Meetings with remarkable people

I have just started reading a book comprised of stories of unforgettable meetings and moments travel writers across the world have experienced. Mostly based on inspirational individuals, it made me wonder who the most incredible person I met on my recent trip around South East Asia could have been.

While travelling, and mostly out of boredom at 4am one morning while waiting at a ferry port for a boat that didn’t leave until 7am, I made a list of the most memorable people I had met during my travels and why. The list included people from various continents, walks of life, ages and experiences, but they had all done or said something while I was in their company to make me want to jot their name down.

First off there was Connor, a young 18 year old from Wales who didn’t have any life plans except to enjoy what he was doing. He taught me some confidence skills in speaking to people when I was fresh off the plane and had yet to make any friends. He, along with a group of others he had made seem appear to be family he had grown up with, accepted me immediately and, probably sensing my apprehension in being on my own, forced me to socialise with them. ‘Do you want to come for dinner with us?’ is such a simple question, yet just asking it to a lone stranger can do things as strongly as changing their mind about their whole trip.

Nicola from Glasgow helped calm me down after finding out my bank card had been cancelled at a time when I had no cash left immediately upon meeting me. I don’t think ‘panicked’ can do justice to describe my emotional state at the time. There aren’t many strangers that will happily give £50 to someone they’re unlikely to ever see again. For this, and for forcing me to have a celebratory drink with her and some friends once the situation was resolved, she is going down as the kindest person I met in three months, and one I would have been well and truly up shit creek without.

Working on some (very) rough maths, I’m going to say I met an average of three new people a day. That’s 270 people in three months. Yoshe from Edinburgh stood out above and beyond all of those as the most inspirational out of all of them. She is the reason I did things with a ‘why not?’ attitude after meeting her and why I told myself to simply man up in difficult situations. Upon arriving in Asia, Yoshe hired a motorbike with some people she had just met, and never having had a driving lesson before in her life, took off into the Thai countryside, where a few days after some initial small collisions and scratches she rode alone well and truly off the beaten track to come across a traditional village, home to people who took her in for the night, cooked for her and provided medicine for the numerous mosquito bites acquired on the journey. In return, she introduced them to The Beatles for the first time.

Before this, Yoshe had travelled Europe with only her flute for eight months, busking for loose change to fund herself as she went along. She hitchhiked the entire length of Italy, which, while many people (mostly parents) will argue is a risky aspect of travelling, takes a lot of guts to do alone. A number of empowering stories will continue to emerge from this girl in the coming months, and it almost puts me to shame to say she had only just turned 18 at the beginning of her journey.

The truly fascinating people are the ones that live in the countries slowly being over-filled by western tourists that are still willing to sit and talk to them, welcoming you into their homes and offering to share their stories with all the patience of someone who has never seen a tourist before. Amongst these is a man called Alex, who lives in Bangkok. He told me he was 54, yet like many Thais, looked half this age. He worked as an information attendant in a small tourist centre on the bustling Koh San Road. Most locals here could be forgiven for despising foreigners for bringing their 24/7 drinking lifestyle and McDonald’s stores to a country that has so much culture to offer, but Alex seemed happier than most to meet tourists and travellers and hear their stories as much as he appreciated the chance to share his.

Alex was studying at a local university when a tutor offered him his current job. Before this his wife had died of cancer and he was struggling to cope with the financial demands of studying and running a household. Only a short time after his wife died he returned home one day to find his small home submerged in floodwater during the recent Bangkok flooding. He told me how he had simply collected whatever remaining belongings he could find in his ruined house and gone to a friend with barely anything besides the determination not to be submerged in the misery surrounding him. He told me all of this with a smile on his face and a positive look towards the future. He planned to go back to university when things were easier and was grateful to his tutor for giving him the job and structure he has today. Other travellers came by the office while I was there, and every one of them said hello to him or asked how he was. He greeted people in dreadlocks, girls with green hair and sleeve tattoos and thirty years his junior with the same genuine smile he gave other locals in neighbouring businesses. And before this I thought I’d been unfortunate just to have visa problems in Laos.

Travel stories are what ultimately make travelling what it is. You meet people and you share yours with them and theirs with you. It’s what you talk about with people who may not have a single other mutual interest besides the country you happen to be in, and from this take the opportunity to meet people you would never find reason to speak to at home.

The book I am reading at the moment is called Ox Travels. Michael Palin introduces a series of writers of different styles and with vastly different stories to tell to collectively donate the book’s profits to Oxfam. The stories in there are somewhat more impressive than mine but overall share my passion for meeting new people and finding out who they are while being in locations you never pictured yourself in. I’m not sure if it’s the book or the subject that made me think of writing this post, but either way, it’s worth a read.

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