I was straddling my motorbike outside the Ancient House River Resort – waiting for Gabi and chatting with Minh, one of the hotel’s managers – when fate struck again and abruptly changed our course.
Minh had been talking with an elderly woman seated next to him, and when he learned that we were on our way to take a “basket boat” tour of the water coconut groves, within moments we had altered our plans and were following the woman down a pothole-strewn, narrow lane to her home. After a brief tour of her immaculate bamboo house, we were soon paddling a handmade wooden canoe along a narrow waterway, two foreigners and a Vietnamese woman who spoke no English but whose smiles communicated more than enough.
This was yet another gift of our travel mantra: Don’t make concrete plans, go where your heart leads you, and always be open to the chance meeting, the weird opportunity and the open door that leads to the most intriguing rewards of all. Our time on the river was one of countless human-contact experiences that punctuated our travels, as two fairly adventurous people set out to explore Asia on a four-month figure-it-out-as-you-go odyssey. Since we’re fairly open minded, curious and willing to follow our instincts and noses to find interesting places, people, food and experiences, these experiences seem to find us.
So here’s my top 10 “people experiences” of our 82-day, 14,038-mile sojourn through five countries, a compilation of chance meetings with people who often didn’t speak our language but with whom we seemed to form a temporary human bond.
#9 – Frank of Lijaing – This affable young Chinese man befriended us as we waited for a taxi to take us to Ancient City in Lijaing. He was in line before us but insisted on not only giving us the first cab but sharing it with us, guiding us to our destination – and paying for it. Turns out his name in Chinese means “Frank”, so now we email each other and sign off with “American Frank” and “Chinese Frank”. His goal is to one day to see San Francisco. My goal is to help him feel as cared for and comfortable in San Fran as he did us in Lijaing.
#8 – Vietnamese cab driver in Hanoi. “Where you from?” is often the first question locals ask us wherever we go. After determining that I am American, a friendly Hanoi cab driver launched “Hotel California” on his cd deck and started singing at the top of his lungs. We joined in as we pinballed our way through Hanoi’s manic traffic, wrapped up the Eagles signature tune and moved right into the Theme from Titanic. Big smiles from the driver and passengers. He got a big tip. We got an incredible memory.
#7 Anu, our driver in Rajasthan – This easygoing bear of a man delighted us for several days with his friendliness, candor and matter-of-fact knowledge. Spotting a group of women walking in procession along a road in India, I asked Anu where he thought they were going. “You want to know?” he said, stopping the car. “We will ask.” And we did. Highlight of Anu’s time with us was stopping for a chicken tikka Big Mac at McDonalds. Watching him tuck into the thing was one of the highlights for us.
#6 – Pabu. Handsome, friendly, kind and wise in the ways of the Thor Desert people who live on the outskirts of Jaisalmer, Pabu was everything the TripAdvisor reviews said he would be. We sat under the stars watching a Rajasthani dance troupe performance and then walked into the desert with him to feel the night chill and listen to his stories of growing up in the vast expanse of sand. He offered to set up a bed in the desert so we could sleep under the brilliant glow of stars; we accepted. His smile was visible seemingly from miles away.
#5 – Random Chinese guy in Tiananmen Square. We had just finished watching the flag-lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square one evening – an intimate viewing with several thousand eager Chinese – when I was approached by a Chinese guy about my age. He gestured enthusiastically at me and pointed his wifeintophotography position. And there we were, two middle-aged guys flashing peace signs with the Forbidden City looming in the background, steps from where the “Tank Man” stared down the Chinese military during the 1989 student uprising. It was without question one of the most poignant moments of our trip for me.
#4 – Phoung (Ninh Binh). Staying in Ninh Binh – about two hours south of Hanoi – was an afterthought for us, a stopgap place to spend a couple of days to break up our trip down the coast of Vietnam. We wound up staying at the Ngoc Anh Hotel and discovering Phoung, the wonderful manager who also happened to have worked for 14 years as a guide at the Cuc Phuong National Park. Phoung jumped at the chance to show us around the park, and we spent a day with him biking, hiking and exploring the dense jungle for an intimate glimpse at the Vietnamese wild. Phoung is one of those guys worth going out of the way to find. If the outdoors is your thing, do it.
#3 – Pushp and Vinita Singh, New Delhi. Airbnb brought us to the Vedanta Service Apartments. But it was fate that brought us to the owners, Pushp and Vinita Singh, who greeted us with garlands of brilliant marigolds and turned themselves inside out to demonstrate the epitome of Indian hospitality during our stay. We ended up returning to their door en route from New Delhi to Bangkok – me, with malaria, and Gabi with a ton of details to work out while I lay about like a slug. Pushp and Vinita treated us like family, helping Gabi with logistics and me with medical advice and frequent servings of Vinita’s incredible food. We hugged when we left and remain in touch.
#2 – Guys at New Delhi airport. So there I was, dizzy, sweating and disoriented with malaria as we stepped to the curb at Indira Gandhi Airport. I walked 50 feet from the car and passed out, awakening to a phalanx of concerned faces helping me sit, feeding me water and generally fussing about. It all ended swell, of course, mostly thanks to the concerned passersby who called medical staff and helped me into a wheelchair and us on our way. India being India, however, one of the guys couldn’t resist chasing after us and politely requesting reimbursement for the bottle of water he had given me. Even under the duress of the moment, it made us laugh, and still does.
#1 – Pramod Sihoni. What can I say about this little man with the enormous smile and even bigger heart? Pramod, who was little more than the friend of a friend when we met but like part of our family when we left days later, waded through knee-deep water from the Ganges’ floodwaters to meet us at our hotel two or three times a day and proudly showed us an insider’s Varanasi. No challenge was too great for Pramod, who held Gabi’s hand as she walked through sewage-infested water, carried our bags to and fro and would hear nothing of us pitching in, and smiled broadly as he explained the myriad challenges of his family’s life. You could go through your entire life surrounded by people with half of Pramod’s character and feel supported, loved and fulfilled. To meet someone like him was a reminder of the depths of human potential.
It will not be lost on the astute observer that half of these incredible people are Indian, a country where welcoming strangers into one’s home is an art form, and where sharing and giving is an innate action. We left Cambodia thinking we’d met the kindest, most generous and most friendly people in the world. We left India knowing that we had experienced new depths of human relations from a race of people who have perfected the art.
We ended our trip warm with the kindness, smiles, help and eagerness to connect that strangers heaped upon us everywhere we went.
Anyone who thinks the people of the world can’t get along just fine hasn’t traveled.