As a solo traveler, I’m not cavalier about my safety, and do observe some safety tips when traveling solo.
However, as someone who had started traveling on my own quite early at 11 years old, I’ve experienced receiving help from strangers so many times that I don’t think I have ever grasped the concept of stranger danger.
I remember a trip once when I was 15. I was a freshman in college, and for some reason, I was really scared of missing the first day of class for the new year, so much so that I left early for Manila by boat. It was too early, though, because I arrived in Manila just before New Year’s Day, two hours before midnight.
I took a cab from the port to a family friend’s place, since the campus dormitory was still closed at that time. The family friend had given me two keys for her apartment two weeks before, telling me that I was free to stay there when I’m back in Manila.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the apartment, I found out that the family “friend” had added a new lock without letting me know. There were now three locks, and with only two keys, I couldn’t get in.
As I sat on the curb outside the apartment, I felt like crying–I was 15, didn’t have money, didn’t know anyone else in Manila, and it was an hour before New Year’s Day. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t call my parents as cellphones didn’t exist yet at that time.
The cab driver was just driving out of the apartment complex when he noticed me. He got off his car, went to me and asked me what was wrong. When I told him, he told me to go back to the cab.
The driver brought me to a small lodging house in Sampaloc, Manila (for free), paid the receptionist for my night’s stay, and told her to keep an eye on me as I was by myself. Before he left, he gave me a pack of Skyflakes and a bottle of water, and told me not to go out from midnight onwards.
I sat alone in my small room munching on the biscuits to celebrate New Year’s Day, looking out the window at the noisy revelry outside. Instead of being lonely and miserable, all I could feel then was gratitude for the unnamed cab driver who went out of his way to help a young girl lost in the city.
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In this third part of my Stories of Kindness on the Road series, eight other solo travelers shared their own experiences of being helped by total strangers or being welcomed as part of a local family.
Safety in Traveling Solo
Leyla Giray Alyanak of Women on the Road shares a story that most solo travelers would consider a nightmare. It hadn’t happened to me before, and I can’t imagine how I would feel traveling with no cent to my name. She says,
I had been robbed in Mozambique, relieved of $30 from my backpack for insisting I could carry it myself, thereby depriving three strong young men–how heavy they thought it was I don’t know–of some wages. So they helped themselves.
I was in Tete, heading for the Zimbabwean border and a hot shower, something I hadn’t had in days. I’d be taking a bus, then a minibus, and finally riding on a pickup truck to the border, across which I’d have to walk.
But I was broke. I could already see myself stuck in Tete, without a cent, trying to find a way to call my Embassy.
The driver took a look at a dispirited me and patted the step. “We charge for seats,” he said. “You are not sitting on a seat.”
I rode the hour or so it took to get to the handover point to the minibus. The bus driver somehow got me onto the minibus, where I sat on a pile of rugs. I wasn’t asked to pay. Nor was any money requested when I climbed into the back of the pickup truck, sitting on some rock-hard vegetables that felt more like boulders than food.
“No money,” the new driver told me, as he bumped across the dirt road leading out of Mozambique.
Three rides, three drivers, each of them poorer than I can ever imagine, each of them kinder than I could ever hope for. All of them Mozambicans, a healthy reminder that stereotyping is usually faulty, and that first impressions are often wrong.
As solo women travelers, one particular fear is also being harassed or sexually assaulted while traveling. Chef Janerma Enriquez of Road Trips and Train Rides was stalked once in Abu Dhabi. She says,
I explored my neighborhood on my first day in Abu Dhabi as I would in any new home or place I visit. From my short trip to the mall for my groceries, I walked back to my accommodation. On my way there, I came across a big guy who was walking along with his buddy.
A few more minutes before arriving home, I had this weird feeling that somebody was staring at me and following me. So I discreetly looked back and saw the same big guy behind me. I just kept walking and ignored him, hoping he would stop following me. After a few more minutes, though, I saw that he was still behind me.
Instead of proceeding to where I was staying, I changed directions and went inside a grocery store, hoping he would lose track of me. He didn’t. I went out again and was thinking of how to lose him when another guy noticed my uneasiness and the worry on my face.
