Today’s guest post comes from Adrien Behn, who hosts a travel podcast and is a writer who focuses on solo-female travel, self-growth, and talking to strangers. Adrien is a member of the NYC chapter of The Nomadic Network and is hosting an event all about travel podcasts for this community.
I’m sitting in the back seat of an Albanian taxi cab with two strangers, trying to make it to the border of Montenegro. I’m squished up against the left-side door, with my backpack on my lap. Through my months of travel, I’ve realized that this is the most strategic spot to sit in: if shit hit the fan, I could tuck and roll onto grass instead of an oncoming car on the highway. Macabre? Yes. But these are the thoughts that go through your head when you are a woman who travels alone.
But at the time, I hardly felt afraid. The two men I was traveling with were strangers. We were only united by a common destination, but our conversations helped us sift out more common denominators. We were all relatively newly out of college, looking for a direction.
Afrim was sitting in the middle seat. We had met three hours earlier on a bus going through Albania, and we both discovered that we needed to get to Montenegro. He had also convinced the gentleman to our right — who was sitting behind the driver, we’ll call him Frenk — to split a cab, or what is considered a cab, in Albania.
We were riding in a silver car, ostensibly built in East Germany back when Tito was still in charge. When Afrim hailed it, the only thing that didn’t make me feel like I was going to get body-snatched was that iconic NYC bright yellow cab hat perched on the top that says TAXI. It reminded me how far away I was from home.
However, my travels through Albania were far from scary; in fact, they were quite delightful. The last hour of my life had sped by due to dynamic conversation with my travel companions and the cab driver’s apathy toward speed limits.
At a certain point, the rolling box of car parts slowed and pulled up to the border patrol. The cab driver put the car into neutral and turned back to speak to my Albanian companions. They went back and forth in a language so unique that it has no common ancestors, which was comparable to the experience I was having here.
Then their mouths stopped talking, and three pairs of eyes peered over to my direction. Afrim said, “We need your passport.”
I rummage through my backpack to find my passport. I shakily handed my identity to my friend, who handed it to the cab driver, who walked out and gave all of our booklets to border control: it was the only high-stakes relay race I have ever been a part of.
As we waited, I squeezed my backpack the way a child latches onto their mother’s thighs when they are scared.
Even though it’s just a formality, it still made me anxious. And I wasn’t the only one.
Frenk was also starting to sweat. I glanced over at him squeezing the knee tops of his pants.
I peaked out to look at our border control guards talking to the cab driver. They seemed more austere than the Ottomans or the Russians who used to be the ones checking papers.
Frenk spoke up, “This is taking so long. I hope they let us through.”
“What do you mean?” says Afrim.
“Well, I’m technically not allowed to leave the country because I overstayed my visa in London.”
Oh, he tells us this now.
Afrim’s body leaned back onto mine in astonishment, and I turned my head right to see the border patrol approaching our car.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
The border patrolmen’s bodies became larger as they got closer.
Then my cutting board wobbled.
I opened my eyes.
Ugh, what happened next?
I snapped out of my reminiscing and awoke to find myself in a bakery in Portland, OR.
I’m surrounded by women peeling apples, and I’m wrist-deep in lime juice. I was walking through a memory from my European adventure two years ago to get through my 6am shift. But this memory was fading.
I’m assuming everything turned out okay, because I don’t remember being stuck there for much longer? And obviously arrived in Montenegro unscathed.
But I don’t remember saying goodbye to Afrim and Frenk, and I’m pretty sure they were real…
All I know is that this story was becoming the cerebral version of an aged photograph, one that had been bleached by sunlight. If I passed Afrim or Frenk on the street, I would need a good memory jog to remember them. Their voices are unrecognizable to me, and their faces are blurred out like masking someone’s identity on a 20/20 special.
But the few hours I spent with them were incredible. I wish I could remember more. And all of my trips had been fueled by these spontaneous interactions and kindness from strangers.
But I was sad how poorly I had kept track of these interactions. This wasn’t a one-off moment; I had dozens of these magical touch points throughout my eight months abroad. All of them fading into nothing in my consciousness, like a soul leaving its body.
So I decided that the next time I traveled, I had to do it better. I had to keep track of these interactions, because they contradicted everything that people warned me about travel. They defused the stories of how the world was dangerous, especially for women. They helped me get closer to the slippery answer to “are humans all the same or are we different?”
Shortly after I scrubbed lime juice off my hands, I returned to my apartment in Portland and booked a one-way ticket to Mexico City. I would snake my way down Latin America and end my journey in Peru.
But if I was going to go, I had to record it somehow. I didn’t like blogging, nor was I any good at photography (you can tell by my Instagram today). But storytelling, audio — that was something that intrigued me.
So I turned on GarageBand on my iPad and started playing around (I thank Apple for lowering the barrier to podcasting) and thought to myself, “I could make a podcast,” which if said in front of Ira Glass would give him the spins. (For the audio engineers here debating on whether or not they want to keep reading, I no longer use GarageBand).
On the road and what I learned
The moment I landed south of the border, I started hunting.
I poked and prodded every new person I met. I was looking to find a story within them, like a monkey trying to crack open a pomegranate. I wasn’t totally sure what I was looking for, but I would know it when I heard it.
I found that I didn’t have to look very hard. Everyone I met had fascinating stories buried within them — I just needed to ask the right questions.
So I listened, and I took better notes, and I became more aware of my surroundings.
I listened to Adrianna, my Couchsurfing host in Mexico City, who talked to me about the realities of being a woman in Mexico but emphasized their strength and intelligence.
