Many travel for the pleasures of sightseeing. Others to experience a different culture: its history, its art, its food. For me, the best part of a trip abroad is the folks you meet along the way. Whether it’s the impressionable backpacker willing to follow you into the dense jungles of Cambodia or the elderly tourist you lure down the historic narrow alleyways of Belfast, traveling offers a chance to encounter vulnerable people no one will know to go looking for.
The world is full of wanderers, and wherever you go—from Australia to the Amazon to the Alps—you’re sure to find someone who’s far from home and could disappear off the map without a missing-person report being filed for weeks, if ever.
Take, for example, the 22-year-old college grad I met years ago at a Paris café. He was traveling alone, proved unable to hold his liquor, and agreed to come see the catacombs with me. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the city’s famed underground tombs, apart from thinking no one was going to notice an extra pile of bones down there. I do remember that kid, however, as I do so many other defenseless people I’ve come across in my journeys. Sometimes, I can still see their faces. They’ll show up everywhere in every place I look, no matter how many thousands of miles I’ve put between us.
Here’s a Rick Steves tip: It’s pretty easy to get complete strangers to let their guard down and chat when they’re on vacation. Most will tell you who, if anyone, they’re traveling with. They might share stories about where they’ve been that day, where they’re going later, and where they’ve booked accommodations for the night. As you learn a bit about their lives and where they come from, you may find that, just like you, they don’t speak enough of the local language to cry out for help!
There’s just an incredible thrill that comes from interacting with people in some hidden-away corner of the world, people you won’t ever meet again, and no one else will, either.
Of course, if you spend all your time among crowds of tourists where security is tight and there are plenty of witnesses, you’ll be missing out on so much of what a country has to offer. Getting off the beaten path is a great way to meet locals no one will spend much time trying to find. I once visited a small Croatian village by the sea, the kind of relaxing, out-of-the-way place where it feels like a person could just go and disappear forever. I had booked a room in a charming bed and breakfast, and when its door was opened by a widow above whose head floated a hideous apparition that looked straight at me and said, “The time has come, Rick. The time has come for you to snuff out this frail vessel like a candle.”—well, I knew I’d made the right choice.
One more piece of advice: You’ll always delight the locals if you try out a few phrases in their language, whether it’s, “Do you have any heavy blunt implements for sale?” “I need directions to the orphanage,” “How deep is that gorge?” “These voices, these damnable voices keep getting louder,” or “I would like to purchase a container in which to store the souls I harvest during my stay here.”
So try meeting someone new and completely helpless the next time you travel. After all, when we get to know different kinds of people, when we hungrily devour their life force and use it to fortify what remains of our own, we grow as people ourselves.