About 20 years ago, I went with a friend on a spontaneous trip to Europe to go skiing over the winter holidays. We ended up in Zermatt, Switzerland, on Christmas Eve. It was late at night when we arrived, and the town was hopping. We walked from hotel to hotel, carrying our bags and ski gear, only to be told “fully booked” six times. On the seventh try, the clerk, whose name was Ketti, could see by our expressions that we feared we might spend the night on a park bench in the snow. She took pity on us and let us stay with her family.
Up to that point, my travels had largely been either sightseeing trips, where I took in the history and sights of a place as a tourist, or vacations, where I enjoyed scuba diving, hiking, and other fun activities.
The welcome we received from Ketti’s family totally changed my travel mind-set. First, I saw that strangers could help me overcome any hurdles I might face. I hadn’t feared strangers before that, but I hadn’t seen them as potential allies either. That feeling of reassurance gave rise to a much more adventurous spirit in me.
Second, and probably more important, getting to know Ketti and her family added a facet to travel that had really been missing from earlier trips. I learned about their lives and their perspectives on topics both local and global. I came to value talking with people about what they did, what they thought about, and what they believed above all other activities in my travels.
Several years later, I went on a six-week trip to India with Joe Diaz, my friend and fellow cofounder. We crisscrossed the country, meeting fascinating people who stretched our conceptions of history, ourselves, and our place in the world. That trip led us to start AFAR. But Ketti’s generous gesture was the first step on this journey, and I’m profoundly grateful.