“Don’t talk to strangers,” we are told by well-meaning family and friends. “The world is full of murderers, rapists and thieves,” the media adds, fuelling our beliefs.
I’ve never had much faith in those statements. I was called naïve and reckless but I didn’t bulge from my position. How could the world be so bad? Weren’t my family good people? Weren’t my friends simple strangers I had started to talk to?
And yet, I didn’t act on my convictions. It was easier to live in my comfort zone and not engage with others unless they took the first step. After all, I have a family I chat with weekly, a few good friends I speak with and meet on a regular basis, and a good relation with my colleagues at work. Why would I need to accost strangers?
This past September however, I moved away from my routine. I set out on a two weeks cycle journey in the Scottish Highlands and Orkney Islands. I was on my own and only had a dinosaur phone to text my girlfriend to let her know I was still alive.
I would stop by the roadside and people would start chatting to me. I was after all an oddity as a lone female cyclist in normal clothes with all she needed to live packed on her folding bike next to all the LEJOGers (Land’s End to John O’Groats) on their fast bikes and with their support crew. I would receive waves and car horns in encouragement, and in the evening I would settle at a campsite and discuss with the owner and my camp neighbours. Life was easy and the only time I was scared was when I was on my own encircled by towering hills or forests blocking my phone reception, and knowing the closest human beings were miles away.
I was safe with human, unsafe alone in nature.
By the end of the trip, my comfort zone was blown to pieces and when a fellow train passenger asked for my home address to sent me a brochure about a walk I shown interest in, I did not hesitate and shared the information.
When I arrived back in London, I forced myself to remember how simple and harmless it was to chat to strangers. In a city this large it is easy to be afraid of others and not speak with people because they will not start a conversation with you. But it was time to change this and act on my beliefs. I smiled a lot, received a few odd stares but kept on smiling undeterred. And every now and again I would chance a word and would often be rewarded with a few sentences exchanged, a smile and maybe even a laugh if I was lucky – my day and theirs suddenly made brighter by this small interaction.
Those few success boosted my confidence and this is when I remembered I had signed up to couchsurfing.org in the Summer. I had however never made my profile public or filled in any information – my bravery flagging at the reality of welcoming wanderers in the sacred space of my flat. So I changed all of this and within a day I had a couch surfer booked.
My friends and colleagues were a mixture of disbelief, horror and envy when I mentioned it but I ignored them. This man who was about to live with me for a few days was not going to murder me. I would be safe. And I was.
He came, we chatted long into the night about our thoughts and passions, shared a beer and some food and by the end of his stay I was convinced and had another surfer booked for a few days the following week.
People are nice and today I can’t quite remember why I ever let this slip out of my mind. I had sheltered myself in my daily routine and forgotten that life is better when you talk with strangers. So “Talk with strangers,” I will tell my niece and nephew. “The world is full of wonderful and friendly people. Ignore the media and trust your instincts.”