Sitting next to the glow of the fire while the storm howled outside, I watched as the wind swept a girl wrapped in an oversized scarf into our hostel. Eyes wild with panic, she surveyed the room of fellow travellers as if for answers. A small group of her friends followed close behind, anxiety painted on their young faces as well. They unfurled the compulsory layers of wool, rubber boots and rain jackets required to embrace Scotland in November before settling around one of the large communal tables at the back of the room. Then, in a distinctly Parisian accent, the girl with the scarf asked for the wifi password.
Without needing an explanation, a woman who worked at the hostel offered her laptop to the group of Frenchmen. Someone grabbed beers from the fridge and another poured the whisky. The rest of us sat in quiet solidarity, eyes glued to our screens as the horrors of Paris unfolded in real time.
That this news had reached us at all as we disappeared into the remote corners of Scotland, felt somewhat surreal. We spent the weekend skirting the shores of the Isle of Skye in our little rental car, dodging sheep on the wrong side of the road and soaking in the dramatic landscapes, each turn more breathtaking than the next. Never have I felt so far away from the chaos of the world, yet so connected.
At night when we returned to the hostel I was reminded how the web can be wielded as a tool to spread both hope and hate. I breathed a sigh of relief when Facebook alerted us that the Parisian friends we had shared bowls of roadside Khao Soi with in Chiang Mai were safe. I gave a silent cheer for humanity as strangers declared #PorteOuverte, opening their homes to others in their time of need. I was shocked and deeply saddened by the stream of bigoted comments and articles that spread across the walls of my social media in the days that followed. I grieved again when I heard news of retaliatory acts of hatred the events had spawned – a Muslim woman pushed in front of a train in London, a Mosque set ablaze in Peterborough, Ontario, and a Toronto mother beaten and robbed in an elementary school parking lot in Flemingdon Park.
As our little rental car followed the twisted ribbon of road from Portree to Uig, a static-y BBC Radio 4 voiced an unsettling feeling that had been growing inside of me since news of the Paris attacks. A feeling that this particular confluence of events had brought us to a crossroads, particularly in regards to our willingness to welcome those who are fleeing the same violent dogma that fuelled the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Garissa, and sadly a long list of others. A choice to either respond with courage, compassion and an ounce of logic, or to let our ignorance and fear continue to feed the cycle of violence and hatred and risk repeating past tragedies.
At a time when fear of The Other rules supreme, I think that travel can help make the unknown less scary. Whether through a shared meal, an unexpected gesture of kindness, or a welcoming home at the end of a long journey, taking the time to learn how different people live can foster empathy and a greater understanding of the world and our place in it. Of all the gifts that my many wanderings have given me, it has been this insight into our shared humanity that I cherish most. It has certainly been reason enough to keep moving forward.