Among travellers it's become almost cliche, the expression that “it's the people you meet who make the trip memorable.” Of course there is some truth to this sentiment, the people you meet and interact with can either lift your experience to new heights, or drag you down to the point where you're dreaming of being back in your cubicle at home, working late on a Friday night just to get away from them.
For all the influence that our fellow humans have over us in terms of our experience, it's impossible to completely discount the experiences we have and the places we go when we travel. We are pushed beyond our normal comfort zone, open to trying new things, we eat exotic food, and put up with levels of discomfort we would never tolerate during the course of our daily lives at home.
Despite the huge role that both of these aspects play in the overall travel experience, I feel that most of the attention and anticipation pre-trip is focused on the locations, rather than people. I suppose this shouldn't come as that much of a surprise, you can check out a map, read reviews, and look up things to see at the place you're going to, but it's hard, if not downright impossible to conceptualize the people you'll meet, and the experiences you will have as a result.
For my part, before I left to cycle across Europe, I focussed almost entirely on the geographic and experiential components of my upcoming trip, all but disregarding the human component altogether. At that point in my life I considered myself an Introvert with a capital “I”, and I was proud of it. I thrived in situations where I was alone with my thoughts, and felt anxious and and awkward when meeting new people.
While I was happy with who I was overall, as the departure date drew nearer I had begun to realize this self-conceived image of myself as shy and awkward, was something that was inhibiting my growth and experience as a person. It was a great strength to be comfortable with myself for long periods with only my thoughts for company; hell, I was going to be cycling through the backroads of Europe for three months with only one other person, so I had better be comfortable with myself. What I was realizing now was that I could retain that aspect of my personality, while also building a level of confidence in my relation to other people, especially those I had just met.
In a serendipitous turn of events, I came to this realization during the final weeks of preparation for my upcoming journey. The perfect chance to step out of my comfort zone, with countless opportunities to meet new people – and hopefully keep the ensuing conversations from devolving into dead air.
In the end, I didn't meet as many new people as I thought I might, largely because travelling by bicycle meant camping rather than staying in hostels, and more time spent riding deserted back roads than exploring bustling cities. Despite this fact however, the people I did have the opportunity to meet and interact had a huge impact on me, and truly made the trip something special. I have so many great memories of riding through enchanting landscapes, but the memories that I hold dearest are of the people, and their often unexpected kindness.
Two of the people who stand out most of all for their warmth and generosity were David and Oli. My riding partner Hamilton had met David in SE Asia on a previous trip, and after spending some weeks together, along with a small group of other travellers, had extended offers to host each other if and when the other visited their home country. Knowing that we were riding through Berlin, David had offered to host us at his apartment, and we gladly accepted the offer.
We arrived in Berlin on an unusually warm mid-October day, and killed time throwing a frisbee in a park until David finished work and could let us in to his apartment. It can sometimes be awkward to meet someone new who already has a history with a mutual friend. It's so easy to fall into reminiscence about shared experiences, leaving the newcomer on the outside. This was not the case with David however. Instantly, he made us both feel welcome as he showed us his flat and marvelled at our touring bike set up.
Shortly after letting us in, he notified us that he had arranged to spend the next few nights while we were in town staying with a friend, so that we could have the place to ourselves. This was not the first time this had happened on our trip. In Oslo, my friend Mona had done the same, and in both situations I felt guilty, and awkward about supplanting them in their own places, even if it was by choice.
Both Mona and David being accomplished travellers however, recognized the desire that often besets travellers to have a space to themselves to relax and recharge. Despite the tinge of guilt I felt in both these situations, there was no denying the fact; It was an unexpected luxury to have an apartment to ourselves for a few days, and allowed us to unpack and organize our gear without feeling like we were stepping on Mona or David's toes, getting in their way, or co-opting their apartments for our own purposes.
Handing over the spare set of keys to the apartment, David left, offering us some tips for experiencing the city, and an invitation to dinner the following night with Oli, his best friend.
Hamilton and I spent the evening and much of the next day lounging around the apartment, recharging our batteries, eating frozen pizzas and ice cream, an impossible luxury while living out of our tents. After venturing out in the afternoon to do some exploring and photographing, we headed to Hans Im Glück, a funky – and delicious – burger restaurant, the interior of which was decorated with faux poplar tree trunks rising from floor to ceiling, and apparently based on a story by the Brothers Grimm.
Our group gelled instantly, and the four of us had a great dinner talking and joking like friends who had known each other for years. Oli and David are two of the warmest and most immediately accepting people I have ever met, and the time in their company passed far too quickly for my liking. As the evening wound down Oli quietly asked the server for the bill. We protested of course, “he had only just met us, we weren't completely broke travellers, there was really no need”, but he was having none of it, and it was more than just a token gesture or nicety. Oli made some comment to the effect that the money was nothing in comparison to an evening spent with friends, and it was clear that he meant it. This act came from a deep seated sense of duty to practice generosity to everyone who entered his life, and it was apparent that his generosity brought him great joy, and a deep satisfaction.
On our final morning in Berlin, we met David and Oli once more, this time for brunch. The conversation, banter, and laughter picked up where they had left off, instantly falling into the rhythm we had established two days before. A wave of simultaneous sadness and joy suddenly washed over me. A reflection on the connection that had been forged between the four of us over the course of just two meals, and the fact that Hamilton and I were now leaving, and would soon enough be back to our lives an ocean away.
This time it was David's turn to take the cheque and deter any attempts of ours to pry it from his grasp. He too made it clear that he cherished the time spent together that morning infinitely more than the paltry sum of Euros the bill amounted to.
I can hardly describe impact that the generosity, candor, thoughtfulness, and humour of both David and Oli had on both the trip, and my life since. I've tried hard to emulate these values which they exemplified in my own dealings with others, whether they be new friends, old friends, or strangers entirely. I'm sad to say that I've not kept in contact with either of them past the occasional comment on social media, but I think about them often, and look forward to meeting up again one day soon, and repaying the kindness they showed me.
What are your experiences of meeting people while travelling? Have you met someone who completely changed your trip, or even your life? Maybe you had an incredible experience with someone who you'll likely never speak to or meet up with again. Let me know some of the moments you experienced with other people while travelling in the comments section and keep the conversation going!
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