Published on January 27th, 20158
Uh-oh, Whatever you do – Don’t Talk to Strangers…
…they might just become friends.
If there’s one thing that I excel at, it’s bold-face abandon when it comes to strangers. Indeed, I may well be the poster-child for “DO Talk to Strangers”. Over years of bouncing to the far corners of the earth, more often than not, I am surrounded by nothing BUT strangers. Strangers who (understandably) don’t speak English, and furthermore – strangers I’ve often (necessarily) relied on for some of my most basic needs: to get me from one place to another (e.g. the right bus vs. the one going in the opposite direction); to find a decent place to sleep; to unearth the best (bowl of phở, tea-leaf salad, insert-your-favorite-exotic-food-here). Strangers like… that time I hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck with a gang of saffron-robed monks.
Don’t get me wrong (contrary to what some of my family/friends might say) I’m not certifiably crazy. Nor am I foolish enough to hop in just any stray truck and/or befriend every grinning lad I meet in dark alleys along the trail. Indeed, I avoid any and all such dark alleys, and have developed quite a fine-tuned radar when befriending strangers.
30+ years of solo travel to nearly 40 different countries will do that to you. Perpetually skipping ’round the globe is bound to teach you a few safety tricks, and my “gut” now has a PhD in “RFA” (Red-Flag-Alert). But what my solo wanderings have also taught me – over and over again – is that 99% of the strangers on the Planet are just like me – friendly, kind and eager to get to know a stray foreigner. Indeed eager to help with whatever I need. Leastwise that’s long been my experience, and likewise what I try to do for any stranger along the way.
Which brings us to my most recent brush with “Do Talk to Strangers” serendipity.
It started off much like any other return slog “home” (i.e. whichever corner of the globe I happen to dub “home” that week) – a dawn taxi ride to meet a local bus, to meet a boat, to meet a plane, to meet another taxi, to meet another bus. In this case, an all day affair maneuvering from idyllic isle out in the middle of the Pacific (Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos) to the Ecuador mainland city of Guayaquil, and onto a bus bound for my beloved Cuenca set amid the tippy-top of the Andes mountains.
It was nearing 4 pm (and already more than 8 hrs. into my trek) by the time I had unraveled the bewildering mysteries of the main bus terminal in Guyaquil (I had to take an ELEVATOR to get to the Cuenca bus departing on the UPPER level – I mean, who knew they had buses on the ROOF???) I stashed my small rolling backpack in the luggage bin beneath the bus, and dropped gratefully into my assigned “2B” window seat, relieved to finally be on the last leg of my convoluted homeward journey.
Not long after (for I’d just barely made the 4 pm Cuenca bus departure), an attractive, middle-aged Ecuadorian lass settled into the seat beside me. Across the aisle, a young Ecuadorian couple intermittently chatted with her. I don’t honestly remember what I (for you just KNOW it was me that initiated contact) first blurted out to my new traveling companion, but likely just my customary smile, along with a cheery “Hola!”.
The truth is, I’m not always into chatting-up my seatmate on planes, trains, buses and such, and I respect that some might well not be up for a belabored chit-chat in broken Spanish/English. Sometimes I just want to pop in my ear-buds and read my Kindle or doze. But in this case A. I had no music to while away the 4 hr. ride (alas, my Galaxy died a drowning death whilst I snorkeled amid a bevy of sharks on my 3rd day in the Galapagos – a detail which will later play a starring role in this story), and B. reading whilst swerving to and fro the Andres mountains is a good way to upchuck one’s lunch. Thus I was more than open to practicing my Español when… my Ecuadorian seatmate replied to my “Hola” in perfect English! Turns out, she was visiting her family here in Ecuador, but lived and worked (as a seamstress for the likes of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, etc.) in New York City for 20+ years.
Long story short – as day turned to night and we twisted through the mountains up, up, up to Cuenca, “Rossy” (pronounced “Rosie”) and I chattered on and on for the full 4 hours, sharing each other’s life history (turns out she’s likewise a solo lass, with a son in EC plus a son and daughter in New York, and her two young companions: a niece and her boyfriend – all headed to Cuenca for a special “baby Jesus” ceremony with Rossy’s old friend).
Arriving in Cuenca, we all unwrapped our cramped arms and legs, picked up our luggage, and… I of course planned to simply grab a taxi to my apartment in El Centro, while Rossy and her entourage planned to stay with her Cuenca friend.
BUT… after repeated attempts to telephone her friend, there was no answer. Oh dear, it was nearly 9 pm and my new friends had no place to stay!
Now “talking to strangers” is one thing, but I normally don’t invite a gaggle of stray folks that I’ve only but chatted a few hours with – home to sleep in my spare bedroom. But of course – that’s exactly what I did. I mean, we were all too tired to rummage amid the cobbled streets of Cuenca trying to find a hotel for my three new acquaintances. So… as I told Rossy – “Well, I can’t just leave you all here to fend for yourselves in the dark of night at a bus station!”
And so it was that we all piled into a taxi, and I dragged home not one, not two, but THREE strangers, and tucked them all into my spare bedroom (Rossy, the shortest, slept on my tiny couch in the living room). I was so weary from my 15 hour slog from isle to bed, that I dozed off into slumber without a moments thought to the crowd that suddenly occupied my home. But come the dawn (well o.k. more like 9 am as I was truly beat from my 11 day romp in the Galapagos), there they all were: dressed and cheerily waiting to greet me as I stumbled into the living room.
They invited me to breakfast (conveniently, at my favorite “Soup’s On” cafe verily beneath my balcony), and I took them on a little tour of my neighborhood – snapping pix of those glorious blue domes atop the new cathedral, and the colorful mosaics and street art at every cobbled turn. They did finally get in touch with Rossy’s Cuenca friend, but as her home was bursting with family for the special ceremony that night – we found a great little hotel (for Rossy and her niece and her neice’s “novio”/boyfriend) just a few blocks from Parque Calderon (just $10 each including breakfast!)
And the proverbial frosting on the cake of this long-winded tale? A most amazing case of “What goes around, comes around” for… The next day, Rossy’s son arrived from Guayaquil, and it turns out that he’s an expert at fixing smart phones (it’s his biz). Thus he swiftly set to trying to revive my poor, drowned, sea-salt encrusted Galaxy (unearthed from the bag of rice I’d prudently dropped it into after the splash in the Gs a week earlier). Alas, it needs a bitty replacement part, but he’s now taken it back to Guayaquil and will be shortly sending it back to Cuenca good as new via… the bus that brought us all together in the first place!
Most folks that visit the legendary Galapagos Islands return home with an “I ❤ Boobies” T-shirt and a handful of fridge magnets festooned with cute little sea lions, tortoises and pretty little birds with blue feet. Ah but not me. Me? I tote home a trio of utter strangers – and a happy crew of new friends!
What about you – do YOU “Talk to Strangers”?