Words by Suzanne Brown
It’s lunchtime and hunger has set it. When I ask the ranger where I can grab a bite, he politely points to the main building. I ask if that is where he eats and he laughs. Together we eat in a simple outdoor restaurant, surrounded by tables of staff and vendors. I ask him if there is anything exciting or surprising he has seen as a ranger. It is the jungle, after all, and there are signs everywhere warning against walking at night because of panthers. And little by little I ask about his life. He shares that he is a recovering alcoholic. His wife left him, taking their kids and moving back to her family’s village. He travels hours to see them every few months.
As an avid international traveler, this story is one of many I’ve heard. I’m a firm believer that there are stories everywhere, waiting to be heard. The draw of hearing stories and seeing new places has long been part of who I am. It’s easier to find these as a solo traveler, though.
The first time as an adult that I traveled alone was after graduating from business school in 2004. The trip was a gift from my parents. My classmates rushed off to start their new jobs and my professional friends didn’t have time to take an unexpected summer trip. I desperately wanted time off to explore somewhere new before starting in the real world again. So, I traveled on my own to Belize and Guatemala, which were easy to get to.
And that’s when I discovered a love for solo travel. I rarely felt alone on that trip or on any of my eight solo travel adventures. Over time people – strangers – have shared their intimate stories, often while we share a meal. In all my solo travels, I’ve only eaten about a handful of meals by myself. I’ve shared meals with other travelers and been invited to join local families or a group of friends. I love meals with the locals as they share their stories and their perspective on the place I’m visiting.
My conversations with locals also make my experiences in these new places richer. I chat with the ferryman taking me up the Rio Dulce in southern Guatemala and he shows me a fort, dating back to the Spanish conquest, just beyond the town where I’m staying. I talk with the restaurant owner while I eat dinner in Boquete, Panama and she arranges for me to meet her friend, one of the best local guides. The next day he takes me past an abandoned castle, through a cloud rain forest, to a 260-foot high waterfall. It’s now a tourist destination in the area. I learn the basics of sailing on a sailboat during a snorkeling excursion near Caye Caulker, Belize. Two Australian women recommended the trip when we chatted over dinner.
All of those moments are forever part of my travel experiences. Could those moments have happened if I was traveling with a friend? I doubt it. It’s easier to talk with your travel companions.
In a day and age when we are so connected with the world through technology, we can be so isolated as we take our selfies and use our phones to read about places. I see countless people access everything in their hand instead of reaching out to connect with locals. They miss the chance to understand the nuances of the local perspective or to see what is special to people who live in that place.
I have realized over time that I’m a story collector and people naturally share their stories with me. I didn’t think about why until someone recently shared that “curiosity and judgment don’t generally live in the same person.” I think people see that I’m truly curious and don’t judge their responses and stories.
As you read this, you might wonder how to begin the conversation with the strangers you meet:
• Ask them to take your picture and ask about other places to take a picture.
• Ask for directions. Then ask if they have been to the place you’re going and what they think.
• Ask about where they love to eat. They’ll even tell you their favorite meal if you ask.
Watch their faces light up as you ask for their opinions and their suggestions. Or let who you’re speaking to guide the conversation, allowing it to develop naturally. You don’t have to stay and chat for hours. Say thank you and goodbye and move on. At some point that day or even when you return home, see how those interactions impact your experience in that place.
Now I travel to new places with my husband and our boys. As a working mom, I now don’t travel without my family, unless it’s overnight for work. I engage with locals differently when I’m one of four. I’m usually asking for directions or I’m alone briefly. As we travel internationally with our boys, I try to be an example and empower our boys to engage with those we meet. If we don’t know an answer to something they ask, I suggest “Let’s ask someone.” I see our boys interact with other kids and adults when we travel. Even with the challenge of language, they connect with strangers. Our boys innately understand connecting with people from different backgrounds. It seems like they are already story collectors.
Suzanne Brown is a strategic marketing and business consultant, TEDx speaker, international travel enthusiast, and author of Mompowerment: Insights from Successful Professional Part-time Working Moms Who Balance Career and Family. You can find her thoughts on the importance of travel and work-life balance at www.mompowerment.com. Suzanne, her husband, and their two active young boys live in Austin, TX. In their downtime, they can be found hiking local trails or finding some new nearby or far away adventures.