11,383 klicks away

friends in foreign places

“Don’t talk to strangers”

My mother’s warning echoed through my head as I walked up to two men in a busy café. I hadn’t been able to make it past two blocks before the inviting air conditioning and promises of cold water had pulled from the suffocating sun and into a local shop. It hadn’t even been a full 48h since I’d landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but already I felt disoriented and unprepared. Reality was settling in: 11,383 kilometers from home, I found myself alone.

The café I walked into seemed unusually busy, but then again, so did the streets. I ordered something cold, and desperately looked around for a place to rest. The familiar sound of the English language among the ocean of Thai stood out like a life boat, and I made a beeline for it.

I mustered up the courage to introduce myself to a table of strangers and ask to take a seat, making an effort to not only join, but rather to insert myself into their conversation. I had to be more than just a fly on the wall if I wanted to make new friends: I had to participate in the conversations, come up with jokes and thoughtful questions. I had to stick my neck out, and accept – no, embrace – the potential of awkwardness.

“This if nothing else: Talking to strangers is good for you.”

Kio Stark, When Strangers Meet

In that moment, without knowing it yet, I had learnt two very important lessons.
First, traveling isn’t always about being comfortable; and second, sometimes sitting at a table with strangers is enough to break the ice.

Hasham smiles at the camera, mid laugh.

Across from me sat two friends who seemed to be catching up on some good stories of adventure. One of them, Hasham (left), had spent his last year traveling throughout southeast Asia on his motorbike. As Chiang Mai was the city where his journey began, he was back to conclude his travels in the same place they had started.

The contrast between our levels of experience quickly became apparent. Here I was, fresh into my first-ever solo backpacking trip, sitting with would-be travel experts and connoisseurs of the region, comfortable, laid back, and well adapted to the culture. It was no secret that I felt disoriented, and unfamiliar with my surroundings. Lucky for me, Hasham did not. As a result, he offered to show me around the Old City on the back of his motorbike.

“When it comes to knowing people, that line is still often drawn at whether you’ve spoken to a person before. If you have, you know them. A significant threshold to be crossed with a simple act.”

James Hamblin, How to Talk to Strangesr IRL

Yes, it did cross my mind that hopping on the back of a motorbike with a man that I had just met, in a city that I knew little to nothing about, might not be the smartest, nor the safest idea. I almost heard my mother disapprove. But I also heard a little voice in the back of my head saying “go! Trust your gut, and try something new”.

Maybe it would have been easier to stay within the confines of familiarity, but it definitely wouldn’t have been worth it. Hasham toured me around, showing me the different neighbourhoods: the bars, the shopping centres, the outdoor markets, the cinema, where to go and what to avoid. Better yet, he became a valued friend, and my first connection in Thailand. By pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, I met a friend who helped me regain my footing and made me feel comfortable in a city that had – up until then – been so foreign to me.

I encourage you to put yourself out there, strike up a conversation with a stranger, try something new.

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