It’s four am. The malaria medicine has failed to kick in, and no matter how many times I wrap my pillow around my head and hum loudly in my brain, there is no drowning them out.
The previous day, I quite enjoyed them separately, before they became a group of wasted, loud-mouthed, flirtatious guy and four gals. Now, my tired yet unable to get comfortable body wants to hurl myself out the window and swiftly duct-tape their mouths shut.
The annoying traveler. We are faced so often with their inability to understand that their behavior affects others (or they just don’t care). We could go on and on with stories of just how many irritating backpackers, swindling hostel operators, and know-it-all expats we’ve encountered over the years, and we often do (hey, it makes for good storytelling). But what about all the amazing people we’ve come across?
In this spirit, the Matador team decided to compile a list of travelers you’d be blessed to meet as a reminder of why we decided to start traveling in the first place:
1. The Stranger Who Will Drop Everything to Help You With Anything
Julie Schwietert, Matador’s Managing Editor
We were sitting at the airport bus stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was headed back home to my apartment in Old San Juan after dropping off a tour group I’d led around the island for a week. She was loaded down with luggage and looked scared. “Todo bien?” I asked her. Relieved someone had noticed her, she poured out her story. Having been detained by immigration, she was separated from her friends and missed her flight, the last one of the day. “I don’t know where to go,” she said, “and I’m all out of money.”
“So come home with me,” I said. “I’ve got a guest bedroom and I’ll show you around Old San Juan.” We were about the same age and though I wouldn’t invite just anyone – even in dire straits – to come into my home and spend the night, her goodness was evident. She pressed a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe in my hand and started crying. This time, I’d been the stranger who could drop everything and help someone, but I’d been on the receiving end so many times before. It felt good to give back.
2. The Guardian Hell’s Angel
Kate Sedgwick, Matador Nights co-editor
It was the last day of Sturgis (biker rally, in case you didn’t know) and I was with a ‘friend’ getting ready to get on the Greyhound. We were in an all-you-can-eat breakfast joint and she was letting me pick from her plate, but when I asked her if I could borrow $20 for cigarettes and soda on the 20 hour long bus ride on the way back, she flatly told me no.
“Ten! How about ten? Or five? Enough for some smokes at least.” Still no. It seemed unfair to me and I said so. I had done the foraging into town for groceries for us and had to pay the campground re-entry fee without so much as a thank you from her for hitchhiking on the back of a bike with a backpack stuffed with 50 lbs. of crap, ostensibly risking my virtue, if not my life, on the way back.
If memory serves, I cajoled quite loudly, but she wouldn’t budge. In the middle of this conversation, an old road warrior in full torn denim and leather regalia set $15 on the table. “I think you dropped this outside,” he said and walked out with his old lady. I barely had time to say thank you, but that $15 was more than enough to keep me in diet soda and generic kings on the way back. I’ve never forgotten it.
3. The Wise Old Soul
Lola Akinmade, Matador Goods editor
Some of the most memorable and insightful conversations I’ve had in my life have been on airplanes, sitting next to older women (or men) in their 60s or 70s, eyes filled with so much history, full of stories to tell. On a recent trip to London, I shared a seat with an older Nigerian lady well into her late sixties. We spoke Yoruba all 7.5 hours of the flight journey and our conversation touched on various topics from politics to family to travel to life.
Another memorable conversation was with a 71-year old voracious reader en route from Lagos to Amsterdam. She currently lives in the extremely volatile oil producing Delta region in Nigeria, and I shared some of our conversation in this piece, The Reader in 16A.
Besides the infinite wisdom these old souls readily share, they provide a certain level-headed grounding that us travelers could use as we venture doe-eyed into new places.
4. The Little Kid
Leigh Shulman, Matador Life editor
I’ve been on trains, beaches, sitting at restaurants waiting for a coffee when a little kid toddles over from somewhere and starts asking questions. Who are you? Where are you from? Can I sit on your lap? Here, read me this book.
One little girl even curled up by my feet asking for me to rub her belly. Apparently, she was a kitten. Soon after, I almost invariably find myself playing hide-and-seek or on all fours being a cat myself.
Once, two little girls took Lila and I to a huge trampoline where we spent a couple hours just bouncing around. Best of all, I completely forget about whatever plans I had or thinking about where I need to be. I just play for a little while. Which quite frankly, when traveling, is something we should do as often as possible. It’s one of the greatest joys of living without a set schedule or destination or age appropriate behavior. These little kids also teach us about the nature of trust and sharing. I mean, when’s the last time you left the comfort and safety of your table, walked up to a stranger and offered her a bite of your cookie?
5. The In-the-Know Expat
Heather Carreiro, Matador Abroad intern
It was my first time in Bangkok, and I had one week to order tailor-made suits, buy an entire wardrobe of casual western clothes, and find matching shoes before attending an international job fair. Panicked about having to show up for interviews in jeans, I started looking for tips online about where to shop. I came across the blog Britin Bangkok written by an expat teacher named Michelle, and she offered to meet up with me during my visit.
