’ve already done, and i’m sure, have yet to do. i agree, the kindness of strangers is important and irreplaceable and it takes a certain mindset and level of faith to accept it, though all worth it. i believe in the innate goodness in people, with some who stray from this, but i believe they are the exceptions instead of the reverse. you are my travel idol )

  5. Hi Caitlin,

    You’re absolutely right about the heart-energising feeling you get when a stranger, somebody who is bound to you by nothing more than common humanity, steps out of their daily routine to offer help when you’re far from home. It speaks so strongly against the media message of the unfathomable cruelty of the ‘foreign.’

    I’d add one thing – it’s our responsibility, when we return from our travels, to be the ‘kind strangers’ to those travelling through our own lands and to be the positive memories that they’ll carry home with them.

    And you’re right about adventures – they’re waiting for you until the day you die 🙂

    1. Thanks!

      I often stop in the streets of NYC when I see tourists struggling to read a map to offer help. What goes around comes around. My memories of the places I’ve been are overwhelmingly positive because of such kindness.

  6. “The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.” Oh so true. I have felt what you described in Costa Rica, New York City, the Rockies–it’s your fellow man coming through for you. No substitute for that, for sure. But the other piece is finding that home resides within you. Not in any one place. And you take it with you, no matter where you are . . .

  7. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

  8. Sorry for the brevity above lol, computer issue! What I wanted to say — I’m a mom of a 15 yo and a 13 yo, and I have been weaning myself off of the news because what I hear is frightening and I don’t want it to have an affect on me or my parenting. We do live in a culture that tries very hard to cushion children and I believe the media’s focus on negative and horrible stories is a driving force. But I am proud to say that I’m not a helicopter parent. I want my children to feel confident in our world and I’ve seen the effects of over-parenting: once, a friend’s daughter was in a canoe and paddling further and further from her mom on shore and both mom and daughter became upset and the daughter simply kept paddling, not knowing how to stop and think. I’m proud that my own daughter is outspoken and that my son is internally motivated. I must be doing something right! Your post reminded me to keep up my plan of avoiding the evening news. I do feel badly for some parents, however. Fear is easy to accept when it comes to your children and difficult to shed.

    1. Thanks for weighing in…I do NOT envy today’s parents as the larger culture and peer pressure seem to suggest that coddling them is the right choice. I was given a lot of independence from an early age (probably too much) but I have rarely feared risk or new challenges and panic is almost never an option. I was lucky enough to attend summer camp age 8-16 and it taught me a lot of practical skills (including canoeing!) — and staying calm is always a smart choice.

  9. GD

    Thanks for making the connection between the fear of travel and fearful parenting. One of the reasons I admire Lenore Skenazy so much is because of the trust I only developed through traveling. It’s so easy to insulate ourselves from new experiences when we are at home, but like our kids, we grow the most when we get out in the world.

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