Like many kids of my generation, I was raised consuming a plethora of cable news nightmares — children getting into that questionable van, women trusting that questionable man. The bad things people do to one another, cut into 20-second segments designed to send fear through your heart just before dinner.
These influences have conditioned my helplessly American psyche, which makes travel sometimes complicated and makes female solo travel sometimes terrifying. Still, I made the decision long ago to set aside my anxieties for the insatiable draw of the world.
I gifted myself a solo odyssey through Japan for my 30th birthday.
I drove across Spain, narrowly squeezing my rental sedan through medieval streets and drinking about half the country’s wine supply.
I hiked a peak in Scotland in rain and winds so wretched that afterward I learned they were classified as “hurricane grade” (don’t recommend it). I lived in a spooky cabin set in a cove called Dead Man’s Hollow, where my only neighbors were minke whales and the elusive Sasquatch (highly recommend it).
I braved the Czech Republic as an annoying L.A. vegetarian. Fun fact: In Czech, “food” means meat.
When it comes to traveling on my own, there is little that intimidates me. Trusting other people along the way, however, can be a challenge.
At the turn of a new year, with my then-boyfriend in tow, I trekked to a small fishing village on Mexico’s Gulf of California. At the time, the travel alerts and the worsening drug war — plus news of a recent scorpion infestation — made it seem like not the best choice.
When we arrived, the reality did not meet the preconceived concerns. Loreto was an unpolished, charming, magical gem with crumbling colonial facades painted cotton-candy pink and sea-foam green. Other tourists were nonexistent.
On the last night of the year, there was a beautiful cathedral procession, and despite our American tendencies to associate New Year’s Eve with partying like Keith Richards, here we felt an overwhelming sense of calm and renewal. We sat back and watched, our sweaty mezcal glasses catching the still lowering sun, sleepily petting the stray cats at our feet.
I had learned from local fishermen that the holy grail of tacos could be found in a nondescript restaurant called, in bad translation, the Giggling Dolphin. Directions, street lamps and internet were sparse, so I figured we would just walk until we found it.
As we shuffled through the dark streets, any semblance of activity was gone, and everything was a bit too quiet. Finally, we saw a flicker of life in the night, with soft music and shapes obscured behind a thick wall of ficus trees. Operation Giggling Dolphin had commenced.
Without hesitation, I yanked my boyfriend’s hand and barreled through the gate, which I now recall was a locked gate that I reached over and unlocked. It’s called taco panic.
The scene came into focus. Everyone was instantly silent, and I felt 50 pairs of eyes fixed on us. We realized that this wasn’t a restaurant and that we had just broken into and accosted this very private party.
We stood for what felt like forever before I, sweating and awkward, began trying to explain our egregious gringo mistake. I think they took pity on my repeated “Como se dice Giggling Dolphin?” and without hesitation forgave our intrusion and invited us to stay.
Hours passed. We listened to classical guitar under the moon, taking in the sea air and fruit trees. They showed us how to shell tamarind pods, told us about the village and how four generations of their family had come together to bring this year to a close, and what they hoped the future would hold for them and their children.
The wine turned into tequila, these strangers turned into friends, and the Giggling Dolphin turned into the best experience of the trip, a snapshot that leaps out when you look at the slideshow of your life.
There is no gift more powerful than being welcomed into a home and forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who, many times over, have made me feel safer on their side of the fence than I often do on my own.
You can’t experience the world without trusting the people who share it with you. And if you’re lucky, those people will feed you tacos and tequila when you’re an obnoxious American who breaks into their house on New Year’s Eve.
Rowland works in experiential design and lives in Venice Beach. She is working on her first book.