Notes On Strangers In Cities And The Couches They’ve Let Me Sleep On

Travel is little beds and cramped bathrooms. It’s old television sets and slow Internet connections. Travel is extraordinary conversations with ordinary people. It’s waiters, gas station attendants, and housekeepers becoming the most interesting people in the world. It’s churches that are compelling enough to enter. It’s McDonald’s being a luxury. It’s the realization that you may have been born in the wrong country. Travel is a smile that leads to a conversation in broken English. – Nick Miller
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Reykjavik, Iceland

I arrived in the middle of the night but the sky was still bright. A kaleidoscope of sherbet colors filled the atmosphere. The Midnight sun would be setting soon but it would rise again in only a few hours. The nightlife was still going strong and although I was exhausted with jet lag when I first landed I was now excited and ready to explore the city. I could sleep later, tomorrow, I thought. For now I was energized by the buzz of the busy city streets.

I met Annelies at her apartment to drop my things off. Before I departed from the U.S. she asked me to bring her a gift from my town. “But not chocolate. Anything but chocolate,” she said. She was originally from Belgium and explained the inadequacy of American chocolate. I couldn’t really argue with her point so I brought her a small gift bag filled with little things native to Michigan I had collected from various local shops. She really loved it and so began a tradition I started doing anytime I stayed with other travelers.

The next morning in the midst of our hangovers she brewed a pot of coffee for us and we made a small breakfast together. We had spent the night drinking and talking and now we were weary but happy. Her dog Rovie, an Icelandic Sheepdog, had taken up the couch the night before and refused to move so we had made a fort out of blankets and pillows on the floor. “It’s not a proper couch,” Annelies said with a smile, “but it is a place of comfort.”

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

I had emailed with Enrique a few nights prior and he guaranteed a spot would be available on his couch. He lived with his mom and sister, Carla and Nidya. They had begun taking travelers in throughout the years for no other reason than to hear their stories and learn from them.

“Travelers have the best recipes,” Nidya told me. She smiled and handed me a book while Enrique brought me a cup of tea. Two years ago she had begun asking guests to leave her with one recipe they had grown up with and now she had over 100 different recipes from all over the world. I began writing down a recipe I knew from memory of lefse, a traditional Norwegian flatbread my mom and grandmother made from scratch every year on Christmas Eve.

Enrique asked me where I lived in Michigan and I raised my left hand pointing to the spot where my city would be on a map. He smiled and told me he liked that – how easily one could identify their home by simply using their hand. We spent the rest of the night talking about our favorite meals and the people who had made those moments impactful for us.

I stayed with the three of them in their home for two nights before moving on to a hostel. I appreciated the familiar atmosphere, the hum of routine. It was a nice break from the typical traveler environment. During the day I worked on my laptop in town and at night we took turns cooking different types of food we loved while listening to merengue and salsa.

The last night after dinner when we had agreed there was no more room left in our bellies and the dishes were cleared we walked to the beach together to watch the sunset.

“Simple pleasures,” Carla said. “That is what life is all about.”

Elise – Detroit, Michigan

She picked me up from the train station and took me on a drive through downtown. Cherry chapstick, fuzzy mittens, pale blue eyes – these are the things I remember about her. She played a cassette of Bob Dylan in her car and pointed out the best restaurants in Greek Town. Half of the city was without power from a storm that had hit a couple weeks prior and she took me through the neighborhoods explaining facts and details about the city’s current political climate.

She was quiet and patient, curious about my impending trip to Nepal, but never asking too many personal questions. We came back to her apartment where she gave me a tour and showed me the couch where I would be sleeping. Beige, warm, just big enough to comfortably sleep. In 4 hours we would be waking up to head to the airport. I felt bad for making her get up so early, as if I was taking extra advantage of her kindness. I told her I could just take a cab.

“Really,” I said. “It’s no problem.”

She shook her head. It was fine, she replied. She wanted me to be safe, to leave the country on a good note. When we arrived at the airport the next morning at 4:30 a.m. she handed me a small piece of paper. “Keep this with you,” she told me. “Don’t open it until you walk out of the airport in your new city.”

Once I got through customs and made my way out of the glass doors with Kathmandu waiting for me I pulled her note out of my pocket. “Stay strong. Stay kind. You are loved.” TC mark

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