Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of anonymity, about the loneliness of being a stranger and the joy of being known. And I still have those feelings, to an extent.
But something happened recently that made me consider the other side of those thoughts, the benefits of being anonymous:
I accidentally got drunk with an A-List celebrity.
She appeared like any other backpacker, sitting alone at a hostel bar with a grungy hairdo and loose, earth-toned clothing that just screamed nomad. There was nothing all that notable about her, except a few intricate tattoos and the fact that she wasn’t drinking.
So naturally, my little crew of alcoholics enveloped her in our game of King’s Cup.
As the night wore on, she warmed up to us, as do most solo travelers who slowly start to realize that they’re among friends. She shared with me about our shared homeland of California and our love of wild spaces and the draw of Joshua Tree, the stargazing gem of SoCal. She told us in abstract about her family and opened up about her search for her tribe and her feelings of displacement.
She was an awesome new addition to our little crew.
After hours of King’s cup derailed by drunken shenanigans, she asked for all of our Facebook information. “So we can plan a trip to Joshua Tree someday,” she explained. I happily obliged, excited at the possibility of camping with my interesting, introspecting new friend.
Looking at her profile, it finally dawned on me who she really was. I even looked up her tattoos to confirm. I didn’t really know what to make of this information, so I took another drink. I looked at my friends, wondering if they were making the same realization.
It suddenly occurred to me that being a stranger here was something we all took for granted, that even as it created feelings of isolation in some, this small hostel bar was an oasis of anonymity for others.
No one said anything. No one changed anything. No one wanted to take from her the privilege of easiness we were all suddenly aware we possessed.
We ended the night belting out Wonderwall at her request, grabbing each other’s hands and spinning in circles around the unsuspecting hostel bar.
When it came time for our new friend to go, we saw her off at the door.
“Remember Joshua Tree.” She told me, pulling me in for a quick kiss.
And then she disappeared into the rare London snow.
We stood there in silence, watching her go, until somebody muttered, “So, uh. Did that just happen?”
It was then that I realized that we had all known who she really was, at least after seeing her real name on Facebook, and consciously chosen not to mention it.
In truth, I have no idea what that night meant to her, or if it meant anything to her at all. It’s not really my place to say.
But I do know that people do things for a reason. People make choices. They choose to throw on a beanie and cover their distinctive tattoos, to pack up a tattered Osprey bag and sit down in a hostel bar in the height of a snowstorm, and to singe Wonderwall with a group of strangers who know them by a fake name.
They choose to be strangers.
It makes me realize that as much as a privilege as it is to be known, it’s just as much of a privilege to be discovered, that being a stranger opens up a truly magical opportunity to be anybody and to be appreciated by people who don’t know who you are or where you came from.
That meeting was just like any other travel friendship: a rapid fire connection and a slow-moving, lingering goodbye. It was just like any other travel story, except for the quiet heartbeat of realization and the understanding that no one was going to out her.
And that’s the beauty of a hostel, I suppose. No matter who you are, where you come from, we all end the day around a beer-stained table playing King’s cup.
No matter our past, present, or future, we all have the opportunity to be known as we really are, without any pretense of life outside that bar.
And we shouldn’t take that for granted.