Traveling With Strangers (Condensed Version)

April 22, 2020

Da Nang, Vietnam

If you spent your life only traveling with family or close friends, like I used to, the thought of striking out on your own can be daunting. Fear of the unknown or of being in a strange place without your usual security blanket of people you are familiar with is a normal feeling at first.
Perhaps, then, you may consider going on an excursion with other like-minded people, even if you don’t know them. Yes, we were raised being cautioned about “stranger danger”, and while it is definitely a good idea to be circumspect, don’t allow an overabundance of apprehension to keep you from an adventure of a lifetime with friends you haven’t met yet.
This is my story of one time I overcame that uneasiness, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Road Trip!

I met three very cool people to travel with when two of them, Marija and Felicia, posted on Couchsurfing website looking for people wishing to drive the Lake Michigan Circle tour. I had always wanted to do this, so I signed up.
We were joined by Rahul, a recent transplant to Chicago. I met the two young women the evening before, and Rahul at our meet-up point at a pancake house the day we left.
All three were in their early- to mid-twenties. I was in my mid- to late-forties. I silently wondered about how the millennials would mix with my Gen-X self over the course of four days in close quarters. We left in my car (I was the only one with a vehicle OR a driver’s license!) on the Friday going into Memorial Day weekend.

Attractions, Amusements, and Accommodations

Our first stop was in Gary, Indiana. Not the usual place anyone wants to be, but the women wanted to see Michael Jackson’s boyhood home. Turned out to be a fun stop, but mostly because we were starting to be comfortable around each other.
I had brought my extensive music collection burned onto compact discs- mainly stuff from the 1970s and 80s. To my surprise and great pleasure, the rest of the group really enjoyed the music and complimented me on my taste. Our sing-a-longs in the car became part of our bonding experience.
So happy at Oink’s Ice Cream shop

Driving up the coast of Michigan, we stopped at places that I was familiar with, having lived there myself for several years. We enjoyed hand-scooped ice-cream at Oink’s in New Buffalo, and again at House of Flavors in Ludington.

Our first night’s stay was camping in the back yard of a family in Grand Haven. They had seen our posts planning the trip on the Couchsurfing website, and invited us to stay with them. It was an incredible experience!

Kayaking!

They had five young daughters who helped to cook us a lovely pancake breakfast in the morning. They then asked us to go kayaking with them on the river just behind their house. It was amazing.

The second night was spent in Ludington, a town where I had lived for 8 years in the past. I was able to show them some of my favorite places, but especially the beach, where we played shuffleboard and ate crazy things like deep-fried Oreos. We climbed the tall lighthouse at the state park. And sheltered in the large tent we shared as it rained that night.

Bonding Experiences

My earlier trepidation of a generation gap was quickly fading. I found that I had way more in common with these younger people than I had differences. We all liked adventure. We all wanted to see the beautiful outdoors. And we all had enough respect for each other to allow for differences of opinion while expressing our own.

At the beach in Ludington
We shared our thoughts, dreams, and experiences along the way. I remember Rahul talking about the most powerful word or sound in the world- “om” or “aum”- the sacred sound in Indian culture and Hindu religion.
Marija (who we called “momma” for a reason I never understood), was working as a nanny, but had dreams of being a successful artist. Felicia was artistic as well, though she had performance art in mind.
We stopped at Great Bear Dunes south of Traverse CIty. Climbed all the way up to the top, then joined hands and ran all the way down, trying not to fall on the steep sand slopes while laughing like children the entire time.
Right before the Mackinac Bridge, separating the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, we ate burgers and fries at a lakefront pub, watching the ferries coming back from Mackinac Island.
As I drove across the huge suspension bridge, the other three took turns standing up and hanging their torsos and arms through the open moonroof of my car. I wanted to join them, but somebody had to operate the vehicle. I satisfied myself by singing along with a Whitesnake track and vicariously enjoyed their happiness and excitement. This was truly as much fun as anything I had ever done in my teenage years.

More Hospitality From Strangers

We were behind schedule for our trip. Our stay in Ludington had taken longer than planned. The weather report was not looking positive, either. Heavy rains were forecast for the late evening and night.
We did manage to stop at the Mystery Spot! which had been advertised up and down the highway since we crossed the bridge. Deciding to skip the paid optical illusion, we instead ran through the goofy maze hunting each other. Again, having adult-size kid’s fun.
Before leaving the Mystery Spot!, we debated on renting a cabin or roadside motel room for the night, instead of trying to camp. Felicia had another option for us. She had posted in the Green Bay, Wisconsin Couchsurfing group looking for last-minute accommodation for four people. I had serious doubts about anyone accepting that request.
However, she got a positive reply from some guy named Joe, who said his roommate was out of town, and that we could crash there for the night. We climbed back in the car and I drove four hours in the darkening gloom and rain to get there just before midnight.
Joe had some other guys over for company, and we were invited to join them for Jenga and beer. I think they also ordered a pizza. After a couple of hours and a few beers, I was done. I found my way to the roommate’s bedroom and crashed on the floor between the bed and the door.
When the other three made it upstairs, the women took the bed, while Rahul grabbed whatever floor-space was left. I didn’t have a mattress to lay on, but I slept just fine, thankful for a warm, dry place.