As I waited for a bus to take me to Quintana Roo, I chatted up Martin and Georgia. They were a European couple who had been backpacking throughout South America up to Mexico. We talked about what travel does to your sense of privacy and how to handle novelty fatigue.
In that same hostel, I talked to Gaby, a Tico, about falling in love with someone who didn’t speak her language (and they are happily married today!).
And while swinging above the ocean in an island bar in Bocas de Toro, I was able to talk about the importance of storytelling with Graham Hughes, a man who has been to every country on the planet without flying (start breaking in your walking shoes).
I could go on about each incredible person I met (there are 30 episodes in my first season), but we both have lives to live, right? So you can just listen to the rest of them here…
So wait… what is the show about?
For my first season, the further I traveled and the deeper the questions I asked, I was able to chisel out the philosophies of my show. The first season is my shaky search for the fundamentals of humanity through interviewing strangers. It aims to answer the question “Are we all different from each other? Or are we the same?” (fun fact: the answer is both). There is no better pool to sample from than randomly selected strangers (even top psychologists would be proud).
Humans are not that different from each other. We are kind of like sugar cookies: we all have the same foundation but different icing, sprinkles, and candies on top that make us unique (as a baker I had to throw in one baking metaphor, alright?!).
Our fundamentals in DNA and daily needs are incredibly similar. Take people from Nigeria, the Philippines, and New Zealand: they all recognize pain, relish in joy, and get hungry around noontime.
I learned that kindness is everywhere when you look for it and practice putting it back out there. After spending so much time chatting up baristas, taxi cab drivers, and bus companions, I can’t go a day without chatting up a stranger. I love that electric shock of connection to my fellow human. It’s a moment of “you and I aren’t so different.”
So I try to examine and understand human fundamentals through storytelling, to highlight that, although we all have ostensibly different experiences, we have more common denominators than we think. Stories allow us to understand each other on a visceral level.
We learn, we bond, we understand each other better when we know each other’s stories. And when we share stories, they pass beyond our bodies.
But once my first season was over, and I was location dependent in Brooklyn, I knew that I had more in me.
Something else was moving through my body. Each time I had returned from traveling, I felt like a different person, as if a layer of my being had been polished off in a chemical peel, and I emerged back home a cleaner version of myself (which in a literal sense couldn’t be further from the truth — I felt like I was scrubbing dirt from Machu Picchu and the sands of Huacachina off me weeks after I came home).
The more I talked to others and realized my own transformation, the more I started to notice that there were stage travelers all experiencing and I wanted to unpack them like a checked bag.
I wanted to relive that emotional journey that couples the physical one. Nearly every person I interviewed mentioned that going abroad was the best thing they could have done for their mind, body, and soul (but sadly not their wallet). There was an emotional growth, a hero’s journey, that they pushed through. They didn’t come home the same person.
I wanted to document that emotional exploration through storytelling: the pain, confusion, loneliness, uncomfortable aspects of travel that not many bloggers touch on, coupled with the undeniable beauty of it all as well.
About the second season
So my second season is reformatted slightly. Each episode explores a stage of a traveler’s experience while on the road, with multiple perspectives on that theme (à la This American Life but for travel). I sandwich each episode with my own stories around the theme.
We start with identity: you get off the plane, and how do people perceive you? Are you obviously a tourist or do you serendipitously blend in with the locals? And do you start to think of yourself differently outside of the home that has plastered labels on you?
Through the season, we go through nearly every stage travelers experience: getting lost, hookups and breakups, food orgasms (and poisonings), being stranded in transit (or choosing to get stuck), being attacked by man or beasts, connecting with yourself on a deeper level, becoming inspired to make the world a better place, and finally making our way home.
Each episode unpacks the stories we stuff in our carry-on as we keep trekking around the globe.
Ultimately, it’s about storytelling.
My travel podcast highlights why stories are more precious and weigh heavier than the souvenirs we bring back with us.
And when it comes to stories, when we record, write down, or reenact our stories, we keep them alive.
Every one of us, travelers or not, have fascinating stories within us. (Don’t believe me? Ask your “boring” Aunt Nancy about the first time she was kissed. I’m sure there are stories within her.) However, I believe that many people think that stories are only meant for celebrities, politicians, and writers, never their own.
That is what I do. I help people tell their stories so they can become immortal.
(Too dramatic? Fine. *removes toga and golden laurel*).
I eat, drink, breathe, and cry stories and love telling my own and helping others tell theirs in order to connect with others. If you are interested in improving your storytelling, you can sign up to have one-on-one coaching or group classes with me.
I don’t want my stories or the stories of others to evaporate once they have passed.
I did my best to keep those Albanian men alive just now. They are hopefully living out the rest of their lives safely in Tirana or London or found someplace else even better, as they gradually become faded elements of my consciousness.
Adrien Behn has been telling stories since she could talk. With her psychology degree, writing expertise, and comedic background, she is able to craft stories that are insightful and hilarious and help us understand the fundamentals of being human. She is the creator of the “Strangers Abroad Podcast,” in which she shares highly produced stories of the conversations, lessons, and stories she has accumulated while on the road. Adrien has performed all over North America and will get on any stage where she can tell her stories without interruption. (Except for laughter, which is encouraged.) She has been on “The Best of Risk!” podcast, in the Speak Up Rise Up Festival, and at the PIT Solo Con. Her stories have galvanized women to book one-way tickets and made grown men faint. When she is not living out of a suitcase, she can be found baking whatever new delights she tried abroad in her home in Brooklyn.
Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members, if you’d like to be interviewed or write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info @ thenomadicnetwork . com with the subject line “TNN Blog.”