The unknown is scary. No, the unknown is terrifying. What hides in the dark is captivatingly fearful, stopping even the bravest from progressing without a light. Nobody knows what the future holds and even with the constant attempts to morph it under our control it still manages to escape our grip. And strangers, people we are unfamiliar with, make us uneasy.
I had always been scared of strangers. From a very young age, we have been warned of the much-feared stranger danger. Don’t ever get into a car with a stranger, parents threaten. Avoid eating food from a stranger, it’s probably been poisoned. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t trust strangers.” Amidst a world full of horrific things like climate change, terrorism, war, food shortages, and systemic racism, just to name a few, strangers have always taken the lead as the number one public enemy.
For most of my life, I had avoided interacting with strangers. I kept my headphones in on the subway and my head down while walking down the street, because god forbid I looked up and made accidental eye contact with a passerby and ended up decapitated in a dumpster. I politely exchanged small talk with the cashier at the coffee shop, but that was about as far as any of my interactions with people of the unknown went.
We’ve already established that strangers are scary. So it can be assumed that strangers that speak a different language and are incomprehensible to you are even more frightening. And strangers that you encounter in a foreign country far away from home are downright unnerving. So one would think that a 20-year-old girl embarking on a journey to Chile alone for two months, where she knows not a single soul, would be scared.
Trust me I was.
It was sophomore year of college. I was restless and desperate for a different experience. I knew nobody south of the equator and the only traveling experience I’d had was one school trip to Italy and a quick trip to Montreal to get drunk with friends. So when I discovered I could take a semester off and still graduate on time, I quickly filed my leave of absence forms and booked a plane ticket to Santiago, Chile. I made living and working arrangements with strangers over the internet just days before my departure and left with a backpack full of clothes, an empty journal, a few Spanish phrases, and a stomach full of butterflies.
I had always considered myself to be an independent individual, proud of my do-it-myself attitude. But when I found myself in the Santiago airport jet-lagged from a 12-hour flight with only a slight idea of where I was going and how to get there, I realized just how much I needed the help of others. Encompassed by rushing people everywhere I looked, I had never felt so alone. I couldn’t understand a single word of the Spanish conversations whirring through the air, my ears searching for any familiar word or phrase, unsuccessfully. Tears welled in my eyes in the middle of the baggage claim. I felt pathetic and naive, desperately needing the aid of a stranger.
In just my first 24 hours in Chile, I received more help from strangers than I had from anyone other than my parents before. I had to say “fuck it” to my parents’ and teachers’ warnings of stranger danger and fully embrace my helplessness, completely relying on the kindness and patience of anyone who would stop and try to help this English speaking, out of place, American girl.
After making it out onto the bustling unfamiliar streets I tried to flag down a bus to Plaza Echaurren, where I was staying. About to board the route 4A I realized, hey wait, I have no idea where the hell I’m supposed to go. I jolted back off the bottom step of the bus and ran away from the bewildered look the bus driver gave me. Finally spotting a paco (a policeman) on a street corner, I felt an urge of relief and ran up to him frantically explaining my situation and pleading for help. He, along with the passers, stared at me with confusion. My gasping English made no sense to this Spanish speaking man. With utmost patience and kindness, he pulled out his phone, opened Google translate, typed out directions to where I was going, waved down my bus, paid for my bus fare, informed the bus driver of when to stop for me and topped it off with a friendly ‘chao’ and smiley wave. Scrambling up the bus steps, I and my enormous backpack toppled into the first open seat.
Feeling a tapping on my shoulder from behind, I turned around, terrified, to see a wide-eyed, auburn-haired middle-aged woman named Anna peering curiously at me. She handed me her phone, Google translate opened with the words “Where are you going?” typed out. “Never tell a stranger where you are staying,” my mom’s voice said to me in my mind. But, I had no idea where I was going. This woman looks trustworthy, I validated to myself, desperate for help. I typed back where I was going, receiving an “ohhhh peligroso, muy peligroso (very dangerous)” in response. She then wrote back that she would go with me there.
At that point, I was so terrified. Terrified that the place I was going was “muy peligroso” and that I was allowing a stranger to accompany me to where I was staying. Slowly passengers filed off at each stop. Eventually, Anna tapped me indicating that it was our time to disembark. I followed her off the bus, into a plaza bustling with crowds. With one arm linked she guided me through the calls of “gringa!” and uncomfortable stares. She waited with me for the people who I would be working with, who were also strangers. When they showed up, Anna took both my hands, stared me straight in the eyes and kissed my cheek, bidding me a heartfelt “buenas!” Just like that, a stranger had become my saving grace.
Throughout my trip, I encountered more kindness from strangers with every passing day. I became more and more trusting. I shared meals and got drunk with strangers. I slept in bunk rooms and shared secrets with strangers. I hitchhiked my way through the desert in the Northern part of Chile. I relied on strangers, I became friends with strangers, I loved strangers and I even learned to leave my childhood fear of strangers behind.