For me, one of the most beautiful things about the experiences one has when travelling is the strangers they are shared with.
In my experience, the path of the traveller is punctuated by kind individuals, ready to go out of their way simply to change the day of an outsider for the better. The only thing uniting these people, other than their disposition to goodness, is the fact that they are utter strangers, and more often than not have nothing to gain from their generosity. Be it the offer of a home cooked meal when all shops are closed, a mattress on the floor of a tumble down building, or the compassionate rescue of four drowning travellers on a stormy day, wherever I have been the goodness of people has never ceased to shock me. Going out into a world whose people the media paints with such suspicion, and finding that there are actually very few to be mistrustful of, is the most captivating discovery of all.
Over the last few decades, the media has created a world in which even the word stranger has negative connotations. As a little girl in my last weeks at nursery, a ‘Stranger Danger’ talk was given to my class. I can’t say that I actually recollect much of what was said, but what I do remember is clinging to a lamp post screaming as my parents attempted in vain to walk me to school for the first time, adamant that as I did not know the teacher it could not possibly be safe for me to attend. Fortunately this fear abated after a few days, and I am able to attend lectures without having to be dragged kicking and screaming by my housemates, but I do feel that this rather ridiculous scenario is a good example of the suspicious attitude which our society and its media so readily instil in even its youngest members.
Clearly there are dangers to be aware of, but as negative images dominate our screens, it is the millions of good deeds done every day that get lost and forgotten, creating a totally distorted image in which all that is obvious is the potential for evil. This air of mistrust is naturally amplified when abroad, especially when engaging in activities like hitch hiking and wild camping which clearly involve risk, but it is in these situations that gut instinct comes into play. My top priority hitch hiking rule is never to get into a car that doesn’t have roll down windows (in case I feel required to make a James Bond style escape), but there are of course plenty more reasonable pointers in which your gut would tell you to stay on the side of the road and wait for the next lift. I feel that trusting the pit of your stomach is an old fashioned method that should be given more credit: if it really feels wrong then it probably is. However, it is important to find a balance and to differentiate between needing to quell the irrational fear of the unknown, and actually taking action to leave a situation when something really doesn’t feel right.
As my friend and I drove our quad bike down the road winding steeply towards the sea in the dusty light of a Greek sunset, I was silently struggling to find this balance. Pushing down the niggling doubt that the old man who had invited us for dinner had grand plans to drug our food, I allowed myself to accept what was far more likely to be the positive reality. What that reality consisted of was feta salad, cold beer, and the smiling face of a man who had a million seafaring tales, and just wanted the chance to tell them. As we packed up our things the next morning after camping on his sands, he plucked two sprigs of basil from one of the bushes and, after crushing the leaves slightly release their scent, he tucked them into our bags expressing the hope that the smell would from now on make us think of him. Making our way back up the hill I thought to myself that the smell of that common herb should not only serve me as a reminder of lovely Yannis, but also remind me to trust in the inherent goodness of humanity.
One night on that same trip, we found ourselves on the yacht of a British couple, after being saved from what would have otherwise been a disaster. As we sat on deck admiring the lights of the far off harbour and sipping wine, Robert stressed the importance of kindness to travellers, and his hope that if his daughters were put in a similar situation they would receive the same treatment. The only thing that has the potential to stop us being the beneficiaries of such a circle of compassion is unnecessary suspicion, and therefore I am of the opinion that it is time that we all woke up and smelt the basil. By freeing ourselves of mistrust’s narrow lens, the world is far bigger and more beautiful than we could ever have imagined.