I definitely got a few raised brows for taking my first solo trip at age 19, but after touring the world with a large group of performers for 2 years, I was ready to go somewhere alone. I was based out of Southern California during that time, but I hadn’t been able to get out and explore much.
San Francisco had always been a city that I’d been crushing on from afar. From the pastel rolling hills to the gay culture to the eternal-windbreaker-weather (my fave), I felt a hidden part of myself was waiting to be discovered there. All it took was a $19 Greyhound ticket from LA and 10 hours of patience to arrive in a completely new world.
I immediately discovered that solo travel was my favorite thing on Earth. It felt like a little secret of existence that I had finally been let in on. When traveling in groups, I’d always found myself sacrificing my plans for the collective interests of the group. On one hand, how very kind of me. But on the other, I was often left feeling like my time was wasted. Traveling alone was everything I had ever dreamed of and hadn’t experienced in so long: truly living on my own schedule.
Also, I ended up meeting a cool stranger.
After my best attempt at walking across the Golden Gate Bridge (one word: WINDY!), I settled down at a window seat of a little café at the visitor’s center. I was afraid that this place would be crawling with tourists, but, luckily, they were all tricked into the much nicer (much more expensive) restaurant nearby. As I cozied up with my piping hot americano, I pulled out the city map I had bought to document my trip and began scribbling in some notes about that day’s adventures.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a woman approaching me with what struck me as a little too much interest. I am 5’7″, and she was maybe a foot shorter than me, yet she carried herself with the poise and comfort of a CEO while sporting a tracksuit and baseball cap. As she pulled out the chair next to me, she asked if she could use some of my “charge,” referring to the portable charger my phone was plugged into. I am embarrassed to admit that I probably sighed and hesitated at first but finally gave her my cord.
Why the heck not?
She took a seat next to me, her feet not touching the ground, and began to strike up some casual conversation. What brings you to San Francisco? Where are you from? What is your favorite part of this city? Do you travel often? Simple questions at first, so as not to pry or make it feel too much like a first date.
I wasn’t sure exactly how much friendliness was required with a stranger who is borrowing your phone charger, but I had nothing to lose by engaging. I quickly found out that we had a lot more in common than I had expected. She, too, was visiting San Francisco for the weekend on a little solo adventure. Her name is Mai, and while her family is originally from the Philippines, she is based out of Las Vegas. She works for a worldwide hotel chain that allows her to stay in any of their rooms for a wildly discounted rate.
What a smart lady!
Mai was forty years old, double my age at the time, but she was genuinely curious about what I had to say as if we were peers. I don’t think a moment went by when she wasn’t smiling. In a city full of strangers, this was so comforting. We sat there chatting for over an hour, and I think that was the fastest I’ve ever gotten to know someone.
I found myself sharing thoughts and opinions (with a stranger) that would normally take weeks for me to be comfortable discussing. We cut right to the deep stuff: fears, hopes, dreams, and more. She eased some of my anxieties about college, job searching, and all the uncertainties of your 20s. In return, I helped her to reel in some hotties on Tinder by interjecting pointers over her shoulder as she swiped.
Things were clearly going well, and we both needed to get back to the downtown area, so we decided to split the cost of an Uber and keep this good thing going. (Not a date, I promise.) We ended up going to a flower show together and getting lunch at a rooftop Cheesecake Factory in Union Square. (Which she paid for. Heyo!) This moment made me want to one day be successful enough to take a random stranger out to lunch.
It’s these small acts of generosity that make the world go ‘round.
After lunch, we frantically shopped for a nice outfit she could wear on her Tinder date that night. (Which I arranged for her. I had to return the favor. Heyo!) Before going our separate ways, we, of course, exchanged numbers and quickly became Facebook friends. We still stay in touch and share stories every now and again.
The short time that I got to spend with Mai is by far my favorite story to tell from my entire trip. Not to mention, I went on a few Tinder dates myself and had a better time with Mai than all of them combined. What can I say? She’s awesome!
This chance encounter with a stranger-turned-confidant changed the way that I see the world of strangers around me. I could have easily shooed her away and carried on with my map and my coffee, completely undisturbed. But instead, by taking a chance and opening myself up to new experiences, I learned the priceless lesson of “listening.”
If you have the ability to share, you probably should.
Talking to strangers isn’t as dangerous as your parents raised you to believe. Friends are all around you; all you have to do is introduce yourself.
Tyler Burgese is 20 years old and lives in Philadelphia where he manages a vegan restaurant, designs greeting cards, and sits on park benches.
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