Home Stretch

The next morning, Rahul accompanied me across the street to the parking space. I had to jack the car up and take off the right front wheel to inspect the rotor and brake caliper. The car had been making grinding noises when I applied pressure to the brake pedal, and sure enough, the caliper had seized.
There was a parade now forming up on the street between Joe’s place and the car, reminding us that there was probably not going to be anyplace open for a repair that day. Armed with the knowledge that the car would most likely stop using the other three wheels, I decided that I’d live with the fact that the right front would be completely destroyed by the time we got back home.
I had the feeling that Rahul didn’t have a lot of experience with automotive repair, but I really appreciated him coming out to help me with it.

After treating our gracious host, Joe, to a big breakfast at a crowded home-style restaurant, we headed down to Milwaukee, and spent a few hours on the waterfront and ate in the historic Third Ward.

Milwaukee Pier
It’s about 90 minutes from Milwaukee to Chicago. During that time, the other three fell asleep in the dark. I silently sang along to my tunes, glancing in the rear-view mirror. Felicia’s head was resting on Rahul’s shoulder. It was such a sweet sight, as the two of them had previously been engaged in some debate- not heated, but vigorous, nonetheless. There wasn’t anything romantic about it. Felicia’s boyfriend was waiting back at the apartment for her. But it was a gesture of friendship and trust.
Marija’s hand was resting on the console between us, and I took it in mine, gave it a gentle squeeze, and received one in return. Again, not an amorous gesture, but something borne out of a sibling-type affection.

Amigos

Felicia and me clowning at an amusement area in New Buffalo
I don’t remember another occasion where the four of us got back together. But I do have fond memories of spending time with Felicia and her boyfriend at house parties. I remember also attending a great party that Rahul had at his place. And I hold sentimental images in my mind of Marija using her skills as a make-up artist to transform me into a zombie for C2E2- Chicago’s version of Comic-Con.
I’m on the other side of the world now, in Vietnam. Felicia and Marija are still in Chicago. Rahul has moved to Texas for work. I’ve not seen them since I left Chicago at the end of 2016. Marija was kind enough to let me crash at her place for my last night there.

We don’t always keep in touch, only on occasion through social media. But I’ll always consider them as my good friends, these three strangers with whom I shared an unforgettable adventure.

Big Sable Point Lighthouse- over 100 feet up.

 

Grand Haven Pier at Sunset

India House

December 27, 2016

New Orleans, Louisiana

As I’m sitting at a picnic table under an umbrella in the courtyard of the India House Hostel in the Mid-City section of New Orleans, I am reflecting on the past four (five?) days and nights that I’ve spent in the Big Easy. It’s a good day for reflection. The sky is overcast, the ground is wet and the trees are still dripping a bit of the remainder of the latest shower. The temperature is noticeably cooler today, which is nice. I have just bid goodbye to a nice German girl who was hoisting her backpacks onto her shoulders, front and back. By her own admission, she has too much stuff. In one of her hands is a plastic bag full of items that would not fit into her luggage. I’m left to assume that she purchased some t-shirts or other memorabilia from New Orleans, perhaps as gifts for people back home, where she told me she is headed.  She strikes me as someone who is not a novice at traveling, and has stayed in many hostels in many cities. I don’t recall her name, just where she is from, and the brief conversation that we shared with a guy from Colombia the other night.

Hostel living is a relatively new experience for me. It’s completely different from staying in a hotel, where you have your own large room, television, bathroom. In a hostel, you are usually sleeping, dressing, and storing your bags in the same large room as perhaps 12 other guests. It can feel a little close. Most of the time, the actual occupancy is much lower than the availability of beds. Which means that most travelers select the bottom bunk (nobody but a kid likes to have to climb up and throw themselves on the mattress while trying not to bump their head on the ceiling) and then use the top bed frame as a hanger for their clothing. If you want some semblance of privacy, you use your blanket as a curtain, stuffing one edge of it under the upper mattress and draping the remainder down, covering your own bed, a trick that comes in handy if the hostel has provided a small light on the wall next to the bunk, because then you can read a book without disturbing your fellow guests. I do not have a light this time. My current “room” is a converted shotgun-style house that holds 8 bunk beds, and sleeps 16. There are two toilets and three showers. It’s not as clean as some of the hostels in which I’ve stayed in Asia, but neither is it a roach-infested, smelly pig-sty which is how some other hostels have been described.  I am told that the original owner was enthralled by Indian culture, hence the name and much of the colorful decoration found on the property.