Waiting at a Skytrain station my second day in the city, I recognized Michelle as she approached. Dressed more fashionably than most western tourists and greeting someone on her cell phone in Thai, she approached me with a wave. “Hey Heather! Ready to go shopping at Chatachuk Market?” I was able not only to get all my shopping done, but in hanging out with Michelle I also learned about how to visit the main sights for less, what it’s like to date Thai men, where to find the best English language book store, and how to sign up for a Thai cooking class. Meeting expats is an awesome way to get a crash course on a place and its culture.
6. The Guy Who’s Owned The Guest House Since Before You Were Born
Tom Gates, Matador Nights co-editor
“Hey do you have a…” then BAM, the corkscrew is in your hand. “I’ve never worked one of…” then GRIND, CRINKLE and your soup can’s been opened with something that looks like a device that fixes droids. “I have this rash…” and ointment is produced (unless it’s that kind of a rash).
These are the troupers, the guys and gals who have had guest houses or hostels since the circuit began. They know what you want before you do and can deal effortlessly with your every sniffle, drool or query.
I’m thinking in particular of Joseph, who owns a guest house in Kerala, India. Joseph is at the point in his life where if a guest shows up without a reservation and he doesn’t like the whiff of them, he’s full. If somebody shows up and he’s full but he digs their vibe, he’ll figure it out. If you stay one day you’ll get the passer-through treatment – polite, good. If you stay a few days, though, you’ll learn everything that there is about the town and everything that you might need to know about yourself from a dude who was once drafted to be a politician to run against the ruling communist party.
I’ve been meaning to give that guy in Pucon, Chile back the can opener that I mistakenly put in my grocery bag and took to the next hostel. I still can’t work the fucking thing. Anyone headed that way?
7. The Handicapped Child
Michael Lynch, Matador intern
Playing Santa for my first time in Okinawa, I met a child who caused me to be Santa in Okinawa, forever. I was at a school for the handicapped, and had filled a king-sized white pillowcase with candy to pass out to what I thought would be around 50-60 children. There were more like 350 people in the auditorium, when you added all the brothers, sisters and parents.
“Ho, ho, ho!” I jumped off the stage, passed out candies, greeted everyone, wishing them “Merry Kurisumasu.” There was no way to estimate how much candy I could afford to deposit in each kid’s outstretched hands. I just had to try and pace myself, give each child and parent a small ration. Maybe some kids got three pieces, others five or six. I made my rounds and managed to have a bit left over to hand off to a PTA member as I sat in the chair they provided for Santa to take a break.
A little girl, about 5 years old, came limping towards me. She reached out with her hand. I was thinking, “Grr, I don’t have anymore candy. This kid’s gonna complain she only got two pieces and her brother got five. Why did I get myself into this mess?”
She got closer and said, “Santasan.” She reached out to me. So I figured, ok, I’ll shake her hand. She gave me back a piece of candy she had saved for Santa. When I thanked her, every child in the school ran up to give back a piece of candy to Santa!
Those are special kids and only for them, I’ll always be Santa.
8. The Entitled, Alcoholic Brat
Tim Patterson, Matador Contributing Editor
Sunburned and hungover in a Beer Lao tank-top, throwing up his hands when the bus from Don Det to Phnom Penh is late. His visa is about to expire, you see, and the corrupt bastards at border-crossing will no doubt demand hundreds of thousands of kip to leave Laos. “Everyone is out to rip you off in this fucking country,” he says with a conspiratorial scowl. “Tubing was fun, mind you, but the rest is shit.”
Why are travelers like this guy a blessing?
Sometimes, seeing bad behavior from others is the best way to recognize it in yourself. All travelers would do well to cultivate more patience, humility and gratitude, especially those who are young and wealthy.
9. The Helpful Holy Man
Nick Rowlands, Matador Life Intern
I’m young and alone on the ghats of Varanasi, caught in a mad electrical storm. A huge cow is freaking out, tossing its head and galloping back and forth along the pathway. Back and forth, back and forth – I’m trapped on the steps and can’t get out. It’s like being in an old arcade game, except I definitely don’t have three lives, and am on the verge of tears. An old guy in white robes and a Father Christmas beard catches my eye. He saunters down to the steps, unafraid of the cow, and helps me pluck up the courage to escape.
We go have tea together. Unlike many holy men in India, he doesn’t ask me for money, and he doesn’t try to sell me drugs. He doesn’t even claim to be holy. But his serene – dare I say luminous? – expression says otherwise. He asks if I want to ask him anything. Overflowing with naivety, I ask him how one can go about living in the moment. He laughs, and tells me it’s a lovely theory. Then he teaches me a breathing exercise to help clear the crap from my smoker’s chest. But he doesn’t tell me to stop smoking.
The half-hour or so I spent with this unassuming man affected me more deeply than any of the (admittedly few) teachers I’ve encountered since. I still carry him – and the cow – with me wherever I go. It sounds trite, but the experience taught me that sometimes, the harder you search for something, the less likely you are to get it. You end up like a cow in a thunderstorm, mindlessly running back and forth in the rain.
What other types of travelers you have felt blessed to come across? Share them below.
Thanks to Julie Schwietert for compiling this list.