I just finished an unsettling and gripping little book, Ian McEwan’s “The Comfort of Strangers”. It opened with the following quote by Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese: “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sun, the sky – all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
It got me thinking… In many ways, the above is true. Perhaps it’s harsh to say that ‘traveling is a brutality’ but it certainly does force you to be open to strangers and to forgo the comforts of home. People often ask me about my worst travel experience, whether I’ve ever been totally scared for my life. I must say that I have found myself in some potentially hairy situations – from spending a Saturday night in the slums of Havana, where even police doesn’t dare enter, to crawling through pitch-black tunnels of a working mine in Bolivia and taking a six-hour day trip in Vietnam on the back of a motorbike that belonged to a man I had met at a bar the night before. They all required a leap of faith, and unshaken trust in the people I was with at that moment. Both are the essential component of travel.
There is no trip that goes smoothly 100% of the way. No journey goes according to our exact plans. On the road, things are always in flux, just like we are. That flux involves the sea of people we meet along the way. In that sea, I have been cheated numerous times, paid more than I should have, sent in the wrong direction… But never did that make me drop my trust in strangers.
I distinctly remember a man I met in Morocco seven years ago. I was spending the last night in Casablanca with my ex-boyfriend, wandering around the city aimlessly. A man wearing a scruffy suit, with an open wound in his forehead, approached us. At first I felt slightly uneasy about talking to this bizarre stranger but there was something compelling about his presence. So we sat down for coffee with the man, on a city square. Three hours later, he had woven the thread of his life story into a captivating fabric for us. To this day I don’t know whether any of what he said was true and whether he only sat with us for the free drinks. But it matters not. I was so inspired by the encounter that I wrote a poem about it, which you can hear the unedited version of, as part of an interview I recorded in 2004 for Poetic Brooklyn radio show.
If I ever stop trusting strangers, I’ll cease to travel.