When I think about my travels, my memory sometimes lets me down. It becomes increasingly hard to distinguish something real against a memory forged from a photograph.
Pictures and films help us to record experiences, but they are not always true to reality. They cannot recreate the moment so that you can feel the same things as before. The sky was a different colour. The menacing monkey was surely larger. Who is that hidden in the edges of the frame?
Asides from messy scribbles jotted down on overnight buses, I rely on the memories of my travel buddies. Yet it’s difficult to describe the exact smell of the streets in Jaipur, the subtle flavours of an authentic Cambodian dish, or how I passed the time on a 26 hour bus ride back to Cusco.
One thing I can recall clearly are the people, or rather, the lasting imprint of meeting them. Travellers often cross paths only once, but these individuals will stay with me:
The taxi driver in Jaipur who learnt all his English from Alan Partridge and ill-advisedly allowed Tom to drive his tuk tuk down the street. The small boy with brown teeth who brought joy to an otherwise hellish coach from Vientiane to Hanoi. The silent Thai man wearing a bandanna who fed his white kitten fish crackers in a bar, before commandeering the live band to play karaoke with us.
The Vietnamese brothers who took us on a motorbike tour of Dalat, driving through villages where children rode water buffalo down dirt roads. The elderly Peruvian mountain guide nicknamed ‘The Cat’ who bounded effortlessly ahead on the Salkantay Pass to reach Machu Picchu. A young Indian girl, the namesake of my friend, who taught me bhangra moves at a wedding in Delhi.
The German cousins who toured with us around Kerala and shared their views on Ayurvedic medicine. The inspirational Dutch woman who sold her house, bought a waffle cart and travelled the world. The laughing border control officers in Laos who saw me stagger off the boat, flu-ridden, into waist deep mud.
The man with the golden eyes in Kerala who convinced us to meet him before dawn for a sunrise paddle. The family we stayed with on the remote island of Amantani who heartily welcomed us and showed us how to dance. The competitive American author who raced us down a 200ft sand dune in the desert oasis of Huacachina.
The family in Udaipur who spent the afternoon decorating us in henna, whom we thanked with an impromptu family portrait. The diving couple in Komodo National Park who had dived hundreds of times yet still wanted to see more. The restaurant owner who proudly taught us complimentary phrases (for haggling) in Balinese when we visited him.
The daredevil guys who took us paragliding in the Himalayas but narrowly missed a tree on the ascent. The giant Russian man who joined our mud bath in Nha Trang and emptied it instantly. The young entrepreneurial girl hustling in a temple in Angkor to pay for school fees.
The wildlife guide in Borneo who played Christmas tunes with his nostrils using a specially carved pipe. The enthusiastic farmer in Laos who showed us how to steer a water buffalo and harvest rice. The guide who proudly showed us the delights of Quillabamba despite the promised waterfall being dried up.
I’ve realised that the best travel experiences happen when you let go of control. It takes courage to swallow your cynicism, suspicion and worries.
Only then can you fully embrace an opportunity and allow yourself to be surprised by what you’re experiencing, rather than what you’re expecting from the guide book description.
Sometimes that means taking the risk of being ripped off, trusting someone you’ve just met to show you around, or simply being able to laugh when plans go awry (which they often do).
Part of travelling responsibly is being social, establishing meaningful connections and engaging with local customs. To traverse the cultural divide, you have to abandon your comfort zone and challenge your existing ideas. Of course, I’m not advocating that you go do something dangerous, but measured risk is part of the adventure.
Imagine how many more meaningful connections we would make if we thought the best of strangers and sought to know them better, even if our time together is brief.
What have you learnt from travelling? Who are the people that have left the greatest impact on you?