I was recently invited to speak at an event in June. It’s one of those things where you get a short amount of time (in this case, six minutes), to talk about absolutely anything.
What freedom and what pressure!
That I would talk about travel – in particular, solo travel – was a no-brainer. But what to say? What about my 13 months traveling around the former USSR could I condense into just 360 seconds?
The more I thought about it, the more it was clear. As I reflected upon what I learned, what I remembered and what I tended to tell people about my trip, two related themes kept appearing:
People are good.
The world’s not scary.
More than anything else, people ask me about my safety while I was traveling. My response? I felt safer traveling in 20 different countries all around the world than I sometimes do in my adopted hometown of Chicago. I was never worried about having my iPhone swiped out of my hand on the subway or having a gun pulled on me as I walked home at night. I can only think of two instances when I was remotely nervous for my physical well-being: one, when my roommate on the Black Sea Ferry got ridiculously drunk and started chanting weird things (although I was more worried that he might fall overboard) and two, when I was hiking in Uzbekistan and my knee started hurting so badly that I thought it might give out on me.
That’s it. Perhaps it’s because I have lived in a large metropolitan area for the last decade that things didn’t seem so intimidating. Perhaps it’s because I live in Chicago that I have developed some streets smarts and good intuition and am cautious enough not to get myself into tricky situations. Perhaps I just got lucky that the worst crime I experienced was someone stealing my watch while I was showering in a hostel in Helsinki.
Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
More than anything, my 13 months of solo travel overseas showed me that the world really isn’t as scary as people (read: many Americans) would have us believe. Crime can happen anywhere and if you come from a large, urban city like I do, you are likely as susceptible to crime at home as you are abroad – perhaps even more so. And in the overall scheme of things, your chances of being a victim of a crime anywhere are pretty low – because the vast majority of people out there are good. And I was fortunate to experience that goodness over and over again as I traveled.
I arrived in Vladivostok after an overnight flight and once the bus deposited me in the center of town, I could not figure out for the life of me where to catch the bus to my hostel. Exhausted and close to tears, two elderly women approached me and didn’t just point me in the right direction, they took my arms and walked with me to the right bus stop.
When I was waiting on the side of the road outside of Irkutsk looking for a bus back to the city as a snowstorm was coming on, a middle-aged man gave me a ride back to town, expecting nothing in return.
As I arrived by train in Kazan, a man in my compartment not only gave me directions, he rode the bus with me until I got off at the right stop. And then when I still ended up lost, two women pulled out their cell phones and called friends to ask for directions for me when they realized they didn’t know the way.
As I wandered around the streets of Baku trying to find the embassies of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, I encountered two acts of kindness: first, a woman called the Tajik embassy for me to figure out where it was and then sent her eight-year-old son to escort me there, just a few blocks away. Then, when I couldn’t find the Uzbek embassy, a group of men tried to give me directions and advised I take a taxi. I resisted, thinking it was within walking distance. They insisted to the point of flagging down a taxi, telling him where to take me and paying the full fare for me! And when the taxi driver pulled up in front of the embassy (definitely not walking distance), although he easily could’ve tried to insist that I pay him again, he didn’t and just wished me well as I exited the taxi.
In my hostel in Vilnius, I met a woman from Minsk, Belarus and spoke with her for less than five minutes. She gave me her card and offered to show me around Minsk when I arrived there. Not only did she meet me at the bus station, she helped me check in to my hotel, took me to lunch, walked around the city with me and spent the next three days taking me sightseeing around the city. And then she even gave me a parting gift when I left!
On my overnight train from Batumi, Georgia to Tbilisi, one of the men in my compartment invited me to stay with his mother-in-law in Telavi and even called her right then to tell her to expect to hear from me (I didn’t end up in Telavi until two months later so never called her). He also gave me his number and insisted I stay with his family in Batumi if I came through again. And before I arrived in Batumi, a woman on the ferry from Ukraine invited me to stay with her in Tbilisi.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Time after time, when I needed help the most, someone came through. Even when I didn’t think I needed help, there it was. The warmth and hospitality shown to me almost everywhere I went was incredible, but I think it really is the rule – not an exception.
Because people really are good.
And the world isn’t scary.