The point of travel for me is connection – connection to place, history, culture, but above all people. Encounters with strangers are what have made my travel so special. Let me clarify (and perhaps disappoint you?) that when I say ‘encounters’ I don’t mean seedy hotels with pay-by-the-hour rooms! I mean gentle brushes (non sexual!) with random people that may not necessarily become best friends, but for whatever reason, leave an impression.
Sometimes the encounter is just one little random conversation. I had a lovely chat with an elderly gentleman and his daughter, on their way to Australia from the US. He struck up the conversation by trick quizzing me: ‘Do you know what Qantas stands for?’. Er… actually … no, not completely. ‘Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services’. I see. So I asked him how he knew that, what he was doing and where he was going and he told me that he was heading to Queensland to see a dying friend, etc, etc. Pleasant chit chat. And then, after about half an hour of this, he suddenly stopped, leaned on his armrest and said, ‘Anyway, I can’t hear anything you’re saying, I’m deaf!’. And then settled back down into his chair. I actually laughed out loud and left him alone. Later he asked me whether I could help him at customs – he hadn’t declared the two rifles in his suitcase and was anticipating some trouble. Er… what? I can’t hear you……
Some strangers do become lifelong friends. I met Jackie at the Grand Prix track in Sao Paolo, Brazil and only later discovered that, in a city of 11 million people and countless hotels, we were staying at the same place. Jackie was a mad Formula 1 and Ferrari /Schumacher fan. When I say mad, yes, I mean a little unstable. She had flown all the way from Newcastle, UK just to witness Michael Schumacher’s (first) last race. She sobbed through the last twenty laps. Two years later I was visiting family in the UK and decided to take the train to Newcastle. She was so excited by my visit she met me on the platform with an air horn, a Ferrari flag and red painted face.
Other strangers are just strange. After another utterly predictable strike, my friend and I boarded a train in Rome, bound for Florence. We were scrambling around with our backpacks when a well dressed, middle aged woman came into our compartment, said commandingly ‘hold this’ to my friend and held out her hand. Unthinking, my friend took the object… which happened to be a leash… at the end of which…. was a small dog. And then the lady disappeared. We looked at each other wide eyed, wondering what we were going to do with a small foreign dog. But the lady reappeared after a moment with luggage and a giant carry bag. She first organised the cases and then took the leash again with a small smile and nod. Then she sat down and unpacked her carry bag – basket, blanket, toy, food bowl, water bowl, bottled water. She plonked the little dog on top and settled in to read a magazine. The dog looked dreadfully bored but there he sat for the duration.
Perhaps my favourite stranger is a man named Jody Cinnamon who my cousin and I met at Mt Robson in western Canada. (Let me remind you again, there are no romantic encounters in this blog…) Jody introduced me to both Shrek and Paolo Coelho. He was as serene and smiling as a Buddhist monk but passionate and energised. He told us he’d only been bored once, for 10 minutes. He seemed ashamed by that too – he just couldn’t understand the concept of boredom when there was always something to think about or look at. He played the harmonica while driving with his knees, played the guitar around a bonfire, and taught himself the bagpipes from a manual ordered from Scotland. I read The Alchemist in three days and thought about my destiny. Jody wanted to live for a thousand years because he had so much he wanted to do – learn astronomy, for example, or fly to the moon. He just had a beautiful effect on most people he met. You couldn’t be angry or petty or disgruntled in his company – he was just too darn happy and content.
I still remember the encounter and I still read The Alchemist on a regular basis.