Do you remember the conversations you’ve had while traveling? Featured contributor Leon McCarron recalls some of his most memorable encounters and the impact they’ve had on him, years later.
How do we measure what makes a good conversation? Is it by how long it lasts, or how many times we laugh? Or is it marked by how we feel afterwards—how deeply the words of who we’ve been speaking to have affected us?
Mark Twain once famously said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” He was correct, of course (perhaps that’s why this is one of the most over-used quotes in travel writing). And I take it to mean that it’s from talking while traveling—or more often, from listening—that we learn the most.
I often think about certain people I’ve spoken with over the last decade, on roadsides or mountaintops, or in village cafés or city squares. Some I remember in broad brushstrokes; a vague recollection of what the stranger looked like and perhaps how and where we met, and a nostalgia for how it felt.
He told me about his family, and about his two jobs—one looking after sheep in the hills, and one looking after tourists in a local eco-resort. The sheep were easier, he confided.
But there’s an inner circle too; one where I can replay the conversations, almost word-for-word, in my head. Some were fleeting and the significance of what was said did not sink in until later, while others were immediately obvious as moments of consequence; such is the way of the road. These exchanges have enhanced my travels greatly; perhaps even altered the course of my life.
In 2016, I walked into a valley called Wadi Feynan in southern Jordan, where I met a young Bedouin called Faisal. He’d seen me kicking a football around with some of the kids in the small village and approached me.
“I saw you playing football,” he told me. “You were very good.”
“Thanks,” I replied, “but you’re being too generous. I was terrible.”
“Oh yes,” he said. “You’re terrible at football. But it was good of you to play with the boys.”
I told him I wanted to watch the sunset along the valley, so he made tea and joined me. He told me about his family, and about his two jobs—one looking after sheep in the hills, and one looking after tourists in a local eco-resort. The sheep were easier, he confided . Later, as he reflected on the state of the world, he told me: “We have a saying among the Bedouin. ‘Give without remembering, take without forgetting.’”
Those words have never been too far from the front my mind since. In so many ways, Faisal’s background could not have been more different than mine—culturally, geographically, religiously, linguistically. And yet he held this admirable philosophy, and the more I travel, the more I see that the world is mostly a good place, filled with good people. There is more that connects us than divides us—of that, I’m certain.
“I’m proud of kids like you. Go and have the adventure of a lifetime, son. And, when you’re done, head back home and get a real job.”
US war veteran
The more I travel, the more this sense of optimism is renewed and the more I’m reminded of the great wisdom that exists in every corner of our planet. This year, I spent a little time exploring some of the valleys around the Chinese city of Wenchuan in Sichuan province. The city was close to the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that ripped through the region in 2008.
A decade on and the city has been rebuilt and, though lives and landscape remain changed forever, it is once again a quiet, peaceful and wildly beautiful place. In a small village called A’er, populated entirely by the members of the ethnic Qiang minority, I met a woman called Ma Chang Ying.
There were many remarkable things about her, but the most startling, surely, was her age: She was 109. She was born as imperial China died—her arrival into this world coincided with two thousand years of dynastic rule giving way to a new republic. Over a century on, and she had lived through the entire history of modern China—indeed, she had aged in parallel with it. Even in a country of a billion people, there cannot be many who may lay such a claim.
She was sat on a wall when I saw her, hands clasped over a walking stick. She asked where I was headed, and what I was doing, and wondered if I was there on business. Snippets of her life story were whispered to me by other villagers who had gathered around our conversation. Finally, she leaned back slightly, to deliver her verdict:
“I wish you all the best, and that no illness falls upon you. And, may your wishes come true.”
There’s no guarantee that age brings wisdom, of course, nor that understanding or hospitality will follow. So I will not put her kindnesses simply down to the passing of time. Rather, it is the mark of her character, formed as it has been by whatever experiences those 109 years have brought along the way. To have been there, even briefly, was a privilege.
These two encounters have, in recent years, touched me more than most; reminded me of the great fortune I have to travel, as well as the great wisdom and kindnesses that I’ve been witness to.
There have been others too: The elderly man that I met in a roadside diner not long after I started cycling across the USA. I was tired, and nervous of the road ahead. He told me about how he felt going to fight in World War II.
“We all earn our stripes somehow,” he said. My journey suddenly felt frivolous. As I left, he reached into his wallet and handed me twenty dollars. “I’m proud of kids like you. Go and have the adventure of a lifetime, son. And, when you’re done, head back home and get a real job.”
We both laughed. I certainly did one of those things.
On that same bike journey, I also met a young woman called Susie. She was cycling across the US too and, like the man in the diner, reaffirmed to me the importance of choosing the unknowns of the horizon instead of returning to safe harbor. She was a year younger than me, but so much braver.
She hadn’t been in a car in a year, she said, and had sailed across the Atlantic before picking up a second-hand bike to ride to the west coast. “What are you afraid of?” she asked of my worries for the road ahead. It was a good question, so I kept riding. Without that push, perhaps I wouldn’t have.
Anyone who has traveled in new places, vulnerable to the elements, will know the joy (and relief) of meeting someone willing to share advice, or simply to spend some time talking, laughing, and generally being friendly to our cause. And anyone who has found this, I’m sure, has stories similar to mine.
The fact that I will again have the chance to be part of these remarkable conversations—each of which will be unique, and may even leave a mark upon me—is still one of the most exciting prospects of travel for me. For that possibility, I’m forever grateful.