January 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 17°F


Balancing caution and trust in a foreign land

In a foreign place, it can be hard to trust people — heck, it can be hard to trust people in the comforts of home. Yet there is something about not speaking the same language and not knowing the layout of the city streets that makes me a bit uneasy when it comes to the curious gazes and Hindi phrases of strangers. While the optimistic idealist in me would like to give all humans the benefit of the doubt in terms of their intentions, there seems to be a fine line between being too cautious and being overly open to trusting people.


Before I left for India three months ago, my older brother gave me some sound brotherly advice. He told me to never miss out on any experiences, soak it all in, but stay alert and pay attention because the moment I let my guard down, that’s when shit hits the fan — his words, not mine. I’ve kept his advice close to my heart during my time in India as I’ve waded through the tough waters of being friendly to all that I meet with a splash of caution.


My judgment of a stranger’s character was exercised last week. I was walking down a rural road after an interview with a researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India. It was about a two-mile walk back to the main road, where I would have to stand for an indefinite amount of time to catch the city bus. A few minutes into my walk, a girl pulled over on her scooter to see if I needed a ride. She had a kind face and seemingly helpful intentions. With my brother’s advice echoing in my head, I hopped on the back of her scooter.


She dropped me at the end of the road where I waited for the bus, but then returned five minutes later and extended an invitation to go check out a temple in a national park a few miles down the road. I made a quick assessment and decided that if all else failed, I could most definitely take her in a wrestling match if shit did indeed begin to hit the fan. This was the right way to assess if you should trust a stranger, right? Regardless, I said I would join.


We spent the afternoon offering different sweets to Hindu gods at the temple and wandering through the national park, only to end up at a rural straw hut sipping buffalo milk chai with the village elder. She took me to this itty-bitty, hole-in-the-wall restaurant swarming with people yelling their orders in Hindi, and I had the best darn banana shake of my entire life — not that I frequent banana shakes often, but still. By the end of the day, we were sitting at a tea bar sipping on ginger-lemon-mint-honey tea talking about her research project on tiger genetics. What a wonderful, fleeting new friendship we had.


After my walk home that night, I unintentionally began reflecting on the nature of trust: how inaccessible it can be if life is led with expectations of deceit. My brother’s advice is far from unwarranted. As a matter of fact, it was perhaps the best advice I got before my departure. But I have found that what it means to be alert and to assume someone is untrustworthy are two different things.
While no shit has hit the fan just yet, I have had my fair share of experiences with strangers in India that have made me uncomfortable and raised a few red flags. Among those, however, I’ve discovered that for every one person with poor intentions, there are 10 willing to stand alongside you in camaraderie. Exercises and explorations of trust can — and should — happen just as frequently in the states, but the experience of navigating strangers’ intentions while in India has been heightened and has taught me much about my character through the perceptions of others.