“Why, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“The big guy behind you has been stalking me,” I replied.
“Don’t be scared. You are in Abu Dhabi, a safe place. And I am here,” he assured me.
So I stayed close to him. The big sleazy guy finally left me alone and went somewhere else. I thanked the man who helped me, and he just replied with a smile.
I know I can take care of myself but it always feels good when someone does something to make me feel safe.
The Helpful Strangers
I met Ania Andreyevna in a hostel in Bangkok sometime in 2012. My friend whom I was with left with others to go to the Skybar but I opted to stay behind and talk to Ania. This girl fascinated me with her stories of spending months on the road, going back to the USA to work and save up, and then travel again. She says
I was on my way home from a 3-month trip in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and had stopped in Honolulu for a couple days of “reset” before plunging back into “normal” life. I took a shuttle to the airport, checked my bags, went out for a final smoke, and then realized that I left my very nice leather jacket (gift from my sis, so something I could NEVER afford on my own) on the shuttle bus.
Being a twit (and admittedly hugely hungover), I remembered neither the exact name of my hostel nor the shuttle service. A very nice, tiny Asian lady who was guzzling single-serving bottles of wine listened to my story, got out both her cell phones, and researched which hostels I could have possibly stayed, all the while sharing her wine and her story.
She was a cop, and also a reservist in the US Army, an artillery instructor who was on her way to Alaska to drill troops. After just 15 minutes, she had my hostel, the shuttle company, and their promise to bring me my jacket on their next trip to the airport.
I got the jacket back, and so escaped possible death by angry sister. That encounter really humbled me, ’cause all I probably would have done if I were in her shoes, was to say, “Ah man, that sucks!”
Claire Madarang of Traveling Light also travels a lot on her own. She once went on a 7-week backpacking trip across the Philippines. Her story happened on her fourth week of solo travel.
I was going to see the Simala Shrine known for its architecture which reminded me of a castle, located hours from the city of Cebu, Philippines. Despite all my research, I couldn’t find any backpacker accommodations online. I planned to just go to the neighboring town with more accommodations if I could not find any when I get there.
As I rode the bus to Sibonga, Cebu, a local overheard me say my destination to the conductor and volunteered to take me there. At first, I was suspicious, but, listening to my intuition, I said yes. Not only did he take me to the shrine, he also toured me around town. He even helped me find a place to stay – a simple bungalow where I paid Php300 (about US$ 7-8) for a dorm bed in a clean room.
After he took me around and dropped me off, I asked him how much I should pay. He said it was up to me. I was touched with his trust on my judgment. I gave him more than what I would normally give, and he looked happily surprised.
The caretaker’s family of the place I stayed at was warm and welcoming, too. When they learned I was traveling alone, they insisted that I join them on their meals. They even took pains to buy and cook fish for me when they found out I did not eat meat. The daughter of the caretaker introduced me to her friends and took me to their favorite spots. We played bingo, walked by the beach, rode a boat, and went snorkeling.
Those were one of the times in my solo adventure when I felt happiest and most taken care of.
I asked for stories of kindness on my Facebook page, and one of my readers was Josh Nieubuurt, an English teacher in Japan. His story shows that even if we’re not in a life-or-death situation, someone being friendly to us can mean a lot when we’re traveling.
One of the kindest men I’ve ever met at home or abroad had to be Mr. Ha from Busan. On my last trek up to Boemosa, I decided to hike the long trail back into Busan.
Along the way, I stopped to take a breather and check my map. This man just came up to me and started talking to me. He told me he had spent a little over four years in America in the 1970 to learn about agriculture.
As we hiked, he told me of his times in America, most of them were rather funny which was no easy feat for a second language speaker. When we arrived in Busan, he bought me dinner. He refused my payment and simply thanked me for my company. Wherever this guy may be I hope nothing but the best of all possible outcomes for him!
A Family Welcome
Meanwhile, Grasya Bangoy often felt that she has received so much kindness from people she has met on the road, including the gift of belonging even if she felt she didn’t deserve it. She would always choose to stay with families when she travels, because she feels that she could know the country best through them.
