I have traversed many a mile, flown, driven, walked and sailed, exploring nature’s bounty and soaking in its diversity on our amazing planet, but without the people I met on the road, these experiences would have just touched the eye and not transcended till the heart.
During my journeys in the last decade and a half, I have seen a hundred sunsets, visited numerous colorful alleys in a distant town, walked on many a beaches and trekked on some gorgeous mountains, yet the sunset with a long lost friend beside me, the moonlit beach walk with a pretty girl from another side of the globe, the riverside lunch with a nomad on a mountain valley and the colorful peanut vendor in a busy alley of a city are the frames etched in my mind forever.
Without the people all these journeys would have been some eye soothing, three-dimensional photographs, sans the life.
I have met multiple unique identities on the road and often, drawn conclusions by trying to generalize them into categories. Yet there are many who rose above all generalizations and proved me wrong from time to time.
They are the heart of a place; they are unique to their natives and occupy an important part in providing us a wholesome experience of the place. Imagine Thailand without the beautiful smiles or Rajasthan without the colorful camel riders, they would just be interesting bodies, sans the soul. Even among the locals I was surprised a number of times to find people who were different and unique from the masses around.
The Runaway Girl
I met Chini Dema in a small town called Punakha in Bhutan. She was the daughter of the hotel owner, who offered me a comfortable stay for four days without charging a penny. Apparently, she looked like any other Bhutanese girl, simple, conservative and content, yet when she came down all dressed with a luggage on her back, in the early morning hours of my day of departure, I was in for a shock! She wanted to escape from her banal daily life and ride with me to see her country. I somehow resisted her after a long speech and she let me go only after I promised to send her the photograph which I took one morning, while she was sitting on my bike. It was the spirit of wanderlust and seeing the unseen that had connected us and she had forced me to believe that some people are born with this triggering spirit and it has nothing to do with where or how they grew up.
The Lady who was a boy
It was a lovely evening at Patong beach in Phuket, when I met her. As always, I had mounted my tripod trying to capture some stunning seascapes, when she approached me with a wide smile. ”I love photography, will you teach me? “. She had a soft voice and at the height of my eyes, she was taller than any average Thai girl. She had an innate charm that could impress even a hardline misogynist.
I was surprised to know her knowledge about the technicalities in photography and ended up having more than an hour of discussion on the topic. She had dressed quite provocatively and at times I felt she was being overtly flirtatious and touchy-feely, yet I somehow developed a liking for her sooner than later. Before my romanticism could get its wings, she left, dropping an invite from a pub where she was supposed to perform in a dance show that night. When I reached the pub, I could see her standing at a corner, dressed in traditional attire and looking stunningly gorgeous. Just as I was contemplating my love at first sight, I heard the announcement “ Welcome to the dance show by the famous Kathoeys of Phuket”. In case you are still wondering, Kathoeys are the ladyboys of Thailand!
It is indeed difficult to find a place on earth where we don’t see them, we keep meeting them, share a few stories, a cup of coffee, exchange souvenirs and then they fade into oblivion. But there are some who spring up like a beautiful flower on a grassy meadow and redefine the art of travel for us. I was lucky to have met some of them.
The Silk Route Cyclists
Kate and Mel had ridden through 9 countries and 9000 odd kilometers on their bicycles before I met them at a coffee shop in downtown Kathmandu. They had brazed through the rain and snow on Turkey’s Black Sea coast and the Caucasian mountains, dazzled through the fabled Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand, crossed the treacherous Pamir Mountains and climbed up and over the forbidden Tibetan Plateau to reach the Nepal Himalayas. Our love for two wheelers struck a chord instantly and I was literally gaping at their awe-inspiring stories from the politically unstable and physically dangerous terrains of Central Asia. Our conversation didn’t last for more than an hour, but before we bid adieu and moved on with our lives, they had set a new benchmark for bravery and willpower in my mind.
‘A Balloon for a Wish’ Guy
Many of us interact with the people around on our journeys to enrich our experience of a place, but how many of us take those interactions to another level by knowing a small part of their lives and documenting it?
Mark was just another backpacker loitering on the by lanes of Kolkata when I met him, but his innovative way of interacting with people made me invite him for a brunch together. His modus operandi: Meet strangers on the street and ask them to make a wish, write it on a balloon and take their photograph with it, print it and mail it to their address! Before meeting me, he had already sent more than 2200 envelopes to people in 19 countries, a feat that can be featured in any record book. He had bought the balloon-giving idea from another traveler, who went around Bhutan awarding balloons to people on their happiness quotient, but used the idea in his own way to create a small moment of happiness in the hearts of thousands of strangers from around the world.
The best part of meeting people on the road could be getting into new relationships, which sometimes do last a lifetime. I have seen travelers finding their best friends, business partners and sometimes life partners on the road. Being humans we love to get entangled into relationships and at times we find someone who fills the gap of a particular relation in our lives. For me, it happened once…
The brother of the chocolate lady
I am a true blue chocolatarian. Many a times during my journeys, chocolates have come to my rescue after a terrible lunch or dinner or the absence of both. I used to frequent a shop adjacent to my hotel during my stay at Thimphu to get the daily dose of my chocolate intake. Interestingly, Dechen, the shop owner was a lady in love with Bollywood Movies and we would strike up a discussion on the recent movie releases every time we met. She had a little portable TV and a VCD player to quench her insatiable thirst for Hindi movies and I had to provide my expert opinions on the scenes. The day when I went to bid her a final good bye, she suddenly became violent and started crying, requesting me to stay there for some more days. My surprise knew no bounds and I stood there petrified when she gradually controlled herself and went on to tell me the story of her brother. Jigme was another movie buff and they used to have daily cine shows at home followed by innumerable chat sessions on Hindi movies. Four years ago, on one chilly winter morning, he decided to travel all the way to Mumbai to try a career in the Hindi Film Industry. But in all these years after his departure, his family had not heard from him even a single time. Coincidentally, Jigme loved chocolates like I did and that made Dechen think of her brother every time she saw me.
She asked me to wait for some time and came back from home with a bag full of chocolates and movie CDs. She said “Brother, please give this to Jigme if you meet him in Mumbai someday”. I didn’t try to explain her that it was impossible to find someone with just a photograph in a big city like Mumbai. I left silently with the bag.
I still haven’t found Jigme, but I send Dechen the newly released movie CDs once in every six months, hoping that she thinks Jigme sends them to her!
These unique personalities have left a permanent mark in my mind and there are many more who also deserved a mention here but it will need a book to capture them all and someday I might have to start writing it. I am sure it will include the ones I still haven’t met and it might be you! What are you waiting for? Get off that couch, throw off all inhibitions and book the next flight to an unknown destination.Life is short, live it and meet the wonderful people that make our world.
Image Credits :
1. Kate and Mel for Mel’s cycling photograph
2. Jonathan Harris for the balloon photograph, I couldn’t find Mark on the web, so attached the photograph taken by Jon who inspired him to go around the world awarding balloons to strangers.
P.S : This post went on to win the 1st Prize in the Contest