The courtyard where I am sitting is equal parts beautiful tropics and rustic shanty-town. There are lush plants- ferns, banana trees, etc.- scattered throughout. Ringing the courtyard are several clapboard-clad houses that are covered in colorful murals of smiling lobsters, a brass jazz band, a Mardi Gras parade, and several other eclectic works. Directly in front of me is the outdoor kitchen, a collection of rusting white refrigerators of various sizes, a large, stainless steel utility sink, and a restaurant-grade gas grill. This kitchen is also laid out in an “L” shape, but unlike most others, the “L” is inverted, meaning that the cook must walk around a 90-degree corner to get from the stove to the sink, with the refrigerators in between.  Incongruently, there’s a 50″ flat screen television mounted on the wall above the sink, facing the large portico that houses church-pew seating that surrounds a large table. There is an old, dusty piano against one wall. I have no idea if it works, but I’m guessing that it isn’t tuned, even if it does. The only other building that is visible from where I sit is a large, brick, mission-style church with terra-cotta tiled roof, rounded stained-glass windows, and a six-story bell tower. The entire effect is of being transported to an unnamed developing country.

The morning cook is frying up some bacon that is tempting me sorely. I remember that I’ve not eaten since yesterday at noon. (Strike that, I had a small portion of multi-grain tortilla chips with hummus a short while ago. What’s wrong with my memory, anyway?) The hostel provides breakfast cooked-to-order every day from 9am – 1pm for a reasonable price. Dinner is $6, and the offerings vary. On Christmas Day, the staff put on a killer feast- including baked ham, deep-fried turkey, homemade stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, and much more. The cranberry dressing was delicious. For dessert, there were two massive pans filled with an outstanding bread pudding.  We were served family-buffet style, and after at least 40 of us had filled our plates, we hadn’t even taken half of what was prepared. Seconds, anyone? And in the spirit of Christmas, dinner was free.

I’m on my second cup of coffee as I wait for my new exploring companions to rise and greet the day. On Saturday night, I met up with Jonny, an Aussie couchsurfer who was having banking issues due to the holiday. I bought him a beer in the Famous Door bar on Bourbon Street as we listened to a pretty good band play rock music. When the first set ended, he and I walked a few blocks down through the perpetual party to a piano bar where we found Alejandra and MayLing, two Panamanian girls who were part of the couchsurfing messaging group that had been set up for a Christmas party here in New Orleans. It turned out that the girls were also staying at India House. So, because of convenience, and because we enjoy each others’ company, we have been discovering the sights, sounds, and tastes of NOLA together.  Sometimes we are joined by Daniele, an Italian guy who stayed here for a couple of nights before being hosted through Couchsurfing.  Alejandra, who promised that she was getting up at 7am, has just messaged me (at 9:30) to say that they are up, and will be ready in an hour. I’m guessing it’ll be more like 90 minutes.

The bacon trick seems to be working. A crowd of at least a dozen are ordering, sitting, eating, while yet others wander in and out of the main house. Most of the crowd is much younger than me, although one of my bunk-mates is roughly my age, if I had to guess. He seems quite at home here, and for all I know, he may live here semi-permanently. He got up, showered, and dressed himself business-casual. He’s using the portico as a makeshift office with his laptop and phone. I guess I’m doing the same.

For the past half-hour or so, I’ve been talking to a delightful girl from New Zealand. Pat is visiting New Orleans for the third time, and we’ve been swapping travel stories. I think that’s what really makes hostels so appealing to me. In a hotel, you’re protected from having to deal with other people by your four walls. But, why do we want to be protected from being in contact with other people? Aren’t other people and the interaction we get with them the very things that make travel and life interesting? Hotels can be very comfortable in a physical sense, especially the luxury ones. But I find them to be very uncomfortable in a spiritual sense, as they tend to disconnect us from life. The beauty of being human is in embracing our humanity, being interested and engaged with other humans. We are supposed to be a social species. Yet this whole “stranger danger!” outlook has been allowed to separate us from each other. Many of my fellow countrymen dream of a vacation in Paris or London, or if they are bold an exotic locale like Hong Kong. They save their thousands of dollars, buy the round-trip ticket, stay in the best hotel they can afford, then they go see the sights. They eat at the same “quaint” little cafes where their friends ate the year before, and go take a picture in front of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, take a ride in a cycle-powered rickshaw to the noodle place that the concierge recommends to every western tourist. They purchase their trinkets, get back on their plane, and come home with the same fucking boring stories, pictures, and experiences that their neighbor has. They didn’t experience what it’s like to live in France. They tell the cutesy stories about the conversation they had with the cabbie with the Bri’ ish accent, but other than speaking with people in the service industry, they really didn’t connect with the locals at all. And so their experience was sanitized.

I’m not trying to say that hostels or couchsurfing are for everyone. But if you don’t take the effort to have a real and meaningful interaction with other people who don’t look, talk, eat, or dress like you, then you have missed out on some of the best life has to offer.

I’ve just now come back from spending the day with Alejandra and MayLing, riding the trolley, walking down Chartres Street while drinking beers at 11am, eating gator sausage dog and crawfish ettouffee fries before seeing the outdoor art museum at City Park. They have gone off to see a Dr. John concert. It’s taco night at India House, and I’m about to head over for a plate, and then join a group of other travelers, including an Aussie who seems to have lots of cools stories about kangaroos and snakes.