One of the most memorable times that I had while traveling was when I first traveled solo out of the country. I went to Vietnam and stayed with a local family. My foster parent treated me like a daughter, to the point that while other tourists were in a tourist bus, I was in a limousine-like car accompanied by my foster mother.
I do hope that I’m passing forward all the kindness that I have experienced, giving something similar to people I meet on the road.
Yara Coelho of Heart of a Vagabond is a long-term solo traveler who started with quite a different experience. She said that if there’s one lesson traveling has taught her over and over again, it is that generosity is everywhere. She says,
When I was 18, I crossed the pond on my own and for the first time, to experience an exchange program as an au pair. I was terrified to live with strangers and commit to a year away from home, but what I wasn’t aware was how much this experience would actually change my life and my perceptions on generosity and kindness.
I was lucky enough to live with a host family who treated me as part of the family, how they welcomed me in their lives and home in a way that nobody had every done before. This exchange program gave place to a very strong and solid friendship between us, and 16 years later I’m back for my 4th visit.
Unlike most of the other au pairs who were treated as servants, I was definitely a member of the family experiencing not only the local culture but also having an amazing exchange experience.
Faith in Humanity, Restored
Kristi Keller, an independent travel agent who runs the blog Jamaica My Way also had a different kind of experience. She originally published this story in her blog but she has since deleted it because a lot of people didn’t trust her intentions in raising money. Still, it was one of her most memorable moments in travel.
One day in the streets of Ocho Rios, Jamaica I came across a tattered man asking for money. I typically turn a blind eye because it’s a regular occurrence down there and you just can’t give to everyone. But this man was different. He spoke like an educated man and didn’t seem to belong in the streets. His name was Delroy.
Conversation revealed that he used to be a well known tattoo artist and used to have his own shop in Kingston but a car accident had destroyed his hands and ended any opportunity he’d ever have for living a fruitful life. I gave him what I had and we parted company but I never forgot about him.
When I returned to Canada I immediately wrote about him on my Jamaica blog in an effort to raise funds to help him get the surgeries he would need to fix his battered hands. Through my fantastic blog readers we raised over $900.00 Cdn and then it was left to chance that I would ever find the man again but I had faith.
More than a year and a few trips later I encountered another man in the streets of Ocho Rios who was handing out religious pamphlets and just by chance I asked him if he knew “the man with the broken hands.” I think God was working that day because the man indeed knew Delroy and we were reunited the same day.
Delroy couldn’t believe when I told him I had raised enough money to begin the surgeries he needed. He was actually quite speechless that I never forgot about him. He also told me he had turned to a life of drugs in the meantime and was now living in a rehab center trying to turn his life around.
Our encounter was brief but long enough for me to get contact information so I could send the money to him after returning home. At this point it was a complete act of faith that Delroy would do the right thing with that money. It was given with the right intentions and I had to trust that it would be used for its intended purpose.
Another couple of years passed, contact with Delroy fizzled out and it would always remain a mystery until one day I was back in Jamaica and randomly ran into a very good looking, well dressed man with a fantastic smile on his face. It was a barely recognizable Delroy who was no longer dirty, skinny and tattered. And his hands were no longer crippled.
He told me that day that it wasn’t the money that fixed his hands. It was the fact that a complete stranger took the time to do something nice for him. That day he also took me to his family’s house and showed me his new collection of tattoo supplies and was working to start up a new shop!
On my next trip to Jamaica Delroy and I had a tattoo date. He designed a large tattoo across the top of my back that reads, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.”
The last time we saw each other was in 2011 but we still keep in contact on Facebook occasionally. I will always cherish this as an amazing story of faith and the human touch. We both had a significant impact on each others lives.
Writing such a compilation as this always leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy inside. Solo or not, if you travel often, you will definitely learn that people are really kind at heart, no matter where they may be.
Share your own stories of kindness on the road in the comment box below. If you want to be included in a future installment of this series, send your story through my Contact Form.