Getting By With a Little Help: Solo Travel and the Kindness of Strangers

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Random acts of travel generosity are the purest kind.

On Monday, I set out in a rattling blue tuktuk to the Chiang Mai airport with my new Dutch friend, a fellow solo traveler. We met brushing our teeth together in the hostel bathroom, bonding over our 6 am sleepiness we had yet to shake off. We shared the usual travel stories – where we’ve been, where we’re going, where we call home. And as I climbed out of the tuktuk and shrugged my backpack on my shoulders, he turned down my offering of baht with a smile and headed off to his terminal.

I never even learned his name. I’ll never see him again to repay that generosity. It was just giving with no expectation of receiving anything back except gratitude.

The kindness of strangers when traveling alone

I’ve encountered this so many times in my seven months of traveling. The Bulgarian ticket taker at the rain-soaked Roman amphitheater in Plovdiv who waved me in with a smile and a wink and turned away my money. The hostel manager in Bern, Switzerland who plied me with tiny spice cookies while I waited for my train. The Grab driver in Thailand who heard my sniffles and bought me a bag of sweet pineapple slices to eat in the backseat for the vitamin C so I’d feel better.

I could fill ten blog posts with these stories. All this kindness from people who I’ve just met, who I can’t always communicate with except for a wide smile, has been healing for my heart. The world can seem like a scary place from the American bubble but it’s really filled almost entirely with open-hearted warm people.

But it’s also made me think about how I give to others, and how I receive that kindness.

I reflexively shy away from this unwarranted generosity. Something deep in my complicated heart tells me I’m unworthy of that open-hearted kindness. Watching my thoughts float by in meditation, this one theme occurs again and again (it’s one of my Top Ten Greatest Hits of the radio station of my mind, where the host Ryan Seacrest has been replaced by Miranda Priestly).

Solo female travel blogger at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia
A new friend who kindly improved my selfie.

What’s even more fascinating to note is how this lack of self-love spills into my judgements of other people. “I can’t believe she has the nerve to ask for that!” is a common internal refrain when I see a fellow traveler asking for a good seat on the bus or some complicated dietary arrangement. That twinge of resentment comes from the desire deep within me to speak up for myself like that, prevented by thoughts that I’m not worth it.

That self-talk prevents me from opening my heart generously too. “Why give him anything,” I think as the white guy with dreadlocks ahead of me asks for a deal on his hostel bed, “he hasn’t earned it.” That’s really my heart telling me I’m unworthy of kindness just for being myself. That my needs are just me being needy and unloveable. And those are all lies.

Why kindness creates more kindness

Sometimes generosity can seem like it encourages selfishness. Why give a person something they might not deserve? Doesn’t that just encourage them to take advantage?

But it seems to me more and more that the reverse happens. A Thai woman sells me a bus ticket and hands me a banana with a huge smile, and my heart cracks open. I want to give to everyone around me recklessly and joyfully. I’m reminded of how kindness can feel like a cool slash of rain on a muggy Bali day, cleansing and invigorating my sluggish soul.

I’m trying to receive kindness with an open and grateful heart these days. I’m trying to give more openly just for the pure joy of it. I find author George Saunders’ quote rings in my heart: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” (If you’ve never read his commencement speech on becoming a kinder person, you should do it now!)

We’re all full of needs and desires and contradictions and failures and judgements. We’re human. We contain beautiful multitudes. And we should honor that in ourselves and the people we meet along the way.

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